Monday, January 20, 2014

Pro-Life and Atheist: The Secular Case for the Unborn

It should come as no surprise that the official editorial position of Unpleasant Accents is a Catholic one. Our contributors are all pro-life and all Catholic (Yours Truly, as an Anglo-Catholic, filling our heretic quota). The Roman Catholic Church's opposition to abortion is well-known. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person — among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being of life." Indeed, as early as the last first century, we have evidence of Christian opposition to abortion in the Didache, one of the earliest extant extrabiblical texts, which lists abortion amongst sins such as theft, murder and adultery.

The Church's witness for life has been both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing in that her advocacy for the protection of all life, from conception until natural death, is unrivalled by any other organisation — religious or secular — in terms of the sheer amount of investment she has placed in hospitals, orphanages and other social services. It is a curse, however, in that in our increasingly irreligious age, it is more difficult for faith-based groups to argue for their values without being dismissed by their opponents as merely regurgitating dogma, rather than contributing a legitimate point of view. This is where the subjects of our post come in.

A solid majority of atheists and other unaffiliated Americans (and admittedly, a substantial number of Catholics) support legal abortion. As a result, the de facto atheist position on abortion is presumed to be "pro-choice", contra the Church's pro-life stance. The forty-first anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision which struck down anti-abortion laws nationwide, is this Wednesday and coincides with the annual March for Life. With this in mind, we were fortunate enough to discuss this issue with those who happen to agree with the Church's support for the unborn, yet profess no belief in God:

Matthew DesOrmeaux is a husband, a father, an atheist, a libertarian, a Republican, a Texan, an employee, a business owner, a gamer, a nerd, and an introvert. He blogs for United Liberty and at his own site, Cynicus Prime.

Kristine Kruszelnicki is a pro-life atheist and the founder of Pro-Life Humanists. Since 2012, she has brought a pro-life presence to atheist conferences and events, including a formal debate against Atheist Experience host Matt Dillahunty at the Texas Freethought Convention of 2012. Her goal is to raise $12,000 to send a team of pro-life atheists to four major secular conferences this year.

First, let's address the elephant in the room. How did you come to atheism? Were you raised in a particular faith, or were you always a non-believer?

MD: I grew up in various Christian churches with my family and even went to Catholic school until fifth grade. I went away to school early as a junior in high school at an advanced public school in Louisiana, and though I kept attending church there and back at home until I was about 20, I gradually drifted away from the Church. I started thinking through the inherent contradictions in the modern Christian faith and realized it just didn't add up for me. I know faith is supposed to be enough to fill in the blanks, but it just never satisfied me.

KK: I was raised in a conservative evangelical home in which church attendance several times per week was a staple of my life from infancy through to adulthood. I asked Jesus into my heart almost every night (just in case I hadn't believed enough to get saved the previous hundred times), I attended Christian school, went to Christian summer camp, socialized primarily through church youth groups, and as a young adult did short-term summer missionary projects with ministries like Child Evangelism Fellowship and Campus Crusade for Christ. 

I abandoned faith in part because my studies of the Biblical texts (comparing the explanations of apologetics like William Lane Craig to the writings of Biblical scholars like Bart Ehrman) left me with more questions than answers or evidence, and I saw no point in maintaining faith for the sake of faith. So, my Christian pro-life friends, when you meet me at a pro-life event, please don't assume I'm an atheist because I haven't heard the Gospel yet. I've heard it, read it, memorized it, preached it — and eventually rejected it! I haven't signed up to be your evangelism project — I'm just here to save human lives! 

How did you come to the pro-life position? Were you ever in favour of abortion?

MD: My family was never politically active, but we were always religious, so the pro-life position was always the default one. We never discussed abortion that I recall, so my position on it wasn't fully informed. It wasn't until after I decided I was libertarian that I really thought through the issue and happened to maintain my pro-life position.

KK: My first encounter with abortion came through reading the story of Gianna Jessen when I was a teen. As a girl my age who lived with cerebral palsy on account of having survived a saline abortion, Gianna put a human face to the millions of fetuses aborted every year — the countless who don't survive. I empathized with these youngest of humans who were denied the lives they would have lived, and I saw their termination as a human injustice on par with the killing of any older human being. By the time pro-life leader Scott Klusendorf had trained my friends and I on the importance of using secular arguments with secular people, I was already learning to be a Socratic critical thinker on the issue of abortion — a habit I carried into my atheism.

Do you believe religion has been helpful or harmful to the pro-life movement, or somewhere in between?

MD: Given that polls consistently show the country trending gradually more pro-life over the last couple decades, and that religious groups have been the only visible pro-life forces, I can't say they've done a bad job of it by the numbers. I think adding more vocal non-religious voices to that support can only help the cause.

KK: Abortion hasn't always been a religious issue. If you look into the history of the pro-life movement you'll find that it began as a human rights issue and that leaders of the movement intentionally steered away from segregating the position as a religious one. Gradually, however, the movement allowed pro-choice opponents to paint them into a religious box, and I believe the effect has been detrimental. One hears "pro-life" and immediately thinks "religion". As a result, many who aren't religious feel justified in throwing the unborn baby out with the baptismal water and in shutting down all debate with a slogan about keeping rosaries off ovaries. 

I'm glad religious people have cared for their unborn neighbours when the rest of the world ignored their plight. In fact, Christians who fail to actively care for the unborn put their faith to shame, since their Christ said that whatever is done for "the least of these" was in fact being done onto Him. It is right to love the weak, whether one is compelled by humanism or by Christian conscience. Of course, if that translates to an ineffectual presentation of the pro-life message, many of the least of these will die as the message goes unheard.

Traditionally, the pro-life movement has been associated almost exclusively with Christian activism. Have you ever personally experienced negativity from fellow pro-lifers because you are an atheist?

MD: I've been fortunate to receive very little negativity for my views so far. I get lots of questions, confused looks, and intense debate, as all who engage in political debates do, but other than the occasional Internet troll, I've found almost no overt hostility.

KK: I've been trying to work full-time in the pro-life movement for over a decade now. I've been told on numerous occasions by organizations who enjoy my secular work on a volunteer basis that they will not officially hire someone who is not a Christian. I've recently launched my own organization, Pro-Life Humanists, in an attempt to have a group with which to eventually pursue full-time pro-life activism. I must struggle to raise up an entirely new group before I can even begin to raise support and invest the time into doing full-time work! 

I've also faced much backlash from Christians who believe evangelism and pro-life work are one and the same and that abortion will only end when all people become saved. They clearly ignore the reality revealed by Planned Parenthood's own research arm that 1 in 5 women identifies as a born-again Christian, while Catholics are aborting at the same rate as secular women. 

I've tried to encourage some groups to make their marches and public events less religious. I've been told: "If atheists and other religious groups don't like all the Christian worship songs at our pro-life marches, they're free to hold their own marches." It's baffles me that Christians can work hand-in-hand with all stripes of people to help the hungry, rescue quake victims in Haiti, or build habitats for humanity, but somehow when it comes to saving prenatal children from unjust extermination, they just can't share a wheelbarrow with anyone outside their creed.

Additionally, most atheists support legal abortion, and many dismiss the pro-life position as one of faith, not reason. Have you ever personally experienced negativity from fellow atheists due to your pro-life stance?

MD: Not only do most atheists support abortion, but most libertarians (especially Libertarians, members of the official party, which I am not) do as well. So, most of the debate opponents I find are from these groups; though as I said, that opposition has almost never grown into animus. 

KK: I brought a pro-life information table to the American Atheist Convention in 2012, with the help of some friends from Secular Pro-Life. Many accused us of being "fake atheists" or "lying about our atheism" and demanded to know what church was funding us. As I have remained an active participant in the atheist community, many are now beginning to adjust to the idea that one can be atheist and pro-life. Key leaders at the last American Humanist convention I attended actually sat down with me and asked me to tell them my secular arguments against abortion!

How do you argue against "hard case" abortions (e.g. rape, incest, gross foetal anomalies, etc.) to fellow atheists?

MD: I argue my position to atheists the same as I do to anyone else. While it may be politically incorrect to oppose the now-assumed exclusions of rape, incest, and health, I don't think it is anyone's right, even a mother's, to end the life of a child at any point.

KK: When addressing any hard case, the key thing I try to remember is to never use the word "but". The moment you say, "Yeah, I agree that's hard, but..." you've entirely ignored their concern. Start by agreeing that rape is a horrendous act. A woman is unjustly violated, and it's even less fair if she ends up with another life dependent on her through no choice or act of her own! Agree with them that the rapist is an evil man who deserves to be punished harshly with hard labour. Then, ask a simple question that contrasts the rapist with the fetus: "Do you think it's fair that in a society that doesn't give the death penalty to the rapist, that the rapist's child should be given the death penalty?"

We always want to give an answer that doesn't ignore the woman or focus solely on the fetus. There are two valuable human victims in a rape resulting in pregnancy, and we want to emphasize that there are better ways of helping a traumatized woman than giving her license to kill an innocent third party.

What is your rationale for opposing early-term abortions? Isn't assigning personhood so long before viability an article of faith?

MD: Fortunately, science and technology are on my side here. We think of a certain pre-term age as "viable", but babies are constantly being born and survive younger than we ever thought possible with the aid of machines and intensive medical care. Assigning an arbitrary age of viability is at this point just daring technology to prove you wrong. Not only that, but scientific studies keep finding more and more aspects of "personhood" at earlier and earlier pre-term ages, whether it's the feeling of pain, in-utero social interaction among twins, or mental activity. It's quickly becoming the pro-abortion position that is one of faith.

KK: Personhood is a philosophical concept, not a religious one. Societies have granted and denied personhood to real human beings all across the millennia — from native Indians, to black individuals, to women, to Jews. What we do know about the early fetus prior to viability is that they are biologically whole human entities from the time they come into existence. Viability doesn't change what they are; it merely speaks to how developed they are and how old they are. Embryos and early fetuses can't survive outside the womb not because they are not human beings, but simply because very young human beings are more dependent and vulnerable than older human beings and therefore require a more protected living environment. Equality, not faith, is what is required for the assignment of personhood to all members of our species. 

Do you believe those who oppose abortion yet support capital punishment undermine the pro-life movement?

MD: While on its face the two positions seem contradictory, the obvious difference is guilt versus innocence. Our government permits capital punishment because we have judged the person receiving the penalty to have committed a crime so heinous that the offender cannot be rehabilitated and no longer deserves to live. Logically, there can be no such judgment against unborn children.

KK: I understand why some who oppose the destruction of an innocent human being would have a different standard when it comes to the punishment of a known criminal. I personally oppose the death penalty, in part because innocent men have been put to death, in part because a life of ongoing imprisonment strikes me as a better and longer lasting punishment than a quick and easy death today. 

As a rule, I do think that pro-lifers would do well to steer clear of divisive non-abortion issues, like the death penalty and voluntary assisted suicide (not to be confused with euthanasia which is involuntary, like abortion), or at least to not fight them under the same banner. A strong anti-abortion movement is bound to be more effective than one that's constantly dividing forces over religion and other remotely related issues.

Do you have anything else you would like to say to our readers, which we have not yet addressed? Thank you very much for your time!

MD: It frustrates me to see the pro-life position assumed to be one of faith, not reason. Even more frustrating when this assumption is made by both sides of the debate, not just the opposition. I hope it becomes clearer to everyone involved that we can't rely on these assumptions anymore. Reason and facts are the best tools in any debate, and they're on our side.

Thanks for this opportunity. It really is an honor to be able to make my case and tell my story.

KK: I understand that opposition to abortion fits nicely with the pro-family paradigm of Christianity. But there's more than one paradigm that allows for the protection of unborn lives. One can be sexually active outside of marriage and still choose life for an unplanned child — if we have done our job in emphasizing their humanity. One can use contraception and become a parent if the condom breaks — if we have made abortion unthinkable. One can even have homosexual sex, just as one can have infertile sex as a married elderly couple, and still not be contributing to a so-called "abortion mentality". Mixing our issues, dividing forces between religious and non-religious facets — all of this clouds the mission of saving prenatal children from unjust dismemberment. If we can all work together in Haiti, there's no reason we can't all work together to make a better world for women and their unborn offspring.

Editor's Note: All interviews were conducted via email and were edited only for grammar and punctuation, not content. Pictures courtesy of Secular Pro-Life and Pro-Life Humanists, respectively.

Secular Pro-Life Resources:

Pro-Life Humanists (Facebook, Twitter)

Secular Pro-Life (Facebook, Twitter)

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