It has become popular, as of late, to assert that abortion is just one of many important social-justice issues. Many people correctly note that a host of other issues–from education, to immigration, to healthcare–are also extraordinarily important pro-life issues. Pope Francis, himself, has noted “all values are non-negotiable.” And of course, he’s absolutely right. All truths are true–absolutely. All needs are needs. All values are undeniably valuable. But if this is the case, does this mean that it is somehow wrong to assert that the right to life remains the single most important social justice issue of our day, instead of merely one “pro-life” issue among many in the seamless garment? No. Of course not. Here’s why.
While all truths are absolutely, non-negotiably true, some truths are more foundational, in the sense that we need to accept those truths before we can begin to wrap our heads around more complicated truths. For instance; the belief that “there is a God: is more foundational than the fact that “God is Father and has a son who is Jesus, the Christ.” Both of these truths are non-negotiably true, the belief in the existence of God is necessary before you can believe that this God had a son named Jesus. Claiming the latter without accepting the former is just absurd. That Jesus is God’s son is not somehow “less true” than the existence of God, but believing in the existence of God is a more foundational truth.
This concept is called the “hierarchy of truths.” And though many people take that phrase to mean that some truths are more true than others, that is not at all the case. It just means that some truths require understanding of more foundational concepts in order to “get” them. This principle applies to Catholic Social Teaching (CST) as well. So, what does this have to do with the question of where fighting for the unborn baby’s right to life fits in the grand scheme of social justice advocacy?
Life: The Fundamental Truth
I teach several college courses on Catholic Social Teaching. I begin each of those classes by proposing a simple question to my students.
Question: What is the easiest way to solve any social problem?
I let students struggle with the answer for a bit, but in all my years of teaching this course, no one has ever hit on the diabolical–and all to common–answer.
Answer: Kill the people responsible for the problem.
As shocking as this answer is, it is, in fact, society’s go-to response to many social problems. In fact, the less the individuals seen to be responsible for a particular social problem are able to speak up for themselves and the more the killing can be done relatively quietly, the more likely it is a society will resort to this particular “final solution.”
~Q: What should we do about violent crime? A: Use the death penalty to kill the criminal. Problem solved.
~Q: What should we do to solve soaring medical care costs? A: Euthanize people who are either terminal or are at least willing to be killed “for the sake of mercy.” Problem solved.
~Q: Throughout the 20th century, when various societies faced serious economic crises what was the convenient solution they settled on? A: They rounded up the people who were seen–rightly or wrongly–to be taking all the jobs or hoarding all the resources and killed them in a host of creatively evil and horrible ways. Problem solved.
~Q: What can we do about the problem of unwanted pregnancy? A: Kill the child in the womb who is responsible for so much grief. Problem solved.
In each of these cases, death for the party seen to be “responsible” for the particular social ill is the easy answer because it is usually done quietly (so the rest of us don’t have to know about it) and the people being eliminated are in no position to make enough noise to do anything about it. Killing the “responsible” party remains a tremendously popular, efficient, and economical way to solve virtually any social problem. What’s not to love?
Furthermore, as long as killing the people who are responsible remains a socially acceptable and legal option, it is impossible to truly change hearts on the matter. When push comes to shove, if people feel they have a serious enough reason, no matter what they may personally feel is wrong in their heart of hearts, if an option remains legal, available, and easy, it will be the option that is most often chosen. By and large, a suffering person will always choose what is easy over what feels moral unless there are appropriate supports for doing what is right and costs for doing what is wrong. Don’t take my work for it. See Kohlberg’s work on moral development. That is why overturning unjust laws that make it killing people an acceptable means of solving social problems is so important.
But, Why Abortion?
But if all of these issues violate the principle of the right to life, why is the plight of the unborn even more fundamental a truth than the criminal’s right to life, or the immigrant’s or any of the other pro-life issues I mentioned above, all of which are absolutely true, inviolable, and in their own way, non-negotiable?
To answer that, we turn to another principle of Catholic social teaching; the Universal Destination of Goods. This is the idea that everything God has given to us is to be shared, in particular, with those in need. Our ownership is not absolute. God is the only absolute owner of every blessing he has entrusted to our care. We are merely stewards. If we are to be good stewards, we are responsible for sharing what God has given us with those in need.
And how do we distribute those blessings? A corollary of the principle of the universal destination of goods is that those who have the greatest need and the least ability to advocate for themselves have the most legitimate claim on the available resources. While the criminal, the poor, the immigrant, and the sick are all in need, and have a God-given, absolute right to have those needs attended to, no one has a greater claim to our time, energy, and effort than the unborn, who, in fact, have both the greatest needs and the least ability to advocate for themselves of any other underprivileged group. They are the neediest in every imaginable manner of speaking. Therefore, they have a right–according to CST–to be given priority. The fundamental option for the poor begins with championing those who have less than nothing and are largely thought by our society to have not even earned the right to breath their first breath.
Again, returning to the idea of the hierarchy of truths, it becomes obvious that accepting and advocating for the unborn’s right to life is foundational. It is extraordinarily difficult to accept the violent criminal’s God-given right to life if we cannot accept that the innocent, unborn child has that right. It is extraordinarily difficult–if possible at all–to accept that the poor and the immigrant have a right to a quality of life if they, and more foundationally, their unborn children, do not have a right to exist in the first place. It is terrifically difficult to accept that the sick and infirm–those who can no longer contribute economically to society and, in fact, are thought to be a drain on our resources by many–have a right to life, if we cannot first accept that even a healthy unborn child has a right to life; not because of anything he or she has done, or even because he or is necessarily wanted, but because he or she is.
All truths are true, all needs must be met, and yes, immigration, healthcare, education, housing, and all the rest are truly pro-life issues. This is an undeniable fact of CST. Nevertheless, overturning abortion remains the single most important, most non-negotiable, social justice problem of our day because it is the most foundational way to assert that everyone has at least a basic, God-given right to life and, by extension a right to some kind of quality of life.
Protecting the unborn, first and foremost, is the only way to assert that just because a person or groups needs are somehow inconvenient for the rest of society to deal with they it is not acceptable to kill them off so the rest of us don’t have to deal with them. That is why Mother Theresa, who spent her life as the pre-eminent social justice warrior, used every opportunity she had to condemn abortion in no uncertain terms. In fact, I would argue that it was social justice icon Dorothy Day’s own abortion that eventually drove her to be such an advocate for all the marginalized. She knew, in the most personal, intimate way anyone could, how important it was to stand for life. A passionate commitment to the right to life is what makes authentic, wholistic, effective, and intellectually coherent social justice work possible.
The Seamless Garment.
None of this neglects the truth of the seamless garment principle. All social justice issues are inextricably linked to one another, and any person who seeks to be authentically pro-life cannot work to save the babies but turn a blind eye to the poor, the sick, the needy, the stranger, or even the criminal. But while the rights of all of these groups covered by the seamless garment are non-negotiable and God-given, the right to life is foundational and necessary for understanding these other, dependent rights. Even a thread that runs through a seamless garment has a beginning, and if the beginning of that thread is allowed to fray, the rest of the garment will come undone. Any attempt to emphasize other rights or needs over the right to life is the equivalent of trying to sew patches on the seamless garment while it unravels from the loose thread dangling before us. It ends up being a fool’s errand.
That is not to say that all other social justice issues are less important. It is also not to say that everybody else has to wait in line to get their needs met until abortion is overturned. But it us to say that unless we are willing to prioritize the needs of the most needy and most vulnerable–namely, the unborn–any larger effort to work for a just and godly civilization of love is, ultimately, for not.