I was recently lucky enough to receive an advance copy of Charles Camosy’s forthcoming book to review – ‘Beyond the abortion wars: a way forward for a new generation’. In this book, Camosy masterfully traverses the ‘battleground’ between the ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’1 camps in order to show that this battleground is in fact no such thing. In fact, as Camosy notes, the majority of the American public actually agree on a middle-ground position on abortion. Despite what one might think from reading certain media outlets and Twitter wars, there is actually a large consensus in the public regarding abortion. This insight is deceptively powerful. By demonstrating the areas of agreement, Camosy is able to help guide us beyond the abortion wars to allow a way forward for a new generation.
I was excited upon receiving my copy of the book for the simple reason that I had no strong a priori position on the ethics of abortion, other than a middle-ground and vague conception that abortion should be allowed but certainly isn’t morally desirable. I started this book, then, as a mainly blank slate. Of course, it wasn’t completely blank, because I’d been exposed to various arguments both in favour of and against abortion, but the writing on the slate was very blurred and ineligible. The abortion debate is often centered around one’s ‘agenda’ – the agenda as a woman, as a conservative, or as a Christian, and so on. I had no (conscious) agenda in reviewing this book, nor in the conclusions of the book. I am politically moderate (in an American context), and believe in ‘God’ without identifying with any particular religious approach. I am biologically male, and moreover am both homosexual and celibate (I’m a hoot at parties, as you can imagine). I could never have an abortion, and the chances of me ever having experience with a partner wanting an abortion are practically nil. All this is to say that this review is written by someone who came into this book with an open mind, by someone who was not well versed in the topic, and by someone with no direct experience of an abortion. Perhaps some of the statistics and points Camosy makes are wrong. Perhaps he overlooks important philosophical approaches to the issue. Experts in the debate on abortion are likely to note issues that I did not, and I hope that this post will inspire debate on the points he makes. But, as an educated layperson with no strong beliefs in either direction, I found this a fascinating and compelling book.
In his first chapter, Camosy gives a variety of examples and statistics regarding abortion – many of which I found surprising and thought-provoking. For example, I learned that:
- Roughly 1/3 of women have an abortion during their reproductive lifetimes
- That 1 in 5 American pregnancies end in abortion, and in certain areas (like The Bronx, in NY), this reaches a stunning 50%.
- 90% of those diagnosed with Downs Syndrome as prenatal children are aborted.
- More than 50% of Americans who have an abortion have already had (at least one) abortion.
- 1% of all abortions take place in situations where the mother is raped, and 1% in cases where the mother’s life is threatened.
- Despite claims that pro-life policies are a “war on women”, it seems that women are more skeptical about abortion than men. For example a Pew (2013) study found that 49% of women said that having an abortion was not morally acceptable, compared to 45% of men. Similarly, a Times poll suggests that 60% of women are ‘against’ legalized abortion, while only 52% of men are.
Camosy highlights the laziness of traditional ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ rhetoric. A 2013 CNN poll, for example, found that 25% of people thought abortion should be “always legal”, and 20% that it should be “always illegal”, but that nearly half of respondents thought it should be “legal in few circumstances”. Similarly, a 2013 NBC poll found that 26% thought abortion be always legal and 10% always illegal, but that the largest number of people – at 42% – thought it should be illegal except in cases of rape, incest, and mothers’ life. While around 2/3rds of Americans describe themselves as “pro-choice”, around 2/3rds also describe themselves as “pro-life” (Pew, 2011). Evidently, the debate on abortion actually reveals relatively substantial agreement on the topic beyond simple binaries of ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’.
After outlining the shifting boundaries of the debate on abortion, in Chapter 2 Camosy considers the question of who – or what – is the fetus? Camosy takes the reader through different approaches to this question, concluding with (what he claims is) the common-sense position that the fetus is a person. He notes that one could try and claim that a person is an independent human being (i.e. a fetus that could live outside the mother’s body), but this has somewhat strange implications because this means that personhood could be determined by race, gender, time period, technology, and so on. This would suggest that a woman living in London has a person inside her when she leaves Heathrow because available technology means that fetus would likely survive if it were born prematurely, but when she arrives in rural India she no longer has a person inside her because that fetus would likely die if born prematurely. This seems rather strange. Indeed, in other contexts we don’t consider dependence to necessitate lower status in other contexts – for example, a newborn infant or medical patient on a ventilator are not considered to be non-persons. He then notes that some people take a ‘Trait X’ position, saying that when a fetus has ‘Trait X’ it becomes a person and before that time it is not a person (enter for X what you’d like – e.g. self-awareness, capacity to make moral choices, empathy, language). Yet this also is problematic because if you pick a low trait (e.g. the capacity to feel pain), this means that other mammals become persons, but if you take a high trait (e.g. self-awareness), then newborn infants and disabled humans are not persons. Again, this seems more than a little problematic. In fact, this discussion reminded me a lot of the work of Peter Singer and animal rights, and Camosy’s agreement with some of Peter Singer’s work is evident in a few places throughout the book. Camosy argues that “the solution is to consider [as persons] all beings with the natural potential for ‘Trait X’” (p.56), where his preference for Trait X would be the capacity to know and the capacity to love. If fetuses are persons, then they deserve equal protection under the law – like other persons. Bringing the discussion back to the ‘abortion wars’, Camosy makes the interesting side-note that resistance to calling a fetus a person is often less about what one believes about the moral status of that fetus, and instead what one believes about the rights of women – which is why we call a prenatal child a “fetus” in the context of abortion, but a “baby” in the context of a wanted pregnancy. One doesn’t ask if the fetus is kicking yet.
In the next chapters Camosy discusses what fetuses being persons means for abortion. That is, saying that a fetus is a person does mean that killing them is always wrong. Indeed, we do think that non-controversial persons (e.g. normally functioning adults) can sometimes be killed legitimately – for example, in self defense.
“Every person may have equal protection under the law, but it doesn’t follow that every person has the right to be sustained and aided – especially when such sustainment and aid requires another person to take on a huge and devastating burden” (p. 57).
Camosy engages on a fascinating discussion on whether abortion should be considered as aiming at death, or ceasing to aid? Indeed, this is one of the main sticking points in many disagreements on abortion. On the one hand, ‘pro-lifers’ understand abortion as a direct killing of a child, failing to understand how this could be justified by a woman’s ‘right’ to her own body. Yet on the other hand, ‘pro-choicers’ see abortion not as killing but just refusing to aid, and so cannot see why one would deny a woman the right to choose. Camosy seeks a characteristic nuanced position. While ‘pro-lifers’ are right in saying that the overwhelming majority of surgical abortions are direct killings (evidenced by a consideration of what a surgical abortion consists of), the ‘pro-choice’ insight is also important, because some abortions are indirect and better understood as refusals to aid. Indeed, even on strict ‘pro-life’ Catholic ethics, Camosy argues, indirect abortion can be morally acceptable if taken for a proportionately serious reason – for example if the fetus threatens the mothers’ life.
In the fourth chapter, Camosy considers the challenge of public policy. Even if we think abortion morally wrong, does it mean that we should make it illegal? Might the criminalization of abortion actually cause more harm than good? Camosy discusses a range of – often competing – claims about the predicted consequences of changes in the law relating to abortion.
In the fifth chapter, Camosy discusses abortion, women, and feminism. This was a very interesting chapter, and I found his discussion of explicitly feminist ‘pro-life’ approaches fascinating – perhaps because I hadn’t really encountered any explication of that thought before. Camosy presents evidence that in some cases, the availability of abortion can be harmful for women because the ‘choice’ continues to serve male interests and can coerce women into choices they would prefer not to make. To quote Camosy, “more abortion choice does not lead to more reproductive freedom”. He then made the interesting argument that:
“Instead of trying to force women to fit into the impossible position of pretending that their reproductive concerns can fit into male-created social structures, we should force men (and our whole society) to acknowledge the important differences between men and women. Women can get pregnant and have babies. Men cannot. We should and can change our social structures to respect and make room for the reality.” (p.128)
With the 42nd Anniversary of Roe vs. Wade tomorrow, the time is ripe to consider new and improved laws on this issue that take account of the increases in knowledge we have obtained over these last 40 years. Correspondingly, and drawing on the insights from the previous chapters, Camosy goes on to propose what he terms the Mother and Prenatal Child Protection Act. Camosy suggests this as a national abortion policy that reflects the views of a large majority of Americans but is also consistent with the currently settled doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. Of course, that this is consistent with Catholic doctrine was not a big selling point of his conclusion for me (as a largely secular person), but equally it did not cause me any concern. Camosy seems to derive his arguments based on largely unobjectionable secular premises, drawing on Catholic theology to support his points. In this way, his arguments seem quite convincing even if is not a Catholic – which is surely welcome in an ethical issue that affects people regardless of their faith. It would not do justice in the space allowed to describe his proposed policy in detail, and I highly recommend that you read the book when it is published. Put simply, though, the proposed Mother and Prenatal Child Protection Act has three key aspects:
“Legal recognition of the full moral standing of the prenatal child
Protection and support of the mother, including self-defense
Refusing to aid the fetus for a proportionately serious reason” (p. 134)
Camosy notes that the idea of legal protection for fetuses is hardly a completely novel idea. For example, in legal contexts other than abortion, the killing of a human fetus is understood to be homicide – for example, in the double murder of Laci Peterson and her unborn child. The proposed act has a number of features, including 1) ensuring pay for equal work, 2) removing barriers to remedying gender and ‘family-status’ discrimination in hiring and firing, 3) protecting victims of domestic violence, 4) ending pregnancy and ‘new mother’ discrimination in the workplace, 5) reforming of parental leave, 6) universal prekindergarten and subsidized child-care, 6) removal of adoption from the for-profit private sector and support for campaigns to remove the adoption stigma, 7) coordinated, systematic attempts to collect child support. 8) protection of and support for women at risk for coerced abortions and other violence.
Camosy ends by noting that:
“The Mother and Prenatal Child Protection Act is consistently and authentically ‘pro-life’ in that it refuses to choose between the dignity, rights, and social equality of women and their prenatal children. It also happens to reflect the views of a substantial majority of Americans, works within the framework of our shifting constitutional law, and is even consistent with currently defined Catholic doctrine” (p.158).
Overall, I thought this to be an excellent book and I highly recommend it. I cannot say at this stage that I agree with all of his points, because no doubt as people respond to the claims in his book I shall no doubt modify my views based on the new information. The greatest achievement in the book, to my mind, is his sensitive and nuanced discussion of what is an incredibly fraught topic. Camosy discusses both ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ positions with respect and integrity, highlighting that the battleground of abortion is simply an illusion. The abortion debate is not a stalemate, and substantial progress can me made. Camosy’s book, I feel, is an important first step in making this progress and letting us go beyond the abortion wars.
[Note: This post originally appeared on the Oxford University Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics blog, of which I am regularly contributor.]