A False Choice
For those who believe there is a “hopeless stalemate” in the abortion debate, Charles Camosy compellingly unmasks this “illusion” by exploring the historical, sociological, ethical and political dimensions of this debate, and by proposing legislation that seeks to substantially reduce the frequency of abortion. This proposal, the Mother and Prenatal Child Protection Act (M.P.C.P.A.), is grounded in a feminist, pro-life perspective that respects the human dignity of women and the prenatal child and confronts patriarchal structures that perpetuate abortion.
Camosy begins by pointing out the politically inconsistent positions on abortion, the “Costanza strategy,” where people who identify with a particular political party actually support an ideology that is contrary to their political views. Many Democrats support a “pro-choice” platform that fundamentally violates the rights of vulnerable prenatal children. Many Republicans support governmental intervention in the most intimate decision a woman can make. Historically, there is an evolution of this strategy that was solidified politically with the identification of Democrats as “pro-choice” and Republicans as “pro-life” and legislatively with the ruling of Roe v. Wade. These events have led to a radical polarization and oversimplification of the abortion debate, which does not accurately represent the views of the majority of Americans.
Camosy’s study makes extensive use of sociological data to justify four significant claims. First, most people, even those who identify as pro-choice, want greater restrictions on abortion than are currently in place. Second, most people, even those who identify as pro-life, want abortion legal in cases of rape, incest or danger to the life of the mother. Third, the majority of millennials, Hispanics and women support greater restrictions on abortion. Fourth, laws are being passed in various states to limit abortion and to support women who choose to have their babies (e.g., paid maternity leave). Combined, these claims provide an opening for constructive dialogue and policy development on abortion, and lay the groundwork for Camosy’s investigation of four major issues surrounding the complex ethical arguments for and against abortion.
The first issue concerns the moral status of the fetus. While it is undeniably a human organism from a scientific perspective, this does not indicate how it should be treated from a moral perspective. Camosy explores a spectrum of moral arguments, from Peter Singer, who argues that personhood begins with “higher end” traits like rationality and self-awareness, to those who argue on the basis of the fetuses’ “potential to become the kind of thing they already are.” Camosy defends a hybrid of the two, “the natural potential for ‘trait X’” and defends the moral value of the fetus.
Second, Camosy explores the morality of abortion relying on Catholic distinctions between direct/indirect abortion and proportionate reason—that is, “the harm to be avoided must be proportionate with the harm caused.” Direct abortion aims at the death of the fetus and is always wrong; indirect abortion does not aim at the death of the fetus but refuses or ceases to aid the fetus. For Camosy, a proportionate reason can justify indirect abortions in cases of rape and to protect the life of the mother.
Drawing upon the pro-life feminist Sidney Callahan, the third issue investigates women’s freedom and argues that legal access to abortion and economic and social pressures on women to “be successful” reduce rather than increase women’s freedom. These social pressures emanate largely from patriarchal structures that control women and pit them “against their own offspring.” Revealing, critiquing and transforming social structures that perpetuate violations of human dignity and creating and financially supporting structures that facilitate human dignity, including prenatal care, daycare and a just wage for women and men, are crucial to facilitate women’s authentic freedom and choice.
Finally, Camosy explores the interrelationship between these ethical issues and evolving public policy and proposes a national abortion policy in light of the evolving legal, ethical and cultural perspectives on abortion. Evolution in law, for example, the shift from a woman’s “privacy” in Roe v. Wade to “undue burden” in Casey v. Planned Parenthood and social and policy changes that have made the criteria for an “undue burden” harder to meet, such as the Affordable Care Act that provides the working poor access to health care, limit the legal and moral claims for an abortion. In light of these evolutions, Camosy proposes the M.P.C.P.A., which guarantees equal protection before the law for the prenatal child, women during pregnancy, support of mother and child during and after pregnancy, and justifies “refusal to aid,” i.e., indirect abortion, “for a proportionately serious reason,” including saving the life of the mother, rape and a terminal diagnosis of the prenatal child. This legislation could save hundreds of thousands of lives a year, promote women’s, men’s and prenatal children’s human dignity and facilitate attaining more just social structures.
Camosy turns to Catholic teaching on abortion throughout the book and claims that his argument is “consistent with defined Catholic doctrine.” On the one hand, his citation that “faithful Catholics may support incremental legislative change if the political realities give you a proportionately serious reason to do so,” reflected in the U.S. bishops’ own support of the Hyde Amendment (which Camosy does not mention) that allows for abortions in the case of rape, incest and to save the life of the mother, are consistent with Catholic doctrine. On the other hand, justifying indirect abortion in these cases is inconsistent with defined Catholic doctrine but is arguably a needed corrective to that doctrine. Also, Camosy’s concern with orthodox Catholicism and deference to magisterial authority overlooks the polarizing role some bishops who exercise that authority have played in the abortion debate.
Camosy’s book is accessible and a must-read for those who want to move beyond the abortion wars. A way forward that all reasonable people can embrace is to keep abortion legal but rare. The devil, as they say, is in the details, but we must resist demonizing those who attempt to work out those details.
This article also appeared in print, under the headline “A False Choice,” in the September 21, 2015, issue.