Abortion and the U.S. Election

As so many conservative Christians, including some prominent evangelicals, seem to be fixated on the single question of abortion and eventual Supreme Court appointments they hope will undo Roe v. Wade etc., I thought it might be well to revisit a review I published a year ago of a fine book on the matter. A slightly edited version appeared in Christianity Today magazine (April 2015), and I post it here with their permission:

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Review of Charles C. Comosy, Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation (Eerdmans, 2015).

“The test of a democracy,” G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “is not whether the people vote, but whether the people rule.” Does the average citizen see his or her values and concerns reflected in the actions of the state?

Charles C. Camosy, an ethicist at Fordham University, argues that a moral consensus has recently emerged in the United States around the vexed issue of abortion. Yet neither of the major parties, nor the federal government, reflects that consensus. Citing poll after poll, from sources across the political spectrum, Camosy demonstrates that the vast majority of Americans prefer abortion to be limited much more than it is now.

Indeed, Camosy avers that abortion policy should shift in a much more conservative direction, allowing abortion only in the cases of imminent danger to the life of the mother, conception by rape or incest, and a few other extraordinary instances. To that end, Camosy outlines an actual legislative proposal, what he calls The Mother and Prenatal Child Protection Act (MPCPA).

It is this sense of a new political moment opening up the possibility of new political action that is most exciting about this book.

Camosy argues persuasively that the interests of the major news media, major political parties, and major advocacy groups all are advanced by an abortion debate that is deadlocked between extremes. Polarization and demonization attract viewers and listeners, galvanize supporters, and mobilize volunteers. Binary categories harden edges, stiffen spines, and arouse passions. It is in the interests of the powerful, Camosy shows, to keep mediating and moderating views out of sight and instead to go on fanning the flames of partisanship.

The polls show, however, that two-thirds of Americans nowadays identify with both “pro-choice” and “pro-life” labels. Record numbers of voters describe themselves as independents (40%). And at a time when women, Millennials, and Hispanics are increasingly involved in American public life, it is crucial to note that these three demographic groups are among the least supportive of abortion.

Indeed, as Camosy argues from a number of authoritative sources, freedom to abort is championed most by men and practiced most by the well-to-do. Advocates for the welfare of women and the poor therefore ought to be listening to women and the poor—most of whom have grave reservations about abortion. Indeed, one major study he cites indicates that after their abortions only tiny percentages of women reported improvements in their relationships or self-regard, while majorities reported “guilt,” that “part of me died,” and an inability to forgive themselves.

Feminists have long argued, in fact, that abortion has not been a boon to the emancipation of women so much as it has been advantageous to irresponsible men. If the woman has sole authority over the fate of the fetus within her, men argue, then she is solely responsible for the fate of the baby that she chooses to keep. So much, then, for child support. Or fathering of any other sort.

The irony indeed is that the so-called sexual revolution ended up empowering women to act like selfish men while doing nothing to change American society’s mores toward supporting the alternative choice of women to keep their babies and raise them properly. The US still lags well behind the rest of the Western world in terms of parental leave, welfare, medical insurance, and other fundamentals of true choice for pregnant women. Thus Camosy’s MCPCA contains provisions for the care of pregnant mothers and for the resulting mother and child, not just restrictions on abortion.

This positive political suggestion grounded in thorough surveying of a changing political landscape is the heart of the book. Alas, the concern to advance this agenda interferes, although not fatally, with some of the ethical reasoning offered in support of that legislation.

Camosy is an acute critic of other people’s ethical reasoning. He surgically exposes and then discards many false assumptions and claims typical of abortion advocates, such as the “woman’s right to her own body” (as if there isn’t another body involved that is also fully worthy of consideration) or that pregnancy so burdens a woman that she ought to be free to abort the troublesome offspring—as if children out of the womb aren’t at least as much trouble, and yet we do not allow parents to eliminate their bothersome kids.

Camosy thus narrows the grounds of legitimate abortion to a very few cases. But here several problems emerge.

He notes that “to save the life of the mother” is endorsed as a legitimate ground for abortion by 97% of those called “pro-choice.” (One wonders why it isn’t 100%, actually.) Yet barely two-thirds of those identifying as “pro-life” want to allow it in this case. Camosy cannot seem to understand why so many would balk at this “one or the other” situation, but as a Catholic ethicist, surely he knows (although he says nothing about it) that his own church’s tradition used to privilege the unborn child’s life above that of the threatened mother well into the twentieth century.

Indeed, we all, Catholic or not, would tend to say that a parent who deliberately chose to kill a child in order to save that parent’s own life has failed in a basic duty of parenthood: to put the child’s welfare above one’s own. Yes, each of us has a “right to self-defense,” as Camosy chooses to put the matter. But since the fetus is not an attacker with malicious intent, but is instead the very picture of vulnerable dependence, why should this question be taken out of the hands of God, or nature, or medical prowess, and be placed in the hands of the mother, who is merely the stronger of the two persons involved?

“To save the life of the mother” is, furthermore, the firmest ground upon which abortion can stand. Camosy rightly exposes the intolerable asymmetry in claiming that the mother’s mental health or financial security, or the welfare of her other children, justifies an abortion—for then infanticide would be justified as well. So why does Camosy protect some other grounds beyond this one?

Camosy argues that rape is a ground for justified abortion. But he fails to avoid the (good) logic of his previous argument of proportionality. Quite apart from the legal quagmire that might develop therefore around consent—Will women have to bring rape charges against their partners in order to qualify for a legal abortion?—there is the fundamental question of why the innocent offspring of a violent conception should pay such a price for his or her father’s awful crime. One must never underplay the horrible implications for the mother who keeps a child conceived this way. But it is, at most, nine months of pregnancy and then either motherhood or giving up the child for adoption. How can such suffering as the mother might undergo possibly justify the actual death of the baby?

Camosy is nowhere more vague than on this point—except on the related category of incest. He actually never takes on that case, although he keeps allowing for it, and perhaps it is because the grounds are even weaker here. If the incest is nonconsensual (or involves a minor), then rape is the governing category and one doesn’t need to have a separate category of “incest.” If the incest is consensual, then what would be the grounds to justify abortion?

Camosy does say that only 2% of all American abortions fall under these grounds: threat to the life of the mother, rape, or incest. And since the polls show strong support for these allowances, he advocates his MCPCA as a very good step forward in the protection of the unborn and of their mothers that is politically possible in the new climate, whereas a more conservative policy would not be politically viable.

I do not disagree. In fact, I strongly urge people to read this book and to take up its general thrust. The time is indeed ripe for a new policy in abortion in America. (In my native Canada, the time has been overdue for decades, and it is a national disgrace that the leaders of none of our major political parties are willing even to consider regulating what is currently a wide-open legal situation regarding abortion.)

I wish, however, that Camosy’s normally lucid logic and prose had not, as they seem, been compromised by his political concern to advocate for MCPCA. I wish he instead had recognized that a very, very conservative view (what he might call an “extreme” view) of abortion is all that is possible in terms of his own convictions, the convictions of his church, and indeed of the convictions of orthodox Christians generally. Having recognized this conservative outlook as their ethical bedrock, he and other political players would then be free to formulate the best legislation they can to curtail abortion as much as they can and thus do as much good as they can. Again, I am all for that political prudence. Let’s just be clear about the fact that we are still making a compromise that puts many unborn babies at risk—thousands a year.

And let us keep working to change not only the law, but the values, of North Americans even more so that not one more innocent life will be terminated in the awful name of “freedom of choice.”

2 Responses to “Abortion and the U.S. Election”

  1. Lynn Betts

    Does the book engage with alternative views of “personhood”? It seems the underlying polarization is over: the view that “personhood” or “ensoulment” begins at or soon after conception, vs. that it begins at a later point (“viability” or even birth (which seems to be the Historical Jewish view)). By law in the US, since Roe, it is Set at viability. Viability seems also to be the assumption of most doctors when a miscarriage occurs. So viability is our current working definition of personhood/ensoulment.

    This matter is a critical issue in the abortion debate, and yet I never see it brought up in the debate. Shouldn’t the status of the unborn be the first issue that should be dealt with, so one has a ground for the choice of aborting or not? In spite of its importance, however, it seems neither side in the polarization wants to discuss it openly:

    The Right doesn’t want it discussed because they want conception to be assumed. The Left doesn’t want it discussed because it might place restrictions on the mother’s choice.

    Reasonable and equally devout Christians can disagree on the conclusion, but shouldn’t we be insisting on having the discussion? And then in respecting those who disagree?

    • Dave

      This thought on “ensoulment” and viability was also what occurred to me while reading. Yet, the post-modern philosophical assumptions of our time can barely see back through the fog of Cartesian mind/body dualism and our mechanistic myopia to the “person” and “soul” as seen by Aquinas and the church. How do we get there from here?

      Post-Enlightenment, how do we entertain within the popular imagination an integrated human entity that is seen as more mysterious and complex than a mere biological machine (at conception or until “viability” and beyond)?

      Until our technological mindset and cultural imagination ceases to reflect humanity back at us as the merely bio-tech result of naturalistic and dialectical processes, we will be an an impasse of competing moralities: one rooted in the implications of revealed faith and the Christian revolution, another in the modernist ‘freedom of the human will’ enshrined in our culture as “self-evident.”

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