The Seamless Garment Revisited

In the early 1980s, Chicago’s Cardinal Joseph Bernardin made some provocative remarks about abortion. He argued that abortion was one of a “seamless garment” of life issues. He was careful to state that all life issues were not equal and that abortion was chief among them. His idea was to provide the intellectual framework to integrate the new Catholic activism on abortion with existing Catholic social activism driven by concern for the poor.

Still, his approach was widely panned by movement pro-lifers. Broadening the scope to a “seamless garment” of life issues, they thought, rather than keeping a laser like focus on abortion, would only lend oxygen to liberal Catholics who were indifferent (or worse) to Roe v. Wade. And it would only sow discord in the right-to-life coalition itself, which was deadlocked over other “life issues” like capital punishment and nuclear arms.

But the “seamless garment” problem foreshadowed how difficult it would be over time to prevent many pro-life Catholics from striking Faustian bargains with pro-choice Democrats, who promised to deliver on the rest of the “seamless garment,” while the GOP’s progress against abortion seemed stalled both in Congress and the courts. A number of these Catholics disagreed with nearly every plank in the GOP platform but the one on abortion. The effect of the “seamless garment” is that Democrats have not paid quite as dearly for their support for abortion as they ought to have among Catholic voters.

This is why, when it comes to the politics of abortion, pro-lifers tend to be a pretty pessimistic bunch. And why not? After decades of ink being spilled, pixels and band-width being consumed, hours spent lobbying the government, praying at clinics and in churches, legal abortion seems as firmly entrenched as at any time since 1973. Indeed according to Gallup, the number of Americans supporting first trimester abortions is essentially unchanged from the mid-1970s. Yes, there is a small upswing in disapproval of abortion among Americans under thirty. Yet given the fact that this same cohort overwhelmingly supports gay marriage and Barack Obama, it is hard to shake the feeling that their pro-life trend is a statistical mirage.

But one thing that is not a statistical mirage is the fact that abortion is declining and has been declining rather steadily – something that neither Bernadin nor partisans on either side of the issue had predicted. Indeed data from the Centers for Disease Control show that the number of abortions declined every year from 1990-2005 (the last year available). The Guttmacher Institute, whose methodology is even more rigorous, reports figures even more striking. Not only have abortions declined 25 percent since 1990, but the abortion rate is now down around its 1974 level, one year after Roe – a whopping 33 percent decline from its peak in 1980.

Neither side in the abortion debate knows quite what to make of this. The most readily offered explanation for the decline – the increased use of contraceptives – is not terribly convincing. The effects of the birth control revolution on U.S. fertility rates have been fully felt since 1975 when the birth rate plummeted from the height of the baby-boom in 1957 to just over half that level. Post-Roe birth rates have actually fluctuated. After peaking in 1990, then falling slightly until the mid-1990’s, rates inched upwards until 2007, a year which saw the largest number of U.S. births ever recorded – all while abortion rates were declining. Contraception alone cannot account for this. Even accounting for exogenous factors such as the higher rates of twin births, it is evident that, regardless of how they vote or what they tell pollsters, American women are rejecting abortion in increasing numbers. Even people who call themselves philosophically “pro-choice” are far more likely than not to be functionally “pro-life.”

Is it then time for the pro-life movement to declare victory? Certainly not. For one thing, lacking better legal protections for the unborn, there is nothing to stop the abortion rate from surging upwards again. Even if the abortion rate falls below pre-Roe levels, there would still be around a million abortions a year – a truly horrifying statistic that will keep right-to-lifers awake at night.

Legal abortion itself will remain galvanizing. Laws are an expression of the moral health of society. Abolitionists were not satisfied with Lincoln’s original plan that slavery remain protected while put on a path to eventual extinction. Neither will most pro-lifers be satisfied with a world in which abortion remains perfectly legal, even where fewer people actually choose it.

And this leads to the real reason why pro-lifers are not noticeably happier today than, say, in 1980, when there were many more abortions. Even with fewer abortions, society as a whole is not visibly more “pro-life.” The basic cultural norms and assumptions that undergirded the surge in abortion in the 1970s seem as firmly entrenched as ever. Indeed, the achievement of fewer abortions has mostly come at the cost of a much higher illegitimacy rate – Murphy Brown’s revenge one might say.

The abortion fight has always been at least in part a proxy for the broader struggle for a more just, life-affirming society and a more family-oriented culture. Stopping abortion is, in other words, part of a “seamless garment.” Framing the abortion debate this way, as Bernardin did, was politically naïve and tactically stupid. But as things look now, it is increasingly clear that the good cardinal had a point.

Peter Brown is completing a doctorate in Biblical Studies at the Catholic University of America.