Reflections from My Decades of Consistent Life Ethic Experience

Posted on February 23, 2021 By

by Fr. Jim Hewes

In 1978, Frank Staropoli and I founded the Diocesan Human Life Commission, with our charter clearly being what was later called a “consistent life ethic” or a “seamless garment.”

During those years, when we tried to reach out to pro-life groups, we ordinarily didn’t find the warmest reception because of our willingness to not be just anti-abortion but also concerned about that life outside the womb. Abortion was still our paramount concern, because if one doesn’t exist, the other human rights will not come into play. Nor will people be able to promote a consistent ethic of life, or live out the non-violent teachings of Jesus, if they aren’t allowed to exist.

In addition, the pre-born were our main priority because of the magnitude of the loss of life (over one million abortions a year at that time), and because their killing was legally sanctioned.

Yet we also knew that once you stop abortions and these children are able to enter the world, we can’t allow their dignity to be compromised or their lives to be then destroyed by wars, other forms of violence, and poverty. Unfortunately, we didn’t find much receptivity with the social justice groups because of our emphasis and priority on the abortion issue.

We had many talented pro-life people come on the Human Life Commission, but they eventually left because of our spending time on other issues about life after birth. For example, we co-sponsored Fr. Dan Berrigan, who came to Rochester. Fr. Berrigan protested about nuclear concerns outside the gates of the Seneca Army Depot in a county in the Diocese, and he also stood in protest in front of Planned Parenthood in the city of Rochester.

Daniel Berrigan and friends, sit-in in Rochester

On the other hand, we had many gifted people who worked in the social justice/peace area, who came on the Commission but also eventually left because they felt we put too much emphasis on abortion.

So one side felt that the consistent ethic of life weakens or “waters down” the importance of abortion. The other side felt there was too much emphasis on abortion, to the detriment of other important issues of life.

We believed either of these positions were misconceptions of what a consistent life ethic really meant. I find myself 40 years later still dealing with these same misconceptions and inconsistencies.


The problem is both sides have misunderstood or misused the “consistent ethic of life.”

One side, at times, misuses the consistent ethic of life by de-emphasizing the priority and paramount importance of abortion by trying to make all issues have the same importance.

The lives of 900,000 preborn children end every year in the United States from abortions. What would we think if 900,000 toddlers or 900,000 immigrants or 900,000 African American men were killed every single year? In addition, the UN estimates between 45-50 million abortions, that many pre-born children’s lives ended every year world-wide. This translates into 900,000 human individuals terminated each week. That means over 125,000 human beings are destroyed every day (plus millions of women whose lives are devastated by their abortions). How can the magnitude of that violence not dwarf every other issue by a mile, unless one holds that preborn children aren’t really human beings?

The other side emphasizes the priority and paramount importance of abortion but tends to neglect other issues. For example, what about the Iraq War, where between 100,000 to 600,000 civilians, noncombatants, were killed in acts of this war, including pregnant women and their pre-born children? What about the executive act to allow $8 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia to continue to bomb and kill those in Yemen, especially innocent women (some of whom may be pregnant) and children? What is really the meaning of us as pro-life people, if we help women, so they won’t have abortions but choose life, yet support a candidate who later fails to fully respond to them in their great need? Or who sends these same un-aborted lives after they grow up to be killed or kill others through violent conflicts and wars, or die because of poverty and neglect?

I’m not saying pro-life people have to be involved in every issue of life, but how much time does it take to send a letter? Or for peace and justice people to support pro-life initiatives like supporting the states to stop funding Planned Parenthood and to withhold Medicaid and other federal money from organizations that perform abortions, to cut taxpayer funding under the Title X program from any facility that performs or refers for abortions, such as Planned Parenthood; to keep in place the “Mexico City Policy,” ensuring that tax dollars will not fund the abortion industry overseas; to back a rule requiring insurers to specify which health insurance plans cover abortion; to support the conscientious objector protections for those who refuse to participate in abortion; to support that section that ended the Obamacare mandate, which forced employers to cover abortion in health insurance they offered to their employees; to push hard for the Senate to pass key legislation to protect babies (like the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act and the Born Alive Act)?

The problem is pro-life people too often give politicians a free pass on other issues of life, if they’re against abortion. Then other social justice people give a free pass to politicians who support immigration reform or health care, but vote against any legislation which would protect the pre-born.

People are inconsistent if they think that they can defend a person who takes a pro-life position on certain life issues like abortion but refuses to even acknowledge other life issues and their proper importance; or on the other hand, supports issues of peace and justice but doesn’t see the inconsistency of not offering justice and peace to the pre-born.


Later on the US Bishops would state: “This focus [on abortion] and the Church’s firm commitment to a consistent ethic of life complement each other. A consistent ethic of life, far from diminishing a concern for abortion or equating all issues touching on the dignity of human life, recognizes the distinctive character of each issue while giving each its proper role within a context of a coherent vision.” (Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities, A Reaffirmation 1985 p.3-4)

Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who popularized the consistent ethic of life, in a statement entitled “Deciding for Life” on October 1, 1989, stated: “Not all values, however, are of equal weight. Some are more fundamental than others. On this Respect Life Sunday, I wish to emphasize that no earthly value is more fundamental than human life itself. Human life is the condition for enjoying freedom and all other values. Consequently, if one must choose between protecting or serving lesser human values that depend upon life for their existence and life itself, human life must take precedence.”

Cardinal Bernardin would state in one of his other presentations: “The fundamental human right is to life – from the moment of conception until death. It is the source of all other rights.” Cardinal Bernardin told the National Catholic Register in 1988, “I don’t see how you can subscribe to the consistent ethic and then vote for someone who feels that abortion is a ‘basic right’ of the individual. The consequence of that position would be an absence of legal protection for the unborn.”

Later, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in their 1998 document, “Living the Gospel of Life” would affirm our approach by stating:

Opposition to abortion and euthanasia does not excuse indifference to those who suffer from poverty, violence and injustice. Any politics of human life must work to resist the violence of war and the scandal of capital punishment. Any politics of human dignity must seriously address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing, and health care. … But being ‘right’ in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life.

Indeed, the failure to protect and defend life in its most vulnerable stages renders suspect any claims to the ‘rightness’ of positions in other matters affecting the poorest and least powerful of the human community. If we understand the human person as the ‘temple of the Holy Spirit’ — the living house of God — then these latter issues fall logically into place as the crossbeams and walls of that house. All direct attacks on innocent human life, such as abortion and euthanasia, strike at the house’s foundation.

The US Bishops in “Faithful Citizenship-Forming Consciences” in 2019 would also mirror this approach by stating that all issues of life are important, but abortion is the issue of “preeminent priority.

The members of the Diocesan Human Life Commission who eventually remained were solidly for the consistent ethic of life, with a priority on the abortion issue. I saw those that stayed become more consistent in how they viewed all issues concerning life, not just abortion.


For more of our posts from Fr. Jim Hewes, see:

Consistent Life History: Being Across the Board

Death Penalty and other Killing: The Destructive Effect on Us


For more of our posts answering criticisms of the Consistent Life Ethic, see:

Does the Consistent Life Ethic Water Down Life Issues?

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

Is Abortion Different from Other Violence?



consistent life ethichistory

  1. Carol Crossed says:

    Fr. Hewes formation of the Human Life Commission was on the ground level with consistent life. He lays out well the dilemma he faced then and is still being addressed now. Thank you for this insightful piece.

  2. Julia Smucker says:

    I still don’t understand the argument for giving abortion more weight than all other killing based on the fundamentality of existence, as people’s existence is no less taken away by being killed after birth than by being killed before birth. Abortion is also not unique in being legally sanctioned: the same is true of war, the death penalty, and sometimes euthanasia, and war and the death penalty are not only legally permitted but carried out by the state.

    Abortion kills the greatest number of human beings overall, while war kills the greatest numbers at a time. A full-scale nuclear war could render work on all the issues meaningless by wiping out all life on the planet; on the other hand, that’s a hypothetical possibility (albeit one vitally important to prevent), whereas other forms of killing are happening now in actual fact. So one could make a calculated argument for abortion or war (and perhaps other forms of killing as well) as “the” paramount issue, but I think that would be missing the point. Any time we consider one form of killing to be more important than all others, we’re implying that human lives that are taken or threatened by other forms of violence are somehow less worthy of saving.

  3. Fr. Jim Hewes says:

    Nikolai Berdyaev stated at the beginning of the 20th century: “The greatest sin of this age is making the concrete, abstract.” Pre-born children are the most ABSTRACT, INVISIBLE, and voiceless human lives, in our society, as well as the most unequal and excluded of any human beings in the world. If we were living in Germany in the 1940’s, wouldn’t there be a paramount issue-of non-violently ending the violence of Hitler, including the extermination of the Jews in the Holocaust; if we were a living in Cambodia during the 1970’s, wouldn’t there be a single issue, the focus of non-violently ending Pol Pot’s “killing fields;” if we were a person who was a Hutu in 1994, wouldn’t the priority be on non-violently ending the slaughter of the Tutsi. There are 125,000 pre-born children in the world whose lives end EVERY DAY, and EVERY YEAR in our world, as well as the destruction of millions of women who undergo abortions. It is a form of genocide, which is simply the deliberate, systematic attempt to erase a category of people (pre-born children). All and every human life whether inside or outside the womb are incalculably precious and of infinite value, but at the same time a Consistent Ethic of Life is lived out with a hierarchy of values. In other words, all people are equal in VALUE but not all RIGHTS are equal.

    • You have some good points here on why opposing abortion is important, and to that extent I agree, but I still don’t see a convincing case for considering other life issues of LESSER importance.

      Your point about pre-born children being “the most abstract, invisible, and voiceless human lives” certainly speaks to why they are so easily dehumanized and why their killing is so easily dismissed, and this is indeed a major problem and a compelling reason to work for greater recognition of their humanity.

      Your point about not all rights being equal – the implication being, if I’m reading it correctly, that the right to life is prerequisite to other rights – still doesn’t answer my objection to the ranking of the manifold ways in which human lives are threatened. One could perhaps say that the right to life is paramount, but is that right any less paramount if someone’s life is taken by war or execution or euthanasia or starvation or a shooting or a lynching or…?

      I hope it’s clear that I’m not in any way downplaying the gravity of abortion. My problem here is that if abortion (or any other life issue) weighs MORE than all others, it’s impossible to avoid the implication that other kinds of killing weigh less. To be fully consistent in respecting life, we should reject the whole proposition that the right to life is any kind of zero-sum game.

    • Another thought I’ve had on your examples of mass slaughter: things like that are still going on. Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal “war on drugs” in the Philippines has been killing people extrajudicially for several years. Civil wars in Yemen, Syria, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and quite possibly others I’m not thinking of, are starving and brutalizing people for speaking out against violence or just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. These are today’s killing fields. As Pope Francis has said, it’s a third world war being waged piecemeal. Some of the relatively lucky ones in those situations have escaped with their lives to seek asylum elsewhere. For those who haven’t been so lucky, are their lives any less “paramount” than those killed before birth just because there are comparably fewer of them?

      • James Hewes says:

        One other example to clarify this point. Imagine that you were on a street and saw two houses very far apart on fire; one is a large house with a daycare center, with many babies and young children present and in the other house there is an elderly stranger who is on hospice. You have limitations as a sole individual, and thus you are physically unable to help all of them (if there was only one house on fire, you would rescue that one person). You know that in one of the houses, the parties there will certainly die. You chose to help those in the daycare center. This decision and action that you take isn’t based on a distorted judgement of the Consistent Ethic of Life, implying that the elderly stranger is of any less value, but you have to prioritize your actions because of your limited time and ability, as well as what you discern is most at stake in this situation. This could also be true of a family of several children and one is born with special needs or develops a serious chronic illness. The parents would have to focus more of their time, energy, and attention on this child but that wouldn’t mean than the other children are less valued and less loved; it just means that the situation calls for this prioritized response. Finally, I don’t know how it is with other religious denominations, but Catholic bishops have had teaching on many issues of life and have even stated that abortion is a preeminent priority, yet a Pew Research done before the 2016 election asked Catholics: “what was the most important issue?” Abortion came in #13 out of 14. Only 46% of Catholic voters said abortion was a “very important issue.” Another Pew research found that 51% of Catholics say that abortion should be legal in MOST or ALL CASES. I would propose, from these facts, that in actual lived experience (not society’s perception), that abortion is not really of paramount importance in practice even for this significant part of our American population.

        • This thought experiment is based on a premise of scarcity. It requires presuming that I have an automatic, yet limited, ability to save the lives of all the people in a burning building by rushing into it, and that I am the only one who can do anything in this scenario. Realistically, in the unlikely event that I were to randomly happen upon two burning buildings at some distance but within view of each other, and in the even more unlikely event that there weren’t already firefighters there, I would not run in to save the occupants of one building and leave the occupants of the other building to die; I would call the fire department, which would send crews to put out both fires and do everything they could to save *everyone* whose life was in danger.

          This splash of reality on your either/or thought experiment actually makes for a good analog to the CLE: saving lives should never be an either/or proposition. It’s all well and good to have different people specializing in different life issues, just as the fire department needs some people working on rescuing the people in the daycare and some working on rescuing the hospice patient. But it’s not CLE to assume that some lives must be sacrificed to save others. The value of human lives should never be weighed against each other based on when and how their lives are threatened.

  4. James Hewes says:

    One may have seen the heartbreaking photo of 9-year- old Phan Thi Kim Puc, after an aerial napalm attack on June 8, 1972, to show the horror of war. One can see the lifeless body of George Floyd or Emmett Till’s face (which was partially crushed and beaten beyond recognition) to show the real consequences of racism. One can view the 3-year-old Syrian refugee child, Alan Kundi, lying dead, face down on a beach in Turkey to demonstrate the plight of refugees. One can show pictures of homeless people in cardboard boxes, living on the streets, to show their terrible situation. One can even remember watching emaciated bodies, to see the effects of hunger or poverty. Yet you almost NEVER ever see pictures of pre-born children or hear their silent screams or ever look deeply at what the brutal reality of abortion actually looks like. There are other terrible slaughters, but these human beings have been able to live some period of life, where pre-born children have not had one second outside their mother’s womb. The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas puts it this way: “the only thing that really converts people is the face of the other” and Pope Francis stated that we need to put a human face on the immigration and refugee issue. This practically never happens with those pre-born children who are aborted because they are being hid away and forgotten, which absolutely lessens their value. Many of us will not be victims of war, brutalized at the hands of police, be a refugee, be homeless, be on the brink of death because of starvation, poverty or being on death row, but that doesn’t stop one from seeing their suffering and reaching out and advocating for them. Yet every single one of us on earth, will at one time be in our mother’s womb out of sight and this place remains the most threatened and dangerous place on the planet. This is borne out by the fact that 50 MILLION pre-born children are executed YEAR AFTER YEAR, for an approximate total of 2.5 BILLION human beings killed in the last 50 YEARS because of the war on pre-born children (compare that unfathomable number against the total lives lost in the last 50 years because of wars or other violent conflicts). It follows then that more efforts must be done to protect these members of our society because they are the most INVISIBLE and thus the least protected of our human community. This in no way mean that other lives outside the womb are of any less value, in fact, ideally, if life within the womb was truly reverenced and protected, being consistent, it could enhance the dignity and respect for every life outside the womb. The abortion issue is not an isolated issue. 75% of abortion are done on women who are poor or low income. So, we really need to reach out and offer every kind of help to “save “women in unsupported and untimely pregnancies (to provide good pre-natal and post birth medical care, adequate food, housing, transportation, childcare, job training, work opportunities, as well as any other support services) and in doing so, we will also you save their children as well.

  5. Anne says:

    Thank you for this wonderful article. Consistency is a lonely place to be and it is wonderful to read about people and groups practicing it. It all seems so obvious to me . . . .

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