The Consistent Life Movement’s Inconsistent Commitment to Life

By | February 26, 2014

The consistent life ethic is rooted in the notion that all people have a right to life and deserve protection from direct and indirect threats to their lives, whether from poverty, euthanasia, the death penalty, or abortion. It binds together a commitment to being pro-life and pro-social justice.

It is attacked by some pro-life advocates for diluting the strength of the pro-life cause, transferring energy away from anti-abortion activism. These and other critics question linking social justice with being pro-life, particularly if their free market enthusiasm leads them to reject the idea that people have a right to food, water, healthcare, and other necessities.

Yet even without the support of these critics, one would think that this ethic would have a deep and broad following. A belief in the fundamental dignity and worth of every person combined with support for policies to protect the lives and promote the flourishing of all should have a powerful appeal. But it does not.

The consistent life ethic as I describe it above is essentially my own worldview, yet I prefer the term “Whole Life” to identifying myself with the consistent life movement. I support universal healthcare, a living wage, unemployment insurance, and food stamps. I oppose abortion, the death penalty, and euthanasia. Why do I reject the consistent life label?

Over and over again, despite personal assurances to me by many in the movement that I need not be a pacifist to be a part of their cause, the consistent life movement has alienated and excluded proponents of just war theory and the Responsibility to Protect. As someone who believes that terrorists should not be free to operate with impunity, that governments should not be able to commit mass atrocities without fear of outside intervention, and that international aggression may justify the use of force, I have no place in the core consistent life movement.

At a fundamental level, I would argue that the movement ironically has an inconsistent commitment to life: that its anti-military, anti-interventionist foreign policy preferences are neither pro-life nor pro-peace.

For those pacifists who believe that nonviolence, regardless of its outcomes, is the only ethical approach to life—that anything else would violate their consciences—I have deep respect. But for those that argue that the use of force always results in more death and destruction, my reply is that they are absolutely, unequivocally incorrect in those assumptions and claims.

So while they may be consistent in their personal lives with respect to the right to life and a lived life that respects human dignity, the public policy positions they support offer an inadequate and inconsistent commitment to life.

Can you really be pro-life and have opposed the use of force to halt Hitler’s aggression and end the Holocaust? Do you have a consistent commitment to life if you think intervening to halt the Rwandan genocide would have been a mistake? Would it have been more ethical to have allowed Slobodan Milosevic to carry out ethnic cleansing in Kosovo without any outside intervention?  If you believe that all lives deserve protection and are familiar with the circumstances surrounding these crimes against humanity, these cannot be your positions.

And if you are committed to these values, it is difficult to see how you could view the response of Western democracies to the Syrian civil war as adequate or excessively interventionist. However, since calls for intervention began after the Houla massacre and more frequently when the U.S. considered action after Assad’s most egregious use of chemical weapons, proponents of the consistent life ethic have opposed any and all military actions designed to halt the killing or degrade Assad’s capacity to engage in mass murder.

Now that the death toll is over 140,000 (at an absolute minimum), the argument that any form of intervention to strengthen the moderate rebels, establish humanitarian corridors, limit Assad’s air power, or anything else that might protect the innocent would necessarily have been disproportionate and counterproductive is simply farcical. It can only rest on a fundamentalist commitment to pacifism or just war pacifism, in which just war theory is supposedly applied but inevitably falls short.

Is it really pro-life to do nothing while thousands are slaughtered each month, while barrel bombs shred innocent bodies in Aleppo? Are we really committed to life if our plan to protect it relies on a man—who has set children on fire to maintain his power—to turn around and willingly give that power up at a negotiation table as he’s gaining ground on the battlefield? At a minimum, if one believes in the worth of all, is it too much to say firmly and clearly: the mass murderer Bashar al-Assad must go?

The truth is that certain signs point to ideology invading the consistent life ethic, distorting its coherence and consistency. For years, proponents of the consistent life ethic have railed against waterboarding of three high-level al-Qaeda terrorists. Yet Assad has systematically tortured and killed 11,000 detainees. Consistent life supporters have nobly fought for healthcare for all in the U.S. and against cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to ensure food security. Yet Assad is engaged in a deliberate strategy of starvation and the denial of essential medical supplies, even killing (through sniper attacks) mothers who are trying to find food for their children.

But the response from the consistent life community has been muted. There is no call to action. Some even blame the U.S. for providing minimal support to the moderate rebels. Why? Because highlighting Assad’s evil actions would strengthen the case for intervention, something they oppose out of an ideological opposition to the use of force by the U.S. military.

There are those who, on prudential grounds, legitimately oppose arming the moderate rebels, creating humanitarian corridors, and the other forms of intervention that have been proposed thus far. But they are not unwilling to admit that the status quo is entirely unacceptable and that other avenues for intervention should be explored. They are not downplaying or ignoring Assad’s crimes against humanity or expecting him to willingly relinquish his power while succeeding on the battlefield. Their opposition is not rooted in an ideological certainty that any form of intervention is inevitably doomed to failure.

Just as proponents of these proposals acknowledge the potential costs, risks, and uncertainties of the proposals they favor at the present moment, those who oppose these measures on prudential grounds acknowledge the potential positive impact that certain measures could have. They simply disagree in their overall assessment of whether or not these proposals are likely to protect more lives and advance the common good by creating more just, secure, and peaceful conditions in Syria (and the region). What is present in both cases—and far too uncommon in the consistent life movement—is a willingness to seriously engage in the complex moral calculations that are involved in attempting to protect people from mass atrocities.

If the consistent life movement wants to gain ground, it must welcome those of us who believe in the worth and dignity of all and also believe in just war theory and the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. Otherwise it will remain a small movement dominated by anti-war, anti-U.S. foreign policy activists railing against imperialism while ignoring mass atrocities overseas. In other words, it will remain inconsistently committed to life.

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  • Andrew

    Mr. Christian, I think your piece makes one very important point- that many in the “pro-life” movement confuse a number of things together. One does not need to be absolutely opposed to the death penalty or war in order to be consistent with their absolute opposition to abortion. That said, I don’t see how a US attack on Syria would be “pro-life” in any sense, and that the answers to your historical hypotheticals are far from the obvious “YES, we should have gone to war” that you seem to imply they are.
    I live in the United States. We have lots of problems, including the slaughter of millions of people through state sponsored killings in the form of abortion. It’s difficult to see how an invasion by a foreign power would make things better, so I’m hesitant to propose that as a solution for other country’s problems either.

  • Thaddeus J. Kozinski

    It’s incredible that Catholics still believe the media about events like Syria. We’re not the good guys, to say the least. Research false-flag terrorism. It’s an open secret.

    Read http://www.globalresearch.ca/syria-nato-s-next-humanitarian-war/29234

  • Thaddeus J. Kozinski

    “The Insidious Role of the Western media

    The role of the US-NATO-Israel military alliance in triggering an armed insurrection is not addressed by the Western media. Moreover, several “progressive voices” have accepted the “NATO consensus” at face value. The role of CIA-MI6 covert intelligence operations in support of armed groups is simply not mentioned. Salafist paramilitary groups involved in terrorist acts, are, according to reports, supported covertly by Israeli intelligence (Mossad). The Muslim Brotherhood has been supported by Turkey, as well as by MI6, Britain’s Secret Service (SIS) since the 1950s

    More generally, the Western media has misled public opinion on the nature of the Arab protest movement by failing to address the support provided by the US State Department as well as US foundations (including the National Endowment for Democracy (NED)) to selected pro-US opposition groups.

    Known and documented, the U.S. State Department “has been been funding opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad, since 2006. (U.S. admits funding Syrian opposition – World – CBC NewsApril 18, 2011).

    The protest movement in Syria was upheld by the media as part of the “Arab Spring”, presented to public opinion as a pro-democracy protest movement which spread spontaneously from Egypt and the Maghreb to the Mashriq. There is reason to believe, however, that events in Syria, however, were planned well in advance in coordination with the process of regime change in other Arab countries including Egypt and Tunisia.

    The outbreak of the protest movement in the southern border city of Daraa was carefully timed to follow the events in Tunisia and Egypt.

    In chorus they have described recent events in Syria as a “peaceful protest movement” directed against the government of Bashar Al Assad, when the evidence amply confirms that Islamic paramilitary groups are involved in terrorist acts. These same Islamic groups have infiltrated the protest rallies.

    Western media distortions abound. Large “pro-government” rallies (including photographs) are casually presented as “evidence” of a mass anti-government protest movement. The reports on casualties are based on unconfirmed “eye-witness reports” or on Syrian opposition sources in exile. The London based Syria Observatory for Human Rights are profusely quoted by the Western media as a “reliable source” with the usual disclaimers. Israeli news sources, while avoiding the issue of an armed insurgency, tacitly acknowledge that Syrian forces are being confronted by an organized professional paramilitary.

    The absence of verifiable data, has not prevented the Western media from putting forth “authoritative figures” on the number of casualties. What are the sources of this data? Who is responsible for the casualties?”

  • Richard DB

    Pacifist views of WWii start with the treaty from WWi. For more on how this works, read Joan Baez article in Colman McCarthy’s book Teaching Peace. ex 2 the USofA supported Hussein before NOT supporting him. ex3 the USofA supported Bin Laden before NOT supporting him. Get the cycle? ex4 To properly address the situation in Rwanda, get back to colonial Belgium! Peace based on justice thru nonviolence – over decades…centuries…! YES – intervene – but thru nonviolent organizing along the lines of Gandhi, the Rev. Dr. MLK, Jr. and Jesus with His “turn the other cheek” “walk the 2nd mile” and “give him your cloak as well” – AS INTERPRETED BY WALTER WINK!

  • Thomas

    The author doesn’t even attempt to make the argument that intervention in Syria meets the criteria for Just War.

    Furthermore the historical inaccuracies are myriad. We didn’t get involved in WWII to prevent genocide. We were happy to sit on the sidelines until we were attacked at pearl harbor. Any intervention in Rwanda was minimal.

    The fact that horrible things are happening around the world does not mean that using our military to intervene will improve the situation.

  • Faithr

    I believe in helping the poor too, but I am nervous about doing it through expansion of the government, especially an abortion-minded, aggressively secular government. I think I can be whole life without buying into a particular political approach to solving specific problems. Also, I have three problems with the idea that military intervention is part of a consistent life ethic: 1) where does it stop? Evil is happening all over the globe. How do we determine who to intervene for? 2) We have limited resources – should we drive our own state into the ground to help others. Should our own sons and daughters die or be maimed to help others? 3) We have poor intelligence often – things are presented in an untrustworthy way – so that we think we are doing good but really we are helping the bad guys. Or all sides are bad guys! So while I do not think all military intervention is wrong per se, I do think we need to be extremely cautious about getting involved. You can’t spread democracy by violence. It needs to arise naturally from the people of a nation who clamor for it. So my first preference is using channels such as education, voluntary aid through organizations other than governments, etc. I am very sorry for those innocent people who are hurt by the evil men in their countries. I want to help but that does not mean I want to give up the lives of my own sons and daughters for them. And the truth is, nations need to sort these things out for themselves. That is in fact the only way things will truly sort themselves out.

  • john the lesser

    moral superiority by humanitarian bombing

  • http://blog.billsamuel.net/ BillSamuel

    Violence breeds more violence. You can not be pro-life and pro-war. The author needs to examine his assumptions, as he seems just to be taking pro-war propaganda and assuming it must all be true.

    Look, for example, at the Holocaust. It is where nations engaged in massive civilian resistance against genocide of the Jews where there was most success. In at least two predominantly Orthodox countries which were occupied by the Nazis, the number of Jews increased during the period of occupation. And in Denmark and Norway, also occupied, most Jews were saved. And, of course, the Allies were also largely anti-Semitic and did not enter the war to save Jews, and they mostly resisted efforts – often led by pacifists – to accept Jewish refugees from Nazism.

    War has a long history of failure. It causes massive loss of life, massive hunger and poverty, and massive environmental destruction. And each war carries the seed of future wars (remember that we fought the War to End All Wars almost a century ago, and look at the history since).

    Just War Theory is only a theory. It is not practiced by nations. Instead they use the cover for war given by it to justify their wars, even though they don’t meet JWT criteria. All nations and groupings which go to war say their wars are just. The doctrine is pernicious in its actual effects. Note that recent popes don’t reference it, and instead oppose all war.

    We must firmly reject the pernicious idea that violence is redemptive. It can not be. We must overcome evil with good.

    To argue that you must be for mass slaughter to be pro-life is truly Orwellian. And you can’t be “whole life” and argue for war.

  • http://www.rachelmacnair.com Rachel MacNair

    Robert Christian makes an argument against the peace movement – that’s healthy debate in a democracy. But is there a good reason to pick on the pro-lifers in the peace movement, as opposed to the peace movement as a whole? Does he really want to criticize us for reaching out with the pro-life message to other peace movement people in terms we all understand? Peace activists will not be reached by him, but only by other peace activists, calling them to be consistent.

    The criticism that the consistent life ethic weakens the pro-life movement with other issues is counter to my experience. In addition to being able to reach
    people who are otherwise disinclined to hear the message, the issues we select
    place abortion as an issue of violence, where it belongs. Many’s the time I’ve
    seen my fellow pro-lifers weaken the cause with arguments about sexual or religious or family issues – not that such issues aren’t important, but putting abortion in those contexts makes a much weaker argument against it than placing it in the category of issues of violence. My experience is that this makes for much better and more persuasive dialog.

    And of course Robert Christian is quite right that Assad is a brutal dictator, his continuance in office is an outrage, and action must be taken. Stephen Zunes has expertise in this area; he co-edited a book on the consistent life ethic, and he comments well on Syria here:

    http://www.opendemocracy.net/civilresistance/stephen-zunes/opposition-to-intervention-in-syria-utilitarian-not-ideological

  • Ita Scripta Est

    If Assad falls the Christian population will get slaughtered as it did in Iraq.

  • Thomas Storck

    Maybe the term “pro-life,” though chosen as an handy political slogan, doesn’t really contribute much to clarity of thought. Abortion is wrong because it is the injustice of taking innocent life; similarly with unjust wars. Not all taking of human life is always unjust. I prefer the term “right to life,” because it is more accurate and focuses on the fact that innocent unborn babies do indeed have a right to life, whereas the term “pro-life” is vague – what kind of life, whose life, etc., etc.?

  • AV

    As someone who identifies with the consistent life ethic (a bit less fiscally liberal than you, but not much and agree on everything else), I’m sympathetic to this argument. But, in the case of Syria, I have to ask – what is the reasonable course of action? We go in and destroy Assad’s army? We essentially did that with Qaddafi in Libya, and since then, the country has become lawless. Stay longer to ensure democracy? We did that in Iraq, and again, that hasn’t turned out too well either. I certainly understand what you’re saying, but if you don’t have a material plan to make things better, then all you’re doing is putting American lives at risk (which I don’t value more or less highly than foreign lives, but it’s more lives on the line than otherwise).

  • Aloysia Moss

    For some time I have wondered if perhaps the list of necessaries for the Just War to exist have been crafted to allow humans to see that no war can ever be just . We just don’t care to see the true reality of the theory . We are deliberately blind .

  • You funny

    Who would the author have us kill to save lives?

  • RudyM

    The author is just re-stating the Augustinian doctrine of ‘protection of the innocent’ formulated as guidance to the ruler of a new Christian nation which was struggling for survival. This doctrine also tries to reconcile the Gospel message with the obligation to confront evil in all its forms. killing must not be sought directly but only as the result of carrying out a morally defensible act, e.g., a police officer shooting a person in self-defense and/or to protect another from being killed. This is the same principle used to permit therapeutic abortion to save the life of the mother.

  • briansaintpaul

    A big problem about Syria are the narratives.

    For the US and British we have Assad, war criminal who deserves justice at our hands.

    Russia; a view of a beleaguered ally who will protect tens of thousands of Russians, married to and living with their Syrian families.

    Iran is out to stop Al-Qaeda, which it sees as the real opposition to Assad. Russia is also down with this.

    Let me say, though I think it is necessary, state violence is a nasty business.

    When there is a need for the rough types we have Seals and Delta Force (among others), the French have the Foreign Legion and Saudi Arabia has… well, it is a little hard to describe.

    Suffice to say that when a colored revolution was starting up in Syria, the hard cases who were immediately introduced against the Syrian state were those guys.

    Are they Al-Qaeda or Al-Qaeda lite? Does it matter? They are there when Saudi Royals whistle.

    And what do we hear in our media?

    Oh golly, if we had only gotten in first there would be some kind of an imperfect western friendly army created.

    One that would have a base of many groups; Druze, Latin Rite, Orthodox, Shia, Sunni and Alawite.

    One that would be open to America.

    Oh wait, that would have been Assad. (And yes, we used the offer of his grim services just after 9/11.)

    But don’t lets short change the current US clandestine effort, we supply, we transport, we train and we are in it up to our elbows in blood.

    The un-pretty truth is that Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is a narcissistic rational to justify ill considered foreign policy impulses.

    It is an adolescent and lawless movement. R2P picks enemies on a whim. Saudi Arabia, Good. Syria, Bad.

    Go ahead, choose between those two countries before the war.

    Saudis had their big royal thumbs on the Scale of Evil.

    But where are the Social Network savvy, trained and smart phone equipped revolutionaries in Riyadh?

    Not too convenient so not too found.

    R2P’s are changeling Neo Cons stalking through the halls of American Power.

    R2P is a lie. And murder and starvation and blood fill the land.

  • http://blog.billsamuel.net/ BillSamuel

    I don’t understand how a “right to life” would lead to taking human life. That seems rather an Orwellian conception. War is Peace in the world of Orwell and in the society in which we live. You seem to be saying that some people have a right to life, but others don’t. This is the argument of the “pro-choice” movement, advocates of genocide, the U.S. government (and most governments), the utilitarians, etc., but it does not seem to me to be ethical or Christian.

  • http://blog.billsamuel.net/ BillSamuel

    I understand the author intends to attend the Philadelphia Life/Peace/Justice Conference, a consistent life ethic conference. I hope he will come ready for true dialogue with those of us who take a position of nonviolence like that of Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., and not just parrot the pro-war ideology.

  • Thomas Storck

    I think you misunderstood me. I only meant that the term “right to life” highlights the fact that innocent persons, whether born or unborn, have a right to life based on their human dignity as made in the image of God. To the extent that, say, capital punishment is justified, certain persons by their guilty acts have lost that right to life. But the term “pro-life” obscures the issue by professing to be for any and all life.

  • http://blog.billsamuel.net/ BillSamuel

    They both use the same term “life” and neither qualifies it, so I do not understand the distinction. All persons are made in the image of God, and therefore have the right to life, although none of us are completely innocent. It is not the right of humans to judge whether a life is worthy of protection, like pro-choicers and pro-war people think. And note that in war, which was what the author was trying to justify, usually the majority of victims are “collateral damage” not combatants of the other side.

  • Thaddeus J. Kozinski

    That’s the plan, it seems, of the satanist globalists who are orchestrating all this. Get as many Christians killed as possible, and get brainwashed Catholic Americans unwittingly to get behind the policy that leads to it.

  • Peter

    You have obviously never participated in a war. Having done so myself I can assure you that Jesus would never approve of fighting in a war. We come from a heroic tradition of martyrs actually. It all went down hill when Christianity embraced power and the lie of there being a ‘just war’.

  • Peter

    A CatholicChristian perspective on war (in brief).
    * Start with ‘If you want peace then work for justice’ (Pope Paul VI). I.E. do all you can to prevent war and the circumstances that lead to war like poverty and injustice.
    * Then if all else fails be prepared to die a martyr (for your faith, since it states – ‘If someone strikes you on the one cheek then turn the other’, and ‘love your enemies and do good to those who hate you’).
    * We as a Church have achieved far more through the blood of our martyrs than we have through the blood of our enemies.
    * Ultimately, trust in God. If you do the right thing His grace will prevail.
    * I realize that this is radical, but then this is our faith.

  • Peter

    It’s hard being truly (consistently) pro-life if you are invested in your country, or even in your own security. Jesus touched on this (see Luke below). Because these ‘things’ will impact your decisions and overrule your faith in tough situations like when facing violence.
    Luke 14:26. New International Version (NIV)
    “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”
    Non-violence will not make sense to you unless your faith in God is the most important thing your life. Faith as in being prepared to die for your faith. Nothing in the Gospels justifies killing someone. Nothing.
    1 Corinthians 1:23. New International Version (NIV)
    “ but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles”

  • RoamingCatholic

    Do you mean to suggest that people may, in committing certain acts, erase their own human dignity as made in the image of God?
    I would assume that implication was not intended, but it is disturbingly present in the above statement.

  • Thomas Storck

    “Do you mean to suggest that people may, in committing certain acts, erase their own human dignity as made in the image of God?”
    No.
    My only point in the above posts was that the term “right to life” is better than “pro-life” because the former focuses on the fact that an innocent person, because of his innocence, possesses an unequivocal right not to be deliberately killed by another person, whereas the term “pro-life” is unfocused and unclear, which is part of the reason we have these debates about whether one can support capital punishment and be pro-life, or support certain wars, etc. I am not taking a position here on any of these latter points. I am just suggesting that our thinking and our discourse would be more clear if we used terms that were more focused and less ambiguous.

  • Larry

    Mr. Christian’s attempt to justify the use of war or a more limited violent intervention to save lives ignores some very important facts. Consider these facts: in WWI there were 116,516 US military deaths and 36,372,900 civilian deaths. In WWII there were 405,399 US military deaths and 36,372,900 civilian deaths. In the Korean War there were 54,246 US military deaths and 1,847,240 civilian deaths. In Viet Nam there were 58,177 US military deaths, including three friends of mind that I fought with in Viet Nam.. (I have long since come to my senses and joined the Consistent Life movement). In Viet Nam there were 2,000,000 civilian deaths. In the Iraq War, as of 2010, there have been 4,254 US military deaths and 1,366,350 civilian deaths. In Afghanistan, as of 2010, there have been 1,306 US military deaths and 32,969 Afghan civilian deaths.( Statistical Data is available on request at vfp@veteransforpeace.org)
    I have a question for Mr. Christian. Since many more civilians have been killed by war than US military personnel, how can war any war be just, moral, or ethical?