The Totally Unoriginal Atheist Case against Abortion

The Totally Unoriginal Atheist Case against Abortion March 11, 2014

The Friendly Atheist created quite the brouhaha lately by publishing a guest post by Kristine Kruszelnicki, president of Pro-Life Humanists. This post was titled “Yes, There Are Pro-Life Atheists Out There. Here’s Why I’m One of Them.” My response? Thank you, Captain Obvious.

No seriously. Are there really people who think that atheists can’t be against abortion?  I do not understand this reasoning. Is there supposed to be a litmus test, that if you’re an atheist you’re automatic and by definition a-okay with abortion? This makes no more sense than assuming that if someone is an atheist, they must be against the death penalty, or against torture, or against drone strikes. Because no atheist was ever racist, right? No atheist ever harassed a woman? Really?

We need to get away from this idea that atheist = politically and socially progressive. It does not—and there is no reason why it should! So many of these issues, both politically and socially, do not hinge on religion. You can be an atheist and be progressive, conservative, libertarian. You can be an atheist and be sexist, racist, homophobic. Atheism does not have a statement of faith, or a catechism, or a set of beliefs. This is why I do not identify first and foremost as atheist. I do not see atheists as a group as “my people.” I honestly do not feel like I have all that much in common with atheists as a group. Why? Because my feminism, my belief in social justice issues, and my advocacy for children’s rights are infinitely more important to me than my lack of belief in a deity.

But there’s something else here. Toward the end of her post, Kristine says this:  

And there you have an introduction to an abortion debate that is void of Bibles, popes, and rosaries. 

It may seem odd, but the arguments against abortion that I grew up with were effectively void of religion. After all, the Bible says very little at all about abortion, and what it does say actually goes against the pro-life position.

The arguments I was taught did not center on religion. Instead, I was taught to defend my opposition to abortion with the acronym SLED: Size, Level of development, Environment, and Degree of dependency. The basic argument is that fetuses differ from babies, toddlers, and other born humans only in size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency, and that none of these justify ending life. We don’t kill people off because they are smaller than others, we don’t kill people off because they have developmental problems (i.e. various disabilities), we don’t kill people off based on where they are located, and we don’t kill people off just because they are dependent on others and need caring for. Therefore, the argument goes, abortion is not morally justifiable. 

This is the same basic argument Kristine makes

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.

. . .

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?

This “secular” argument against abortion is no different from the arguments I and other evangelical kids like me grew up hearing. In my experience, the only point where God enters the evangelical equation is the idea that we should value all human life, from conception to natural death, because God values all human life. [As readers have pointed out, the idea of a soul is intertwined here.] Atheists who believe life is inherently valuable can build this argument the same way. (Of course, it’s worth noting that there are plenty of atheists and Christians who both belief that life is inherently valuable and do not find abortion morally problematic.) I worry that some atheists may have a tendency to assume that things they find abhorrent—such as efforts to ban abortion—must of necessity be founded on religion and solely on religion, when this simply isn’t true.

Religion is not the boogeyman from which all bad arguments flow. If it was, why would we have anti-vaxxing? The reality is that there are secular arguments for all sorts of things I find abhorrent. This is a big part of the reason I don’t view this world through an atheism/religion binary. That binary is flawed.

Now obviously, I have problems with the arguments Kristine makes. For one thing, the care of babies and toddlers can be transferred to others while the care of a fetus cannot, making the position of a fetus substantively different from that of babies and toddlers. For another thing, the bodily autonomy argument is based not on who is bigger but rather the idea that everyone should have ownership over their own body. The suggestion that it’s about might makes right is creating a strawman. Finally, development does matter. To provide just one example, we consider someone without brain waves “brain dead,” which suggests that personhood is in some way tied to the brain.

But honestly, these arguments are not that interesting to me. What I find more interesting are the practicalities of it. I have no more problem with someone being personally against abortion than I do with them being personally against alcohol. My concern is when they work to legislate these personal beliefs, which Kristine willingly admits is her goal:

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.

Attempts to ban abortion are incredibly short-sighted and so very problematic. They ignore the realities of abortion. Women tend to have abortions because they don’t have money to raise a child, or because they don’t feel like they are at a place in their lives where they can give a child a good life. The most effective way to decrease the number of abortions is to make effective birth control more easily available and make raising children more affordable. In countries where abortion is illegal, women are investigated and even put in jail for miscarriages. Women are put in risky situations or allowed to die when the life of their life of the fetus come in conflict. These things are frightening.

I really wish we could all stop arguing about whether or not abortion is moral and instead set about trying to make it less necessary in ways that have the potential to make life better for everyone, man, woman, and child—things like more effective and available birth control, a better social safety net, and more concrete social support for childrearing for families of every shape. (Note that I said less necessary, not less common—the two go hand in hand but the word choice is intentional.) As it generally goes, the debate about abortion focuses on the symptom rather than the cause. It is high on philosophy and low on real life. This is a problem.

This is why I wrote my viral post, Why I Lost Faith in the Pro-Life Movement.

To return for a moment to my original point, there is no reason that “atheist” should be synonymous with support for abortion. Trying to make it so means trying to make atheism into something it’s not. There is no one philosophy that springs directly from atheism. Atheists’ beliefs on politics and morality vary, and there is no reason why they should not. That there is an atheist case against abortion is no more surprising to me than that there is an atheist case for libertarianism, or for communism. What is more confusing to me is the apparent surprise.

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