Pro-lifers are often accused of only caring about the abortion issue and not about issues that impact the lives of these babies and mothers after birth, like welfare programs or immigration. In the early 1980s, the idea of a consistent life ethic, or a “seamless garment” became popular as a way to unite Catholics around all “life” issues, whether abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, healthcare, or immigration. But this idea of a seamless garment has been used against the pro-life movement over the years as a way to downplay the horrific taking of an innocent, unborn life in favor of other, broader ethical issues.
Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse wants to turn the “seamless garment” idea on its head. Dr. Morse is the founder and president of the Ruth Institute, a global nonprofit focused on keeping families together and helping the millions of people who have been harmed by family breakdown. Dr. Morse joins Traci DeVette Griggs on this week’s Family Policy Matters radio show and podcast to discuss a true “seamless garment” within the pro-life movement.
“I think the pro-life movement is completely correct to say that the abortion issue, the right-to-life issue, that has to have a preeminence because without being alive, you don’t have any other rights,” says Dr. Morse.
But the pro-life movement must continue past birth, urges Dr. Morse. “The way we approach our work at the Ruth Institute is that we’re interested in the rights of children to their parents. So if you start thinking about that, you’ll see that there are a lot of policies that actively undermine that objective of children coming into existence with both of their parents married to each other, committed to each other, and committed to them as a child.”
“So that’s the nature of the seamless garment that I want to bring forward. To say that you’re concerned about children and their welfare, you need to be concerned about their relationship with their parents and how the state does, or does not, protect a child’s right to be in relationship with both parents.”
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse explain more about a true seamless garment within the pro-life movement.
TRACI GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Single-issue voters. For those of us who are pro-life and vote pro-life, it’s an accusation we hear quite a lot. We’re accused of being too focused on abortion, not caring about what happens to babies and their mothers after birth, and ignoring other issues that some believe are more important, such as government welfare programs, climate change, or immigration. Is there a good way to respond to this criticism?
Our guest today has some ideas on that. Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse is founder and President of the Ruth Institute, a global nonprofit focused on keeping families together and helping the millions of people who have been harmed by family breakdown. Well, she recently called for a pro-life movement to embrace the idea of a “seamless garment” that moves the conversation around life issues to a broader defense of the rights of children and parents.
Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
DR. JENNIFER ROBACK MORSE: Thanks for having me.
TRACI GRIGGS: If you could start off by telling us what is usually meant by a “seamless garment” when we hear it in the American political or cultural discussions today.
DR. JENNIFER ROBACK MORSE: Well, as far as I know, the term originated with Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, in trying to give cover to Catholic politicians who voted in favor of pro-abortion policies by saying, well, it’s okay if they’re not pro-life because they’re voting the right way on welfare programs and immigration and things like that. So, they’re pro-life in one area, but they’re not pro-life on abortion, and we need a seamless garment connecting all of those issues together. And so therefore it’s okay; therefore a Catholic voter can be discerning in deciding what kind of candidate to vote for. You don’t have to always vote for the anti-abortion candidate. That’s where this rhetoric of a seamless garment began, I think, to the best of my knowledge.
TRACI GRIGGS: And this is not always necessarily a helpful kind of rhetoric for the pro-life movement, is it?
DR. JENNIFER ROBACK MORSE: In my opinion, this rhetoric was calculated to undermine the pro-life movement in a sense. To basically say, “Look, this issue of abortion is not that important. If we have Catholic politicians who want to vote in favor of pro-abortion policies, that’s okay as long as they’re voting for the life issues in other areas such as welfare payments and support of the poor and things like that.” So it really was a rhetorical strategy that was designed to undermine the passionate—and I think necessary priorit—given to the life issues, the direct life issues. Not all those indirect issues but the direct life issue, which is the taking of an innocent life, is always wrong. And so it changed the subject, and a lot of times changing the subject is the best that people can do. If they’re losing an argument, they’ll change the subject.
TRACI GRIGGS: And so what you want to do now is turn this concept on its head, right? The concept of a seamless garment, and make it something that the pro-life movement can embrace. Talk a little bit about what your ideas are on that.
DR. JENNIFER ROBACK MORSE: Traci, I love turning things on their heads. I love taking somebody’s rhetoric and standing it on its head. Because when you do that, you force people to think about what’s really being said, and the clichés have to go out the window now, you know? So our idea is that if you’re in favor of taking care of children and babies and their mothers after they’re born, not just before birth—because this is the charge that’s often lodged against us—if that’s what you’re concerned about, well, you need to be concerned about the marriage issue. The marriage issue is a life issue. Whether children have access to their own mothers and fathers for a lifetime, that is something we should care about if we really care about babies and their mothers.
And so I want to shift the discussion away from government programs that transfer money to people, and focus our attention on the government programs and social policies that connect children with their own parents. And if you are not in favor of connecting children with their own parents, I want to put you on the spot and say, “You explain yourself. Why is it okay for some children to have access to both of their parents throughout their whole lifetime, and for other children, they don’t have that access? What are you even talking about?” So that’s the nature of the seamless garment that I want to bring forward. To say that you’re concerned about children and their welfare, you need to be concerned about their relationship with their parents and how the state does, or does not, protect a child’s right to be in relationship with both parents.
I do think that it is helpful for everybody, whatever your personal calling may be; I think it’s helpful for everybody to see how all of these issues are related to each other. The underlying issue is that traditional Christian sexual morality is humane and it is intellectually coherent. The sexual revolution is inhuman and it is intellectually incoherent. My point here is not to say, “Guys, abandon your post and come work on my issue,” although I would love to have you come work on my issue; that’s not the point. My point is that the broader perspective you take on it, and the more you see how all the issues are connected, I think it will help you to do your work, whatever it may be, within the pro-life movement.
TRACI GRIGGS: This idea of a seamless garment for the pro-life movement came to you as a result, I understand, of a survey that the Ruth Institute conducted at the Students for Life Pro-Life Summit during this year’s March for Life. So tell us about that survey.
DR. JENNIFER ROBACK MORSE: We had the idea that we wanted to go to the Summit that takes place after the March for Life, because we wanted to see if those were our people. When you go to a big event and there are exhibitors there and so on and so forth, the reason exhibitors come to big events is because they want to get you involved with what they’re doing; they want you to be aware of their mission and so on. So we wanted to get an idea of, “Well, is this crowd, the Students for Life of America, are these our people? Are they going to be interested in what we’re doing?” And so to find that out, we created this survey to give the participants who would stop by our booth, to just ask them, “Which of these issues are important to you?” And so we put on there euthanasia; as you might expect a pro-life crowd would be concerned about euthanasia as well as about abortion. But we also put things like, “Are you concerned about the decline of marriage? Are you concerned about in vitro-fertilization and third-party reproduction?” Issues like that.
We were astonished to find what a great percentage of these young people at this conference were fully on board with the Ruth Institute’s vision on all of these other topics, which a lot of times people don’t think of them as being connected to the abortion issue. So we were delighted to find that and it forced us to think through, “Well gee, the reason that they like our issues is because they recognize that all these issues are connected and they’re connected with the idea of, what is the proper relationship between the human person and their sexuality and or sexual activity? And, what should the state be doing about sexual activity?” And the modern state basically has taken the position that everybody’s entitled to do whatever they want sexually, and nothing bad is going to happen as long as you use a condom every time. Everything will be fine. Nothing bad will happen to you, and we, the government, will do everything possible to reduce the costs of you having sex with whoever you want to. That’s our job is to make it easy for you to do whatever you want sexually.
Whereas the alternative position is that sex is not a recreational activity; sex is a sacred activity, that the life giving power of the sexual act is something powerful that deserves our respect. And it’s not a toy, not something to fool around with. So if you start from that perspective that sex is sacred and that every child is an unrepeatable gift from God, you end up taking sides on a whole set of different issues that are all connected to that. Whereas if you think that it’s a recreational activity that you’re entitled to engage in without very many negative consequences, you’re going to end up someplace else. And so that’s what we found at the Students for Life convention is that those young people get it. They get it! This is not just one thing, that the abortion issue is connected to a whole lot of other issues.
TRACI GRIGGS: What other issues are you envisioning being included in this whole seamless garment?
DR. JENNIFER ROBACK MORSE:Well, the way we approach our work at the Ruth Institute is that we’re interested in the rights of children to their parents. So if you start thinking about that, you’ll see that there are a lot of policies that actively undermine that objective of children coming into existence with both of their parents married to each other, committed to each other, and committed to them as a child and committed to their life as part of a family. So there are many issues that flow from that, including the ones that we’ve already mentioned—whether it’s contraception, abortion, and divorce. Also, comprehensive sex education. To my mind, comprehensive sex education is the propaganda arm of the sexual revolution. That’s where they get into the school and simply by adults being in there talking to children who are not their own children, talking about sex like it is a technological thing that we have to manage with pills and devices and so on. It doesn’t matter what they’re saying, as soon as you start talking like that you have already shifted the ground, shifted the focus of the discussion away from the relationality and the life-giving power of sexuality, and turned it into something technocratic.
TRACI GRIGGS: So what fundamentally connects these issues in your mind and is it fair to give them all equal weight?
DR. JENNIFER ROBACK MORSE: Well, I don’t think you can give them all equal weight. I think the pro-life movement is completely correct to say that the abortion issue, the right-to-life issue, has to have a preeminence because without being alive, you don’t have any other rights, number one. And number two, the taking of an innocent life is always wrong. It is always immoral to kill an innocent person. And so that’s the fundamental issue with abortion. So it has to be prioritized.
TRACI GRIGGS: You’ve given us some really great things to think about and also some ways to talk about this. Let’s talk a little bit more about what we can say. So give us some strategies when we are hearing these kinds of accusations, what kinds of responses do you feel like are the most appropriate and most effective?
DR. JENNIFER ROBACK MORSE: Well, that’s a good question, and I bet a lot of your listeners already know that if you’re dealing with somebody who’s questioning you and they’re not acting in good faith, you probably don’t want to go too many rounds with them in argument or conversation. If they’re acting in good faith, then that’s great, then you can proceed. But if they’re not acting in good faith, I would recommend getting yourself out of the conversation as quickly as possible because nothing good is going to happen from it.
But to me, you get somebody who really wants to know the answer to their question, oftentimes it’s a good strategy to turn the question around and ask them a question. So if people say, “Well, isn’t it true that you don’t really care? All you care about is whether the baby gets born or not. You don’t care about him after that.” You can turn around and say, “Why do you say that?” And if they come back with, “You’d be in favor of this policy or that policy,” you could say, “What makes you think I don’t favor that policy?” You could put it back on them. But a further thing that you could say would be, “I do care about the child afterwards, because I’m really concerned about the stability of their relationship with both their mom and their dad. Does that concern you too?” And then that opens a whole realm of possibility for what they’re going to say, because most likely your typical critic of the pro-life position has never even thought about that question. “What is owed to the child before birth and after birth? What is owed to the child?” That is the question that the sexual revolution would prefer you not ask, right?
So in one way or another, bring it back to that question, “What is owed to the child?” At the Ruth Institute we say what is owed to the child is a relationship with both their mother and their father, number one. And number two it is owed to the child that they know the identity of their mother and father even if you can’t be with your mom and dad. The idea that some kids get to know who their mom and dad is, and other kids don’t get to know who their mom and dad is, and they don’t get to know because why? Because some adult wants them to not know. “Do you really think that’s okay?” That’s what you need to say.
TRACI GRIGGS: Well thank you. That was a lot of good information. We’re just about out of time for this week, but before we go, Dr. Morse, where can our listeners go to learn more about the topics we have discussed today and about your work at the Ruth Institute?
DR. JENNIFER ROBACK MORSE: Well, the Ruth Institute has a very active website, which is ruthinstitute.org. You can go there. You can go to the Ruth Institute Facebook page or you can go to the Ruth Institute YouTube channel, where we post a new episode of The Dr. J. show every week. At least one episode a week goes up. We interview people who have interesting and important information and insights about various aspects of the sexual revolution. So I would really recommend that you sign up for the Ruth Institute’s YouTube channel, like us on Facebook, and sign up for our weekly newsletter.
TRACI GRIGGS: Great. Well, thank you for all your good work. Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse, founder and President of the Ruth Institute, thank you so much for joining us today on Family Policy Matters.