I find it remarkable that no Christians have asked to know my opinion on abortion since my deconversion (well, perhaps once in the context of a small discussion group perhaps five years ago). Up until now, I haven’t publicly expressed my thoughts on this issue, partly because I hadn’t (and still haven’t fully) come to a firm conclusion on this question. Now that I’m maintaining a blog and abortion and birth control have been in the news again recently, it’s probably time for me bring my thoughts out into the open.
Secular humanists, though predominately pro-choice, are not unanimously so. For examples, listen to Robert Price’s Point of Inquiry podcast interview with Jen Roth entitled “Atheist Against Abortion,” or read Nat Hetonff’s entreaty to Obama. So if you’re a conservative Christian and you fear that leaving your faith will necessarily entail changing your views on abortion, you needn’t let that stand in the way of deconverting. But I won’t pretend that it’s likely for your outlook on abortion to remain unchanged.
As former believers, we can no longer call on the Bible or Christian tradition or the divinely established sanctity of human life to argue against the practice of abortion. The best we can do (if we remain pro-life) is to appeal to an agreed-upon commitment to treat all human life as deserving of preservation. But then on what basis can we agree on this apparently arbitrary commitment without also maintaining a similar commitment to other species?
Before I continue the discussion of abortion from a secular perspective, let me back up to my perspective as a believer. My opposition to abortion was rooted in the sanctity of human life, a sanctity that in my view derived from God’s having created humankind uniquely in his image (Genesis 1:26-27). As soon as the 23 chromosomes of the father’s sperm and the 23 chromosomes of the mother’s egg came together, a 46-chromosome human being is formed, worthy of the same right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness enjoyed by all other members of our species, whether born or unborn, strong or frail, athletic or invalid, intelligent or mentally disturbed. Terminating a human life, no matter how small, is equivalent to murder, period. I was impatient with any line of reasoning about abortion that did not take this into account. I could not understand how certain politicians like George H. W. Bush could call themselves pro-life while allowing exceptions for rape or incest. Would these “pro-life” politicians think it’s fine to kill such offspring if they’re already born, or if they’re 10 years old? If not, then why is it any different if they’re still in the womb? They’re still human, for goodness’ sake! (I did reluctantly allow for one exception to abortion: when a mother’s life is at stake, when it comes down to one life versus another, but I considered this to be quite rare and more hypothetical than a daily reality.)
Though I bought into other pro-life arguments, it was this murder question that primarily drove my anti-abortion stance, exemplified by the bumper sticker, “It’s a baby, not a choice.” Some have argued that abortion leads to higher rates of cancer for the mother, but the research is not at all definitive on this, so it makes pro-lifers look disingenuous when they pretend it is more definitive than it really is. Another common pro-life argument is that there are many childless couples who would love to adopt if only mothers who don’t want to keep their babies would give them up for adoption, but that’s merely a pragmatic argument that doesn’t take into account the opposite pragmatic concerns of the mothers who do not wish carry their babies to term, or the health of our planet that one day will reach its practical population limit (whether in decades, centuries, or millennia). Once we wade into pragmatic arguments like these, we lose the force of the central ideological argument against abortion, namely, that it’s the taking of a human life, i.e., murder.
Another argument I considered but which didn’t have the same weight for me as it did for other pro-life proponents was the concept of potentiality. Mozart is the poster child for this argument. His father was crippled and his mother deaf and blind when he was brought into this world to join his 13 other siblings. Surely in a situation like that today, abortion would have been encouraged, but in his day, Mozart was allowed to live and grow into the genius who contributed so much to our culture. And yet, to be blunt, every time a teenage boy has a wet dream or masturbates instead of having sex with his girlfriend, or every time a wife declines sex because she’s “too tired tonight, honey,” it could be argued that the world may have lost a potential Mozart or an Einstein. Then too, by the same token, perhaps a potential Stalin or Hitler could have been lost to the world. I just never bought the peculiar “potentiality” argument for these reasons.
Then there were the scriptural arguments. As a Christian I was aware that I couldn’t simply appeal to the Bible to convince the wider secular world that abortion should be restricted or outlawed, but the Bible did help reinforce my personal pro-life stance, particularly the following verses from Psalm 139:
13 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
However, even such passages didn’t have the weight of my primary argument against abortion as a Christian, namely that humans (no matter how small) are in some sense unique among all the species and that our common prohibition against murder extends to all members of our species. The above passage could surely apply just as well to animals--if God is the author of life and knits humans in their mothers’ womb, does he not do the same for dogs in their mothers’ womb? And yet no Christian that I know if is as exercised about canine abortion as they are about human abortion.
On a more emotional level, I was moved as a Christian to hear descriptions of the violence of abortion and the pain it caused to sentient babies, particularly in the course of so-called “partial-birth abortions.” I learned that a baby can feel pain certainly by the 25th week of pregnancy and that abortion does cause intense pain to the baby. Yet I had to admit that I wasn’t as concerned about the pain experienced by a bull when slaughtered so I could have hamburger, and I also realized that the pain-to-the baby argument couldn’t be used against the practice of abortion in the first few weeks of pregnancy, so again, this was in a sense another distraction from my central argument against abortion, namely that it constituted the taking of a human life.
It’s getting late, and I need to work in the morning, so I’ve just now decided to make this into (at least) a two-part blog. I intend to continue next time by explaining my current views as a secular humanist, even if I’m not fully settled on the matter. Perhaps this will lead to a dialogue that will help many of us consider a viable position that recognizes the legitimate arguments that can be made from different points of view.