The Seamless Garment must be properly understood

By Pedro Gabriel, MD, 12 February 2021
Image: Maria Oswalt/Unsplash


Back in 2007, during the time leading up to the referendum in Portugal that resulted in the legalisation of abortion-on-demand up to the tenth week of gestation, members of the pro-life campaign hung up flyers that said: “10 weeks without rights.” This struck me as one of the most thought-provoking slogans the pro-life movement had ever used. It certainly struck a nerve, because within a day or two, all of those flyers had been torn down from sight by angry pro-choicers.

Moving forward to a year ago, I wrote an article entitled “The Seamless Garment is the Catholic position.” I think that in light of current events and the political climate in the US, revisiting this article is warranted. This is not because I have changed my mind about it—I wrote it extremely carefully and deliberately, and I continue to stand by every word—but precisely because I did not change my mind about it.

In my article, I noted that critics of the Seamless Garment believe that it downplays the importance of ending abortion and steals thunder from the fight against it. I acknowledged that it is true that “an increasing number of left-leaning Catholics often appeal to a consistent ethic of life in order to shoot down anti-abortion legislative and policy proposals.” Unfortunately, this has become worrisome as Joe Biden takes office, and there is a real danger that this will play into the same trap that has fostered the radicalisation and polarization we see today.

What I argued in my previous article—and what I continue to assert today—is that the key word in “Seamless Garment” is seamless, just as the operative word in “consistent ethic of life” is consistent. This is different than a matter of prioritisation. This is about consistency.

As I described in my previous article about the seamless garment, when I began to explore my faith seriously as an adult, one of the most appealing elements of Catholic teaching was the consistency of its doctrine. I wrote that in the secular world, “it is not unusual to find politicians shifting their arguments and principles according to political expediency.” Catholicism is different. The principles of Catholicism are not always politically convenient, but they are consistent. As I wrote in that piece:

“If an argument is sound, it should be applied consistently. But when we only use an argument when it is convenient, and refute that same argument when it becomes inconvenient, the argument is not true in itself. It becomes a tool used to achieve an end. And those who want to obstruct that end will take note of this and make it known to the very same people we want to convince.”

Unfortunately, I am beginning to notice that for many Catholics, this consistency appears to be vanishing very quickly from their political discourse in the US.

I hear many Catholics today saying things like Roe “is the law of the land,” whereas just a few years ago, these same Catholics were arguing that “an unjust law is no law at all and should be repealed” to counter anti-immigration rhetoric about “just enforcing the law.”

I’ve noticed Catholics saying “laws do not work” in preventing abortion, when a few years ago they were passionately arguing for gun control restrictions against people who claimed those restrictions do not work.

I see Catholics deflecting questions about the issue of abortion and telling us that we should be focusing on other evils, when the same Catholics spent years condemning “whataboutism.”

I hear Catholics assert that “we should not change laws, only change hearts” or that our focus should be solely on “reducing demand” for abortion, yet these are the same Catholics who (rightly, I will add) demand the abolition of the death penalty. They aren’t suggesting that we should work for changing the hearts of death penalty advocates, or insisting that our focus should be on measures that would make the death penalty rarer, while keeping it legally in place.

This is a rejection of the consistent life ethic, because it lacks consistency. It also contradicts the Seamless Garment. Such an approach was deplored by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin himself, the man who popularized the concept among Catholics. This is something that the Chicago cardinal decried in a 1988 interview, when he said,

“I know that some people on the left, if I might use that label, have used the consistent ethic to give the impression that the abortion issue is not all that important anymore, that you should be against abortion in a general way, but that there are more important issues, so don’t hold anybody’s feet to the fire just on abortion. That’s a misuse of the consistent ethic, and I deplore it.”

Why is this consistency so important? As I said in my earlier article: “Whether Catholic doctrine stands or falls, it stands or falls as a whole. The same, therefore, applies to pro-life advocacy. Pro-lifers should adopt the Seamless Garment logic, not because abortion is equally important as all other life issues, but because the arguments against abortion are part of a framework that subsists across the whole spectrum of social and moral issues. If we undermine this framework, we weaken the foundation of the anti-abortion position.”

This framework does not include just the unborn child, but also the immigrant, the sick, the poor, the member of a racial or ethnic minority group, the person on death row, the prisoner. When we erode this framework by saying that depriving someone of their right to life is tolerable in one particular circumstance, we open the door for the violation of more human rights for other reasons. Ultimately, this leads to the erosion of the idea of human rights altogether.

Am I suggesting that the pro-life movement isn’t in need of reform? Not at all. The pro-life movement has made mistakes in the last four years, at the great expense of its credibility. Last month, we published an excellent essay at Where Peter Is by Marissa Nichols that argued that “We haven’t gotten pro-life right.” We do need to reinvent the way we communicate with society at large. We need to be more compassionate and empathetic, and less oppositional and dismissive towards the suffering of many of the people involved. We need to be prudent and realistic in the measures we propose, and we should properly understand and anticipate unintended consequences of legislation that we want to avoid. We do need to focus on reducing demand for abortion, and we should fight to mitigate the socioeconomic reasons that lead a large percentage of women to choose abortion.

But—as Marissa correctly points out—we must work for legislation and work to change hearts and minds. It has to be both/and, not either/or. We must work on the side of supply as well as demand. It is true that law follows culture, but it is also true that culture follows law. It is not one-directional, but a circle, and we must act on all points if we are to change the direction it spins.

Regarding the new Biden administration, we should indeed focus on building bridges instead of walls, as Pope Francis urges us to do. We should not judge the president’s faith, nor should we be shy in commending or even collaborating with his policy decisions on immigration, racism, healthcare, and other areas where his administration aligns with Catholic teaching. We should not pre-emptively attack him from all directions before he even does anything, because when the time comes that we must raise our voices in opposition, we do not want to be seen as the boy who cried wolf.

But bridges are not built in the absence of tension, or on unquestioning agreement. As Pope Francis has also said, openness does not result in loss of identity. For a Catholic, this identity is summarised in the Catechism. And the Catechism is very clear about how governments and civil society should address abortion (emphasis mine):

“The inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation:

“The inalienable rights of the person must be recognised and respected by civil society and the political authority. These human rights depend neither on single individuals nor on parents; nor do they represent a concession made by society and the state; they belong to human nature and are inherent in the person by virtue of the creative act from which the person took his origin. Among such fundamental rights one should mention in this regard every human being’s right to life and physical integrity from the moment of conception until death.”

The moment a positive law deprives a category of human beings of the protection which civil legislation ought to accord them, the state is denying the equality of all before the law. When the state does not place its power at the service of the rights of each citizen, and in particular of the more vulnerable, the very foundations of a state based on law are undermined. . . . As a consequence of the respect and protection which must be ensured for the unborn child from the moment of conception, the law must provide appropriate penal sanctions for every deliberate violation of the child’s rights.”“ — CCC, 2273

Once more, in this passage from the Catechism, we see the Church consistently applying the logic of the Seamless Garment. It teaches that once positive law deprives the unborn child of its human rights, the very foundations of the rights of other marginalised groups are also undermined. As Mother Teresa so eloquently puts it: “Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use violence to get what they want.” We cannot defend those who are already born if we do not defend the unborn.

I am both hopeful and fearful about the future. Speaking as a physician and a Catholic who is concerned for the common good of all people, I was very pleased when I heard that the in-person March for Life this year was cancelled. This showed concern, not just for the unborn, but also for other lives that could have been put at risk due to the COVID-19 pandemic or the possibility of more violence at the Capitol. This decision showed self-reflection, prudence, and discernment. It is a step in the right direction.

But I am very discouraged by the increasingly dismissiveness—when not outright hostility—directed at me and others by fellow Catholics when we point out that anti-abortion legislation is a necessary part of a full vision of social justice. What I have encountered is not an attitude conducive to the healing and purification of the pro-life movement. This is politicised rhetoric that only feeds into the polarisation and radicalisation that has brought us so much suffering, strife, and division.

When we ignore or dismiss the importance of giving legal protection to the unborn, we put seams in the Seamless Garment. When we set aside the goal of supporting pro-life initiatives and legislation, our ethic of life is no longer consistent. The Seamless Garment must be properly understood, if it is to be adequately implemented. This is just as true today as it was before: the Seamless Garment is indeed the Catholic position.

Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavour, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularised but also highly Catholic by tradition.

With thanks to Where Peter Is and Pedro Gabriel, where this article originally appeared.


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