Guest post By Joseph Grossheim
The original pro-life position was a reaction against the Roe v. Wade decision. Roe v. Wade claims that procuring an abortion cannot be prohibited by law, the pro-life position in its purest form upholds that no abortion can be procured without qualification. But in recent years, some have argued for an apparent logical development of the original pro-life position called the “seamless garment approach,” or sometimes the “pro-life and whole-life” position. The seamless garment approach argues that to be consistently pro-life requires that we defend all life in all places and conditions. This is often accompanied with a criticism that the original pro-life position is merely to be “pro-birth” and not really “pro-life.”
However, this is not true.
Here we will show that one can hold the original pro-life position without adopting any or all of the seamless garment approach and without any inconsistency. To put this in more technical terms, we will show that (1) the seamless garment position does not follow logically from the original pro-life position, and that (2) the seamless garment approach makes use of additional and debatable premises that are not already implicated in the original pro-life position.
The logic of the original pro-life position can be put concisely as: (a) All murder is evil. (b) All intentional taking of innocent human life is murder. (c) All unborn children are innocent human lives. (d) All abortion is intentionally taking the life of an unborn child.
Therefore, all abortion is evil.
To be consistent, therefore, the original pro-life position must also stand opposed to all kinds of murder, that is, all intentional taking of innocent human life, and not oppose abortion only. This is because the conclusion that “All abortion is evil” rests upon the prior premise that “All murder is evil.” Examples of this practically applied would include opposition to abortifacient drugs, euthanasia, as well as in-vitro fertilization and stem cell research programs that destroy fertilized human ova.
The seamless garment approach emerges from the original pro-life position through an implicit premise in (a), namely that “All innocent human life is good.”
Indeed, “All innocent human life is good” is the very reason that all pro-life advocates affirm that “All murder is evil,” and consequently, that “All abortion is evil.” It is because all innocent human life is per se good that the destruction of all innocent human life is per se evil.
From here, the seamless garment approach aims to safeguard innocent human life against causes that destroy it, and there are two kinds of these causes we must distinguish.
The first kind are those causes that directly destroy human life and for which there are public advocates. The primary examples of these are given above, namely, euthanasia, in-vitro fertilization, etc. These concerns are entirely consistent with and follow directly from the original pro-life position, such that every advocate for the original pro-life position must oppose these evils to be consistent, as we have already said above.
The second kind are those causes that indirectly destroy human life. By indirectly, we mean those difficult circumstances that might appear to be alleviated by destroying a human life. Poverty, for example, is such a circumstance that can be exacerbated by having a child, and so killing the child, it may seem, might ease present or future financial burdens. Thus an indirect cause is here some present evil that, in its appearance, can be remedied through taking an innocent life; it brings someone who may not otherwise obtain an abortion to consider obtaining one.
We might state briefly that a further development of the seamless garment approach includes the alleviation of all forms of suffering, such that if someone is in a difficult circumstance, whether or not that person even has a child they could abort or abandon, then it falls to the pro-life advocate to assist them; this is founded on a broader premise that, not only is all innocent human life good, but that all human life is good simplicter, or even more concretely, that every individual human person is good—a very dubious claim. However, these further developments will fall apart as we show that the seamless garment approach as a whole, upon which these developments depend, does not follow from the original pro-life position.
The seamless garment approach in its purest form thus aims to reduce the impact of, or altogether eliminate, these evils that may dispose someone to consider getting an abortion. It aims to remove, as it were, “the occasion of sin.” But the original pro-life position as such is never so concerned with these indirect causes. Why?
There are two fundamentally different approaches to ethics at play here between the original position and seamless garment approach, for each has an implicit and distinct set of prior ethical principles it relies upon to conclude the right course of action against abortion. The original pro-life position coordinates to either a Natural Law theory or perhaps a deontological ethic. The seamless garment approach coordinates most closely to a consequentialist ethic.
The original pro-life position, as with any Natural Law or deontological position, is not first concerned with reducing the quantity of abortions that occur, but of forming good laws that actually reflect the true human good and, if it is a well-formed Natural Law theory, direct good citizens through these good laws to achieve their proper human good. For the original pro-life position, it is of primary interest to change the law to reflect the truth and moral order, and only of secondary interest to deal with the number of abortions. This is an over-simplification, of course, and legal change must be performed prudently, as Aquinas instructs us (ST I-II, 97.2).
On the other hand, the seamless garment approach, as with any consequentialist ethic, is first interested in the “bottom-line” number of abortions that occur, acting to ensure that the number of procured abortions is as few as possible; this approach is only interested in law insofar as it a means to that end. Thus, a change in the law that does not change the practice of abortion is, to the seamless garment approach, pointless, and a change in the law that increases the number of abortions would actually be evil, even if that change was to outlaw abortion.
This is not to say that a change in abortion laws would certainly increase the number of abortions. Nor is this to say that policies which reduce the number of abortions would certainly preclude changing abortion laws. This is a broader question that we cannot handle today.
What both sides can agree upon is that “All murder is evil,” and “All abortion is murder,” but the way in which this principle is most correctly applied in action is logically determined by the broader set of ethical principles that the pro-lifer holds implicitly.
It therefore seems to many seamless garment advocates that it is logically inconsistent to be pro-life and yet be opposed to certain programs that may reduce the number of abortions or reduce human suffering broadly speaking—and for the seamless garment approach, this is correct, but only by granting their first consequentialist principles, which are deeply flawed.
The original pro-life position will certainly take an interest in any such program designed to limit abortions and reduce human suffering, but incidentally only, that is, insofar as they might assist everyone to achieve our human good. Hence, they might oppose such programs and policies if the means those programs or policies utilize cannot be reconciled with the human good, such as if they involve implementing an unjust tax, or government invasion into the private work of families, or something similar.
The only practical action that necessarily follows with certainty from the original pro-life position is that the law ought to reflect the truth that “All murder is per se evil.” In our discussions within the pro-life community, to resolve our pro-life positional differences, we must first critically evaluate and discuss our ethical assumptions.
– Joseph Grossheim is a doctoral student of philosophy at the Center for Thomistic Studies in Houston, Texas. His research includes ethics, politics, and medieval philosophy, with a special focus on the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas.
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