Beyond the Abortion Wars (book review)
August 8, 2016
By Hendrik van der Breggen
The following review appeared in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith: Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, Volume 68, Number 2 (June 2016): 133-135. Reprinted here with permission.
BEYOND THE ABORTION WARS: A Way Forward for a New Generation by Charles C. Camosy. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015. 207 pages. Hardcover; $22.00. ISBN: 9780802871282.
In Beyond the Abortion Wars, Catholic ethicist Charles Camosy (Fordham University) looks unflinchingly at the apparent impasse in the U.S. abortion debate between “pro-choicers” and “pro-lifers” and as a solution proposes what he calls the Mother and Prenatal Child Protection Act. Camosy takes the concerns of opposing camps seriously, gleaning insights and skewering falsehoods wherever they occur, and he finds large swathes of common ground that respects both women and their unborn children. In spite of occasional shortcomings in Camosy’s arguments, I agree with reviewers who deem this short six-chapter book a “must read.”
Chapter one discerns common ground between the pro-choice and pro-life camps by examining U.S. abortion rates and public opinion on abortion. It turns out that merely 2% of America’s 1.2 million yearly abortions are due to the hard cases of rape, incest, or when a mother’s life is threatened, whereas the remaining 98% are “qualitatively different,” that is, as Camosy later argues, they are due to the very real inconvenience/ burden of raising a child. (This inconvenience includes the shocking fact that 90% of children diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted.) Significantly, polls reveal that many pro-choicers wish to restrict abortion in large measure, many pro-lifers are inclined to permit abortion in the hard cases, and both camps want to reduce social pressures on women to abort. In sum: “Though some find themselves on the extremes of the debate, more are in the complex middle”—a complex middle protective of women andpre-natal children.
Camosy also shows that important U.S. demographics favor this complex middle. More women than men are against legalized abortion. Hispanics (a majority ethnicity in California and growing in Texas and elsewhere) tend to be more pro-life than pro-choice. And the vast majority of Millennials are “trending” in the pro-life-pro-women direction. Contrary to abortion polarizations presented by popular political and news narratives, the “actual facts on the ground” are amenable to a more restrictive abortion policy protective of mothers and their unborn children. Camosy finds this hopeful. I do too.
Chapter two addresses the moral status of the unborn: what, or who, is the fetus? Camosy makes it clear that contemporary science—embryology, fetology, and biology—informs us that the human fetus is in fact a human being. The fetus is a genetically distinct, self-governing dynamic entity/ individual organism that belongs to the human species. It’s not feline or canine; it’s human. It’s not a cat or a dog; it’s a human being. It’s not a kitten or a puppy; it’s a child. In addition, Camosy rightly points out, “it is simply biologically incorrect to say that [human fetuses] are ‘mere tissue’ or ‘part of their mother.’” To pro-lifers, this is well-known. For at least some pro-choicers and for newcomers to the abortion discussion, these facts need to be made clear. (In my native Canada, the Criminal Code mistakenly states that prior to birth the fetus is not a human being.)
Camosy also addresses the important objection that the unborn child, though a human being, isn’t a “person.” That is, the unborn human being lacks some specific developmental feature which confers the right to life. But, as Camosy well argues, this approach to personhood is problematic. The allegedly decisive features fail because they weaken the personhood of many human beings who clearly already have the right to life. For example, if self-awareness and ability to make moral choices are the crucial criteria of personhood, then the right to life of newborn infants as well as sleeping, stunned, or mentally disabled persons is jeopardized. As a result, the equality in equal rights gets ungrounded. Or, if a “low” trait such as the capacity to feel pain is chosen, then, oddly, personhood gets conferred to rats and mice. Camosy’s solution is to ground the equality of equal rights in the capacities to know and love (which fits well with the theological notion of being made in the image of God). Helpfully, Camosy sets out a distinction between the potential to become a human being (a potential that does not yet have these capacities to know and love, i.e., sperm and egg prior to fertilization) and the potential for a human being to become its subsequent developmental stages (a potential that does have the capacities to know and love, i.e., the union of sperm and egg). Camosy acknowledges that fertilization involves a process, so there is some gray area in which Camosy wisely urges caution.
In chapter three Camosy makes a case for permitting abortion in the few-but-difficult cases, for instance, when pregnancy threatens the mother’s life or is a result of rape. Here Camosy’s arguments seem weak. He distinguishes between “direct abortion,” wherein the aim is to kill the fetus/ child, and “indirect abortion,” wherein the aim is to refuse aid to the fetus/ child, when one has no duty to aid, and so death is a foreseen but unintended result. He also distinguishes between the fetus’s “formal” innocence and “material” innocence: the fetus may lack responsible agency (and thus have formal innocence) but be a threat causally (and thus not lack material innocence). For Camosy, these distinctions allow him to hold to the moral principle that “it is always wrong to aim at the death of the innocent” yet permit abortion to save the mother’s life or, in the case of rape, cease to aid via an indirect abortion (here Camosy permits the abortifacient RU-486). The terms “direct” and “indirect” are a bit confusing (most abortions are pretty direct, it seems to me), but we can let that pass as Camosy’s prerogative in setting out stipulative definitions. Nevertheless, serious problems remain. Doesn’t the duty to aid a vulnerable person accrue to us—especially parents—from the very personhood of the unborn? And doesn’t abortion violate this duty, intrinsically? For Camosy’s argument to work, the unborn person’s alleged lack of “material innocence” requires an equivocation on the notion of innocence in the moral principle that “it is always wrong to aim at the death of the innocent.” But, surely, the relevant notion of innocence in the moral principle is wholly “formal.” A better way is to recognize the truth that abortion is an evil. Abortion destroys an innocent who is not a responsible agent and clearly is not at all morally (“formally”) responsible for its material/ causal threatening to the mother in the first place. I sympathize with permitting abortion as “self-defense” if the unborn’s continued life materially threatens the mother’s life. Still, even in this hard case the unborn remains a person who is the epitome of innocence and vulnerability and whose deliberate destruction is wrong. So, contraCamosy, I think the above moral principle is violated when an abortion occurs to save a mother’s life, but this abortion may(i.e., perhaps) be justified, if justified at all, as a lesser of two evils. A case-by-case assessment would be needed. Also, in the case of rape, it seems odd and unjust to punish an innocent for his/her violent conception by another party. It may be politically prudent to permit abortion in the hard cases in order to gain restrictions for the 98% of abortions (I understand and favor this), but we should also continue to think carefully about the lives of all innocents—for their sake and for the sake of truth.
Camosy addresses the challenge of public policy on abortion in chapter four. He argues that the criminalization of abortion in general need not lead to increased deaths of women due to illegal “back alley” abortions because abortion has become a relatively safe procedure (due to advanced medical technology) and there is evidence that previous high estimates of such abortions were fabricated (as admitted by ex-abortionist Dr. Bernard Nathanson, co-founder of the National Abortion Right and Action League). Moreover, because law serves as a teacher, public policy restrictions on abortion can encourage a culture (as illustrated in Ireland and Poland) in which pre-natal children are protected, women seeking abortion are not punished as murderers, and illegal abortion providers are, for the sake of political prudence, found “guilty of something less than felony murder.”
In chapter five Camosy argues that “we should consider both prenatal children and their mothers as vulnerable populations,” but, and significantly, current abortion “choice” favors neither. As mentioned, over 1.2 million pre-natal children are killed annually in the U.S. while only 2% are due to the hard cases. But evidence also shows that large numbers of post-abortive mothers face guilt and increased health problems. Moreover, pregnant women face immense social pressures to “choose” abortion without real options to handle the inconvenience/ burden associated with child-rearing. These pressures arise not only from the boyfriend/ husband, parents, family, and friends, but also from larger social structures. Significantly, Camosy argues, workplaces are geared to treating all employees as men. Here all of us should take note: “Our social structures force women to choose between (1) honoring their roles as the procreators and sustainers of the earliest stages of human life and (2) having social and economic equality with men.” To protect prenatal children and their mothers, Camosy rightly argues, we should protect them from this dilemma.
In the last chapter and conclusion, Camosy proposes as a way forward his Mother and Prenatal Child Protection Act. This act protects the vast majority of pre-natal children, allowing abortion in the small percentage of hard cases, plus outlines support for women to enable them to keep and raise their babies. Readers from all political stripes, and whether “pro-choice” or “pro-life,” should consider Camosy’s proposal. If the proposal doesn’t end the abortion wars, it may at least reduce the number of casualties.
Reviewed by Hendrik van der Breggen, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Providence University College, Otterburne, Manitoba R0A 1G0.