The consistent life ethic, or the consistent ethic of life is an ideology that opposes abortion, capital punishment, assisted suicide, and euthanasia. Adherents are opposed, at the very least, to unjust war, while some adherents also profess pacifism, or opposition to all war. The term was popularized in 1983 by the Catholic Cardinal Joseph Bernardin to express an ideology based on the premise that all human life is sacred and should be protected by law.
In 1971, Roman Catholic pacifist Eileen Egan coined the phrase "seamless garment" to describe a holistic reverence for life. The phrase is a Bible reference from John 19:23 to the seamless robe of Jesus, which his executioners did not tear apart. The seamless garment philosophy holds that issues such as abortion, capital punishment, militarism, euthanasia, social injustice, and economic injustice all demand a consistent application of moral principles that value the sacredness of human life. "The protection of life", said Egan, "is a seamless garment. You can't protect some life and not others." Her words were meant to challenge those members of the pro-life movement who were in favor of capital punishment.
Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago helped publicize the consistent life ethic idea in 1983.[not specific enough to verify] Initially, Bernardin spoke out against nuclear war and abortion. However, he quickly expanded the scope of his view to include all aspects of human life. In one of the first speeches given on the topic at Fordham University, Bernardin said: "The spectrum of life cuts across the issues of genetics, abortion, capital punishment, modern warfare and the care of the terminally ill." Bernardin said that although each of the issues was distinct, nevertheless the issues were linked since the valuing and defending of (human) life were, he believed, at the center of both issues. Bernardin told an audience in Portland, Oregon: "When human life is considered 'cheap' or easily expendable in one area, eventually nothing is held as sacred and all lives are in jeopardy."
Bernardin drew his stance from New Testament principles, specifically of forgiveness and reconciliation, yet he argued that neither the themes nor the content generated from those themes were specifically Christian. By doing this, Bernardin attempted to create a dialogue with others who were not necessarily aligned with Christianity.
Bernardin and other advocates of this ethic sought to form a consistent policy that would link abortion, capital punishment, economic injustice, euthanasia, and unjust war. Bernardin sought to unify conservative Catholics (who opposed abortion) and liberal Catholics (who opposed capital punishment) in the United States. By relying on fundamental principles, Bernardin also sought to coordinate work on several different spheres of Catholic moral theology. In addition, Bernardin argued that since the 1950s the church had moved against its own historical, casuistic exceptions to the protection of life. "To summarize the shift succinctly, the presumption against taking human life has been strengthened and the exceptions made ever more restrictive."
The non-profit organization Consistent Life Network, founded in 1987 as the Seamless Garment Network, promotes adherence to the ethic through education and non-violent action. Individual endorsers belonging to the Consistent Life Network organization include Father Daniel Berrigan, theologian Harvey Cox, Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff, Father Theodore Hesburgh, actress Patricia Heaton, L'Arche founder Jean Vanier, death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean, pro-life activist Abby Johnson, author Ken Kesey, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Nobel Peace Prize laureates Mairead Corrigan Maguire and Adolfo Pérez Esquivel.Rachel MacNair, for ten years (1994-2004) President of Feminists for Life, a pro-life organization, is the director of the Institute for Integrated Social Analysis, the research arm of Consistent Life Network.
In the US, several groups have promoted the "consistent ethic of life" approach, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Democrats for Life of America, and the American Solidarity Party, a Christian Democratic political organization. Groups without a religious orientation that support the ideology include Democrats for Life of America, the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians (PLAGAL), and All Our Lives (a pro-contraception feminist group), all of which are members of the Consistent Life Network. Other secular groups supporting a consistent ethic of life position include Rehumanize International (formerly known as Life Matters Journal) and New Wave Feminists. Other prominent authors who have written in support of the consistent life ethic include Frank Pavone,James Martin,John Dear,Ron SiderTony Campolo,Joel Hunter,Wendell Berry, and Shane Claiborne.
According to Michael Leach, "If one contends, as we do, that the right of every fetus to be born should be protected by civil law and supported by civil consensus, then our moral, political and economic responsibilities do not stop at the moment of birth." This viewpoint was emphasized by Pope John Paul II in his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (Gospel of Life). This book-length document outlined the Pope's emphasis on fostering a culture of life based on the New Testament and the life of Jesus. Specifically, he emphasized the value and inviolability of human life, from conception until natural death.
Rather than "thinking of a pregnant women and her fetus as being adversaries battling over exclusive rights, the right of a woman to control her body versus the right of the fetus to live long enough to control hers", a consistent life ethic would view both as valuable and important, and seek to provide both all the support they needed to live and live well.
Traditionally, arguments for the death penalty focus on the idea that it: 1) deters further violence; 2) enacts just retribution on the criminal, effectively gaining a sense of justice for society and those affected by the crime; 3) seeks to reform other criminals with the threat of such severe punishment and; 4) protects society from those criminals which the government has deemed to be the most heinous.
Bernardin and some other consistent life ethic advocates recognize the right of the state to use capital punishment. However, they reject the necessity of this type of punishment for many reasons, arguing that there are more appropriate and effective ways for the state to defend its people. Many consistent life ethic advocates call for a total abolition of the death penalty. The consistent ethic's opposition to capital punishment is rooted in the conviction that an atmosphere of respect for life must pervade a society, and resorting to the death penalty does not support this attitude. Adherents argue that the result of the death penalty - removing the criminal from society, enacting justice on the criminal, and bringing about feelings of revenge for those affected and the greater society - do not necessarily have to be accomplished by taking a life.
One out-spoken anti-death penalty activist is Sister Helen Prejean. Her books Dead Man Walking and The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account to Wrongful Executions are autobiographical accounts of the time she spent ministering to death row inmates. Another notable independent Catholic anti-death penalty organization is Priests for Life.
According to Ron Hamel,
...a moral vision constituted by the consistent ethic of life sensitizes one to procedures, technological developments, and aspects of the health care system that fail to promote or do not adequately promote human dignity and do not sufficiently enhance human life. ...it is not sufficient to only oppose euthanasia, but one must also be concerned about and address those factors that give rise to euthanasia and find ever better ways to care for the dying and ensure the dying the opportunity to forgo treatment and to live their lives fully while dying.
As such, appeals to the consistent life ethic have been made in support of universal health care.
The consistent life ethic has been invoked to include care for immigrants and refugees. While not directly appealing to the consistent life ethic, other Catholics have sought to apply the "pro-life" ethic to the issue of immigration.
One criticism made of the consistent life ethic position is that it inadvertently helped provide "cover" or support for politicians who supported legalized abortion or wanted to minimize this issue, a circumstance that Bernardin himself both recognized and deplored. A critic of Joseph Bernardin, George Weigel rejected the claims that the consistent life ethic had been created to cover up for abortion rights, saying that Bernardin was "a committed pro-lifer".