Pro-life Atheists: An Argument to Oppose Abortion

I’ll preface this thread with an admission that I don’t believe I am the best person to debate this because I am not trained in debate, but I also don’t believe IMHO is the best forum for yet another discussion about abortion. If I’m wrong, I’d appreciate a moderator finding the correct forum for this post. That said, I’m looking forward to more skilled debaters to illuminate me on the subject.

In a thread about Republicans cutting the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to offset tax cuts that invariably included a discussion about abortion, Bricker posted this:

Since I consider myself to be pro-choice atheist and I’ve never discussion abortion with an atheist against it, I thought it might be helpful to understand a secular anti-abortion* point-of-view and to avail myself of an argument that I have not considered.

Although the editorial addressed my firm conviction that pregnancy should not supersede the moral and legal right to a person’s bodily autonomy, it didn’t do much to convince me that there is a compelling reason to do so in the sole condition of pregnancy. IIUC, the essence of argument is that we have an inherent obligation to provide care to dependent humans:

Except that human society has not universally determined that parents must protect *unborn *offspring. That’s an important distinction because that where bodily autonomy and parental obligations conflict. Further, most (?) societies have a mechanism in which parents may voluntarily relinquish parental obligations to care for their offspring. By the logic the writer uses above, that is an argument for abortion, not against it. If the recognized obligation to care for born offspring is to be extended to unborn offspring, then the mechanism for relinquishing that obligation for born offspring may be extended to unborn offspring.

The writer follows up this statement with a moral challenge couched in a series of questions:

The answers to these questions are expected to elicit agreement that children are to be kept alive at all costs – excepting death – by making the facetious argument that we are obligated to care for a “vulnerable and dependent stranger.” This is sole justification to revoke the bodily autonomy of pregnant women, but never addresses why society shouldn’t also revoke the bodily autonomy of anyone else who can provide life-sustaining resources to any other human being in need.

But the questions cannot possibly achieve that goal because the answers are not obviously only what the writer expects. If an unrelated infant were dropped on my doorstep miles from civilization, what “basic life-sustaining care” am I obligated to provide it? Shelter? Water? Food? My own child’s breast milk? CPR? A blood transfusion? To what extent am I obligated to provided limited resources to this infant at the expense of my own or my family’s life-sustaining care?

The second question assumes that I do view myself as obligated to give unspecified care to this person despite the fact that I never explicitly agreed to those obligations in the first place. But why would I do that? What could possibly motivate me to take resources away from one person and give it to another and for what purpose?

The third question expects me to accept this obligation despite its negative physical impact on me at least up until it kills me. So I’m expected to perform CPR on this unrelated infant until I drop dead from exhaustion. Even trained medical personal aren’t obligated to do that. Or is that life-sustaining care not considered basic? I guess getting mired in semantics is inevitable.

The fourth and final question is really the kicker though: “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?” Assuming I haven’t already found enough reason to reject the “truth” of the writer’s postulations, I have now reason to reject the notion that I’m not obligated to provide organs to another human being with failing ones, blood to other human beings in need of it, much of my own basic life necessities to those who lack basic life necessities. In other words, I’m completely obligated to care for those who cannot care for themselves. Because if all you have to be is a human in need, and a pregnant woman must provide for a human in need, then we all have provide for a human in need everything short of that which kills us.

And if we can make that argument, aren’t we shirking our own obligations to the provide food, shelter, basic medical care to the most vulnerable of our society? Doesn’t it follow that if women have an obligation to their unborn offspring, we all have an obligation to make up the balance between what parents may provide their offspring and what those offspring need to survive, or even to thrive?

  • For those who object to my using the term ‘anti-abortion’ versus ‘pro-life’, I object to the implication that the term conveys that pro-choice advocates are against life and that there’s much more to supporting life than simply advocating birth. But that’s another discussion… Or is it?

I don’t have any answers for you but you might care to consider that historically, infanticide was the practised method of abortion. Unwanted infants were taken to a field or somewhere and left there for wolves or a passing shepherd to pick up (e.g. Oedipus). In times of famine, older children were abandoned (e.g. Hansel & Gretel). Further, there is evidence of cannibalism from prehistory, classical mythology, and cannibalism is well attested from the First Crusade onwards (and reported in much earlier texts).

I’m glad you brought up the organ transplant problem - it saved me typing.
But here is the kicker. An atheist objecting to abortion must do it on philosophical and moral grounds. Which is fine for him or her, but given that there are also philosophical and moral grounds to support choice, how would they jump from their argument to imposing it on others?
A theist who rejects abortion due to God being against it at least can say that he is trying to enforce a higher moral law. In the US imposing this part of religion is problematic, but at least it is an argument.
What about murder I hear them say. The ban on killing is not as strong as what some want the ban on abortion to be. We can kill in self defense, police can kill to protect others, and clearly the military can and is trained to kill.

Given the times, I suspect infanticide was safer for the mother than abortion. Not that pregnancy was very safe back then.

Given that abortion is legal and supported by the majority, a declaration that the morality is clearly against it seems facile. All other arguments would seem to extend from that foundation.

“Money is valuable, thus we must hoard cotton and linen as clearly they must be of value as well, being the precursor to money.”

But, that said, I don’t see anything in particular to say that it’s wrong for someone to oppose abortion on secular grounds. While I think that her logic is silly, I’m perfectly happy if she lives by that rule.

Similarly, I am happy for vegetarians and vegans to live as they want, based on the logic they have used to come to their life decisions. It’s probably stupid, but it’s their life to live as they want.

The key question isn’t whether abortion is moral or not, it’s whether it’s so clearly immoral that it should be treated akin to murder. Clearly, looking at polls, at the law, at the fact that Row v. Wade was decided on the grounds of “privacy matters”, etc. it’s impossible to make any case that it’s a clear matter. And if we look back through history, abortion has always been popular.

“Should I birth this child and have it starve to death, because I can’t support it right now? Or should I terminate the pregnancy before it has developed into a thinking, feeling being?”

It’s not a wonderful decision to have to make, but it’s one that has been made billions of times across the globe in tens of thousands of societies across hundreds of thousands of years (if not more). A reasonable amount of people have made this decision without viewing themselves as murderers nor having those around them view them as so either.

As with the religious arguments, it all comes down to the question of whether (or more precisely, at what point) a fetus is a person. Everyone, of every religion or lack thereof, agrees that killing a person is wrong. If a fetus is a person, then killing it is just as wrong as killing any other person. Bodily integrity arguments are, in this case, irrelevant, because the fetus must then have rights to the integrity of its own body. On the other hand, if a fetus is not a person, then killing it is morally neutral.

I think a large part of the reason why the abortion debate is so contentious is that both sides tend to take for granted their position on the question of personhood, and can’t fully grasp that the other side disagrees on that point. Once you posit that a fetus is a person, then it’s really easy to get from there to “abortion is wrong”, and so the pro-life faction can’t understand why the pro-choicers can’t make that obvious step. And likewise, once you posit that a fetus isn’t a person, it’s really easy to get from there to “abortion should be allowed”, and so the pro-choice faction can’t understand why the pro-lifers can’t make that obvious step.

Actually no few pro-choice people believe that, even if the fetus is a “person,” abortion is still justified, because one person does not have the legal right nor power to take over another person’s body. This is certainly not an universal viewpoint, but it is held by a goodly many.

To the OP, sure: one could believe that the opportunity for life should not be abridged. Lots of atheists are pro-life. You don’t need a religious reason to oppose abortion; you can just believe it is wrong to do.

Just about any viewpoint that you can possibly describe, no matter how “out there,” is probably held by people in significant numbers. I’m amused by the thought of conservatives being pro-choice, because women should have “property rights” to their own bodies, and if the fetus is late with the rent, it can be evicted.

You took the words out of my mouth.

Chronos, the question of personhood is a legal one, not a scientific one. But personhood is irrelevant because I’ve already established that personhood does not negate bodily autonomy in any other instance. You can’t make me give blood because there are actual persons who will die without it. You can’t even take my organs that after my death to keep some other person alive, even if they are related to me.

Sure, you can believe it. But can you logically defend the belief?

Is logic relevant? Abortion is based in part on emotion and in part on pragmatism (as well as other parts). Both those parts can defy logic. Again, I have no answer for you myself; I’m just trying to help you to answer your question yourself.

Is logic relevant to a discussion about an editorial that tries to explain why an atheist might be anti-abortion? You tell me. This thread is about discussing whether the writer’s “logic” for her position on abortion is sound. I don’t think it is. If she’d written an article that basically just said that she simply believes abortion is wrong, I wouldn’t have bothered. It’s fine if you don’t believe you should have an abortion because feelings. But when you try to convince the rest of us that we legislate based on your feelings, I believe we have a problem.

If you don’t have any answers, how are you helping me? You say that abortion is based in part on emotion and in part on pragmatism. How does that differ from what any medical decision is based on? How does it support allowing others to make medical decisions from their own emotions versus those of the pregnant woman’s?

Emotion is an inextricable component of logic and pragmatism – in the real world, outside of mathematics and philosophical wankfests.

The real world shows us that strictly proscribing abortion does not accomplish the stated goal. A woman beset with a dreadful, unwanted pregnancy will seek an out. It will happen, no matter how hard you try to prevent it. And the result is unpredictable. That woman may do just fine, she may end up sterile or otherwise injured, or she may enjoy a drawn-out, horrible demise.

From a pragmatic perspective, proscribing abortion is a terrible idea. It was tried. Women failed to “learn their place”, which has led us to this pass. As far as I am concerned, this Hemant Mehta person is entirely welcome to present her arguments to any pregnant person who is willing to hear them, but arguing for blanket legal proscription is senseless, infeasible and dangerous – unless we can be convinced that a strong patriarchy where all women “know their place” is a desirable thing. That is probably a very hard bar to clear.

I’m a pro-life atheist. It’s not my strongest belief and definitely not one I would base a vote on. To me, the logical start of human life is at conception. I believe it’s lazy, silly and disingenuous that society declares the birth event is the dividing line between the act of murder and a completely legal abortion. I don’t think it should be legal, but I also know it would be impossible and immoral to enforce if it were illegal, so I admit I don’t know how society should deal with it. I support handing out contraceptives that prevent conception like candy. I don’t know how to deal with victims of rape or cases where the baby would have serious health issues. These cases, I admit, keep me from really being confident in my position, but it just doesn’t feel “right” to me a kill a human embryo, but for that act, would become a conscious person.

This is a fair point but it wouldn’t work on many abortion opponents, including myself, since I would gladly agree that abortion should be available when there are serious physical threats to the health of the mother. (All pregnancy carries some physical risk, but I’d be willing to defer to the opinion of doctors when they think there is an unusually elevated risk of medical complications).

And then they proceed from there to argue that they should have the legal right and power to take over another person’s body even more thoroughly. I don’t deny that some people make the argument, but the argument isn’t at all coherent.

Otherwise, bodily autonomy is meaningless then? So I ask, if it’s okay to usurp an individual’s bodily autonomy if it doesn’t significantly elevate risk of physical threat to health for a pregnant person, why does society guarantee bodily autonomy to anyone for any reason?

Again, we all know that sick people need blood transfusions every day and blood donation is benign for most people. There’s a long list of people awaiting organ transplants who could be saved at a small risk to living people and no risk to deceased people. And yet we as a society accept deaths resulting from lack of resources because we don’t mandate that healthy people contribute blood/organs to keep actual legal persons alive with transplants. We even respect the bodily integrity of the deceased and require permission to harvest their organs.

Help me understand why it is so different for a fetus that you are able to justify denying a single segment of society that which all other persons enjoy without question at the grave expense of so many people.

We do worse than that. In the US not giving permission to harvest organs is the default (unlike many countries in Europe) and so the donor rate is low. This is justified by the religious aversion many have about being cut up - and the fear that they will forget to opt out, and then get cup up against their (dead) will.
We’ve had this discussion here. The aversion some people have to changing the default is rather incredible.

What society do you imagine makes any such “declaration”? AFAIK, no existing legal interpretation of reproductive rights in the US requires allowing elective abortions up to the “birth event”, and in fact all US states forbid such abortions. There are no constitutional obstacles to banning late-term elective abortions.

Sure, any time limit to abortion is arbitrary, but so is your proposed “logical start” at the moment of fertilization. For one thing, at the moment of fertilization not even the number of persons the fertilized ovum will eventually grow into is determined. Identical twins, triplets, etc., form from one ovum that splits after it’s commenced cell division. Which twin’s life “started at conception” and which one’s life started when the ovum split?

Yes, it’s kind of awkward and messy to cope with the fact that human development happens as a continuous biological process, not as a set of nice neat clearly divided stages constituting a definite scientific distinction between “non-personhood” and “personhood”. But that’s the way life is. There’s nothing “lazy”, “silly” or “disingenuous” about defining reproductive rights in a way that recognizes that personhood isn’t a simple on-off switch which can be assigned to a particular instant of development.

As far as I know, my “logical start” is still in tact even with your twin/triplet example. It still takes conception to start regardless of the number of beings it produces. Our world requires this sperm/egg to start development of a human, or humans, and I can’t think of a more logical start to human life. This moment really is an on-off switch. I’ll admit I don’t know the studied details of conception and I’m willing to listen to criticism from more informed persons than me on the biology of this moment… I don’t want to cling to an over-simplification as I always want to challenge my beliefs.

The concept of when life begins isn’t limited to either conception or “the birth event”. Historically it was commonly believed that life began at quickening.

If you believe that life begins at conception, therefore abortion is murder, what difference does it make whether the pregnant woman was raped? How does rape justify the murder of a completely different person than the one who committed the crime?

Also, why would the health of the pregnant woman justify the murder of a perfectly healthy other person just because that person happens to reside in the body of a less than healthy woman? Does the child have the right to stay in the womb as long as necessary to ensure its own survival?