I write in response to Bernard G. Prusak’s recent article “The Pro-Life Movement: Less Popular Than Ever?” in order to correct a misunderstanding of the arguments made in my book, What It Means to be Human. In his article, Professor Prusak writes the following:
But that explanation [cultural decadence] doesn’t do justice to the intensity of conviction of many people who are pro-choice. Neither does the suggestion that protecting access to abortion is really about ensuring that women get to be just as promiscuous as men, who can avoid the life-altering effects of pregnancy when contraception fails or isn’t used. That suggestion appears in Carter Snead’s book What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics, but happily it’s only an extension of the book’s thesis, not the thesis itself. More fundamentally, Snead sees support for abortion rights as following from the creed of expressive individualism: you live your wild and precious life as your heart dictates, not beholden to the needs of a being like a fetus, which lacks “the behaviors that expressive individualism recognizes as proper to persons,” such as self-awareness, higher cognition, and the formation of desires.
But this is not what I argue in What It Means to be Human. The book is a critique of the anthropological premises (i.e., expressive individualism) that undergird the jurisprudence of abortion under Roe and Casey. In the book, I argue that this impoverished and incomplete account of human flourishing rendered the law incapable of responding to the lived and felt needs of women facing unplanned or unwanted pregnancies. On page 107 of paperback edition, I note explicitly that this is a book about the presuppositions of the law and “is not meant as a diagnosis, commentary, or critique of the motives or anthropological premises held by people responding to the law in their individual choices. It is not a sociological description or a normative judgment about why people do or do not seek or perform abortions.” Because of their anthropological errors, Roe and Casey configured the law of abortion in a manner blind to the pregnant woman’s dependence and vulnerability, “isolat[ing] her in her suffering, abandoning her to struggle alone as a disembodied self in a world of contending wills, lacking any unchosen obligations or duties of care that might be owed to her by her family, community, state or nation.” Rooting abortion jurisprudence in expressive individualism, the Roe and Casey decisions also absolved all of us of our obligation to come to the aid of women and families in crisis.
In my book I argue that the pre-Dobbs jurisprudence of abortion responded to the needs of a pregnant woman by merely offering her the freedom of the unencumbered will. But this is a woefully inadequate response to a far more complex reality. Like every human being, a pregnant woman in crisis needs networks of uncalculated giving and graceful receiving composed of people who are willing to make her good their own without counting the cost or seeking anything from her in return. This is the obligation of everyone who calls himself or herself pro-life: to extend to our neighbors unconditional, self-emptying love and support from conception until natural death. And if we do this in our individual and collective choices, and support laws and policies that do the same, perhaps those who disagree with us will see the issue of abortion (and us) in a new light.
Carter Snead is the Charles E. Rice Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame.
Bernard G. Prusak replies:
Carter Snead objects to my claim that he “sees support for abortion rights following from the creed of expressive individualism.” In other words, he objects to my attributing to him a sociological account of why people support abortion rights. By contrast, he intends to describe only the presuppositions of the U.S. Supreme Court’s pre-Dobbs jurisprudence. I concede this point, though I note that Snead’s book discusses not only such decisions as Roe and Casey but also a lot of philosophical literature about abortion, much of which he also describes as rooted in expressive individualism.
In the final paragraph of his letter, Professor Snead considers how the pro-life movement might respond more adequately to the plight of a woman with an unwanted pregnancy—not “by merely offering her the freedom of the unencumbered will,” but by developing “networks of uncalculated giving and graceful receiving.” I agree with him this would be ideal. But in my article I wonder whether much of the present support for abortion rights is rooted not in expressive individualism, or indeed in any of the presuppositions of our legal elites, but precisely in the fact that such “networks of uncalculated giving” are badly lacking. And I suggest that they are badly lacking in part because putatively pro-life politicians oppose pro-family policies like the pandemic-era child tax credit. Pro-life politicians who oppose pro-family policies, as most Republicans do, are better termed anti-abortion. Hence my article’s argument that the pro-life movement needs to free itself from its captivity to the Republican party.
As readers will know, voters in red Ohio recently voted by a greater-than-13-percent margin for a constitutional amendment enshrining a right to abortion until fetal viability. Ohio governor Mike DeWine is probably right that people were voting as much against the Ohio legislature’s politically extreme ban on nearly all abortions after six weeks as they were voting for legal abortion until around twenty-two weeks. It turns out that many voters don’t want to live in a state where there is neither legal abortion nor adequate support for women and children after birth.
Bernard G. Prusak holds the Raymond and Eleanor Smiley Chair in Business Ethics at John Carroll University.