Enough self-touted “new ways forward” in contentious debates have been unsuccessfully aired to justify skepticism of the whole exercise. So when I got a copy of Charles Camosy’s Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation (Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), I cracked the cover with high hopes but low expectations.
I was wrong to do so. Camosy, an associate professor of bioethics at Fordham, writes in a conversational tone and consciously appeals to a bipartisan audience. Beyond the Abortion Wars really is a valuable contribution to the way forward, past 1970s binary, partisan perspectives often entrenched in political narratives that separate mothers from children, men from women, and conservatives from liberals.
The cornerstone of his argument and its climax is his proposal of a new public policy that, he contends, both corresponds to what the majority of Americans believe about abortion and is “consistent with … the settled doctrine of the Catholic Church.” (Camosy’s repeated insistence that Catholic readers form their consciences in accordance with any further Magisterial developments or definitions of moral doctrine bespeaks an author conscious of working within, not against, his theological and ecclesial tradition.) His “Mother and Prenatal Child Protection Act” (MPCPA) combines several proposals: the legal recognition of the equal protection of the unborn child; protection and support for pregnant and postnatal mothers; and an argument for several exceptional cases in which abortion is morally licit and should be legal.
First, Camosy advocates for the legal recognition of equal protection for the unborn. Drawing on his arguments earlier in the book for the unborn child’s personhood, Camosy emphasizes that “basic and fundamental justice requires that our prenatal children be the next group in our human family to receive equal protection of the law and the civil rights of other very young children. Period.” He endorses the “argument from potential,” concluding that the fetus’s natural orientation and directiveness to develop—with the time and resources that all humans require—his capabilities of critical self-consciousness and love, indicate his personhood.
He also rightly notes that for most mothers who choose to abort, “their reason for having an abortion is not about ending their pregnancy, but about not wanting the child to exist beyond pregnancy.” Such choices, involving as they do the intent to eliminate the child’s presence from one’s life (and the demands which that presence ensures), are intrinsically immoral.
If this dimension of Camosy’s proposed policy challenges those who tend to neglect the child’s rights and needs, MPCPA’s second dimension challenges those inclined to neglect the mother’s. He calls for more support and protection for pregnant and postnatal mothers. Adopting several provisions from New York state’s unpassed “Women’s Equity Act,” he calls for ending pregnancy and “new mother” workplace discrimination; removing barriers to remedying gender and “family-status” hiring and firing discrimination; and guaranteed 21-week maternity and paternity leave for each child born, with the mandate that all businesses return parents to their work, among other proposals aimed at supporting pregnant mothers, assimilating them into society, and encouraging them to bring their children to term.
Camosy’s vision here grows out of the argument that men are more skeptical of pro-life measures than are women and that the coercive reasons many women report for procuring their abortions derive from a male-dominated regime in which men expect women to “choose” abortion should contraception fail. “The social expectation that a privileged male’s sexual partner will get an abortion is built into his lifestyle,” Camosy writes. “Abortion is already a sacramental right in our culture for many ‘pro-choice’ men precisely because it already serves their economic and social interest.”
More than half of women who’ve had abortions, he notes, believe that abortion is morally wrong but cite pressures such as “being a single mother” or “having relationship problems” as their reasons for electing it. Camosy’s condemnation of what is surely a contributing factor to those pressure situations is pithy: “If you are a woman in pursuit of a career, our American consumerist culture insists that you do it like a man.”
The third proposal of MPCPA, concerning policy exceptions that allow for abortions, is the book’s weightiest topic. One thing about Beyond the Abortion Wars that gives it potency as a way forward past common rhetoric is the attention Camosy devotes to the suggestion that the abortion debate is not settled by even uniform acceptance of the principle “aiming at the death of an innocent person is always wrong.”
Camosy accepts the Catholic doctrinal allowance for indirect abortions—in his definition here, abortions in which the object of the act does not include the child’s death—in cases in which proportionately serious countervailing reasons obtain. He argues that “health of the mother” objections cannot be justified this way, because the intended good (improvement of bodily health) is not proportionate to the evil side effect of the proposal (the death of the child).
What about the oft-invoked exceptions of incest and rape? Camosy concludes that incest cases, unless the act of incest was also an act of rape, introduce no exceptions into the question of the licitness of abortion.
Controversially, he holds that in cases of rape, mothers still need proportionately serious reasons to refuse aid to their children; direct killing remains illicit. He proposes that under MPCPA indirect abortion (via RU-486) will be allowed until the eighth week of pregnancy if (a) a mother decides that the sex that led to her conception was not consensual, (b) the pregnancy imposes an undue burden on her, and (c) she attends three days of counseling.
Camosy suggests that the fact that the conception resulted from sexual violence alters the moral calculus of whether one can licitly refuse aid to one’s unborn child, since “bodily integrity” is essential to the “self-determination” to which women have a right. “Suppose we consider the fact that the mother did not consent to sex as an example of a proportionate reason for getting an indirect abortion,” he writes. In such cases, where “the mother’s bodily integrity has been assaulted … by sexual violence,” a woman can end her pregnancy, by refusing her child his use of her body, because of the difficulties it poses her short of threatening her life.
In allowing for the use of drugs designed to interfere with implantation or remove a child from the body—even without aiming at the child’s death—Camosy’s argument clashes with at least one ethical and religious directive by the U.S. Bishops:
If, after appropriate testing, there is no evidence that conception has occurred already, she may be treated with medications that would prevent ovulation, sperm capacitation, or fertilization. It is not permissible, however, to initiate or to recommend treatments that have as their purpose or direct effect the removal, destruction, or interference with the implantation of a fertilized ovum.
ERDs are important normative documents, even if they do not amount to settled Church doctrine. In exploring the open-ended (bound by settled doctrinal teachings) question of what proportionately serious reasons other than life-of-the-mother cases could justify indirect abortion, Camosy contributes his voice to a difficult question engaging many Catholic ethicists.
Unfortunately, his discussion of how indirect abortions in the case of rape pass the norm against intentional (pertaining to end, means, and, not or, object of act) killing of the innocent that Camosy proscribes earlier was not fully convincing. He invokes and relies heavily upon an analogy between the famous violinist case raised by Judith Thompson and the moral intuitions it elicits, and these cases of bodily integrity in the case of rape pregnancies. The analogy is instructive but complex; the scope of this discussion piques the reader but does not satisfy. And one could take issue with the characterization of RU-486’s effect as a method of indirect abortion.
Camosy’s argument about exceptions includes a twist. MPCPA allows for the direct killing of unborn children if methods of “indirect” killing are not sufficient to save the mother’s life, which is endangered by an irregular pregnancy—say, a mother has a kidney disease that means ongoing pregnancy will kill her, and the child is too large to be aborted by means of anything but dismemberment. By comparison he asks readers to consider a situation in which the use of direct lethal force can be be used to stop an insane attacker—formally innocent but a material mortal threat—if necessary.
Camosy justifies this allowance, as a final resort, by arguing that it doesn’t run up against the norm against killing innocents, since we should take “innocent” to mean both formally and materially innocent. This argument raises the issue of whether the norm against killing extends only to persons innocent even in this inclusive sense; some Catholic ethicists, Christopher Tollefsen notably among them, have argued that the norm against aiming at the death of persons extends even to guilty persons.
The book’s merits extend beyond MPCPA, whether certain of its proposals are sound or not. Chapter one alone, which aggregates American opinion polls on abortion and shatters stereotypical narratives, justifies buying Beyond the Abortion Wars; Camosy juxtaposes different facets of the "abortion wars" phenomenon that taken together make for an articulate, nuanced, and comprehensive argument for how to think holistically about it. His calls for new policies that reflect a trending pro-life American consensus may prove prophetic. His is an accessible but challenging and provocative book that everyone with an interest in abortion ought to read.