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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 - updated on 06/07/17

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.

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