Charles Camosy, Ph.D., is a pro-life Catholic who teaches Christian ethics at Fordham University. His forthcoming book, Beyond the Abortion Wars, will challenge the intellectually honest on both sides of the abortion debate as well as those in the middle. With extensive research, nuanced reasoning, and humane insights, Camosy undertakes the necessary but seemingly impossible task of dismantling the current stalemate on the issue—and then forges a way forward. I recently asked Dr. Camosy about his book, the future of the abortion debate, and the ways in which Catholics and Evangelicals can work together to uphold the sanctity of human life.
KSP: It’s been over four decades since abortion on demand was legalized, and the ensuing debate has yet to subside. The subtitle of your book is “A Way Forward for a New Generation.” How would you characterize the debate’s current state and what do you think is necessary to move the debate forward?
CC: For far too long, gatekeepers of the abortion debate have created the false impression that there are only two possible answers: a “conservative” position that is pro-life and a “liberal” position that is pro-choice. This is wildly simplistic and politically confused. Abortion is an incredibly complex issue, and one major thing I’m trying to do with this book is convince politicians, media and activists to acknowledge this. Interestingly, once we drop the assumption that we are polarized in a perennial “us vs. them” struggle, it provides the opportunity for thinking in fresh and creative ways about abortion—and even find significant common ground between people who previously imagined that they were enemies.
KSP: You spend some time in the book addressing the language we use when we talk about abortion. What role does the language we use in discussing abortion have in helping or hindering progress in the debate?
CC: Well, again, the first thing is to avoid language that imagines there are only two answers: life/choice, liberal/conservative, religious/secular, etc. Second, we ought to stop using language which builds fences and antagonizes the very people we are trying to engage. Can we just drop phrases like pro-abortion, anti-woman, anti-life, anti-science, anti-choice, and the like? These kinds of rhetorical hatchet jobs may help us release frustration, but they do nothing but keep our abortion debate stuck in the terrible place it currently resides.
KSP: You state in the book that “the categories we use to describe our abortion policies are woefully inadequate.” Why? How might this change?
CC: Well, think about it. Which party uses an energetic federal government to curb the privacy and freedom of individuals to protect vulnerable people? Democrats, right? But they “do the opposite” of this (invoking Seinfeld in the book, I call it the “Costanza” strategy) on abortion. Instead, they sound like Republicans: speaking about government staying out their lives, appealing to choice and privacy as the primary value, etc. And Republicans are no better. Where are their small government sensibilities? Where is their trust in the American people to make the right decision? Abortion politics are currently about as confused as they could possibly be, but I’m actually very hopeful that this will change as Millennials begin to take up positions of power in our culture. Over half of them refuse to identify with either party, so they are free to have a much more authentic and coherent abortion politics.
KSP: You point out in the book that a record low number of people describe themselves as pro-choice and that “Millennials are leading the charge.” To what do you attribute this shift?
CC: Millennials have grown up with two important things that Gen Xers and Baby Boomers did not. First, the human, embodied reality of prenatal children has been utterly transparent to them through technology and social media. 4-D images from the womb are regularly shared on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter—often with accompanying commentary on the child’s name and perhaps thoughts about the room already being prepared. Second, Millennials have not had the same exposure to the idea that children and pregnancy are burdens to be avoided in favor of economic and professional concerns. Indeed, young people increasingly demand that our economic and social structures make space for them to be both parents and professionals at the same time. Instead of seeing abortion as a necessary means for staying unpregnant, a new generation is refusing to make the false choice between being a parent and pursuing professional goals.
KSP: Public perception generally holds that Democrats are pro-choice and Republicans are pro-life. It is clear that you are no Republican, yet you are a strong pro-lifer. Explain this. Has making abortion a partisan issue hurt the debate from moving forward?
CC: Indeed, for the reasons I just gave. Interestingly, a lot of Democrats started out as generally pro-life: Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Joe Biden, Jesse Jackson and many more. But when they wanted to run as national candidates they had to get in line with pro-choice orthodoxy. Something similar happened with a lot of Republicans. Ronald Regan signed the bill which made abortion broadly legal in California. He chose a pro-choice vice-president in George H.W. Bush. Most of the justices who concurred in Roe v. Wade were appointed by Republicans. Again, the abortion politics of the last several decades is hopelessly confused. We need new ways to think and speak about abortion, and I’m not sure Democrats or Republicans can provide us with a coherent way to do this.
KSP: Your book is full of confidence about the possibility of changing abortion policy in the US. But we’ve heard promises about this sort of thing many times before and not much has changed. What is different this time around?
CC: Well, yeah, I get that critique. But both pro-life and pro-choice legal scholars will tell you that the move from the “privacy” standard in Roe to the “undue burden” standard in Casey was an important shift in the law. In fact, it has paved the way for many of the federal and state regulations that have been enacted over the last 20 years or so. And it also provides a framework for even more regulations that are coming in the very near future.
KSP: But isn’t Roe v. Wade settled law? And isn’t it overwhelmingly popular?
CC: In order to claim that Roe is popular we have to be sure that people know what Roe is and what it does. Many assume that overturning Roe would ban all abortion—which almost no one wants—but in reality it would only return the issue to the states. Furthermore, only 62% of Americans even know that Roe is about abortion. For young people that number falls to an astonishing 44%! And, again, Roe was fundamentally changed after the Casey decision and continues to be interpreted differently by various state and federal courts. It is anything but settled law.
KSP: You note in the book that Florynce Kennedy once said, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” Isn’t it easy for a man to make a pro-life argument when it is women who must bear the burden of restricting abortion?
CC: This is a very important argument—one which must be carefully and sensitively engaged, especially by a man. Far too often pro-lifers discuss abortion without reference to women, and this simply has to stop. But in response to Kennedy I think that we should acknowledge abortion is already a sacrament in many quarters of our culture. And, interestingly, men are significantly more defensive of abortion rights than women are. Pro-life feminists have a good explanation for this: abortion was made broadly legal by men because, at bottom, it serves male economic and social interests. Instead of fundamentally changing our culture to make room for people who can get pregnant, abortion becomes a Band-Aid for the unjust status quo. A status quo which serves male interests. Given this insight, it is not surprising to find that women are more willing than men to put limits on abortion.
KSP: What do you consider to be the most compelling argument of the pro-choice position? How can pro-lifers address this point?
CC: Well, first of all, while I think most pro-choice arguments are ultimately mistaken, the overwhelming majority of pro-choice people are not stupid. One of their most sophisticated arguments makes an important distinction between morality and law. Even if we have a clear moral principle it isn’t always clear what that moral principle should look like in the law. Many Christians, for instance, will rightly say that adultery is very seriously immoral. But few will say that it should be illegal. Pro-lifers need to be more aware of the complexities involved in moving from moral principle to public policy, and I spend a lot of time unpacking these complexities in my book.
KSP: What are areas of common ground you see between the opposing camps in the abortion debate?
CC: Overwhelming majorities (including people from both the life and choice camps) want to see abortion much more restricted than it is now, but they also want to see exceptions made for when the mother’s life or health is in danger and when the pregnancy is the result of sexual violence. Furthermore, people from both camps want to provide women with the resources to make it easier for her to choose to keep their children—including protection against pregnancy discrimination at work, child care, maternity leave, and more. There is a ton of common ground out there to find, but our current way of imagining and having the debate doesn’t allow most of us to see it.
KSP: You’re an ethicist. Many think of abortion as a choice between good and evil. But ethical dilemmas concern competing goods and therefore involve complicated and nuanced decision-making. Are there other ethical dilemmas analogous to abortion that can help us navigate the competing goods central to the debate? Or does abortion offer a unique set of ethical considerations?
CC: This is an excellent question. While no issue is exactly like abortion (because then it would be abortion!) there are plenty of issues that are analogous in various ways. Consider slavery. An open fact of life for most of human history, it wasn’t that long ago that we had serious debate about the issue. Obviously abolitionists, who we now all recognize as having the correct position, were upholding the good of the sanctity of all human life. But plenty of people who were uncomfortable with slavery or even thought it was wrong were still essentially “pro-choice” in terms of keeping it broadly legal. They were defending the good of the freedom and autonomy of local people and institutions from being coerced by an impersonal, distant federal government. Also, many people (including, for most of his life, Abraham Lincoln) didn’t see an obvious way to enact a total ban on slavery without, from their (mistaken) point of view, putting African Americans in an even worse position.
Obviously pro-lifers are upholding the good of the sanctity of all human life. But plenty of the people who are uncomfortable with abortion or even think it is wrong are pro-choice in terms of keeping it broadly legal. They are defending the good of women’s freedom and autonomy over and against a distant and impersonal government’s coercive laws. Also, many people don’t see an obvious way to enact a total ban on abortion without, from their point of view, putting women and babies in an even worse position.
Is abortion morally identical with slavery? Of course not. But the historical example of slavery can help us see two very important things about the abortion debate. First, and most importantly: if the life and fundamental dignity of a vulnerable population is at stake, this good must trump other goods. It might be very difficult to find a way to make it work, but fundamental justice requires that we try with all our might to make it happen. Second, this example also demonstrates how people of very good will (again, like Lincoln) could come to a different conclusion, especially given their historical and social context. The goods that many of those who spent most of their lives “pro-choice” for slavery were defending were important goods—but their social context blinded them to the proper ordering of those goods. Something similar, I believe, is happening with abortion in the developed West. Our social context blinds many of us to the fact that we ought to put the fundamental dignity of vulnerable prenatal children ahead of concerns about freedom, autonomy, and the proper role of government.
KSP: For pro-life readers who believe that human life begins at conception, the most controversial part of your book is likely to be your argument that RU-486 is morally licit in cases of rape. Can you walk us through the reasoning that leads you to this position despite your belief in the sanctity of the unborn child?
CC: I think every prenatal child, regardless of how she was conceived, is a person with a right to life and deserves equal protection of the law. Period. That’s simply what justice requires. My argument about RU-486 and rape is complex and I can’t do it justice here. However, I will simply mention an important distinction which often gets overlooked by pro-lifers. I believe it is always wrong—without exception—to aim at the death of an innocent person, including a prenatal child. However, certain abortions of pregnancy (like C-sections or hysterectomies) are better described as removing the child from the mother’s body rather than killing the child. Those kinds of abortions are in a different moral category than abortions which directly kill the child.
KSP: I know from my years in the pro-life movement that Evangelicals followed the lead of the Catholic Church on this issue. I suspect this won’t change moving forward. What do you think are the most important lessons Catholic teaching and tradition can offer your Evangelical brothers and sisters engaging this topic?
CC: While Catholics often need to be reminded about the centrality of Scripture, I wonder if Evangelicals sometimes need to be reminded of our faith’s other resources. Especially in a plural culture like ours—one that makes room for multiple understandings of the good—we need to become skilled at translating our arguments such that those from other perspectives can hear what we have to say. Catholics mine the intellectual tradition of Christianity for ways to make arguments in public which can be heard by those who don’t take scripture as their starting point. My book is only one attempt in a very long tradition of doing this sort of thing.
KSP: What do you as a Catholic see as the most important contribution Evangelicals have made to the abortion debate over the last four decades? What’s the most important thing Evangelicals can do moving forward?
CC: Evangelicals are important conversation partners for Catholics and for Christians in the pro-life movement more generally. All too often, when trying to translate our arguments, Catholics diverge from the foundational ideas of our faith and end up sounding just like our secular conversation partners. We need our Evangelical brothers and sisters to keep us centered on the Gospel of Jesus Christ—and avoid drifting toward idolatry of effectiveness within a particular political party. The Gospel, after all, is neither Republican nor Democrat. Pro-life Christians must be willing to follow Christ wherever He leads us—and that path transcends our finite and flawed political categories.
KSP: Don’t pro-life arguments over abortion, at bottom, come down to religious conviction? In a plural culture which offers freedom of religion, don’t we have to make room for those with different views? Doesn’t this lead to a pro-choice position?
CC: Well, I suppose it comes down to what one means by religious conviction. Christopher Hitchens, perhaps the greatest public atheist of the last generation, was strongly against abortion. Plenty of my Christian friends and colleagues would like to see abortion remain broadly legal. But one thing is certainly true: there is no purely “rational” or “logical” or “scientific” view of abortion. At bottom, every single player in the conversation—whether religious or secular—has a position based foundational moral principles which “grab” or “claim” them based on faith, intuition or some other kind of authority. And it simply isn’t the case that we ought to provide the legal choice for everyone to act on their foundational beliefs. If one’s strong intuition is that, say, black humans don’t count the same as white humans, then our culture has no problem condemning that as morally and legally racist. Some have the strong intuition that very young prenatal children don’t count the same as older children, but we should have no problem condemning this as a fundamental injustice as well. Justice for the most vulnerable in our community requires that we curb the freedom and choice of those who find them inconvenient and would do them harm.
Karen Swallow Prior
Karen Swallow Prior, Ph.D., is a professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (T.S. Poetry Press, 2012) and Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (Thomas Nelson, 2014) and serves on the faith advisory council of the Humane Society of the United States. She and her husband live on a 100-year-old homestead with sundry dogs, horses, and chickens.