DISCUSS: The “Whole Life” Ethic

DISCUSS: The “Whole Life” Ethic June 30, 2023

Christian author Tish Harrison Warren says that she can’t find a home in either political party.  She embraces the “whole life” ethic–sometimes called the “consistent pro-life” ethic–which states that since life is sacred, all life must be protected.  Thus, Warren opposes abortion (like most Republicans) but also opposes the death penalty (unlike most Republicans but like most Democrats), to name just two among many issues.

She explains her position in  “You Can’t Protect Some Life but Not Others,” published in The New York Times, no less.  An excerpt:

People like me, who hold to what the Roman Catholic cardinal Joseph Bernardin called a “consistent ethic of life” and what the Catholic activist Eileen Egan referred to as “the seamless garment” of life don’t have a clear political home. A “whole life” ethic entails a commitment to life “from womb to tomb,” as Bernardin said, and it also champions policies that aid those who are vulnerable or economically disadvantaged. Bernardin, who died in 1996, argued that a consistent ethic demands equal advocacy for the “right to life of the weakest among us” and “the quality of life of the powerless among us.” Because of this, it combines issues that we often pry apart in American politics.

The whole life movement, for instance, rejects the notion that a party can embrace family values while leaving asylum-seeking children on our Southern border in grave danger. Or that one can extend compassion to those children, while withholding it from the unwanted child in the womb. A whole life ethic is often antiwar, anti-abortion, anti-death penalty, anti-euthanasia and pro-gun control. It sees a thread connecting issues that the major party platforms often silo.

What do you think of this?  How might she balance or prioritize these concerns?  How should she vote?

I would argue that these issues are different and have their own warrant.  Aborting an infant is not the same as executing a murderer.  According to the canons of justice, the former does not deserve to die, but the latter does.  Believing that life is sacred is, according to the Bible, the reason why murderers should die.  (“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” [Genesis 9:6]).

I sympathize with the “consistent pro-life” position, but I fear that it is often used as a justification to vote for pro-abortion politicians with the rationalization that they are pro-life in other ways.  But surely, as Catholic ethicists who hold to that position point out, opposing abortion must have the highest priority.  Protecting life at its very beginning is a logical starting point for those who want to protect all life.  This life is also at the most jeopardy today.  Thus, as Charles C. Camosy and David McPherson say, “fundamental justice for prenatal children is the pre-eminent justice issue of our time.”

What I don’t understand is how “liberals” and “progressives” who go on and on about protecting the poor, the weak, the marginalized, and victims of oppression and violence, have such a complete blind spot when it comes to the poorest, the weakest, the most marginalized, the most oppressed, and the most victimized by violence–namely, children in the womb.  Can anybody explain that?


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