US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Let’s tailor the seamless garment

By Mary Meehan | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
We have stretched out the consistent ethic of life on both sides of the political debate, an activist argues. Trimming out all but the key issues would set our priorities straight.


We were a hopeful band of prolife peaceniks, venturing out one summer day in 1979 to dialogue with other folks on the left. They were demonstrating in Cincinnati against a National Right to Life Convention. We passed leaflets out to them and carried picket signs with messages such as "Anti-War=Prolife/Be Consistent!"

Juli Loesch, a brilliant young writer, soon organized us, mostly veterans of 1960s activist causes, into Prolifers for Survival (P.S.), a prolife and pro-peace group. It lasted until 1987, when it was replaced by a group now called Consistent Life. Congenial groups include Feminists for Life and Democrats for Life.

When I first heard about "the consistency thing" in the early days, I understood it to mean consistent opposition to direct homicide: abortion, war, euthanasia, and the death penalty. But when the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago explained his vision of the consistent ethic of life in 1983, it was far broader than that. He said that those "who defend the right to life of the weakest among us must be equally visible in support of the quality of life of the powerless among us." That stance, he said, "translates into specific political and economic positions" on taxes, welfare policy, health care, and more.

That was a huge jump to make. Cardinal Bernardin apparently had in mind specific positions of the U.S. Catholic bishops. Yet those positions do not bind the consciences of Catholics; they are not mandatory. They are lobbying goals-certainly well-intentioned, but just as certainly subject to debate on philosophical and practical grounds. Yet the ban on killing other human beings-except in self-defense-binds all of us.

While I admired Cardinal Bernardin, I believe he and others took the consistency ethic a bridge too far. This is one reason why it never achieved the popular support it deserves and why it has little influence on national politics. Something Loesch wrote nearly 30 years ago is still true today: Most congressional candidates "look like a cross between Francis of Assisi and Attila the Hun."

Meanwhile, the list of life issues has grown so long that it's almost meaningless. Some suggest that consistency even covers better schools or environmental issues. It's not just that abortion gets lost in the shuffle-as conservatives have complained for years-so do other forms of direct killing.

Yet homicide causes the worst misery in the world. If we could stop people from killing one another, that would be the greatest advance for peace and justice in world history, and it would unleash vast energy and resources to deal with quality of life.

To get there, we need a keener sense of priorities. Dr. William Colliton, a veteran prolife activist in Maryland, once said, "If you ask an individual, ‘Do you prefer to be dead or poor?' I'm gonna take poor." So would most of us. People whose right to life is respected have the chance to agitate for change on other issues. The dead, though, have no free speech or right to organize.

Placing first priority on life can be a preferential option for the poor and for minority communities. For decades, statistics have shown that they are more likely to have abortions. They are vastly overrepresented on death row, and euthanasia is a greater long-term threat to the poor than to others.

Poor people, lacking money and passports, find it hard to escape the horrors of war. If we help save the lives of those threatened by lethal discrimination, they have a chance to win their place in the sun. If we don't, they won't.

The consistent ethic of life is like a sturdy pony, willing to do real work out on the range. But some have burdened it with such heavy loads that the pony can scarcely walk.

What would it take to unburden the consistent ethic of life so it could round up stray liberals here, unhappy conservatives over there, and clusters of moderates in a coalition that will challenge killing across the board?

Shortening the list of issues to direct homicide is the first step. Consistency advocates could campaign for better schools, cleaner air, and health care reform but not at the expense of those issues involving direct killing.

The second step toward making the consistency ethic come alive is reaching conservatives. In a 1981 essay in the New Oxford Review, English writer Christopher Derrick stressed that war "tends to destroy everything that conservatives would wish to ‘conserve' at the social, cultural, moral, and religious levels." The First and Second World Wars, he suggested, had much to do with "the present cultural breakdown of the West."

I would add that many Vietnam veterans returned to America with horrific drug addictions and mental illnesses that contributed to family and cultural disintegration at home. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, in his 1995 book On Killing (Back Bay Books), describes the psychological suffering of combat veterans that all conservatives should think about.

It's also important to talk with conservatives about the terrible effects of war on children, both born and unborn. One example is 12-year-old Au Ismaeel Abbas, who was wounded by the U.S. bombing of Iraq in 2003. He suffered terrible burns and lost both his arms. He also lost his mother, his father, and all of his sisters and brothers (one of them an unborn child). This is "collateral damage."

In his recent book Conservatives Betrayed (Bonus Books), conservative elder statesman Richard Viguerie says DNA testing has shown that "miscarriages of justice do occur, far more often than we once thought." The death penalty "presupposes a level of divine wisdom that secular governments do not possess," he says, noting that "support for it undermines our arguments against abortion, euthanasia, and related practices."

What sort of language is needed for the third step-dialogue with liberals about abortion? They need the same challenge about innocent casualties that conservatives need with respect to war. Abortion kills civilians, the youngest, most defenseless, and most innocent of all.

Liberals should listen to ex-abortion clinic workers who are haunted by memories of countless tiny bodies torn apart. They should ponder the comment of Doris Gordon, head of Libertarians for Life, that we now have a two-tiered legal system in which some human beings have rights and others do not. They should be moved that the abortion rate for non-white women is three times that for whites. Arlene Campbell, an African American who had a legal abortion that almost killed her, described the years of depression that followed. "I now speak of life," she has written, "but for many years all I could think of was death."

Liberals usually side with people who have disabilities. Eugenicists and others, though, have developed prenatal testing so that children with Down's syndrome and other handicaps could be destroyed before birth. Some parents now use prenatal testing to destroy children of the "wrong" gender.

It has been the pride of liberals to defend those who cannot defend themselves, especially those attacked because of their race, poverty, sex, or disability. This tradition alone should place liberals in the front ranks of the prolife movement. So should their old optimism, which too many of them have forgotten in recent years. Liberals need to recapture the joy of life, the sense of life as a grand adventure, and the sense of solidarity with all of our companions on the journey.

The fourth step we need is action from people who have endorsed the consistent ethic of life on a theoretical level, yet have done little or nothing to make it come alive. To borrow Albert Camus' words, we need people who can "get away from abstraction and confront the blood-stained face history has taken on today," and who are "resolved to speak out clearly and to pay up personally."

Veterans of war, abortion, and death row can describe terrible suffering that they hope no one else will have to endure. Doctors, nurses, and lawyers can speak out in professional conferences and do volunteer work on life issues. All citizens can experience both the drudgery and the occasional delight of political campaigns and lobbying efforts, and some will feel called to civil disobedience in defense of life.

No one ever said it would be easy. Yet it would be hard to find a nobler cause.