Is It Time to Resurrect the ‘Seamless Garment’?

Horrifying accounts about the practices of Kermit Gosnell have generated an important discussion about journalism in America today. That’s a discussion I encourage, and the anti-abortion movement is surely pivoting to this event in the hopes a broader dialogue will begin. It is challenging to read through the graphic grand jury report where each line and word heaps injustices upon injustices. In my mind though, the crimes of Gosnell speak not only to the need for greater defense of unborn children in this moment, but the resurrection (amid the Easter season) of the Seamless Garment.

Restoring a sincere respect for life, dignity, and creation within the Catholic community, and then hopefully evangelizing this belief to the world, is our only way moving forward. The Seamless Garment provides Catholics a framework to re-imagine our pro-all life efforts anew.

For those unfamiliar, I offer a patchwork history of this Seamless Garment philosophy. Eileen Egan, a Catholic pacifist and someone worth reading up on, first used “seamless garment” in the 1970s as a challenge to those in the anti-abortion movement who favored the death penalty. Alluding to John 19, where soldiers crucifying Jesus cast lots for his garment that could not be torn into pieces, this phrase is used to emphasis the necessary defense of each and every life.

In the 1980s, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago unified this belief in his concept of a “Consistent Life Ethic,” for which the Seamless Garment remained a metaphor. The cardinal inextricably linked the defense of life and dignity in the many causes aimed towards one end, creating a culture of life while admitting the unique nature and needs of each injustice.

Kermit Gosnell’s clinic, the Women’s Medical Society, exemplifies the utter breakdown of our society’s cloth. In this devastating clinic, countless injustices amplify one another cyclically: abortion and healthcare, poverty and racism, government failures and media dishonesty, medical ethics and institutional accountability, economic justice and the idolatry of profit, and, perhaps in Gosnell’s trial, the death penalty.

The clinic profited from its “cash for an abortion without questions” scheme that preyed on poor women, largely of color, who ostensibly saw no alternatives. Gosnell committed abortions and infanticide as “medical procedures” in a clinic lacking standards of any sort, violating women and children as a matter of routine business and sending forth those who survived with health complications, venereal disease, and emotional wounds. Oppose abortion, support choice — we all must admit the Women’s Medical Society is a creature unto itself for facilities providing such services.

Sadly, Kermit Gosnell and his clinic cannot be considered the result of one man gone awry in one building. These crimes are personal assuredly, but also structurally sinful. Our nation fails to provide adequate healthcare and social services for women with children, who turn to abortion and pay-in-cash medical clinics. Racist structures and institutionalized poverty, enriched by government policies favoring the wealthy, further exaggerate the struggles of the women Gosnell “treated.” The ideology of individualism, abhorring government regulation on the right and championing “choice” on the left, leaves us with a system where Kermit Gosnell’s can easily exploit women because no one will even inspect his clinic. I safely assume migration policies affected negatively women in his clinic, and I could elucidate for pages on how our system not only allowed, but also enabled Kermit Gosnell to wantonly kill children and women for cash.

Today, it is impossible to overcome any injustice without a united cause against all threats. The Consistent Life Ethic, once a fruitful approach for Catholics and those of faith in building up the common good, suffers condemnation from all sides. Some anti-abortion activists reject it for not singularly focusing on the life of unborn children, as it simultaneously confronts right-wing support of the death penalty, gun rights ideology, militarism, etc. Progressives cannot accept the Seamless Garment because it rejects the excessive individualism that “choice” is premised upon, and at its core the Left in America is not seeking a Gospel-based communitarian vision of society that this ethic is rooted in.

The Consistent Life Ethic requires neither that we all work on every issue, but keeps us from callously neglecting any issue. In the tradition of Catholic theology, a consistent ethic forces each of us to navigate the “both/and” of standing up for every life while keeping a focus in our individual work on issue x, y, or z, and the “both/and” of policy nuances negotiated within civil society.

If the crimes of Kermit Gosnell propel us anywhere, I pray it is towards a resurrection of the Seamless Garment. Drone strikes that devalue life against those in Afghanistan affect the unborn in our inner cities. Vilifying the poor who receive government assistance denies each person their dignity, and soon mass shootings are an all too common occurrence. Idolatrizing a gun or anything aside from God leaves no place for love to rupture through in our world. These are not directly cause and effect scenarios, but rather the cumulative impact of devaluing another’s dignity resulting in horrors like the Women’s Medical Society.

As Pentecost nears, let the Catholic community wrap ourselves in the Seamless Garment of Christ and then, with hearts ablaze and tongues speaking the language of every injustice, build a society where Kermit Gosnell’s clinics cede to the Kingdom of God enacted in a historical-temporal reality. 

-Bob

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