Thursday, December 18, 2008

Pro-life Atheists

I have known for some time that there exist many atheists for life in this country. Okay, maybe I shouldn't say "many," because they surely make up a tiny percentage of the population. Nevertheless, I think it's essential to realize how many people can make perfectly valid secular arguments against abortion.

Still, I was almost shocked when I saw a Newsweek article published recently that reveals an amazing fact--Christopher Hitchens, the infamous atheist, calls himself pro-life:

Hitchens, known for his defiant and politically incorrect positions, takes an uncharacteristic middle path on abortion. When asked whether he is "pro-life," he answers in the affirmative. He has repeatedly defended the use of the term "unborn child" against those on the left who say that an aborted fetus is nothing more than a growth, an appendix, a polyp. " 'Unborn child' seems to me to be a real concept. It's not a growth or an appendix," he says. "You can't say the rights question doesn't come up."

Now Hitchens isn't entirely consistent in this belief. He doesn't think Roe v Wade should be overturned, and he apparently thinks we should merely replace surgical abortion with abortifacient drugs like RU-486. Still, I get the sense that he simply feels stuck between a rock and a hard place on the issue: "I'm happy to say some problems don't have solutions," he says (quoted in the article).

Of course I get what he's saying. No one wants women to be forced to have children. In a culture where women are sometimes still treated like objects (consider the persistently high rates of sexual assault on college campuses) it's easy to see why women don't want to be thought of merely as vessels for an unborn child. And yet, the undeniable biological fact is that a unique human life begins at conception. It is awfully callous for people to be talking as if a human being might not be counted as a person, or might not have the right to live.

Yet Hitchens is at least on the right track. He apparently doesn't realize that Roe v Wade essentially allows a mother to abort for any reason. It is true that Roe contains language that would seem to allow abortions only up to the "point of viability," but it also allows abortions after the point of viability for the sake of protecting the mother's "health"--which wouldn't be all bad, except that a partner case, Doe v Bolton, made the mother's "health" a rather loosely defined term (oh, you gotta love lawyers). If Hitchens really looked at the facts, I don't see how he would still support Roe.

And of course using abortifacient drugs is still abortion. If Hitchens really wanted to be consistent, he would have to be in favor of limiting even these kinds of abortions. Nevertheless, pro-lifers need to realize that while we don't really have an advocate in Chris Hitchens, we do have a potential ally, if only we can learn to be sensitive to the issues he is sensitive about.

Personally, I have find religious arguments against abortions both unnecessary and rarely useful. The Bible never mentions the practice of abortion, and even if it did, would we need to first convince the whole world that the Bible is true before we could make a case against abortion? Of course not. Just because people choose to reject Christianity does not mean they can easily shake off the idea that every human life is valuable.

As far as I know, every respectable pro-life apologist out there tends to stick to the strictly secular arguments against abortion. With articles like the one that appeared this month in Newsweek, maybe people will stop viewing the pro-life movement as a bunch of religious fanatics.

Additionally, the pro-life movement is already doing a lot to become more and more sensitive to women's issues, so as to win people over with compassion. One need only look at the ministry of pregnancy centers, or the work of Feminists for Life, to see that.

So could this be a sign that we're winning the debate? It's not at all clear. There are still clearly a number of misconceptions about Roe v Wade (and a total lack of awareness of Doe v Bolton), and there are still many reasons for people to cling to abortion as a solution to serious problems in our culture.

Yet there is something validating to know that such a famous contrarian as Chris Hitchens considers himself pro-life. Indeed, what could be more anti-establishment than opposing a practice that has been forced on us for almost 36 years? I consider myself very progressive on this issue, as should all pro-lifers.

Who knows? Maybe with enough patience and persistence in breaking down old stereotypes of the pro-life movement, we will eventually win over our secular culture to see the importance of defending life in the womb. Christians can always hope that our culture will embrace the Christian tradition as well, but that shouldn't be the only way in a free society like ours to save little innocent children from destruction.


  1. I've heard at least one atheist describe himself as pro-life in that he things human fetuses, even if they can't be considered on a level with born human beings, should enjoy at least the protection we give to animals - i.e., they're not to be killed at will for whatever reason.

    That's struck me as interesting; how sick is it for a culture to value and protect the unborn LESS than it does creatures that are undeniably not human at all?

    At any rate, I don't know that there's such thing as a "strictly secular" argument against abortion, though that gets into the whole philosophical debate about worldview and presupposition and all that. I'm tempted to agree with Doug Wilson when he's argued that abortion is a bloody sacrament of the present American national religion, though.

  2. The only kind of "strictly secular" argument we need is one that appeals to what people already know is true, without trying to force people to admit that Christianity as a whole is true. In other words, so what if they can't accept the resurrection story? They can still understand something as basic as "Thou shalt not kill." They may not know why, but they can still accept it.

  3. Hi. I found your link through Ben's blog. I also saw this article and found it interesting. I think that appealing to that would be a good thing, but the heartbreaking thing to me is that we have a whole new generation that has been raised hearing, "It's a woman's right to choose."

    I literally had a 9 year old boy tell me this in a conversation about Obama last month. He kept repeating that, "It is! It is a woman's right to choose." And so I had to explain to him what abortion actually meant. Then he was shocked at what it was.

    So fighting against what has become such a huge phrase is really something else that we need to think about.


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