• Can an atheist be anti-abortion?


    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.


    Category: AtheismEthicsFeaturedPhilosophy

    Article by: Notung

    I started as a music student, studying at university and music college, and playing trombone for various orchestras. While at music college, I became interested in philosophy, and eventually went on to complete an MA in Philosophy in 2012. An atheist for as long as I could think for myself, a skeptic, and a political lefty, my main philosophical interests include epistemology, ethics, logic and the philosophy of religion. The purpose of Notung (named after the name of the sword in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen) is to concentrate on these issues, examining them as critically as possible.

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    • First, the term “pro-abortion” prejudices the argument just as much as “pro-life” and “pro-choice” because nobody thinks of abortion has a wholly positive happening.

      The question is wrong, off the bat. It’s just as well to ask, is it possible for theists to be anti-abortion? The answer is obviously yes, but the reasons why are not a bit more clear than for atheists or anybody else- and it is the reasons we are discussing. Were we to speak of Christians, for example, we might point out nowhere in the Bible is life defined in any way relevant to the discussion. No law against abortion is ever given by God. At least once in the Bible God orders the explicit destruction of the bellies of pregnant women:

      The people of Samaria must bear their guilt, because they have rebelled against their God. They will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open.”

      (Hosea 13:16)

      Many Christians decided for their own political convenience, that a cell could be a person, soul and all. But this is rather akimbo to the Christian (and pre-Christian Jewish) attitudes of recent and less recent history, whereby Christians weren’t at all convinced that slaves, children, women, and foreigners were fully human. The commandments about how to treat people partially applied to these groups, or not at all, suggesting that personness is a sliding scale and it slides for the benefit of the scale-master who only yesterday decided that embryos are people.

    • On the second part – yes I agree with you. I don’t really see the question of abortion as falling along religious lines – it seems more of a secular question where one’s religion can have an impact on some of the important considerations.

      On the first bit – I use these blunter terms because the other ones seem like they’ve gone through a PR machine, and don’t really sum up the position effectively. By ‘pro-abortion’ I mean that not only do I believe that the option should be available (“pro-choice”) but that I also think that it is in most cases morally acceptable. I’m ‘pro-gay marriage’, but that doesn’t mean that I think everyone should get gay married – it just means that I think that there should be an option to do so, and that doing so is morally acceptable. I see it the same way when I say ‘pro-abortion’.

    • Thanks – I’ll certainly take a look, though you’ll have a tough time getting me to agree with you! 😉

    • I’m not comfortable with treating “innocent human being” as a conceptual category with bright lines as the edges. Both phylogeny and embryology show us that we developed gradually into human beings from single cells.

      That aside, even if I was willing to grant (2) I’m would still say that the loss of bodily autonomy that goes along with pregnancy is a great evil if undergone unwillingly. No one should be forced into involuntary servitude as full-time life support against their will.

    • qbsmd

      On the one hand, I’ve never seen a good pro-life argument that wasn’t premised on the existence of souls and on embryos having them. On the other hand, atheists can be anything that doesn’t involve believing in a god. And the question “can an atheist be anti-abortion” seems similar to the question “can an atheist be a vegetarian” in that it only requires some people to place more ethical value in certain entities (fetii and animals) than other people do.

      I would expect almost no atheists to oppose early term abortions, but for opinions on later term procedures to be more nuanced and mixed: as the level of development of the embryo/fetus moves from a blob of cells toward a viable infant it is more likely to cross an ethical threshold for more people.

    • I’m with you on this issue re; Abortion, i would argue against any legislation because every case is different & should be looked at from the medical/psychological viewpoints. What would be best for a particular person in a particular situation? I think the argument is about who gets to decide these things.

    • Shadow of a Doubt

      Late to the party, but I had a thought. I should note I do not make this argument myself, as I believe in the concept of individual liberty and autonomy, however if one slanted far enough towards a collective ideology, such as communism or socialism, then I believe the following argument could be made as well;

      If (and only if) you accept the idea that the good of the “whole” (group, tribe, state, nation, species, whatever) is of more value than individual liberty, and it can be shown that the “whole” requires more children, then one can make a logical anti-abortion argument without appealing to a deity in any way.

      As a global whole we are likely already suffering from overpopulation so it fails on that level, but in smaller levels, it could be a workable argument.

      I should note that I do not agree with this arguement, as I am pro-abortion based solely on my belief in the bodily autonomy of the mother, however I think one could adopt this position without either contradiction or an appeal to a deity.

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    • Talis Mancer

      It’s (2) that is overtly invalid. At the time of abortion the embryo shares almost none of the properties that we might attribute to a human and can’t feel pain having no central nervous system. That makes (1) irrelevant. If you were to extra value on (1) due to potentiality then why not put as much value as un-fertilised eggs? The greater evil on the other hand is usually the women’s and potential child’s extremely damaged life and the carry-on effect upon all of society of such damage..

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