“Changes Have to Be Made”

How a Jewish Kid from Long Island and a Priest Named Joe DiMaggio Forced Robert F. Kennedy to Confront the Abortion Issue

On Friday, February 17, 1967, Senator Robert F. Kennedy visited Syosset High School on Long Island, where he addressed an assembly of some 2,200 students and teachers in the school gymnasium. The New York Times reported that he was greeted with “the kind of girlish squeals usually associated with the Beatles.” After brief opening remarks, the senator opened the floor to questions.

Following queries about The Death of a President, William Manchester’s book about his brother’s assassination (he said he hadn’t read it), and the resumption of the bombing of North Vietnam (he said he opposed it), Kennedy called on Martin Friedlander, a seventeen-year-old senior sitting in the second row.

Recalling the event recently, Friedlander said he’s not sure why Kennedy called on him, though the two had shaken hands when the senator arrived at the school. “Maybe he remembered meeting me,” Friedlander speculated. “I definitely stood out. I’m six-five, but back then I was probably six-six. I’ve shrunk a little.”

Friedlander was the sports editor of the Pulse, the school newspaper, and he and his friends on the staff had debated beforehand what they should ask Kennedy if one of them was called on. They’d settled on a question about an issue that had only recently gained prominence — “not exactly a burning issue,” as Friedlander puts it today, “but something that was on people’s minds.”

Friedlander rose his lanky frame to address the senator.

“Being a Catholic,” he began nervously, “what are your feelings on the current proposals to liberalize and update the abortion laws?”

“Being a Catholic?” Kennedy replied.

“Well, being a senator.”

“Being a senator or being a Catholic?”

“Being a senator — a senator who is Catholic.”

“A senator who is Catholic,” Kennedy repeated.

The audience laughed, a little uneasily.

At the time, New York law prohibited abortions except to save the life of the mother. But the state legislature was considering a bill that would allow the procedure in cases of rape; incest; a “substantial risk” to the mother’s mental or physical health or that the child would be born mentally or physically disabled; or when the mother was unwed and less than fifteen years old. All abortions would have to be approved by a panel of doctors certified by the state department of health.

The previous Sunday, five days before RFK visited Syosset High, New York’s eight Catholic bishops had issued a pastoral letter urging the state’s 6.5 million Roman Catholics — who comprised more than a third of the state’s population — to oppose the bill. “The right of innocent human beings to life is sacred and inviolable,” the bishops wrote. “We urge you most strongly to do all in your power to prevent direct attacks upon the lives of unborn children.”

And a week before that, Richard Cardinal Cushing, the archbishop of Boston, the Kennedy family’s home diocese, had urged “all persons of goodwill to unite in opposition” to the growing nationwide movement to change abortion laws.

Robert F. Kennedy was the nation’s most prominent Roman Catholic politician. Would he obey his bishops? Or would he defy them? For weeks, reporters had tried to get RFK’s opinion on the New York abortion bill without luck. He’d managed to dodge the question, arguing weakly either that he hadn’t read the bill or that it was a matter outside his purview, a matter that concerned the state, not federal government.

Now, inside the gymnasium at Syosset High, Martin Frielander, a Jewish kid from Long Island, had finally put RFK on the spot.

Before the 1960s, abortion was not a major political issue in the United States. The topic was simply taboo. Most states prohibited abortion outright. A handful, like New York, permitted abortions only to save the life of the mother, though in some states this was interpreted more broadly than in others.

But the issue burst out of the shadows and into the public consciousness in the summer of 1962, after a young mother from Phoenix read a newspaper article about a drug called thalidomide.

Sherri Finkbine, who also went by her birth name, Sherri Chessen, was the 29-year-old host of the local version of “Romper Room” in Phoenix. A glowing profile in the entertainment section of the Arizona Republic on Sunday, April 29, 1962 described her as a “deep-tanned TV beauty” who dreamed of appearing in network television commercials.

Originally from Duluth, Minnesota, Finkbine attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where she majored in radio and television and worked at the local educational television station before moving to Phoenix. Her husband Bob Finkbine was a high school teacher and football coach. The couple had four children, all of whom appeared on “Romper Room” regularly.

“Loved by thousands of Arizona youngsters for her pleasing hostess performance on the small fry program,” the Republic’s profile gushed, “Sherri Chessen is well on her way toward national recognition.” Indeed, by the end of the year, Finkbine’s name would be in headlines around the world, though for reasons she never could have imagined.

This is the photograph of Sherri Finkbine (née Chessen) that accompanied the profile published in the Arizona Republic on April 29, 1962. (Source: Newspapers.com)

Shortly after that profile was published, Sherri Finkbine became pregnant with her fifth child. Early in the pregnancy, she took sleeping pills that Bob had brought back from a school trip he’d chaperoned in London. On July 16, about ten weeks into her pregnancy, Sherri read a front-page article in the Republic about thalidomide, a tranquilizer widely available in Europe that had been found to cause severe birth defects. (Thalidomide was never licensed for sale in the United States because an FDA pharmacologist named Frances Oldham Kelsey — a bureaucrat — refused to approve the drug due to her concerns about its safety.)

Worried, Finkbine called her doctor, who contacted the London pharmacy where her husband had bought the pills. They were pure thalidomide.

Finkbine was distraught. Her doctor feared she would suffer a nervous breakdown, and he recommended “a therapeutic abortion for Mrs. Finkbine’s well-being.” Arizona permitted abortions to preserve the life of the mother. On July 25, the hospital where the abortion was to be performed, Good Samaritan, petitioned a judge to issue a declaratory judgment that the abortion was necessary for the “saving and preservation” of Finkbine’s life, and that the hospital would not be prosecuted for its role in the procedure.

The filing put the case in the public domain. A banner headline on the front page of the Republic the next day blared: “In Abortion Case: Mother TV Star Here.” The judge, Yale McFate, refused to sanction the abortion. The hospital backed out. “Miss Sherri,” as she was known to her young viewers, was forced to go abroad for an abortion. After Japan refused to issue her a visa, the couple flew to Stockholm, where the abortion was performed on August 18. Needless to say, her days hosting “Romper Room” were over.

The Finkbine case drew international attention. It was front-page news on papers from coast to coast, and featured prominently on the evening news programs. On July 30, a live television report on the case was transmitted from outside the courthouse in Phoenix to the BBC in London via Telstar, the first communications satellite, which had launched just twenty days earlier. “Thanks to Telstar,” the Republic noted the next day, “it was Phoenix’[s] debut on world television.”

The Vatican denounced the Finkbine abortion. “Morally and objectively it was a crime, all the more because it was accomplished legally,” Vatican Radio declared. “It was ascertained only, it is said, that the baby Mrs. Finkbine carried would have gravely menaced the mother’s mental and physical condition if it had been born deformed. The baby was killed as though it were an assailant against which legitimate defense would have been justified.”

As the New York Times put it in 1987, twenty-five years after the event, “no one in U.S. history ever had a more exhaustively chronicled abortion than Sherri Finkbine.”

A September 1962 Gallup poll found that 52 percent of respondents supported Sherri Finkbine’s decision to abort. (Thirty-two percent opposed it. Sixteen percent had no opinion.) The movement that would come to be known as pro-choice was energized. A coalition of lawyers, doctors, and lawmakers began a campaign to ease restrictions on abortion. (Women were conspicuously absent from the movement’s early days.) Between 1967 and 1970, sixteen states would liberalize their abortion laws.

Supporters of abortion reform saw it as a public health issue. By giving women access to safe and legal abortions, they said, backstreet abortionists would be driven out of business and women’s lives would be saved. At first the reformers lobbied merely for exceptions to the ironclad state bans on abortion: rape, incest, fetal defect, the health of the mother. But abortion opponents feared these changes would ultimately lead to the legalization of elective abortion, or “abortion on demand,” as they called it. (These fears would not prove unfounded, of course.)

To opponents of abortion, particularly the Catholic Church, the logic was irrefutable: Life begins at conception, so abortion is murder. This was, they insisted, “natural law.” Barely twenty years after the Nuremberg trials, abortion opponents frequently invoked Nazi atrocities to bolster their arguments. “The unborn child is an individual person, endowed with a right to life by his Creator,” the archdiocesan newspaper in Los Angeles asserted in 1964. “And once society presumes to dictate whether that life will be honored and preserved, the very foundation of human civilization crumbles. Surely the horrors of Dachau are still fresh enough in our memories to enable us to see the dark strain of inhumanity which touches this present question.”

But in the mid 1960s the movement that came to be called pro-life was inchoate and disorganized, and utterly dominated by the Roman Catholic Church, which many mainline Protestants still distrusted deeply, fearing it was attempting to impose its own standards of morality and beliefs on all citizens of every religious persuasion.

Evangelical Christians, meanwhile, were ambivalent about the issue. After all, there was no biblical injunction against abortion, and the bible didn’t say whether life begins at conception or at birth. Until 1971, the Southern Baptist convention did not explicitly oppose abortion. Even Billy Graham — whose father was a country doctor who reportedly performed “medically necessary” abortions on occasion — did not oppose abortion in cases of rape, incest, or when the mother’s life was in danger. In 1970, a pro-life group called Christians for Life picketed a Graham crusade to protest his heretically liberal position.

So the issue did not fall neatly into political categories. Two of the Democrats’ most important constituencies opposed abortion: Roman Catholics, who believed abortion was a mortal sin, and African Americans, who were suspicious that legalized abortion was a ruse to suppress the black population. Polls showed that blacks were even more firmly opposed to abortion than Catholics. The Black Panthers opposed abortion. So did Jesse Jackson, who in a 1977 article in the National Right to Life News declared, “Politicians argue for abortion largely because they do not want to spend the necessary money to feed, clothe, and educate more people.”

Many New Deal liberals opposed abortion as well. They considered the right to life a fundamental human right embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Fourteenth Amendment (“…nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”). To them, opposing abortion was no different than opposing segregation, or the arms race, or the war in Vietnam, or economic inequality. All were matters of justice. Opposing abortion was to them a natural extension of their concern for the poor, the suffering, the defenseless, the oppressed. In his early years in the United States Senate, Robert Kennedy’s younger brother Ted was an outspoken opponent of abortion.

As Daniel K. Williams writes in his excellent history of the pro-life movement, Defenders of the Unborn, the movement “originated not among political conservatives, but rather among people who supported New Deal liberalism and government aid to the poor, and who viewed their campaign as an effort to extend state protection to the rights of a defenseless minority (in the case, the unborn).”

On the other side of the aisle, Republicans were equally conflicted. Those of a libertarian bent believed the government had no business regulating abortion. Barry Goldwater, the Republicans’ 1964 presidential nominee and longtime senator from Arizona, was pro-choice. Goldwater’s wife Peggy founded Planned Parenthood’s Arizona chapter. As governor of California, Ronald Reagan signed a bill dramatically liberalizing the state’s abortion laws (though he would later insist the law had been “deliberately misinterpreted” by doctors, resulting in many more abortions than expected).

Looking back fifty years, it seems like a Bizzaro World. It’s easy to imagine a scenario where the Democrats become the pro-life party after Roe v. Wade. But that’s not how things played out, of course. Which brings us back to that high school gym in Syosset on a cold Friday afternoon in February of 1967.

After their awkward back-and-forth, Robert Kennedy finally got around to answering Martin Friedlander’s question about liberalizing New York’s abortion law.

“I took an oath of office like any other public official to uphold the Constitution of the United States,” Kennedy said, “and I try to make my judgment in these matters not based upon religion but upon how I believe as a Senator.

“I think that there are obvious changes that have to be made. I don’t know the details of the bill currently before the Legislature. That’s a matter for them to determine. But I certainly think changes could certainly be made.”

After four more questions on other topics, another student rose to ask Kennedy about abortion again, but the senator was in no mood to elaborate on his earlier reply.

“I just answered that,” he said flatly.

Though his response was brief, his position was now clear: Senator Robert F. Kennedy, a deeply devout Roman Catholic — perhaps the nation’s most important Catholic layperson — and himself a father of nine (with another on the way), was in favor of ending New York’s 84-year-old ban on virtually all abortions.

Kennedy’s exchange with Martin Friedlander was national news. “Kennedy Predicts Abortion Reform,” read the headline on the front page of the New York Times the next day. “Senator, on L.I. Tour, Says There Are ‘Changes That Have to be Made.’”

It was a small moment that portended profound changes in American society.

Headlines about Kennedy’s comments that appeared in U.S. papers on Feb. 18, 1967. (Source: Newspapers.com)

Friedlander was caught off guard by all the attention. His name appeared in newspapers across the country, and he received letters from strangers thanking him for asking Kennedy the question. “I guess it was my fifteen minutes of fame,” he says. “It was quite amusing.”

On February 22, five days after his appearance at Syosset High, Robert Kennedy spoke to students at Skidmore College, a women’s college in Saratoga Springs, New York. Again he was asked about the abortion bill. This time he was more explicit, if somewhat euphemistic. “I’m for change,” he said. “For example, if a lady is attacked and doesn’t want to have a child, she should not have to have a child.”

A few minutes later, Kennedy was challenged by a 38-year-old Catholic priest named Joseph F. DiMaggio — yes, Joe DiMaggio — who was a professor of moral ethics at St. Peter’s Academy, a Catholic prep school in Saratoga Springs.

“To me,” DiMaggio said to the senator, “it seems you believe in some kind of doctrine wherein the end justifies the means. Wouldn’t we lose respect for human life?”

Kennedy answered, “If the question is, ‘Does the end justify the means?’ the answer is no.”

Here, one reporter noted, “many students evinced sympathy for Senator Kennedy by a chorus of half-suppressed groans.” But DiMaggio, who was known for arguing calls that went against St. Peter’s in high school basketball games, was undeterred. He went on: “True, we have sympathy fo the woman attacked, but isn’t there some question whether human life might be involved and whether the end justifies the means?”

“I think I answered your question, Father,” Kennedy said. “I don’t think there is much to be gained by continuing this discussion.”

The nearly all-female audience cheered.

His exchanges with young Martin Friedlander and Father Joe DiMaggio would constitute the whole of Robert Kennedy’s known public pronouncements on the subject of abortion. While hardly a full-throated endorsement of a woman’s right to choose, Kennedy’s remarks in early 1967 nonetheless signaled clearly the direction the Democratic Party was headed on the issue, a change in direction that would have an impact on American politics for decades to follow. His words, however tentative, still echo today.

Pro-life Democrats, sensing their place in the party being usurped by the nascent feminist movement, which considered access to legal abortion a fundamental right, abandoned the party in droves. Over the next two decades, they found refuge in the Republican Party, which welcomed them, not exactly with open arms, but as useful ground troops in the dawning culture wars.

Today, pro-life Democrats are a critically endangered species. On March 17, 2020, Illinois congressman Dan Lipinski, widely considered the last pro-life Democrat in the U.S. House, was defeated in the Democratic primary election by a pro-choice candidate, Marie Newman.

In 1970, the New York legislature finally passed an abortion bill — the most liberal abortion law in the country. Republicans controlled both chambers (just four of the 207 lawmakers were women). The bill was signed into law by Nelson Rockefeller, a liberal Republican. Three years later, in January 1973, the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that the “right of privacy, whether it be founded in the Fourteenth Amendment’s concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action, as we feel it is, or … in the Ninth Amendment’s reservation of rights to the people, is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.”

Undoubtedly, many — perhaps most — pro-life Democrats became Republicans in the decades after Robert Kennedy delicately broached the issue. The change was not swift, however — it wasn’t until 1976 that each party finally enshrined its position in its national platform.

The 1980 presidential election was especially confusing. Ronald Reagan, who’d signed the bill liberalizing abortion laws when he was governor of California, was now calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade. One of his opponents in the Republican primaries, George H.W. Bush, began the campaign as a pro-choice candidate but changed his position after Reagan asked him to be his running mate.

Challenging incumbent president Jimmy Carter in the Democratic primaries, Ted Kennedy — who, seven years earlier, had written that “the legalization of abortion on demand is not in accordance with the value which our civilization places on human life” — was now a champion of the right to choose. Carter himself tried to play it both ways: he described himself as “personally opposed” to abortion but he also opposed a constitutional amendment banning the procedure.

By the time he ran for president in 1984, even Jesse Jackson, who’d once likened abortion to genocide, was declaring: “I support the right of free choice relative to abortions.”

Father Joe DiMaggio left St. Peter’s Academy in 1969 and went on to serve as an administrator or pastor in a string of upstate New York parishes: Christ the King in Guilderland, Sacred Heart in Watervliet, Holy Cross in Morris, and Immaculate Conception in Johnstown. He also served as the Catholic chaplain at the state prison in Johnstown.

DiMaggio retired in 2002. He died on January 9, 2004 — his 75th birthday.

In November 2018, the Diocese of Albany released a list of priests “who have been removed from ministry and those who were deceased or resigned prior to a finding of reasonable grounds by the Diocesan Review Board due to sexual misconduct with a minor.”

DiMaggio’s name was on the list.

After he graduated from Syosset High School in the spring of ’67, Martin Friedlander tried to parlay his encounter with Robert Kennedy into an internship with the New York Times, but his application was rejected and his fledgling career in journalism ended. Instead, Friedlander went to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, where he majored in government and biology — and fell in love with science.

He earned a PhD in developmental biology from the University of Chicago in 1976 and an M.D. from SUNY Downstate Medical Center in 1983. Since 1993 he has been a professor of cell and molecular biology at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. He researches cures for vision loss due to retinal degenerative diseases, including macular telangiectasia.

More than a half century after his encounter with Robert Kennedy in the Syosset High School gym, Martin Friedlander still marvels at how unscripted the event was, especially compared to today’s meticulously stage-managed political rallies. “There were no pre-arrangements, no screening of the questions or who was gonna ask them,” he says. “He had no idea what we were going to ask, but he was prepared.”

And was he was satisfied with Kennedy’s answer to his question?

“Absolutely,” Friedlander says. “It was gutsy on his part to stand up against the church.”

© 2020 by Matthew Algeo

Matthew Algeo is an author and journalist. His latest book is All This Marvelous Potential: Robert Kennedy’s 1968 Tour of Appalachia (Chicago Review Press). His website is malgeo.com. Buy him a coffee at buymeacoffee.com/malgeo.

Husband, father, writer. I have a degree in folklore! Unlicensed historian. Known to dabble in public radio. https://www.buymeacoffee.com/malgeo

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store