There’s a national election due in Australia soon, and the options for a pro-life, pro-peace, pro-planet, pro-religious freedom, pro-refugee, pro-Aboriginal reconciliation, pro-poor, kind of Christian voter like me are extremely limited.
The conservative government has continually disappointed people like me with their draconian approach toward asylum seekers, their rejection of the Uluru Statement, their enthusiastic support for the coal industry, and their consistent cuts to foreign aid.
But the Greens continue to alienate a lot of Christians by campaigning to decriminalize abortion and prostitution in all states, to end chaplaincy in public high schools, and to threaten religious freedoms for churches not willing to provide same-sex marriages.
Then this week, the Australian Labor Party pledged to build an abortion clinic in Tasmania and to push for the decriminalization of abortion in South Australia and New South Wales. Even if a Christian could live with these pledges, hoping for a world where terminations are “safe, legal and rare”, as the saying goes, the ALP went even further. They enshrined a new policy of requiring public hospitals to provide termination services through commonwealth funding agreements.
In other words, no abortions, no commonwealth money.
What’s a voter like me to do?
Is it too much to ask for a truly pro-life political party that supports the poor and takes meaningful steps toward reconciliation with First Nations peoples, as well as battling climate change, increasing foreign aid and our refugee intake?
Can’t we acknowledge the nation’s vote for same-sex marriage as well as religious freedom for dissenters?
Why is it so hard to find any political representation that is as equally opposed to war and poverty, racism and capital punishment, as they are to euthanasia and abortion?
And in saying that, I am not looking for a party that is merely anti-abortion. A pro-life stance must include a commitment to end the cycle of poverty for women, as well as better support for parents of children with disabilities, comprehensive reproductive education, easy access to affordable contraception, better adoption policies, etc.
To go further, I’m looking for political representation with a pro-life platform that includes being pro-Aboriginal, pro-refugee, pro-Muslim, pro-the poor, pro-planet.
Back when I was young, they used to refer to this as the seamless garment of life, a phrase coined in the 1970s by Roman Catholic pacifist Eileen Egan to describe a holistic reverence for all life.
“The protection of life is a seamless garment. You can’t protect some life and not others,” Egan wrote.
She was particularly directing her words toward those Catholics who supported the pro-life movement while being in favor of capital punishment.
In 1984, the phrase got picked up by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago in what became known as his Seamless Garment doctrine, an ideology based on the premise that all human life is sacred and must be protected by law.
Here’s what Bernardin said in 1984:
“Nuclear war threatens life on a previously unimaginable scale; abortion takes life daily on a horrendous scale; public executions are fast becoming weekly events in the most advanced technological society in history; and euthanasia is now openly discussed and even advocated. Each of these assaults on life has its own meaning and morality; they cannot be collapsed into one problem, but they must be confronted as pieces of a larger pattern.”
In other words, as a seamless garment.
This approach opposes abortion, capital punishment, assisted suicide, and euthanasia, but it also opposes war, and advocates for universal health care, and support for immigrants and refugees.
It sees all life as precious and worthy of protection.
Some progressive Catholics mistakenly thought that Bernardin was saying that all issues are morally equivalent. They cited the seamless garment whenever they opposed the pro-life movement, mocking pro-lifers as having no integrity if they weren’t equally concerned about health care or poverty as they were about abortion.
Similarly, some progressives seem to think that if you oppose the death penalty you don’t need to care about the killing of unborn children.
So, a protest sign like this, that opposes racism and affirms refugees, the poor, and LGBTQIA persons, means well, but it gives the impression that terminating a pregnancy is morally equivalent to opposing Muslim immigration.
But that’s not what the Seamless Garment doctrine was saying. It enshrines the dignity and value of all human life, inviting significant concern for ending poverty and discrimination, etc., but it insists we see the protection of life as our priority.
Here’s Bernardin again:
“A consistent ethic of life does not equate the problem of taking life (e.g., through abortion and in war) with the problem of promoting human dignity (through humane programs of nutrition, health care, and housing). But a consistent ethic identifies both the protection of life and its promotion as moral questions. It argues for a continuum of life which must be sustained in the face of diverse and distinct threats.”
In other words, various moral issues are unquestioningly interrelated, but protecting life is paramount.
Old Catholic social teaching like this knits together issues involving the sanctity of life with those that promote human dignity for all. It doesn’t leave us just opposing abortion or euthanasia, as if merely defunding Planned Parenthood solves everything. It drives us to promote life through the provision of better healthcare, family planning, a living wage, free public education, and more.
No one much talks about seamless garments anymore. But we do well to develop a more consistent ethic of life (one of Bernardin’s favorite phrases) knowing that Christian teaching is a whole weave not a single thread. Focusing on single issues to the exclusion of others is unhelpful. Like yanking on a single thread, it ruins the garment.
I want to vote pro-life. I also want to vote pro-forests, pro-solar, pro-indigenous rights. I want to vote anti-war, anti-GMOs, anti-fracking, anti-racism, anti-violence against women.
But does anybody out there actually want my vote??