Language Games

How We Debate Abortion
Pro-life advocates gather in front of the U.S. Supreme Court while participating in the 46th annual March for Life (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Not long ago, I received an email from Rand Cooper, Commonweal’s contributing editor, which included a link to an op-ed in the New York Times. The email was succinct: “Check out the tone of the comments people have posted. You’d think the guy was Himmler.”

I did not check out the comments, knowing how vicious and ill-informed they would inevitably be. As it happens, I had read the op-ed earlier that morning. The “guy” in question was Fordham University theologian Charles C. Camosy. “The War of Words on Abortion” was the title of the op-ed, and in the piece Camosy quite reasonably argued that “the struggle in the abortion debate is, in many ways, a struggle over language.” What political conflict isn’t? When defenders of abortion rights insist on labeling Camosy—who is a board member of Democrats for Life of America—as “anti-abortion” it becomes much easier for them to “dismiss me and fellow prolifers as single-issue obsessives, which we are not.” Rather, Camosy argued, he is an opponent of what Pope Francis calls our “throwaway culture,” a culture “in which human beings whose dignity is most inconvenient are discarded as mere objects. Such a culture requires the use of language that deadens one’s capacity to show concern for those who need it most.”

Camosy, a contributor to Commonweal, has for years pursued the Sisyphean task of trying to find common ground and some possible political compromise between abortion-rights advocates and the prolife movement. In his op-ed, he pointed out that a recent Times editorial had described a fetus as “clusters of cells that have not yet developed into viable human beings.” That is obfuscation. “Language like this ignores the fact that each of us once existed as ‘clusters of cells that have not yet developed into viable human beings,’” Camosy wrote. “It seeks to hide the fact that by the time most surgical abortions take place, a prenatal child has electrical activity in the brain and a beating heart.”

Camosy explained why his defense of the unborn is perfectly consistent with advocacy for the dignity of other vulnerable human beings, such as the poor, people with disabilities, immigrants, and the incarcerated—all groups that liberals and many abortion-rights advocates strive to help and want government to protect. “We must refuse the false choice between supporting vulnerable women and protecting vulnerable prenatal children,” he concluded. “It will mean genuinely wrestling with the complexity of doing both. And it will mean engaging the arguments of our perceived opponents in good faith.”

“Prenatal children” is a Camosy neologism for the fetus. He believes the term “fetus” obscures the humanity of the developing child in the womb. It is not clear to me that “prenatal children” is a happy solution to that problem, but the questions Camosy raises about the language deployed in the abortion debate are real enough.

Abortion is a unique moral, legal, and personal dilemma, and it is true that some prolife activists are loath to recognize that fact.

The Times subsequently printed three letters responding to Camosy’s piece—one in support and two opposed. Predictably enough, Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, and Leana Wen, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, both found grave fault with Camosy’s argument. Neither, however, engaged Camosy in good faith. Instead, their letters provided ample evidence of the obstacles compromise-minded prolifers face when dealing with abortion-rights absolutists.

O’Brien seems to think that the success of abortion-rights legislation in Ireland and other nominally Catholic countries refutes the moral and philosophical arguments against abortion. But that is a non sequitur. The popularity of Jim Crow laws was not a refutation of the moral dignity of African Americans; it was an exercise in brute majoritarianism. O’Brien refuses to wrestle with the complexity of abortion, seeing it solely as a case of women having the “right to make free choices over their bodies.” He even suggests that it is the “educated and sophisticated” who are enlightened enough to embrace abortion rights, unlike the unwashed Catholic masses. Completely unmentioned is what abortion actually entails, which is—regardless of whether you describe the developing human being in the womb as a cluster of cells, a fetus, or a prenatal child—the killing of nascent human life. That is not merely a religious view or a “red-herring” as O’Brien suggests, but a biological and moral fact. It is O’Brien, not Camosy, who is “running away from ethical arguments” when he refuses to take a hard look at the object of the procedure itself.

Wen’s letter is also evasive, if less ad hominem than O’Brien’s. It does, however, contain one wholly disingenuous argument. As a physician, Wen notes that access to safe and legal abortion has saved the lives of many women. “I have treated patients for whom abortion is lifesaving,” she writes. No doubt that is true. There are certainly cases in which the choice of saving the mother or saving the unborn child must be made. But the number of such cases is infinitesimal compared to the millions of abortions performed for personal rather than medical reasons.

Other abortion-rights defenders, such as Katha Pollitt and Barbara Ehrenreich, are less evasive. They reject the idea that abortion raises any difficult ethical questions; as far as they’re concerned, it is simply a constitutional right, full stop. Talk about the procedure involving not just one body but two is dismissed as obtuse. The fact that abortion entails killing is brushed off as mere politics. Without access to abortion, they argue, women are enslaved to biology in a way men never can be. “Moral agonizing” is a waste of everyone’s time. Or, as Ehrenreich has written, “the one regret I have about my own abortions is that they cost money that might otherwise have been spent on something more pleasurable, like taking the kids to the movies and theme parks.”

Abortion is a unique moral, legal, and personal dilemma, and it is true that some prolife activists are loath to recognize that fact. There is no other condition or situation in which one human being is totally dependent on another in whose body she or he is carried and nurtured. But those complications do not eliminate the moral realities involved. Despite O’Brien and Wen’s claims, abortion is not just about a woman’s personal autonomy; it also puts an end to a developing human life. As Camosy insisted, clearer, more honest language is needed if the two sides in this seemingly unresolvable debate are going to get beyond name-calling. It’s time to stop treating our political adversaries like Himmlers.

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer. He is working on a book titled Why Do I Go to Church?

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