The Consistent Peace Ethic

Posted on June 29, 2021 By

by Rachel MacNair

The Consistent Life Network names its e-newsletter Peace & Life Connections. We make a big point of covering peace issues as the same as life issues and life issues being the same as peace issues. We dislike the political red/blue divide that pits “peace” and “life” against each other in terms of who supports what, since we assert that they belong together.

 

So a question just recently occurred to me: why do we entirely refer to the “consistent life ethic” and not also the “consistent peace ethic”?

Next question: why did this only recently occur to me, when I’ve been active on this for decades?

History

Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, major portions of abortion opposition used reasoning against war and executions to make the case against feticide, and liberal Democrats who favored protecting fetal children weren’t unusual (see the book, Defenders of the Unborn). It was most strongly under the candidacy and administration of Ronald Reagan that a more distinct right-wing/left-wing divide was perceived. As Dr. Jack Willke put it to me once, in his Catholic diocese, the Respect Life office and the Peace and Justice Office didn’t talk to each other. I responded to him that that was so sad; they ought to be all the same office.

Bubbling up from this situation were people that also thought peace and life issues went together. Eileen Egan, co-founder of Pax Christi, coined the “seamless garment” concept in 1973, and it was picked up and publicized by Cardinal Bernardin in a lecture at Fordham University, Dec 6, 1983.

The term “seamless garment” had the all-inclusive, cover-all-issues character that was the hallmark of what we wanted to advocate. So when we decided at the final meeting of Pro-lifers for Survival to establish a network, we called it the Seamless Garment Network. People didn’t know what that meant, but we thought we would educate them. What we found is that even after we directly educated people in person, they still mixed us up with a garment workers union. So we changed to Consistent Life Network. By then the phrase “consistent life ethic” – also “consistent ethic of life” – had become well established.

Peace and justice activists commonly do think in terms of connecting issues. Military spending is connected to poverty as it misdirects resources away from social support. War causes poverty directly. Executions are strongly connected to both racism and poverty. And so on. When we speak this way, we’re using language that peace and justice activists are entirely accustomed to.

And then we added abortion and euthanasia into the mix. We were taking an entirely normal peace-movement approach, and expanding it to those issues, on the grounds that this is obvious when opposing socially-approved killing.

Juli Loesch (now Julianne Wiley), founder of Pro-lifers for Survival

I was active in the later years of Pro-lifers for Survival, and I was at its final meeting where the Seamless Garment Network was established, so I know who we were. We weren’t long-time pro-lifers that decided what we really needed to do was expand to all issues of killing. We were long-time peace activists who were having the roof fall in on us when we told fellow peace and justice advocates that we wanted to make an anti-abortion case.

We joked that we were communist on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, but fascist on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.

When Pro-lifers for Survival tried to join the National Mobilization for Survival, a coalition against the nuclear arms race, the Boston chapter said that all pro-lifers were “racist, classist, misogynist anti-choice reactionaries.” We made t-shirts with that, and danced a conga line to it, which is why I still have it memorized all these years later. We weren’t easily intimidated.

We had, and still have, trouble with peace organizations not allowing us to participate in tables or marches or sponsorships because of our anti-abortion stand. By contrast, participating in pro-life events, while not entirely trouble-free, has more often been a matter of just signing up, as the single-issue folks tend to be happy to have an all-hands-on-deck approach.

 

 

So I see the answer to the questions as: the term “consistent life” is because we were communicating to pro-lifers that we were pro-life, because that’s a crucial point for them, and we were communicating to peace and justice activists that we were pro-life because that’s the difference we were advocating for and needed to get across. And this was so clearly what we needed to do in both cases that it didn’t occur to me otherwise.

The Problem

But there’s a problem that’s bedeviled us from the start: the use of consistency not for persuasion but for attack.

There are some people (several politicians spring to mind) for whom inconsistency is a fair criticism, and their inability to catch the underlying moral principles of the pro-life position raises questions about their sincerity even when considering just the abortion issue alone. Dialog and persuasion are called for.

But consistency includes solidarity with pre-born children along with everyone else. Instead, we see the idea of consistency used as an attack weapon against those whose major focus is to protect those children, by people who are thereby proposing that such children aren’t important enough to be anyone’s focus.

There are a vast number of hard-working activists who are generally and rightly sick of it. Too often they hear “These anti-choice people aren’t really pro-life, they’re just pro-birth. They don’t care about anyone after birth. If they were really pro-life they’d also oppose X, Y, and Z, like I do.”

Mind you, this would be happening whether the consistent life ethic existed or not. Those who want to argue against the pro-life position are bound to come up with such thoughts.

And I’ve watched in horror as people do exactly this: they use the consistent life ethic to attack the right-to-life movement as not being good enough to suit them. Pro-lifers naturally resent this when it’s used as an attack.

I explain over and over again that this is a grotesque abuse of the consistency concept, which is meant to challenge people to think through more issues with the same moral principles – not disparage people for being on different sides of the political spectrum. I explain to pro-lifers, but they have the experience of having to put up with this. I explain to people who are misusing the CLE that way, but they’re speaking to crowds that cheer them on for saying such things. I explain and explain. I’m trying to hold back the ocean with a broom.

Therefore . . .

We want to challenge both “sides,” and peace advocates need to understand that the ideal of consistency applies just as much to them as to everyone else. Consistent Peace Ethic means the exact same thing, after all. Even though I just coined the term myself.

I propose that we pay attention to times when it makes more sense, or at least perfectly good sense, and start using this as a synonym. This would sometimes be instead of the Consistent Life Ethic, and at other times in addition to it.

If others agree, it will happen, and if they don’t, it won’t. But I think we may discover that in our work of being persuasive, it’s a useful idea.

 

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  1. A consistent peace ethic is essentially what I absorbed growing up in the Mennonite Church. We called it absolute nonviolence. I would use something like that or sometimes “pro-life across the board” to describe myself before I ever heard of terms like “consistent life ethic” or “seamless garment”.

  2. Tom Taylor says:

    I appreciate this discussion and historical info on the terminology of “consistent life.”

    Perhaps the term “seamless garment” can also still be helpful in the context of this discussion in certain situations, perhaps especially when addressing Christian audiences. Confusion with the Garment Workers Union notwithstanding, I think it is an excellent metaphor and carries a less political overtone than “peace” and “life,” which always seem to run the risk of receiving political labels and therefore be a hindrance to constructive dialogue. Wondering if “seamless garment” has a better chance of appealing to people’s hearts, at least among those who are familiar with the idea.

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