1) It is wrong to kill an innocent human being (I include “innocent” here to sidestep the questions of capital punishment for criminals and the killing of enemy combatants in warfare.)
2) Unborn babies are innocent.
3) Unborn babies are human beings (i.e., there is no important difference between a baby one minute before it leaves the womb and the same baby one minute after it leaves the womb).
4) Therefore, it is wrong to kill an unborn baby (or, in other terms, abort a fetus).
During the process of my deconversion, I never really gave the issue of abortion a thought; it wasn’t something that related to the truth or falsehood of religion, which for me was the central question at hand. But once I had come to the conclusion that my former faith was without warrant, I began to think about the implications of having abandoned the dictates of the Bible and Christian tradition. I had to think through the three premises above leading to the conclusion that it’s wrong to abort a fetus. I instinctively wanted abortion to be wrong; it’s a conviction I had held all my life. But as a secular humanist, could I justify my desire for it to be wrong and to outlaw it in civil society?
The bottom line is: can the three premises above be grounded in a secular perspective? I don’t know of anyone who would maintain that unborn babies are guilty enough to deserve death for crimes they’ve committed, so premise #2 is safe. That leaves premises #1 and #3, which I’ll treat together since they hang on the definition of human being.
I’m a computer science engineer by training. One of my favorite classes in college was digital electronics. Maybe that’s because I like the concept of binary logic: everything is either on (“1”) or off (“0”). It’s much less messy than analog logic, where values can fall into an unlimited number of gradations. I suspect it’s our affinity for binary logic, for everything to be black or white, 1 or 0, that makes personhood and abortion such thorny issues. If we can point to a moment (usually the moment of conception), a discreet point in time marking the transition from non-person or non-human to person, then there’s no sliding scale, no shades of grey that make it tricky to determine when or whether it is or is not appropriate to end a life. As Dr. Suess would say, “A person’s a person (1, not 0), no matter how small.”
Though a microscopic fertilized egg at the moment of conception has a full complement of human DNA, it bears no resemblance to an adult or even to a newborn baby--not in its form, in its ability to think, in its ability to feel pain. There is no brain, no blood, no heart, no limbs, no head, nothing but a little microscopic blob. If we were not committed to the convenience of binary on/off, 1/0, black/white logic, we could readily acknowledge that this is a very different entity from a newborn baby, or even a twenty-five week old fetus, which by that time has taken on the form of a human and which can feel pain. We would realize that being human doesn’t lend itself to a convenient definition, that there are only degrees between a non-person and a person. If someone were to show me a fertilized egg under a microscope and tell me, “That’s a person,” my response would be, “Are you kidding me?”, and I would tend to think they were driven more by their ideology than by any concern to align their beliefs with reality. Now if they were to show me a twenty-eight week old fetus with a head, arms, and legs that can feel pain, and if they told me that was a person, I wouldn’t be nearly so skeptical. True, a fetus at that stage likely lacks many of the traits we associate with personhood, chief among them self-awareness (which begin in children at around 14-18 months; see page 725 of this link), but at least such a fetus bears a much greater resemblance to a prototypical human than does a microscopic egg. The point is that personhood, whether we like it or not, is more analog than digital, more a point along a sliding scale than an on/off, true/false, black/white proposition.
The problem is that, once we adopt a sliding scale definition of personhood, then the definition of person is only in the eye of the beholder, and each beholder could come to a different conclusion. But then even in raising this problem, we’ve slipped back into binary thinking. What if, instead of wringing our hands over what separates a person from a non-person, we were to admit degrees of personhood? I can acknowledge that a fertilized egg has elements of personhood while also maintaining that it’s not a person. And an embryo at two weeks exhibits a few more elements of personhood while still not being a full person. For that matter, a newborn baby, even though much more like a person than an embroyo, is not a prototypical person and lacks many of the congnitive abilities of an adult chimpanzee, including self-awareness, the ability to consider the future, and verbal communication. It’s not comfortable for us to think of personhood in terms of a sliding scale, but it seems a martian observer would have no problem studying us and coming to see us in this light.
But if personhood is a sliding scale, at what point along the scale does it become wrong to abort a proto-human? What if a father wants to kill his newborn baby or his two-year-old toddler out of convenience, arguing that these young ones have not reached the status of full personhood? The fear is that the sliding scale will become a slippery slope, and before you know it, we’ll have lost all reverence for the sanctity of human life and we as a society begin killing anyone with disabilities, with cognitive impairments, with limited prospects for a full and prosperous life, etc. For me the “slippery slope” argument is one of the strongest theoretical arguments against abortion from a secular perspective. I recall back in the 1980s during my high school and college years hearing Dr. Francis Schaeffer lament that European nations like the Netherlands were beginning to legalize euthanasia, and that before long this would lead them down the slippery slope of doctors killing their patients without the consent of the patients. The ensuing lack of reference for the sanctity of human life would lead to escalating rates of murder, infanticide, and all manner of violence and social decay. Yet several decades have passed since that time, and the rates of violence have only declined, and there is no mass abuse of euthanasia or infanticide or any such thing. So even if the “slippery slope” can be seen as a strong theoretical argument against abortion, in practice it has shown itself to have little to no merit.
It’s not just pro-choice advocates that subscribe to the sliding scale view of personhood. In practice, pro-life advocates do too. How do I know this? It’s estimated that more than two-thirds of all fertilized eggs fail to come to term; in other words, they’re spontaneously aborted, usually unbeknownst to the mother. So if these eggs are fully human, then fully two-thirds of all humans perish in a dark, pre-natal holocaust. Spontaneous abortion It is by far the single leading cause of human death, eclipsing heart disease, cancer, accidents, warfare, homicide, human-induced abortion, and suicide--indeed, all forms of post-natal death combined. Where are the concerned pro-lifers soliciting funds for research to put to rest this horrendous scourge, this mother of all killers? If they really subscribed to on/off, black/white personhood, would they not display more compassion and more activism for the billions of victims of spontaneous abortion? As far as I can recall, I have not heard a single pro-life advocate express the slightest concern over this tragedy. I can only conclude that they couldn’t care less. Why couldn’t they care less? Either they’re unaware of this holocaust or they don’t really believe in the personhood of fertilized eggs, or a combination of the two. Surely there are some who know about it and fail to sound the alarm. In any case, I really don’t think they believe in the equality of all human life, or they would put their money where their mouth is.
So am I an eager pro-abortion advocate? Far from it! I regret any unnecessary loss of life. I lament the loss of some kinds of life than others; it’s only natural for us feel more acutely the death of family and friends closest to us than that of unknown individuals halfway around the world, the death of those in their prime more than that of the elderly, the accidental death of a teenager more than the early miscarriage of a baby, the death of a beloved pet dog more than the death of a fertilized human egg, the death of a mother cat than that of one of its many kittens, the death of a kitten than that of a butterfly, or the death of a butterfly than that of a dandelion.
From a naturalistic perspective, we live in an interconnected web of life, all with varying degrees of closeness to us and to our interests and affections, with varying degrees of sentience and intelligence and capacity for feeling pleasure and pain. Though we instinctively place our own species in a category of its own--qualitatively different from all other forms of life--the gulf is not as wide as many, particularly those in conservative religious traditions, often imagine. It’s common to hear a complaint, “Those liberals care more about beached whales than unborn human babies!” But is it really that difficult to understand why a secular humanist like me would be more concerned about the slow, painful, dehydration of an adult whale--a whale that’s part of a social network, perhaps the mother of a calf or two, the matriarch of a pod, an animal that has all the same nerve endings and capacity for pain that we have--than the harvesting of an unconscious, unfeeling human embryo to be used for medical research with the goal of developing a cure for diseases that have plagued us for as long as we can remember?
I thank Sam and Holly for their thoughtful responses to my first post on this topic. I too am only reluctantly pro-choice, as Sam so adeptly put it. I wish we lived in world where all the answers were easy, where death was not a reality, where we never had to make trade-offs between life and liberty, where populations of all species (including humans) could grow geometrically over thousands or millions or billions of years with no ill effects on the sustainability or quality of life on our planet. But we don’t live in such a world, and sometimes hard choices have to be made.
It’s interesting that both Sam and Holly raised the question of what we eat, because I’m a vegan wannabe myself. I deplore the inhumane treatment of animals so prevalent in the poultry, dairy, cattle, and fish farms that feed our society’s insatiable appetite for meat and dairy products. In the past couple of years I’ve significantly increased my consumption of beans and lentils, but I have not gone fully vegan as it wouldn’t be practical at this point in my family and social environment. I tell myself that by eating less meat, I’m doing my small part to reduce animal suffering just a little bit. The thing is, as a believer, I had no such concern for the welfare of these sentient beings; they were made for our benefit, and there was such a quantum dividing line between humans and animals that the welfare of animals, while not to be disregarded entirely, paled in significance to our responsibility to our own kind, even if packaged as an unfeeling microscopic cell. I’d like to think my perspective has become more reasonable, even if still not fully consistent. I would still not hesitate to shoot a starving wolf threatening a newborn human infant. I suppose we’ll never be able to shed what humanist ethicist Peter Singer calls specieism (as an analog to racism). For the record, as a human I do not advocate treating humans and animals equally in every context when the interests of both come into conflict, but we can certainly afford to give greater attention to their capacity for pain and the role we can play in minimizing it (or at least in not increasing it), just as we can recognize a common interest in reducing the number of abortions, particularly those after the 25th week of pregnancy when the fetus begins to feel pain.
It was surprising for me to learn recently that the rates of abortion (expressed as a ratio of abortions per 1000 women of childbearing age) has been on the decline around the world in the past several decades. The rate of decline has slowed since 2003, coinciding with a slowdown in the rate of birth control distribution. If our concern is to reduce the number of abortions, the most effective way to do so is to make contraception more widely available.
I’ll leave you with one other interesting morsel: abortion has effectively taken the place of infanticide, which was widespread in all cultures before the modern era (again, read Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined). The rates of abortion are essentially no higher than the rates of infanticide in previous generations, and abortion itself, along with violence of all kinds, is on the decline, as I’ve discussed in a couple of other recent blog posts. Those of us who are reluctant pro-choicers, along with pro-lifers, can look forward to the day when abortion becomes becomes rare.
Well, I could go on and on, but these are my thoughts as they currently stand, and I look forward to more good feedback from readers.