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Liberal activists oppose abortion as part of ‘seamless’ package

NCR Staff

In the minds of many Americans, it is a certain kind of individual -- a stereotype -- who opposes abortion: a political conservative, possibly a misogynist, probably a proponent of the death penalty, and almost surely a single-issue voter who cares only about making abortion illegal again.

Meet the odd bedfellows. In recent years, a different kind of abortion foe has come to the fore: people who espouse a variety of causes otherwise regarded as liberal.

A coalition of such people, the Seamless Garment Network, opposes all forms of violence -- war, abortion, poverty, racism, the arms race, the death penalty and euthanasia. “We dispel all those stereotypes on the left and right,” said Carol Crossed, former director of the network.

The coalition keeps growing, slowly but persistently planting seeds of change, its current executive director, Mary Rider, said. Rider lives with her husband, Patrick O’Neill, and their four children, at a Catholic Worker House they founded in Raleigh, N.C.

The goal of the network, she said, is “not to make abortion illegal, but to make abortion unthinkable.” Coalition members differ on the question of legality, she said.

Representatives of the coalition will participate in the annual March for Life in Washington on Jan. 22, as they have for the past several years. This year’s march will mark the 27th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

The ecumenical, though heavily Catholic, network is in its 13th year. Its 150-some organizational members include Feminists for Life, Pax Christi U.S.A., the Pro-life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians, Conference of Religious Superiors of Men, Catholics Against Capital Punishment, Catholic Charities U.S.A., and a number of congregations of Catholic nuns, including Sisters of Mercy of the Americas. Some very small groups also belong -- peace and justice commissions of congregations, for instance -- as do two noteworthy groups of Christian evangelicals, Sojourners and Evangelicals for Social Action, groups that combine conservative theology with a broad social justice agenda.

“The list is very heavily Catholic,” Rider said. “We wish we had more diversity.”

Under a recent policy, individuals can also join the Seamless Garment Network. Those who have joined include four Catholic bishops, Rider said: Thomas Gumbleton, Raymond Hunthausen, Leroy Matthiesen and Walter Sullivan.

The Dalai Lama has signed the coalition’s mission statement, as has Wendell Berry, the environmentalist, and Nat Hentoff, the civil libertarian.

In 1987, when the coalition was formed, the idea of connecting life-related issues was in the air, Rider said. It was four years after Cardinal Joseph Bernardin had first floated his idea of “a seamless ethic of life.” Sojourners and The Other Side, two Christian evangelical magazines, had written about it.

Speaking at Fordham University in New York in 1983, Bernardin called on Catholics to exercise moral consistency by supporting life at every turn, opposing not only abortion but also capital punishment and euthanasia.

Strong feminist

A few years later, in the mid-1980s, some peace activists began expressing discomfort with the pro-abortion stance of many of their colleagues in the peace movement. Among those was Carol Crossed, who would go on to direct the Seamless Garment Network from 1992 to 1998. Initially she refused to get involved in the antiabortion cause, in part because she was and is “a strong feminist,” she said.

Crossed has supported the Equal Rights Amendment and worked on a variety of causes aimed at overcoming hunger among children and “feminization of poverty,” she said. She worked with Bread for the World for many years. A former member of the National Organization for Women, which staunchly supports abortion rights, Crossed said she had regarded the antiabortion cause as the dominion of “right-wing fundamentalists.”

Gradually, though, Crossed changed her mind. She said she began to see support for abortion rights as an inconsistency in the peace movement. It seemed to her that abortion was linked to the violence that she opposed everywhere else. She had put a lot of energy into demonstrating against nuclear weapons because she abhorred violence to children, she said. It seemed to her that abortion was just that.

“How can you say you believe in conflict resolution when in abortion you are actually destroying one of the parties to the conflict?” she now asks. “I couldn’t lie to myself like that anymore.”

Activists who shared that mindset formed ProLifers for Survival, provoking such strong controversy in the antiwar movement that they split off and mobilized on their own, describing themselves as “cross fertilizers.”

In 1987, Mary Rider, then leader of ProLifers for Survival, got funding for a conference that brought together leaders of groups generally regarded as liberal -- except for their views on abortion. At that conference, the Seamless Garment Network was born. Its mission statement: “We are committed to the protection of life, which is threatened in today’s world by war, abortion, the death penalty, the arms race, poverty and euthanasia. We believe these issues are linked under a consistent ethic of life. We challenge those working on all or some of these issues to maintain a cooperative spirit of peace, reconciliation and respect in protecting the unprotected.”

In 1992, “racism” was added to the list of threats to life.

Rider and many other members of the coalition link abortion to the violence that pervades U.S. society -- violence such as the shooting rampage that that ended the lives of 15 people at Columbine High School last year. “When teenagers see adults solving problems with violence, whether the problem is crime, unwanted pregnancies or international conflicts, they see actions that speak louder than words,” she said.

The network’s vision gained support of some prominent individuals who signed Seamless Garment ads. The individuals included the Nobel laureates Adolfo Perez Esquivel, Mairead Corrigan and the Dalai Lama.

Then, too, Pope John Paul II took up the theme in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, “Gospel of Life.” The pope linked abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment, though he did not use the term “seamless garment.”

So far, the network’s activities have been limited, its profile low, according to Crossed, who lives in Rochester, N.Y. Seamless Garment sponsors two or three ads a year, provides speakers and convenes dialogues. “Our largest task is answering the ‘Where have you been all my life?’ mail, the kind where you can almost hear people taking a deep breath of fresh air,” Crossed said in an article published in Quaker Life magazine last year.

Finding resources

Crossed, who supports the environmental movement and the women’s movement along with the peace movement, has been arrested some 18 times for civil disobedience, once spending three weeks in jail.

As a longtime feminist, Crossed now feels a strong affinity for Feminists for Life, an organization that wants to take feminism back to the movement’s antiabortion roots. Serrin Foster, president of Feminists for Life, points out in her many talks around the country that founders of the first wave of feminism, suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were adamantly opposed to abortion. The organization’s literature cites a letter Stanton wrote in 1873 to Julia Ward Howe. “When we consider that women are treated as property, it is degrading to women that we should treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit,” Stanton said.

Foster said Feminists for Life, based in Washington, has 5,000 members. Ironically, it was formed by members of the National Organization for Women who broke with the group in 1972 because of its pro-abortion stand.

If Americans spent as much energy “solving the problems that drive women to abortion” as they do fighting over abortion, society would be a lot better off, Foster said. She expends most of her effort on college campuses trying to build resources that will make it easier for a woman with a child to stay in school and arguing against the view that abortion liberates women. Those who benefit most from abortion, she said in a recent talk at Washington University in St. Louis, are not women but men and society at large, because both are freed of the responsibilities of caring for children. Supporters of abortion often believe that it frees women to compete with men in the working world, she said, when they should be insisting that institutions be more accommodating to women with children.

In many cases, Foster said, a young woman’s pregnancy during her college years, whether expected or unexpected, is regarded as “a failure.” Abortion is proposed as a solution.

“People talk about choice, but in reality there’s only one choice,” Foster said. “The choice to have children is not acceptable if a woman is of college age.”

But attitudes are gradually changing, Foster said. She noted that the percentage of young women who believe abortion should be legal has fallen off considerably in the past few years. According to an annual study by the University of California Los Angeles, support for legalized abortion among young women entering college dropped from a high of 65.5 percent in 1989 to 49.5 percent in 1998. The shift has abortion rights activists deeply concerned.

“We’re making headway,” Foster said. “There’s a cultural shift happening with this age group.”

Lois Kerschen of Houston who heads Democrats for Life of America, thinks political changes are ahead as well. She said she had been contacted by Democrats in 30 states who are interested in starting state chapters linked to the new national group. “The debate over partial birth abortion has made people more aware of what abortion is all about,” she said.

Indeed, polls show that a primary feature of the landscape of opinion on abortion is a vast “muddled middle.” Although national polls show that a majority of Americans think abortion should be legal, pollsters also report strong support for restrictions and widespread belief that abortion is immoral. In many states, support for restrictions has resulted in restrictive laws. On the other hand, abortion rights activists scored a victory last September when the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis overturned restrictive late-term abortion laws of three states, Nebraska, Arkansas and Iowa.

Kerschen hopes that the growing sentiment against abortion on demand will lead Democrats who oppose abortion to become more vocal. Although Democratic politicians who oppose legal abortion are rare, polls have shown that as many as 40 percent of Democrats hold a “somewhat pro-life position,” meaning that they favor some restrictions on abortion, Kerschen said.

“The party has tried to portray the party as uniform on this issue,” she said. “It’s not true. We want to let people know you can be Democrat and pro-life at the same time.” Further, Kerschen said, support for abortion rights is inconsistent with Democrats’ historic support for the weak and powerless.

Kerschen finds it ironic that the Republican Party has become a haven for abortion foes. “The Democratic party is the party of compassion,” she said. “It’s very strange then that the party would turn on a pregnant woman and propose that she kill her unborn child. That’s a total turnaround from the way the Democratic Party has worked,” she said.

The way to reduce abortions is to help and support women with pregnancies and problems, she said.

Crossed agrees. She recently told a reporter, “I see a liberal as one who embraces life, whether it’s women, the poor, gays and lesbians, the people on death row or the unborn. It is antithetical for liberals to exclude a class of persons from our embrace.”

The address for the: Seamless Garment Network, PO Box 921, Garner, NC 27529.

National Catholic Reporter, January 21, 2000