The Secular Morality of Abortion

I and some of the other authors in Atheist Voices of Minnesota spoke this afternoon at a local community college about morality and atheism. There’s very little in my Atheist Voices essay about morality, and it isn’t a topic I deal with much here outside religion’s contribution to the problem of unearned authority. I wanted to talk about morality itself directly, though, so I knew I’d be speaking about something new.

The first half of my remarks were based around a story I wrote up for last week, about not having the words to help a gay classmate back in high school and how the situation has changed between then and now. I told the story and pointed out how various churches and denominations have lagged behind society on this moral issue. Secular society has led on this matter of religion, and religion is playing catch-up–or not.

That wasn’t going to be enough, however, and it’s a well-worn argument. I wanted to make my talk my own, and to do it by more than using a personal story. I was at a bit of a loss until a comment by Ophelia made something click. I knew what I’d talk about. The morality of abortion is a light subject matter for a lunch talk with students, right? Well, whether it is or not, here’s what I told them:

Now, even if we look at an issue where churches are leading society, we can still see that they’re not relying on religious doctrine to do it.

Reaching back to high school again (I don’t know why exactly; it’s not as though I enjoyed it), it wasn’t exactly an oddity to find students who weren’t pro-choice in general terms, but it did indicate a certain conservatism. Since that time, the ranks of people who consider themselves pro-life have swelled. We are now “pro-life” enough that political candidates can do things like claiming that pregnancies resulting from rape are “God’s will” and not watch their political careers end.

The Catholic and evangelical Protestant churches have a lot to do with that change. They have successfully led a large portion of our country on a moral issue.

What they haven’t done is changed people’s minds and beliefs based on any traditional biblical or theological argument. When was the last time you saw someone tell a woman she had to carry to term and go through a painful labor because Eve ate some fruit? Anyone? No, it doesn’t happen.

The idea of life beginning at conception is very new and not at all biblical. While the Christian church has always opposed at least some abortions, it’s done so for very different reasons. The early church thought abortion was a way of hiding the shame of sins of the flesh. Abortion was bad because sex–remember that this was a church that didnt’ believe in marrying because the end times were nigh–was a form of bondage. Does anyone think that argument would fly these days?

In at least part of the Middle Ages, abortion was only murder once the fetus looked reasonably like a baby. The church then decided fetuses weren’t human until they looked human. Slightly earlier than that, whether an abortion was a murder depended on why the mother chose to abort. Was it too difficult to raise another child? That wasn’t so bad. Covering up for harlotry? Uh-uh.

It wasn’t until 1964 that life was firmly considered to start at the moment of conception and nearly 10 years later that it was declared a sacred right. Even now, however, appeals to the public don’t rely on that doctrine.

When someone tries to tell you that abortion is wrong, they don’t show you the pinprick of blood that is a rapidly dividing embryo just a few days past conception. They don’t show you the early-term human zygotes that are indistinguishable from the zygotes of other animals. Despite the fact that these account for the vast majority of abortions performed, making them more honest images of abortion, that isn’t what they show you. Their doctrines tell you that these are life–and sacred–but that isn’t how the religious appeal to your moral sense.

Instead, they show you cute, smiling babies dressed up for the camera. They show you late-term fetuses that look mostly human. They show you models that emphasize the cute rather than the reality. They show you pictures of blood and tiny body parts that no one knows where they came from or whether what you see is just another model. Believe it or not, abortions aren’t usually posed for pictures.

They don’t rely on their doctrine to convince us because doctrine does not influence our moral decisions. We don’t decide whether abortion is right or wrong based on some theologian’s concept of ensoulment or the beginning of sacred life. We make our decisions on the the moral issue of abortion based on secular ideals, not religious ones.

They know this, just as we know this. It shows in their decisions.

Our morality is secular, based in our real-world experiences, despite the best attempts of various churches to make it otherwise. Sometimes they follow where we lead. Sometimes they abandon their doctrine to try a more effective, secular (if not entirely honest) approach to making our moral judgments match theirs.

Either way, the moral decisions are still ours and still secular.

The Secular Morality of Abortion

16 thoughts on “The Secular Morality of Abortion

  1. 1

    It wasn’t until 1964 that life was firmly considered to start at the moment of conception and nearly 10 years later that it was declared a sacred right.

    So “God’s” eternal, changeless law didn’t actually exist until all the other arguments failed both legally and in the minds of most people? It was only after the religious busybodies lost their previous hold over the bodies of women did these new and sort of crap arguments come into play.

  2. 2

    It wasn’t until 1964 that life was firmly considered to start at the moment of conception and nearly 10 years later that it was declared a sacred right. Even now, however, appeals to the public don’t rely on that doctrine.

    I think it was a lot later than that.

    According to CNN belief blog, evangelical Christians were still setting birth as the crucial time until the 1970s.

    In any case, for me the decision is clear. The woman is a moral agent, so she gets to make the decision. I don’t get to impose my decision on her.

  3. 3

    I think the “secular” morality of the “pro-life” crowed is a mask. It’s a necessary tactic they’ve adopted in order to push what they want in legislation because they know “a zygote has a soul” won’t fly in civil society anymore.

    I don’t think I like the framing of this situation as the church “leading” in morality. That makes it sound so noble, when in reality what it is, is success at propaganda and brainwashing, supported by societal condonation of the stubborn lingering remains of patriarchy.

  4. 4

    Funny, that comment and the question behind it has been sticking in my mind, too, and also triggered another post from me.

    It’s funny how easy it is to lose sight of how entirely secular morality really is.

  5. 6

    For whatever the views of a gay man might be worth….

    I still remember years ago, soon after Reagan was elected, being home sick and watching Phil Donohue interview a woman who had developed a home abortion kit. The fear was that Reagan would stack the Supreme Court, which would then rehear and repeal Roe. That interview still haunts me.

    Like it or not, abortion is here to stay. We are moving into the third generation of women living in a world where reproductive choice is a basic human right; that is not going to change without a very, very messy fight. Recriminalization, even just putting up too many obsticles, will not significantly reduce the number of terminations in this country, it will only drive them underground. We will return to the era of the back-alley abortion in dangerous, unsanitary conditions. We will return to the era of the home termination and women dying because they botched it. And instead of women being fearful of what society might think of them, these women will be defiantly fighting to preserve rights they once had.

    At this point, the only way to decrease the number of abortions is through education and making sure that birth control is inexpensive and easily available. That is to say, to work towards a world where every pregnancy is a wanted pregnancy. When abortion is needed or wanted, a safe, supportive environment will end up saving many more lives than dangerous conditions and shame possibly could.

  6. 7

    Your point was excellently set up and executed. I think I will borrow this example at the earliest opportunity.

    Greg in Seattle – the “home abortion kit” is so ironic, given that so many of us have performed an abortion in just that manner. Take two pills, get really sick, and it’s over. The horror!

  7. 8

    @mouse #7 – The interview was from the early 1980s, long before safe drugs had been invented. The home “kit” was basically a suction device, very similar to what was being used in clinics at the time.

  8. 9

    We are now “pro-life” enough that political candidates can do things like claiming that pregnancies resulting from rape are “God’s will” and not watch their political careers end.

    I wouldn’t speak too soon on that maybe.

    Hopefully that Murdough (right name /spelling?) douchebag and Todd Aikin will both lose their elections badly. They’ve both gotta be unelectable now.


    Or am I over-estimating humanity and the US voters again?

  9. 10

    Gregory – the device is a del’em. When Baby Bush was still in power some of my American friends were worried about Roe being overturned.

    They intended to do what was often done pre-Roe, make the devices and offer a “menstrual extraction” service.

    Now, of course, you can get Mexican or Indian misoprostol online, as mentioned above. Two pills under the tongue, and the result is the uterus expelling it’s contents. More importantly, should the woman require medical help, she’s indistinguishable from someone who’s had a spontaneous abortion (miscarriage).

  10. 11

    Libby Anne just had a great post on abortion. ( She points out that it doesn’t make sense for the religious right to claim that pro-unborn-life is about saving babies.

    1) They don’t do anything to make it easier to keep the baby (unless you’re a member of their church). In fact, they’re solidly against anything to help poor families.

    2) Making abortions illegal doesn’t reduce the number of abortions. If you don’t know that, you haven’ been paying attention, ergo you’re not that interested in what will save babies. Making abortions illegal just kills desperate women.

    3) It’s blindingly obvious (and backed up by data) that the way to reduce abortions is to make contraceptives available. Obamacare will reduce the number of abortions annually by up to 75%. But the religious right is screaming that this is immoral.

    4) Millions of zygotes that fail to implant. According to the religious right, these already have a human soul, but they’re making precisely zero effort to save these zygotes.

    Even if you believe that a zygote is fully human, none of their policies make any sense at all. It’s not about saving babies: it’s about controlling women’s sex lives.

  11. 12

    Well, one of my favourite games to play with anti-choicers, especially those driven by abortion porn is to ask them whether they consider this to be a baby and equal in worth and value to a woman.
    It is, infact, an elephant embryo…

    No, religion is no source of morality. The Catholics and the Lutherans here will tout how our values and morals are derived from god and the bibile and 400 years ago they touted the exact opposite morals and values and fought tooth and claw against those very values they promote totday.
    If we sould end up in a world where contraception and abortion are a non-issue and totally regarded as the medical decision of the individual woman and those churches should still be around they will have a 100% logical explenation as to why that is actually what god always meant.

  12. 14

    Having grown up in a devoutly Catholic household, I can tell you that the firm conviction of pro-lifers stems from what seems to them to be an airtight logical argument. It goes something like this.
    MP: All persons have a right to life.
    mp: A fetus is a person
    C: Therefore, a fetus has a right to life.
    The seeming certainty of this syllogistic reasoning gives pro-lifers great confidence that their cause must be just, but it doesn’t hold up under close examination.
    First, it depends upon an equivocation fallacy. The word “person” is being used in two different senses in the major and minor premises. The major premise is a normative statement about a moral category, “person”, and some attribute it has by virtue of (unstated) moral arguments or assumptions. But in the minor premise the assumption that a fetus is a person depends upon evidence and/or arguments that fetuses have certain physical attributes that merit our treating them as ontologically analogous to persons (in the physical sense). If we used different words to refer to the moral category “person” and the ontological category “person” (say, by using “human being” in the latter instance), the nature of the argument as a non sequitur would immediately be obvious
    MP: All persons have a right to life
    mp: A fetus is a human being
    C: Therefore, a fetus has a right to life
    Second, the argument fails to recognize both that categories (such as “person”) are fuzzy, and that rights are nearly always conditional. The fact that even most pro-lifers agree that women should be able to abort a pregnancy in cases of rape or incest, and the fact that they are generally not in favor of charging women or their doctors with murder for having or performing abortions, suggests that at an intuitive level they don’t really feel that fetuses and persons enjoy the same moral or ontological status. But when they have to make arguments explicitly they feel bound by logic to go the full Monty. This is really an instance of consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds.

  13. 15

    @Gilliel – there was a documentary series here in the UK that showed a series of mammals developing in utero, from conception to birth.

    IIRC there was a human, an elephant, a dolphin, and a litter each of puppies and kittens. It was amazing.

    The embryonic stage was fascinating because they were entirely undifferentiated. They could have been any future animal Anyone who could watch that and deny evolution would have to be smoking some serious crack.

    I’m going. to use little Mr Ele-Embryo. too, See if anyone will argue it’s worth as a human!

  14. 16

    […] were always our best choices for next of kin. I spoke at a local community college about how the morality used to argue against abortion is ultimately secular (if often grossly wrong). I talked about the not-so-difficult task of balancing of rights in […]

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