Books: Beyond the Abortion Wars

As I explained in my previous post about Willie Parker’s Life’s Work, I wanted to read a book that dealt with both sides of the abortion argument. Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation by Charles Camosy at least attempts to do this, though he generally expresses his own understanding of the arguments on both sides, rather than letting the “pro-choice” side speak for itself.

Camosy’s premise is that most people in our country, whether they generally identify as “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” do want both legal protection for abortions in some cases and legal prohibition of it in others. His goal is to show that there is enough common ground to propose a new public policy that will significantly reduce the number of abortions performed while leaving it open as an option in certain cases.

Those who are committed to abolishing legal abortion entirely will not be satisfied (nor will those who see any regulation on the procedure as encroaching on women’s rights). But Camosy points out that “the [Catholic] church explicitly teaches that faithful Catholics may support incremental legislative change if the political realities give you a proportionately serious reason to do so” and that “banning all abortion is a political nonstarter.” It is better to greatly reduce the number of abortions while allowing some to continue than to hold out for an unrealistic goal of banning them entirely.

Unlike Life’s Work, this book recognizes that the central issue is whether the fetus/unborn child is a living person or not, and that no progress can be made in resolving the conflict without agreement in that matter. Everyone should agree, he says, that the fetus is a human organism (due to its DNA), but the question is whether it is a “person.” Some argue that to be a person, the fetus would need to be able to live independently of the mother, but Camosy points out that a newborn is still fully dependent on others (usually the parents), as is a hospital patient on a ventilator.

Other arguments commonly used in this discussion look for some trait, such as feeling pain, engaging in relationships, rationality, or morality, to identify those who are rightly called “persons.” But no matter which trait one looks at, Camosy says, you will either find non-human animals who share the trait (such as feeling pain or engaging in relationships), or human beings (such as newborns and the severely mentally disabled) who do not.

He argues instead that prenatal children count as persons because of what they have the potential to become. Here he points out the difference between having the potential to become something else if certain hypothetical actions are taken (such as a tree becoming a desk) and the potential of something to develop in the normal course of events (such as an acorn growing into a tree). An embryo or fetus is not changing its inherent nature in developing into a newborn infant, only reaching a further state of development of what it already is.

Camosy next deals with the issue of whether abortion can be justified in certain cases. Most people agree that while a mother may choose to sacrifice her life for her unborn child (by declining treatment for cancer, for instance, until after the child is born), she should not be forced to do so. Camosy’s argument is not that the mother’s life is more important, but that the intent of the abortion in such a case is not to end the child’s life but to save the mother’s, with the child’s death being an unavoidable effect.

He also argues that certain means for “indirect” abortion (removing the means to support life for the embryo/fetus, rather than attacking its body directly) can be justified in the case of rape, giving the woman a means to defend herself against a pregnancy forced on her, where she does not have the same moral duty to protect life as when she willingly participated in the act which resulted in pregnancy.

An interesting chapter deals with whether abortion should really be considered a feminist view. Willie Parker’s book blamed anti-abortion views on men’s desire to control women, but woman make up a large part of the pro-life movement, and Camosy says that women are, on the whole, more skeptical of abortion than men are. In his view (and he cites the work of Sidney and Dan Callahan, founders of the Hastings Center), abortion is promoted by men for their benefit, because it allows them to be sexually irresponsible, and because it allows them to maintain social structures that are man- rather than woman-oriented.

According to this view, women desire abortions because they want to be successful in the ways men have traditionally defined success. If success is defined as working one’s way up the career ladder, making more money to spend on a consumerist lifestyle, abortion is needed so that women don’t have to interrupt education or career and jeopardize their success. And of course, easy access to abortion means that companies don’t need to feel obligated to make their workplaces “mother-friendly” in terms of generous maternity leave, flex-time, easily accessible child-care, places at work for breastfeeding or pumping, etc.

To really be “pro-choice,” Camosy suggests, is not to make women fit into a male-oriented working environment, but to offer equally good opportunities to be a stay-at-home mom, with the needed emotional and economic support for that choice. Women could still choose career over children, or they could choose children over career, or find a way to fit both into their lives without many of the difficulties that typically involves today.

To this end, the public policy Camosy proposes not only puts limits on abortions but also provides more economic support for mothers (and fathers) so that they do not feel that finances preclude raising the child. These include increased paid pregnancy leave with complete job protection, universally available prekindergarten and more affordable child-care, attempts to reduce both the cost of adoption and the stigma that surrounds it, a better system for collecting child support, and protection of women at risk for coerced abortions and other violence.

As for abortion, his proposed Mother and Prenatal Child Protection Act would allow “direct” abortion only to save the mother’s life, and “indirect” abortions in cases of rape, to save the mother’s life, or when it is obvious that the baby will die in utero. No abortions would be allowed based on mental or physical disability, gender, or race.

He does not deal, from what I saw, with the issue of women who feel they have to have an abortion to eliminate the evidence of sexual activity outside of marriage. Women choosing abortion usually have more than one reason for choosing it, but according to this article, 25% cite “don’t want people to know I had sex or got pregnant” as one of the reasons. I’m not sure how much any of Camosy’s proposed supports would help women who fear what their parents or husbands will do if the pregnancy becomes known.

In the end, Camosy’s book advocates a basically pro-life policy (not surprisingly, since he is a Catholic theologian), though allowing exceptions that some pro-lifers object to. The reviews I have seen have been fairly positive, but all seem to be from a pro-life viewpoint. It would be interesting to see what the other side says of it, and whether Camosy succeeds in presenting an approach that moderate pro-choice proponents can support.

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