Interview with John Whitehead, president of Consistent Life Network

by Skylar Covich

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this interview are the personal opinions of Mr. Whitehead, and are not an official statement by the Consistent Life Network.

SC: You are the president of the Consistent Life Network. Describe the concept of consistent life. Can you recommend some articles on the history of the movement, and suggest ways people can get involved now?

John Whitehead imageJW: “Consistent life” or the “consistent life ethic” is the principle that human life should be defended from various socially approved forms of violence such as abortion, the death penalty, euthanasia/assisted suicide, and war. Many people would also understand the ethic as including opposition to threats to life that do not necessarily involve direct killing: racism, for example, or poverty and economic inequality, or human trafficking. Some consistent life ethic advocates are animal rights activists who believe in defending not only human life but also all animal life.

What the different versions of the consistent life ethic have in common, though, is a commitment to defending life which cuts across the usual political ideologies, or at least those ideologies found in the United States. Opposition to abortion and euthanasia or assisted suicide is generally associated with the political right, while opposition to the death penalty and war is generally associated with the political left. (One can legitimately question how historically grounded or accurate those identifications are, but that is how the issues are stereotypically grouped.) Consistent lifers work to get beyond those left-right categories.

The Consistent Life Network understands the ethic as defending life against six major threats: abortion, the death penalty, euthanasia/assisted suicide, poverty, racism, and war. As part of our work to defend life against these threats, we identify how different forms of violence are connected. Abortion, euthanasia, racism, and poverty, as well as discrimination against the disabled, all have long-standing connections to each other. Eugenics, for instance, is a racist, ableist philosophy that has been used to justify abortion and euthanasia. In a similar way, the overrepresentation of people of color on death row indicates how racism and the death penalty are connected.

As far as resources, we have on our website a page featuring a variety of writings on the consistent life ethic. In particular, I would recommend two essays: “Reflections on Personal Discernment: The Abortion Issue” by Bill Samuel, a former president of the Consistent Life Network; and “My Personal Journey on the Abortion Issue” by Rachel MacNair, the Network’s current vice president.

For a more historical look at the Consistent Life Network, our blog posts “Activists Reminisce: An Oral History of Prolifers for Survival” and “The Adventures of Prolifers for Survival — Scorned by Mobilization for Survival” offer a good introduction.

The Human Life Review had a symposium in 2017 on the concept of the consistent life ethic that is well worth reading. Most of the participants endorsed the ethic or were at least sympathetic to it. I would recommend particularly the contribution of Aimee Murphy, of our member group Rehumanize International, and that of our endorser and long-time friend Mary Meehan.

Last, I will, at risk of immodesty, recommend a piece I wrote called “Seeking Peaceful Coexistence,” which describes some of the major variants in consistent life ethic activism and how they can work together. I think that this piece and the other writings I have mentioned give a good sense of both the consistent life movement’s diversity and the core themes that unite the diverse groups within the movement.

If people want to get involved in consistent life ethic activism, I would suggest they contact the Consistent Life Network, or just contact me directly. We are involved in a variety of projects, including educational work meant to raise awareness about the ethic, working against nuclear weapons, and identifying grassroots healthcare options that can serve as alternatives to Planned Parenthood. We welcome new volunteers.

SC: One frequent concern about the consistent life movement, including by some in the American Solidarity Party, is that people point to their specific policy recommendations as life issues, even when a pro-life argument may not be the most logical or convincing. How do you address debates within the movement or critiques of the movement, in order to ensure that it is principled but also welcoming of different perspectives?

JW: To be sure, distinguishing between specific political policies or strategies meant to defend life and the basic principles of respecting life that underlie those policies is very tricky. The temptation is to identify the cause of defending life against a specific type of violence exclusively with one’s own policy solution to the problem. This can lead to a lot of friction and conflict among people who support different solutions.

This probably comes up most frequently in the case of defending unborn humans from abortion. From the fundamental principle that “the unborn have a right to life that must be upheld,” some people draw the practical conclusion that “abortion must be legally prohibited.” Others draw the conclusion that “the root causes that make women seek abortion must be eliminated,” and will therefore advocate for measures such as fighting pregnancy and parenting discrimination in the workplace, or providing more social support to mothers and children. Still others will focus on direct action meant to help women keep their children, such as sidewalk counseling or volunteering at a crisis pregnancy center. And some people will argue in favor of trying all these approaches.

A similar situation can arise with helping the poor. To what degree should helping the poor involve government intervention? What kind of government intervention? What should the role of private charities be?

I think a variety of strategies for defending life can and should coexist within the consistent life movement. Achieving such coexistence is not easy, though. The best idea I can offer for addressing this problem is that all factions should acknowledge (1) the possibility of a legitimate diversity of opinion on political strategies, and (2) the importance and urgency of the injustice we are trying to remedy.

The second point is especially important because the real problem arises if some group that claims to support the consistent life ethic shows itself to be uninterested in stopping one of the major socially-approved forms of violence. I can work with someone who has a different strategy for ending abortion, poverty, or other threats to life. I cannot work with someone who does not recognize these threats to life as problems that must be ended—or, at least, I cannot work with that person on the particular life issue we disagree on. So, whatever one’s precise strategy may be, I think clearly and repeatedly affirming a commitment to defending life against different types of violence—even if one thereby runs afoul of some more mainstream political party or ideology—is crucial.

SC: You have worked significantly in pro-life and pro-peace movements and on food security issues. How did you get involved in these areas, and how did you decide that the consistent life ethic was the best framework for you personally?

JW: I have been pro-life since I was thirteen years old and was sporadically involved in pro-life activism during my teens and twenties. The key turning point in my political life, though, was 9/11. The terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon came when I was fresh out of college and trying to figure out what to do with myself. My country’s involvement in a new global war against terrorism provided a direction for me. The study of war, peace, and international relations became my passion after that, and I eventually ended up going back to school to get a master’s degree at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

Mind you, this new fixation on international relations did not automatically lead me to the peace movement. Like most Americans, I was very angry about the 9/11 attacks, and, also like most Americans, I was reluctant to look past my outrage and ask the hard questions about what the smartest and most just response to terrorism might be. Something that contributed to that reluctance—and this is a very important part of my experience—is how disappointed I was by the anti-war movement in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. I attended some anti-war group meetings in the fall of 2001 and was dismayed by various aspects of the groups: the anti-Americanism, for example, and the emphasis on a quasi-Marxist worldview. I also was disappointed by how one group of anti-war activists I spoke to did not seem to have any positive ideas for how to respond to terrorism. (For a good assessment of the kind of anti-war activism I found so off-putting, see the essay “Can There Be a Decent Left?” by Michael Walzer.)

Because of my anger over 9/11 and my disappointing experience with the anti-war movement, I tended to be a real hawk on foreign policy for a few years in the early 2000s. This led me to make the biggest political mistake of my life: supporting the United States’ war of regime change in Iraq in 2003. I bitterly regret that decision to this day. The war, of course, turned out to be a catastrophe for both Iraq and the United States, with an untold number of deaths being the result. That disaster forced me to reconsider my support for the war and my attitude toward American military power more broadly.

At the same time, my studies of war and peace made me more aware of and sensitive to the danger posed by nuclear weapons. Since 1945, we have all lived with the possibility that a war among great powers could mean not only loss of life but the end of humanity. That dangerous possibility, which receded but did not disappear in the 1990s after the end of the Cold War (or, I should say, the first Cold War), came to weigh very much on my mind. Even more than the danger of nuclear weapons, though, I was appalled by the sheer immorality of such weapons; these were bombs so destructive that they could be used almost entirely indiscriminately, against civilians and military personnel alike. I realized how profoundly wrong it was to destroy entire cities full of people, as the United States did at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and as we continue to threaten to do even today.

I eventually became far more dovish in my views and wanted to do something to promote peace. Yet, I tended to associate conventional anti-war groups with a certain kind of left-wing politics and hence with support for abortion. I did not want to get involved with groups like that. An organization such as the Consistent Life Network—a group of pro-life, pro-peace activists!—was what I needed. Indeed, the background and history of Consistent Life was particularly appropriate for someone with my concerns: the organization began in the 1980s as Pro-Lifers for Survival, a group dedicated to opposing both abortion and nuclear weapons. So, I began volunteering for Consistent Life about seven years ago and found myself getting more and more deeply involved in its work. Now, I am the group’s president, which goes to show what can happen to you when you get involved in activism!

As for food policy, my work as an editor (which is my day job) has required me to read a great many books related to food policy and to international economics more generally. I cannot claim to have a deep grasp of economics, but I have learned a few things over the years about the shape of global poverty and some of the progress we have made in overcoming it. The agricultural Green Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s helped feed and lift out of poverty millions of people, at a time when people such as Paul Ehrlich were warning of the terrible consequences of overpopulation and recommending abortion as a solution. More recently, we have seen the share of people living in extreme poverty fall from over a third of the world’s population in 1990 to about ten percent today; over 1 billion people have been lifted out of poverty in the last thirty years.

All of that ties into Consistent Life’s commitment to protecting life against poverty. Keeping in mind these accomplishments in feeding people and lifting them out of poverty prevents us from feeling hopeless in the face of the terrible poverty that still remains today. One of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is to end extreme poverty; it seems utopian, yet if we have been able to help so many people in the last several decades, why can we not build on past successes to eradicate poverty?

SC: What is your opinion of Christian democracy, which is the primary ideology of the American Solidarity Party?

JW: I am not very familiar with the philosophy of Christian democracy, I must admit. The little I do know impresses me. I gather the concept is influenced partly by Catholic social teaching, which appeals to me personally as a Catholic. I appreciate Christian democracy’s emphasis on the importance of groups such as families and labor unions for a healthy society. That sets the ideology apart from more classically liberal ideologies that emphasize individual people and their rights, or certain socialist ideologies that emphasize state power. And both families and unions need all the support they can get these days, so that attitude is a point in favor of Christian democracy, as far as I am concerned!

Those are just my personal impressions. The Consistent Life Network as an organization is non-sectarian and non-partisan, and as such is open to Christian democracy as well as an array of other political ideologies.

SC: It is my understanding that when it comes to electoral politics, the consistent life movement has been divided among reluctant Democrats, some reluctant Republicans, those who move back and forth depending on the election, those who support third parties even if those parties aren’t consistent-life, and those who reject electoral politics entirely. This makes strategizing difficult.

The American Solidarity Party would like to include as many consistent life activists as possible, especially as we move toward the next election cycle, which will include a presidential contest. Describe the opportunities and obstacles in that work.

JW: I think the prospect of voting for candidates who defend life on all or most of the issues we care about would definitely appeal to some adherents to the consistent life ethic. The choices offered by the two major American political parties are so dismal that having a genuinely pro-life, pro-peace, pro-social justice option is much desired. To the extent that the American Solidarity Party can put forward candidates who stand for the consistent life ethic or something close to it, I think the party has an opportunity to win consistent lifers’ votes.

As you say, however, consistent life ethic activists have diverse approaches to electoral politics. Some people who might like the ASP’s opposition to various forms of direct killing might balk at other party positions. Libertarians, for example, might find the more social-democratic bent of the ASP not to their liking. Moreover, many people, even consistent lifers who are disaffected with mainstream American politics, will (wisely or unwisely) take the view that voting for one of the major-party candidates is the best or most responsible voting behavior. That approach obviously works against third parties of any kind.

Notwithstanding these difficulties, I think the American Solidarity Party does have the opportunity to make a difference in American political life, in two different ways. First, ASP candidates may be able make inroads by running at the local level. While even many consistent lifers might go for major-party candidates for national or statewide office, I think they may be more willing to vote third-party in local elections. The more face-to-face campaigning of local elections could also allow voters to get to know ASP candidates and the overall party better. Local politics could give the ASP an opportunity to build the party at the grassroots.

The second opportunity for the American Solidarity Party is not directly related to elections but is very much related to advancing the consistent life ethic. At present, I think one of the biggest problems we face is simply that people do not know what the consistent life ethic is; they have not heard of the concept, they do not connect the issues that the ethic connects, and they tend to think politically in the usual left-right categories. We need to make people aware of the ethic, of this powerful idea of protecting human life and working against a variety of threats to life. A third political party that vocally endorses the ethic and offers a radical alternative to conventional politics could be an important force for raising awareness of the consistent life philosophy. If the party’s candidates talk about the ethic a lot and if the party highlights the ethic in its traditional media and social media outreach, that could contribute to making the consistent life ethic the household term it ought to be.

SC: The “Nukes Are Not Pro-Life!” rally in Washington, D.C., has been a major project for you personally, and one in which American Solidarity Party members have frequently participated. In a post-Cold War era, describe the argument for getting significantly involved in the issue of nuclear arms. If one were to start a pro-peace rally outside of D.C., would it be better to focus more broadly, or to pick a specific issue such as nuclear arms?

JW: I think protesting the injustice and threat of nuclear weapons is crucial today, largely because we no longer live in a “post-Cold War era.” We are now in the midst of a second Cold War between the United States and Russia. We have seen US-Russia relations get progressively more hostile over the last twenty years, and now the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria have become potential flashpoints for actual armed conflict between the two nations. This situation carries with it the same danger of nuclear war as the last Cold War.

In this month, we have seen the United States and Russia both withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, signed by President Ronald Reagan and Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, which abolished an entire category of nuclear weapons. The Trump administration is reportedly pursuing new investments in nuclear weapons that will cost in the neighborhood of a trillion dollars; part of that money is going toward developing a new, less powerful nuclear missile. Moreover, if the Trump administration does not renew the New START treaty with Russia when it expires in 2021, then the United States will be effectively operating without any controls on nuclear weapons. We seem to be on the brink of a new arms race, and who knows where that will lead?

And this assessment is focusing only on our relationship with Russia. The United States also has tense relationships with nuclear-armed powers such as China and North Korea. Those relationships could also flare up into armed conflict.

Given such a dire world situation, we have to awaken the American people to the terrible dangers we are all living with now. We have to mobilize people in favor of preserving START and establishing new treaties and legal measures to control nuclear weapons. We have to bring some measure of stability to the relationships among the nuclear powers.

Congress is currently considering various bills meant to lessen the danger of nuclear war; the Prevention of Arms Race Act and the No First Use Act are just two examples. These bills are good focal points for peace activism.

Beyond that, simply witnessing against nuclear weapons and for peace and trying to raise people’s consciousness about this issue is important. That consciousness raising is what the anti-nuclear peace vigil in D.C. is about, and I appreciate how involved American Solidarity Party members have been in that effort.

I think it would be marvelous if American Solidarity Party members and activists in cities other than D.C. also held similar anti-nuclear vigils. Certainly, vigils on other peace-related issues would be good, but I see no reason not to focus on the anti-nuclear issue. Nuclear weapons threaten all of humanity—no one can claim to be just a bystander or an uninvolved party. This truly is an issue that concerns everybody. The more people in more cities there are protesting for peace in the face of the nuclear danger, the better.

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