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Beyond the Abortion Wars - November 2017

posted Nov 25, 2017, 9:19 AM by RSO The Fenwick Review
By Elinor Reilly '18

In "Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation", author Charles Camosy presents a sweeping vision of an America in which abortion is not an issue. I have never read a book which I wanted to like more. Professor Camosy eliminates much of the rhetoric on both sides of the abortion debate, and makes excellent points about how access to abortion hurts or helps women; why religion should or should not be a factor in one’s views; and the ever-present question of when a fetus becomes a person. Unfortunately, on several points, his book is at best misleading and at worst, dishonest. Camosy is a professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University (a Catholic institution) and a Catholic himself. As such, he has a responsibility to accurately represent Catholic social teaching. At several points, his book not only fails to do this; it fails to provide any kind of coherent argument for or against abortion. Taken to their logical conclusions, Professor Camosy’s arguments allow for greater disrespect for human life.

Elsewhere, Professor Camosy identifies himself as a pro-life Democrat, though he avoids applying labels to himself as much as possible within this book. In the first chapter, Camosy argues on the basis of various studies that there is no dramatic divide in American views on abortion, only an artificial political split. He goes on in chapter two to systematically examine the moral status of the human unborn child. Examining and borrowing the arguments of myriad pro-life thinkers, he ultimately concludes that an unborn child is a person. He defines the term “person” as all those with the “natural potential” to know and to love. The term “natural potential” is not defined and its implications are not explored in depth—does this mean that dogs are persons? Chimpanzees?—Readers never find out, which is perhaps just as well for the scope of the book.

It is in Chapter Three—slightly ominously titled “Aiming at Death or Ceasing to Aid?”—that Professor Camosy runs into some serious moral problems. He describes in detail the nature of one type of surgical abortion:

In the first trimester…Suction Dilation and Curettage is most often used…the mother’s cervix is dilated and a hoselike instrument called a cannula is inserted into her body. The hose is attached to a powerful vacuum and maneuvered by the physician so it can suck out the fetus, placenta, and amniotic fluid. Sometimes, however, the hose does not get all the body parts of the prenatal child, and a curette is used to scrape the uterus to make sure every last limb and organ has been recovered.

This type of abortion, Camosy clarifies, is “aiming at death,” and is therefore wrong. But is it always wrong? No. He argues that this procedure, as well as Suction Dilation and Evacuation (in which the child is pulled apart limb by limb using a combination of vacuum tools and metal clamps), and fetal craniotomy (in which the head of the child is crushed to fit through the birth canal) are entirely permissible in cases where the mother’s life is in danger.

Professor Camosy justifies this “gruesome” (his word) taking of life in the name of self-defense. He acknowledges the words of Pope St. John Paul II in the 1995 papal encyclical "Evangelium Vitae": “The one eliminated is a human being at the very beginning of life. No one more absolutely innocent could be imagined. In no way could this human being ever be considered an aggressor, much less an unjust aggressor!” Camosy argues that if the mother’s life is in danger, the child is not an aggressor, but is nevertheless a material threat to her mother’s life. Therefore, he claims, the unborn child is behaving similarly to a brainwashed, innocent, child soldier who is threatening one’s life. Anyone who disagrees with Professor Camosy’s view on this is allegedly one of those “extremist ‘pro-lifers’” who “want to give prenatal children more legal protection than other human persons” (143).

I confess, I’m one of those “extremists” who dares to disagree with him. I don’t see how his conclusion logically follows from his premise. His child soldier analogy is fundamentally flawed. For one, a child soldier brandishing a gun at me probably does intend to kill me. That doesn’t mean that the child knows that killing is wrong, or that she is morally culpable for killing me, but such an attack is far from random chance. Furthermore, if I do nothing, I will certainly die. In contrast, there is no possible way an unborn child can try to kill anyone. Any death caused by the child will be a tragic accident. And even when the mother’s health is in danger, death is not guaranteed, as the book insinuates. For instance, Camosy suggests that abortion would be permissible if the mother suffers from pulmonary hypertension, a dangerous and rare condition involving high blood pressure. Pregnancy in women with pulmonary hypertension can be deadly, though it is not a death sentence: a 2011 literature review on the topic reveals mortality rates ranging anywhere from 17% to 56%. The overall mortality rate from 1997-2007 was 25%. Furthermore, though Professor Camosy may not admit it, abortion in the case of pulmonary hypertension remains a dangerous procedure. He also claims that caesarian sections are “ruled out” — a claim so ridiculous that a cursory glance at scientific literature on PubMed proves it false.

While the description of pulmonary hypertension in "Beyond the Abortion Wars" is oversimplified, Professor Camosy is correct that in some pregnancies the mother’s life will be in danger. I propose an alternate scenario to consider these cases: Imagine that you are a parent and have a toddler. Unfortunately, through no fault of your own, your small child has found a loaded gun with the safety off and is happily playing with it, pointing it at you and beginning to play with the trigger. You are at enough of a distance from your child that you cannot reach her in time to pull the gun from her hands, but coincidentally, there is another gun in front of you and you’re a trained sniper (I know, bear with me). Would it be morally permissible for you to point-blank shoot and kill your child? If you don’t, after all, there’s a good chance your innocent child will accidentally kill you. Perhaps some, especially those who are not parents or older siblings, will read this scenario and respond that it would still be morally permissible. It is undeniable, however, that parents have certain duties to care for their children. I do not think I am an extremist to take issue with parents dismembering their children.

Professor Camosy’s stance when it comes to death of the mother is not the book’s only deficiency. He also suggests that it would be morally permissible for the parents of children with rare, usually fatal diseases such as Potter’s Syndrome to induce early labor when there is little to no chance of the fetus’s survival outside the womb. He claims that this is actually very Catholic, because otherwise the baby might have died in utero and been unbaptized. This is beyond ridiculous. Camosy displays a lack of trust in God’s mercy— implying that labor must be induced because otherwise the child’s heathen soul will be condemned—and sets up a false dichotomy between the health of the body and the health of the soul. Following his logic, Catholics ought to induce all pregnancies as early as possible to baptize the child, because otherwise they might die unbaptized. It is a line of argument that sounds like absurd anti-Catholic rhetoric, not from a book by a Catholic professor.

Professor Camosy then proceeds to the next logical conclusion. He suggests that in the case of pregnancy resulting from rape, abortion would be permissible. Obviously, this is an incredibly difficult situation and one in which there are no easy answers. “While it is true that the prenatal child should not be punished for the horrific behavior of her biological father, it is not clear that a woman who has been raped has the same obligation to aid a fetus as someone who has consensual sex,” Camosy writes. He contends that Plan B and Ella (morning-after pills that can either prevent ovulation or keep an embryo from implanting in the uterine lining) and RU-486 (which ends an early-stage pregnancy by cutting the progesterone levels needed to keep the child alive) are not “direct” abortions, but are rather comparable to detaching someone who is using your kidneys to keep themselves alive without your consent (the well-known “violinist” analogy).

Bodily autonomy arguments for abortion are nothing new. What is different and disturbing is Prof. Camosy’s claim that this is actually a Catholic line of thought, and his blatant distortion of actual Catholic teaching in order to make this claim. “Euthanasia is wrong because it aims at the death of an innocent person,” he says.

But refusing or ceasing to aid such a patient, even when one knows that patient will die without such aid, is not necessarily wrong—as long as their death is not intended and there is a proportionately serious reason for choosing not to aid. For example, even at a Catholic hospital, a ‘do not resuscitate’ order can be accepted for a newborn child who is about to die…Catholic hospitals are, of course, permitted to honor requests to refuse or withdraw ventilators, dialysis machines, and chemotherapy – and for many different kinds of reasons. Such aid might be judged too painful, too burdensome, or even an unjust use of resources. In such cases, Catholic teaching allows for aid to be refused or withdrawn, even if the foreseen (but unintended) consequence is going to be death. (82)

One can easily see where he is going with this. And he has a point: what is the difference between providing aid to a dying person or an unborn child? The answer is that there is no difference. Both should receive care for their basic needs, regardless of any other factor.

In his 2004 address to the Congress on LifeSustaining Treatments and Vegetative State, Pope St. John Paul II stated “I should like particularly to underline how the administration of water and food, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act. Its use, furthermore, should be considered, in principle, ordinary and proportionate, and as such morally obligatory” (emphasis mine). He goes on to clarify that death caused by starving or dehydrating a person is a type of euthanasia. It is not comparable to taking a person off a ventilator or detaching them from your kidneys. Starvation and dehydration may seem an odd way to describe the effects of RU-486, but the “abortion pill” works by removing a human person from their only possible source of nutrition. It was disappointing to read Camosy’s glib overview implying, though not stating, that such a deprivation of nutrients is in line with Catholic teaching, when it has been so clearly condemned by the Church.

"Beyond the Abortion Wars" has good points throughout, and Professor Camosy’s analysis of the actual views of the American public on abortion is particularly interesting. However, as a Catholic theologian working at a Catholic university, his deceptive statements about Catholic teachings and moral truths are unacceptable. He should clarify the instances in his book where he dissents from Church teaching—or better yet, he should cease teaching theology at a Catholic institution and stop representing himself as Catholic if he so clearly disagrees with the Church. As a Catholic teacher, he ought to recognize that he has a duty to his students’ (and readers’) souls as well as their minds. There is a tradition in Catholic religious communities that when a superior dies, he or she will have to answer at the throne of God for anyone led astray under their care. Professor Camosy would do well to reflect on this idea.