The Consistent Life Ethic

In the papal encyclical Evangelium Vitae Pope John Paul II forcefully condemned “‘[w]hatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons….”[1] He also discussed the position of the Church on capital punishment, saying that “the principle set forth in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church remains valid: ‘If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person’.”

These words reflect what is called the Consistent Life Ethic (CLE), an intrinsic part of Catholic Social Teaching, and, thus, an essential position of any Christian democratic movement worthy of the name. It is the ethical, religious, social, and political view that all human life is sacred, that the right of each human person to life is primary, and that protecting that right should be the foremost objective of any government or society.

This view is neither right wing nor left wing, and therefore finds opposition from both. It is based on the natural law, and is contrary to common political and social perspectives grounded in Utilitarianism. Criticism from both the left and the right is, therefore, to be expected.

Joseph Sobran smells a rat in CLE. For him, it is nothing more than a cover for liberal politicians to support abortion while voicing their personal disapproval. [2] He ignores the fact that any self-respecting adherent of CLE would find any support of abortion, including legislative support, abhorrent. He attacks CLE by focusing on politicians who don’t believe in it.

Jacob Appel, on the other hand, sees a critical liberty interest in terminating one’s own life, or a life that is the subject of an unwanted pregnancy. [3] For him, prohibiting such activity is tantamount to a return of the Inquisition. He does not see that human lives have significance beyond the individuals who have them, and that abortion isn’t defensible even from the standpoint of the Utilitarian paradigm.

Both conservatives and liberals see in CLE a subterfuge by their chief opponents. But it comes from a perspective that renounces many of the premises that both of them have. For this reason CLE has, and will continue to have, a hard time being understood in the arena of contemporary American political controversy. Proponents of CLE should not anticipate ready acceptance by either side.

The partisans of life are shocked to confront so much opposition, the tenets of CLE seeming to be so self-evident. Even party loyalties should be trumped by considerations so basic. But the tribalism of our political culture is inimical to clear thinking as well as human life. Thus we will continue with our abortions, executions, and civilian casualties, as each side in the political divide presents its list of those it should be lawful to kill. Meanwhile, the proponents of CLE will be a voice calling from the political wilderness, imploring our culture to value, at long last, life as the supreme human right.

David Frost

David Frost is the Founder of the American Solidarity Party