Kate Ott on Charles C. Camosy’s Beyond the Abortion Wars
The topic of abortion has been at the political forefront, dividing party lines and creating guaranteed voter constituencies. Yet, in the 2016 presidential race, there is an uncharacteristic and remarkable absence of discussion on abortion. Hillary Clinton had to raise the issue herself in the Democratic debates. On the other hand, Donald Trump was chastised by pro-life politicians and activists for being too restrictive when he suggested women who undergo an abortion procedure should be legally punished. The reaction to Trump’s comments follow pro-life political efforts to shift the focus from blaming women directly to restricting access more generally and prosecuting doctors. This shift away from blame can be seen in recent remarks made by Pope Francis. For the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis extended to all priests the invitation (and sacramental power) to absolve a woman who seeks to confess abortion as a sin during the sacrament of reconciliation.
Charles Camosy, author of the new book Beyond the Abortion Wars, would not be surprised by these shifts. As a Roman Catholic moral theologian, he advocates for women’s economic rights and access to parental leave and employment non-discrimination. He raises questions about how sexism can be a coercive force in women’s reproductive health decisions and pushes against efforts to criminalize women. Is this lack of attention on the national stage or shifting pastoral approach to abortion a sign that we are beyond the abortion wars? Have pro-life and pro-choice activists realized that their entrenched opposition and political rhetoric no longer, if ever, address the complexity of the issue? Such pronouncements are premature. Rather, most legal fights have moved to the state level. Pro-life activists have learned from LGBTQ rights and marriage equality movements that state-level legislative and judicial change is an easier target than federal reform. Pope Francis’ pronouncement is for one year and based in the firm doctrinal position that abortion is a grave moral evil that women should confess. Not much change there.
Nevertheless, as a scholar and activist who advocates for reproductive healthcare reforms on both legislative and theological fronts, Camosy’s proposal is a welcome addition to the conversation. I say this because of how he enters the discussion with the hope of discussing — not yelling, shutting down, or forcing his opinion. In the preface, he writes, “Abortion is a subject that is so important to our political, social, and personal lives that I felt a deep responsibility to include as many people as I could into the conversation without unduly sacrificing the rigor of the argument,” and he invites readers to contact him with further questions. He takes into consideration the limitations of both pro-life and pro-choice activists to produce policy that the majority of U.S. citizens find reasonable. As he puts it, “When we refuse to let the extremists rule the debate, we can see that Americans have a large amount of overlap when it comes to what they believe about abortion.” For his approach and conclusions, Camosy has received criticism from conservative Catholics as well as pro-choice advocates.
Camosy’s approach is one we do not often see in the academic discourses of moral theology and Christian ethics related to abortion. In fact, there is a relative dearth of writing on abortion in particular and reproductive health more broadly. Partly, I would argue this is a result of the silencing power of Roman Catholic institutional powers (where many moral theologians and ethicists are employed) coupled with the capable leadership and scholarship of faith-based non-profit advocacy groups. Camosy, while inviting dialogue is also not proposing a “new” position. He uses the majority of the text to reconstruct the building blocks of the Feminists for Life policy and advocacy position, which he himself acknowledges in his book. Feminists for Life is a group founded in 1972 that is still politically active. His policy proposal, the Mother and Prenatal Child Protection Act (MPCPA), repeats the primary goals of both Feminists for Life and The Third Way. The Third Way is a non-profit started in the mid-2000s to advocate for centrist positions and create what came to be called the “common ground” approach to abortion policy reform. The Third Way seeks to make changes to reproductive health issues by expanding sexuality education, promoting healthcare access, supporting employment non-discrimination, and increasing funding for early childhood and family services. It also supports restricting access to abortion services, criminalization of physicians and other healthcare providers, and legal initiatives to recognize fetal rights.
Camosy claims that the policy he proposes “reflects the broad views of a solid majority of Americans,” is “consistent with currently defined Catholic doctrine,” and follows U.S. constitutional law. He spends much of the book placing Roman Catholic doctrine and theology in dialogue with philosophical theory and social-scientific data with the aim of nuancing Catholic doctrine just enough to create a viable public policy. He offers a philosophical and religious argument for the legal and moral status of the fetus. He expands the moral principle of double effect in Catholic theology to outline his stance on allowable indirect abortions. He also outlines his position on the relationships between moral theology and public policy which sets up his argument to reduce abortions through criminalization thus creating a legal penalty for healthcare providers, not women, but reinforcing social stigma for women. Camosy does not attend to issues like contraception access and sexuality education as known public policy initiatives that reduce unintended pregnancies and thus the need for abortion.
Throughout the text, Camosy employs the Roman Catholic doctrine of gender/sex complimentarity as the primary basis for supporting policies that enable women to birth and care for their children without resultant workplace discrimination or male-partner harassment. That is to say, Camosy’s working assumption is that women’s natural destiny is to bear and raise children as a categorically different responsibility or destiny than that of men. The biological determinism of orthodox Roman Catholic complimentarity is (hetero)sexist at its core and lacking in attention to generations of scholarship from feminist moral theologians on natural law and sexuality (see scholars such as Margaret Farley Todd Salzman, Michael Lawler, Rosemary Radford Ruether, and Charles Curran to name a few. Camosy does not engage the major writings of any of these scholars). It is also counter to another national trend that Camosy does not address — the majority U.S. acceptance of same-sex marriage — even though part of his argument is to create policies that reflect the majority opinion of U.S. citizens.
Camosy divorces the issue of abortion from other related sexuality issues that have seen huge values shifts and that deeply impact the basic premise of his arguments related to gender, sex, and sexuality. Marvin Ellison, a Christian social ethicist, calls for a similar conversation about the polarity of politics in the abortion debate in his book, Making Love Just: Sexual Ethics for Perplexing Times, where he dedicates a chapter, “Is Pro-choice what we mean to say?” to this issue. Unlike Camosy, however, Ellison does not rely on gender or sex complimentarity as the defining feature of how he understands reproductive decisions or judges the morality of sexual relationships. Ellison asks the reader to consider the relationships and values we as a society hope to promote through our legislation, health services, and pastoral care related to abortion. Ellison also considers issues of sexual abuse and violence, contraception, sexuality education, marriage, and sexual practices and behaviors in other chapters to provide context to how we approach issues of abortion.
Putting Camosy’s and Ellison’s work in dialogue, we can also see significant influences on reproductive health that Camosy fails to address. He presents economics issues as problems of employment discrimination or lack of parental leave without addressing circumstances of poverty or welfare policy. Considerations of racial and ethnic disparities related to healthcare access and reproductive choice (historically and currently) are relatively absent. Camosy’s proposals, unlike those of Ellison, are not influenced by the legacy and activism of reproductive justice advocacy groups that are explicitly anti-racist, pro-sexuality, and pro-family such as Sister Song, Forward Together (formerly Asian Coalition for Reproductive Justice), the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, and others.
The abortion policy debate has long been two-sided and often lacks the nuance that Camosy encourages. Taking this encouragement seriously, I hope that readers go even further than Camosy suggests moving beyond a Roman Catholic compromise position to one that takes seriously the racially and religiously diverse voices of women who have long worked for policy changes related to reproductive health and justice that are pro-women and pro-family. The activists and theologians in these groups have moved “beyond the abortions wars” to support reproductive justice movements for national and global policy changes that directly confront the varieties of oppressions that women and their families face.