“The test of a democracy is not whether the people vote, but whether the people rule,” G. K. Chesterton once wrote. In other words: Does the average citizen see her values and concerns reflected in public policy?
Charles C. Camosy, a Catholic ethicist at Fordham University, argues that a moral consensus has emerged in the United States around the issue of abortion. Yet neither the major political 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 would prefer much more limited access to abortion.
In Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation (Eerdmans), Camosy takes stock of the polling data and concludes that abortion policy could comfortably shift in a restrictive direction. Under his preferred settlement, national public policy would allow abortion only in cases of imminent danger to the life of the mother, conception by rape or incest, and a few other extraordinary instances. To this end, Camosy outlines an actual legislative proposal, what he calls the Mother and Prenatal Child Protection Act (MPCPA).
State of the Debate
The abortion debate has long been framed as a deadlock between two extremes. Camosy—who has written elsewhere on animal compassion and health care—argues persuasively that this framing persists because it serves the interests of major news media, political parties, and advocacy groups. Polarization and demonization attract viewers and listeners, galvanize supporters, and mobilize volunteers. Binary categories harden edges, stiffen spines, and arouse passions.
Polls show, however, that two-thirds of Americans identify with both “pro-choice” and “pro-life” labels. And women, millennials, and Hispanics—three groups increasingly involved in US public life—are among the least supportive of abortion.
Indeed, freedom to abort is championed most by men and practiced most by the well-to-do. Among many women and the poor, survey groups find grave reservations. Camosy cites one major study indicating that, after their abortions, only small percentages of women reported improvements in their relationships or self-regard. By contrast, a majority reported “guilt,” sentiments like “Part of me died,” and an inability to forgive oneself.
Feminists like Catherine MacKinnon have long argued that legalized abortion does less to emancipate women than to empower irresponsible men. If the woman has sole authority over whether to give birth, men argue, then she alone is responsible for the baby she chooses to keep. So much, then, for child support.
If we’re truly committed to the sanctity of life, we need to support women choosing to keep their babies and raise them. The United States lags well behind other Western countries in terms of parental leave, welfare, medical insurance, and other fundamentals of true choice for pregnant women. Fortunately, Camosy’s MPCPA contains these kinds of provisions, not just restrictions on abortion.
Beyond the Abortion Wars surgically exposes and overturns assumptions and claims typical of pro-choice advocates, such as the “woman’s right to her own body” (forgetting that there is another body who has rights), or the notion that pregnancy so burdens a woman that she ought to be free to abort the troublesome child—as if children outside the womb aren’t at least as much trouble. Camosy thus dramatically narrows the grounds of abortion on philosophical terms.
But here I disagreed with Camosy on a few points.
Camosy notes that 97 percent of those identifying as pro-choice endorse “saving the mother’s life” as legitimate grounds for abortion. Yet around two-thirds of those identifying as pro-life want to allow it in this case. Has Camosy forgotten that his own church’s tradition used to privilege the unborn child’s life above that of the mother’s well into the 20th century? Yes, each of us has a “right to self-defense,” as Camosy puts the matter. But a fetus is not an attacker with malicious intent, but instead the picture of vulnerable dependence. Why should this question be taken out of the hands of God, nature, or medical prowess and transferred to merely the stronger of the two parties?
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 infanticide would then be justified as well.) It’s disappointing, then, to find him arguing that rape makes abortion permissible. Quite apart from the potential legal quagmire—will women have to accuse their nonviolent partners of rape 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. One must never underplay the horrible implications for the woman who keeps a child conceived this way. But at most, she faces nine months of pregnancy and then either motherhood or giving up the child for adoption. How can such suffering outweigh the certainty of a baby’s death?
Camosy is nowhere more vague than on this point—except on the related category of incest. If the incest is nonconsensual (or involves a minor), then rape is the governing category. Either way, we’re still dealing with a human being made in God’s image.
Camosy notes that only 2 percent of US abortions occur because of rape, incest, or a threat to the life of the mother. But since polls show strong support for these allowances, he incorporates them into his MPCPA proposal. At least in practical political terms, I agree that this would represent a good step forward given the constraints of the current climate, whereas a more conservative reform would be doomed to defeat.
In fact, I strongly urge people to read Beyond the Abortion Wars and to take up its general thrust. The time is indeed ripe for a new abortion policy in America. (In my native Canada, such rethinking has been overdue for decades. It is a national disgrace that none of the leaders of our major political parties are willing to consider introducing even minimal regulations.)
I wish, however, that Camosy’s concern to advocate for the MPCPA hadn’t muddied his generally lucid logic and prose. I wish he had recognized, instead, that his own convictions, the convictions of his church, and indeed the convictions of orthodox Christianity dictate an uncompromising (what Camosy might call “extreme”) stance on abortion. Having recognized this outlook as their ethical bedrock, he and other political players would then be free to formulate legislation curtailing abortion as much as circumstances will allow.
Again, I am all for political prudence. Let’s just be clear that, in the meantime, our compromises put many unborn babies at risk. And let us keep working to transform not only the law but also the values of our neighbors, so that no more innocent lives will be terminated in the awful name of “freedom of choice.”
John G. Stackhouse Jr. teaches religious studies at Crandall University in New Brunswick, Canada.
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