By Dan Ebener
Of all the great people we have brought to Davenport to receive the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award, the person who probably had the most profound impact on my life was Eileen Egan. She was a role model for me because she connected issues of peace, justice and pro-life and was able to make such a difference as a missionary, author, writer and activist.
Eileen was best of friends with two well-known Pacem in Terris recipients, Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa. She worked most of her adult life for Catholic Relief Services, participated in the Catholic Worker community and served on many boards, including mine when I was working for a peace organization in New York in the early 1980s.
In 1971, Eileen coined the term “seamless garment” when she wrote, “The protection of life is a seamless garment. You can’t protect some life and not others.” Several Catholic bishops, most notably Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, took this same approach and over the next three decades. Reverence for all human life evolved into a major principle in Catholic teaching.
Over the past four decades, Catholics have debated how to vote with this consistent ethic. One political party tends to be more “pro-life” on one set of issues while the other party is more “pro-life” on another set of issues.
What is a Catholic to do? For decades, this debate has waged. Many Catholic feel “homeless” when it comes to political parties because neither party has been consistent in its protection of human life. For the most part, Catholic voters, activists and politicians have had to choose between being pro-life on abortion or pro-life on poverty.
For some Catholics, abortion trumped all other issues because of the sheer number of lives being taken by abortion and because of the pure vulnerability of life in the womb. The argument was that if Catholics would vote Republican, eventually, they could garner enough support to overturn Roe vs. Wade, which would end abortion.
That day may have arrived when Brett Kavanaugh joined the Supreme Court. We just may have five justices who will vote to overturn Roe. Now that we have reached this point, some think we are near our goal of ending abortion. Yet, there are several significant reasons why overturning Roe alone will not end abortion as so many have hoped and prayed for.
First, overturning Roe would not make abortion illegal in all states. Instead, it would send the ultimate decision back to the states, where abortion could be further restricted or outlawed.
Second, the idea that the best way to end abortion is to outlaw it may have been flawed from the beginning. When has passing a law against something ever changed people’s minds about whether that activity is moral or not? Laws may be able to make it more difficult for some people to have an abortion, but they will not end abortion.
Third, in the November issue of Sojourners, Lisa Sharon Harper points out that the states with the highest abortion rates tend to be the same states that are least likely to restrict or outlaw abortion. Those states tend to be ones with urban population centers and with the highest poverty rates.
As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has taught for the past three decades, poverty is a major driver of abortion. While abortion rates have declined over the past 20 years, the abortion rate among poor women has continued to climb.
Ironically, the same elected officials and Supreme Court justices who support the end of Roe tend to be the same ones who oppose efforts to address the social and economic causes of poverty. Ultimately, to end abortion, we will have to change people’s hearts and minds about the “seamless garment.” Choosing between the end of poverty and the end of abortion is a false dichotomy. It is not choosing life.
Eileen Egan, Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa had it right: To reduce or end the abortion rate, we need to reduce or end the poverty rate.
(Dan Ebener is diocesan director of parish planning.)