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Comparing Evils and Condemning Them Both


In the 142nd episode of Life Report, a pro-life podcast hosted by Josh Brahm, Scott Klusendorf (a famous pro-life intellectual and president of the Life Training Institute) stated, "I would like to take the seamless garment and use it on my car to dust off the wax. It is a horrible, horrible way -- and I'm not saying that as my own outside-the-[Catholic]-Church position. This is what leading Catholic thinkers have said about it. It has justified the killing of millions of unborn children and needs to be gotten rid of."

Now, this is not the only time that Klusendorf has criticized the consistent life ethic. He has also stated, "The so-called consistent life ethic, though well-intentioned, has damaged the pro-life cause. Cardinal [Bernardin] set us back decades with his framing of it and, more damaging, it fails to distinguish between contingent evils and absolute ones. As a result, liberal Democrats who support absolute evils like abortion get a pass because they promise to oppose contingent ones like war."

The purpose of this response to Klusendorf is not to discourage people from listening to Josh Brahm's show. I think it's an excellent resource for pro-life news and arguments for unborn rights. I don't even want to discourage people from reading Scott Klusendorf's work on unborn rights. What I will argue against is a) that the consistent life ethic is an excuse for supporting pro-choice Democrats, b) that there is no moral similarity between different acts of legalized homicide, and c) that consistent lifers should be purged from the pro-life movement.

First, let me list my pro-life credentials, because Klusendorf often insinuates that advocates of the consistent life ethic are somehow "fake pro-lifers." I've been opposed to abortion ever since I was in third grade, when I first heard about what abortion was. In high school, I read Pro-Life Answers to Pro-Choice Arguments by Randy Alcorn, which cemented my pro-life views and even encouraged me to present the case for fetal humanity in my high school debate class. In college, I was a founding member of our campus pro-life group. As part of that group, I have participated in forms of activism such as sidewalk chalking to raise awareness about abortion, setting up a graveyard of the innocents, and raising money for pro-life pregnancy centers. I attended the March for Life, which protests Roe v. Wade, twice and have argued for unborn rights in my political science classes, which wasn't a popular thing to do on my feminist-dominated campus. On a philosophical level, I support full legal protection for the unborn, including unborn children who were conceived as the result of rape or incest. So when Klusendorf claims that I "[justify] the killing of millions of unborn children" simply by opposing both war and capital punishment and framing that opposition within the context of my pro-life beliefs, I am annoyed, to say the very least.

In the past, I've responded to David Pakman's criticism of the consistent life ethic, and it should be noted that Pakman was attacking the consistent life ethic from a Left/liberal perspective. In other words, Klusendorf is wrong in thinking that the Left/liberals automatically like what we consistent lifers have to say and see us as tools to trick pro-lifers into voting for pro-choice politicians. Now, I am responding to the conservative criticism of the consistent life ethic.

In regard to voting strategy, because few politicians hold our beliefs, consistent lifers have not really developed much of a voting strategy. For conservatives and liberals, voting is far more easy because there are a good number of politicians who hold their views. This doesn't make the consistent life ethic wrong, just politically powerless. So, I'm not going to argue voting strategy, because I admittedly don't have one. However, I will argue against Klusendorf's faulty logic, according to which if you oppose the inconsistencies of the Republicans you therefore support the inconsistencies of the Democrats. This is a non-sequitur: what the consistent life ethic supports is opposition to all forms of legalized homicide that are being advocated by the Left and Right.

For example, in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosí, they passed a personhood amendment that both prohibited abortion and abolished the death penalty. [1] By prohibiting the death penalty, Mexico did not make its prohibition of abortion void. It prohibited both. Klusendorf should be able to understand the simple meaning of both.

I will now address a more thorny philosophic issue, comparing evils. Klusendorf also makes another non-sequitur by stating that opposition to all these forms of legalized homicide means that we give all of them equal priority and equal moral weight. This is not correct, as I will show.

Let us say we lived in a world where it was legal to rape very young children. This would be a grave moral evil that people of good will should work to abolish. However, let us also say that in this world the rape of older people was illegal and that perpetrators of this illegal variety of rape were punished with a "rape penalty," in which the state rapes the rapist -- a penalty that I would hope Klusendorf is willing to concede would go beyond the moral limit of punishment. I would be perfectly willing to admit that the legalized rape of young children is worse than the "rape penalty." However, that does not mean that I could not oppose both or that I could not consider both to have some form of moral similarity and oppose both on the same grounds. For example, a common denominator of these two evils is that they both have more moral alternatives. I will get further into moral similarities between acts of homicide later, but the point is that opposing two evils based on a similar ethic is not to say that the two evils are exactly the same or of equal gravity.

Klusendorf brings up the Catholic doctrine about contingent evils vs. intrinsic evils. This is supposed to be a death blow to consistent lifers since the consistent life ethic originated out of Catholicism and many consistent lifers are Catholic. However, what Klusendorf never addresses is what are the evils of war and the death penalty contingent on? Under what circumstances has the Church stated such practices are evil? Well, an inconvenient fact that Klusendorf often overlooks is that Pope John Paul II condemned the Iraq War, as well as the very concept of preventative war, in no uncertain terms. [2] He did so not because he was a pacifist, but because he recognized that attacking countries based on suspicion and taking more lives than were lost in 9/11 violates just war tenets that state that wars have to be defensive and that the casualties have to be proportional to the crime. Pope John Paul II also condemned the death penalty in Evangelium Vitae, a document beloved by pro-life Catholics, stating:

It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent. [3]

When the Pope says that the one condition justifying the death penalty is practically non-existent in the developed world, that's a pretty good indicator that the death penalty in a developed nation such as America goes beyond the moral limits of punishment. So the consistent life ethic is not merely some opinion held by liberal dissenters. Pope John Paul II may not have held all these acts of homicide to be morally equal, but he still held all of them to be immoral. (By the way, I would like to see Klusendorf argue that Pope John Paul II "set us back decades" in the struggle for unborn rights.)

However, that's Catholic theology. I happen to be a Protestant. Is there a non-denominational rationale for the consistent life ethic? In my essay in the first issue of Life Matters Journal, "What is The Consistent Life Ethic?", I explain in more thorough detail the areas of similarity between four forms of legalized homicide: abortion, war, capital punishment, and euthanasia. I'll be briefer here and discuss how these similarities apply to the forms of legalized homicide that conservatives favor, war and capital punishment.

The first similarity is that in most circumstances they are non-defensive. An example of a non-defensive war would again be the Iraq War, in which, on the basis of suspicion, we attacked a country that had not attacked us. It is one thing to repel an invasion. It is another thing altogether to bomb and invade a country based on what we think they will do in the future. (As if we have not learned from our mistakes, the same arguments are currently being used for bombing Iran.) Suspicion is not defense. While there are some cases where responding with force is legitimately defensive, there are also some cases where abortion is defensive (to save the life of the mother being the only case I would accept). That does not mean one has a default support for such homicide. The death penalty is also not defensive. An imprisoned criminal is detained perfectly well and is hardly a threat to society any longer.

The second similarity is that there are non-homicidal alternatives. For war there is diplomacy, such as Ronald Reagan's diplomatic efforts with a far more dangerous nuclear power than Iran, the Soviet Union. There is also a non-homicidal alternative to the death penalty as well: life imprisonment is a harsh punishment that guarantees the criminal cannot harm society again.

Finally, both of these forms of homicide threaten innocent life. Let's say that Jack attacks Phil. Phil repels him, and Jack runs into a crowd of people. Is Phil justified in spraying the crowd with a machine gun in order to kill Jack, the aggressor? Is he justified in bombing the general area of the crowd, hoping not to hit anyone but Jack? The answer is no, and that answer should apply to one human being such as Phil or a bunch of human beings such as Phil that happen to call themselves "the state." If any country ever launched an invasion of the United States and caused the deaths of innocent civilians, even accidentally, we would not accept it as a morally neutral act. It should also be noted that war has also killed the unborn, causing pregnant women to miscarry and causing severe fetal deformities in the aftermath of Hiroshima. The death penalty has also threatened the innocent -- since 1973, there have been over 130 exonerations of people on death row -- and as long as it is applied by flawed human judges it will continue to threaten the innocent. [4] Again, this doesn't make all these acts of homicide ethically the same as abortion but it does give the different legal forms of homicide enough similarity to oppose them on the same ethical grounds.

Turning to my last point, Klusendorf is making an idiotic move in expelling consistent lifers from the pro-life movement. By arguing that in order to be pro-life you must not oppose other forms of legalized homicide, he narrows the movement -- especially by making support for an unpopular war a requirement for being in the movement. While I disagree with Klusendorf, I have never called for him to be expelled from the pro-life movement. I am even willing to cite Randy Alcorn as an intellectual influence of mine, even though he is not a consistent lifer. Either way, I've been concerned for unborn rights nearly all my life and I refused to be excommunicated from my own movement. The same goes for other consistent lifers.


[1] Ertelt, Steven, "Mexico Supreme Court Upholds Second State Abortion Ban Law,”

[2] Associated Press, “Vatican Strongly Opposes Iraq War.”,2933,80875,00.html

[3] Pope John Paul II, “Evangelium Vitae.”

[4] Death Penalty Information Center, “Facts about the Death Penalty.”


Disclaimer: The views presented in the Rehumanize Blog do not necessarily represent the views of all members, contributors, or donors. We exist to present a forum for discussion within the Consistent Life Ethic, to promote discourse and present an opportunity for peer review and dialogue.

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