(Almost) No One in the United States Believes in a Consistent Ethic of Life

Image Credit: Consistent Life

By Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

One of the distinctive features of Catholic theology is what’s been described as a “consistent ethic of life.” Put succinctly, this is the doctrine that articulates a vision of protection and preservation at all stages of the life course. What that means practically is that the Church teaches that a faithful Catholic must be opposed to any government policy or action that threatens to end the life of another person (with exceptions for “just war”). Specifically this policy condemns the use of abortion, the death penalty, assisted suicide, and stem cell research. That most famous phrase to describe this position is “The Seamless Garment of life,” which was popularized in a speech delivered by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin in 1984.

So, the question is simply this: Do Americans actually hold to this position consistently? The General Social Survey can offer some answers. The three questions used for this analysis are:

  1. Please tell me whether or not you think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion if: The woman wants it for any reason? (Favor/Oppose)
  2. Do you favor or oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of murder? (Favor/Oppose)
  3. Do you think a person has the right to end his or her own life if this person: Has an incurable disease? (Yes/No)

Above is a Venn diagram of how the American population feels about these issues. As is obvious, there are a fair number of respondents who are opposed to abortion (38%), but are in favor the death penalty and assisted suicide (19%). However, when one moves to the overlapping portions of the diagram, the percentages drop off drastically. The number of Americans who ascribe to a consistent ethic of life is approximately 4% of Americans. If I relax the standard, then 23% take consistent positions on at least two of the issues.

How has public opinion on these issues shifted over time? Opposition to the death penalty was relatively consistent over the last thirty years, however there has been a noticeable decline in support for capital punishment in recent years so that opposition has reached almost 40%. The other two issues, assisted suicide and abortion, have seen a significant shift in the period between 1977 and 2000. In both cases the American public has become much more supportive of allowing a woman to receive an abortion for any reason as well as allowing terminally ill individuals to end their lives (both 20-25 points more).

The chart below also tracks how the number of individuals holding to the “seamless garment” have changed over the last four decades. In the period between 1977 and 1990 the drop was dramatic with the number of consistent life ethic individuals dropping from over 10% of the population to around 3%. This number has remained incredibly consistent since that time period, and in no year since has the number of respondents who hold to this worldview risen past 5%.

Finally, I thought it might be helpful to compare the seven major religious traditions to each other on this measure. What may be surprising is that the Catholic laity is not the most likely tradition to believe in a consistent ethic of life. Instead, over 7% of Black Protestants take seamless garment positions. It’s also worth pausing to note that while evangelical are consistently opposed to abortion, many of them are also in favor of the death penalty and therefore would not hold to the “ethic of life.”

Taken together, it’s apparent that almost no one in the United States holds a philosophically consistent point of view on issues relating to life. This is nothing new for political science. Philip Converse articulated this view over fifty years ago in his seminal work, “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics.” Converse has a simple argument: very few individuals hold to a completely consistent set of values that can be articulated into a pure ideology. Instead, most Americans take things on a case by case basis. Americans are a pragmatic bunch. We evaluate an issue on its merits and in isolation from other issues. To muddy the waters even further, John Zaller argued in “The Nature and Origin of Mass Opinion” that individuals will respond to survey questions with whatever response is on the top of their head, which means that they are easily manipulated and lack any sort of consistent belief system. If anything, these results bolster the argument. [rather than the last sentence] Both approaches might help explain why there are so few seamless garment Americans, but their implications are very different for religious influence.

It is almost uniquely American to take an alternate view of life, what Claude Fischer has called “just deserts.” Rather than see the inherent worth of everyone, ‘deserters’ see only some as worth society’s protection and support. This individualist view, quite close to an evangelical view, helps explain why support for welfare is so anemic, support for the death penalty is so consistently high, and why support for wealth redistribution does not coalesce — none are deserving since they committed crimes or failed to work or work hard enough. Put differently, this analysis highlights the continued inability of religious leaders to imprint a theological perspective in the face of popular culture. For many reasons, religious leaders have a very difficult time remolding the clay and changing minds.

Ryan P. Burge teaches at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website.

Full coding syntax for this analysis is available on my Github.


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