Is there common ground in abortion debate?

By Charles C. Camosy Religious pro-life voices in the public debate are often marginalized. First, the arguments they make are … Continued

By Charles C. Camosy

Religious pro-life voices in the public debate are often marginalized.

First, the arguments they make are often simplistic and refuse to engage serious responses from their opponents. Second, secularists simply rule them out of bounds because ‘religion’ has no place in the debate. Third, they often marginalize themselves with their caustic and off-putting rhetoric.

This past weekend at Princeton there was a conference of diverse leaders in the abortion debate (both academic and activist) designed to find new ways to think and speak about abortion. But this time the trends mentioned above clearly didn’t hold. Christian thinkers like John Finnis, David Gushee, Helen Alvare, and Cathleen Kaveny all made strong and fair-minded arguments backed by the latest biological, social and legal science. When dismissive mention was made of the overt presence of ‘religious’ thinkers at the conference, even the famously atheist philosopher Peter Singer jumped to their defense by claiming that none of these thinkers were making explicitly religious arguments such that they were inappropriate for this kind of public exchange.

Indeed, the conference had some of the very best minds and hearts on abortion from around the country engaging their opponents, at worst, with mutual respect and civility…and, at best, with care and even charity. There was spirited discussion that was public of course (and will soon be available on video), but there were also many more private interactions that took place between people of very different points of view. These included even dinner conversation between an abortionist and someone who regularly prays and protests outside abortion clinics. An absolutely stunning moment.

Because we actually engaged rather than demonized, we learned that many (but not all) supposed ‘enemies’ on abortion actually share many values in common:

1. A default position against violence (both with regard to fetus-especially when she can feel pain-and also pregnant women)

2. A special concern for the most vulnerable (both with regard to the fetus-especially when she is unwanted because of race, gender or disability-and poor women in desperate circumstances)

3. A commitment to finding new ways to think and speak about abortion-something which, remarkably, major figures on both sides argued might require a more legislative approach (i.e. not Roe) in order to work through the political complexities of those discussions.

Though it will undoubtedly take hard work, many of us can take these discussions as solid evidence that many of us (but, again, not all) can move forward together on several important issues of public policy:

1. Protecting the consciences of health care workers.

2. Giving women full informed consent about the biologically-determined chances that her unborn child may or is likely to feel pain: both via abortion and different kinds of birth techniques or fetal surgeries.

3. Pushing back against practices which lead to the systematic killing of unborn children who have a race, gender, or disability that is inconvenient or unwanted.

4. Claiming that a pregnant woman’s full and equal moral status in society demands that we (in both our public and private lives) have an absolute, positive duty to provide for her current and future maternal needs.

5. In light of the best data available, working to create circumstances which reduce unintended pregnancies that lead to abortion.

There is difficult work ahead if any of these goals are to be accomplished, obviously.

But much of that work will come from the creative energy of the scores and scores of young people who filed a 400+ person lecture hall at Princeton this past weekend in order to find new ways to think and speak about abortion. I’m proud to say that they had many good role models who, despite some situations of deep discomfort, engaged with open hearts, open minds, and fair-minded words.

Charles C. Camosy, PhD is Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Fordham University.

  • WmarkW

    What abortion debates seldom address explicitly is “the usual case” — woman has no intention of becoming pregnant, finds she is, and either immediately or after a reasonable amount of thinking time decides she doesn’t want to give birth. Rape, incest, third trimester are just exceedingly rare events compared to the normal case.The religious positions largely comes down to this: is the fetus a person? It would seem, from a theistic perspective, that God must have a strong opinion on that subject. And since the answer would be an unqualified “yes” if the woman WANTS the child, then God must have the same opinion when she doesn’t.The secularist is not bound by such reasoning and leaves it up to her. This argument will NEVER GO AWAY until there is a 100% effective birth control method and the absolute right of any sexually active female to obtain it.

  • n_observer

    A secularist educated in human development could easily argue that valuing human life demands that developing human life in utero be given a presumption of respect similar to that given developing humans ex utero.It’s not purely a secularist/theist issue, as much as some try to paint it that way.The facts of embryology present vital ethical issues regardless of one’s theology or lack thereof.

  • PSolus

    WmarkW,”The religious positions largely comes down to this: is the fetus a person?”Has your god already told you that the embryo is not a person?”And since the answer would be an unqualified “yes” if the woman WANTS the child, then God must have the same opinion when she doesn’t.”Does your god base all of his opinions on the opinions of pregnant women?

  • n_observer

    “This argument will NEVER GO AWAY until there is a 100% effective birth control method and the absolute right of any sexually active female to obtain it.”Actually, evidence suggests that, since many women seeking abortions were not using any of the highly effective means of birth control already in existence, the issuse is not fundamentally access to sufficiently reliable birth control, but whether women have non-negotiable power of life and death over human life developing within them, regardless of how it came to be developing therein.

  • WmarkW

    N_observer, yes, but I think it would help clarify the debate if birth-control failure wasn’t one of the possibilities.Psolus, I’m not stating a position, merely summarizing debate positions.

  • Carstonio

    “the usual case” — woman has no intention of becoming pregnant, finds she is, and either immediately or after a reasonable amount of thinking time decides she doesn’t want to give birth. As a man, I’m leery of making broad generalizations about “usual cases” when it comes to pregnancy. I’ll never know what it’s like to be faced with an unwanted pregnancy. From what I’ve seen, too many men don’t appreciate that carrying a fetus to term can pose serious health risks for women. And to be fair, there are many women who have never given birth who don’t appreciate that, either. The question of whether abortion should be legal is not the same as whether abortion is moral. I favor keeping it legal because banning it would prevent almost no abortions and would cause harm to women and doctors. I would hope that both sides can agree on addressing the issue of unwanted pregnancies. As you said, we can never prevent all of them. However, we can do much better than we have been, such as improving sex education, improving access to contraception, and improving the social support for women who do wish to carry the fetus to term.

  • globalone

    Abortion isn’t a religious issue and, quite frankly, I’m not sure why Christians attack it as so. (Well, yes I do, but I think they’re attacking it from the wrong direction)Pregnancy & abortion are ultimately a decision on responsibility. If you are pro-death, then what you are really advocating is a position of irresponsibility and lack of accountability. You are instilling in young people the idea that there are no consequences for their actions.Becoming pregnant is not like catching a cold. It is an easily preventable condition that simply requires the person to disengage from an activity if the results of said activity are unwanted.

  • Carstonio

    I agree in principle about the general issue of responsibility. That’s why sex education and contraception are critical, because they give people the knowledge and tools for responsible behavior.

  • Carstonio

    whether women have non-negotiable power of life and death over human life developing within themI know of no one who would assert such an absolute right. Part of the issue with lawmaking is that a government that can outlaw abortion can just as easily require it. The other part is that it’s very difficult to develop an definition of “human life” that would be non-subjective enough to pass legal muster. The idea of abortion as a matter of individual conscience is not about the woman versus the fetus, but the woman versus the government. Not about what decision should be made, but who should make the decision. Criminalizing abortion would likely cause a host of problems with women and their doctors. Would HIPAA be suspended for pregnant women? Would women who seek abortions have to do prison time while they’re pregnant?

  • Carstonio

    Judges should have and should now stay out of it. What difference does it make whether it’s the legislators or the judges? The closest equivalent to this issue is the situation where comatose people are kept alive by machines after hope of recovery is gone. If the patient doesn’t have a living will, or otherwise didn’t specify his wishes, the patient’s loved ones are considered to have primacy in the decision over whether to disconnect. Government intervention in such decisions can do little good, if any, and cause much harm.

  • edbyronadams

    “What difference does it make whether it’s the legislators or the judges?”Legislators must face the people in the next election cycle, a process that allows the disgruntled to participate and generates middle positions from those who wish to garner a majority. A judge’s edict alienates those who disagree because the body politic’s influence is at long arm’s reach.

  • Carstonio

    Legislators must face the people in the next election cycle, a process that allows the disgruntled to participate and generates middle positions from those who wish to garner a majority. A judge’s edict alienates those who disagree because the body politic’s influence is at long arm’s reach.I’m not talking about crafting compromises, which are not necessarily middle positions since some issues don’t allow for easy division. And I’m not talking about generating creative strategies such as living wills. I’m talking about intervening in the actual decisions. It could go either way – the loved ones may want to disconnect and the government seeks to prevent it, or the loved ones may want to continue the life support and the government seeks to discontinue it. From that standpoint, it doesn’t matter whether the intervening branch is legislative, judicial or executive.

  • Sajanas

    I find it hard to make much leeway in arguing with anti-choice people when they tend to also be of the sort that refuse women contraceptives, and demonize sex outside of marriage. If they were serious about reducing abortions, they would make the pill easily available, and covered by health insurance. Condoms too, for that matter. But to most of the people against abortion, sex outside of marriage is wrong, and the accouterments that aid it are also wrong. And I think their war against abortion is just a big front in their larger war against pre-marital sex, as you can see from abstinence-only education and the like. Till that changes, it will hardly be a dialogue.

  • n_observer

    “I know of no one who would assert such an absolute right…The idea of abortion as a matter of individual conscience is not about the woman versus the fetus, but the woman versus the government.”If the matter is left solely to the conscience of the individual, then the power is indeed non-negotiable.

  • n_observer

    “And I think their war against abortion is just a big front in their larger war against pre-marital sex, as you can see from abstinence-only education and the like. Till that changes, it will hardly be a dialogue.”So until your opponents agree with you on a larger overall point, there can be no dialogue?That’s conclusory and positional–your privilege, of course, but largely precluding dialogue.Does disagreement with you on the morality or social consequence of premarital sex render the person disagreeing with you unworthy of your respect or dialogue?The point of dialogue and negotiation is finding common ground on which agreement is possible, rather than holding the entire relationship hostage to the points of disagreement.

  • globalone

    Sanjanus,”If they were serious about reducing abortions, they would make the pill easily available, and covered by health insurance. Condoms too, for that matter.”First, contraceptives in the U.S. are easily obtained. Note, however, that access and use are mutually exclusive. Most of what I’ve read on the subject gears itself to issues with men and women not using contraceptives consistently and/or correctly.Second, most, if not all, contraceptives are not baby proof. The percentages of women becoming pregnant while on the pill or other birth control will probably surprise you.So . . . We can promote an Abstinence education policy or we can give kids (and apparently adults as well) THE facts about sex and make it clear to them that they will be held responsible and accountable for the choice they are FREELY making.Instead of being pro-choice when it selfishly comes to terminating a pregnancy, we should strive to be pro-choice when it comes to making a decision that may have serious consequences.

  • Carstonio

    The subject of the essay supra is abortion, which does lend itself to compromise in term of trimester and restriction.The language in Roe offers some basis for regulating abortion in later trimesters. My point is that such compromises should have a medical and legal basis behind them, and not simply be attempts to give both sides what they want. I think a better area for common ground is in strategies for reducing unwanted pregnancies. I don’t understand why some non-Catholic opponents of abortion also oppose contraception. If the matter is left solely to the conscience of the individual, then the power is indeed non-negotiable.There’s a big difference between being the sole determinant and the primary determinant. I’m suggesting that any government approach to abortion should respect individual conscience as much as possible, which is one reason I think the proper focus for government should be on preventing unwanted pregnancies. Focusing on the abortion end of the issue has the effect of punishing women, treating them as if they’re the problem.

  • Carstonio

    make it clear to them that they will be held responsible and accountable for the choice they are FREELY making.It’s easy for many people, particularly men, to assume that unwanted pregnancies are always the result of selfish irresponsibility. Some of them talk as if they want to punish women for feeling sexual desire. There are numerous reasons that unwanted pregnancies happen, and in some cases it’s irresponsibility and in many it’s not. Without going into all of them, one theme in many of them is that the women need some sort of help. Focusing on accountability wrongly treats the issue like a game where the women broke the rules. I know at least one woman who gave up a child for adoption years ago and still believes this was her punishment.

  • n_observer

    “”Focusing on the abortion end of the issue has the effect of punishing women, treating them as if they’re the problem.”Again, that’s premised on the assumption that choosing an abortion is morally neutral to the rest of society if the individual mother has decided it’s best for her in that situation.The contrary view is that society does have a compelling interest in overseeing when human life is extinguished. Declaring the mother’s decision controlling presumes that which was to be proven.

  • n_observer

    “Focusing on accountability wrongly treats the issue like a game where the women broke the rules.”Which is an understandable position for one who doesn’t believe there should be any rules, conditions or other social oversight other than attempting to ensure the woman’s choice is uncoerced.But others have a different point of view.

  • n_observer

    Roe v. Wade has been essentially emptied of its reasoning, such as it was, by subsequent decisions, notably Casey v. Planned Parenthood. All that remains is its bottom line result of abortion on demand.Under Casey and subsequent decisions, abortion may not be banned at any point in the pregnancy if it is necessary to the “health” of the mother–which is held to include mental health, so that if the mother really wants one and becomes or seems likely to become depressed that she can’t have one, no law can deny her one.

  • Carstonio

    that’s premised on the assumption that choosing an abortion is morally neutral to the rest of society if the individual mother has decided it’s best for her in that situation.Wrong. While no one has the knowledge to say “when life begins” (a highly subjective concept at best), most would agree that government has an interest in reducing the number of abortions. But the least harmful way of doing this is by addressing the problem of unwanted pregnancies. Bans on abortion do not work and cause more harm than if government left abortion legal.Which is an understandable position for one who doesn’t believe there should be any rules, conditions or other social oversight other than attempting to ensure the woman’s choice is uncoerced.Oh, come off it. I’ve been saying that morality is about the principles of help and harm, and simply following a rule or not following it doesn’t make the action moral or immoral. Again, when society tries to interfere when a woman is considering abortion, it causes more harm than if it stayed out, and doesn’t prevent the abortion. I’m not arguing that the woman’s choice should be sacrosanct, I’m saying that intervening only makes things worse. The problem of unwanted pregnancies are not something that can be fixed by, say, threatening women with jail time if they have or seek abortions.

  • globalone

    Carstonio,”It’s easy for many people, particularly men, to assume that unwanted pregnancies are always the result of selfish irresponsibility”Does it matter? If it’s an “unwanted” pregnancy, then perhaps both parties shouldn’t have engaged in an activity whose potential outcome is clearly in conflict with their desires.Whether we’re talking about a newly married couple wanting to wait for children, or a couple who isn’t ready financially, or two people (man & woman) who are on a first date, the question isn’t whether they should have sex or not.The question is whether or not the man and woman have enough character to accept responsibility for whatever results from their decision.

  • n_observer

    “While no one has the knowledge to say “when life begins” (a highly subjective concept at best), most would agree that government has an interest in reducing the number of abortions. “The question in abortion isn’t when life begins, it’s who gets consulted when life may be ended. Or is it your contention that the fetus is clearly not alive?Would we feel similar complaisance if, say, we were discussing firing gunshots into a house which might or might not be occupied?

  • n_observer

    “I’m not arguing that the woman’s choice should be sacrosanct, I’m saying that intervening only makes things worse.”But one does indeed intervene if one attempts to dissuade by offering inducements not to abort. Why is disincentive problematic, then, unless we’ve already placed the decision to abort beyond the moral scrutiny of society. And if that decision is beyond moral scrutiny, why are we discussing something with which we’ve said society has no right to concern itself?We wouldn’t dream of limiting our approach to child abuse and neglect solely to social welfare programs designed to reduce the likelihood of parents neglecting or abusing their children, for instance.

  • Carstonio

    The question is whether or not the man and woman have enough character to accept responsibility for whatever results from their decision.One of the problems is that all the responsibility effectively falls on the woman because she has the womb, and the man effectively gets off scot free. (Unless one is suggesting that the government institute shotgun marriages.) Part of my point is that the decision by the couple to have sex isn’t always an eyes-open one. One scenario I hear about frequently is where the woman grows up in a neglectful household and doesn’t have the self-esteem to resist emotional pressure from the man to sleep with him. Either he claims outright that he won’t love her otherwise, or she believes that he’ll leave if he doesn’t get sex.The question in abortion isn’t when life begins, it’s who gets consulted when life may be ended. Or is it your contention that the fetus is clearly not alive?I make no such contention either way. With ending life support to comatose people, as I mentioned earlier, one can argue that it ends a life, but it would be inaccurate and misguided to pretend that the situation is a matter of moral absolutes. That’s how I see government and societal involvement in abortion, where any attempt by these to prevent abortions only causes further harm.Why is disincentive problematic, then, unless we’ve already placed the decision to abort beyond the moral scrutiny of society.What inducements would you suggest? I’ve never heard of government paying women to give up babies for adoption, or even the idea suggested by anyone. If you’re proposing that, one issue that would have to be resolved is whether the government would be responsible for any health complications from the delivery. Besides, by “intervention causing harm” I’m talking about government punishing the woman and her doctor, or social ostracism of these. They will just have the abortions covertly, often in unsafe conditions. Additional harm would come from pregnant women being treated as criminal suspects, where they couldn’t expect privacy in their dealings with OB/GYNs. And then there is the issue of whether government would force the women to give up their babies for adoption as a condition of no jail time. Finally, if it can be shown that seeking abortion was the man’s idea, or something the couple planned together, that might encourage more men to abandon pregnant lovers, which is already a huge problem.

  • Carstonio

    Why is disincentive problematicI had a brain fart and confused “disincentive” with “incentive.” My central argument remains the same – disincentives haven’t worked in the “war on drugs,” and they wouldn’t work for abortion, either, although not necessarily for the same reasons. Less harmful and more effective approaches would involve treating both as social and health problems and not as criminal problems. That’s because poverty and other social pathologies figure prominently in the root causes of both drug abuse and unwanted pregnancy.

  • NCzippy

    Charlie, I read your similar post on your own blog right after the conference, and at the time I wondered whether we’d attended the same conference. I have been struggling to articulate my impressions — both my appreciation for the dialogue, and frustration at how the dialogue was structured. In the end, I would direct you to this blog by Aimee Thorne-Thomsen, who said it better than I could,

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