Throughout State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy’s career in politics, abortion opponents counted on him as a solid pro-life vote. The South Buffalo Democrat even won enthusiastic backing from the anti-abortion Conservative Party until his vote to legalize same sex marriage ended the relationship in 2012.
But that has changed.
Kennedy, a product of Catholic education through grammar school, high school and college, acknowledges that his position on one of the nation’s most scorching social and political hot buttons has “evolved.” He says he will vote this year for the controversial “10th point” of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Women’s Equality Act, which expands abortion rights in New York.
That switch already is earning praise from pro-choice groups.
“The fact that he has evolved, we think is wonderful,” said Tara Sweeney, communications director for NARAL Pro-Choice New York.
Kennedy’s position on the 10th point and the touchy topic of abortion is already dominating the Democratic primary he faces against Betty Jean Grant of Buffalo.
Sen. Jeffrey D. Klein of the Bronx, leader of the Independent Democratic Caucus that shares majority power with Senate Republicans, said in Buffalo last month his group will back Grant, minority leader in the county Legislature, and help her raise campaign funds.
Klein specifically cited Grant’s pro-choice views, insisting Kennedy was committed to a pro-life agenda.
“She is willing to vote to codify Roe vs. Wade and challenge Tim Kennedy as a right-to-life Democrat,” he said then. “She will commit to the 10th point.”
Klein believes Grant is a stronger vote in favor of abortion rights than Kennedy, whom he continually described as a “right-to-life” Democrat.
Grant, however, denied that she has committed to the 10th point.
“I support Roe vs. Wade and a woman’s right to choose,” she said then. “I have to look at the 10th point in its entirety and what it entails before I make a commitment.”
And Senate Democrats say privately they have always considered Kennedy supportive of their pro-choice agenda because of his commitment to protecting both life and health of the mother and his 2013 procedural vote in favor of the 10th point.
Kennedy, 37, is not the first Catholic politician to experience a pro-life to pro-choice change.
Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, also said he had evolved on the issue late in his Assembly career, while former Gov. George E. Pataki switched to a pro-choice stand after ascending from the Assembly to the State Senate and ultimately the Executive Mansion.
Kennedy has followed the same path. Last year he said he considered himself pro-life but not an “extremist.” He now seems in sync with abortion rights groups like NARAL. He said he eschews “labels” on such issues, but acknowledges that “evolved” correctly applies to his thinking.
His change, he said, stems from soul searching, thinking and prayer.
“While I still hold true to my family values and personal feelings, I have a responsibility to the people in my district and all of the 19 million people of New York State,” he said.The senator says no event or point in time prompted the switch, but rather a realization that New York women should have the same access to abortion as allowed in federal law. To him, “life and health of the woman” are key to his position.
“I believe at the end of the day that a woman has to be able to make a decision upon her health, her life and her family that is in her best interests and their best interests,” he said. “Often times, the situation that presents itself involves dire circumstances.”
Kennedy noted threats to life and health can also occur in wanted pregnancies, and that access to all health care options should be available.
“That comes to the core of this issue,” he said.
The governor’s bill simply “codifies federal law into state law,” Kennedy said, adding there is no provision for late-term abortions without a threat to the life or health of the mother. The bill also would not force doctors and institutions opposed to abortion to perform any procedure against their conscience.
Sweeney of the pro-choice group said state law does not conform to the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision by the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing abortion because there is no health exception. Abortions are not permitted in New York after the 24th week of pregnancy, she noted, unless a woman’s life is in danger.
“From Sen. Kennedy’s statements, he is one of several senators who really seem to understand that a woman’s health has primacy,” she said, adding she believes the measure will pass the Senate if Republicans in the majority coalition allow a vote.
But Kathleen Gallagher, director of pro-life activities for the New York State Catholic Conference, said she always believed Kennedy to be considered a “pro-life Democrat.” And she emphasized that “health” lies at the crux of the controversy, since abortion advocates often cite “mental, economic or family health” as justification even for late-term procedures.
“The word ‘health’ is key because of the way it’s been defined by the U.S. Supreme Court to mean anything,” she said.
If Kennedy is concerned about the woman’s “physical” health, she said, he should write legislation to that effect.
In addition, Gallagher noted subsequent Supreme Court decisions after Roe vs. Wade have “whittled away” at abortion rights. If the aim is to codify federal law into state law, those limitations should be included, she said.
Kennedy acknowledges the difficulty in arriving at his new position, especially as a Catholic who regularly attends St. Martin’s Catholic Church in South Buffalo and in view of the church’s opposition to abortion.
“I take my Catholic faith very seriously. I am a practicing Catholic. I am nurturing my children in the Catholic faith,” he said.