Podcast: Beyond the Abortion Wars

Mere FidelityThe latest episode of Mere Fidelity has just gone online. This week we discuss abortion with Charles Camosy, associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University, and the author of the recent book, Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward For A New Generation.

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About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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14 Responses to Podcast: Beyond the Abortion Wars

  1. Jonathan Roberts says:

    It’s interesting that Dr. Camosy brings up the analogy of the foetus as an adult actively threatening the mother’s life (minus the agency), as this seems to be similar to some of Jewish discussions on the topic – the foetus would be considered a “pursuer” until it starts to emerge from the womb and its life takes on equal value to the mother (at which point it becomes unclear whether the mother or child is best described as the pursuer).

    I think one aspect that many analogies miss is that the foetus is fully dependent on the mother for its life, particularly until it becomes viable on its own. Some people would claim that it can be viewed as a parasite until it takes its first breath, and continuing to full term is an active and non-moral choice by the woman. This seems to be a fairly convenient argument that denies the humanness of one entity due to its effect on another. In other words, whether the foetus is a living human being or not is not a question of women’s rights, although it does affect them. The analogies where the foetus is a pursuer, falling person, computer scientist etc. seem to fail here too; there is a real sense in which the foetus cannot exist at all without the woman.

    Drawing on the violinist analogy – if someone you knew needed your kidney to survive, you would be free to refuse, even if it represented a relatively minor and low-risk process for you and was vital to the other person. You would not be free to deny that that person was a human being because their life is dependent on your body. Moreover, even if they were 100% sure that this would be for the greater good, nobody else would have the right to force you to donate your kidney. As the risks from this organ donation rise, so the moral judgement of refusing decreases. Even discussing the possibility that someone could donate their heart to save another person’s life would be completely out of the question. It’s not a perfect analogy by any means (e.g. this is using a passive act to discuss an active abortion), but it seems to match the particular relationship between a woman and foetus better. In a pregnancy, there is no passive response by the woman. I think it’s important to be clear about the cost of a pregnancy to a woman that is not borne by a man, even if this is an unproblematic and wanted pregnancy.

    As for liberals waging a neo-colonialist war with their values, you could easily say that the all male Catholic bishops with no families are doing the same thing, but to a much greater extent. Liberals may be framing the issue with their own worldview, but they actively teach it a lot less. As for individualism, often the pro-life community-focused language voiced by Catholic bishops (and all-male panels) discussing what should or shouldn’t be allowed is very problematic. Even where this is seen as a choice with serious moral consequences, there is a real sense in which it is *her* choice. Framing it as a decision where the voices of the law, the church, the father and the general public are emphasised over that of the woman is a real problem. There is a sense in which this is a question of protecting the vulnerable, but if not treated properly, it’s a case of controlling them too.

    • Thanks for the comment. A few points in response:

      1. This isn’t a question of the ‘equal value’ of the unborn child. Nor is Camosy’s point that the unborn child doesn’t have the value that is to be accorded to the person. Nor is he making a general argument about the child in the womb as an active threat to the mother’s life. This claim is restricted to those rare cases where the unborn child poses a mortal threat to its mother. In 99%+ of pregnancies this argument doesn’t apply.

      2. Whether or not the analogies fail depends upon the salient point that they seek to highlight. Camosy was focusing upon those cases where another being presents a material threat to our life. This isn’t just a matter of undermining our chosen lifestyle or career plans, for instance, but posing the direct threat of causing our death. To this extent, I think that a number of the analogies discussed are apt ones. Whether it is impaling the falling person on the flagpole (an analogy for direct abortion) or cutting off the line connecting us to the climbing partner who would pull us down to our death (an analogy, in Camosy’s understanding, for indirect abortion), these analogies are appropriate ones: they both draw attention to cases where another human person—with all of the dignity and protections that such a person should be granted—poses an immediate material threat to our survival, through no vicious intent on their part. There is clearly a key contrast with the child in the womb in certain respects—the coinherence or participation of the unborn child in the life and body of its mother is a sui generis form of existence—but I do not believe that it undermines the sort of use that Camosy is making of his analogies.

      3. I think that the violinist analogy is a very poor analogy for the unborn child more generally. So does Camosy. The case where it holds weight is that of rape. The problem with applying this analogy more generally is that, although it is important to keep in view the great bodily sacrifice that an unborn child can require of its mother, the violinist analogy frames the matter as a violent imposition upon the mother, rather than as a situation that she played an essential part in bringing about. In the case of the violinist analogy, the dependent life is foisted upon the person from without, entirely apart from their agency. In the case of pregnancy apart from instances of rape, the unborn child would not exist apart from the mother’s own agency. In such a case, the mother has assumed her duty to the unborn child in her womb through her own action, even though that duty may be burdensome.

      4. I think that it is quite debatable whether liberals actively teach or push their position a lot less, especially when we are talking about non-Western countries, where there are some fairly powerful liberal movements that unquestionably presuppose and impose Western liberal expectations about how people should approach and regard sex and procreation.

      5. Saying that the choice belongs to the mother is quite a different thing from saying that she alone determines whether the action itself is a moral or immoral one and that such a determination isn’t something that can be arrived at through the public deliberation of trained third parties. Our choices may be our own, but the meaning of our choices is not.

      6. The fact that the choice belongs to the mother also doesn’t settle the question of whether the medical profession should be permitted to be complicit in her enacting of her choice. For instance, it would not be inconsistent to say: 1) that it is wrong to commit suicide; 2) that the law does not have the right to punish a person of sound mind and determined will who tries to kill themselves; 3) that the law is right to make it illegal to assist others in taking their lives. Returning to the case of the mother with the unborn child, I don’t believe that the law has jurisdiction over the woman’s womb. Hence, I am opposed to most foetal endangerment laws. However, the law does have jurisdiction over abortion clinics. It is one thing when we strike at our own bodies. It is another when a third party assists us in causing such harm. It is also one thing to say that a choice falls purely into the realm of our own personal moral responsibility and quite another to say that society has a duty to provide us with the means to enact said choice. This is not necessarily a privileging of the voices and interests of other parties over the person who makes the choice. The choice remains the person’s own, but they may be left to make it entirely alone, as other parties recognize that their personal duty demands their complete refusal to extend any aid to that person in their choice, or are constrained by the law from becoming complicit in a harmful action committed against the other person.

      7. This does not mean that every willing abortion provider must be prosecuted, just as these same principles don’t mean that everyone who willingly assists someone in taking their own life must be punished to the full extent of the law. There are occasions when it may be prudent for the law to show restraint in such cases of third party assistance in effecting a harm that a person wills against their own body. Such actions may not be legalized, but nor will they always be subject to full prosecution (although they would be exposed to greater prosecution when harm is caused that the person did not will, in the case of a botched abortion, for instance). This can be a matter of allowing people greater ownership of their own choices with regard to their own bodies, while denying society’s sanction to harms caused in such a manner.

      • Jonathan Roberts says:

        Thanks for your reply. While I generally agree with what you’ve written, here are a couple of comments:

        2. I think there are a number of important points where the analogies break down – with the flagpole or climbing accident, this is a split second decision in a case where the person presumably is going to die anyway. In theory, you might be able to save the falling person’s life with your own instead of impaling them (or just get out of the way), but it’s your call. In both cases, dying probably isn’t going to help – so that is an area in which the analogies hold.

        3. The reason I prefer my analogy is that while you’re still forced to see the other person as a real human being, it takes into consideration the cost of going through with the pregnancy and the issues of ownership over your own body. You can argue that it’s a moral imperative to carry the child to term or save the other person’s life within reasonable limits to your own safety, but it’s nobody else’s right to force you to do so. In some senses, there’s not so much difference between direct and indirect abortion, or between forced and unforced sex. Forcing someone to do what you see as the right thing in this case would be quite wrong. I still strongly oppose seeing a foetus as a parasite and do not support conclusions made on that premise (a nursing child is technically also a parasite).

        4. Considering the historical and continuing influence of Christian teaching in developing countries, that’s not a strong position. Liberals do not have multiple weekly services where they preach individualism, for example. Christians definitely go to developing countries and impose their standards of sex and procreation on the locals – and have done for centuries.

        5. That was my point, just from a different perspective. These issues are not morally neutral, but those of us who do not have to wrestle with the consequences should recognise that it is not really our moral decision.

        6. True, but this is one aspect in which it’s important to recognise the greater benefits of providing safe treatment – from the perspective of the woman’s health, through the provision of better education and preventative measures (thus leading to fewer, earlier abortions or other alternatives) and leading to the improvement in the wellbeing of families.

        7. Depending on what you mean, I agree with you. I like the idea that abortion should be safe, legal and rare – and the first two together with proper education will help the third. Putting barriers in the way of abortion providers (who do a lot more than just provide abortions) is counter-productive at best.

      • In response (this will have to be my last: I am quite busy at the moment):

        2. The analogies do indeed involve split second decisions (although they needn’t: we could come up with a climbing analogy that involved a decision made over an hour or two). I don’t think that this unsettles their applicability, as, whether made in a moment or over a month, the same moral principles underlie in these cases. The fact that the person is presumably going to die anyway would seem to render their applicability more limited. In the case of a threat posed to the life of the mother (which is where Camosy is applying these), I believe that this parallel will overwhelmingly hold too. Analogies are very limited, especially when we are trying to approximate for the sui generis situation of the child in the womb, and it is not at all surprising that any particular analogy can only do some of principle heavy-lifting.

        3. One problem with the violinist analogy is that the agency of the person is entirely bypassed. It is one thing to recognize the huge burden that child-bearing puts upon the woman, another to imply that this burden is violently imposed upon her from without (although rape, of course, is a different case). You also seem to be conflating the moral duty that a woman might bear to bring a child to term (the constraints placed upon her by her duty to the unborn child) and social and legal constraints that positively force the woman to carry out this duty. Again, such constraints should be distinguished from the constraints arising from society’s refusal to aid the woman in rejecting this duty—I may not have the right to force someone to stay alive (even though, for many people, this is a profoundly painful duty), but I am perfectly within my rights to deny them any aid in their suicide attempt. There is also a difference between third parties highlighting the duty that the woman bears to her unborn child and third parties positively compelling the woman to carry out this duty.

        4. Here I was thinking about the ideological power that liberals exercise in aid projects that address sex and sexual and reproductive health in third world countries in ways that impose Western liberal standards upon their sexual practice. They don’t need to have multiple weekly services to teach individualism—besides, TV does the job pretty well—to have a powerful effect.

        7. I don’t think that it is as straightforward as this. The legalization of abortion and its increased safety haven’t made abortion rare at all, even with ever more education. Quite the opposite. Further, the barriers that exist in the way of abortion providers are in a large number of cases barriers of required safety levels. The Gosnell case is a good example of what can happen when the desire to make abortion accessible has led people to turn a blind eye to abuses and to push back against safety requirements that they fear would make it less so. In other words, ‘legal’ and ‘safe’ can often be at odds with each other: ironically, the greatest impetus towards safer abortion often comes from pro-life opponents. Furthermore, legality gives sanction and thereby undermines the ‘rare’ too.

        Here it might be helpful to bring in the analogy of prostitution laws. Legalization of the selling and buying of sex has generally had deeply counterproductive effects. It has tended to remove prostitution from the realm of close police scrutiny, leading to much higher levels of abuse and decreased well-being of sex workers. It has also given sanction to the practice, leading to burgeoning sex industries in various countries. Straightforward criminalization leads to problems too, driving the sex industry underground and increasing abuses. The Swedish model has some strengths in criminalizing the buying but not the selling of sex, protecting the agency and autonomy of potentially vulnerable sex workers, especially in relation to their own bodies, more than many alternatives. It has weaknesses though, not least in exposing landlords and other third parties to the threat of criminalization, making it difficult for sex workers to enjoy untroubled access to housing, for instance. I think that it provides a good starting point, though. I don’t think that a woman should be subject to criminalization for aborting her child. However, the straightforward legalization and/or public provision of abortion causes problems of its own: it gives public sanction to the practice, increases its rate significantly, and often removes it from close scrutiny. These aren’t the only alternatives open to us, though. There are ways of bringing together the concerns of: 1. Removing public sanction and aid from abortion outside of exceptional cases; 2. Seeking to protect vulnerable mothers and not criminalizing them; 3. Opposing back alley abortions and the risks that they pose to women’s safety. I believe that a prudent abortion policy will have to explore the important distinction between legalization and decriminalization. I believe that the provision of abortion should largely be decriminalized, without granting the practice legal sanction. The practice of abortion should be surrounded with laws that prioritize the health and well-being of the mother, ensuring both that the practice isn’t driven underground but that it isn’t publicly sanctioned either, both positions that can easily jeopardize the possibility that abortion be both safe and rare. Of course, decriminalized abortion should be part of the larger fabric of a social policy designed to ensure the health and well-being of women—especially mothers—and their children.

    • quinnjones2 says:

      Hi Jonathan,
      I’ve read your second post here with interest but I will comment here just on what you wrote about the term ‘parasite’ at the end of your 5th point.
      I prefer the term ‘dependent’. The dependency of an unborn child differs from the dependency of a nursing infant because the latter’s survival is not necessarily exclusively dependent on the natural mother – the infant can be fed by a ‘wet nurse’ or bottle-fed, and can also be provided for in other ways by responsible adults other than the natural mother.
      I hope to listen to the podcast tomorrow!

      • quinnjones2 says:

        I realize that I am actually preparing myself for listening to the podcast and that I won’t be able to put my whole life experience on the back burner when I listen to it, nor will I attempt to. Grieving over the loss of life is a significant dimension for me. Though I know women who have chosen to have clinical abortions, I have never made that choice myself. I have three fully-fledged adult children, but I also had two spontaneous abortions (miscarriages) which resulted in me being admitted to hospital as an emergency. After the second loss, both my husband and I saw the baby ( I find it hard to describe it as a foetus) and the little one was clearly recognizable as a little human being. My husband wept, and so did I. I know that some women also grieve over their choice to have a clinical abortion.
        I fully appreciate the need for objective thinking in discussions about the morality of abortion and the implications of abortion laws, but I also understand why feelings run high with some women when abortion is discussed.

  2. quinnjones2 says:

    Jonathan’s comment resonates with me and I fully endorse your reasoned response, Alastair. As I have yet to listen to the podcast, I will confine my comment here to one consideration.
    In cases where a pregnancy has occurred as a result of rape and the pregnancy continues to full-term, I have concerns for both the mother and the unborn child, and also for the future life of both mother and child. It would be hardly surprising if the mother in such circumstances were to feel that both the biological father and the unborn child were ‘alien’. The mother’s feelings are also likely to be conflicted by the fact that the ‘alien’ unborn child is also her own flesh and blood. A mother’s distress affects the child in utero, which has implications for the child’s future – a future without the loving presence of a biological father and lived in the ‘shadow’ of rape. I know that there are women (and their offspring) who seem to have transcended these difficulties, but in the cases of women who feel unbearably overwhelmed at the prospect of continuing with a pregnancy under these circumstances, I think that the option of a safe abortion is a merciful option for both the mother and the unborn child.

  3. quinnjones2 says:

    I’ve now listened to the podcast and I certainly want to read the book.
    I think there were many good points raised by all. One that especially resonated with me was Matt’s comment about ‘freaked-out’ young women who seek abortions. This concern came home to me in ironic circumstances when I was 24 and in hospital after a miscarriage. In the early hours, when I was in considerable pain and pretty poorly all round, another patient was admitted and given the bed adjoining mine. She was quickly surrounded by screens and I couldn’t see her but I heard her conversation with hospital staff. She was admitted following a botched abortion. In the morning I saw her. She was 17 and very unhappy and frightened. When she asked me why I had been admitted we had a difficult, but also healing and conciliatory conversation, which is still etched on my heart.
    Charlie said that the real issues are often lost by trying to win rhetorical wars with opponents. Amen.
    I hope I haven’t misquoted Charlie – I had trouble following his diction at times, but I think that probably has a lot to do with the declining condition of my PC!
    One more thing: I needed to look up ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ abortions. I gather that they are what I think of as surgical and induced abortions.

    • Jonathan Roberts says:

      I think your point about not seeing this as a rhetorical argument is very important – it’s also easy to see opponents as anti-choice or pro-abortion rather than other caring people who want to support those who they see as some of the most vulnerable people in society. Where there are real differences of opinion as to what a foetus’ status actually is, the moral balance will naturally depend strongly on that factor. I think it’s very unlikely that a satisfactory common ground will be reached, but it is at least possible for people on all sides to act with empathy and trust that others are acting in good faith.

      With regard to the word ‘parasite’, this is how I have heard foetuses described a number of times, by people that I know to be serious in their opinions and caring people. Technically they’re right according to the dictionary definition, but that definition also includes ‘external parasites’ – like nursing babies. While obviously there are options other than breastfeeding, incubators can also replace the womb without changing the fact that foetuses need a womb and babies need milk. I can’t remember which of the people in the podcast mentioned that they were uncomfortable about the clinical language used by centres, but I’m OK with the word foetus being used – it seems to be the least charged term, although it is a lowest common denominator. Where people compare abortion to removing parasites or tumours, it makes me think that there’s something very problematic about the way they view pregnancy.

      I do worry that those women making these difficult decisions are being put in an impossible position, where one side will make them feel like having an abortion for any reason (including where they are at risk) is a failure, while the other extreme threatens to make a human’s status as a person dependent on whether it is wanted.

      • quinnjones2 says:

        Hi Jonathan, I can see that you are concerned about this and that you are aware that many others are concerned.
        I can see that, from both a moral and a legal point of view, the ‘status’ of the unborn child needs to be evaluated as far as that is possible. (‘Foetus’ is the correct clinical term, but not my preferred term). If a mother’s life is threatened by a pregnancy, and the continuation of the pregnancy would probably result in the death of the mother and also the death of her unborn child, then terminating the pregnancy seems to me to be clearly about saving the mother, and about taking the most merciful course of action in a tragic situation.
        The ‘Abortion Wars’ seem to be much more extreme and hostile on Twitter than they are in everyday life, in my experience. I think of the mundane expression ‘Circumstances alter cases’ and I think this is true of the many circumstances in which women seek to terminate pregnancies.

        Sometimes we are left with few ‘good’ options and we opt for the ‘least worst’, as an acquaintance rather nicely ( though ungrammatically!) put it.

  4. quinnjones2 says:

    I feel really encouraged by your podcast and by the conversations here, so much so that I have now made as bold as to speak out about it ( a bit!) on Twitter – a small thing in the grand scheme of things, but big progress for me.
    I have watched so many extreme prolife and prochoice tweets flood onto my timeline and, feeling unable to endorse either position fully, I have sat on the fence. Maybe a wall would be more appropriate image here, and not with me sitting on it but rather camouflaging myself against it – I’ve been a wallflower in this respect. I just hope I don’t now morph into a snapdragon 🙂

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