by Kelsey Hazzard
As the president of Secular Pro-Life, I have been asked to present the non-religious case against abortion. But actually, you’ve probably heard it already. Many people who hear the secular arguments against abortion simply fail to recognize them as secular, because they expect pro-life apologetics to have a religious source. Expectations powerfully color the way we see reality. Discard these expectations, however, and you will soon find that most arguments against abortion do not require the existence of a god.
We start from a premise that is shared by many religions and by secular humanism: the lives of human individuals are exceedingly valuable. A religious person might express this concept as the “sanctity” of life, while a secular person might refer to the possession of fundamental human rights. The core value judgment is the same.
We also make a factual assertion that human individuals begin their lives inside the womb, when sperm meets egg. I began my life as a single-celled zygote; so did you. The scientific consensus on this point is overwhelming. Frankly, denying that life begins at conception is on par with denying the theory of natural selection; the evidence is that strong. And what’s more, the leaders of the abortion rights movement know it. While some rank-and-file abortion advocates will insist that the unborn aren’t alive, or are mere “blobs of tissue,” you will not hear such ignorance from the heads of abortion advocacy groups. Nor will you hear it from abortion doctors. Intellectually honest people on both sides agree that abortion kills a living human individual.
The question raised by abortion is whether the living unborn human being is part of the human community, deserving of rights like older humans; or whether living unborn human beings should be treated differently, as objects rather than as persons.
Abortion supporters have suggested various justifications for the latter approach. None are convincing. In every case, a consistent application of the justification would allow the killing of some human beings outside the womb.
The most common justification for abortion is that unborn children are unconscious, at least in the early stages of pregnancy when most abortions are done. Of course, you are unconscious every night when you go to sleep. People who use this argument do not actually believe that the right to life depends on consciousness. Probe more carefully, and they will clarify that they feel the right to life depends on an inherent capacity for consciousness. But don’t unborn children have that capacity? Consider a woman in a coma, who is expected to come out of the coma in a few months. Is the unborn child’s situation appreciably different? In both cases, consciousness is not present in the moment—there is only a potential for consciousness. If that is a good enough justification for killing a child in the womb, and we’re going to be consistent, then the comatose woman is also a non-person who can be killed “on demand and without apology.” That can’t be right.
Another common abortion argument is the appeal to bodily autonomy; we’ve all heard the saying “my body, my choice.” This is sometimes articulated as a belief that in order to have rights, you must not be dependent upon another body for survival. But as with the consciousness argument, a consistent application of this rule would threaten rights of some born persons.
Other times, the bodily autonomy argument is expressed in terms of consent; you cannot use another person’s body without their permission, and if a woman does not want to be pregnant, the fetus does not have that permission. If the only way to stop the fetus’ use of its mother’s body is to kill it, so be it.
That argument misses an important point: except in rape situations, the mother had a role in causing the unborn baby’s dependence in the first place. In that light, it seems unfair to revoke consent—especially when doing so will kill someone!
When pro-lifers make this point, we are usually accused of being anti-sex and using pregnancy as a “punishment.” That’s untrue. It’s like saying that if you oppose drunk driving, you’re anti-beer! Have your fun—just don’t put the lives of others at risk.
Next, we have the argument that abortion is necessary to promote women’s health. If abortion is not available on request, they say, women would rather risk harm themselves than allow their child to live. In support of this theory, they point to the “bad old days of back-alley abortion,” when tens of thousands of women died annually. This argument is powerful because it appeals to the same value that the pro-life movement does: a desire to save human lives. The problem is that the women’s health argument has no basis in fact.
In the late 1960s, Dr. Bernard Nathanson co-founded the National Association for Repeal of Abortion Law, which now goes by the name NARAL Pro-Choice America. Nathanson was an abortionist. An atheist, he became pro-life when improved ultrasound technology convinced him of the humanity of the unborn child. (He converted to Catholicism in his old age, and died in 2011.) During his years as a pro-life atheist, he shared his insights into the early abortion movement—in particular, the messaging it used to shape the abortion debate. One key tactic was to conjure abortion statistics out of thin air. In Aborting America, Nathanson wrote:
It was always “5,000 to 10,000 deaths a year.” I confess that I knew the figures were totally false, and I suppose the others did too if they stopped to think of it. But in the “morality” of our revolution, it was a useful figure, widely accepted, so why go out of our way to correct it with honest statistics?
So what are the actual numbers? According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 39 women died from illegal abortions in 1972, the year before Roe v. Wade. Maternal deaths from abortion haven’t been in the thousands since the 1930s, before the advent of antibiotics! For perspective, the CDC reports that 12 women died in legal abortions in 2009; that number is almost certainly low, because many states (notably California) do not report to the CDC.