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Jennifer Roth Debate Roth

A Secular Case Against Abortion

By Jennifer Roth



First of all, I’d like to thank Richard Carrier for agreeing to this debate, and the Internet Infidels for sponsoring it. I hope to find that this format will allow us to go beyond the soundbites and emotionalism that characterize all too many discussions of abortion.

I intend to show that an ethical case can be made against abortion without reference to a deity, an immortal soul, or any other supernatural concept. Though I am not an attorney, I also plan to point out principles upon which laws restricting abortion might be built.

My argument consists of three parts: first, that the human prenate is entitled to human rights; second, that a child’s parents are responsible for his/her welfare and that this responsibility begins when the child’s life begins; and third, that the so-called “need” for abortion is really evidence of the need for greater justice for women.

Before starting, I wish to define a few terms. Language usage is a source of much miscommunication and mistrust in the abortion debate — even such seemingly basic terms as “person” mean different things to those on opposite sides. In order to communicate as clearly and honestly as possible, I offer the following explanations of what I mean when I use certain terms in this debate:

  • Human being: an individual member of the species Homo sapiens.
  • Prenate: an umbrella term for the zygote, embryo, and fetus. It’s not a scientific or commonly used term, but I find it a useful and relatively neutral shorthand.
  • Abortion: the deliberate termination of the life of the prenate. Note three things about this definition; it does not include miscarriage (and in that sense it departs from the medical definition of abortion) it does not include prenatal death as an unintended result of a medical procedure, and it does not include the removal of the body of a prenate who has died in utero.
  • Person: a being which has what are commonly referred to as “human rights”. A person need not be a human being — one could imagine, for instance, extraterrestrial lifeforms with rights. Whether every human being is a person is, of course, one of the main controversies in the abortion debate.

Prenatal Personhood

“To be a [person] is to be just the sort of animal to whom, in specified situations and at a specified stage of development (beyond infanthood and before utter senility), moral blame and praise attach.” 1

Many defenders of abortion, both religious and secular, claim that the question of when life begins is a religious one, and therefore the views of any one group cannot be written into law. That claim comes in handy for them, since the idea that life begins at birth is already effectively written into law.

I find that in the dispute over “when life begins”, people are rarely asking: at what point does an individual physical being come into existence? Rather, the question is usually: At what point does that being become a person which must be accorded rights? The first question can be answered scientifically, and intellectual honesty demands that we incorporate those findings into our positions. The second, however, cannot. Personhood is a philosophical issue, but it need not be a religious one. After all, we can’t scientifically prove that anyone is a person, but we secular humanists do manage to advocate for the human rights of women, minorities, and the severely disabled — all of whom have been considered non-persons at various times in history. If prenatal personhood depended upon the notion of ensoulment at conception or a similar supernatural phenomenon, then it could properly be called a purely religious position. However, this is not the case.

I think that to answer the question of who is a person, we first have to ask what makes a person a person — that is, why does any being have human rights? Most would answer that what sets us apart from other animals is that we have the ability to reason and to make moral choices. A being which exhibits these abilities can be said to be functioning as a person. Put another way, reasoning and moral decision-making are personal acts. Not only does this make a certain intuitive sense, but if there were no beings who could reason and make moral choices, then there could be no beings with the ability to respect rights. Therefore, rights could not exist. I do not believe that Mr. Carrier and I differ substantially on this point, but I am confident that he will correct me if I am mistaken in that assumption.

I am aware of no serious dispute over whether a being who performs personal acts is, in fact, a person. Controversy arises when trying to decide whether or not to confer personhood upon those beings who are not currently able to perform personal acts. Such beings include the comatose, infants, and prenates.

The case of the comatose individual is probably the easiest to resolve. Such an individual typically has already performed personal acts in his lifetime, and will do so again when/if the coma ends. The pre-comatose individual is identical to the comatose and post-comatose individual. Not identical in the sense of being exactly the same, of course, but identical in the mathematical sense of having the same identity. The comatose individual is a person because of his identity, not because s/he is currently capable of performing personal acts.

An infant, unlike a comatose person, has never performed a personal act. Is the infant, then, a non-person? Only if a non-person can become a person. However, if that is possible, then why do other non-persons, such as trees and ladybugs, never become persons? Presumably, there is something inherent in a human infant which differentiates her from other creatures. It is in the nature of the infant to develop into a being which can reason and make moral choices — barring catastrophe, of course. The ability to perform personal acts is not added, by some outside force, to the developing infant. In the process of her growth, she naturally builds the mental structures necessary to function as a person. I would argue, therefore, that personhood itself is inherent in the infant.

I was born in October of 1972. That newborn in 1972 was identical (again, in the mathematical sense) to the adult in 2000 who exhibits the ability to reason and make moral choices. I am the person; I perform personal acts. Even before I was able to perform personal acts, I was still the person I am now.

Current law and public opinion seem to agree. Most people and governments recognize that infants have human rights which must be respected. In effect, we hold the infant’s rights “in trust” until such time as she is capable of exercising them. Therefore, there is already legal precedent for the recognition of personhood in those who have yet to develop the ability to perform personal acts. Opponents of abortion propose nothing unheard-of, then, in advocating that all human beings should be considered persons from the beginning of their biological lives.

This is where the question, “At what point does an individual physical being come into existence?” becomes important. In species which reproduce sexually, this generally occurs when the male and female gametes join to form a new organism. (I must defer to the embryologists on the finer points of twinning and chimerism; that is, a person who is an identical twin could be said not to have attained an individual identity until the zygote split. This is an interesting question, but not particularly relevant to the public policy debate.)

I realize how counterintuitive this is. The prenate — especially at the earliest stages — seems so foreign, so other; and yet every one of us once was a prenate. People take adults as the norm, and then say, “It’s obvious that they can’t be persons! Look how unlike us, how subhuman, they are!” They’re not. It’s just that our model of the “normal” human is biased towards ourselves — the adults.

Many (I wish I could honestly say all) supporters of prenatal personhood seek truly equal human rights for all human beings, not just those deemed worthy by the powerful. That inclusive spirit has been at the heart of the greatest social movements in human history.

Parental obligation

“The following is a working definition of the parental duty, against which neglectful parental care may be measured: The child has the right to expect, and the parent has a duty to reasonably and prudently provide, food, clothing, shelter, supervision, medical care, nurturance, and teaching.” 2

Defenders of abortion commonly argue that even if the prenate is a person, the pregnant woman is not obligated to allow him the use of her body.

Before I address this argument, allow me a brief semantic digression. For the purposes of this part of the essay, I will be using the term “child” to denote the human being in utero. There are two reasons for the change in terminology. First, there is little reason to even discuss whether a woman has obligations to a non-person, so for the sake of argument I am assuming prenatal personhood in this section. Second, while I find the term “prenate” useful, it is a bit artificial and tedious. I will also be using the pronouns “he” and “him” to denote the unborn child of unknown gender, simply to avoid confusion (since the mother, of course, will be “she” or “her”).

In the United States, children are legally entitled to be supported by their parents. This includes the right to receive basic necessities such as food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. Children are not entitled to support from random strangers, but only from those people who are responsible for having created their needs in the first place. Other parties, such as adoptive parents, charities, or governments, may voluntarily take on those responsibilities, but they are the parents’ by default.

However, current law only requires parents to provide for their children’s needs after birth. If the child is a person before birth, should the parents have a duty to provide for his needs before birth as well?

Many people would answer that they should not, because the needs in this case include the use of the mother’s body. A parent cannot be required by law to donate a kidney, or even blood, to save his/her child’s life. Therefore, abortion defenders argue, a mother cannot be required by law to donate the use of her uterus, even though her refusal will cause her child’s death.

However, there are significant differences between a kidney donation and pregnancy. In the former case, the transplant is an extraordinary measure. The need for it is caused by disease or injury, and most people will never need one. The parents may not withhold from the child the opportunity to receive a new kidney — they must seek medical care for her. But they need not provide a kidney themselves; they did not directly create the need.

When a woman is pregnant, the situation is different. In the usual case, where pregnancy did not result from sexual assault, the child himself, and his need for shelter and nourishment in the womb, is a direct result of actions taken voluntarily by both parents. The need to live in the mother’s uterus for approximately forty weeks is also not an extraordinary measure, in the way that the term is generally used. It is a basic human need — every single person who has ever been born required it. Just as the newborn has a specific claim against his parents due to the fact that they created him in all his helplessness, so too did he have a claim against them before he was born, for the same reason. It is true that the heavier burden falls on the mother during the prenatal period. Men simply cannot directly provide what their children need during the first forty weeks of their lives. (I would advocate requiring fathers to indirectly provide as much as they can by compensating mothers for their medical bills, lost work time, and other expenses during pregnancy.) The fact that women must shoulder more of the parental obligation during pregnancy than men is regrettable, but does not negate the obligation.

When pregnancy occurs as the result of sexual assault, one could make a case that the woman is not obligated to carry the child to term. She has done nothing to incur any obligation. While I am unconvinced that a legal basis exists for banning abortion in such cases, I still contend that the ethical thing to do is to seek a nonviolent solution which allows the mother to heal and the child to live. No woman should feel that she must abort in order to spare herself the social stigma of bearing “the rapist’s child”, or that abortion is the only way to get on with her life after the attack. If a rape survivor feels that she must have an abortion, the people who are supposed to help her have failed her.

I can imagine what some readers are thinking right about now. In fact, I don’t need to imagine it, because it’s been hurled at me before: the accusation that, “You just want to punish women for having sex.” I ask anyone who might be thinking that to pause for a moment, and reflect upon the possibility that your reaction might result more from prejudice than from a careful reading of my arguments. After all, the loudest voices against abortion in the media have belonged to people who wish everyone to conform to their religion’s version of sexual morality. I wish that weren’t true, but I can’t deny it. However, I shouldn’t need to explain to an atheist audience how distorted media coverage of contentious social issues can be.

The distinction I have drawn between the woman who is pregnant as a result of voluntary sex and the women who is pregnant as a result of rape is not based on any value judgments against the former. Nor is it based on the superstitious notion that a child conceived in rape is somehow “tainted” and therefore less worthy of life. An atheistic moral system, since it cannot depend on rules handed down from an outside source, must instead depend on the effects our actions have on other people. It is not punitive, therefore, to state that one who voluntarily decides to have sex has obligations to the child who exists and has needs as a result of that action. It is simply a concrete application of the general principle that some of our actions have consequences for other people, and we must avoid inflicting negative consequences upon them.

Women’s “need” for abortion

“There must be a remedy even for such a crying evil as this. But where shall it be found, at least where begin, if not in the complete enfranchisement and elevation of women?” 3

Supporters of legal abortion have positioned themselves as the friends of women, and they frequently paint their opponents as misogynists who are insensitive to the difficulties faced by women with unplanned pregnancies. I’ve no doubt that this tactic makes for successful fund-raising letters, but it is intellectually dishonest. It reminds me of a politician who accuses his opponent of being soft on crime because she opposes the death penalty.

Still, abortion proponents have many legitimate concerns. They are enraged that an unplanned pregnancy can mean social, financial, and professional ruin for a woman. They find it unjust that the sacrifices of raising children are borne mainly by women. They’re outraged that many women are still uneducated about the way their bodies work, and many others lack access to safe, affordable contraception. They’re absolutely right.

But shouldn’t the solution to these inequities be a change in the social structures that cause them? Legal discrimination and sanctioned violence against the very young cannot change the unfairness of our society toward mothers — it can only keep women from being mothers, for a while at least. The underlying problems are not solved, and we set a horrible precedent that allows us to define away the humanity of those who get in our way.

If someone claims that “women will always need abortion,” note the implicit assumptions. The first is that our ability to bear children is, and always will be, a handicap. The second is that we can never hope for our society to adequately adjust to the needs of mothers so that women will not feel the need to abort. The third is that violence against certain of our fellow human beings is an acceptable, even necessary way to solve social problems.

Granted, this last little rant has nothing to do with a secular argument per se. But I find the acceptance of abortion as a response to a sexist society to be inconsistent with humanist ideals. Humanism values the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. It affirms that moral standards should be based on the effect of our actions on our fellow human beings. It embraces the use of reason and repudiates the use of violence to settle disputes. Abortion is an ancient, backwards practice which is not worthy of those ideals. Legal or not, we must progress beyond it.


1. Neilsen, Kai. Why Be Moral?, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY, 1989, p. 48. [I have substituted “person” for the original “man” in the interests of gender-neutrality.]

2. “Child Neglect and Munchausen Syndrome”, publication #NCJ161841 of the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

3. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, writing about abortion in The Revolution, 1(10):146-7 March 12, 1868. 

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