Charles Camosy's Response to My Review of Beyond The Abortion Wars

By Sherry F. Colb

In Horizons, a journal published by Cambridge University Press, I have a review of Charles Camosy's book, Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward For a New Generation. After the various reviews of his book, Professor Camosy provides responses to each one. Because I think his response to my review inaccurately represents my review, I wanted to take the opportunity here to reply to his response.

Just so that readers have some idea of what this is all about, Camosy's book proposes that we can get beyond debates about abortion if we incorporate the majority's view of the procedure: prohibit most abortions but allow some, including those necessary to save a woman's life and those where the pregnancy has resulted from rape, the latter of which would be allowed if the abortion is a failure-to-aid termination (such as a medical abortion) rather than an abortion involving direct violence to the fetus. He also proposes greater government financial and other support for pregnant women and mothers, a proposal that I applaud. There is more to it, of course, but this is a rough overview.

In my review, I discuss the sentience criterion for moral consideration, an idea Michael Dorf and I develop more extensively in Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights, where we suggest that abortions taking place after fetal sentience are morally problematic in a way that pre-sentience abortions are not. With this setup, here is my response to Camosy's review.

Professor Camosy very early in his response (171) proposes that my criteria for personhood--having interests in avoiding pain and death--might exclude newborn babies from the class of those entitled to live. This is because "Peter Singer and an increasing number of other thinkers" contend that newborn babies have no interest in avoiding death. (171) Camosy quickly acknowledges that I actually reject Singer's position on infanticide but then incorrectly asserts that my rejection rests on a speciesist premise (one that arbitrarily distinguishes humans from other species). He states that "[i]n other work Colb has made it clear she rejects Singer's position on infanticide because being a member of the species Homo Sapiens is enough for such sentient-but-not-self-aware beings to have full moral and legal status."

I do not know why Camosy believes that I make humanity a relevant consideration to granting moral (or legal) status. Nowhere in any of my work do I rest a sentient being's status on his or her membership in our species and nowhere do I imply that "self-awareness" is a prerequisite to moral status outside the human species. Camosy is accordingly wrong when he infers that "for Colb it appears a 'someone' is (1) a being with interests in avoiding pain and death or (2) a being with interests in avoiding pain and also a member of the species Homo Sapiens." Quite to the contrary, I have made clear in my work that the interest in avoiding death goes hand in hand with the ability to have subjective experiences. In Beating Hearts, Dorf and I say that "[w]hat grounds the moral intuition that we should not kill people.... [is] simply that people have lives that belong to them.... Sentient animals' lives belong to them" as well. No more, then, is required for moral consideration than sentience. Because Camosy misconstrues my criteria for inclusion in the moral community, he goes on to identify "problems" with the view that I do not espouse, including the notion that I arbitrarily "invok[e] biological species membership."

In another place in his response, Camosy expresses disappointment in my "fallaciously" labeling his "argument for the moral status of the fetus" antifeminist. (172) He responds that pregnancy is a relational status where an individualist focus is not warranted, and he then accuses me of resting my arguments on "the disease model of pregnancy," which he regards as patriarchal for treating a uniquely female status as abnormal.

I would not suggest that arguing for a fetus's moral status is necessarily antifeminist, but I do take issue with Camosy's particular way of making the argument. But first things first. The way Camosy argues for a fetus's moral status is profoundly speciesist, and it is worth dwelling upon why, given that he (falsely) accuses me of speciesism.

Camosy takes great pains to avoid having the moral status of a being rest on its attributes right now, such as its currently having or lacking the capacity to feel pain (a capacity that fetuses acquire relatively late in pregnancy). He does this, as I explain, because to grant moral status on the basis of a currently-existing characteristic like sentience would open the door to acknowledging the moral personhood of sentient nonhuman animals. As I quote in my review, Camosy asks rhetorically, "Are you willing to say that any being that feels pain is a person with a right to life? Dogs? Pigs? Chickens? Rats and mice?" (48) His answer is no, so he comes up with what I will explain is an antifeminist argument for why only humans (including human fetuses) qualify for a right to life. My answer is yes, animals count, so I do not need to search for a different criterion than current sentience. Camosy, however, does need such a criterion, because he has a speciesist agenda--to exclude dogs, pigs, etc., from personhood (stating that claiming personhood for such animals is a "strange claim[] that almost no one wishes to accept." (48))

How, then, does Camosy solve the problem of identifying a criterion for personhood that will include human fetuses but exclude far more capable nonhuman animals? He says (49) that a fetus has the potential to be what nonhuman animals cannot be (e.g., someone with the ability to create and appreciate art, an ability that--incidentally--not all adult humans possess). But don't sperm cells and eggs have this potential too? Camosy maintains that an embryo, unlike sperm cells and eggs, do not have to undergo a "nature-changing event" to become a human. (51) This claim is antifeminist in that it treats pregnancy as an insignificant part of what it takes to create a human being. In reality, pregnancy is very much a "nature-changing event," which one could easily see if one focused on the difference between an embryo and a baby (great) versus between an egg and sperm and an embryo (minimal). Camosy thus treats pregnancy as a passive non-event where embryos "only require energy and the right environment to express their potential to become the kind of thing they already are." (51-52) In truth, pregnancy is an active process that profoundly alters an embryo through hard work.

In the course of discussing feminism and pregnancy, Camosy accuses me of adopting a "disease" model of pregnancy. I do adopt this model of unwanted pregnancy, not pregnancy in general. Since we are talking about abortion in this exchange, my "exclusive" references to pregnancy as an extreme burden and intrusion on the woman are understandable because that is precisely what an unwanted pregnancy--the sort of pregnancy for which someone seeks an abortion--is. Like the distinction between consensual sex and rape, there is all the difference in the world between a pregnancy that a woman wants to experience and one that she wishes to terminate. A woman experiences the latter as an extreme intrusion upon her bodily integrity. By saying this, I am no more adopting a disease model of pregnancy than I would be adopting a trauma model of sex by suggesting that rape is traumatic.

Camosy concludes his response to my review by critiquing my view that the law cannot protect fetuses without unduly affecting the rights of women. He responds that countries that ban abortion have good maternal health. This claim is not responsive to my point. I was not suggesting that prohibiting abortion would negatively affect the physical health of mothers. I was proposing instead that when the law protects fetuses and embryos from their mothers by prohibiting women from terminating an unwanted pregnancy, it compels people to remain in a state of pregnancy against their will, and this compulsion represents an unwarranted incursion on bodily integrity, one that is undesirable in a free society, even if we believe that some abortions are morally wrong.