Some critics believe invoking the Consistent Ethic of Life (CEL) is an attempt either to ignore abortion, or to reduce its importance to merely one of several dozen other issues which are equally important.
And for some people associated with the idea of a consistent ethic, this critique is certainly fair. I’ve urged Sister Simone Campbell, for instance, to consistently apply her principles of nonviolence and concern for the vulnerable to the prenatal children and women who are devastated by abortion.
But this critique simply does not apply to the vast majority of Church leaders who uphold the CEL.
We saw in a previous piece in this series that both St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI developed the tradition of the Consistent Ethic, and no one could plausibly accuse them of ignoring or marginalizing the topic of abortion.
Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago was also quite serious in speaking out against abortion. Even George Weigel, perhaps the best-known critic of the CEL, described as “false” critiques that Bernardin was just using the CEL trying to give cover to pro-choice Catholics.
Weigel, in fact, described the Cardinal as a “committed pro-lifer.”
Pope Francis, as also shown in a previous piece in this series, is similarly committed to calling out abortion. And that is because abortion is a classic example of his primary lens for thinking of the CEL: the throw-away culture.
Last week we saw how Pope Francis’s concerns in this regard are present in our sexual culture, and given the connections between CEL issues we should be anything but surprised to learn that abortion is necessary for how our culture thinks about sex.
One only needs to think about contraceptive failure rates (especially when, as is most often the case in hook-up culture, the sex is drunk or buzzed), to realize that abortion is a necessary back-up in the quest for consequence-free sex. This has been on full display in the last couple of years with the #BroChoice movement—dudes who see all too clearly how abortion is necessary for them to continue to exploit women and girls sexually.
One bro-choicer rightly warned fellow dudes that, if pro-lifers have their way, “don’t be surprised if casual sex outside of relationships becomes far more difficult to come by.”
Broad access to abortion is simply built into the assumptions of the hook-up culture. Having a little fun on a Friday night simply cannot be, in the event of an unplanned pregnancy, an implicit promise to pay 30 percent of one’s salary in child support for 18 years to someone you randomly met at a bar.
The patriarchal expectation of the recourse to abortion in such situations makes the hook-up culture possible.
As we will see throughout this series, one part of throw-away culture has profound ties with another part of that culture. Abortion, of course, involves the violent discarding of the most vulnerable among us: prenatal children. Their dignity, precisely because it is so inconvenient, is reduced to so much trash to be thrown away.
When wanted, we have no problem using language like “baby” and “child.” (No one, of course, has ever heard of a “fetus bump.”) But when unwanted, we suddenly start talking about “tissue” and “products of conception.” It is morally difficult to think about throwing-away the former—but much easier to come to terms with throwing-away the latter.
Recall that the throw-away culture reduces the value of persons to mere things in a marketplace. This is especially evident with how such a culture employs abortion. If a child is understood to be a net burden, throwing that child away via abortion is a legitimate option. Perhaps even a necessary option.
This is especially true in the case of disability. Somewhere between 65-90 percent of prenatal children who are thought to have Down syndrome are killed via abortion. Some cultures are even trying to kill all babies with Down syndrome before they are born — despite the fact that people with Down’s are happier than those of us who are ‘normal.’
The throw-away culture also undergirds the neo-colonial rush of groups like Planned Parenthood and the United Nations to push abortion as the solution to Zika virus outbreaks in Central and South America. The actual stories of real people with microcephaly (like this Brazilian journalist) were simply ignored and discarded, like so much trash.
Similar assumptions and practices are deeply embedded in other aspects of our reproductive culture. Interestingly, the consumerist nature of this culture is present in the word itself: reproduction. Instead of cooperating with God via a process called procreation, the market model thinks of offspring as “products.”
This is quite clear when we look at contemporary practices of in vitro fertilization (IVF) as a means of reproduction. Ridiculously expensive (thus making fertility clinics and big pharma gobs of money), IVF as practiced in most circumstances today literally throws away human life.
In part because of its huge expense, each round of fertilization of ova by sperm attempts to create many different new members of the species Homo sapiens. Why? The idea is to screen each embryo created for its likelihood to survive pregnancy—and pick the “best” one or two to implant—so the expensive process is not repeated.
While a small minority of those who practice IVF implant each embryo created, in most cases the “excess” embryos are simply discarded, again, as so much trash.
In some cases the market mentality has taken over the process completely. Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) now allows customers to have even more quality control over their products—particularly when it comes to checking embryos for likely genetic disabilities.
That such young members of the human community are also thrown-away as trash has understandably led to strong critiques from disability-rights communities.
In resisting the throw-away culture, Pope Francis urges us to replace the market/product mentality with a culture of hospitality and encounter. We must do the hard work of creating a procreative culture which welcomes life, particularly when that life is vulnerable and its dignity inconvenient.
Of course, these principles have profound implications for other topics—especially when it comes to welcoming immigrants and refugees. This is the topic for next week’s CEL column.
Charles C. Camosy is Association Professor of Theological and Social Ethics at Fordham University. He is co-editor of the just-released book Polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church: Naming the Wounds, Beginning to Heal.