Thursday 15 November 2012

Don't Let It Rip: On the Seamless Nature of “Pro-Life”

By Edmund Lo, S.J.


In a recent op-ed  in the New York Times, Pulitzer-winning journalist Thomas Friedman wrote about the idea of “pro-life” as he understands it. The object of his article was the pro-life/pro-choice divide that has come to dominate the political front, especially before the presidential election. He was criticizing the so-called “pro-life” view of some prominent Republicans which he considered inadequate, in particular, that “pro-life” only deals with life at conception. According to his argument, one's understanding of “pro-life” ought to be more comprehensive. He supported his argument by giving a lengthy list on what he also considered a “pro-life” stance:
“In my world, you don’t get to call yourself 'pro-life' and be against common-sense gun control — like banning public access to the kind of semiautomatic assault rifle, designed for warfare, that was used recently in a Colorado theatre. You don’t get to call yourself 'pro-life' and want to shut down the Environmental Protection Agency, which ensures clean air and clean water, prevents childhood asthma, preserves biodiversity and combats climate change that could disrupt every life on the planet. You don’t get to call yourself 'pro-life' and oppose programs like Head Start that provide basic education, health and nutrition for the most disadvantaged children. You can call yourself a 'pro-conception-to-birth, indifferent-to-life conservative.' I will never refer to someone who pickets Planned Parenthood but lobbies against common-sense gun laws as 'pro-life.'”
Friedman is arguing that being “pro-life” should not be limited to the beginning of life, and that everything else after birth such as basic education, clean water and an anti-violence stance matter as well. This reminds me of the “seamless garment” ethics of life that has been attributed to the late Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago. According to Cardinal Bernardin, our moral attitude towards life should be like a seamless garment that is consistent across the board, from conception to natural end, and not just about one or two separated issues. The common thread that runs through them is life, and not any other political or socio-economical factors. This serves as a further reinforcement of what the Catholic Church has been teaching on the sanctity and dignity of life, as expressed in Gaudium et Spes from the Second Vatican Council:
“Furthermore, whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed.” (GS 27)
All of the atrocities listed above are “anti-life” and degrading to the human dignity that needs to be honoured in every single person. Some, such as the selling of women and children, are more self-evident; others, like disgraceful working conditions, maybe less so. To his credit, Cardinal Bernardin elaborated on his “seamless garment” ethics later on in life, by suggesting that while all aspects of “life” are important, all are not equal. Some are more fundamental than others. He suggested that we risk falling into a “max it out” mentality if we consider all issues as having equal value. This was to point out the danger of focusing on five or six aspects of life while ignoring one or two in an attempt to maximize certain benefits while remaining “pro-life” in the bigger picture. In other words, we may find ourselves in a situation where we have to prioritize one life issue over another, if the one is more fundamental than another.

Here I should point out an inconsistency in Friedman's opinion that separates his from Bernardin's qualified “seamless garment” ethics of life: since abortion is seen by many as a constitutive element of the reproductive health of a woman, Friedman also considers a woman's right to “choose what to do with her body” as a “pro-life” stance. Freedom and life go together in many ways, but one's right to maintain one's health cannot include the killing of another innocent human being. As Alissa Golob pointed out in our own "On the Camino With Santiago", if the human fetus is a human being, then all arguments for abortion are irrelevant; if not, then all pro-choice arguments are unnecessary. In other words, despite his good intentions, Friedman's “pro-life” view actually fails to be all-inclusive. To say that I support “pro-life” movements such as clean water, adequate education and decent working conditions while also supporting abortion is to rip apart the seamless garment. The last place I read that a seamless garment was torn apart was in the Gospel of John (Jn 19:23), involving soldiers under the Cross.

If we follow the “seamless garment” ethic of life, then it puts us into a rather uncomfortable position: we do not fit into any of the pre-existing political categories. As fellow blogger Santiago has pointed out in a recent entry, this stance does not allow us to fit into the “Republican” or “Democrat” mould in the United States, nor the “Conservative”, “Liberal”, or “New Democrat” mould in Canada. This should not be a surprise, as the foundation of ethics in the Catholic tradition is not political. It is based upon the inestimable value of human beings and human life in relation to God. It is not about being on the left, right, or even centre; it is about being Catholic, and staying true to how the Lord sees us as his beloved children. This will undoubtedly lead us to make difficult decisions that do not look like a perfect solution to all dilemmas, and this may also put us at odds with others. Then again, Jesus did not come to win a popularity contest. The cost of discipleship is steep, but the reward is out of this world.

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