I’m Catholic. I’m not sure how Catholic I am. I don’t go to church. My mom does and she lets us know that she prays for all of us – a lot.

I feel like this covers some of my bases for me. My son goes to a Catholic school. I feel like that act alone, sending my son to a Catholic school, makes me a decent Catholic.

Gov. John Burns was a devout Catholic who attended and graduated from Saint Louis School. He was also the governor who allowed Hawaii’s state law providing legal access to abortion, the first in the country, to become law without his signature.

I consider it the greatest single act of political courage in Hawaii’s state history. It took place 50 years ago this week, in a time that was perhaps less contentious overall. The State Capitol had only been completed and dedicated less than a year before on March 15, 1969.

Lei bedecked bronze hand of Queen Liliuokalani on the makai side of the Hawaii State Capitol building.
Former Gov. John Burns spoke from the State Capitol less than a year after its completion, highlighting the symbols of our Hawaiian heritage. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In his speech, Gov. Burns said: “The open sea, the open sky, the open doorway, open arms and open hearts — these are the symbols of our Hawaiian heritage. In this great State Capitol there are no doors at the grand entrances which open toward the mountains and toward the sea. There is no roof or dome to separate its vast inner court from the heavens and from the same eternal stars which guided the first voyagers to the primeval beauty of these shores.”

This quote could certainly be interpreted as being a reflection of the governor himself. By all accounts, Gov. Burns was stoic, thoughtful and honest. His early career as a police officer helped him develop tremendous compassion and connection to Hawaii’s diverse island community. His support for the community, particularly the AJA community, would propel him to three terms as governor.

In March 1970, Gov. Burns faced perhaps the greatest challenge of his career — driven by community groups — House Bill 61, known as the abortion bill. The law made abortion legal if performed by a licensed physician in an accredited hospital if performed before the fetus was viable outside the uterus.

Tremendous pressure was placed on the governor to veto the bill. It was certainly within his powers to do so. Noting the extensive evidence that showed the prevalence of illegal abortions in Hawaii, which posed a significant health threat to women, Gov. Burns allowed the bill to become law without his signature.

In an unprecedented statement, he wrote: “House Bill 61, relating to Hawaii’s century-old abortion law, is now Act 1 of 1970. The measure became law without my signature.

“I have declined to sign this bill after much study and soul-searching, after receiving competent advice from island and national specialists in law, medicine, theology, human rights and public affairs, and also sincere prayer to the creator named in our nation’s Declaration of Independence as the source of our inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” he wrote.

Painted Portrait of Governor John Burns.
Gov. John Burns’ official portrait hangs in the Hawaii governor’s office. He was governor from 1962 to 1974. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

“I have made my decision. I stand by it. It is the decision of the governor of Hawaii, not the private and personal whim of John A. Burns. It reflects my best judgment as governor, made after consultation with the best minds in the state, in regard to what is best for all the people of Hawaii.”

It is important to note this milestone in Hawaii’s history, not only as an extraordinary day that uplifted the rights of women throughout the state, but as an extraordinary act of political wisdom and courage.

This level of courage and decisiveness is entirely absent from our leadership these days. It is gravely needed and painfully missed.

Gov. Burns knew that his private and personal views had no place in the decision-making he needed to undertake as governor. It’s such a simple position, but it is profound. It becomes more profound when considered in the context of today’s political environment.

Today, it feels politics are driven by personal agendas, or in the case of the president, pure whimsy. There is no doubt that politics is hard, and that summoning the political courage to make sound, reasoned decisions is growing increasingly difficult. Decisions, particularly significant decisions that have tremendous impacts across large swaths of our communities, should be made in the best interest of the greater good. We should seek out political leaders who do what is right, not simply what is right for their party.

Let’s remember on this day that courage reaps great communal reward. That from conflict and contention a better, more just, safer society is possible. It’s been done. It’s been done here. We should aspire to elect leaders who can lead us there again.

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About the Author

  • Trisha Kehaulani Watson
    Trisha Kehaulani Watson is a Kaimuki resident, small business owner, and bibliophile. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawaii and J.D. from the William S. Richardson School of Law. She writes about environmental issues, cultural resource management, and the intersection between culture and politics. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can follow or contact her on Twitter at @hehawaiiau.