This was originally written very badly and in the wrong spirit. I beg the reader’s forgiveness. It is now better but still imperfect.
Charles C. Camosy1 is a bioethicist—Yours Truly is also one of these creatures (self certified)—and Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at the (officially certified) Catholic Fordham University. In the on-line journal Catholic Moral Theology, Camosy penned the article “From the Honest Question File: Could a Prenatal Child be a ‘Innocent Aggressor’?”
What is an “innocent aggressor”? Camosy says there are at least three kinds: (1) the insane and mentally ravaged, (2) those who act in ignorance, and (3) those who are not yet fully rational, i.e. children. To these he would add a fourth: the lives growing inside females who, somehow, commit violence against their carriers. (Notice the unemotional, baggage-free language? This is something good bioethicists do.)
The propriety of knocking “innocent aggressors” on the head? Camosy says, “Both the [Catholic] tradition (and common sense) seems to answer in the affirmative.” Seems. Few would quarrel with your right to plug the maniac charging at you with a meat hook, most of us would forgive the soldier who accidentally shot the wrong fellow, and the horror of a child co-opted as mercenary is agreed to by all.
But how except by an appalling abuse of language could an unborn life be considered an “aggressor”? It is true in rare cases unborn lives cause damage to the health of their carriers, but to say these are acts of aggression is like non-metaphorically claiming bacteria are belligerent or that a viral infection is a blitzkrieg.
In Camosy’s paradigmatic examples there is always a violent act of will. Now an unborn life wills some (meager enough) things, but it never has the comprehension or willful desire that its actions harm its carrier. Thus it is impossible an unborn life can be an aggressor, innocent or otherwise. (Camosy shows he does not appreciate this point in answer to comments on the CMT site.)
A more apt analogy is a child on a lifeboat lost at sea, its occupants ravenous and whose only hope of survival, they convince themselves, is to throw the child overboard to stretch provisions. Yet it is only a guess the passengers will die if the child isn’t murdered—a ship or an island may unpredictably appear. So too it is a crude guess that the carrier will die unless the unborn life is killed. Doctors are far from infallible prognosticators. But suppose their predictions were perfect, and that it is certain harm will come to the carrier or that the carrier will be killed.
When To Kill?
If it is certain harm will come to the carrier because of the unborn life, should that unborn life be killed? The harm the unborn life causes is inadvertent and unwilled; therefore the unborn life is blameless. To kill the blameless (and defenseless, etc.) is murder, therefore to kill the unborn life to spare its carrier grief is murder.
Recall certainty about death of the carrier will be rare or nonexistent, and in many cases prognoses will be absurd (“She’s a suicide risk”), but here we suppose good will. There are three cases: (A) killing the unborn life preserves the life of its carrier who would otherwise die, or (B) allowing the unborn life to live which causes the death of its carrier but where the unborn life becomes a born life, and (C) where the unborn life, in causing the death of its carrier, dies with it.
In (A) we saved the carrier but killed an innocent life, which is murder. (B) is tragic, yet no sin is committed. (C) appears to be a problem. But if killing the unborn life saves the carrier, we are in (A). And if allowing the unborn life to live knowing the carrier will die, we are in (B). Thus there is no (C), except in the sense that the evidence might say (depressingly but unconditionally) that both the unborn life and its carrier will die no matter what.
These cases are different than scenarios with uncertainty, wherein a doctor proposes a procedure to alleviate danger or to cure, but where the procedure is risky or where it goes awry and the unborn life, the carrier, or both suffer or die. Here the intent is not to kill.
Some will say that killing the unborn innocent is not murder because one can only murder human beings. But this begs the question when the unborn life becomes human. What explicit, exact, rigorous event takes the unborn life and transforms it into a human life? The scientific, natural law answer is conception: human life is created when boy meets girl, so to speak. To say this life is just a “bunch of cells” can be said of Yours Truly. What makes the “bunch of cells” human? Various alternate answers have been proposed, all of them disquieting, and all, eventually, bloody.
Camosy is anxious that his term be accepted because it would justify the killing of unborn lives, which is desirable politically because many “support direct abortion to save the life of the mother.”
If the Church’s position can once again be marginalized as “anti-woman” because it will not permit direct abortion to save the life of the mother…we will be sitting on the sidelines of the debate. Our ability to participate in an American political debate is not, of course, a good reason to change or reject certain tenents of Catholic moral theology. It is, however, a good reason for American Catholics to revisit some ideas that have been largely unexplored, and perhaps prematurely shut down.
Only a fool accepts the label applied to him by his opponent, a frequent unforced error. And just as often the Church’s position has been made with fists of ham. This is too bad, but does not imply we abandon truth for the sake of votes.
Abortion is anti-woman. It is women denying their sex and its consequences. It is anti-men, too, and for the same reason. One’s sex cannot be evaded or escaped. This is Tough Luck for those ever-increasing numbers who wish to. But life cannot be made fair by killing or by calling what is not what is.
Now it’s difficult for people to keep separate the morality of killing unborn lives with the consequences faced by those who commit such acts supposing they were deemed immoral (and unlawful, which is not equivalent). If the act is immoral it is absurd to complain of its sanitary conditions. This is like a serial killer who knifed his victims arguing he should be set free because he couldn’t afford poison, which would have made his spree more efficacious and less bloody.
It is also clear that murder is punished differently depending on the circumstances. We weep little when hearing of one mobster rubbing out another, but are outraged when a child is murdered by a lunatic. Circumstances are dramatically different for an unborn life at conception and for one which is just about to escape into the wild naturally. What the best and punishment is in these cases is a discussion for another day.
1Camosy is also author of Too Expensive to Treat?—Finitude, Tragedy, and the Neonatal ICU, Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization, “Common Ground on Surgical Abortion?—Engaging Peter Singer on the Moral Status of Potential Persons”, “La périnatalité au regard de la qualité de vie et des considérations économiques.”