Saturday, February 18, 2012

Notes on a secular argument against abortion

A couple of weeks ago I went to a nice presentation by Kelsey Hazzard for the Virginia Atheists and Agnostics, in which she argued against abortion on a purely secular basis. The great thing about the presentation was the extended Q&A time, during which a lot of members of the group got to express their opinions and concerns. I didn't say anything, I just wanted to listen and get a feel for the state of the argument among committed secularists. After contemplating what I heard, I decided to write some thoughts on the issue.

First, I think abortion law, like all law, should be settled on a secular basis. It is difficult to define what I mean here by "secular," but to keep things simple, I'll say that the law should be decided on the basis of scientific facts and moral arguments premised on basic individual rights as expressed in, say, the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. I should not have to appeal to any particular religious doctrine to make a case for something to be illegal. This is both a practical and a charitable principle; it lets all sorts of people enjoy freedom of conscience while living at peace with one another.

Second, educated atheists understand perfectly well that human life begins at conception. There is nothing controversial about this. The details of embryonic and fetal development are widely available on the Internet, and do not need to be rehearsed every time this debate is had. The real questions are moral and philosophical. What do we mean by person? Who has rights? And what rights to human beings have?

Some common defenses of abortion I heard were as follows. The unborn do not possess consciousness, therefore they are not persons. In some ways this is perhaps the objection to making abortion illegal. Analogies do not seem to impress the pro-abortion-choice crowd. A person in a coma still has rights, doesn't he? (Maybe not.) A person who is sleeping certainly has rights. (But that's not the same at all!) A newborn infant hardly qualifies as conscious. (Peter Singer says we can kill them, too. But let's not talk about Singer; let's just agree that consciousness begins somewhere in the third trimester, maybe.)

Consciousness is a very slippery concept, emerging gradually rather than at any well-defined moment in time. But conception is a pretty well-defined moment. Again, scientifically this is uncontroversial. If we equate personhood with consciousness, then in terms of personal rights we have no way of drawing boundaries between people. This might be acceptable in many situations, but in matters of life and death, how can we justify moving boundaries?

A most absurd version of this argument: "If my mother had aborted me, I wouldn't have cared." Of course not. You wouldn't have been. If this argument could justify abortion, it could justify any killing at all. If you kill me today, I won't care tomorrow.

Another argument is that the unborn child is not connected to society. No one would miss her. The only person to whom she has a connection is a mother who doesn't want her. I have a couple of objections to this. First, does the argument still have any weight of others connected to the unborn child (e.g. the father or the grandparents) object to her abortion? Second, does the conscience of other members of society have any bearing? (I once saw a picture on facebook that suggested: "Don't want to pay taxes for abortions? Don't make me pay taxes for wars!" I think that's a pretty good compromise.) Third, what about analogies, such as hermits removed from society, or others with very few social contacts?

This argument basically comes down to a perverse form of utilitarianism. You are only justified on the basis of your worth to society. It would be far beyond the scope of this post to get into all the reasons that is a terrible idea. Let us instead turn our minds to a real-world example. How do we feel about sex selective abortion in China, India, and other nations? Is it acceptable to abort girls because they are less wanted in your culture? Right here at home, we read that 90% of children diagnosed with down syndrome in the womb are aborted. Is this acceptable?

Another argument concerns a woman's right to make her own health decisions. Carrying a pregnancy to term is a risky decision; by many estimates it is more risky to a woman's life than getting an abortion. Certainly a woman should be allowed to decide which risks to her life she is going to take, even if it's a relatively minor risk, and even if someone else's life depends on her.

It's important to mention that the pro-life position usually allows for a woman to abort in case of an added threat to her life, due to a pregnancy complication. More controversial is the idea that women who are raped have the right to abort, on the grounds that they should not be forced to care for a child she did not willingly consent to caring for. I will go ahead and say, perhaps controversially, that I more or less accept this argument in the case of rape. (This certainly does not settle the ethical issue in my mind, but perhaps it does settle the legal issue. I am not at all suggesting that children conceived in rape ought to be killed, or that they have no competing rights claim in this case. I am suggesting, however, that a woman's right to autonomy may win out against the competing claim to her protection.)

However, in all other cases, we cannot avoid dealing with the obvious question of responsibility. The argument is so often framed in terms of a woman's rights but never about a man and a woman's responsibilities. Clearly, sex resulting in conception involves a man and a woman. Two people consenting to sex are implicitly consenting to take responsibility for the life they may conceive. I am not suggesting every sex act must be for the purpose of procreation. If a couple doesn't wish to conceive, contraception is an option. However, just because I drive safely doesn't mean I will never have an accident, and I must pay for the consequences of my mistakes. Likewise, a man and a woman who never meant to conceive are not thereby relieved from the responsibility of caring for the child they have conceived.

This is a widely accepted notion once birth occurs. It is only controversial when we are speaking of life before birth. There are, of course, lots of interesting modern questions that could be raised concerning the roles of women and men in families. How much responsibility should parents bear for the well-being of their child? How should women and men share this responsibility? What kind of family structure would grant women and men true equality? What societal factors can help or hinder this? As interesting as all of these concerns are, they have nothing to do with abortion. Whatever responsibilities men and women should bear in relation to their children, they have already begun to bear them as soon as they conceive, because that is when a new life begins.

Given the importance of the right to life, apart from which no other right has any worth, it would appear that any couple who consents to having sex and thereby conceives should be expected to refrain from killing the new human being they have brought into the world. Treating abortion as a back-up contraception is simply a denial plain fact, which is that abortion is the intentional killing of a human being.

One more remark on this: I realize that it can be uncomfortable for young pro-life activists to talk about responsibility in parenting. I, for one, am not married and have no children. However, I simply don't think we can avoid the topic in reference to the political theory. We cannot talk about legal rights without also talking about responsibilities. The connection between sex and life is obvious, and we have to find ways to address the issue directly. We cannot shy away from talking about sex in a responsible manner--which does not mean insisting on abstinence only education, demanding laws against sex outside of marriage, or any other such absurd and invasive laws. I firmly believe that it is possible to live in a society which is neither prudish nor childish about sex. There are certainly ways to prevent conception if we wish, but abortion is not contraception. As soon as we accept the moral consequences of a scientific fact, we can get the abortion question right.

Finally, I want to briefly mention an issue that I have been meaning to address at length, but will not have room to address fully here. Not surprisingly, one of the atheist/agnostic students was sharp enough to bring it up. Since life begins at conception (an this is scientific fact) we have to deal with this question raised by embryology: what do we do about the enormous number of spontaneous abortions that happen early in most pregnancies? Studies estimate that as many as 90% of embryos die within the first three weeks after conception. Women who have spontaneous abortions this early rarely even know they were ever pregnant. It may not be as high as 90%, but even a conservative estimate would give 60%, a clear majority.

What are we to say to this? Is our species afflicted with a plague? And if all human beings, from the moment of conception, deserve full moral standing, shouldn't we be focusing all our efforts on saving these tiny humans from the destruction that awaits them in the womb?

I will have to save my full response to this for another time, because I think it brings up a pile of philosophical assumptions that have to be waded through to get to the full answer. I admit, this is a serious problem for the pro-life movement on an intellectual level, but I remain optimistic. Let me throw in one quick observation and call it a day. I'm guessing about 90% of people in the world are dead by the time they are 90 years old. Does that mean we should also turn all of our focus toward saving old people and extending their life just a few more years? Obviously not. Valuing of human life does not mean we are willing to spend unlimited resources (which we don't have) to provide unlimited life and health to everyone (which we can't do). To return to my first point, we simply need to agree on some basic moral principles to guide our legal system, which are based on individual rights shared by all human beings.

While I fully endorse the right of all human beings in our society to live, work, worship, believe, teach, speak, and think as they like, and while I do fully endorse a woman's "right to choose" what to do with her own body, I do not consider it an exception to say that abortion should be illegal in a secular state guided by the rule of law. As a matter of scientific fact, we are killing thousands of human beings every day in clinics all around the country. The sooner we accept the moral implications of this fact, the sooner we can reform our society into the just society we all desire.


  1. I have been thinking a lot about this issue and when it comes down to it, I can never get pregnat. I can never be forced to make a decision about a life growing inside me. It just seems that men are the ones that can't leave this issue alone when it affects us very little if at all. I want to hear what women have to say about abortion and in the mean time us men sould work to save life where we have decided to destroy it like in undeclared wars.

    1. Stephen, I hear you bro. But when you say "I can never be forced to make a decision about a life growing inside me" I think you are implicitly referring to circumstances where abortion seems to be the only viable option for a mother. You're right to say that in the end this is an issue which only a woman can face so intimately. But as men, we have to work towards eliminating all circumstances which would require an abortion. Only then can we have truly empowered women.

      Also, you're quite wrong to say "It just seems that men are the ones that can't leave this issue alone". The majority of prolife leaders are women. ALso if you want to "hear what women have to say about abortion", why don't you start with Feminists for Life, at

  2. As a pro-life woman, Stephen, I resent your comment. A woman does not get pregnant by aborted baby has been abandoned by its mother as well as its father (often, the mother makes that choice because the father is not supported). To say that abortion affects men very little is basically saying that pregnancy in general, does not affect men! How ridiculous is that?? A life that is growing inside a woman did not get created by a woman's own efforts! Without sperm, there would be no baby. Men saying "Well, I can never get pregnant, so I don't need to care about abortion" is like a man saying "Well, I can never get pregnant, so why should I care about using birth control?" Hello!?! Because if you impregnate a woman, then YOU are also responsible for that life that has been created. I would like to know why men like you think that it is acceptable to shirk this responsibility? Is it acceptable for the father of a 2-year-old to decide that, because he did not physically birth the child (i.e. go into labor, get contractions, push it out), that he should not have to help the child through financial and parental support, but instead claimed that only the mother had that responsibility? We would think that was outrageous!

    Frankly, I think that a lot of men are afraid to speak up about abortion because they've been shut down with outraged yells of "No ovaries, no opinion" by those who stand to benefit from keeping the other crucially significant stakeholder out of the issue. I, for one, appreciate men who stand up for women by supporting the pro-life position. To me, that speaks of maturity and true dedication to accepting the responsibility of a man's role in creating life.


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