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.