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Review: Beyond The Abortion Wars, by Charles C. Camosy



I was recently lucky enough to receive an advance copy of Charles Camosy’s forthcoming book to review – ‘Beyond the abortion wars: a way forward for a new generation’. In this book, Camosy masterfully traverses the ‘battleground’ between the ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’1 camps in order to show that this battleground is in fact no such thing. In fact, as Camosy notes, the majority of the American public actually agree on a middle-ground position on abortion. Despite what one might think from reading certain media outlets and Twitter wars, there is actually a large consensus in the public regarding abortion. This insight is deceptively powerful. By demonstrating the areas of agreement, Camosy is able to help guide us beyond the abortion wars to allow a way forward for a new generation.

I was excited upon receiving my copy of the book for the simple reason that I had no strong a priori position on the ethics of abortion, other than a middle-ground and vague conception that abortion should be allowed but certainly isn’t morally desirable. I started this book, then, as a mainly blank slate. Of course, it wasn’t completely blank, because I’d been exposed to various arguments both in favour of and against abortion, but the writing on the slate was very blurred and ineligible. The abortion debate is often centered around one’s ‘agenda’ – the agenda as a woman, as a conservative, or as a Christian, and so on. I had no (conscious) agenda in reviewing this book, nor in the conclusions of the book. I am politically moderate (in an American context), and believe in ‘God’ without identifying with any particular religious approach. I am biologically male, and moreover am both homosexual and celibate (I’m a hoot at parties, as you can imagine). I could never have an abortion, and the chances of me ever having experience with a partner wanting an abortion are practically nil.  All this is to say that this review is written by someone who came into this book with an open mind, by someone who was not well versed in the topic, and by someone with no direct experience of an abortion. Perhaps some of the statistics and points Camosy makes are wrong. Perhaps he overlooks important philosophical approaches to the issue. Experts in the debate on abortion are likely to note issues that I did not, and I hope that this post will inspire debate on the points he makes. But, as an educated layperson with no strong beliefs in either direction, I found this a fascinating and compelling book.

In his first chapter, Camosy gives a variety of examples and statistics regarding abortion – many of which I found surprising and thought-provoking. For example, I learned that:

  • Roughly 1/3 of women have an abortion during their reproductive lifetimes
  • That 1 in 5 American pregnancies end in abortion, and in certain areas (like The Bronx, in NY), this reaches a stunning 50%.
  • 90% of those diagnosed with Downs Syndrome as prenatal children are aborted.
  • More than 50% of Americans who have an abortion have already had (at least one) abortion.
  • 1% of all abortions take place in situations where the mother is raped, and 1% in cases where the mother’s life is threatened.
  • Despite claims that pro-life policies are a “war on women”, it seems that women are more skeptical about abortion than men. For example a Pew (2013) study found that 49% of women said that having an abortion was not morally acceptable, compared to 45% of men. Similarly, a Times poll suggests that 60% of women are ‘against’ legalized abortion, while only 52% of men are.

Camosy highlights the laziness of traditional ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ rhetoric. A 2013 CNN poll, for example, found that 25% of people thought abortion should be “always legal”, and 20% that it should be “always illegal”, but that nearly half of respondents thought it should be “legal in few circumstances”. Similarly, a 2013 NBC poll found that 26% thought abortion be always legal and 10% always illegal, but that the largest number of people – at 42% – thought it should be illegal except in cases of rape, incest, and mothers’ life.  While around 2/3rds of Americans describe themselves as “pro-choice”, around 2/3rds also describe themselves as “pro-life” (Pew, 2011). Evidently, the debate on abortion actually reveals relatively substantial agreement on the topic beyond simple binaries of ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’.

After outlining the shifting boundaries of the debate on abortion, in Chapter 2 Camosy  considers the question of who – or what – is the fetus? Camosy takes the reader through different approaches to this question, concluding with (what he claims is) the common-sense position that the fetus is a person. He notes that one could try and claim that a person is an independent human being (i.e. a fetus that could live outside the mother’s body), but this has somewhat strange implications because this means that personhood could be determined by race, gender, time period, technology, and so on. This would suggest that a woman living in London has a person inside her when she leaves Heathrow because available technology means that fetus would likely survive if it were born prematurely, but when she arrives in rural India she no longer has a person inside her because that fetus would likely die if born prematurely. This seems rather strange. Indeed, in other contexts we don’t consider dependence to necessitate lower status in other contexts – for example, a newborn infant or medical patient on a ventilator are not considered to be non-persons. He then notes that some people take a ‘Trait X’ position, saying that when a fetus has ‘Trait X’ it becomes a person and before that time it is not a person (enter for X what you’d like – e.g. self-awareness, capacity to make moral choices, empathy, language). Yet this also is problematic because if you pick a low trait (e.g. the capacity to feel pain), this means that other mammals become persons, but if you take a high trait (e.g. self-awareness), then newborn infants and disabled humans are not persons. Again, this seems more than a little problematic. In fact, this discussion reminded me a lot of the work of Peter Singer and animal rights, and Camosy’s agreement with some of Peter Singer’s work is evident in a few places throughout the book. Camosy argues that “the solution is to consider [as persons] all beings with the natural potential for ‘Trait X’” (p.56), where his preference for Trait X would be the capacity to know and the capacity to love. If fetuses are persons, then they deserve equal protection under the law – like other persons. Bringing the discussion back to the ‘abortion wars’, Camosy makes the interesting side-note that resistance to calling a fetus a person is often less about what one believes about the moral status of that fetus, and instead what one believes about the rights of women – which is why we call a prenatal child a “fetus” in the context of abortion, but a “baby” in the context of a wanted pregnancy. One doesn’t ask if the fetus is kicking yet.

In the next chapters Camosy discusses what fetuses being persons means for abortion. That is, saying that a fetus is a person does mean that killing them is always wrong. Indeed, we do think that non-controversial persons (e.g. normally functioning adults) can sometimes be killed legitimately – for example, in self defense.

“Every person may have equal protection under the law, but it doesn’t follow that every person has the right to be sustained and aided – especially when such sustainment and aid requires another person to take on a huge and devastating burden” (p. 57).

Camosy engages on a fascinating discussion on whether abortion should be considered as aiming at death, or ceasing to aid? Indeed, this is one of the main sticking points in many disagreements on abortion. On the one hand, ‘pro-lifers’ understand abortion as a direct killing of a child, failing to understand how this could be justified by a woman’s ‘right’ to her own body. Yet on the other hand, ‘pro-choicers’ see abortion not as killing but just refusing to aid, and so cannot see why one would deny a woman the right to choose. Camosy seeks a characteristic nuanced position. While ‘pro-lifers’ are right in saying that the overwhelming majority of surgical abortions are direct killings (evidenced by a consideration of what a surgical abortion consists of), the ‘pro-choice’ insight is also important, because some abortions are indirect and better understood as refusals to aid. Indeed, even on strict ‘pro-life’ Catholic ethics, Camosy argues, indirect abortion can be morally acceptable if taken for a proportionately serious reason – for example if the fetus threatens the mothers’ life.

In the fourth chapter, Camosy considers the challenge of public policy. Even if we think abortion morally wrong, does it mean that we should make it illegal? Might the criminalization of abortion actually cause more harm than good? Camosy discusses a range of – often competing – claims about the predicted consequences of changes in the law relating to abortion.

In the fifth chapter, Camosy discusses abortion, women, and feminism. This was a very interesting chapter, and I found his discussion of explicitly feminist ‘pro-life’ approaches fascinating – perhaps because I hadn’t really encountered any explication of that thought before. Camosy presents evidence that in some cases, the availability of abortion can be harmful for women because the ‘choice’ continues to serve male interests and can coerce women into choices they would prefer not to make. To quote Camosy, “more abortion choice does not lead to more reproductive freedom”. He then made the interesting argument that:

“Instead of trying to force women to fit into the impossible position of pretending that their reproductive concerns can fit into male-created social structures, we should force men (and our whole society) to acknowledge the important differences between men and women. Women can get pregnant and have babies. Men cannot. We should and can change our social structures to respect and make room for the reality.” (p.128)

With the 42nd Anniversary of Roe vs. Wade tomorrow, the time is ripe to consider new and improved laws on this issue that take account of the increases in knowledge we have obtained over these last 40 years. Correspondingly, and drawing on the insights from the previous chapters, Camosy goes on to propose what he terms the Mother and Prenatal Child Protection Act. Camosy suggests this as a national abortion policy that reflects the views of a large majority of Americans but is also consistent with the currently settled doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. Of course, that this is consistent with Catholic doctrine was not a big selling point of his conclusion for me (as a largely secular person), but equally it did not cause me any concern. Camosy seems to derive his arguments based on largely unobjectionable secular premises, drawing on Catholic theology to support his points. In this way, his arguments seem quite convincing even if is not a Catholic – which is surely welcome in an ethical issue that affects people regardless of their faith. It would not do justice in the space allowed to describe his proposed policy in detail, and I highly recommend that you read the book when it is published. Put simply, though, the proposed Mother and Prenatal Child Protection Act has three key aspects:

“Legal recognition of the full moral standing of the prenatal child
Protection and support of the mother, including self-defense
Refusing to aid the fetus for a proportionately serious reason” (p. 134)

Camosy notes that the idea of legal protection for fetuses is hardly a completely novel idea. For example, in legal contexts other than abortion,  the killing of a human fetus is understood to be homicide – for example, in the double murder of Laci Peterson and her unborn child. The proposed act has a number of features, including 1) ensuring pay for equal work, 2) removing barriers to remedying gender and ‘family-status’ discrimination in hiring and firing, 3) protecting victims of domestic violence, 4) ending pregnancy and ‘new mother’ discrimination in the workplace, 5) reforming of parental leave, 6) universal prekindergarten and subsidized child-care, 6) removal of adoption from the for-profit private sector and support for campaigns to remove the adoption stigma, 7) coordinated, systematic attempts to collect child support. 8) protection of and support for women at risk for coerced abortions and other violence.

Camosy ends by noting that:

“The Mother and Prenatal Child Protection Act is consistently and authentically ‘pro-life’ in that it refuses to choose between the dignity, rights, and social equality of women and their prenatal children. It also happens to reflect the views of a substantial majority of Americans, works within the framework of our shifting constitutional law, and is even consistent with currently defined Catholic doctrine” (p.158).

Overall, I thought this to be an excellent book and I highly recommend it. I cannot say at this stage that I agree with all of his points, because no doubt as people respond to the claims in his book I shall modify my views based on the new information. The greatest achievement in the book, to my mind, is his sensitive and nuanced discussion of what is an incredibly fraught topic. Camosy discusses both ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ positions with respect and integrity, highlighting that the battleground of abortion is simply an illusion. The abortion debate is not a stalemate, and substantial progress can me made. Camosy’s book, I feel, is an important first step in making this progress and letting us go beyond the abortion wars.

You can pre-order the book on Amazon UK here. You can learn more about the author here, and follow him on Twitter here.


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14 Comment on this post

  1. My issue is when he makes statements like “when such sustainment and aid requires another person to take on a huge and devastating burden” which leads to the implication “Refusing to aid the fetus for a proportionately serious reason” in his theoretical policy. It creates an undue burden on the courts to determine what a “serious reason” is, and worse, it completely undermines the pro-choice argument that no person has the right to exist at the expense of another person. Has he thought about the outside implications of this legal reasoning? The pro-choice argument rationale is that we would never force a parent to give a kidney to their own child if that child’s life depended on it so why would we force a woman to continue to give bodily-aid to a fetus if she does not wish to do it. With his policy it could be legally argued that giving the kidney does not present a “huge and devastating burden” to the life of the parent, so it could be legally enforceable to imprison a parent who refuses to provide bodily-aid for a “proportionately serious reason.” Indeed, why does it have to be the direct parent? I could be compelled under that reasoning to give a kidney to another person or their child because it does not represent a devastating burden.

  2. You write: “The greatest achievement in the book, to my mind, is his sensitive and nuanced discussion of what is an incredibly fraught topic. Camosy discusses both ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ positions with respect and integrity, highlighting that the battleground of abortion is simply an illusion. […] Camosy’s book, I feel, is an important first step in making this progress and letting us go beyond the abortion wars.”

    Based on your summary, this is a surprising conclusion. None of the points listed above appear novel to me, and there has been plenty written on this topic with great depth and nuance. I have seen several claims recently of “getting beyond the abortion wars”, but none of it succeeds in reframing the debate at all. Indeed, you say Camosy even acknowledges his conclusions are not new–but it appears his arguments are not, either.

    Though I broadly take a permissive view of abortion, I acknowledge this is a complicated debate wrapped up in religion, metaphysics, and complex issues of rights and right-bearers. This is not the kind of debate that is best hashed out in the public discourse, but there’s not really an alternative. I don’t see a way of “beyond the abortion wars”. Hence the ideological quagmire.

  3. It may be the case that none of the individual points are new, but I know the abortion literature fairly well, and the combination of them together at least appears to be new argument. Eager to read the book, at any rate, and get the full case.

  4. Wow. A man writes a book on abortion and it’s reviewed by another man. Groundbreaking. Because what women need is definitely more men telling them what they should be doing with their bodies. And obviously two men are the people most qualified to talk on this topic. Thank god some men have finally spoken up so I know what’s right and wrong – thank you so much!

  5. Wow. A man writes a book on abortion and it’s reviewed by another man. Groundbreaking. Because what women need is definitely more men telling them what they should be doing with their bodies. And obviously two men are the people most qualified to talk on this topic. Thank god some men have finally spoken up so I know what’s right and wrong – thank you so much! Now we can finally make ‘progress’ on the subject of abortion. Funny, I thought we already were, but clearly since men weren’t involved it didn’t count.

  6. I was tracking and vigorously agreeing all the way until it went off the rails precisely here: “The proposed act has a number of features, including 1) ensuring pay for equal work..”

  7. “Camosy argues that “the solution is to consider [as persons] all beings with the natural potential for ‘Trait X’” (p.56), where his preference for Trait X would be the capacity to know and the capacity to love”

    Yet earlier the mentally disabled were brought up as possibly being ‘at risk’ if one argued fetuses were not people because they lacked some traits…

    Note that I do NOT think fetus – mentally disabled is a fair comparison to fetuses because it is one thing to have a seriously impaired or less conscious mind, while it is another to have no mind at all, which might be the case for the fetus.

    My specific criticism here is: how does the quoted ‘solution’ not imply that neuroatypical adult humans who are unable to love as the feeling is understood (I am sure they exist) but otherwise would be considered fully aware would no longer be people?
    Consider sociopaths, for one (my understanding of the term might be naive however).

    UNLESS the ‘natural potential’ refer to the base DNA / species charateristics? In which case it means that the individual traits do not actually matter…and it basically means the fetus is a person because it has human DNA.

    Which reminds me of the Aristotelic / religious arguments that the fetus is a ‘potential’ person (and thus deserves the same rights as actual persons), which I am generally not impressed with.

    Maybe I am not understanding something?

    Also, why love? Does it not sound slightly rhetorical to you? Why love and not hate, because feel intuitively feel that love is a good, ‘noble’ thing?

    It sounds to me like the ‘fetuses are not people’ argument is dismissed way too quickly here, and mostly because of what are seen as possible unpleasant implications (which are not actually dismissed as absurd).

    Don’t you think there are reasonable definitions of ‘person’ which exclude the fetus but not newborn babies and disabled individuals?

    And I said – I strongly disagree that the disabled are a fair comparison to the fetus, barring perhaps truly exceptional cases (which would be comparable to people in comas).

    Perhaps it makes sense to exclude the newborn from the people definition – although there could be other considerations to give them some rights.

    If women could abort at any time during the pregnancy, would “post birth abortion” be an actual issue in practice?

    In the end I don’t see how the book, as you describe it, is not simply a rehash of pro-life arguments, despite the ‘beond the abortion wars’ suggesting a more middle-of-the-road approach.

  8. Davide, (sp?)

    Thanks for your detailed questions…each of them has a good answer in the book. I can say, very briefly, that my view of moral status is one of natural kinds…which, at least to my way of thinking, is the way to make sense of our use of terms like “disability” or “disease” or “malformation” at all. Implicit in our claims that one is disabled, diseased or malformed is the idea that they have what I call the “natural potential” which is being frustrated by an accidental property. Indeed, it would not be “nature-changing” event if we were able to address what ails them. All that would happen would be that their potential–based on the kind of thing that they are–would go from frustrated to expressive.

    Another accidental property, of course, is immaturity. Whether prenatal, neonatal, or adolescent, a human organism’s moral status–on the natural kind view–is not different from those human organisms who have fully developed. One may, of course, reject the view of natural kinds, but that poses a host of other problems…not the least of which (leaving the permissibility of infanticide alone) is how to account for personal identity over time.

    I write in more detail about these matters in chapters 1 and 2 of 2012 book I did for Cambridge UP on Peter Singer’s work: It goes into more detail that does the abortion book, which is intended for both academics and a cross-over audience of non-specialists in (bio)ethics.

    1. Charlie,

      As I mentioned before, I am somewhat familiar with this view and have seen it (or very similar ones used) very often in the abortion debate, especially when the Catholic Church is involved – and you mention Catholic doctrine several times and seem to agree with it in this case – even if you say you are secular.

      The argument is often written in the form of ‘A fetus is a potential person, hence it should have the similar rights as an actual person’.

      I don’t see how this view can make sense at all – the being discussed does not actually have these qualities, and in some cases (which you mention) will NEVER have them, hence even some forms of utilitarian calculus which account for potential/future qualities are out of place in my opinion.

      Yes, terms terms such as ‘diseased’, ‘disability’ and ‘malformation’ imply a standard – which you call ‘natural potential’.
      It is is indeed implicit.

      But how is it relevant, if we are talking actual (not potential) ethics and actually judging – and restricting the actions – of actual (again, not potential) mothers?

      How can be the presence or absence of a ‘mind’ – and I grant it is not always easy to define or assess that- truly not matter to you in this kind of argument?
      When something which has an unexpressed personhood potential dies, who is the actual victime?

      Also, thought experiment:
      consider a nonhuman species which, in your opinion, does not have the natural potential for personhood.

      By a genetic fluke (or perhaps scientific experimentation), an individual of this species is born and grows possessing a very human-like mind, including the ability to know and love (since the book mentions those).

      By most actual-properties based definitions, it would be a person; it has actual qualities which make it so;
      But by yours, I suspect would not be, since it does not actually have the natural (species) potential for personhood….even if it has the ACTUAL qualities required.
      Don’t you see a problem? Or would you just make an exception?
      (I understand that this kind of exception would be way less controversial than not giving the right to life to fetuses, however)

      I find the mention of immaturity interesting.
      Societies DO already give different rights based on ‘maturity’, such as voting, drinking alcohol, driving.
      Granted, they abstract maturity with age, which is a very rough and crude system (and one could argue it is wrong and problematic), but it does suggest that people can be fairly combortable with development-based rights .

      It is perfectly consistent to claim that something may have the ‘natural potential for the right to X’, but then to say ‘but not now’ and not actually grant it that right unless the potential is expressed.

      Granted, the right to life is an extreme cases, but I think my main point stands: why should fetuses be granted the right to life based on the qualities of what they could beocme, rather than the qualities they actual possess?

      I don’t see how the identify-over-time issue is relevant here. Especially if one agreed that fetuses have no personal identity at all.
      I personally think it does not quite make sense to say I ‘was’ a fetus, just like it would not make sense to say I ‘was’ a spermatozoon and/or ovum.

      Also, again, even if te identify issue was relevant, would it truly make dismissing the natural kinds views illogical or merely unpleasant or leading to implausible (but not necessarily wrong, again!)consequencs?

      As for the book I might check it out, but as I said I did not find these arguments particularly novel – I am not a professional philosopher (more of a hobby of mine to read philosophical works and discussions), but I have seen this kind of reasoning a lot of times and was never impressed with it.

      And again, the post reads a lot to me like it’s basically pro-life (like the book reviewed) – which is different from the ‘beyond’ approach suggested in the beginning, which made me expect some sort of middle-of-the-road position or actually criticizing pro-life positions.

      Hence why I expected something a bit different. Sorry if that sounds overtly critical.

      (BTW actually Davide, BTW, yes. Italian version of David.)

      1. Hi Davide…just wanted to send the message that it wasn’t a typo on my end. 🙂

        I don’t have time to respond to everything you say here, but I do respond to much of it in this book…and all of it in the book on Singer’s work. I will say that much of the confusion you point to comes from a way of understanding potential that fails to make Aristotle’s distinction between potential understood as probability and potential which comes being a member of a natural kind. That part of my argument is most certainly not new, but *any* argument about the moral status of the fetus/infant is not going to be new. It is a question has been debated question for millennia. Happily, at least for those of us who want to have new conversations, many (most?) of the arguments about abortion are not actually about the moral status of the pre/neonatal child.

        If you do read the book, I think you’ll find that several arguments have not been made before, and that the position I lay out cannot be adequately-described by the long-outdated (and, frankly, lazy) life/choice binary.

  9. Very thoughtful review of what seems like a quite interesting book. You’ve persuaded me to purchase, many thanks.

    As someone growing in my Christian faith, I’ve come to realize that my previous strongly pro-choice view is simply untenable. However, I have felt stuck because many of my prior objections to an abortion ban remain in the background of my mind. It seems like this book will be helpful in disentangling these thoughts so that we can move forward on a path that recognizes the moral status of unborn children. Thanks again.

  10. It’s very easy to pontificate about the morality of a response to a situation if you know full well you’re never going to actually be in that situation.

    When men can worry about being pregnant, then I’ll start listening. Otherwise, it’s like listening to a whole bunch of pasty white people argue about what it’s like to be black in America. You don’t know.

  11. Hi Grumpy. At least in the US, the abortion rights regime was brought about by men, and women remain significantly more likely than men to favor abortion restrictions.

    But, that being said, I disagree with the implication of your argument that pro-life women should dismiss the views of pro-choice men simply because pro-choice men don’t know what its like to be pregnant. Arguments stand or fall regardless of the gender of the person who offers them.

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