The Consistent Life Ethic in U.S. Catholic Discourse: Planned Parenthood, Abortion, and #BlackLivesMatter

In high school, I was the President of the Pro-Life Club for a year. It seemed like a completely natural fit for me—being in a leadership role on such a divisive political and moral issue appealed to both my conscience and my ego. Ending abortion in the name of upholding the dignity and worth of all human lives is a central teaching of Catholic ethics. I was taught that no matter what, all lives are created and needed here on Earth, and every effort should be made to preserve them, otherwise known as the consistent life ethic. This logically entailed that, as someone who could speak on behalf of my own dignity and who could recognize the injustice of a system that values some lives over others, that I had the responsibility to do so.

The recent Planned Parenthood videos allegedly showing the haggling over aborted fetus parts has reignited the pro-life/pro-choice divide in an increasingly explosive and polarized way. U.S. Catholics have been among the leading voices condemning the actions, both of abortion in and of itself and the alleged selling of fetus parts. While many sources contend that the footage has been heavily edited, many religious leaders and political figures have used this issue as a springboard to reinvigorate efforts to limit access to abortion, utilizing the same consistent life ethic rhetoric that all lives matter, including fetuses. However, the Catholic Church has been largely silent regarding the analogous #BlackLivesMatter movement, which is also vying for political attention and action. Addressing one issue and not the other speaks to a shameful inconsistency within the pro-life ethical framework. If the Church truly wishes to call itself pro-life, Catholics must come out in support of #BlackLivesMatter.

If all life is precious, then it stands to reason that all aspects of life—from childhood to adulthood—are precious, as well. When systemic inequalities exist that result in loss of life of a particular group based on race, class, gender, sexuality, age, or ability, it follows that this is deemed sinful according to consistent life ethic. Therefore, the sheer statistics (to say nothing of personal testimonies) of the racial inequalities found in the U.S. criminal justice system should be enough to inspire Catholics to embrace the protests as consistent with the established ethical framework.

Catholics should also consider the wise words of Sr. Joan Chittister regarding the abortion debate. To be sure, abortion is still an issue worthy of consideration and debate in the pro-life/pro-choice realm. However, to limit the conversation surrounding life to the ethics of abortion is to render the pro-life movement to be reductive and simplistic, at best. Just as facets of choice are varied and complex entities in the pro-choice movement, so are facets of life in the pro-life movement. By broadening the conversation from being dominated primarily by abortion issues and protests of the death penalty, the Church can continue in its mission to establish a culture of life in all of its myriad forms.

To be sure, there are challenges with supporting #BlackLivesMatter from a consistent life ethic point of view—from the challenge of understanding and addressing issues of racism in a theological lens to acknowledging the deeply complex and grey areas of truly following through on the idea that all lives matter, the Church would be put in a space of uncomfortable confrontation about its own limitations. However, is the comfort of the few truly a reason to betray an entire ethical system? If Catholic social ethics are able to answer “no” to that question in the case of abortion, we should be able to give the same answer in the case of the disproportionate deaths of people of color. If all lives matter, we would do well to start acting like it.

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One thought on “The Consistent Life Ethic in U.S. Catholic Discourse: Planned Parenthood, Abortion, and #BlackLivesMatter

  1. Thanks for your post. What do you think about the historical (ongoing?) ways that abortion and birth control methods have been used to control people of color? (Thinking of compulsory sterilization of indigenous women, the predominance of Planned Parenthood clinics in Black and Latino communities). How do you see that intersecting with #BlackLivesMatter?

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