In March 2014, Hemant Mehta of Friendly Atheist blog asked me to guest-blog about why I was a pro-life atheist. The post was met with much impassioned interest from individuals on both sides of the fence. As of November 2014 there are approximately 3500 comments on the original post, not including the countless secular bloggers who subsequently addressed my post on their own blogs, and generated comments among their own readership. Some of these rebuttals merit a response, and I hope to answer to several of them in the coming weeks, now that my calendar has a little room to breathe!
Hemant Mehta is a good guy, though we still disagree on abortion, and it saddens me that he has taken a lot of flack (more on that later) from some members of the atheist community for even letting ‘anti-choice’ folk like myself and Secular Pro-Life’s ladies have a voice in the atheist community. Some atheists feel that there is only one way to be an atheist, and I’m pleased that Hemant is not so narrow-minded his own thinking! So do check out the original piece on his blog and join in on the discussion and debate over there if you haven’t already. Certainly do follow his blog if you’re looking for good reading on the atheist community. Anyone honest enough to seriously examine issues they disagree with is more than ok in my book! (Plus he actually is as friendly as his blog name suggests).
I am reposting my original piece here in its entirety, including a few modifications and a paragraph on equal consideration of interests that Hemant opted to cut for space and clarity, but which I believe belongs in the piece.
Yes, There are Pro-Life Atheists Out There. Here’s Why I’m One of Them
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 pre-born 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, biological science can tell us who among us belongs to the human species.
Like all species that reproduce sexually, humans reproduce after their own kind. Their sexual cells, sperm and ovum, cease to exist individually and become a new substance that is not the mother and not the father but a new body altogether. Unlike sperm and ovum or other human cells, the newly formed zygote has the built-in capacity to develop itself through all stages of human 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.
Entering the realm of philosophy and ethics to discuss rights and personhood, we see that 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 the time. 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 as earlier societies were in denying personhood to people of the “wrong” colour, ethnicity, or gender?
Any criteria we use to disqualify the pre-born human being from personhood could just as easily exclude some born humans as well. 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 decide 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.
Eighteenth century philosopher Jeremy Bentham put forward a solution known as Equal Consideration of Interests which I believe can well apply to the conflict inherent in pregnancy. Bentham argues that where an act affects only two entities, if what one party stands to lose is greater than what the other stands to gain, then that act should not be done. Philosophers like Peter Singer have used this principle to argue that in the animals vs humans conflict, animals stand to lose much more in being eaten (their entire lives) than humans stand to gain in eating them (temporary satisfaction) and so conclude that meat eating is immoral. Applying this principle to abortion, the pre-born stands to lose far more if she is aborted (her entire life) than her mother facing a normal pregnancy stands to gain if she aborts (her bodily independence a few months sooner). It’s not much contest to see which party has the most to lose in this conflict of competing interests.
A woman has a duty to protect and to feed her pre-born child just as much as human society has already determined that parents have an obligation to nourish and protect their dependent born 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 feed and sustain her own prenatal offspring the only way humans of that age can be fed and sustained – via pregnancy?
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
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.