From Single Issue to Seamless Garment

I thought I knew what terrible and low and shallow was until I was on social media in the week after The Alabama Human Life Protection Act was signed into law. To step directly in this cow pie, both sides have been putting up terrible and hateful and (again, yes) shallow bursts of characters and images, often with undocumented claims made by unverified sources, almost never intending to engage their opponents, let alone persuade them.

For those like me, who are pro-life but who eschew the professionalized mainstream pro-life movement, the main reason to avoid that movement is that it has deliberately narrowed what “pro-life” means to the human gestation period. In a sense, the decision to narrow has been strategic. For instance, advocates for research and development of treatments for pancreatic cancer would indeed get nowhere if they tried to get people to donate to the Cancer Is Bad Foundation. It’s too broad. You must narrow to be effective in your cause.  With pro-life causes, however, it’s different, because the ultimate goal is not to be against something, but to be for something. And for what? Life. Pro-life in the sense that it has been reduced by the mainstream anti-abortion movement–pro-life from conception to birth–in fact makes no sense as a concept to stand alone, because it fails to paint a large enough picture of the meaning of life. Being against abortion must be tied to a larger, cohesive vision of what human life is for, and what worth the individual human life has. For Christians at least this means an understanding of the value of a human life which can never be diminished by anything that human being does or anything that a human being has done to it, because we believe that humans are created in the image of God.

Thankfully for those of us who are persuaded at least that pro-life must mean something beyond birth, Catholic thinkers have been working on the question for a long time. Supposedly it was Eileen Egan (friend and biographer to Mother Teresa, marcher with MLK, correspondent with Thomas Merton, co-worker with Dorothy Day and Jim Douglass, and so much more) who first referred to the Christian understanding of the value of life as a “seamless garment.” This is a reference to the garments of Christ. When Jesus was stripped naked to be crucified, the Gospels say that his garments were gambled for as a whole cloth rather than ripped into pieces. Likewise, because God’s valuing of human life is irreducible, one pro-life issue cannot be separated from another without destroying the whole. Egan’s vision–known since then as either “the seamless garment” or the “consistent life ethic”–was deepened by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, whose thought is now being extended by Cardinal Blase Cupich, and is easy to read within some of Pope Francis’ words.

But for many of my readers, that’s a lot of thinkers and leaders and activists who aren’t very familiar. What’s it all mean? It means that truly choosing life means choosing life in every sphere in which human life is trying to flourish. Yes, widespread abortion is, of course, a threat to human life. But so is the death penalty. So is poverty. So are many of our gun laws (and lack of them). So are our nuclear arsenals, endless wars, military budgets, military presence around the world, military equipment and tactics among local law enforcement, concealed carry in our church buildings, armed teachers in our schools, for-profit prisons, mandatory minimum sentencing, lack of access to healthcare (including women’s health care, and–sorry Catholics–contraception), euthanasia, human germline modification, our valuing economic growth as the sole measure of our corporate well-being, our trade policies, our immigration policies, our drug wars, our treatment of the environment, our relationships with other nations, our relationships across human difference (race, class, gender, sex, religion, and far more) within our own neighborhoods.

The seamless garment approach is flexible enough to still recognize that in terms of numbers and impact, some threats are harming or taking more lives than others. It also recognizes that because all these “issues” deal with human flourishing, they are interconnected too deeply to be separated.

That’s a lot, and to name so many things together might indeed muddle the issue. In this blog post I seemingly tried to lose pro-choice readers at the beginning and pro-life political conservatives by the end. But my hope is not that you agree with me or Dorothy Day or President Eisenhower. Rather, I hope that you are convinced that if any human life is worthy of defense, first you must define why life matters with a big enough picture to share with others, then you must train that lens to see where one life is being valued more than another life, and then you need to see that to encourage life, to be pro-life, you must encourage a life a whole lot better than getting it to birth. Finally, you must also realize that although formal politics–laws and the courts–can do some of this work, it is not their job to form one human conscience or a whole society to recognize and value life in all its forms. That’s our job, in relationship with one another.

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