top of page

The Consistent Life Ethic: A Historical View

by Sean Wild

The street is lined with people. Each end of the sidewalk is filled with protestors and counter-protestors. The issue at hand is one that each side feels passionate about. Tensions are high. Not only does pavement keep these two sides apart, but ideological differences detach and separate them from one another: sometimes one side is even unable to perceive what the other is saying over all the shouting and slogans.

This scene has been acted out again and again throughout modern history over a wide array of issues. We see it in the battle over abortion. We see it when a death row inmate is set to be executed. We see it when it looks like America might be on the brink of another war.

When one of these issues hits the news cycle, it can often be guessed what stance each side of the political spectrum will take: “This is the left-wing position…That is the right-wing position…” An unfortunate aspect of today’s political climate is that it insists on a restricted set of opinions one can hold. Either you’re in camp A and believe all of this, or you are in camp B and believe all of that.

Despite the ever-more-polarizing political culture of our present day, however, there have been those who have found their way outside the views of whichever political party they might affiliate with. The consistent life ethic is a viewpoint that transcends the usual partisan categories.

The consistent life ethic attempts to understand and connect a variety of issues under the principle that all human life is precious. In short, it is a way of looking in a consistent manner at issues concerning life. While a more formalized version of the consistent life ethic has only really made the rounds within the last 50 years or so, the ethic’s framework and respect for the sanctity of life has been guiding the lives, politics, and activism of folks throughout history.

An early iteration of what today we would call the consistent life ethic was known as the “seamless garment.” The term was coined in 1971 by Catholic activist Eileen Egan and is a reference to the Christian New Testament. At the crucifixion of Jesus, guards divided up all Jesus’ clothes except for his tunic, which they were unable to tear into fragments as it was made from one seamless piece of cloth (see the Gospel of John 19:23). Egan used this imagery to show that certain issues concerning the dignity of human life could not be separated from one another but must be understood in tandem. “The protection of life is a seamless garment,” wrote Egan in 1971, “You can’t protect some life and not others.”

The consistent life ethic, both the term and idea, gained more widespread attention in the 1980s thanks to numerous speeches given by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, a Catholic cardinal and archbishop of Chicago, who became a prominent figure in the American Catholic Church during that time period. These addresses as well as a symposium on topics concerning life were eventually compiled in 1988 into a book called Consistent Ethic of Life. In an address given in 1983 at Fordham University in New York, Cardinal Berdardin stated quite directly, “Precisely because life is sacred, the taking of even one human life is a momentous event.”

Even though the consistent life ethic framework did not take form until the 1970s and ‘80s, many before that time had connected different issues concerning the inherent dignity of the human person and worked to shape the society we live in to reflect those values.

Along with the consistent life ethic taking a more cohesive structure, the term “pro-life” did not come into fashion until the ‘70s and ‘80s as well. However, many in the early women’s suffrage movement would be considered pro-life by today’s standards.

On the early suffragette movement, Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List organization, wrote: “Many of today’s feminists see abortion as one of the touchstones of their movement. Yet many of the early leaders of the women’s suffrage movement in the U.S. believed that the rights of mother and child are inextricably linked and that the right to life and the right to vote are rooted in the inherent dignity of each human person.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a pioneer of the early women’s suffrage movement, wrote, “When we consider that women are treated as property, it is degrading to women that we should treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit.” Another early feminist and drafter of the original Equal Rights Amendment, Alice Paul, called abortion “the ultimate exploitation of women.”

Like the era of the First Wave Feminist movement in the mid-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the late 1960s was also a time of great change in American history. A cultural shift started to emerge. Questions of gender, sexuality, and women’s role in society became more commonly discussed; the fight for racial justice made headway into the consciousness of mainstream America; advocates for disability rights were working to make their voices and concerns heard; and many began to question the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War.

At this time, Roe vs. Wade had not brought the abortion debate onto the national stage, so the issue was largely discussed at the state level. With women’s liberation being a central topic of the era, the role of abortion was hotly debated. Though people today may associate the 1960s feminist movement with the pro-choice side, there were actually progressives on both sides of the debate. In fact, it was not until the mid-1970s and into the 1980s, when conservative evangelicals became more interested and involved in the issue, that being pro-life (or right-to-life, as it was known at the time) became associated mainly with right-wing politics.

In an article on the history of the early pro-life movement, NPR stated, “In the decades before the (Roe v. Wade) decision, opposition to abortion was a fairly bipartisan issue.” Daniel Williams, author of the book Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade, similarly found that “the pre-Roe anti-abortion movement was filled with liberal Democrats who had supported the federal anti-poverty initiatives associated with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s and President Lyndon Johnson’s social programs in the 1960s. They wanted to couple abortion restrictions with additional efforts to fight poverty and expand government-funded health care.”