I’ve been overwhelmed, mostly in a good way, by the reviews of Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization that have come out in the past several months. While generally positive about the book, there is a common criticism which appeared in the following reviews: First Things, American Journal of Bioethics, Catholic Medical Quarterly, and Studies in Christian Ethics. (I understand from CMT’s own Beth Haile that she makes a similar criticism in her review in the just released issue of National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly.)
The criticism goes something like this. While I am perhaps correct in pointing out some superficial similarities between Peter Singer and Catholic teaching when it comes to abortion, I am mistaken in claiming that the disagreement between the two is “narrow.” Peter Wicks, making his case in First Things, says the following:
Similarly, when discussing Singer’s views on abortion, Camosy again finds common ground, noting that both Christian ethicists and Singer deny that there is a fundamental human right to abortion. But this point could also serve as an example of the gulf that separates the two views. The difference between denying the existence of such a right because you deny that there can be a right to kill the innocent and denying that there is a fundamental human right to an abortion because you deny that there is any such thing as a human right may be interesting, but it is hardly narrow.
While I admit that I could have been more clear about what I meant by “narrow”, it could hardly be said that I meant the difference between the two was “unimportant” or “insignificant.” I clearly explain how the narrow disagreement, when run through to its logical conclusion, leads to a serious disagreement in terms of practical conclusions about abortion and infanticide. Furthermore, I spend many, many pages trying to make the complex case that Singer is wrong on the narrow point of the disagreement. Further evidence that I consider it to be serious and important.
By calling the disagreement “narrow”, I’m saying that the disagreement is not “wide.” One might think that two points of view, one which argues for infanticide and the other which wants to protect even the early fetus, must have wide-ranging disagreement in the abortion debate. But this is not the case between Peter Singer and Catholic teaching. The disagreement is deep, but it is deep on only one narrow point–especially relative to all the possible issues about which Singer and the Church could disagree.
There are at least three “families” of reasons which lead to disagreement about abortion. One family, clearly, is about the moral status of the fetus–and this is where the Church and Singer do in fact have their disagreement. But even within this family of reasons there is significant overlap. Both agree that the fetus is a human being. Both agree that rationality is essential for personhood. Both agree that speciesim is unjust. Both agree that there is no significant dividing line (including viability) between the creation of the embryo and birth of the child. (Indeed, both argue that there is a logical connection between abortion and infanticide.) The disagreement is about what counts as a “rational” creature and gets into complex questions about metaphysics. So, even within this family of reasons, Singer and the Church disagree in a narrow (though deep) way.
But another family of reasons to disagree about abortion involve moral duties to the fetus–including the duties to sustain and the duties not to kill. Some argue, most often on the basis of bodily autonomy, that a woman does not have a duty to sustain a fetus with her body–even if we posit that a fetus is a person. Easily the most famous article on abortion ever written, Judith Thomson’s A Defense of Abortion, made precisely this argument. It is an argument, however, that both Peter Singer and the Church reject. Singer argues that if a fetus is a person, there is a duty (all things being equal) not to kill and to sustain the fetus.
The final family of reasons to disagree consider public policy. Some argue that, regardless of how one answers the above questions, we should have a pro-choice public policy. Some believe that a law against abortion would be unenforceable and would do more harm than good. Some argue that the law shouldn’t be in the business of enforcing laws with regard to reproductive matters–especially when it involves women’s bodily autonomy. Some simply invoke moral relativism and claim that while abortion might be wrong for some, it could be right for others, and the law should make space for choice. Both Peter Singer and the Church reject each of these points of view. Indeed, in a remarkable address he gave at the “Open Hearts, Open Minds” conference at Princeton, Singer claimed that Roe v. Wade was bad law, and argued that abortion in the United States should be decided by a legislative process.
So, seen in the context of the many different kinds of disputed questions which arise in the abortion debates, I hope one can see why I think of the debate between Peter Singer and the Church as “narrow.” On the overwhelming majority of disputed topics in the abortion debate, Singer and the Church agree. Their disagreement, while deep and important, is with regard to only a single premise in a very, very complex argument.