Fr Daniel Horan OFM and Fr James Martin SJ regularly do us the service of reminding us that to be pro-life does not just mean being anti-abortion.

We’re told that to be pro life must include the issues of:

  • racism,
  • the death penalty
  • torture
  • income inequality
  • healthcare
  • migration
  • climate change

This is the old “seamless garment” argument first propounded by Cardinal Bernardin. It has always seemed to me that the garment might be seamless, but it does have holes in it. Now that the once trendy idea is so worn out and cliched we could say the seamless garment is moth eaten.

Here’s why: We can certainly admit that there are other important bad things that bear on human lives. That’s a no brainer.

But here’s the thing: Why do the seamless garment tailors only add their pet issues to the list?

While we’re considering other bad things that hurt people, we could add quite a few more “pro-life issues”:

  • Arson
  • Communism
  • Fascism
  • Rioting
  • Murder
  • the slaughter of Christians by Muslim terrorists
  • incarceration of Muslim minorities by the Chinese
  • persecution of Catholics by the Chinese
  • human trafficking
  • child labor
  • prostitution
  • pornography
  • pedophilia
  • euthanasia
  • genetic engineering
  • eugenics
  • the sale of aborted baby body parts
  • Drug addiction
  • Overcrowded prisons
  • Alcoholism
  • Suicide
  • abuse of women through surrogate pregnancy by rich gay men
  • destruction of the family
    • by quickie divorce
    • by artificial birth control
    • by radical feminism
    • by spousal cruelty
    • by low wages for the main bread winner
    • by radical homosexualism
    • by adultery and promiscuity

All of these things are pro-life issues, and I expect folks could add to the list even further. In fact once you widen out the definition, every sin is a pro-life issue in one way or another right?

That’s why it is necessary to make distinctions. While they may all be pro-life issues they are not all of the same level of importance.

It doesn’t require a moral theologian or even a Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago to understand that the murder of an innocent, defenceless, unborn child in the womb is not the same thing as the execution of a serial child rapist, torturer and murderer. One may be opposed to the death penalty, but it is false to equate the death of a convicted murderer with the intentional killing of an unborn child for profit.

Those who wish to expand the pro-life agenda should also be aware that once the pro-life cause is widened out, these distinctions need to be made in order for the pro-life cause to have any clout at all. While distinctions in degree are necessary, it is also necessary to recognize distinctions of kind. Income Inequality, Migration and Climate Change certainly affect the quality of life, and if the quality of life is bad enough it may cause the end of life, but these issues are not primarily concerned with the loss of life. Abortion is.

We should be concerned about the poverty and living conditions of poor immigrants from Africa or Latin America, but that is not the same thing as dismembering a late term fetus in its mother’s womb.

While all of this is obvious, it seems to me that this “seamless garment” argument is an attempt to blow smoke. It is an attempt to relativize and minimize the anti-abortion, pro-life campaign by introducing other worthy causes. To illustrate what I mean, let us suppose the issue was slavery and not abortion. What would it be like if anti-slavery campaigners were met with the argument, “Yes. Slavery is bad, but to be truly anti-slavery you must also be against the unfair trade in textiles, corporal punishment, government policy towards the native Americans, cruelty to animals,  women being denied the vote and the gatling gun.” The anti-slavery campaigner would wonder why you bothered stating such obvious truths and would guess rightly that you were trying to distract from the plight of the slaves and divert attention from the issue at hand–which was the abolition of slavery.

Furthermore, he would be rightly insulted by your patronizing attitude–assuming that he is a hard hearted extremist who is both unaware and unconcerned about these other issues. He would want to know why you are assuming that he is a calloused, ignorant person simply because he is passionate about the abolition of slavery. This is the worst thing about the self righteous lectures doled out by the seamless garment advocates. They pre-judge pro-life campaigners by setting up a strawman…the imaginary pro-lifer who is only rabidly anti-abortion.

I’m sure there are some pro-life campaigners who do nothing but campaign against abortion, but they would be a tiny minority. Everyone I’ve ever met in the pro-life campaign has been against abortion, but they have also been in favor of adoption, in favor of clinics to help women in crisis pregnancies, in favor of ministries of healing for men and women survivors of abortion and in favor of assisting women who choose to keep their babies. They are well aware of the socio-economic issues that pressure some women to feel abortion is the only way out, and many of them are involved in the front line of addressing those greater issues too. All the pro-lifers I know are also well aware of the other pro-life issues that “seamless garment” Catholics keep telling us about, and they agree that these are worthy causes. They may disagree on the best way to address the problems, but they do not disagree about them being problems.

Finally, these are the people who are actually at the forefront of these ministries. They are not just praying rosaries in front of abortion clinics and hassling poor women. They are not just turning up once a year for the March for Life. They are busy in the women’s health clinics. They are funding ultra sound machines, raising funds for the charities that help women and their babies, running homes for women in crisis pregnancies, founding and funding and running homes for abused women and children, working tirelessly to build up the family, strengthen marriage, rescue unwanted children through fostering and child care programs at the local level.

Are the seamless garment Catholics doing the same? I hope their advocacy includes action, and trust it bears rich fruit in nurturing a society and church that is abundant in both true love and true life.