Reflections from My Decades of Consistent Life Ethic Experience
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.
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:
For more of our posts answering criticisms of the Consistent Life Ethic, see: