Friday, August 19, 2011

Abortion and Religion

One of Canada's national newspapers ran an article on abortion today. I have been thinking I have not discussed abortion enough so I thought I would respond.
Much is made about the influence of religion in determining one’s opinion about this issue. Indeed, Christian beliefs are cited as a principal motivation for many prominent opponents of legalized abortions, including Linda Gibbons, whose June 25 speech to the Toronto Pro-Life Forum included several references to her religion. However, the faithful do not hold a monopoly on objection to the euthanizing of unborn children, as I consider myself to be a committed, though lonely opponent of both abortion and religion.
Christianity is a rational religion. I know opponents of religion don't really grasp this. Most Christians oppose abortion both because of their faith and because it is the morally reasonable position to take. It is not either/or. Christians often make arguments that don't involve religion. Peter Kreeft makes one here. Scott Klusendorf makes more here. The fact that they sometimes include references to religion in their speeches does not mean they only make religious arguments. I don't know of any pro-life person that is not happy to say there are pro-life atheists.
I am convinced that the pro-life position is not dependent upon any references to Christianity and that religious arguments about the sanctity of life and the protection of unborn children are actually very powerful secular arguments in disguise. Nevertheless, both sides of the debate continue to promulgate the notion that religion, or lack thereof, is the linchpin of both pro- and anti-abortion perspectives.
We are conflating two things here. Is the argument religious? That is does it require an explicitly religious premise like "The bible is the Word of God?" No. We can stick to purely secular premises. But that does not mean one's attitude towards Christianity is irrelevant. Most people have a strong emotional reaction to traditional Christianity. Either they love it or they hate it. Very few have no reaction at all. This will impact what people make of the various arguments. It is not a purely logical exercise. 
It is impossible not to notice the way in which this debate has been unnecessarily complicated by religious differences. With few exceptions, both hardline supporters and opponents of abortion have set up hermetically-sealed universes for themselves, in which they write and speak of their convictions before pre-approved audiences and then smear each other’s positions outrightly as hedonistic or theocratic. The consequence is a stalemate, in which positively no progress is made on the debate.
I would say this about pro-life politicians. We don't have such beasts in Canada but the ones in the US tend to only beat the pro-life drum in front of solidly pro-life audiences. Once they know many pro-choice people are in the crowd they tone down the rhetoric. Pro-life activists are the opposite. They try and talk to anyone who will listen. That is not that many. Most people who have not made up their mind are quite hesitant to get into a discussion.

I do think the pro-choice side is much less logical. I don't think they seek out pre-approved audiences either. They typically use their access to the mass media and get their message to everyone. But the message is more of a smear than an argument. People are imposing their morality on me. People want to turn back the clock. Even the name pro-choice is more of a smear. Like abortion is just a random choice people want to remove because they somehow don't like choices.
In order free ourselves from this deadlock, both sides need to take responsibility for these false perceptions. On one hand, opponents of abortion need to have more faith in their own arguments, ironic as that may sound, and resist the urge to mire their dialogue with religious rhetoric. While using this sort of language may be mutually satisfying among fellow believers, it quite effectively alienates adherents of other faiths and non-believers who may be sympathetic to the pro-life persuasion. Making this adjustment would not only serve to gain non-Christian support for the cause, but would also shake the pro-life position from its stereotype as an entirely religious opinion.
Absolutely. I just would add that many pro-life people are doing this. Often people are tone deaf. They hear a religious argument because they expect to hear one. Even when the speaker explicitly states that his argument won't be religious and it isn't. 
By contrast, the pro-abortion camp should recognize that there is a secular debate to be had about the issue. (I could barely believe my eyes when, in response to this claim, a liberal and fellow secularist wrote to me: “I suspect [that] religious dogmatism is so deeply entrenched, you cannot see how ingrained it is. What viable reason is there against abortion? I say none. Any reason given would probably have its roots in religious dogma.”) Most reasonable people, on either side of the political divide, should be able to recognize that the abortion issue amounts to a conflict of rights between an expectant mother and her unborn child, and that prioritizing these competing freedoms is the role for rigorous public discourse.
Interesting comment. Under this analysis the pro-choice position that is law in Canada  and the US has to be considered a complete failure. There is no prioritizing of competing freedoms. The unborn child is given no rights. Zero. None at all. Never. So if that is the goal society could hardly fail worse than we are now failing. In Canada I would also say there is no rigorous public discourse. It is almost never discussed and when it is the pro-life position is not allowed to be defended. So, yes, recognize there is secular debate on the issue and that many pro-life activists are willing to engage in that debate without referencing to God or the bible. They may be Christian but they are capable of secular arguments.
Furthermore, apologists for abortion should be cautious about characterizing pro-life advocates as misogynists. This is not only hopelessly demagogic, but is also false in almost all cases, including religious opposition to abortion. 
So saying this is uncharitable and it is untrue so therefore you should be "cautious" when you say it?
Finally, supporters of legal abortion should recognize that the privilege of comprehensive and secular dialogue is an end in itself, and not simply a means of achieving liberal aims.
It is certain that the religious angle to the abortion debate provides both sides with ammunition in prosecuting their cases; however, it has also led to a protracted gridlock, in which all parties refuse to further engage. Only by recognizing the self-evident ethical dilemma posed by abortion, without being obstructed by religious differences, can we hope to make progress toward ending the practice.
I am not sure the ethical dilemma is evident to everyone. Once you understand the dilemma the answer is obvious. Some characterize the dilemma as "Should I bring a child into the world?" But that isn't it. The child is already in the world. It has a beating heart, fingernails, etc. The question is not can I bring it into the world. The question is can I kill it. When that ethical dilemma becomes evident then the answer becomes obvious. But the whole pro-choice game is to prevent the question from being seen in that light. So why dialogue? Why break a gridlock that preserves a status quo which they like? 


  1. If I'm understanding you correctly, you're saying the abortion issue is not one of religion, but rather one of empiric science. If so, I would disagree. I'm becoming more convinced that the abortion issue is principally one of religious freedom (with a tie-in to contraception as a religious freedom too).

    The fact is, most Protestant denominations allow abortion, as do the Seventh Day Adventists and Mormons. Jews allow abortion as well as a religious freedom, with the most 'conservative' branch claiming the unborn are only potential humans and if the mothers life is somehow at risk, her life takes precedence.

    So if we are to look at all those who go by the Bible to some degree, there is a massive favoring of abortion among them (even if it's not founded on good science or good exegesis). And of course, the atheist religion almost always favors moral relativism, so abortion isn't classified as moral or immoral anymore than eating or sleeping is.

  2. As an example, look at what Roe V Wade declared:

    "There has always been strong support for the view that life does not begin until live' birth. This was the belief of the Stoics. [n56] It appears to be the predominant, though not the unanimous, attitude of the Jewish faith. [n57] It may be taken to represent also the position of a large segment of the Protestant community, insofar as that can be ascertained; organized groups that have taken a formal position on the abortion issue have generally regarded abortion as a matter for the conscience of the individual and her family."

    So this truly is deeply rooted in religion.

  3. Thanks for coming by again Nick. I don't disagree with you. Abortion and religion are not unrelated. But how are they related? When the author say "I am convinced that the pro-life position is not dependent upon any references to Christianity" I think he is right. A logical argument can be made that does not assume Christianity. Certainly parallels between abortion and infanticide can be seen by non-Christians.

    In some ways all law is rooted in morality and all morality is rooted in religion. Abortion is not really a special case of that. If we can accept that people are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights without raising the objection that we are imposing one religion on everyone then what changes when we talk about abortion?