Many Americans today would like to move beyond the abortion wars. Most of the time, this hopeful suggestion is made either by political liberals (who are frustrated by the pro-life movement’s refusal to die) or by libertarian-minded Republicans (who see social issues as an embarrassment and a distraction). Charles Camosy is an outlier: He cares deeply about abortion but still wants to lay the controversy to rest. That doesn’t mean ignoring it; he thinks he can settle the abortion question, in a way that will command widespread public support. He explains how in this new book.
It sounds like a tall order. We might ask him: Why haven’t we been able to settle this, after decades’ worth of ferocious debate? There are two possible answers.
The first suggests that the continuing controversy reflects a deep and unresolved moral struggle within our society. Abortion represents a concrete point at which deeply held but incompatible moral commitments come into conflict. Since a significant portion of our society remains firmly committed to each, the abortion question cannot be resolved.
The second possibility is that the abortion issue has become needlessly politicized for historically contingent reasons: It has been swept up in a broader polarization of American society that is focused mainly on other questions; accordingly, most of us don’t realize the extent to which the general public has already reached a consensus on abortion. Our political parties have ulterior motives for highlighting zealous extremists and quieting more reasonable voices. If we can keep the politicians and extremists at bay, compromise might become possible.
Camosy favors this second explanation, claiming that “a majority of Americans actually agree” on several substantive principles that can point us toward a reasonable public policy on abortion. He presents this argument in bookend fashion, opening with an explanation of how our artificially polarized abortion controversy was born and closing with a proposed legal compromise, which he calls the “Mother and Prenatal Child Protection Act.”
Sandwiched between these are some more-foundational chapters exploring such questions as: What is a fetus, or prenatal child? What obligations do we have to these unborn humans? How should our answers to the first two questions affect our laws and public policies? Finally, what social ramifications does the widespread acceptance of abortion have for women? Camosy devotes a chapter to each point, building up a fairly comprehensive analysis of the abortion issue. The bioethical component is well informed and interesting. The social and political component is less strong but raises some important points.
Abortion at any stage of a pregnancy will surely be a serious matter if the fetus has the same moral and metaphysical status as a mature human being. Does it? Some suggest that the fetus’s moral status might be contingent on manifest “traits” such as viability, measurable rationality, or the capacity to feel pain. But this, as Camosy explains clearly, is problematic. If it’s permissible to kill a prenatal child for lacking all or some of these traits, is it likewise permissible to kill infants, the severely disabled, or people in comas? He concludes that all prenatal children, regardless of their stage of development, should be regarded as precious and worthy of protection.
Even if this is agreed, however, there is still room to debate what is owed to such extremely needy persons. Drawing distinctions between killing a child and refusing to nurture it, Camosy observes that it may matter how a pregnancy is terminated. We cannot reasonably describe the deliberate limb-from-limb dismemberment of a living human (which is a standard practice in later-term abortions) as a mere refusal to aid in his development, but we might more plausibly give this description to the practice of administering drugs that prevent the prenatal child from implanting in the mother’s womb. Even this, he thinks, is a morally serious matter. A woman should have excellent reasons for neglecting a life that she is in a unique position to save, and the fact that the fetus is her own natural child intensifies the seriousness of the obligation. But sometimes (as when a pregnancy poses a threat to the mother’s life), there might still be motives strong enough to justify such a denial.
Applying these moral insights to questions of law, public policy, and the social status of women, Camosy raises some interesting questions for “personally opposed” pro-choicers. He notes that countries (such as Ireland and Poland) with significant restrictions on abortion have excellent rates of maternal health. He argues that legal abortion can be a very effective tool for enabling irresponsible men to exploit women, and points out that post-abortive women pay a significant cost in terms of their happiness and long-term mental health. Finally, he draws on the work of pro-life feminist Sidney Callahan in pressing his case that a just society must address jointly the needs of both children and mothers. They should not be treated as natural enemies.
This leads us directly to the summit of the book, in which Camosy unveils his proposed Mother and Prenatal Child Protection Act. Sadly, we will find that the book’s most defining argument is also its least persuasive.
It’s clear from the opening chapter that Camosy lacks a subtle understanding of politics. His political narrative hinges on what he takes to be an inconsistency in our American political scene: With respect to abortion, each political party does precisely the opposite of what he believes to be most consistent with its “natural political instincts and philosophies.” Democrats claim to protect the weak, and Republicans want to limit the power of government — but the Democratic party has embraced abortion on demand, while Republicans have taken up the cause of defending the unborn through government action.
Camosy can only suppose that this is the result of weird, contingent historical circumstances. He notes a few possibly seminal moments (the 1968 Democratic convention, the GOP’s decision to court the Christian Right) but declines to discuss them in detail. The inadequacy of this perfunctory examination betrays a deeper misunderstanding of the nature of politics.
Camosy is right, of course, that historical circumstance can influence the development of political coalitions. One could not easily have foreseen in 1970 that abortion would become such a defining moral issue in America, nor were the parties clearly “slated” to adopt the positions they hold today. But the fact that these alignments were in flux 40 years ago is hardly evidence that they are incidental to today’s political coalitions. After years of championing the “right to choose,” the Democratic party has become the political arm of an elite secular culture that enshrines sexual autonomy as a central good. Its tenacious embrace of abortion is as defining as any part of the Democratic platform. Meanwhile, the Republicans have given a home to political conservatives whose embrace of natural rights encompasses both a respect for the value of life and a distaste for aggressive state control. (There is nothing incidental about this pairing.)
By missing this deep philosophical rift between the parties, Camosy also misses the glaring problems in his proposed legislation, which combines strong restrictions on abortion at all stages of pregnancy (effectively banning it except in cases of rape or a serious threat to the mother’s life) with a laundry list of favored Democratic policies, including beefed-up workplace-discrimination laws, stronger child-support laws, and a lot of free or subsidized goodies (postpartum maternal health care, child care, universal pre-kindergarten, paid maternity leave).
The underlying logic is obvious: Don’t kill babies; help mothers instead. Politically speaking, though, there are obvious problems with this strategy. Conservatives have reasons for being suspicious of these sorts of government-sponsored family policies: They force all families to subsidize arrangements that are favored only by some, and they undermine marriage by making it more manageable to raise a child alone. Camosy makes no effort to address these concerns. At the same time, his restrictions on abortion are far more stringent than what the public seems to want. As a fellow Catholic moral philosopher, I’d support this component of the law, but how many others would? In the end, it seems likely that Camosy’s law would indeed command widespread consensus, but in opposition to his proposal.
This disappointing conclusion need not overshadow the book’s many valuable insights. It’s true that Americans are broadly convinced that abortion is a bad (though occasionally necessary) thing. A substantial majority of Americans really are comfortable with more legal restrictions than we have now, and pro-lifers should, by all means, take advantage of this opportunity. Such an effort could also promote the welfare of women, for reasons that Camosy articulates.
Nevertheless, we should also be realistic about the prospects of moving “beyond” this fractious issue. There is a reason that abortion is so deeply embedded in America’s moral consciousness: It is the clearest point at which a commitment to unfettered individual autonomy conflicts with a fundamental respect for human dignity. Modern man yearns to be liberated from the bonds of natural obligation, but the realities of human reproduction perpetually frustrate this desire. This is not a problem that can be solved with paid maternity leave. If the next generation is indeed to move beyond the abortion wars, it will need to recover a more expansive appreciation of what human life is really worth.
– Rachel Lu teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.