The Pro-Life Perspective, Beyond Faith

Many listeners point out that Sarah and I rarely disagree on social issues and say that they'd like to hear nuanced disagreement around those topics. I have nuanced disagreement on reproductive rights frequently with my friend, Andrew Vandiver. Following our episode covering the last debate, Andrew took issue with the way Sarah and I talk about the pro-life position as a religious perspective, and specifically as a position that seeks to impose religious faith on others. After lots of Twitter and Facebook dialogue, I asked Andrew to share with all of our listeners why the pro-life position isn't solely about religion. I appreciate Andrew's willingness to publicly share these personal thoughts. While Andrew and I disagree on this topic, my thinking is enriched by his ideas. -beth

Editor's Note: This is a guest column submitted by listener Andrew Vandiver. You can reach him on Twitter here. 

It is often said that pro-life advocates wants to impose their religious values or superstitious beliefs on the rest of the country.  This argument is usually set forth to stop a debate about the issue of abortion before it even starts.  Under this line of thinking, restricting or limiting abortions is equivalent to passing laws to force people to go to church or abstain from using alcohol. Such thinking is not only wrong according to some; it is downright dangerous and puts pro-lifers in the same category as terrorist groups.  Thus, pro-life advocates should be excluded from the table when it comes to discussing the issue of abortion.  

While this argument might be effective political rhetoric, it suffers from an intrinsic flaw.  One does not need to be a religious believer in order to come to the conclusion that unborn children are members of the human race and therefore worth protecting.  While many pro-life individuals are religious or express their views in religious terminology, there are also secular and atheist thinkers and activists who belong to the pro-life movement as well. This is because a person can reach a pro-life position about the issue of abortion through science and reason alone.  

Scientifically speaking, conception marks the beginning of the life of a human organism.  This is an objective, undeniable fact.  An unborn child is a human being at its earliest stage of development.  Thus, it would seem to follow that an unborn child should have the same right to life as a baby outside of the womb.  In order to reach a contrary conclusion, many in the pro-choice movement use metaphysical arguments over “personhood,” or try to obscure the exact nature of what they are supporting. 

My own personal journey is complex and evolved throughout my 20s and early 30s.  For many years, I didn’t consider the issue to be a priority.  To the extent that I gave the issue much thought, I mostly considered it to be a personal matter.  In other words, while I might disapprove, who am I to tell others what to do?  

This view began to change in law school when I eagerly read the two most significant cases related to abortion: Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.   In Casey, Justice Kennedy, writing for the Supreme Court, affirmed the right to abortion by pontificating that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, of the mystery of human life.” In other words, the Court’s majority felt that each woman has the right to decide whether the act of terminating a pregnancy is right or wrong.  

Being someone who expected a strong constitutional case for the right to an abortion, I was surprised by the weakness of Justice Kennedy’s argument. I immediately latched on to the word “define” in the above-referenced quote.  Justice Kennedy was not simply saying that liberty allows people to “discover” the existence of truth and meaning in the universe. To the contrary, his position clearly implied that there is no such thing as objective truth and that individuals are free to define reality, including the value of human life, as they see fit.  

Such a position troubled me, and should also bother anyone who believes that all men and women are inherently equal.  Such equality does not exist merely because it is recognized by the government or supported by popular opinion. All people, regardless of their race, gender, or background, are valuable by virtue of their humanity.   

Justice Kennedy’s philosophical discussion about the “mystery of life” seemed completely detached from the cultural values that I had been raised to believe about truth and equality.  Further, it also seemed removed from the biological reality that unborn children are indeed human beings.  It was his position, not that of the pro-life movement, that seemed to be steeped in mysticism.

Of course, Justice Kennedy is just one important figure within the pro-choice movement amongst many others.  Yet the more that I surveyed the pro-choice landscape, the more that I noticed the extent to which it heavily relies on obscuring that which it supports.  This sometimes manifests itself in absurd ways.  

For example, the 2015 Super Bowl featured a commercial with an unborn child chasing a Doritos chip during an ultrasound. NARAL responded with the following tweet: “#NotBuyingIt - that @Doritos ad using #antichoice tactic of humanizing fetuses…”  How could a powerful interest group such as NARAL feel threatened by something as simple as a comedic depiction of an ultrasound?  Nobody seriously believed that Doritos was advocating for a pro-life political position. Was the act of showing an ultrasound on a nationally televised program a pro-life statement in of itself?  

The threat created by a simple depiction of an ultrasound image is directly tied to the inherent contradictions contained within the pro-choice movement.  Do not take my word for it.  These contradictions do not go unnoticed within the pro-choice movement itself.  As revealed by a Salon article titled “So What if Abortion Ends a Life?”, some have called for more intellectual honesty in discussing the issue:     

Here’s the complicated reality in which we live: All life is not equal. That’s a difficult thing for liberals like me to talk about, lest we wind up looking like death-panel-loving, kill-your-grandma-and-your-precious-baby storm troopers. Yet a fetus can be a human life without having the same rights as the woman in whose body it resides. She’s the boss. Her life and what is right for her circumstances and her health should automatically trump the rights of the non-autonomous entity inside of her. Always.

When we on the pro-choice side get cagey around the life question, it makes us illogically contradictory. I have friends who have referred to their abortions in terms of “scraping out a bunch of cells” and then a few years later were exultant over the pregnancies that they unhesitatingly described in terms of “the baby” and “this kid.” I know women who have been relieved at their abortions and grieved over their miscarriages. Why can’t we agree that how they felt about their pregnancies was vastly different, but that it’s pretty silly to pretend that what was growing inside of them wasn’t the same? Fetuses aren’t selective like that. They don’t qualify as human life only if they’re intended to be born (emphasis added).

While I certainly give credit to the author for being honest, I must also admit to being profoundly disturbed by this position.  

Does one need to be a religious believer to also be disturbed by this line of thinking? Is it that surprising that many Americans might take the pro-life position because they are deeply uncomfortable with the idea that a set of human beings are categorically defined as being of lesser value?  That they might notice the same inherent contradiction as the author referenced above and come to a different conclusion that errs on the side protecting the unborn?  

The answers to these questions are clear. One can disagree with the pro-choice movement without appealing to scripture or other divine authority. While the pro-life movement is certainly inclusive of religious believers, it is not dependent on purely sectarian arguments. For this reason, arguments from the pro-life movement should be taken just as seriously as those put forth by pro-choice advocates.  

Author’s Note: This blog post was solely focused on the narrow issue of whether opposition to abortion is merely an attempt to impose one’s sectarian views on others.  I did not touch on specific policy proposals.  Perhaps I will offer up thoughts on that side of the equation in a later blog post.  In the meantime, I would highly recommend Ross Douthat’s two-part Q&A with Katha Pollitt which can be found here and here.  This is one of the best and most honest policy discussions that I have read on the topic.