Equal Concern for Each Human Being, Not for Each Human Issue

Posted on September 19, 2017 By

by Richard Stith

 

Editor’s Note: Richard is responding to a recent article in LifeSite News which has a common criticism of the consistent life ethic by pro-lifers, that by addressing several issues we’re treating all of them as equally important, and thereby watering down the crucial importance of the right to life as a foundation. This was offered as a response, and in the spirit of a good exchange of views, we offer below e-mails between him and the editor.  

Richard is a senior research professor at Valparaiso University Law School, and is on the board of the Consistent Life Network.  

Richard Stith at March for Life in Washington, D.C.

The “seamless garment” or “consistent life” ethic should be understood as equal concern for every human being, not equal concern for every human issue.

If one person is threatened with losing her house and another is threatened with losing her life, equal concern for both would make us rush to the assistance of the latter, not the former. Thus those who think housing and abortion to be issues of equal weight are letting a false consistency cover up a deeply inconsistent politics of care. Such people have no right to cover themselves with the “seamless garment.”

Properly understood, true consistency is what we pro-lifers all uphold. Every one of us is absolutely inclusive. Not one of us cares more for unborn babies than for other human beings. Each of us would protest against the mass killing of toddlers or teenagers just as forcefully as we now protest against the mass killing of unborn babies. Our all-inclusive philosophy is often expressed in this way: We are for the equal protection of all human beings from conception to natural death.

Moreover, this inclusive approach is our best strategy to help the unborn. The only way abortion can be tolerated is if unborn babies are excluded from concern. That is why our opponents insist above all on not calling the babies “human beings.” They know that once the unborn are brought within the circle of our concern, there is absolutely no way that their cruel dismemberment can be justified. So our first pro-life step has to be simply to counteract specific exclusion of the unborn with their specific inclusion.

Thus, for example, a wonderful congregational prayer would be “For all people in our community, born and unborn, who are threatened by violence, let us pray to the Lord.” This phrase “born and unborn” is actually a much better reminder of the babies’ plight than just something focusing entirely on pro-life in a narrow sense, like “Let us pray for an end to abortion.”

By being inclusive and also explicitly mentioning the unborn, we do a much better job of focusing on them as fellow human beings just like the rest of us. Talking only about abortion makes killing unborn babies seem to be a side issue that can be easily ignored.

Bottom line: We pro-lifers need to seize upon the “seamless garment” and “consistent life” language, properly understood, and make it our own. We are the ones who want to include everyone. Our pro-abortion opponents are the ones who want to exclude some people from our society’s care and concern.

By contrast, when we attack the “seamless garment” and “consistent life” philosophies, we make ourselves seem to be the excluders and our opponents seem to be the includers, which is just the opposite of the truth.

Infinity symbol

 

Editor’s second note: Richard requested this be published in Life Site News and was turned down. The editor gave us permission to publish his response:

Hello Richard,
 
We really do not want to get into an extended debate on the Seamless Garment approach. Past experience has been that it has a strong tendency to go on at length without any resolution and get heated. There are very different views on this.
 
As for LifeSite, during all of our years of existence we have seen the Seamless Garment do substantial damage to the pro-life movement and take the focus especially off the killings of children in the womb, regardless of all the rhetoric that the unborn are a priority. The seamless garment has almost always been promoted by liberal social justice Catholics who have tended not to agree with the Church’s moral teachings.
 
I know you do not fit into that category Richard and are as solid as a rock, but there will undoubtedly be those on the liberal left who will see your article as affirming them, even though you have taken an orthodox approach. It will still be lose-lose if we publish your article. We have found the promoters of the false “social justice” of the Seamless Garment approach do not want to engage in sincere debate, they are very aggressive, if not ruthless, and quite a few have a Marxist outlook.

Personally, I don’t think we can co-opt the seamless garment to our advantage, although most of what you say makes sense. The social liberals created this phrase for a definite strategic purpose – to exploit strong pro-life sentiment to turn it towards social issues that are not about moral absolutes and which do not involve the deliberate killing of massive numbers of innocents. We can’t pretend that abortion is not the great evil that is it – as well as those issues related to it such as euthanasia, assisted suicide, infanticide, embryonic stem cell research, etc. – all killings of the most innocent and vulnerable.
 
Steve Jalsevac
Co-Founder and President
LifeSiteNews

 

 

Richard responds: 

Thanks, Steve, for taking the time to respond at length. 
 
I do think that working within the seamless garment (aka consistent life) approach helps our work against abortion, particularly with Catholic parish committees (because they are pretty much committed to the seamless garment). 
 
But maybe my view is distorted by the fact that I really am totally against every kind of intentionally lethal violence, including the death penalty and war (though I do see them as less objectively evil than abortion insofar as they lack the element of betrayal of an entrusted dependent). 
 
And I also appreciate where you’re coming from. I agree with you that the seamless garment has often been misused by people who do not want to campaign hard against killing babies.
 
How about leaving it this way: Don’t publish my little counter argument, but also please in the future don’t publish direct attacks on the seamless garment or consistent life, especially in your headlines (which may be all that some people read). I really do think that hurts us with many people. Makes us seem obsessed with just one stage in life.
 
Keep up the great work you’re doing! God bless you folks.
Richard

 

 

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For more of our blog posts from Richard Stith, see:

Open Letter to Fellow Human Rights Activists

When “Choice” Itself Hurts the Quality of Life

For another blog post addressing this criticism, see:

Does the Consistent Life Ethic Water Down Life Issues?

 

See the list of all our blog posts, put in categories.

 

 

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  4. Richard is (rightly) trying to meet single-issue pro-lifers where they are, but in the process the presentation of the CLE becomes potentially misleading. We’re not merely posturing to make pro-lifers look better; we actually do care about every human life at every stage (although that does have the added advantage of giving the pro-life movement a much better public image than defending life for some and death for others).

    In that sense, the distinction between “each human life” and “each human issue” sounds somewhat hair-splitting to me. I do agree that issues involving the direct killing of human beings should be primary. But if we really mean “conception to natural death,” then we should ultimately oppose all forms of unnatural death from direct killing with equal vigor – even though different organizations and individuals will have different emphases in their work.

    Furthermore, proceeding directly from the fundamental right to life is the right to a dignified life (which is strongly emphasized in the Catholic social tradition Richard and I share, and also extends beyond it). So I would be wary of conceding too much to those who would want to downplay even those technically secondary issues, which may be relatively less urgent but are still important parts of the bigger picture of the value of each human life.

  5. Tom Taylor says:

    Great discussion! Thanks to both writers for your authentic sharing.

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