As one who is passionately pro-life and always has been, I’ve never seen it as a necessity, nor even good practice, to begin the defense of life from theological grounds (unless you believe in God, what use is it to tell somebody what God thinks?). Science and philosophy are adequate enough to show that the fetus is a life and that personhood is established at conception. And because of this, I cannot help but support the bigger movement, religious or non-religious, for life.
I recently asked the Secular Pro Life organization (www.secularprolife.org), a leading group of secular advocates against abortion, for the opportunity to ask a few questions about who they are and what they stand for. Read on and support their movement.
#1) It’s often assumed, I think, within culture that the pro-life position is solely a religious one. The consequence is that many people tend to equate pro-life with conservative religious movements and pro-choice with secularism. You apparently don’t see things this way. Why do you think this is the case? Also, how broad is the secular pro-life movement as you’ve discovered?
A: People certainly do associate the pro-life movement with religion, and that’s by design. The co-founder of NARAL, Dr. Bernard Nathanson, later became pro-life and divulged some of the early abortion movement’s tactics. Making abortion a “religious issue” was one of them. The media went along with it, and there you are. To some degree it became a self-fulfilling prophecy, with people using abortion as a proxy for larger worldviews. It got to the point where many people don’t even hear the pro-life argument because they assume it’s Christian and therefore inapplicable to them. But of course, the real world is complex. There are many non-religious abortion opponents (roughly one fifth of people with no religious affiliation identify as pro-life, not counting the many casual/non-devout theists who are pro-life for secular reasons), and there are many religious abortion supporters.
#2) What has been the biggest difficulty for your organization in conveying your purpose to other secular people? What about conveying it to religious people?
A: Both religious and non-religious people understand our purpose: the real issue is whether or not they agree with it! The reactions have run the gamut. We went to an American Atheists conference, where we had a lot of thoughtful discussions with people who had never heard the pro-life case without all the religious attachments and who were genuinely interested; others were already pro-life and thrilled to see an organization for them; and then we had a few who were staunchly pro-abortion and angered by our very presence there. On the religious side, mostly the reaction has been positive. An exception occurred the other day, when someone commented on an online article about us to express her concern that Satan was introducing secular elements in order to destroy the pro-life movement from within. I can’t do much about that kind of attitude, except perhaps to point out that if I had made a deal with the devil, I would be much wealthier.
#3) It seems to be definitively true scientifically, despite some popular misunderstandings, that abortion does end a life. Medical professionals across the board are universally agreed that “life begins at conception.” It seems, then, that the great question is personhood. What would you say to someone who suggests that personhood develops at a later point in time and that killing the biological human is itself fairly irrelevant to the issue? Others still agree that “personhood” is an apt term but defend a pro-choice position based on a placement of liberty and freedom of choice over and against the life of the child. What would your response be?
A: I always point out that the idea of “personhood” separated from the idea of biological humanity is incredibly dangerous. Over and over again in history, “personhood” has been used to justify the worst abuses against defenseless populations. Personhood is an extremely subjective standard; indeed, I don’t even think a majority of pro-choicers agree on how it is defined and when in life it appears. And the criteria they propose (independence, consciousness, etc.) would wreak havoc for infants, the elderly, and persons with disabilities if applied consistently. As for those who admit that the unborn are persons but support abortion anyway, generally this is based on a belief that pro-lifers are anti-woman and that abortion is necessary for gender equality. In such situations, it’s good to highlight the great work pro-lifers do to help mothers in need.
#4) Define what you mean by “secularism.” A lot of people read into this “atheist” in which case your movement could be synonymous with “atheistic pro-lifers.” But I suspect that’s too simple…In what way is this “secular?”
A: “Secular” simply means the absence of any supernatural element. We make the pro-life case without reference to any sacred text or higher power. Secular Pro-Life has essentially become the gathering place for pro-lifers who do not identify with the Religious Right. As a practical matter, that means a lot of our members are atheists and agnostics. But we also get more liberal Christians, and adherents of minority religions (Mormons, Muslims, pagans, etc.). We’re one big happy family!
#5) How do you think religious pro-life individuals and secular pro-life individuals might work together for the ultimate cause of life?
A: I think we can work together on almost everything. Non-Christians aren’t going to join prayer vigils, of course, and some faith-based groups won’t accept non-Christian volunteers. But with those exceptions, most of what the pro-life movement is doing is already secular in nature. Helping needing families, working to pass pro-life legislation, adopting children, making the case for life among our friends– these are all things that any pro-lifer can and should do.