Wednesday, February 5, 2014

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

Secular Pro-Life represented at the 2014 March for Life
Many of you have undoubtedly read our first post profiling two individuals who do not believe in God, yet happen to agree with the Church that innocent, unborn human life deserves protection. We have been fortunate to add a third person to that list. Without further ado, here is the second part of our series:

Sarah Terzo is a pro-life liberal who runs Clinic Quotes, which has testimonies from current and former abortionists, women and men's post-abortion stories, and other pro-life information. She is a writer for Live Action, and her articles can be found here. She is also a member of of the LGBT community and is on the board of The Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians. She is a member and guest blogger of the pro-life group Secular Pro-Life. You can reach her on Facebook.

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?

I’ve held the atheist/agnostic position for almost 10 years now. It’s a very long story. I was raised Catholic and was, at one point, very devoted to my faith. In my childhood, I prayed the rosary almost every night, went to Mass every Sunday and sometimes during the week, and at one point even thought of being a nun. But a number of things happened in my life that made me question organized religion and the existence of God. When I was in high school, I became a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of a fellow youth group member. This was around the time that the big scandal within the Catholic Church erupted. I found it very hard to deal with the things that I was reading and hearing about priests molesting children and church cover -ups because I saw myself in every victim. Around this time, one of the people most instrumental in developing my faith was implicated in child molestation and actually admitted to me on the phone that he was guilty. I had a hard time dealing with all these things, and I ended up leaving the Catholic Church because I just didn’t feel I could be a Catholic anymore. My whole faith was shaken.

I went to some Protestant churches but unfortunately continued to have bad experiences. The church I went to in college was a "name and claim it" Pentecostal church. The people there were super-friendly, but then I started showing symptoms of bipolar disorder, something that I’ve struggled with for most of my life. I became extremely depressed and suffered from intense mood swings. My Pentecostal friends prayed over me to heal me, but my depression and mood swings got worse and worse. That also damaged my faith because I couldn’t understand why God wasn’t healing me. I felt like I was sinking into a black pit, my life was a mess, and I was pleading with God to heal me, and he never did. My friends pretty much turned on me, telling me that I must have sin in my life that I wasn’t admitting to which was blocking the healing, or that I didn’t have enough faith and that was why I was not being healed. Finally, I went on antidepressants and mood stabilizers, and things got better — some of the members of my church thought I wasn’t demonstrating enough faith because I was taking the medicine. But I finally "got it" that my illness was caused by a chemical imbalance and not by satanic influence or lack of faith, and I left that church and never looked back. But it was a very hurtful experience and definitely made me more wary of going back to churches. I lost every single friend I made at that church when I left it. None of them wanted to keep in touch; they all thought I was walking away from God and wanted nothing more to do with me. These were people I considered my closest friends, so it was hard.

It was 10 years later that I actually convinced myself to walk through the door of another church, because I felt that I’d been so badly hurt in the churches I had been in. This was a large evangelical church. This was a time when my bipolar disorder was extremely bad, the medications I was on were not working, and I’d recently lost a close friend and was just in a very vulnerable time in my life. I needed counselling and couldn’t afford a counsellor — my health insurance would not pay for one — so I sought counselling through this church. The church counsellor was very nice, but we only met once. I developed suicidal feelings and, in a moment of weakness which I regret, acted on them. I ended up in the hospital. When I got out of the hospital, I was called in for a meeting by the church leaders, who said that they were afraid that if I did succeed at suicide, my family would sue the church. They told me that, therefore, they were stopping my counselling, and they implied that I find another place to worship.

This was basically the end for me and organized religion. Of course, I knew that experiences with Christians that hurt me didn’t mean that God didn’t exist. It just meant that there were bad people out there — but my disillusionment with organized religion led me to do a lot of research on atheism. I read many books about the history of religion and about the Bible. I read a lot of arguments for and against the existence of God, and after studying atheism for months and reading atheist and agnostic books, articles, blog posts, etc., I decided that the evidence for God just didn’t add up and that the Bible was too flawed to be the word of God. So, I was originally driven from Christianity by bad experiences, but in the end, I became a nonbeliever because of the research I did.

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

When I was about 10 or 11, I heard some adults talking about how abortion should be illegal. I asked my mom what abortion was, and she said, "It’s when a woman might have a baby, and she doesn’t want to have a baby. So, she goes to a doctor, and he makes it so she’s not going to have a baby anymore." I don’t know why my mom gave me such a sanitized explanation of abortion. She was a Catholic and didn't believe in it herself, but I guess she thought it was the only answer I could handle at that young age. But there was nothing in her answer that made me think abortion was bad. So, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with abortion. Then, when I was about 14, a friend showed me a photo of an aborted baby. I was so horrified that I became pro-life on the spot, and decided that I really wanted to fight against abortion.

I think young people, who haven’t really heard the propaganda that older people have, are much more easily converted to the pro-life movement by pictures of aborted babies. On my website, I have pictures of aborted babies, with a survey, and I get a lot of responses from teenagers who immediately switch from pro-choice to pro-life, as soon as they see the photos. Adults tend to be more jaded and don’t convert so easily. But anyway, I can point to the moment I became pro-life: It was when I saw that picture. Prior to that, I’d been taught in my church that abortion was wrong, but I never really thought about it much, and though I couldn’t say I was strongly pro-choice, I really didn’t see anything wrong with abortion.

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

I believe in many ways religion has been harmful, because it has led to division within the pro-life movement. There are Protestants who won’t work with Catholics, Catholics who won’t work with Protestants, etc. I think that a lot of atheists and agnostics have been turned off from the pro-life movement by religious rhetoric. I also think a lot of people dismiss pro-life arguments because they assume that all pro-lifers are Christians and think that the only arguments against abortion are religious ones. Pro-lifers haven’t been doing a very good job explaining the scientific evidence against abortion. While you sometimes do see websites talking about fetal development, science teaches very clearly that life begins at conception — all you have to do is read a book on genetics or embryology, and they all say that life begins at conception. Yet most people are unaware of this basic fact — they think that the question of when life begins is a religious one, a philosophical one, and not a scientific one. This is a problem the pro-life movement needs to overcome. I think that the focus on religion has made a lot of people dismiss the pro-life claim without even giving it a chance.

On the other hand, I do think religion in the pro-life movement has had some benefits, and is good in some ways — there are pro-lifers who are inspired by their religion to become pro-life and to fight really hard against abortion. There are pro-lifers who get great emotional support from their churches and from their faith in God, and that helps them endure the challenges of being pro-life. Also, many churches mobilize their youth groups to go on the March for Life, and many priests and pastors spread the pro-life message (though not enough of them) — so there are areas where churches really do a good job, and sometimes religion is good for the pro-life movement. I would say it’s good in some ways and bad in others.

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?

I have, a number of times. When I tried to volunteer at a crisis pregnancy center, there was a place on the application that asked me what I believed about salvation and what church I went to. I didn’t understand why that was on the application, because I couldn’t understand what that had to do with being pro-life. I asked the person at the crisis pregnancy center, and she said that they only accept Christians as volunteers — from the application, it seemed like they only accepted born-again Christians, not even Catholics, because it had questions like "describe your salvation experience," and Catholics don’t really use that terminology or believe that you are saved at one particular point in time. As an experiment, I called a number of other pro-life crisis pregnancy centers and was very disheartened when every single one I called said that the only used Christians as volunteers. It was very discouraging. Here I was with free time and a lot of experience in the pro-life movement wanting to help, and these places were turning me down without even meeting with me, just because I didn’t believe the same way they did. It was disheartening, and it seemed like a waste — I really think I could’ve done good work there.

I also remember listening to a webcast done by 40 Days for Life, in which the person running it opened by saying, "As Christians we know abortion is wrong…" and then went on for a full 15 minutes talking about how Jesus wants us to reclaim the country for Him. I ended up shutting it off. It made me feel so incredibly left out and demoralized. A part of me wanted to just give up on the pro-life movement right then and there, and I’m about as dedicated as you can get, but I felt completely left out. I felt like there was no place in the movement for me, and I almost began questioning my pro-life beliefs — after all, if only religious people were against abortion, maybe I was wrong, and atheists shouldn’t be pro-life. For a few days, I was very deeply troubled and wondering if I could continue my pro-life work. This was shortly after a number of experiences I had on pro-life groups online where people were telling me that I was going to Hell because I was an atheist and that I had no moral compass because I was one, so I couldn’t "really" be pro-life. I got over it in the sense that I remain is just as dedicated to my pro-life beliefs, but I still get a lot of negative feedback for being an atheist in the pro-life movement. It can be very discouraging, and I can definitely see how someone with a weaker commitment could be driven right out of the movement. I think that happens very frequently.

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?

I have had a few atheists online make negative comments to me about my pro-life stand; a number of them have said, "How can you be pro-life and be an atheist? Isn't that a religious thing?" No one has been obnoxious or nasty, but people have definitely had a hard time understanding it sometimes. One article on an atheist blog that mentioned me and my pro-life work said that I had fallen victim to religious teachings and rhetoric. The writer of the blog, who was obviously an atheist himself, questioned whether I was really an atheist. People tend to think that only religious people oppose abortion, and atheists have a hard time understanding why some are pro-life without having a religious commitment.

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

When I talk to people online who support abortion and they tell me about how it should be legal because of rape, I tell them that Planned Parenthood’s own research shows that only 1 percent of abortions are done because of rape — and I asked them if they’re willing to ban the other 99 percent if I was willing to allow abortion for the 1 percent. That takes the wind out of their sails, because it exposes the fact that the rape argument is only a smokescreen — they wouldn’t agree to criminalize abortion except for rape — they’re really for abortion on demand. Anyway, that’s how I turn it around. I’ve never had a person persist after that, but if they did, I would direct them to the book Victims and Victors by Amy Sobie, David Reardon, and Julie Makimaa where the authors did a study on rape and pregnancy where they interviewed over 100 women, and they discovered that not one single woman who gave birth regretted it, whereas many women who had abortions regretted them. The book has many testimonies from rape victims, and it’s very powerful. I would recommend that all pro-lifers read this book; it will really challenge you if you support a rape exception. I’m also friends with several people who were conceived in rape, and I might direct them to their websites. It’s hard to look at someone and say, "You should’ve been killed as a baby." It humanizes the babies that have been conceived by rape.

As for fetal anomalies, I talk about how the disabled have the right to live just like people without disabilities and that no one has the right to tell another person his or her life is not worth living, whether inside the womb or out of it. I talk about my friends who are disabled, and I talk about myself (I have rheumatoid arthritis as well as several other disorders, and walk with a cane) and how we would never have wanted someone to decide that our lives were not worth living. I tell them about disabled people who’ve done great things, like Andrea Bocelli, who is blind but has the most beautiful voice in the world, and other examples.

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

Absolutely not. Science teaches that life begins at conception; it’s a conclusion of science, not a religious belief. Scientists agree that when the sperm and the egg unite, a new, unique individual is born who has his or her own DNA (I say him or her, because sex is determined at conception, through the chromosomes). The embryo only needs a safe place to develop, and it will grow into a fetus, a baby, a child, and then adult. It is a continuum of life from conception. Neither the sperm nor the egg has full human DNA; the DNA of the baby/embryo is unique and therefore it is not part of the mother’s body. It grows and develops, so obviously it is alive. It is human and alive, ergo, human life, and therefore it deserves protection. On my website, by the way, I have many quotes from medical textbooks and scientists about this — you can read them here.

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

I strongly disagree with the death penalty, and I think that it really does damage the credibility of the pro-life movement. People can’t understand why pro-lifers want to protect embryos that are only a few cells, yet support executions of fully developed humans. A lot of people, pro-choicers, use that argument against pro-lifers. So, yes, to a certain extent, I believe it weakens the pro-life argument. Of course, the hypocrisy of pro-choicers who support abortion but oppose executing criminals is even more blatant. I can see the argument that pro-death penalty pro-lifers (you can see what an oxymoron it sounds like) make that only innocent life should be protected, and that murderers have forfeited their right to life because they are not innocent — and I can see the logic behind that argument although I disagree with it, but I think a lot of people outside the pro-life movement don’t get it.

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!

I would say that it’s good to have diversity in the pro-life movement — there’s room for everybody from fundamentalist Christians to gays and lesbians. I would encourage you to be open to working with people who are different. The pro-life movement needs to reach more people than just Catholics and Protestant Christians. Try to use inclusive language. I told you how I was so disheartened by the 40 Days for Life webcast, to the point where I actually turned it off without listening to the whole thing. If they had just said something along the lines of, "We know that there are people listening in who are not Christians, and we are glad to have them joining us, but right now, I would like to talk to the Christians listening, and we’d like to say a prayer." Something that simple, just being inclusive, I think it would have made a big difference. Christian pro-lifers don’t have to stop talking about religion — no one would want them to hide the fact that they are Christians, when that’s an important part of who they are — but there are things you can do and say to make non-Christians feel more welcome in the movement. Using more inclusive language is one.

Editor's Note: This interview was conducted via email and was edited only for grammar and punctuation, not content.

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1 comment:

  1. This is a very interesting post. I (a staunch Catholic) feel that the pro life movement really needs the secular voice to reach a largely secular society. I am also sorry that you have been on the receiving end of "friendly fire". I do wish those of us within the pro life movement would just let the various strands get on with whatever ministry/focus each thinks appropriate without sniping at each other.