Hemant Mehta of The Friendly Atheist recently asked whether it makes sense for an atheist to be anti-abortion1:
Insofar as it makes sense for anyone to be anti-abortion, I think that an atheist can oppose abortion without it conflicting with their atheism. I myself am pro-abortion, but I don’t see why it should be seen as weird that an atheist might oppose abortion.
Firstly, (though this isn’t really relevant to the question being asked) it is certainly true that a significant amount of atheists, including some well-known atheists, oppose abortion to some degree. That should at least tell us that there are many who do not see the supposed conflict. It might be less likely that a non-religious person will oppose abortion, but that doesn’t really show that those who do are holding beliefs in tension with their denial of religious doctrines.
How do these atheists argue against abortion? In the video linked above, there are a variety of ways. According to Hemant Mehta, many argue from an ‘evolutionary’ standpoint. We’re all ‘connected’ according to our evolutionary history, and as such, we shouldn’t kill each other, even the unborn who are also ‘connected’ in the same way. I don’t particularly think this is a strong argument. This ‘connection’ is just the way we got here, and doesn’t really tell us how we ought to treat each other.
In fact, I think the atheist can use a similar anti-abortion argument to ones used by Christians and other religious folk. Or, rather, I think that all anti-abortionists can use a basic argument that doesn’t explicitly rely on any religious conviction:
1) It is wrong to kill an innocent human being unless some greater evil is prevented.
2) A foetus is an innocent human being.
3) The likely/possible death of a mother from childbirth/pregnancy is a greater evil than the death of the foetus.
4) It is wrong to kill a foetus (i.e. have an abortion) unless doing so would prevent the death of the mother.
(Some anti-abortionists might contest 3), and would need to adjust 4) to read “It is wrong to kill a foetus (i.e. have an abortion)”.)
This is, to my mind, a wholly secular argument, though theists and theists might defend the premises in different ways. For instance, a theist might claim that as a creation of God, the foetus is a human life, and so 2) is true. The atheist might say that 2) is true because there is no clear cut-off point at which the foetus becomes a person, and that we are justified in calling it a ‘human being’ at some point in its life developing in the womb. I doubt that neither theists nor atheists will find 1) particularly controversial – even though Peter Singer disagrees with it (see his Practical Ethics, for instance)2.
I think the above argument is not ridiculous, nor is it inconsistent with atheism, even though I disagree with its conclusion. It can be used by atheists and theists alike without them having to shed their religious (or irreligious) views. With this in mind, I am not surprised that some atheists are anti-abortion.
The question can now be turned on its head: What is it about religion that makes its adherents more likely to oppose abortion than the non-religious?
1 I don’t like framing the controversy in terms of ‘pro-life’ versus ‘pro-choice’, so I will use the more to-the-point ‘anti-abortion’ and ‘pro-abortion’.
2 His position on abortion is the most convincing I’ve come across, and is the one I have adopted for myself. His position is relatively rare among pro-abortionists in that he agrees with premise 2) and disagrees with premise 1).
Edit: Thanks to Jim Houston who pointed out that 4) doesn’t follow. I’ve left the error in, but to fix this, just read 3) as “The likely/possible death of a mother from childbirth/pregnancy is the only greater evil than the death of the foetus.” I could have made 4) a little weaker and left the ‘greater evil’ an open question, but I wanted the conclusion to be a definite anti-abortion message.