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A Man of Vision: Daniel Callahan on the Nasty Problem and the Noxious Brew


This essay, published shortly before the 2020 U.S. presidential election (mired in controversy over a potential judicial appointment to the Supreme Court), celebrates Daniel Callahan’s prescient book Abortion: Law, Choice and Morality. Nothing could be timelier. Callahan’s central question was the “moral and social” struggle requisite for coherent policies and laws regulating abortion. He rejected “one-value” positions and strove to develop an expansive middle ground. He decried emotion untutored by reason, crude polemics, and bludgeoning: his recipe for a “noxious brew.” Callahan’s way of thinking preceded the development of a critical health humanities, the advent of moral foundations theory in psychology, and the philosophical concept of a moral imagination. Each of these inheres in his rigorous approach to the abortion problem. His honesty and humility led to a sea change in his position on abortion. Fifty years later, much can still be learned from Callahan’s arguments—about abortion and other bioethics issues—most impor­tantly, in how we address wider social issues in these polarized times.

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