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Cardinal Bernardin Was on to Something: Abortion Is Not a Stand-Alone Issue

The Seamless Garment and Balancing the Equation Napolean Cole

Napolean Cole

Catherine Ruth Pakaluk - published on 09/04/14

We can't ignore the seamless connection between sexual norms and abortion.

On December 6, 1983, the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, advanced an idea which came to be known as the “seamless garment” in a now-famous address at Fordham University.

This address was “an examination of the need for a consistent ethic of life.” Bernardin’s idea: “pro-life” on abortion is just one part of a larger attitude, or orientation, respecting life, seeing human life as imbued with dignity and value; opposition to abortion is just one “front,” but won’t succeed unless wedded to—as in a seamless garment—other policy positions which are “pro-life,” such as opposition to war, attacks on innocent civilians and poverty, which can be opposed through domestic policies of aid and redistribution.  

Now, my goal here is not to criticize Bernardin’s already much-criticized position—see, for instance, my dear husband’s critique in Crisis Magazine.  

My point is rather: Bernardin was right about something—that pro-life needs more, it can’t succeed on its own, that the Catholic moral tradition has something valuable to say in the face of this and other threats to the dignity of human life.

Just what is that “more”? I think Bernardin missed it. There IS a seamless garment … but it involves bundling up the abortion problem with what is more intimately connected with it, that is, with what gets us life in the womb in the first place: sexual union of men and women. The abortion problem is really a sex problem—not, I think, a policy problem.

Curiously, you will not find anything in the seamless garment talk about sexuality, or anything which sounds like theology of the body—and all of this is quite strange because hardly anyone can think about abortion without thinking also about sexuality. Heck—even secular economists and social scientists think naturally about the connection between abortion, non-marital birth, and social norms about sexual engagement. See, for instance, Akerlof, Yellen and Katz’s An Analysis of Out-of-Wedlock Childbearing in the United States in the May 1996 Quarterly Journal of Economics. Yes—Akerlof is George Akerlof, 2001 Nobel prize winner in economics. And yes, Yellen is Janet Yellen. Current Chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve. Akerlof, Yellen and Katz basically argue that legal abortion may have contributed to the increase in babies born outside of marriage precisely because it undermined the social norm of marriage in the event of crisis pregnancy.  

There are a lot of ways to think about the connection between abortion and sex—but here is one that I find somewhat intuitive. Consider a newborn baby, utterly transcendent—almost unspeakable beauty. From this newborn we learn that sexual union is more than it appears to be, because the child is so much greater than its material cause. Sexual union is brief—sometimes meaningful and pleasant, sometimes not even—and yet it can yield a whole human life, with a beginning and no end. Nine months of sacrifices for a mother, years of sleeplessness, and the slavish attention to the needs of a vulnerable, needy person. Even without a supernatural perspective on life, it is remarkable, almost scandalous, that a relatively short period of physical union should be the cause of an eternal human life.  

Sexual union creates new human persons. Frankly, the latter seems rather weighty and the former, well, that depends, but isn’t it just a bodily function, an instinct, an urge? And I think this is exactly what pro-abortion folks are upset about. That sex makes babies. The equation doesn’t seem to work. It seems unbalanced.

Right. So here’s the sex problem that gets us to an abortion problem. Sex seems small, babies seem big. How can we make the equation balance? There are only two ways to do it: reduce the weight on one side, or increase the weight on the other.

If you want to go on viewing sex as a small thing, no big deal, just what people do when they feel close—then you’ve got to figure out how to take weight from the baby side. Get the consequences in line with what the act seems to be on this account. Make the consequences smaller. This is exactly why abortion supporters always promote abortion and contraception together. They have their seamless garment approach all shored up!  

But the other way to solve the problematic is to work on the other side of the equation—add weight to the sex side. If babies—human life—are so consequential, then maybe sex is too.  Maybe sexual union is exactly as meaningful and valuable as all that.  

And how might you add weight to the sex side? Make sex weightier? Here’s a really good way to do this: stand on your head while the whole world is going the other way, and insist that sexual union, the marital embrace, has to be open-to-life. Yup. That’s weighty.

One way to look at the teachings found in Casti Connubii, Humanae Vitae, and indeed the whole Catholic moral tradition on the marital embrace, is to view it as a massive declaration that there is more weight to sexual union than our disordered selves would like to admit.  Indeed, in the age of easy pornography, nude photo scandals, child and adult promiscuity on levels never-before recorded in human history—after every other Christian Church has accepted that contraception may sometimes be a good idea—the Catholic Church is still standing on her head insisting that every marital embrace should be open to its natural orientation, whether in fertile times or not.

The next step of the argument is that valuing sex more—putting more weight—is the antidote to promiscuity. We tend to pull back from things which are so holy, so valuable that we deem ourselves unworthy of them. Augustine gets a bit of a hard time for his comment that it is nearly impossible for a man to approach his wife without lust in his heart—but I think it’s unfair. He was saying that it’s almost impossible for a man to receive the gift of his wife worthily. And this is because sexual union, which is receiving the gift of the beloved, is so valuable.    

All of this value, this weight, is designed to get the sex-makes-babies equation back into balance. The lack of balance comes from all kinds of places—helped along by contraception, abortion, poverty, riches, ignorance, advanced degrees, social progress and also its lack—but ultimately the imbalance in the equation arises from the human heart distorted by sin.  

So, if there is a seamless garment—it is just this: “right-to-life” needs “open-to-life.” Balance the equation. If we want to fight abortion, we need to treat sexual union as the weighty thing that it is: more valuable, more consequential. And I say we ought to have known this all along—since abortion proponents have always been contraception proponents. Let’s get our seamless game on.  

Catherine Ruth Pakalukis an Assistant Professor of Economics at Ave Maria University, a Faculty Research Fellow at the Stein Center for Social Research, and a Senior Fellow in Economics at the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. Her research is focused in the areas of demography, gender, family studies, and the economics of education and religion.She also works on the interpretation and history of Catholic social thought. Dr. Pakaluk earned her doctorate in economics at Harvard University (2010). She lives in Ave Maria, Florida with her husband Michael and seven children.

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