Ethics, religious beliefs blend into political fray

Abortion a bedrock of the culture wars

There's no doubt that the debate over abortion is an integral part of not only family-centered discussions, but also the debates that occur on the left, on the right, and various points in the center on the political continuum.

Experts steeped in bioethics and philosophy agreed that one of the reasons that abortion continues to be such a hot-button issue is not just the ultimate decision in 1973 by the U.S. Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade to legalize abortion until the point of viability of the fetus, but the fact that it was a decision made by that top judicial body — and not through legislative action.

For example, the abortion battle in England was "fought over a series of parliamentary debates," says Bonnie Steinbock, PhD, professor in the philosophy department at the University of Albany/SUNY in Albany, NY.

"By contrast, the way we often do things in the United States is these things become a constitutional matter rather than a legislative matter; we've seen the same thing with same-sex marriage," Steinbock tells Medical Ethics Advisor. "In the case of abortion, I think the unintended consequence was that [Roe v. Wade] galvanized the religious right, because with one fell swoop, all of a sudden all of the abortion laws in the country were struck down."

That point alone Steinbock considers to be "probably the most important factor," as to why the United States continues to engage in bitter debate at times in the political arena — in more recent public policy debates ranging from health care reform to stem cell research to the confirmation of the newest justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, Elena Kagan.

"So, the end of life and the protection of life has become hugely politically important and politically volatile," Steinbock notes.

She says there is "no question that abortion has become the touchstone for conservatives generally — not just those who are conservative based on religion.

"I think [the] Schiavo [case] made it very, very clear that this was a rallying point — and that was as much about abortion as anything else," she says.

Advances in stem cell research "also galvanized it, yet again," she says.

"The other thing is that people have also said . . .that as we move away from the years when abortion was illegal, young women have forgotten. . .people have simply forgotten about the social consequences of illegal abortion," according to Steinbock.

Charles C. Camosy, PhD, assistant professor of Christian ethics at Fordham University in Bronx, NY, agrees, noting that "precisely because it was decided by the Supreme Court is part of the reason it's so contentious."

"The public debate in Europe, for instance, is there, but it's not nearly as contentious as it is here; and part of the reason is because they had a legislative process that determined their policy," Camosy notes. "In our case, it was a majority of unelected judges imposing a particular view . . . from the top down, and so we have protesters outside of the Supreme Court, instead of people lobbying their politicians, or maybe in addition to lobbying their politicians.

"So, I think that one thing that could really help this go away is if we actually had a legislative process [to decide the issue]," he says. "We never really had a public debate where we put all our reasons and our arguments out there, and then had a majority vote, or even state by state, or however it would go. My suspicion is it would be state-by-state. And then people would feel like, "Well, the democratic process took place; we had the arguments, and we lost."

"Values to uphold"

Another big reason for the continuing debate on abortion, according to Camosy, is that "there's a big diversity of opinion."

He suggests that currently, if you ask individuals if they identify as pro-life or pro-choice, for "the first time ever," a slight majority of people say they are pro-life.

"That's a small change; it was always very close — and there are important values to uphold on both sides," he says. "Actually, I think there are multiple sides; I think one problem is we tend to see this as a binary issue of pro-life and pro-choice, and there are multiple ways you can approach it that don't fit into those categories."

Generally speaking, he says that pro-choice individuals "have a really important value to uphold, which is the ability of individuals to make very difficult and morally thick decisions on their own, without it being imposed by the outside," Camosy says.

This is true "especially for women," he says, noting that only recently have women "gained control of their right to be in control of their own reproductive life — and in some ways, still don't have it, as long as there is economic inequality between men and women."

"In some ways, women aren't free to make their reproductive choices, because they are financially dependent — many of them — on the men in their life," Camosy says. "So, even if abortion is available; even if contraception is available, with that sort of inequality, some women are just not free to make these choices, because of the dependence they have. So, those are all really important considerations."

Yet, he says, there are important consideration for those individuals who consider themselves pro-life.

"We have to defend the most vulnerable from the powerful, who would otherwise dominate them if you let free choice reign," he says. "That's what happens when free choice reigns; the powerful dominate the weak."

While free choices "have value," it is also a responsibility to "stand up for those who would otherwise not have a voice," Camosy says. "And for pro-lifers, they think . . . our prenatal children matter just as much as our post-natal children."

Camosy says that "when you have those two very strong values in conflict with each other, you know, that's not going to go away easily."

Abortion in the Schiavo case

The issue of abortion also played a role in the contentious debate on a person's end-of-life choices surrounding the Terri Schiavo case, both Steinbock and Camosy say.

"When the Terri Schiavo [case occurred], the people that were arguing about it were actually arguing [and] fighting a proxy war about abortion through . . . [that] case," Camosy says. "It was the pro-lifers who said, 'Oh, you know, you're saying this human being doesn't count, and we can kill this human being, because she doesn't count.'"

The other side's retort to that argument was, he says, "'Oh, there you go again, imposing your religious values onto all of us; we should be able to make choices here that aren't imposed by an outside ideology we don't share.'"

The same arguments have occurred more recently in public policy debates on health care reform and embryonic stem cell research.

"The contentiousness and polarization have become so pervasive, that we just need to . . . take some steps to try to draw down the rhetoric, find out where we actually disagree, although my suspicion is we don't disagree nearly as dramatically as — or as fundamentally as — it appears, because of the fog of the abortion wars," Camosy says.


  • Charles C. Camosy, PhD, Assistant Professor of Christian ethics at Fordham University in Bronx, NY. E-mail:
  • Bonnie Steinbock, PhD, Professor, Philosophy Department, University at Albany/SUNY, Albany, NY. E-mail: