A Secular Case Against Abortion
by Jen Roth
I would like to thank Richard Carrier for agreeing to this debate, the Internet Infidels for agreeing to host it, and Amanda Chesworth for coordinating it. It has been extremely refreshing to participate in a discussion of abortion without being subjected to accusations of prudishness, misogyny, or fascism. I have also found Mr. Carrier’s statements interesting and challenging, though ultimately we disagree.
I often hear it said that restrictions on abortion necessarily violate the separation of church and state, since the only arguments against abortion (at least, early in pregnancy) are religious. It comes as a surprise to most people that pro-life atheists even exist. I can’t count the times I’ve been told not to impose my religion on others. That a pro-lifer might not be motivated solely by religious beliefs — indeed, might not even be a believer at all — simply never occurs to many people. I hope that, even if nothing else has been accomplished, this debate might have opened a few minds on that subject.
The fact is that a case against abortion can be made without any reference to deities or the supernatural. My particular case rests upon three bases: prenatal personhood, parental responsibility, and pro-life feminism.
In my opening statement, I proposed certain criteria for determining whether an organism should be considered a person — that is, whether it should possess what we refer to as "human rights". These criteria are based upon the qualities necessary for such a thing as "rights" to exist. In a world where no organisms possessed the ability to reason and to make moral decisions, there could be no such thing as "rights".
It is not self-evident that reason and moral choice must be used as criteria for personhood. However, I believe these criteria have several advantages over the alternatives:
- They are not predicated on something as ethereal and unprovable as a "soul" or being "created in the image of God". True, reason and moral choice are not themselves tangible, but their effects are observable.
- They are already in common, albeit casual, use. The ability to choose to act in a way contrary to our instincts is often said to be "what separates us from the animals." (Of course, to be pedantic about it, we are animals.)
- They can be equally applied to non-human species, to determine whether they too should be rights-holders.
- Finally, they are directly related to the rights whose applicability they determine. I believe this is important because we must not assign rights for arbitrary reasons; that way lies slavery, genocide, and a host of other atrocities.
Assuming for the moment that we are on the right track in identifying reason and moral choice as the keys to personhood, we must now turn to the question of whether the individual must be exhibiting those traits in order to deserve rights.
In my opening statement, I argued that the individual need not be currently functioning as a person in order to be a person. Instead, a person is an individual in whose nature it is to reason and make moral choices at some point in his/her life cycle.
There are several arguments for adopting this definition. The brain structures necessary for rational thought are not added by some outside force, but are built by the prenate during the course of development. The organism’s cognitive abilities are thus an inherent property, albeit a property that is not fully expressed until later in life. (For that matter, are our cognitive abilities ever fully expressed?)
Another argument for extending personhood to prenatal humans is that each one of us once was a prenate. If I am the same organism I was when I lived in my mother’s womb, then why should I be considered a rights-holder now but not then? My nature and identity have not changed. I am literally the same person, albeit more developed and with a much greater array of experiences under my belt.
Finally, there is precedent for assigning rights even to those too young to fully satisfy whichever criteria are used. A newborn cannot reason or make moral choices. She has not yet developed a high degree of intellect. She does not yet have enough sense of herself to recognize her interests. True, she does have a distinct personality, but then so has a dog or cat. The newborn does not yet function as a person, in that she is not yet able to perform acts or exhibit traits which separate rights-holders from non-rights-holders. Yet, her human rights are recognized and protected.
To summarize, I contend that the important traits which define personhood are inherent in the human individual, therefore a human should be considered a person with rights from the moment s/he begins to exist as an individual. Mr. Carrier seems to agree with the latter, but argues that the individual comes into existence at about 20 weeks’ gestation, when the nervous system is sufficiently developed for a personality to emerge. He claims that, in essence, the personality is the individual.
The fundamental problem with that argument is that the personality is a property of the body, not an entity unto itself. The personality stems from the workings of a physical brain, and is shaped by sensory inputs from physical nervous system. The body precedes the personality and is necessary for its formation and continued existence. Therefore, the emergence of the personality in the fifth month is not the beginning of an individual, but rather an event in the development of an already-existing physical organism.
For the reasons outlined above, I assert that the atheist can consistently hold a belief that the embryo or fetus is a person whose rights we are bound to respect.
I won’t spend much time on this topic, not because it is unimportant (far from it), but because Mr. Carrier and I essentially agree.
Abortion advocates often claim that even if the prenate is a person, his/her rights conflict with the mother’s and hers must take priority. However, I argue that in most situations, this is not the case.
People have a right to keep their property, a right which is protected by laws against theft. However, this right is not without qualification. For example, if someone has a rightful claim against my money (perhaps because I borrowed from them or wrecked their car), then my rights are not violated if the courts compel me to hand it over.
I assert that parents owe their children support, by virtue of having created the children and their needs. Since every human being needs to live in the womb for approximately forty weeks at the beginning of life, that can be considered a basic necessity. I therefore conclude that in the typical case, the prenate has a rightful claim against the mother for being allowed to remain living in the womb. There is no conflict of rights, though there may be a conflict of interests. (Even that is questionable — see below.)
There are, however, a few cases in which this reasoning may not apply. If a woman becomes pregnant as the result of sexual assault, then she has not caused the child’s existence or dependency. While the child has a right to life (assumed in this section for the sake of argument), s/he does not have a specific claim against the mother for support of that life. Therefore, one could argue that a woman who is pregnant due to rape does not owe the child the use of her body, but rather that she may choose either to give or to withhold support. This atypical case is truly an example in which the right of the mother to bodily autonomy conflicts with the right of the prenate to life. Whichever side one takes in this conflict, this is an ethical question and need not be a religious one.
Even the common assumption that the child’s right to life conflicts with the mother’s interests (rather than her rights) is very often false. If a woman is contemplating abortion because she’s too poor to raise a child, then she’ll still be poor after having an abortion. Both parties’ interests are served by ensuring that she has access to affordable housing, education, health care, and whatever other assistance she needs to give life to her child and improve her own life.
One slogan of the pro-life movement is, "Eliminate the crisis, not the child." A crisis pregnancy is usually a crisis not because of the child per se, but because of financial worries and lack of support from family and friends. Abortion does not make schools and workplaces more responsive to mothers’ needs; it does not build supportive relationships. It erases the child from the situation, but the unhealthy situation remains. It is a destructive and short-term fix, rather than a constructive and far-sighted one.
Pro-life feminists seek to uphold the rights of both women and children; we don’t believe a woman should have to choose between her child and her future. We want a humane welfare system which does not encourage dependence, but which enables poor women to raise their children with dignity. We want family leave, universal health care, and strict child support enforcement. We want to end discrimination against mothers in employment and education. We want to end sexual assault. We want to empower women to choose healthy sexual relationships. We want girls to grow up knowing that their worth doesn’t depend on the ability to get a man.
This is the future that all of us can and should strive for. And when people accept the claim that "women will always need abortions", this is the future whose possibility they implicitly deny. I hope that my fellow atheists, whatever their views on the ethics or legality of abortion, will join with us in creating a world where no woman feels she needs one.