This is an article by Marco Rosaire Rossi. It appears in the September/October 2012 issue of The Humanist. You can read other articles from this issue and subscribe to the magazine by going to their website.
Note: All URLs and images below are my own additions, because I thought they’d be helpful.
The American Atheists’ annual convention held this past March had some surprising attendees. Between the usual suspects in the exhibit area selling secular literature and soliciting memberships to various groups was a table representing the organization Secular Pro-Life (SPL) — a nontheistic anti-abortion group. According to the organization’s website, the mission of SPL is to expand the pro-life movement “beyond the cathedral walls” by mobilizing like-minded atheists, theists, and agnostics “eager to save lives” and to fight the media portrayal of pro-lifers as religious extremists. Could it be true? Is there really such a thing as a pro-life atheist? What’s next, Intelligent Design Agnostics? How about Secularists for Sharia Law?
It would be easy to write Secular Pro-Life off as a very small fringe group with a less-than-professional-looking website. However, they are but one of a number of pro-life organizations (such as the Atheist and Agnostics Pro-Life League, Americans United For Life, the Susan B. Anthony List, Created4Life, and the National Right to Life Committee) that consider themselves secular-minded or that have refocused themselves towards a secular orientation in the last few years. Without a doubt, the secular identity is on the rise, even within movements that secular activists have traditionally opposed.
Even more astonishing is how groups like Secular Pro-Life may actually reflect the thinking of the average American. A recent Gallup poll showed that the number of people in the United States who identify as pro-choice has dropped to its lowest point (41 percent) in recorded history, while those who identify as pro-life have continued with their decade-long rise. In 1995, 33 percent of Americans considered themselves pro-life. Today that number has climbed to 50 percent — with a remarkable 9 percent jump in the last five years.
Part of the reason for this shift in the American zeitgeist has to do with tactical innovations within the pro-life movement. For years the arguments against abortion had been deeply embedded in religious — mostly Christian — rhetoric and doctrine. But, these overtly religious aspects of the movement have not meshed well with an increasingly secularized America. Despite the religious right’s best efforts, people continue to leave their churches in droves. The fastest growing belief group in the United States is comprised of people who claim no religion at all. How then has the pro-life movement remained politically relevant in the United States? The answer: follow the lead of other religiously based movements and co-opt popular aspects of secular culture to mask the faith-based nature of your beliefs. It used to be that creationists were creationist — then they became advocates of intelligent design; advocates for prayer in school used to defend Christian values — these days they’re defenders of religious freedom; before, the Ten Commandments trumped the Constitution — now, the Ten Commandments inspired the Constitution; and so on.
The pro-life movement has gone through a similar transformation. Groups like SPL declare themselves “pro-life for a reason” and agree with conservative author and radio producer Dustin Siggins, who wants the pro-life movement to stop using biblical arguments to debate abortion. “The science of life is in our favor,” states Siggins, “and we should emphasize this.” Indeed, being pro-life “for a reason” and favoring the so-called science of life can be persuasive stuff. The only problem is that the reasons for being pro-life are often based on erroneous logic, and the “science of life” has been anything but scientific.
According to SPL, the secular argument against abortion rests on four basic premises: 1) the fetus is a human being, 2) there is no consistent, objective distinction between a “human being” (biologically speaking) and a “person” (legally speaking), 3) human beings merit human rights, and 4) bodily integrity is not sufficient to justify most abortions. These premises are essentially a more elaborate version of a popular syllogism among the nonreligious sections of the pro-life movement: a fetus is a human being (major premise); all human beings are entitled to human rights (minor premise); therefore fetuses are entitled to human rights (conclusion). Syllogisms, of course, are an important tool of deduction, but they are not foolproof. No syllogism can detect the defects of its own assumptions. In this case, it is the assumption that all human beings are entitled to human rights, or — as SPL puts it — there is no objective difference between a “human being,” biologically speaking, and a “person,” legally speaking.
There is in fact a major difference between human beings as fetuses and human beings as persons: human beings as persons are born. Within the context of the minor premise that all human beings are entitled to human rights, this is no trivial matter. Many nonreligious pro-life organizations like to quote human rights documents to support their views, but it is quite clear that they haven’t read them in full. The most revered human rights document in the world today is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 1 of which states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” [Emphasis mine.] This verbiage is not accidental. Rights only exist within the context of a community where they have the potential to be realized and the possibility of being threatened. Birth is our universal entrance into any community. It is the point at which we are able to break away — literally — from the absolute dependency of our mothers. The fact of the matter is birth transforms us. It simultaneously makes us into individuals and members of a group, and thus embeds in us rights-bearing protections.
The nonreligious pro-life movement waves away the significance of birth as essential to rights-bearing protection by focusing on an erroneous analogy between fetuses and other marginalized groups. They argue that since the historical denial of rights to human beings who were not considered full legal persons (blacks, children, Jews, women) has proven damaging to society, then the denial of rights to fetuses, which are also considered human beings but denied legal personhood, should also be considered damaging. The analogy is problematic in that it ignores the essential differences between historically marginalized groups and fetuses. Unlike fetuses, blacks, women, children, and Jews are all autonomous beings able to be members of a community. Fetuses neither have this characteristic, nor can they organize as a group to demand the rights that they are supposedly due.
Secular Pro-Life’s literature quotes Article 6 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child as saying: “Every child has the inherent right to life.” They quote this line with the implication that childhood should be recognized at conception. What they ignore is the equally important Article 16(e) of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women that states all women shall have the right: “to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and to have access to the information, education and means to enable them to exercise these rights.” Human rights theory considers all rights as interdependent. No right is absolute and can be used to justify canceling out another right. The only way that this interdependence can exist between a child’s right to life and a woman’s right to her body is by demarcating the moment of right-bearing at birth as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states. All humanists can agree that it is foolish to not extend the circle of compassion that human rights provides, but it is equally foolish to over-extend this circle and, in the process, undo the very same compassion that the rights are intended to uphold.
Even if we discount faulty reasoning, it is impossible to deny the troubling aspects of the nonreligious pro-life movement’s “science.” Many laws restricting access to reproductive services are based on pseudo-scientific claims regarding women’s health. Instead of calling for an evidenced-based approach to abortion, nonreligious pro-life groups have either accepted these claims at face value — often putting them far outside the medical consensus — or have adopted a wishy-washy stance in opposing them, emphasizing uncertainties and doubt even after experts have reached a consensus.
For example, currently five U.S. states require doctors to warn women of the link between abortion and breast cancer, and eight states require doctors to warn women about the possible psychological problems that abortions can cause. The published medical research justifies neither of these requirements. The National Cancer Institute has researched the alleged link between breast cancer and abortion, and has concluded that the research “consistently showed no association between induced and spontaneous abortions and breast cancer risk.” In an email exchange about the validity of this claim, Monica Lynn, SPL’s blog coordinator, responded that the group found the evidence conflicting, but that its president, Kelsey Hazzard — who has studied law, not medicine — believes that women should be informed of the “conflicting” nature of this evidence before an abortion. Similarly, the research on abortion and psychological stress has shown that the phenomenon of PASS — Post Abortion Stress Syndrome — doesn’t exist either. Recently, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study from Danish researchers which confirmed that the majority of women who underwent an abortion in the first two trimesters were no more likely to seek out psychological counseling after their abortion than they were before. While Lynn says the PASS label is problematic, SPL believes women should be informed of the possible psychological repercussions and their risks before having an abortion.
Despite their lack of validity, such positions continue to permeate our political discourse, and have played a major role in the policy blitzkrieg on reproductive rights. The new Virginia law requiring women to undergo an ultrasound prior to an abortion was designed by the organization Americans United for Life — another nonreligious pro-life group. According to Charmaine Yoest, CEO and president of Americans United for Life, the Virginia bill was necessary to protect women with ectopic pregnancies from the possibility of dying during a medication-induced abortion. Warnings like these are half-truths that only serve to whip up hysteria around the risks of abortion. An ultrasound before an abortion is a standard practice for most providers, and is an essential tool for helping determine gestational age, viability, and yes, the possibility of an ectopic pregnancy. However, doctors determine ultrasounds based on medical necessity — not ideology. In reality, the risk of a medication-induced abortion in the case of an ectopic pregnancy is phenomenally rare, and the possibility of the mother dying is even more remote. When asked about the ultrasound requirement, Secular Pro-Life responded that doctors should not only be required to offer women an ultrasound twenty-four hours prior to an abortion, but they should also be required to explain the stages of fetal development with the women before she agrees to an abortion.
Fetal pain legislation is another area of focus for pro-life groups. Laws in several states effectively outlaw elective abortions for women who are over twenty weeks pregnant based on the idea that the fetus is able to experience suffering during this stage. And yet the idea of fetal pain at twenty weeks is highly dubious, with no clear consensus from doctors or medical researchers as to when a fetus feels pain.
The United Kingdom’s Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has gone on record that there is no evidence that a fetus feels pain prior to twenty-four weeks. Responses to stimuli before this stage are the same for a fetus with brain development as it is for those without, suggesting that such responses are reflexive of the nervous system and not wired to the brain’s cortex. This view concurs with the findings from a systematic review of the evidence published in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicating that fetuses are not able to perceive pain until after the thalamocortical system — pathways that reciprocally connect the thalamus to the neocortex in the brain — begins to function. This doesn’t occur until weeks twenty-nine and thirty. Even then, experiments done at the College of London using electroencephalography to measure fetal responses suggest that fetal response to pain may not even occur until weeks thirty-five and thirty-seven. In any case, all serious research on the matter indicates that fetal pain isn’t likely to occur until well beyond the twenty-week mark that fetal pain laws claim. Disregarding this medical consensus, Secular Pro-Life’s president has referred to the research supporting the claim of fetal pain at twenty weeks as “methodologically sound” and believes that the current state of the published research produces conflicting conclusions.
Unsurprisingly, pro-life advocates have been quick to cheer the recent Gallup poll that shows the political winds have tilted in their favor. Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List — an anti-abortion advocacy group named after the early feminist and agnostic — declared that being pro-life is becoming America’s “new normal.” There is no denying that advocates for reproductive freedom have lost serious ground in recent years, but the idea that nonreligious pro-life groups like the Susan B. Anthony List represent a “new normal” is not supported by the data. While it’s true that more Americans identify as pro-life, the percentage of Americans who believe that abortions should be legal has been relatively consistent over the past decade. The same Gallup poll that reported 50 percent of Americans identifying as pro-life also showed that 77 percent believe that abortions should be legal under certain or all circumstances (52 percent certain circumstances; 25 percent under all circumstances). Generally speaking, a strong majority of Americans still support the parameters for abortion established under Roe v. Wade. This means that while many Americans identify as pro-life personally they don’t take this stand politically and think the government shouldn’t compel others to adopt this belief.
Still, women and all who support reproductive choice must be vigilant, as the organized pro-life movement will continue its campaign of logical fallacies, misinformed factoids, pseudo-scientific claims, and outright lies — along with its co-opting of secular figures and values — until it gets its way.
Marco Rosaire Rossi is an activist and former Planned Parenthood employee who has published articles in Z Magazine, Works In Progress, and the Peace and Conflict Monitor.