Are all social issues equal?

I was talking with a Life Report fan recently about one of her family members who claims to be pro-life but doesn’t care very much about abortion. I suspect this is a relatively common thing and can be very confusing for pro-life people who believe that the unborn child is fully human and worthy of legal protection. I offered her four possible explanations why somebody who claims to be “pro-life” may not care about abortion very much. I suspect that you know at least one person who falls under each of these categories, and I want you to have some tools for engaging each of them.

Here’s the full list, but I’ll discuss only the first one today to keep the length of the blog post down. I’ll finish the rest in the next two weeks. Make sure you’ve subscribed to my email list or RSS feed to be alerted when new posts show up.

  1. She is pro-life, but falsely thinks that all social issues are equal.
  2. She is pro-life but thinks that other social issues are more important than abortion.
  3. She only thinks the unborn are semi-valuable, like a golden retriever.
  4. She believes that while the unborn are fully human, abortion shouldn’t be made illegal because of women’s bodily autonomy rights.

Brass scales isolated1. She is pro-life but falsely thinks that all social issues are equal.

When I use the term “pro-life” here, I mean that this person truly believes that the unborn is a valuable human being and thinks that the unborn should be legally protected.

A lot of people have bought into the lie that all social issues are equally important. I think some of this is a mutation of the “consistent life ethic” that Catholic Cardinal Joseph Bernardin wrote about and the idea of the “seamless garment” that Roman Catholic pacifist Eileen Egan first spoke of.

Their view was that pro-lifers should consistently value life, and that it was inconsistent to be against abortion but for other things like capital punishment and euthanasia. I haven’t read enough of their original writings on the subject to determine whether either of them actually thought that all life-related issues deserved equal attention, but even if they didn’t, a lot of people now believe in the idea that all issues deserve equal attention, and they frequently use the phrase “seamless garment” to defend their view.

I don’t think it takes very much reflection to realize that not all issues deserve equal attention. I remember after a pro-life speech in Georgia in 2006 being asked by a Catholic attendee why I wasn’t spending equal amounts of time fighting abortion and capital punishment.

I graciously responded, “Assuming that capital punishment is equally evil, there’s a very good reason why I wouldn’t spend 50% of my time fighting it. Do you know how many executions have taken place in Georgia since 1976?”

Him: “No, I don’t.”

Me: “39. Do you know how many abortions have taken place in Georgia since yesterday?”

Him: “No.”

Me: “83. They’re not equal. If we wanted to spend more time discussing it, we could also talk about whether it’s equally wrong for a government to use a legal system for executing the worst convicted felons in the country and for doctors to legally dismember innocent babies, but I don’t even have to go there to make my case that these two issues are not deserving of equal attention. I’m going to focus most of my effort on abortion, partially because that’s how the greatest number of people are being killed without justification.”

Notice what I’m not arguing here: I’m not saying that capital punishment is justified. I’m actually a Protestant guy who is very uncomfortable with the death penalty, albeit primarily for pragmatic reasons. I think it’s still possible to execute innocent people, and I’m very concerned about that. I also think there are some strong principled objections to the death penalty that may cause me to be even more opposed to capital punishment later, but the pragmatic arguments are enough for me until the justice system is improved.

The point is not whether capital punishment is wrong. The point is that even if capital punishment is wrong, it doesn’t necessarily deserve as much time and resources to fight it as abortion does, because the numbers matter.

Dialogue Tip: If one of your friends believes that all issues are equal, I would recommend that you ask him or her this question: “Assuming that abortion and capital punishment are equally wrong, knowing that 1.2 million abortions take place every year in this country compared to an average of 52 executions a year in the last ten years, could we agree that more energy should be spent fighting abortion than capital punishment?”

Question: Do you have a friend who believes all social issues are equal? How have you responded to him or her? What are some other arguments that might convince him or her that abortion is more evil than some other social issues? Leave your response or story in the comments below! 

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