As part of our pro-life pledge, the Minimise Project is committed doing our best to “make the pro-life movement a welcoming place for all, including those of any religion or none.” We are not a religious organisation, nor are we affiliated with any religious or faith group. We promote secular pro-life positions and arguments.
Many common misconceptions about the pro-life movement involve its connections to religion: that everyone in the pro-life movement is religious, that there is no reason for an atheist or agnostic to be pro-life, or that all arguments against abortion implicitly or explicitly appeal to religious beliefs that a non-religious person simply wouldn’t share.
We very much believe that none of these claims are true. But I recently realised that we’ve never actually written a post explicitly arguing that there are secular arguments against abortion.
It’s worth pointing out that none of the arguments against abortion on this blog are religious. Anyone interested in reading more about secular pro-life arguments, or about prominent atheists and agnostics in the pro-life movement might also be interested in reading some of our interviews. We’ve talked to Kelsey Hazzard, president of Secular Pro-Life, as well as other atheist and agnostic pro-life activists like Herb Geraghty, executive director of Rehumanize International, or Terrisa Bukovinac, former president of Democrats for life and founder of the Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising, or PAAU, on how she ‘lost [her] faith and became pro-life’.
That being said, here’s a quick response to anyone who is wondering whether there are really any genuinely non-religious arguments against abortion.
Why do so many people think this?
I can understand how someone could think that the pro-life movement was entirely religious, especially if they weren’t paying a huge amount of attention to events and news stories related to abortion. The media often portray pro-lifers in ways that encourage this misconstrual. What’s more, it is undeniably true that many pro-life people are religious, and some (or perhaps many) of them do use religious language when talking about abortion.
For example, you might hear someone saying that they are against abortion because ‘all life is sacred’, or because ‘every human being is made in the of the image of God and has inherent dignity’, or just because of the teachings of their Christian church.
But this in and of itself doesn’t mean that there aren’t any secular arguments for abortion, or even that those particular people don’t have arguments for their position that could be put in purely secular terms. This is just the kind of justification that religious people often give for their involvement in any kind of social justice movement at all. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t good secular justifications for this involvement, or that they’d be incapable of explaining themselves in secular terms if asked. Trócaire describes its overseas humanitarian work as being ‘grounded in Catholic Social Teaching’, but that does not mean that there are no secular reasons to engage in projects that reduce poverty and hunger. The Catholic Worker movement is an organisation that assists people living in homelessness, and that describes itself as ‘[g]rounded in a firm belief in the God-given dignity of every human person’. This doesn’t mean that the people involved can’t explain why they want to help people living in poverty in terms an atheist or agnostic could get on board with, or that there are no such reasons! Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a dream’ does not frame his beliefs about equality in secular terms without mentioning his belief in God. Take its most quoted passage: ‘“I have a dream … when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’” But he obviously could have talked about racial equality in a purely secular way if he’d wanted to.
Just because someone gives a religious account for their beliefs doesn’t mean that they can’t justify them any other way. If you believe in the existence of God, a desire to follow what you think are God’s commands might end up being a motivating reason in almost all of your attempts to ‘do the right thing’ or help other people. But that doesn’t mean that someone who, say, jumps into a lake to save a drowning man because ‘that’s what God would want her to do’ couldn’t also give a perfectly adequate explanation of why she did what she did to an atheist by saying something like ‘His life matters, that could have been me in his situation if I were unlucky, so it was my duty to save him’. Often, religiously laden phrases can be ‘translated’ into secular terms. ‘All life is sacred’ is probably not a claim an atheist would agree to. But ‘All humans are equal in dignity’, ‘All humans are equal and have inviolable rights’,or ‘All human lives are valuable’ are.
What’s more, claims like these can be supported by secular arguments, and used to argue in favour of the right to life of the preborn. As can other claims about the balancing of the right to bodily autonomy of the mother and the right to life of the child.
Some secular arguments against abortion
This blog has only published secular arguments against abortion. Feel free to look through our archives but I’ll link to a few here. Generally, Minimise Project bloggers have tended to think about arguments against legal abortion as falling into one of two categories:
- Personhood arguments or moral status arguments: arguments that conclude that the preborn foetus or embryo has a right to life. So, for example, they might conclude something like: ‘the foetus is a person’ or ‘a human being whose life matters as much as an adult human’s’, ‘a human being with moral status equal to that of an adult human’ etc.
- Bodily rights arguments: There is a category of pro-choice arguments to the effect that even if the preborn has a right to life, the mother’s right to bodily autonomy outweighs this right such that she has a right to legal abortion. And so there’s also a cateogry of pro-life arguments arguing that the mother’s right to bodily autonomy does not outweigh the right to life of the child in this way.
Ben wrote a blog, ‘Why the abortion debate is really two debates (and why that’s confusing)’ that talks about these two different categories in more detail.
Here are some posts we’ve written about the personhood or moral status debate, (with our names in brackets). What’s the worst that could happen? Assigning personhood under uncertainty (Muireann) Do you have human rights before you develop consciousness (me), The Equal Rights Argument: a great way to have better conversations about abortion (Ben), Unborn babies are human – why isn’t that enough? (Muireann)
Here are some blogs we’ve written that are about the bodily rights debate: Does the right to bodily autonomy override the right to life? (Muireann), Three responses to the violinist argument (me).
Here are some blogs about debates that don’t quite fall into either category, as well as some responses to common criticisms of the pro-life position: Are pro-lifers for ‘forced pregnancy? (Ben), The burning question: an honest pro-life response to a pro-choice thought experiment (Muireann), Abortion bans do work: the Irish experience (Ben), An appeal to reluctant repealers (Muireann), An interview with Ann Furedi that’s really worth reading (me), Can abortion be wrong if half the civilised world allows it? (Ben), Three reasons why abortion is not healthcare – whether it’s right or wrong (Muireann), Should abortion be legal even if it’s wrong? (Muireann)