A Consistent Ethic of Life

A Consistent Ethic of Life October 23, 2007

As Catholics, we believe that the dignity of the human person is paramount, as each person is made in the image and likeness of God, a God who shared our human form. Every human being is intrinsically valuable. In the public sphere, we are called upon to act on our beliefs and promote the gospel of life, a holistic and encompassing ethic. Things tend to go awry when people try to compartmentalize life issues, and align the gospel of life with various political parties or movements. Nowhere is this more true than with the abortion issue.

Today in particular, there is a tendency by some to restrict the term “pro-life” to mean “opposed to abortion”. They argue that, since abortion is an issue of such enormous magnitude, it makes little practical sense to water down the cause by adding a host of extraneous social issues. A more subtle argument holds that the gospel of life can indeed encompass other issues that can never be defended– such as euthanasia and embryonic stem cell research– but not topics where there can be legitimate diversity of opinion. This is flawed.

When you see the arguments of those who oppose the anti-abortion movement, one theme stands out quite clearly: hypocrisy. The pro-lifers’ concern for life, they will say, ends at birth. They do not care about poverty, economic conditions, health care, war, the death penalty, even torture. They are not consistent in the zeal for life, even though the Christian message calls for consistency– indeed, cries out for consistency. We are called to uphold an all-encompassing gospel of life based primarily on the dignity of the person. The standard should not be the minimum set of beliefs that one can hold and remain a member of the Catholic church in good standing.

The predominant secular humanist ethic places great emphasis on human rights and human dignity. When they refuse to extend that dignity to the unborn, we must challenge, we must persuade. We will not even get a foot in the door by callously dismissing broader life issues. If we are respected as staying above the political fray on the gospel of life, they will listen.

Everything is related. As I’ve noted before, abortion and economic circumstances are inseparable. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 57% of women opting for abortion are economically disadvantaged. In fact, the abortion rate among women living below the federal poverty level is more than four times that of women above 300% of the poverty level. And when asked to give reasons for abortion, three-quarters of women say that cannot afford a child. Over the past few decades in the US, declines in abortion rates tended to accompany declines in poverty rates. You cannot isolate abortion from the broader issues. Of course, the pro-lifers often counter that abortion should be dealt with first and foremost by the force of law. But enacting coercive laws in a democracy requires persuasion, which goes back to my point that pro-life movement cannot be persuasive if it is seen as hypocritical. Tom Berg recently made an excellent point recently over at Mirror of Justice when the strong safety net in western Europe not only reduces abortion directly, but also makes people more willing to accept greater restrictions on abortion. Everything is related.

Just because there is no one particular way of dealing with poverty does not mean it should be ignored. Those with concerns about welfare state dependency should be pushing policies like in-work benefits and active labor market policies. But they often ignore the issue totally. Frequently, the rigid division between the small group of “hard-core” pro-life issues and everything else reflects an unwillingness to step outside the dominant laissez-faire liberal mindset. An unwillingness to forsake a tawdry partisan alliance with a party that preaches the gospel of life, and often does the opposite. Just look at the recent debate over S-CHIP where many “pro-lifers” applauded attempts to deny insurance to 4 million children that are currently uninsured, for fear that it would be a Trojan horse for government health care. This begs the question: what principle are they truly supporting– the gospel of life, or the gospel of the market? Among those who disagree with the role of government in health care, I see very few serious proposals to achieve universal health care (and no, tax credits will not do the job- not even close).

It’s not just economics. The prevalence of the death penalty cheapens life in the US. Last year, 9 out of 10 executions in the world took place in 6 countries: China, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan, and…… the United States. Something is wrong here. Simply pointing to the discrepancy between the number of abortions and numbers executed by the state misses the broader point, the effect of the death penalty in contributing to a broader culture of death. I could go on. The widespread availability of firearms in the US contributes to murder and suicide rates that are off the charts in relation to countries of similar economic development. That too is a life issue. The choice of the culture warriors to place more importance on sex than violence in popular culture is also a life issue. When children become numb to murder and violence on TV, is it any wonder that life is cheapened in society? And what about a culture that glorifies military action as the first response to problems in the world? What about the ready acceptance of torture as an interrogation tool? These are all life issues.

To be followers of Christ in the world, we must always be consistent.

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