Monday, February 16, 2015

Aiming at Life

Charles Camosy, a Catholic theologian and Associate Professor at Fordham, has published a book, "Beyond the Abortion Wars", that aims at finding some way of making progress against the apparent current stalemate in abortion politics. That's certainly a worthwhile aim. Does he do it while remaining within Catholic teaching? I think there are particular points at which he does not stick within Catholic understanding, and that this problem considerably muddies his suggestions for how to move forward.

First problem: Claim that self-defense is conditional on innocence of the aggressor. Camosy considers the moral principle "it is always wrong to aim at the death of an innocent person", and then examines the situation where an innocent person (e.g. a brainwashed child soldier, or someone insane) performs an act of aggression which must must be defended against, with perhaps fatal results for the aggressor. Isn't that, he suggests, killing an innocent? Camosy spends some time examining the word "innocent", and its implications for the moral principle. He suggests that such aggressors are formally innocent, but not materially innocent, and by this means rescues the moral principle.

But Camosy's discussion is misdirected. In responding to an act of aggression, a legitimate self-defense does not involve any intention of harm to the aggressor (Catechism #2263). The innocence or otherwise of the aggressor does not affect whether self-defense is permissible. Neither death, nor any other harm, is intentionally inflicted on the aggressor. Indeed, any intentional inflicting of harm on the aggressor would make the self-defense into an impermissible act. Camosy himself refers to this idea, but in a sub-note at the end. Quite why he then spends time, in the main body of the text,  examining the word "innocent" is far from clear, because it is not relevant to issues of permissible self-defense.

Second problem: Claim that a fetus can be an aggressor. Camosy points out that Popes Pius XII and John Paul II state that the fetus is not an unjust aggressor (a point which in fact had been fairly settled quite some time before their time). A fetus can't be a formal aggressor, because it lacks the necessary mental outlook. But more specifically, John Paul II says: "In no way could this human being ever be considered an aggressor, much less an unjust aggressor! He or she is weak, defenseless, even to the point of lacking that minimal form of defense consisting in the poignant power of a newborn baby's cries and tears. The unborn child is totally entrusted to the protection and care of the woman carrying him or her in the womb." This rules against the fetus even being considered as a material aggressor; since it lacks the physical capacity. In which case, the kind of legitimate defense permitted against aggressors (which may include unintended harm) is not possible against a fetus.

Yet Camosy goes on to suppose, and rely on the fact, that the fetus can be a material aggressor, without explaining how this can be reconciled with John Paul II.

Third problem: Claim that use of RU-486 is indirect abortion. Camosy raises the question as to whether taking RU-486 should count as a direct abortion. (The definition of a direct abortion is one that is intended, either as an end or as a means. An indirect abortion is one that is not intended, but occurs as a side-effect of accomplishing some other intention.) He points out that the mechanism by which  RU-486 acts is as an antiprogesterone, which causes detachment of the fetus from the uterus, and leads to its death. But he does not indicate why this might be of any significance in deciding whether the abortion is direct or indirect. Direct is an issue of intention, not of the method of physical action.

Camosy also claims that in using RU-486, the intention could be to detach the fetus (to be more precise: to relieve yourself of an unwanted burden), rather than to kill the fetus — and that the death of the fetus would then be foreseen, but not intended. But this is also not sufficient to conclude that the abortion would be indirect. That's because where we have an intended good effect (relief from a burden) and an unintended evil effect (death of the fetus), we have to use the principle of double effect. And in this case there is no proportion between the good and the evil — the evil of the death of the fetus is much worse that the good of the relief of a burden. In such circumstances, anyone choosing the act would in fact be choosing an overall evil, which is never permitted. This turns it into a direct abortion.

Fourth problem: Claim that some direct abortions are legitimate. Camosy (by using various arguments that depend in different ways on the first three problems itemized here) concludes that some rare direct abortions are legitimate. This flatly contradicts the encyclical Evangelium Vitae, which declares that direct abortions are always a grave moral disorder.

Fifth problem: Vague treatment of indirect abortion. Camosy is sometimes unclear on exactly what constitutes an indirect abortion. For example, he describes a case reported in America magazine in 2009 which, as the details show, was neither an early induction nor any kind of abortion, indirect or otherwise; yet he goes on to repeatedly consider it as an exemplar of both. In other places he refers to a cesarean section as an example of indirect abortion, whereas it can be either direct or indirect, wholly depending on the circumstances.

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