In the William Wade Lecture Series given at St. Louis University in March of 1984, Joseph Cardinal Bernadin delivered a seminal address in which he drew connections between the opposition to legal abortion-on-demand, capital punishment, assisted suicide, economic injustice, euthanasia, and the nuclear arms race, as well as opposition to unjust war and even all war. This perspective has gone under the labels “seamless garment” and “consistent ethic of life.” Cardinal Bernadin said:
“It is both a complex and a demanding tradition; it joins the humanity of the unborn infant and the humanity of the hungry; it calls for positive legal action to prevent the killing of the unborn or the aged and positive societal action to provide shelter for the homeless and education for the illiterate. ……
In response to those who fear otherwise, I contend that the systemic vision of a consistent ethic of life will not erode our crucial public opposition to the direction of the arms race; neither will it smother our persistent and necessary public opposition to abortion. ..…
A consistent ethic of life does not equate the problem of taking life (e.g., through abortion and in war) with the problem of promoting human dignity (through humane programs of nutrition, health care, and housing). But a consistent ethic identifies both the protection of life and its promotion as moral questions. It argues for a continuum of life which must be sustained in the face of diverse and distinct threats.”
Notwithstanding the Cardinal’s instruction that the direct defense of life is not to be equated with the promotion of quality of life, this kind of language has been used to provide cover for supposedly pro-life Christians to vote for essentially pro-abortion-on-demand candidates. This is due to the belief that these candidates will promote particular social programs and entitlements which are assumed to “promote life” and possibly reduce the “need” for abortion. Such voters will usually also expect the candidate to take left-leaning positions on national defense, capital punishment, nationalized health care, etc. (essentially the entire panoply of progressive causes), under the guise that these also “promote life.” It is as if these voters believe that we can make up for allowing the killing of millions of babies by feeding and protecting the ones we allow to live, though it’s hard to demonstrate that progressive policies actually help the living in the long run.
In this “consistent ethic of life” approach, it’s important to distinguish between straight-up moral questions (under what circumstances should it be legal to terminate the lives of the unborn?) and prudential questions (granted that we wish to limit poverty and violence in the world, what are the best means for doing so?). Somehow, for the “seamlessly pro-life,” when it is time to vote, the merely prudential seems to trump the clear moral issue of legal abortion-on-demand. Yet, it is on the prudential questions that the “seamless garment” arguments mostly fail. Let’s consider a few of them.
In the 1984 election (the occasion of Cardinal Bernadin’s quote above), the argument was made that Ronald Reagan, though pro-life, was the lesser choice for the “consistent ethic of life” because of his commitment to rebuilding the US military, including updated nuclear capabilities. The facts of history have proved that perspective wrong. Reagan’s policies were critical in bringing about the 1989 implosion of the Soviet government. Nuclear weapons still exist on our planet, but we are far safer from nuclear annihilation than we were. We owe that fact to Reagan, Thatcher, John Paul II, and the many Polish and Russian activists who risked their lives speaking out, not to the nuclear freeze movement or a sham nuclear détente that allowed the Soviets to build up their arsenal of nuclear weapons while US capabilities deteriorated under Carter.
For all that the desire to care for the poor is laudable, and many of the “seamless garment” proponents feel very virtuous in voting for those candidates who promise more and greater entitlements from public funds, the facts of history now belie that approach to alleviating poverty. The poverty rates in the USA are about the same now as they were before the Great Society programs of the Johnson administration were begun. After 7 trillion or more dollars of wealth transference from producers to takers in the last 40 years, the rates of poverty aren’t noticeably different in the USA than they were in 1965. In contrast, before the Great Society entitlements began, poverty had dropped steeply in the preceding decade. (Source: US Census Bureau) Might that trend have continued without the interference of the Great Society programs?
Entitlement programs don’t end poverty. They merely support people living in it and reduce motivation for people to get out of it. As Thomas Sowell has pointed out, mobility through the various economic strata is quite common. In the USA, the poor of this decade are often the middle class of the next. Those who move out of poverty in this way don’t do it by relying on public assistance, and little case can be made that such programs are primarily responsible for moving people to higher economic productivity and reward. Upward mobility is promoted by staying out of jail, finishing high school, not becoming addicted, getting a job, marrying before making babies, and staying married afterward.
Economists know that minimum wage laws and rent control simply reduce the availability of entry-level jobs and affordable housing. There are many regulations affecting small business that have the net effect of reducing the number jobs that are available. Such laws and regulations are usually favored by the progressive “seamless garment” voter. How are these policies “seamlessly pro-life”?
“Anti-poverty” programs have encouraged behavior and perspectives that tend to make people poorer, not richer. In particular, these programs result in breaking down family structure, rewarding bad behavior (more money per illegitimate child), teaching dependency and a sense of entitlement, etc. How difficult is it for a young person who has been raised to believe he or she is owed a living by society or the government to take the steps necessary to become self-sufficient? Young people who are taught to resent the success of the productive are less likely to begin their own journey through education, skills acquisition, employment, and self-sufficiency. How is that “seamlessly pro-life”?
The welfare/dependency model has resulted in higher crime rates, especially among people raised with no married father in the home. The prisons are full of inmates who had no father to raise them, a direct result of government policies rewarding broken families, or families that never really formed. The “medicine” for poverty has made the patient far sicker. How is that “seamlessly pro-life”?
Many on the Left warned of dire consequences as state after state allowed law-abiding citizens to carry concealed weapons. The experiment has been conducted, and the results are in. Overwhelmingly, law-abiding armed citizens are not a danger to society and have protected themselves and others on many occasions. Nor are they a significant source of weapons getting into the hands of criminals. Again, regardless of your opinion on the right to self-defense (and the means to do it), prudentially speaking, concealed carry laws (even in densely populated major cities) have been shown to be a good idea that does not endanger life and often protects it. When a person is murdered or injured who was not allowed to be sufficiently armed to act in self-defense, how can that policy be considered part of a “consistent ethic of life”?
Here are some questions to ask yourself if you are attracted to the progressive view of the “consistent ethic of life”:
Can you be “seamlessly pro-life” and also support social, economic and governmental policies that produce death, or encourage and support lifestyles that lead to death and/or degradation?
Can you be “seamlessly pro-life” and believe we should not actively resist those who would control us through fear, threats, and the direct practice of violence, whether they are terrorists, gang members, or foreign despots?
Can you be “seamlessly pro-life” and believe we should not defend our nation from aggression?
Can you be “seamlessly pro-life” if you support leaving people individually defenseless against predators?
Can you be “seamlessly pro-life” if you support light sentences for violent offenders who have threatened life and will probably do so again?
These kinds of considerations are critical in seeking a “consistent ethic of life.” Christian voters must think carefully and support candidates whose overall perspectives and policy prescriptions are likely to lead people to make better choices in their own lives. Christian voters should avoid voting for candidates who support policies that have already been shown to produce undesirable unintended consequences, especially motivation-killing entitlement programs.
The real “seamless garment” will include opposition to legal abortion-on-demand, opposition to social programs and entitlements that encourage dependency and sloth while killing motivation, support for strong law enforcement that removes predators from easy access to victims, reasonable options for law-abiding individuals to actively defend themselves and their families, strong national defense to deter attack, and encouragement for people to move out of destructive lifestyles.
That is the true “consistent ethic of life.”