What is the Consistent Life Ethic?


We often hear partisan pundits criticize their opponents for the opponents' inconsistencies about killing people. We hear that pro-life advocates do not respect the sanctity of life in war zones. We hear that peace advocates are not so peaceful when it comes to unborn children. What is the answer to this inconsistency? The simple answer is being consistent. This ideological position is known as the consistent life ethic.

The foundation for this ethic is the idea of Natural Rights: the notion that our rights come from our humanity and not the whims of a government or even a majority of the people. Since we were school children, we were taught to recite the three main natural rights listed in the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It may not be a coincidence that the "right to life" is the first right mentioned. This is because all other rights depend on it. Rights to free speech, free thought, free religion, or free enterprise are all useless to those who are dead. The right to life also differs from other rights in that, if it is violated, the violation cannot be remedied. If you violate someone's right to liberty by capturing, imprisoning, or enslaving them, they can always be set free. If you violate someone's right to property by theft or arson, they can always be compensated. If you violate someone's right to life, however, by killing them, nothing can be done to restore the life you have taken. For these reasons, the human right to life is the most important and most sacred right.

In order to respect the human right to life, we must either reject or at least severely limit legalized homicide. Many people recognize this principle and apply it in different areas. The pro-life movement respects human life by opposing the legalized homicide of unborn children. The anti-war movement respects human life by opposing the legalized homicide of both people in different countries and those in the military. The anti-euthanasia movement respects human life by opposing the legalized homicide of the elderly. The anti-death penalty movement respects human life by opposing the legalized homicide of death row inmates. The consistent life ethic is a recognition of the common theme in all of these positions and all these movements.

Now, some say that the consistent life ethic is too broad, that it links issues that shouldn't be linked. For example, a common criticism by pro-lifers of the consistent life ethic position on capital punishment is that abortion kills the innocent while capital punishment kills the guilty, and thus opposing one and supporting the other is not inconsistent. There are, however, three similarities that link the four main acts of legalized homicide (abortion, unjust war, capital punishment, and euthanasia). These similarities are reason enough to unite opposition to all these forms of homicide in a single moral vision:

1. They are all threats to innocent life.

This is obvious in the case of euthanasia and abortion. We often forget, however, that the death penalty and war also kill innocent people. Since 1973, there have been 138 exonerations of death row inmates. Thanks to new DNA evidence, there have been cases where people have been discovered to be innocent after they have been executed. Because the death penalty is carried out by flawed human beings, execution of the innocent will always be a possibility. War has also killed the innocent. A blatant example of this would be the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in which children no less innocent than Anne Frank were incinerated in their sleep. We also know that there have been, to date, at least 100,000 civilian casualties from our war in Iraq, in addition to the half a million children who died as a result of the sanctions we placed on them in the 1990s. Some may argue that these innocent deaths were accidental rather than intentional and therefore are still not comparable to abortion. Nevertheless, we know for certain that starting these wars creates conditions in which innocent human life is directly threatened. While the targeting of innocents is not always intentional, the creation of situations in which innocent life is severely and directly threatened -- namely, starting a war -- is intentional.

2. These are all acts of aggressive violence.

By aggressive, I mean that they are initiations of violence rather than defensive uses of violence. Now, some would point to war in general and say that it can be used defensively. I am talking about unjust wars, however. It is one thing to repel an invading army. It is another thing altogether to attack another country that has not attacked you on the basis of a suspicion that it might attack you in the future or in order to spread democracy and respect for human rights -- despite the fact that our wars kill the very foreigners that our government claims to want to save. Preemptive wars, as well as economic sanctions that always punish a country's populace rather than its leader are acts of aggression, not defense. Others might even claim that elective abortion is an act of defense, in the sense that a child physically attached to his or her mother is committing an act of aggression if the mother does not want to continue the attachment. The problem with this argument, however, is that the child was placed into the mother's womb because of external forces and natural characteristics that are totally beyond the child's control. To say that unborn children are aggressors is like saying that kidnapping victims are guilty of breaking and entering into the places where they are being held captive. Killing another human being for a primary characteristic is aggression, not defense. The death penalty is also an act of aggression. When murderers are detained in prison, they are no longer a threat to society and thus killing them is not an act of defense but rather an act of aggression. The euthanasia of Terri Schiavo was an act of aggression; it was done to her, even though she had not requested it in her will. The bottom line is that when we give flawed human beings the power to kill non-defensively it will always be abused.

3. These acts of homicide have non-lethal alternatives.

For abortion, the alternative is adoption. For war, the alternative is diplomacy -- as well as refusing to fund dictators through foreign aid. For capital punishment, the alternative is life imprisonment. For euthanasia, the alternative is the continuation of life support. A viable alternative to an undesirable action makes said action unnecessary. Thus when we have non-lethal alternatives to lethal actions, said lethal actions are unnecessary. I would go even further and say that an unnecessary homicide is an immoral homicide.

Finally, a great reason to embrace consistency is the need for credibility. If anything has hurt pro-lifers' credibility, it is the marriage of pro-life and pro-war ideology. When we as pro-lifers try to convince people that all human life is sacred but then take a step back and say, "Well, except in the cases of war and capital punishment," our larger message is compromised and the sanctity of life suddenly becomes morally relative rather than morally absolute -- and I thought pro-lifers were against moral relativism. Peace activists also lose credibility when they fail to question whether dismembering a child in the womb is really "giving peace a chance." The fact that legalized abortion in America has killed more human beings than all of our wars combined is a glaring example of the hypocrisy of the marriage of pro-peace and pro-abortion views. Why not end the almost four-decade war on fetuses?

When we open our eyes to the consistent ethic of life, then we also see how there is quite literally a "deadly" consistency in the opposite direction. We are today a nation in which prenatal infanticide is legalized, where the death penalty is still the law, where preemptive war is acceptable foreign policy, and where legalized euthanasia is a possibility. If anything, our country is heading toward a "consistent death ethic" rather than a consistent life ethic. We need a coalition of both pro-life activists and pro-peace activists to call for a society in which the human right to live is truly affirmed. The activists involved in these issues have more in common than they think, mainly the goal of defanging the viper that is legalized homicide, and they would be far more effective if, rather than staying separate for the sake of poliical orthodoxy, they worked together in support of a consistent ethic of life.

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