Friday, March 09, 2012

The consistent ethic that isn't

Those who read my blog know my position is that the abortion issue is pretty straightforward. Either you believe an unborn baby is a human being afforded liberties under the U.S. Constitution, or you don't. Those who don't, and it's a slim minority of Americans, have yet to make the philosophical case for their position in any coherent way.

The rest is really just fluff, an attempt to assail elegantly simple logic without substantively addressing it. So we get nonsense about ensoulment, the very, very personal and private choice between a woman and her doctor, "what if men got pregnant?" and other assorted drivel. All, of course, spouted sanctimoniously.

Of course, for Christians, none of the secular talking points hold water. To that end, Jim Wallis coined the phrase "consistent ethic of life", which has been parroted by countless other Christian progressives. Christians, Wallis asserts, should not be pro-life in the sense they oppose legal abortion, but by opposing the death penalty, wars, starvation in Africa etc...

This has always stuck in my craw. If you oppose the death penalty on the basis of preserving life, how is it in any way a "consistent ethic" to also support legal abortion? Over at Rachel Held Evans' blog, I had the opportunity to ask Tim King, Communications Director for Sojourners about this:

Me: The head of your organization coined the phrase "consistent ethic of life" to describe his position on abortion and other issues, such as the death penalty. However, your organization, and most Christian progressives, oppose the death penalty, but support legal abortion. How is that a consistent ethic? Isn't it just a different, equally inconsistent ethic?

Tim King: First, I don’t think the analogy comparing the death penalty to legal abortion access works. The death penalty question is concerned with what actions we should allow the state to perform while abortion is a question of what actions of individuals we allow the state to restrict. The better comparison would be the death penalty and a state mandated abortion policy like in China. That, I would oppose.

Second, my approach to the issue of armed conflict is a better, while still imperfect analogy. I’m not against all use of force but I do believe we should work to prevent the circumstances that give rise to wars and conflict. It’s that line of thinking that I see as consistent with my views on abortion.


Setting aside the fact Wallis explicitly and emphatically draws a connection between abortion and the death penalty (which hold enormous appeal for pro-life Catholics), Tim King's answer has little to do with ethics. His point about wanting a consistent approach to government power is well taken, I want the same, but this isn't really an ethical consideration.

I would also agree with Tim that the analogy to military action is imperfect. Military action is a government action as much as the death penalty is.

But, to Tim's preferred analogy, and on his terms, I still think his position fails the test of consistency. He believes we should do everything we can to "prevent the circumstances that give rise to wars and conflict," just as we do everything we can to prevent the circumstances that give rise to abortion.

Fair enough, but conservatives also believe we should do everything we can to prevent the circumstances that lead to war. Regardless of what you believe about the efficacy and morality of our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, nobody favored the circumstances (9/11, Saddam Hussein in general) that got us to the point where war was on the table.

The question is whether we should have allowed our government to go to war. As it pertains to abortion, the question is whether we allow a woman to end a human life. If conservatives are inconsistent in supporting the former but not the latter, then so are liberals, and Joe Lieberman is an absolute scoundrel.

So Wallis' "consistent ethic of life" has, by his groups tacit admission, nothing to do with ethics. It also fails any sensible test of consistency.

Christians of all stripes should retire this fluffy talking point and move toward a more authentic dialogue about abortion law.

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