The Consistent Life Movement’s Inconsistent Commitment to Life

By Robert Christian
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.