Atheists’ hugely lopsided support for choice is a simple reflection that opposition to abortion is inherently a religious position, just like creationism or opposition to LGBT rights. Anti-choice ideology is founded on the belief that a single-celled zygote possesses a supernatural appendage called a soul that makes it the moral equal of an adult human.
Still, it’s hard to recall a worse time for reproductive choice in an increasingly secular America. In the wake of deceptively edited “sting” videos purporting to show Planned Parenthood selling fetal tissue for profit, multiple state investigations have cleared the reproductive health provider of any wrongdoing – yet congressional Republicans threatened to shut down the government anyway to punish them. Then they summoned the group’s president, Cecile Richards, for hectoring, accusatory questions as if her organization had been caught doing something illegal or unethical and not providing women with legal abortions.
Meanwhile, religious hospitals, especially Catholic ones, are gobbling up their secular counterparts and then imposing bishop-decreed restrictions on abortion care and birth control. Conservative, limited-government Republicans (particularly John Kasich, the alleged moderate) continue to enact Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (Trap laws), legislation cynically designed to be impossible with which to comply, so that clinics will be forced to close. And when none of those tactics work, there’s straightforward terrorism: Planned Parenthood clinics in Washington, California and elsewhere have been targeted by arson attacks.
It may seem hard to imagine what could change this gloomy picture – but, despite atheism’s public image as a male-dominated and too-often obliviously sexist community, atheists are getting active in the fight to preserve women’s reproductive choice.
The Satanic Temple – an atheist group, despite the cheeky name – has hit on the brilliant strategy of citing their religious liberty under the Hobby Lobby ruling to allow patients and doctors to ignore burdensome regulations on abortion care. Their first test case is still pending in the courts. (I really want to see religious conservatives try to explain why this shouldn’t work.)
We atheists can use growing clout to beat evangelicals at their own political game | Adam Lee
Meanwhile, American Atheists is attacking the problem on another front: they’ve announced a lobbying push for a “Right to Know Act” that would require healthcare providers to clearly state in advance which medical procedures they won’t perform – shockingly, this wasn’t already required by the law. While this won’t solve the problem of religious takeovers of hospitals and clinics, it will help people make better choices when they have those options. The Secular Coalition for America has also advocated to permanently end the global gag rule that bans US-funded overseas non-governmental organizations from even mentioning abortion. Atheists for Human Rights offers direct grants to help pay for abortion, and Secular Woman has an “Abort Theocracy” campaign.
The increase in pro-choice activity by atheists reflects wider demographics: the non-religious are by far the most pro-choice demographic in America. According to Gallup:
Americans with no religious attachment (self-identified atheists, agnostics, and those with simply no religious preference) identify as pro-choice by a 49-percentage-point margin over pro-life, 68% to 19%. This represents the strongest propensity toward the pro-choice position of any major U.S. demographic (as distinct from political) subgroup.
Given the increasing political power of the non-religious, our support for reproductive rights has obvious political implications. As secular millennials become a larger and larger part of the electorate, right-wing religious groups fixated on identifying themselves as anti-abortion above all else will see their power dwindle.
Non-believers have a long history of supporting choice, from the 1973 Humanist Manifesto which declares, “The right to birth control, abortion, and divorce should be recognized”, to individual activists like Anne Nicol Gaylor who fought both for secularism and for choice. Now more than ever, that’s a legacy that atheists should be proud to uphold.
"Why Do You Care?"
Many people think that opposition to abortion is a religious stance, and for many people this is true. For me it is not. I decided when I was thirteen that I was both an atheist and prolife. I became an atheist because I had no belief in a spiritual reality. I became prolife because my biology class taught a section about the development of the human embryo and fetus. I saw a human life as beginning at conception and stretching in one continuum until the death of that being. I saw that the inclusion of a child into society after birth (but not before) was nothing but a human convention.
When I attended college and studied anthropology, I saw this convention as part of a larger phenomenon: the practice of defining who is and who is not human. This practice is found in all cultures and though the choice of outcast is variable, it seems inevitable that someone who is biologically human will be excluded from the social definition of humanity. It is commonly known that those who are excluded are treated in ways that would be considered unthinkable otherwise. I suspect that this tendency is a perpetual weed in the garden of human society. I am not saying that this weed cannot be removed, but people who care will probably have to spend their Saturdays well into eternity walking out in their overalls to hoe if they want to keep it from choking out everything else in the garden.
It has been a constant surprise to me that other prolifers view me with distaste or distrust because of my atheism. I once attended a demonstration where my companion and I were watched suspiciously after we chose not to participate in a prayer session. "Why do you care?" both religious and non-religious people ask me. "Why should you feel that life is precious if you feel that life is meaningless and without divine purpose?" In all honesty, I can say that I have a completely rational explanation for this. I simply know that I am horrified by violence and I fail to see the long-term efficacy of violent means.
Possibly, the root of my reaction against abortion is one of self-interest and of self-identification. Aren't there many in this world who see me as less than human because I am a woman? Aren't there people who would deem me to be politically, socially, or ideologically "degenerate" and "undesirable" because of my atheism, bisexuality, desire not to be a mother, pacifism, or other personal characteristics? How can I demand my inclusion in humanity and yet deny humanity to another? What kind of gamble would I be taking if I allowed a dehumanizing custom to persist in my society without questioning it? If I tolerate the redefinition of what is human according to someone's desire for power and control, don't I make myself vulnerable to someone's determination that I am not worthy of the designation "human"?
This Is Not an Essay
This is not an essay, and my reasons for this are almost as important to me as are my reasons for being prolife. This is not an essay because I cannot present my thoughts in a linear fashion. They do not form that way. I fear adjusting them into the pattern of an argument because I do not want to warp my ideas into something they are not merely for the sake of being more coherent or compelling. I do not even wish to be compelling. That is, if I am compelling, I want to be so because someone else can connect directly with something I express, not because I have used rhetorical tricks. I wish to develop the genuine art of communication, which involves listening as much as it does speaking. Most essays are meant to travel in one direction solely: outwards. How can I hope to ever be an artist (or a pacifist, or a decent human being) if I do not fight the message inherent in the genre of persuasive writing?
I have always worked within a sales environment and so I have an intimate knowledge of all the techniques used to manipulate someone into doing something they would not do otherwise. Because these sales methods are highly successful, they are broadly applied throughout the world and for a variety of ends. I have seen salespeople hawking cars, insurance, lawn care, food, religion, politics, and morality in precisely the same way. Some of the practitioners even acknowledge this fact. Take as an example the salesperson who says, "I spoke the truth to her," or "I made him believe," in comparison to the proselytizer who approaches converts in the same manner that he or she once approached potential customers.
While I admit that these methods are practical and successful, I still think that there is something intrinsically immoral about pressuring someone into denying his or her own view of the world in favor of your own. Furthermore, I believe that the treatment of ideas as merchandise does irreparable damage to the ideas themselves. In order to sell, one must package. Successful marketing means simplification because complex thought is difficult to relate. All inconsistencies must be eliminated even if it means losing the original spirit of one's ethical impulse. Complexity opens oneself up to question, to debate, to internal contradictions. A salesperson cannot tolerate this kind of vulnerability because it causes inefficiency in the transmission of ideas.
This is not an essay, because I think the genre of rhetoric has done much to unnecessarily polarize the debate over abortion. Rhetoric seeks to deny the importance or even the reality of another's perspective. Rhetoric is a dehumanizing tool used to gain power. It is hard to set rhetoric aside because abortion is at the crux of many emotionally charged issues. People want the upper hand in advocating their point of view because this is a topic that deals with large themes: life and death, freedom and pain, and society's uncertainty about what rights to accord the weak and unprotected. But for all its usefulness, rhetoric sets those who differ in opinion into irreconcilable opposition. In the process, we lose too much that is vital.
When I was younger I sought to construct ironclad arguments by which I could change minds. This led to arguments, which caused a great deal of anger and frustration. I once had a violent argument over dinner with a friend of mine who was a vegetarian, which I was not at the time. How could she champion the rights of animals and yet claim to be proabortion? She countered by asking how I could champion the rights of humans and yet deny those of animals (a question that stuck with me for years until I saw the sense in it and gave up meat myself). The argument escalated childishly into a shouting match and I ended up walking away after delivering some petty parting shot which made us both burst into tears. Fortunately, my friend followed me outside and screamed at me to stop. I suddenly thought to myself, "Am I really going to ruin a good friendship because of some idea?" This was the first time in my life that I really believed in the superiority of human relationship over abstract principle. Did I have to stop loving her just because she wouldn't agree with me? This seems terribly obvious now, but to me then it was a forceful revelation.
Since senseless fights were not the effect I wished to have, I decided to let the matter rest for awhile until I could discuss the subject without creating conflict. Years later, I learned how to explain my thoughts on abortion to my friends. I invited their opinions in comparison. We explored points of agreement and difference. Once I was able to talk in this easy manner, I found that my ideas were free to evolve. I was getting somewhere. And so were my friends. Instead of trading ideological products, we were constructing areas of agreement within which we could work on our differences.
I had a friend who was for many years proabortion. I was able to talk about the issue calmly with her. I never expected her to agree with me and she never expected me to agree with her. However, we were friends and so why shouldn't we discuss such an important and relevant issue? One summer, a robin nested in a hanging basket on her balcony. She was constantly worried about her "babies." Would they hatch out all right, would the apartment cats get them, would they fall prematurely out of the basket? While voicing her concerns to her boyfriend, he imagined the horrified robin parents during a windstorm forecast for that evening losing egg after egg to the concrete balcony. "Splat! Tweet! Splat! Tweet!" he joked. "That's not funny," she retorted. "Why not?" he asked mildly, "They're just eggs." "No," my friend replied, "They're babies. Oh!" My friend told me the next day that that "Oh!" signified her sudden realization that she no longer agreed with abortion. Abortion too involved babies.
Did my friend go out and become a prolife advocate in her community? Did she try to spread her convictions to everyone that she knew? No. She did nothing of the sort. But I don't think that she would ever have an abortion either, and that to me is the fact of real importance. It also showed me how a determination not to promote an idea allowed it to prosper, where the opposite behavior would only have caused it to wither away.
Theory That Becomes Grotesque
I think that it is important to admit that those who serve their theories too well or too closely can commit grotesque acts. After I informed my husband that I would be hesitant to hasten his death should he ever have a terminal illness, he related to me this chilling fantasy: he is involved in an accident that leaves him paralyzed and on a respirator. His existence of pain, misery, and bouts with insanity are only punctuated by my visits to the hospital bed where I intone happily, "Life is good, sweetheart! Life is good!" I cannot deny the horror of this scene and yet I also cannot deny the horror I experience at the thought of being asked to end the life of a loved one.
This reveals a fault that runs through my life ethic, a crack into which some situations fall. I could insist upon the basic validity of my theory and ignore the grotesquerie, but I am afraid that inattention will only exacerbate any twistedness, not diminish it. So I must learn to reconcile myself to these faults, exploring them to see if they can lead me to a deeper understanding of my ethics. And I must admit them.
Experiences That Are Ignored Because They Ruin a Good Argument
I have known many women who have had crisis pregnancies. Some of them have chosen to carry their children to term and others have chosen to abort. What I have observed is that on one side of the abortion debate or another, the suffering these women have endured has been denied or ignored because it threatens the coherence of a good argument.
Melissa (a pseudonym, like the names of all the women whose stories follow) thought that she was incapable of having an abortion and then found herself pregnant. At the time, she was involved with an abusive man and had no money. She regrets that she did not conform to her ideas of right and wrong, but she is glad that she escaped the situation in which she found herself.
Stacy was a longtime advocate of abortion when she became pregnant. She too was involved with an abusive man and had no money. Though she found herself horrified at the thought of aborting her child, she did so because she felt that she had no choice under the circumstances. Driven by feelings of guilt and self-hatred, she then entered into an even greater cycle of self-abuse and pain.
Linda stood up to her family when she was young and carried to term a baby conceived through an incestuous relationship. She now lives in daily pain, honoring the birthdays of a son she has not seen since the day he was born. Seven years later, she once again found herself pregnant. This time she chose to abort because she did not want to relive the trauma of giving up her child for adoption. She also lacked the ally of her mother, by then dead, who had supported her through the stigma of her first pregnancy. Now, when asked how many children she has, Linda replies, "Two. The first was adopted, and the second died violently."
How many prolifers would want to admit that Melissa's life is conceivably better now because of the choice she made four years ago? How many prolifers would calculate Linda's feelings of loss when they advocate that young women give their children up for adoption? At the same time, how many prochoicers would be willing to concede the reality of Linda's or Stacy's grief or their feelings of helplessness at the time of their crises? Stacy did not experience the abortion as a choice, but as the only option made to her by her lover, by her job, and by her financial situation.
Let me give another example. I once worked in a large office with a single woman who became pregnant and who decided to place her child for adoption. Because she was pregnant unintentionally and out of wedlock, she became an object of scornful humor and office gossip. This kind of public upset is death to one's career in corporate America. By choosing life for her child, this woman offended management and her co-workers and thereby limited her potential for economic growth. This was no small consequence because she already had a child to support. I commend her for her courage and her commitment to her ideals, but I will admit that she paid a high price for her integrity.
I learned so much from these women. They have shown me much through their strength and their integrity. And once I was able to accept the complexity of their experiences, they taught me how ideological and intensely heated the abortion debate has become--to the point that women who need help are forgotten by many. Too many.
In the spring of 1998, I saw a PBS "Frontline" documentary about women who had abortions in the years before Roe v. Wade. The stories of these women argued eloquently and in no uncertain terms that their abortions were godsends. Why? Because they were young and feared retaliation from their family or small communities; because they did not want to be thrown out of school; because they could not bear the pain of giving another child up for adoption; because they wanted to conceal the fact that they had been sexually abused or raped; because they would have lost their jobs; because they were poor.
Who can deny the reality of their desperation? The women were willing to risk future infertility, death, pain, and criminal prosecution in order to terminate their pregnancies. This is not to say that abortion held no terror for them. It is just that the terror inspired by their other options was greater. I can say that this is true of every woman I have known who chose abortion for herself. One should wonder, then, not about how to talk women out of having abortions, but how to participate in society in such a way that no one would feel that abortion is the least of several evils.
With our society the way it is, with its worship of materialism and its cult of dehumanization and violence, how can anyone deny the need for the abortion clinic? It is there for a reason and will remain there, legal or not, so long as we create or tolerate those conditions which send women running to them as if they were shelters. I say that to work for the illegalization of abortion is to waste energy that should be spent correcting the situations that give rise to the need for abortions. I also say that to defend abortion is to defend those who oppress women: the rapist, the abuser, the corporations, and the welfare plan that "discourages" births. I think that the best way to reduce the call for abortion is to concentrate on its causes.
The way that politicians pronounce their positions on abortion typifies how alien this approach is to the mainstream of our society. Politicians will voice whether they are for or against abortion as a principle, but they are unwilling to address the much more complicated and sensitive subject of how to remove the need for abortions in the first place.
Converting Abortion Clinics To Peacetime Use
One complaint rightly aimed at prolifers who picket "abortion clinics" is that many of the women who get harassed for attending these clinics are actually seeking reproductive services other than abortions. Listen to this complaint! Help these women and girls who want contraceptives and reproductive counseling so that they won't have to solicit the more notorious of the clinic's services. For simple economic reasons, privately owned clinics respond to the needs and demands of their clientele. What if our society no longer asked for abortions? What if, instead, we ensured that our children had a sexual education which enabled them to make intelligent and informed decisions about their reproductive health? What if women earned as much as men in the workplace? What if young girls were raised in such a way that they were emotionally strong enough to withstand the social pressures to have sex with boys who have no interest in the consequences of their sexual activity? What if young boys were raised in such a way that they took an interest in the consequences of their sexual activity? What if we removed or mitigated those conditions that cause women to "choose" abortion: ignorance about sexual matters, poverty, rape, sexual abuse, businesses that deem women less valuable as workers because they can become pregnant, discrimination against the handicapped (how many have died because they were deemed "unfit"?), and social attitudes that ridicule or demean women who carry unplanned pregnancies to term?
What if the term "prochoice" came to signify a belief--not always or necessarily a religious belief--that women should be able to choose �life?
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