A fantastic article that presents an excellent case for Pro-Life Atheists.
There was a time when the lines seemed clearer and the slogans said everything. Pro-lifers were Jesus-loving Pope-followers with a passion for sticking rosaries on ovaries, and atheists were quick to respond with “Keep your theology off my biology!”
But then lines began to blur. Atheist and civil libertarian journalist Nat Hentoff said that “Being without theology isn’t the slightest hindrance to being pro-life.” Atheist philosophy professor Don Marquis declared abortion is “immoral” because it denies developing fetuses “a future like ours.” The host of CFI’s Point of Inquiry, Robert M. Price, author of books like Jesus is Dead and The Case Against the Case for Christ, called abortion “second-degree murder” on one of his podcasts.
Well, at least we still have the “Four Horsemen” safely in our ranks, right? Not quite. Even our beloved Christopher Hitchens considered “the occupant of the womb as a candidate member of society.” He also argued that “the unborn entity has a right on its side” and identified himself as involved with the pro-life movement.
What the heck are we atheists supposed to do with all our “Keep your rosaries…” stickers now?
Sorry, Virginia, there really are pro-life atheists. American Atheists President David Silverman wasn’t wrong when he told a reporter at CPAC this week, “I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion” (even if he didn’t agree with that position himself).
When I partnered with fellow atheists from Secular Pro-Life to bring a display table to the 2012 American Atheists Convention, some bloggers really wanted to believe we were lying about our atheism, but it turns out we’re all True Scotsmen. The latest Gallup poll suggests that 19% of those identifying as atheist, agnostic, or of no religious affiliation also identify as pro-life.
While that number is likely a bit smaller among absolute atheists and freethinkers, my by-atheists-for-atheists organization Pro-Life Humanists is constantly growing, as every week I connect with at least one or two more pro-life atheists from around the world and across social media. Some are still closeted and think they’re the only pro-life person in their local secular community. I am confident most of them are not alone. Our global atheist community is more diverse than we’ve been led to believe, and many pro-life atheists walk among us. Welcome to a new chapter in secularism!
Many people have a hard time understanding why I might be a pro-life atheist. Here are my responses to some of their more common objections:
It doesn’t matter whether or not the fetus is a human being, because women have bodily autonomy rights and no human can have non-consensual access to her body.
Well not so fast. If the fetus is not a human being with his/her own bodily rights, it’s true that infringing on a woman’s body by placing restrictions on her medical options is always a gross injustice and a violation. On the other hand, if we are talking about two human beings who should each be entitled to their own bodily rights, in the unique situation that is pregnancy, we aren’t justified in following the route of might-makes-right simply because we can. Bigger and older humans don’t necessarily trump younger and more dependent humans. Rights must always be justified and ethically grounded lest they become a tool of tyranny.
Before we address the question of bodily autonomy in pregnancy, let’s meet the second player. What does science tell us that the preborn are? To be clear, science doesn’t define personhood. It never could. When I debated Matt Dillahunty on the issue of abortion at the 2012 Texas Freethought Convention, I’m afraid that as a first-time debater I really wasn’t clear enough on this point — and was consequently accused of trying to obtain rights from science. Science can’t tell us whether it’s wrong to rape women, torture children, enslave black people, or which physical traits should or should not matter when it comes to determining personhood. Science may be able to measure suffering in living creatures, but it can’t tell us why or if their suffering should matter. However, science can tell us who among us belongs to the human species.
When it comes to normal human reproduction, sperm and ovum merge to form a new whole. They cease to exist individually and become a new substance that is not the mother and not the father but a new body altogether, one that is also human and has the inherent capacity to develop through all stages of development. As Christopher Hitchens aptly said:
The original embryonic “blastocyst” may be a clump of 64 to 200 cells that is only five days old. But all of us began our important careers in that form, and every needful encoding for life is already present in the apparently inchoate. We are the first generation to have to confront this as a certain knowledge.
But embryos and fetuses can’t be our equals — they’re not fully developed yet! They aren’t self aware or sentient! They can’t survive on their own!
Well, of course they can’t. But why isn’t a fetus self-aware or sentient? Why hasn’t an embryo developed a functioning brain or the capacity to breathe on its own? Isn’t it merely because she or he is younger? Isn’t that just the way human beings at their age and stage naturally develop and function? While we wouldn’t give our car keys to toddlers on account of their current capacities, neither would we kill them for not having reached a developmental milestone yet. If we deny personhood and justify the death of a fetus simply because he or she has not developed to the point of sentience yet, that makes abortion the deadliest form of age discrimination.
When we talk about rights and personhood, we leave the realm of science for that of philosophy and ethics. History is ripe with examples of real biological human beings whose societies arbitrarily decided they didn’t qualify as equals, on account of criteria deemed morally relevant. At one point (and still, in many ways, today), it was skin color, gender, and ethnic background. Now, we can add to that list consciousness, sentience, and viability. We haven’t evolved so fast in 50 years as to be immune from tribalistic us vs. them thinking. If science defines a fetus as a biological member of our species, is it possible that our society is just as wrong in denying them personhood?
Furthermore, if self-awareness is to be the dividing line, anyone unconscious or in a coma might not be considered a person, while those in a heightened state of awareness due to drugs would trump the rest of us. If we determine that the ability to suffer and feel pain is what counts, then any born person with Congenital Insensitivity to Pain can be stripped of equal rights and killed. If higher brain function or a greater degree of health are what matter, then anyone with a higher IQ or a greater longevity and health than your own should be free to decide that your unfortunate quality of life makes your existence not worth continuing. Only the pro-life position — that all human beings should be granted the common right to continue their lives as human persons, regardless of their age, stage, gender, sexual orientation, race, or physical form and abilities — is truly egalitarian and fair for all human beings.
But so what? Even if the unborn are human beings worthy of personhood even in their earliest stage of development, under normal circumstances, no one has a right to use someone else’s body against their consent.
This is true. And, likewise, under normal circumstances no one should be killed for being too young to care for themselves independently. Unfortunately, pregnancy is completely unlike any normal circumstances or normal human relationship. What happens when both a woman and her developing fetus are regarded as human beings entitled to personhood and bodily rights? Any way you cut it, their rights are always going to conflict (at least until womb transfers become a reality). So what’s the reasonable response? It could start by treating both parties at conflict as if they were equal human beings.
Human society has determined that parents have an obligation to nourish and protect their dependent offspring. The more vulnerable and dependent someone is, the more we are obligated to not abandon them. That a fetus is singularly dependent on one woman for the duration of nine months is not an argument for abortion, but against it. If an unrelated infant were abandoned on your doorstep miles from civilization with no one in a position to reach you and release you of your charge, would you not be obligated to at least provide basic life-sustaining care until such a time as care could be passed on to another person? Would this not be true even though you did not consent to the arrival of the dependent human, who was in fact forced upon you? Would you be any less obligated to try to keep this child alive if doing so was wearisome and taxing on your body, though not life-threateningly so? If this is true of one’s duty to sustain a vulnerable and dependent stranger until care can be passed on to another, how much more obligated is a woman to her own prenatal offspring?
And there you have an introduction to an abortion debate that is void of Bibles, popes, and rosaries. I realize that this brief secular case against abortion undoubtedly raises as many questions as it has answered. After all, if we make abortion illegal, won’t that make them more dangerous for women? Do we believe women who have abortions should face jail sentences? Should fetuses be counted in the census, and if so, what happens when a woman miscarries? Are we trying to put a stop to the work of Planned Parenthood and other women’s clinics? To adequately deconstruct these concerns would require lengthy articles unto themselves, which is why I hope this will be the beginning of ongoing dialogue amongst atheists on this matter.
I understand some of the concerns that people have about the pro-life position. Can we grant fetuses rights without endangering and hurting the lives of women? Indeed, no one wants to see women injured or harmed in a dangerous illegal abortion! And therein lies a conversation that a civilized society must have if we are to truly treat every member of our species with equality. Can we legally condone one human being killing another human being because one might otherwise risk her life and health to do so? Or are there better ways to address the problems that drive so many countless women to feel they have no choice but abortion?
Pro-life feminist Frederica Mathewes-Green once said “No woman wants an abortion as she wants an ice cream cone or a Porsche. She wants an abortion as an animal caught in a trap wants to gnaw off its own leg.” Abortion advocates correctly perceive the trap, but they merely offer the woman a sterile knife to aid in the amputation. Real help does not sacrifice one human life at the expense of another but goes to the source of the trap to unscrew the hinge and free both. (Hemant’s note (3/12/14): After reading the comments, the words “pro-life feminist” were added to the beginning of this paragraph to make clear Mathewes-Green’s stance on the issue. Sorry for any confusion.)
If we all work together to come up with real choices for women — better birth control, better maternity leave, subsidized daycare, a living wage, flexible work schedules, better schooling options, more attractive open-adoption and temporary foster care options, etc. — abortion may roll itself into the world of obsolescence, regardless of its legal status.
That being said, if the pre-born are human members of our species and worthy of recognition as human persons, we have just as much of an obligation to protect them from the choices of other human beings and to ensure that violence against them is not legal and condoned.
I’m an atheist and I’m pro-life because some choices are wrong, violent, and unjust — and I want to do whatever I can to make abortion both unthinkable and unnecessary.
March 11, 2014 by