A Way Beyond the Abortion Wars?
Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation, Charles C. Camosy, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015.
Ever since Roe v Wade, abortion has been a major political issue in the United States, and we don’t seem to be making much progress in coming to some solution that would quiet down the “abortion wars.” Charles Camosy, Professor of Theological and Social Ethics at Fordham University and a Board member of CL member group Democrats for Life of America, has been deeply concerned about this for a long time. He was one of the key organizers of the 2010 Conference, Open Hearts, Open Minds and Fair Minded Words: A Conference on Life & Choice in the Abortion Debate, held at Princeton University. This brought together people from across the spectrum of views on abortion in an atmosphere encouraging respectful and fruitful dialogue on the issue.
Camosy seeks in this book to move the dialogue forward by outlining where we are in the abortion controversy in the U.S., describing key approaches to a better understanding, and presenting a proposal for moving forward. He presents an outline of The Mother and Prenatal Child Protection Act (MPCPA), which he proposes as federal legislation. In the course of the book, he also engages in considerable discussion of Catholic theology as it relates to the issues discussed in the book.
Camosy is to be thanked for his considerable effort to find a way to move the country forward on this difficult issue. His book, which includes extensive footnotes and a bibliography, shows evidence of the enormous effort he has made to gather information and perspectives helpful in moving forward. There is much in the book which will be helpful to people interested in making progress on this issue.
In looking at the present state of the abortion debate, he indicates that confusion and polarization have created the illusion of a hopeless stalemate. However, he maintains a majority of Americans actually agree in many respects about abortion morality and law. He supports this with the results of numerous polls which show that most Americans are not on either end of the spectrum of views on abortion and the law. And he notes that it’s only been a few decades since abortion was identified with party and ideology in the way it often is today. He writes of a “Costanza strategy” in which ideological and party positions on abortion seem to be in contrast to their general political approach. Republicans seem to take a “big government” approach in focusing on legal regulation, while Democrats seem to take an individualistic approach rather than protecting the vulnerable.
Relying heavily on the work of feminist scholar (and CL endorser) Sidney Callahan, Camosy extensively looks at the effects of abortion on women. In looking at the main principles of “pro-choice” feminists, she (Callahan) realized they were not feminist at all but simply borrowed from men. Camosy also notes that current American policies on abortion are largely a product of men. Men such as Dr. Bernard Nathanson and Hugh Hefner were key figures in the early days of a strong push for “abortion rights.” Roe v Wade was decided by an all-male Supreme Court, and Justice Blackmun’s majority decision particularly focused on the concerns of male physicians. Because women’s choices are made in the context of social structures created by powerful and privileged men, making abortion an option also results in pressures on women to have abortions rather than leading to greater freedom for women. A study found that only 28% of American women having abortions said they were sure about the decision, and 64% said they were pressured by others to have the abortion.
Camosy notes some important reasons for hope that the country can move forward. There are significant demographic factors in play here. The rising proportion of Latinos in the population is important because this population is more inclined to favor protecting the lives of prenatal children regardless of their party identification. Another factor is the generational shift in which younger age groups are more skeptical of abortion than older age groups. He also notes that, despite the “war on women” rhetoric of “pro-choice” groups, poll after poll has shown that a larger proportion of women than men support restrictions on abortion.
What Is Abortion?
Camosy posits that there are “direct abortions” and “indirect abortions.” In doing so, I think he is blurring important distinctions. To most people, abortion is an act taken with the deliberate intention to end a fetal life. If you Google “abortion definition” you are presented immediately with the answer of “the deliberate termination of a human pregnancy.” This is what Camosy calls “direct abortions” (with an important qualifier described in the next paragraph). Medical procedures taken for other reasons which might result in an undesired side effect of the death of a prenatal child are not considered by most people (for good reason) to be abortions, and Camosy confuses things by labeling them “indirect abortions.” One reason this is important is that even the most strongly pro-life people who want all abortions to be illegal will generally oppose making such medical procedures illegal. Overall, he is seeking to blur the lines between “pro-life” and “pro-choice” which has value in trying to come to common ground on ways forward, but I don’t think broadening the term abortion to include cases where there is no intent to terminate a human life is an appropriate way to do that. Prenatal children die for a variety of reasons, but it seems to me that intent is critical to defining abortion.
But Camosy goes even further. He includes in “indirect abortions” cases where there is a deliberate decision to end the life of a prenatal child, but the means used is RU-486 (mifepristone) rather than surgical abortion. His argument for considering chemical abortions “indirect” is based on an analysis of the exact means by which the drug results in a death which he holds puts it in the category of “refusal to aid,” a distinction based upon common categories used by professional ethicists. However, to most people it is not the means used which is critical, but the intent to end the life of the prenatal child.
A Way Forward?
Camosy proposes federal legislation with provisions he divides into four categories:
- Equal Protection of the Law for the Prenatal Child. Direct surgical abortions would be prohibited except to save the life of the mother.
- Equal Protection of the Law for Women during Pregnancy. A pregnant woman would have the “right to defend herself with deadly force against a clear and present mortal threat.” Direct abortion would be permitted if the pregnancy poses a “clear and present” threat to the mother’s life, and “indirect abortion” would not be effective.
- Support of Mothers and Their Children during and after Pregnancy. He proposes to protect the civil rights and social equality of women through a number of measures, including: equal pay for equal work; increased protection for women and mothers when it comes to hiring and firing; universal access to postpartum maternal health care; dramatically increased paid pregnancy leave with complete job protection; two years of universally available prekindergarten and increased availability of affordable child care; attempts to reform the both the huge cost of adoption and the stigma of adoption; and improvements in collecting child support along with prosecution of those pressuring women into having an abortion.
- Refusal to Aid for a Proportionately Serious Reason. “Indirect abortion” would be banned except to save the mother’s life and in these three cases: 1) in the first eight weeks of pregnancy using RU-486; 2) after eight weeks of pregnancy where nonconsensual sex is demonstrated by a preponderance of evidence; and 3) clear and unambiguous terminal diagnosis and the likelihood that the prenatal child will die in utero (to allow mother and other family to baptize, cuddle, or otherwise bond with the child).
Key here is Camosy’s framing of an important aspect of the seemingly intractable nature of the abortion debate being that on the one side of the issue the focus is on the prenatal child and on the other side the pregnant woman, often without giving much consideration to the other party. This results in people on opposite sides of the issue talking past one another. Camosy seeks to bridge this gap by incorporating the basic civil rights of both mother and child in the proposal. Whatever one might think of some of the specific elements of the proposal, it seems to me that Camosy is right on target on the need to incorporate protections for both the mother and the child.
There are certainly barriers to such a proposal, some of them intrinsic to the political and cultural environment in the country and some which may be related to how Camosy framed his proposal. I see some of these as:
- How the media/corporate/political-industrial complex, as Camosy describes it, has framed the abortion debate. I believe Camosy is correct that the people are not nearly as polarized on the issue as this complex would have us believe, but the reframing of the issue in ways that foster real solutions is going to face difficult going.
- Those on either end of the spectrum of views on abortion will need to compromise to some extent if we are to reach some societal agreement which will substantially abate the abortion wars. This is difficult, and those with a more nuanced perspective are less likely to try to lead movements related to the issue than those with the strongest views on each side.
- Camosy rests significant parts of his proposal on making or blurring distinctions in ways which will not seem to make sense to most Americans. The idea that medical procedures not intended for the purpose of ending the life of a prenatal child can nevertheless be considered abortions, and the idea that whether an abortion is surgical or chemical is a key distinction seem like non-starters to me.
- The differences which exist in America on the role of government in general and the relative roles of different levels of government create difficulties in accomplishing all this through Federal legislation aside from the question of the basic merit of the ideas included. So we will have some objections on the basis that a provision should not be a matter of government mandate at all, and some on the basis that the provision should be decided on the state or local level not the Federal level.
- On the more specific level, it seemed to me a glaring omission that Camosy does not mention paid maternity leave, despite the importance of this to the mother (and family as a whole) and the fact that the U.S. is one of only two countries in the world which do not mandate paid maternity leave. This seems a more critical matter than the increased paid pregnancy leave he does include.
However, I think Camosy has provided a great service in seeking to outline such a comprehensive way forward. Few people would agree 100% with anyone’s attempt to outline such a comprehensive proposal, but this does not negate the value of doing so. I hope that his effort will stimulate thinking on what is needed, and it should help in moving forward in developing some legislation which can obtain sufficient support to be enacted. So I heartily commend Camosy for drafting and publishing the proposal.
It’s Not Just a Catholic Issue
There is a problem in the structure of the book which can cause confusion. Camosy is quite explicit that the theology of a particular faith group should not be the basis of legislative action. Yet he has been accused of seeking to impose Catholic theological positions on the nation. While the charge is false and he has presented arguments for what he proposes which are not dependent on any particular theological point of view, the interweaving of detailed expositions of Catholic theology in parts of the book can confuse people. He does present material and a proposal which is valid for Americans regardless of their faith perspective or lack of it, but the interjection of Catholic academic theological arguments in the book can nevertheless mislead some readers.
Camosy seemed to me to be always looking over his shoulder at the Catholic hierarchy to try to ensure that his status as a Catholic theologian is not threatened by what he writes. In a couple of footnotes, he even says that his viewpoint should be disregarded should the Church ever define its doctrine in a way which is inconsistent with it. To someone like me who is not a Catholic, that’s a real turn-off and can even lead to wondering how sure he is of the views he expresses.
I wish he would have largely refrained from arguing Catholic theology in the front of the book, and instead had a Part 2 or an Appendix which detailed how his arguments and proposal were consistent with Catholic theological understandings. Such a separation would made it easier for those who do not adhere to Catholicism to evaluate his arguments and proposal more on their merits. However, that was not his choice and we who are not Catholic need to seek to avoid being put off by the Catholic theological reflections interweaved in the book.
I heartily recommend that people read this book. There is much valuable and well documented information in it. Despite some quibbles I have with its content and structure, I think it is groundbreaking in seeking to set out a possible direction to move beyond the abortion wars. It can serve to stimulate a much-needed dialogue.
Bill Samuel has served as President of Consistent Life since 2005.
Bravo. This review does a very good job in highlighting both the strengths and weaknesses of the book.
However, another potentially useful compromise approach has been overlooked both by the book and by its reviewer. We could follow the German Constitutional Court’s distinction between what is not punished and what is considered legally justifiable. How about a compromise in which abortion would remain virtually entirely unpunished, as it is today, but the government would teach in many ways (e.g., public service announcements and the omission of any public funding for abortion) that abortion takes a child’s life and contradicts the premise of the Declaration of Independence of equal dignity for everyone. Abortion would be officially discouraged as a violation of our most basic national principles, but would remain largely unpunished.
This is basically the situation in Germany today, and it is somewhat like the current situation in the US today with regard to smoking. It recognizes that the pro-lifers are right in principle, but that those principles would be difficult to enforce in practice.