Should Pro-Lifers Be “Single-Issue”?

pro life activists at rally

It is often difficult to get new recruits for pro-life groups, and it is even harder to hold on to them.  The great majority of new pro-lifers who drop out of activism in the first year do so because they do not see sufficient results for their labors.  This is brought on by unrealistic expectations.

We have been conditioned to expect to win.  We have all heard the slogans “Winning isn’t everything ― it’s the only thing,” “Nobody remembers who finished in second place,” and “Second place is first loser!”

New activists often bring this attitude into the pro-life movement.  Every veteran pro-lifer has seen new recruits, aflame with enthusiasm and ideas and energy, who believe that they are going to shut down every abortion mill in their city in short order.  When they work very hard for several weeks or months and have no direct apparent impact on the abortion industry, they begin to believe that they are wasting their time.  They have been conditioned to expend effort only if they are doing visible good, so they quit.


The “Seamless Garment” Theory

Many of these new activists suffer from the belief that they can’t really be “pro-life” unless they also actively work on several other issues, such as war, gun control, drugs, cigarette smoking, and so on.

The most powerful temptation for many of these new activists is an incorrect interpretation of the “Seamless Garment” principle, which holds that any group of related issues must be addressed only as a whole, and none given a much higher priority than the others.

People have debated this theory for centuries under different names and have used it to fault others for being “single-issue.”  For example, historian James G. Randall criticized both Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas during their famous 1858 debates because they both spent too much time talking about slavery when there were so many other pressing issues.1

lincoln and douglas

Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago applied the Seamless Garment principle to abortion in a 1984 St. Louis talk entitled “A Consistent Ethic of Life: Continuing the Dialogue.”  He stated that, although abortion and nuclear war cannot be “collapsed into one problem,” they must nevertheless “be confronted as pieces of a larger pattern.”

Pro-abortion and other anti-life groups couldn’t be happier with Cardinal Bernardin’s argument.  They immediately distorted his message in order to cloak themselves with a veneer of legitimacy.  They saw the Seamless Garment as a handy tool which puts abortion at the bottom of everyone’s priority list, and which might even bury the thorny and messy issue altogether.  After all, if everyone relegates abortion to the back burner, Catholics can forever be comfortably distracted by such “social justice” concerns as minimum wage legislation or equal opportunity laws, and will expend their efforts doing everything but trying to save the unborn.

The pervasive misuse of the Seamless Garment also sometimes makes pro-lifers feel doubtful about their movement and their motivations, and the charge of being “single-issue” is designed to make us feel somehow deficient as activists or even as Christians.

This was not the Cardinal’s original intent, of course.  But how many times have veteran pro-life activists heard something like what pro-abortion ex-priest Dan Maguire said when he sneered:

If you who sanctimoniously wear the “pro-life” banner were really pro-life ― and pro-fetus ― endangering women, children, and fetuses would bother you, and we would be hearing your voices raised powerfully in peace protests around the world.  We don’t.  Therefore we must conclude that you are not “pro-life” and that if you say you are, you lie.2

Never to be outdone in bloviation, Planned Parenthood said:

If confronted by right-to-lifers, demand to know what they are doing for life.  How many hours weekly do they volunteer at the nearest home for the retarded?  How many disabled foster children do they have in their homes?  Are they also against capital punishment; against nuclear war; for gun control; for controlling sale of cigarettes?….It’s easy to identify a sincerely pro-life person.  The sincerely pro-life person is not shouting abuse outside a clinic.  He or she is too busy trying to help someone.3

Let us be clear about one thing: the single-issue argument is nothing more than a smoke screen ― a distraction.


The Strange Views of Abortion Advocates

It does not matter how many other activities you are involved in, abortion advocates will absolutely despise you if you dare to oppose abortion in even the gentlest and most inoffensive manner.

Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta is perhaps the best example of this principle.  She labored for decades in the most wretched slums of Calcutta.  She rescued, fed, clothed and attended to uncountable thousands of the poorest of the poor as they lay dying in the most appalling filth.  Yet she was viciously attacked by celebrity pro-abortionists who have never set foot in such slums, from actor Ed Asner and atheist Christopher Hitchens to Planned Parenthood, which called her a “symbol of all that is bad in motherhood and womanhood…. Mother Teresa is the perfect image of a sexless, religious woman.  This is, however, not the image of womanhood that we want…. “You, you nightmare of women!…. Do you not realize that you are all merely puppets of the devil?”4

Mother Teresa

They heaped all of this abuse on Mother Teresa simply because she was pro-life and offered to take care of any “unwanted children” that poor mothers abandoned to her care.

So do not be fooled by those who criticize you for being “single-issue.”  After all, they are “single-issue” as well.  How many of them have joined Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity in the worst slums of the world?  How many homeless children and orphans have they adopted?  Sure, they may march in the occasional “gay pride” parade or contribute a few bucks to PETA every once in a while, but that certainly does not qualify them as “multi-issue.”

The essence of the anti-life perversion of the Seamless Garment is the claim that pro-lifers are inconsistent ― and that we are not really “pro-life” ― unless we also actively work against hunger, nuclear war, weapons proliferation, and on and on ad nauseam.

This is absolute nonsense, of course.  There is nothing at all wrong with being “single-issue.”  But the anti-lifers know that if they can get pro-life activists to dilute their efforts among an array of different causes, they will inevitably burn out.  If enough pro-lifers put on the “Seamless Garment,” it will become a shroud for the entire movement.  As Frederick the Great once said, “He who attacks everywhere attacks nowhere.”

Pope Saint John Paul II cut to the heart of the matter when he said:

An extreme sensitivity akin to a holy reaction is felt when attempts on life are made in the form of famine, war, and terrorism; yet, one cannot find this feeling of sensitivity when faced with abortion, which takes the lives of innumerable innocent beings.

Abortion advocates would have us believe that people are somehow less credible if they choose to work on only one of the social issues.

Group of female activists is protesting

This is obviously illogical.  Even if it were physically possible for pro-lifers to work on all of these other issues, the anti-lifers would still never be satisfied.  After all, the only issue that really matters to a “seamless garment” anti-lifer is abortion.  They totally reject pro-life feminist groups such as SisterLife and Feminists for Life of America, which support the “progressive” positions on most issues but differ with them on abortion.

The same people who herald the Seamless Garment with such enthusiasm usually ignore what Cardinal Bernardin said after finding that his principle was being distorted:

I don’t see how you can subscribe to the consistent ethic and then vote for someone who feels that abortion is a “basic right” of the individual….I know that some people on the left, if I may use that label, have used the consistent ethic to give the impression that the abortion issue is not 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.5

In short, in the eyes of abortion advocates, the issue is not so much that pro-lifers are “single-issue,” but rather that they oppose abortion.


Final Thoughts

Every pro-lifer has only a limited amount of physical, mental and emotional energy he can expend upon high-intensity, stressful activities.  He cannot become involved in every issue of the moment.  He has a choice: he can do one thing very well, two things passably, or three things very badly.

This is true even within a specific social movement.  Anyone who has experience in any activist movement knows that in order to be effective and make a meaningful contribution he must become an expert in a relatively narrow area of his own movement.  This principle is true of any professional organization ― sports teams, legal and research firms, and armed forces.  Nobody can do everything.  What is needed in the pro-life movement is not breadth, but depth of expertise, because it is so complex in both its technical and moral dimensions.

As Proverbs 22:29 tells us, “Do you see a man skillful in his work?  He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men.”



[1] Paul Stark. “Abortion’s Like Slavery: Nothing Wrong with One Issue Voters.”  LifeNews, November 5, 2012.  Randall wrote: “With all the problems that might have been put before the people as proper matter for their consideration in choosing a senator — choice of government servants, immigration, the tariff, international policy, promotion of education, west ward extension of railroads, the opening of new lands for homesteads, protection against greedy exploitation of those lands … encouragement to settlers … improving the condition of factory workers, and alleviating those agrarian grievances that were to plague the coming decades — with such issues facing the country, those two candidates for the Senate talked as if there were only one issue.”

[2] Daniel C. Maguire. “The Pro-Life Lie: People should be Judged by How They Honor the Ideals They Most Loudly Profess.”  Religious Consultation Report [The Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health, and Ethics], Volume 8, Number 2.

[3] “Let’s Tell the Truth About Abortion.” Pamphlet distributed by Rocky Mountain Planned Parenthood.  1985, page 22.

[4] “Mother Teresa, the Woman of My Nightmares.” Sexualpedagogik, the official monthly publication of “Pro Familia,” the West German affiliate of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, March 1986, as excerpted in “PP’s View of Mother Teresa.”  All About Issues (American Life League), July-August 1987, page 53.

[5] Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, National Catholic Register, June 22, 1988.

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Dr. Brian Clowes has been HLI’s director of research since 1995 and is one of the most accomplished and respected intellectuals in the international pro-life movement. Best known as author of the most exhaustive pro-life informational resource volume The Facts of Life, and for his Pro-Life Basic Training Course, Brian is the author of nine books and over 500 scholarly and popular articles, and has traveled to 70 countries on six continents as a pro-life speaker, educator and trainer.

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