Sidney Callahan, Daniel Callahan, "Breaking Through the Stereotypes,"

Bioethics, Thomas A Shannon, ed. (3rd ed.) 47-55 (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1987)


What are the underlying differences fueling the abortion debate? The Callahans shift their focus from the more public and surface debate between religious traditionalists and secular modernists to the worldviews of women who are able to sustain an on-going, empathic dialogue across their differences regarding abortion. They discover "liberal" pro-life and "communitarian" pro-choice positions which arc towards a middle-ground of agreements and differences: this middle-ground, in turn, points towards a possible resolution of the abortion debate in a pluralistic, civil society.

The Callahans themselves mirror this debate in their own marriage: Danial is "pro-choice," while Sidney is "pro-life."  They further comment at the end of their article that

If our own domestic wrangles have not led to a general shift in position for either of us, it has nonetheless been valuable. Neither of us has remained unchanged by the other. (55)

As the Callahans report on empathic dialogue across fundamental differences, they not only highlight the central role of the sort of conversation programmatic for our Academic Dialogue:  both their articulation of a nuanced middle-ground which recognizes the legitimacy of both sides, and their own marriage as a relationship which "works" despite (and/or perhaps because of) these sorts of deep differences, further anticipate the sorts of compromise and perhaps even consensus intended within conversational ethics.  Given its origins in empathic dialogue, this compromise and possible consensus both emerges out of and fundamentally preserves the deep differences in worldviews characteristic of pluralistic societies.


I. When Women Speak: Dialogue across Differences and the Movement from Dualism to Common Grounds

Rather than directly examining arguments offer pro and con, the Callahans were interested in what philosophers and social scientists refer to as worldviews - specifically, the background beliefs, "deep and pervasive premises about the self and the world" which both recognized to lie behind more surface arguments and moral positions. Their interest in uncovering these generally anticipated our own: "...given the depth and apparent intractability of abortion differences, we think that in the long run most persons in the society will have to find a way to live with differences." (48)

Apart from Daniel Callahan, all the participants in this project were women, drawn from both pro-choice and pro-life positions. They were to focus discussion on four themes: "feminism, the family, childbearing and childrearing, and the political and cultural nature of our society." These topics were chosen as limning out "for many in our society the background framework of values that often shape abortion attitudes." (48)

An additional characteristic, important for our purposes, was the capacity of the participants to talk with one another: while not representative of all possible views, the participants did represent "those women who, though they differ, are willing to talk with those on the other side, willing to make the effort to empathize with those who hold opposing views, and willing to see if they can find some shared ground to keep their dialogue alive." (49)

In Habermasian terms, this requirement might be restated in terms of the importance of perspective-taking. And, even more intriguing - this dialogue issued in an argument presented in Abortion: Understanding Differences (Plenum Press, 1984)

Turning to the discussion itself, the Callahans begin by noting that:

The values that sustain and give theoretical legitimacy to both the pro-life and pro-choice movements are commonplace and command widespread respect. Neither has invented unusual moral principles nor idiosyncratic values. (49)

As they outline both positions, they suggest the following contrasts:

Pro-life

Pro-choice

respect for an individual's right to life, even if that right is uncertain or in doubt in borderline cases (or even if there is doubt about whether it is "life"); By stressing freedom of choice,[the pro-choice position] gives centrality to the sovereignty of the individual conscience, especially in cases of moral doubt.
the need to protect the weak and powerless, at the least in order to preserve them from the harm that can be done by the more powerful, and at the most to provide them with an opportunity to develop their full potential a closely related principle [ to the above]: that those who must personally bear the burden of their moral choices ought to have the right to make those choices.
the legitimacy of writing moral convictions and principles into law, particularly when that seems necessary to protect the rights of others (as in the civil rights movement) In its polity, the pro-choice movement is at one with that recently emergent tradition that would free procreational choices from the control of the state and, more generally, give the benefit of uncertainty in matters of conscience to the individual rather than the government.
the value, not of fatalism but of accepting accidents and mischance as a part of life, and a denial of violent solutions as a way out of such vicissitudes By its emphasis on the unique burden of women in pregnancy and childrearing it has fostered the enranchisement of women in controlling their own destinies.
an obligation on the part of the community, whether through mediating institutions or the state, to provide support for those whose troubles (for example, an unwanted pregnancy) might lead them to forced, destructive choices Its recognition of the injustice inherent in the known pattern of illegal abortions - that of de facto discrimination in favor of the affluent and the powerful - makes an important contribution to a more just society.
the conviction that moral values and ideas toward nascent life should be upheld even at the cost of individual difficulties and travail. (49-50) Through its concern for choice and control in procreation, it has focused attention on parental responsibility, helping to remove childbearing from the realm of biological chance and sexual inevitability
By sundering a once necessary relationship between sexual activity and procreation, it helps provide an adaptation to a world that no longer needs, nor can afford unlimited childbearing. (50)

On this analysis, the pro-life position is a mix of both "conservative" and "liberal" values, so that it is not to be easily dismissed as simple backlash or nostalgia.  But while this analysis of the pro-life position points to elements shared with liberalism, the Callahans further note a crucial difference - namely, the willingness of the pro-life position

to live with - and accept - externally imposed tragedy as a part of life. That has not been a traditional part of secular liberalism, which has always been far more inclined toward instrumental rationality than the version that has surfaced in the pro-life movement. (50)

At the same time, however, the Callahans point out that even this difference can become a point of connection with more recent developments in liberalism:

The liberal community itself, however, has engaged in some sharp criticism of the part of its tradition that has stressed "rationalization" (a rational socially engineered solution to personal and political problems) and "emanicipation" (freedom from the restraint of society and rejection of moral traditions). Hence, not only can the pro-life movement make a strong claim to upholding many traditional liberal values, it can also (in some important formulations) lay claim to reflecting some recent developments intrinsic to liberalisms' self-definition. (50)]

Just as the pro-life position thus involves both "liberal" and "conservative" elements - so the pro-choice movement likewise splits into two versions. The Callahans suggest the following contrast:

"Libertarian" pro-choice

"Communitarian" pro-choice

...weighted toward the maximization of individual choice and the privatization of moral judgment ...a socially forced choice in favor of abortion is not a fully free choice;
The basic concern is not so much with the social and economic conditions under which choices are made, or with the ethical criteria by which they ought to be made, but solely with preserving the right to make a choice. a lack of communal, economic, and social support often coerces an abortion that would not be necessary in a more just society;
private moral choices are subject to moral judgments and standards;
what ought to be an inherently difficult tragic choice can be easily trivilized and routinized - tacitly sanctioned and advanced by a society that promotes narcissism, prefers technological fixes to structural change, and is all too happy to see abortion put to the service of reducing welfare burdens. (51)

The Callahans further see the same pairs of debates I have characterized in our opening document.  Especially as characterized in the work of Kristen Luker, the debate presents an intractable opposition:

The public abortion debate
Pro-life Pro-choice
preservation of the nuclear family female emancipation from the body and a repressive nuclear family
centrality of childbearing in the life of women a subordination of childbearing to other personal goals
[a stress on the acceptance of fate] a celebration of rational control of self in place of the acceptance of fate
a religious rather than a secular view of life a secular rather than a religious view of life. (51)

Especially as stated in these terms, the debate presents us with a simple either/or: either modernity (the rationalism and emancipatory impulse of the Enlightenment) or (religious) traditionalism.  Moreover, "For both the pro-choice modernizers and the pro-life traditionalists, abortion serves as a perfect symbol for such pervasive issues as the roles and rights of the sexes, the family, the relationship between law and morality, the nature and malleability of social reality, and the place of reason and choice in human life." (51)

For our purposes, it is especially important to note that this intractable duality issues in a crucial failure: such dualism makes dialogue and conversation impossible, and unending civil strife inevitable:

...by choosing to cast the issue in those fundamental terms, and by making abortion carry the weight of a Manichean-life struggle between the good (evil) past and the good (evil) present, each side has doomed itself to an utter inability to talk with the other side, the likelihood that neither side can wholly triumph in the future, and the disheartening prospect of never-ending, never-decided civil strife for everyone else. (51-52)

II. Four Elements of Common Grounds

By contrast, the Callahans want us to turn to the debate marked out in their discussion group - one which differs from the more obvious one they have just characterized in that both sides share important common ground.  A first feature of this common ground is just that both avoid the simple duality adumbrated in the more public debate:

...participants from each side combined both liberal and conservative, modernizing and traditionalist, ingredients in their respective positions. Each side is uncomfortable with the more stark options and tight combinations of values pursued at the extremes of the debate. They thus felt free - and indeed, in many ways, compelled - to appropriate and adapt from both poles, to fashion a different kind of synthesis. (52)

Especially worth noting here is that

Both, strikingly, borrow from the various civil-rights struggles of the recent past. The pro-life groups point out that a fundamental aim of the civil rights efforts was to protect and give voice to those without power - to give them an equal moral standing in the community. For them, the task is to extend to the fetus the rights won by women and racial minority groups; fetal rights are not inherently hostile to women's rights. The pro-choice groups, sensitive to the deprivations of women who are given no options in their reproductive lives, want to provide women with a choice about something central to their lives. Yet, though they may differ about the meaning of the various civil-rights struggles, those battles serve as a common reference point for both. Most critically, neither side finds the understanding and interpretation of the other outlandish or implausible. (52)

As a second feature,

both sides tended to share a distrust of that form of libertarianism that would wholly sunder the individual from the community, setting up the private self as an isolated agent bound by no moral standards other than those perceived or devised by the agent. In this, they not only share some of the conservative and neoconservative critiques of liberalism, but share as well a similar questioning that has become part of the liberal tradition itself, whether from Marxist or other sources. They are, however, hardly less distrustful of that form of traditionalism that believes the past must be preserved in all of its purity. They want to be able to use the past selectively, preserving what remains valuable, rejecting what has been either harmful or wholly overtaken by time, and in general seeing the past as a resource requiring constant adjustment and adaptation for life in the present. (52: emphasis added, C.E.)

Third, both sides find the labels "pro-life" and "pro-choice" suspect:

Those terms, they are well aware, were devised for polemical and political purposes, not for carefully nuanced distinctions. Pro-life is misleading because it begs the question of what actually serves human life and welfare; pro-choice is not less misleading because it begs the question of whether freedom of choice ought to be made an ultimate moral value, regardless of the nature of the choice to be exercised. Put another way, pro-life begs the question of moral means. The labels are also disliked because of a suggestion that one must be wholly one or the other. But the more complex reality is that many in the pro-life group will not condemn out of hand all women who have abortions; and many in the pro-choice group are repelled by the banal moral arguments used to justify many abortions. Neither group, in short, is happy when pro-life or pro-choice seem to require a reductio ad absurdum, or inflexible, insensitive moral rules, to be pursued regardless of consequence. (52-53)

Finally, both sides share a concern about not simply the abortion decision itself, but the larger contexts which lead to what both find to be, at best, a deeply regretable act:

...both sides are concerned about the conditions that lead or drive women to abortions, and about the social, economic, and cultural contexts of abortion decisions. They rejected, on the one hand, that rendering of the pro-life position that construes all choices in favor of abortion as merely personal convenience or crass expediency; and, on the other, that version of the pro-choice position that is interested only in the easy availability of abortion, regardless of cause or motivation. They are willing to pursue together an understanding of ways to limit a forced choice of abortion because of poverty or the oppression of women, or lack of social support for childbearing; and they are no less willing to pursue together those social reforms that would be more supportive of troubled pregnancies. (53)

These strong commonalities and suggestions of a possible, shared middle ground also raise the obvious question: why continued disagreement?

In part, they can differ because of the relative weight they give to various considerations; ever so faintly tilting one way or another can be decisive when the political and legal choices are so narrow.
But in the end it came down, we think to what is perhaps one of the most profound and subtle value differences of all. That is the matter of one's general hopes and beliefs about the world, human nature, and reality. Put simply, for many who are pro-choice, abortion is a necessary evil, one that must be tolerated and supported until such time as better sex education, more effective contraception, and a more just social order make possible fewer troubled pregnancies. And even then, there will still be some justifiable reasons for abortion; it will never disappear.
For the pro-life group, it is a ban on abortion that must be the necessary evil, one that must be advanced as a long-term step in devising a social order that is more supportive of women and childbearing, more dedicated to an eradication of violence as a solution to personal or social threats. (53-54, emphasis added, C.E.)

Both sides thus see abortion as undesirable, "a crude solution to problems that would better be solved by other means." Nonetheless,

The crucial difference, however, is that those on the pro-choice side believe that the world as it is must be acknowledged, and not just as it might or ought to be. Here and now, in our present social reality, there are women who need or desire abortions. Future solutions to the general problem of abortion, at some unspecified date, will do them no good. They have to live with the reality they encounter. They cannot be asked to bear personally the burden of helping to create a better future which, even if possible, is not within their individual power to bring about. By contrast, the pro-life group believes that a better future cannot be achieved unless we begin now to live the ideals that we want to achieve, unless we are prepared to make present sacrifieces toward future goals, and unless aggression toward the fetus is denied, however high the individual cost of denying it. The acceptance of reality as it is implicitly legitimates the status quo, undercuts efforts to bring about social change, and sanctions violence as an acceptable method of coping with problems. (54)

These are deep differences, differences caught up in familiar dichotomies between idealists and realists, the "hard-nosed" and the "starry-eyed." In these terms,

The liberal pro-life group, it sometimes seems, favors the equivalent of unilateral disarmament on abortion, and is willing to bear the hazards of a stance that will put many women at risk of disaster. They are willing to make a moral bet that the violence inherent in abortion will, in the long run, be repudiated. The public, they think, will eventually respond to the principled witness of those who reject it. The pro-choice group, for its part, is hesitant to indulge hopes of that kind. They are unwilling to ask women to give up a viable solution to their present problems in the name of a yet-to-be future, one that might never come. (54)

Finally, they observe that "Perhaps the most striking outcome of our project was the way it broke many stereotypes," - e.g., about feminism as essentially pro-choice, as somehow anti-family or anti-children; that individual rights must oppose the value of community, etc. In doing so, they have moved from the more public, more inflexible version of the debate to a more flexible understanding of the debate - one contained within their own marriage. They comment in closing,

If our own domestic wrangles have not led to a general shift in position for either of us, it has nonetheless been valuable. Neither of us has remained unchanged by the other. (55)


HomePage for Abortion: Religious Perspectives HomePage for Academic Dialogue on Applied Ethics


Robert Cavalier, Carnegie Mellon and Charles Ess, Drury College