– It’s hard to kill a creature once it lets you see its consciousness. Carl Sagan
It appears the fact that, yes, there are pro-life, anti-abortion atheists out there has surprised a number of people. Of course some people are being deliberately, and willfully obtuse as part of their ongoing quest to make science and reason the chastened handmaidens of US left liberalism, but there are people who are genuinely surprised. I used to be far more pro-abortion than I am now, and this is how I came to modify my own views on the matter.
(Incidentally, I am using the terms pro- and anti-abortion, just to avoid euphemism from either side).
The case for abortion
“I’d like to express my indignation at the idea of confusing a living human being with an embryo, which is only some undeveloped cells. (Abortion at the last minute – when a baby is formed – is a different issue.) The right to abortion is the right to get rid of some cells in your body, which you can’t afford to support if it grows into a child. The idea of some bitches – and I don’t apologize for that – trying to prescribe to all other women what they should do with their lives is disgusting. And they call it a right to life! The basic principles here are: never sacrifice the living to the nonliving, and never confuse an actuality with a potentiality. An “unborn child,” before it’s formed, is not a human, it’s not a living entity, it has no rights. The woman has rights.” – Ayn Rand.
I hope that the reader will grant that I am not taking this issue lightly. I am a proud Objectivist, and my stance here pits me against at least some of what Miss Rand wrote. However, everyone has to do their own thinking, to be first-handed, and I think that she was missing some facts essential to this argument.
The personhood question is everything
I am going to assume that no one reading this would agree with killing a three hour old baby, though certain abortion defenders do indeed go that far. Everything hinges on this question, because if the unborn is a human being, with rights, then abortion becomes a choice between the temporary, partial abrogation of some of the rights of the woman with the total, permanent and irreversible abrogation of all the rights of the unborn, the ultimate violation of consigning someone to physical annihilation. And if the unborn is not a human being with rights, then prohibition of abortion becomes a monstrous violation.
Reread Rand’s quote, and pay careful attention to the following lines:
Abortion at the last minute – when a baby is formed – is a different issue […] never confuse an actuality with a potentiality
So, if the newborn child has rights, where do they start? Please remember that we are quite capable of keeping pre-term babies alive these days, so the birth-as-dividing-line is completely useless.
So, we start out with an undifferentiated mass of cells and end with a human being with full rights. Where does the change occur? When do those cells stop just being cells and unite to form a human being?
The idea of there being a sharp, dividing line that radically changes the nature of something is quite well supported in science. Ever watched water freeze? No one would claim that there was no way to distinguish between liquid water and ice, nor that the transition isn’t pretty clear.
There’s a stupid argument advanced by certain people that’s going around to the effect that “Science can’t define what a person is, and therefore you cannot say the unborn is a person!” That gets you nowhere, because by the standard it demands, any murder would be okay. Are you horrified by the Rwandan genocide or the Holodomor? Why when you cannot prove that the dead were persons?
In point of fact, if you assume that basic medicine is science, then science can indeed tell us quite a bit about when a person exists or not. We do it all the time at the other end. It is called ‘brain death’ – when there is no brain activity present, you are not dealing with a person but just a bunch of cells.
Notice how well this tracks the discussion we’re having about when the unborn is a person and when it is just a bunch of cells.
Do we know when you can detect brain waves in the human embryo? It is often pegged at 40 days, though this is sometimes disputed suggesting that all is being observed is electrical activity. I don’t think much of this objection, given that it rests on measurements you cannot actually do on a foetus within a woman (the objections are based on measurements of neonatal babies), but from what I can read in the literature, eight weeks appears the minimum when the brain cells have assembled and taken control. This is also when motion and touch sensation appears.
“The fetal human possesses an active central nervous system from at least the eighth week of development” -Here, for those who want the peer reviewed comments.
Here is a reasonable overview of foetal development. Here is a gallery of pictures of aborted children – warning, it is not for the faint of heart. People sometime complain that this is bullying, but I maintain that a sure giveaway is when people are not willing to confront what they advocate.
So, if we take brain activity as the register of human life, and we do, and if brain activity starts at the eight week mark, and it does, then we are stuck with the following conclusion: abortion beyond the eighth week is not a regrettable medical procedure, but the deliberate destruction of human life.
The conclusions that I come to is that, despite Miss Rand’s formidable intellect, she didn’t have all the facts about foetal development, about when the unborn stops being a mass of undeveloped cells and becomes a developed child, when the potentiality becomes an actuality. The cut off is far earlier, at the eight week mark.
What this means in practical terms is a bit more complex, given the occasional difficulty in determining the point of conception and the age of the unborn. I’ll leave it to others to discuss how good our methods for determining the age are. My conclusion from all this is that I am absolutely opposed to surgical abortion, though the medical abortion option (use of pills) should still be available, subject to testing etc. The one exception here is the case where the woman’s life is at risk (a hideous situation where no exact moral judgement can be made).
I’m happy to defend provision of contraception, morning after medication and anything that reduces and prevents such a problem. I am not willing to sanction something that the facts tell me is the deliberate destruction of a human life.
Eight weeks is way too early; we can’t even test for birth defects then!
Believe it or not, this argument does get made. We know perfectly well what regime is most associated with the killing off of ‘defectives’.
What about those who murder abortion doctors?
People like me are often accused of spurring on the people who kill abortion doctors. I’m not going to deny that; I’ll own that. But pro-abortion types have to own all the Dr Kermit Gosnells, and yes there are more of those than you think.
But in actual fact, it is a lot worse than that. The kind of argument you hear a lot about aborted foetuses, “they look human but aren’t human” is an argument with a very nasty history. It’s been applied to Jews, indigenous people, blacks in America, Tutsis in Rwanda etc.
Here is a good breakdown of when abortions are performed, in terms of time. Note that some of those are at an age it is impossible to deny that you are dealing with living human beings.
To discuss anything on this scale, we need some form of a unit for mass death. In this case, I am choosing the unit of the Sobibor, the Nazi extermination camp that murdered two hundred thousand people. The Nazis remain our standard when it comes to mass death after all.
There have been 50 million induced abortions in the United States since abortion was legalized in 1973. If we assume the cut off that even pro-abortion types indicate consists of human life, namely 20 weeks (full scale EEG bursts), then we are talking a total of three Sobibors in the United States alone.
If we take 16 weeks as the cut-off point for the emergence of consciousness, then we are looking at twelve and a half half Sobibors
If the cut off is earlier still, at 13 weeks (note that this is the case in France, Norway and Denmark, some of the most secular states in the world) then we are talking a twenty seven and a half Sobibors.
And if I am right, if the facts I have presented here are correct, then we are talking about nearly ninety two Sobibors since 1973, or over three times the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust.
But I’m a nice, normal person who supports abortion! I’m kind to my wife, good to my kids, haven’t ever done so much as park in a disabled spot! Are you really saying that someone like me could support something on that level?
Yes I am. Here’s a book that should be read by everyone: Machete Season. It is quite simple, interviews with people who took part in the slaughter of their neighbours, schoolmates, even those who were part of the same football team. What is truly unsettling about this book is how normal the interviewers are. Discussions about telling the wife they’re going off to ‘work’, the kids begging to come along and take part… that kind of thing. These were not psychopaths or sociopaths, no Buffalo Bills or Hannibal Lecters. These were just average, normal people.
Terry Pratchett brilliantly summarized the need to believe that people who do and sanction horrible things are some sort of absolute Other:
It was much better to imagine men in some smokey room somewhere, made mad and cynical by privilege and power, plotting over brandy. You had to cling to this sort of image, because if you didn’t then you might have to face the fact that bad things happened because ordinary people, the kind who brushed the dog and told the children bed time stories, were capable of then going out and doing horrible things to other ordinary people. It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone’s fault. If it was Us, then what did that make Me? After all, I’m one of Us. I must be. I’ve certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of THem. We’re always one of Us. It’s Them that do the bad things. – Terry Pratchett, Jingo
So, yes. This is the worst part of learning about history and understanding that man is an evolved animal. It means realizing that the people who staffed concentration camps, and swarmed to arenas to watch people being ripped apart by wild beasts, and cheered over beheading contests, and thought a lynching was a good day out for the family are really not that different from what we see in the mirror.
On that note about lynching, Sam Harris gets it right:
Racism was about as intractable a social problem as we have ever had in this country. We are talking about deeply held convictions. I’m sure you have all seen the photos of lynchings in the first half of the 20th century—where seemingly whole towns in the South, thousands of men, women and children—bankers, lawyers, doctors, teachers, church elders, newspaper editors, policemen, even the occasional Senator and Congressman—turned out as though for a carnival to watch some young man or woman be tortured to death and then strung up on a tree or lamppost for all to see.
Seeing the pictures of these people in their Sunday best, having arranged themselves for a postcard photo under a dangling, and lacerated, and often partially cremated person, is one thing, but realize that these genteel people, who were otherwise quite normal, we must presume—though unfailing religious—often took souvenirs of the body home to show their friends—teeth, ears, fingers, knee caps, internal organs—and sometimes displayed them at their places of business.
People are capable of being nice and morally normal to some people and then utterly without conscience towards others, as long as they don’t think of those others are really human. So, once again this is an argument that requires immense care. It is why I am suspicious of anyone who thinks, not that they have chosen the right side, but that any position they hold must be somewhat right because they have chosen it.
UPDATE: I stand accused of avoiding the body autonomy argument. I didn’t think I had, but I’ll try to address it more explicitly here.
As I pointed out, if and when the unborn is not a human being, then a prohibition on abortion is obviously monstrous for that reason. However, if the unborn is a human being, a human life, then the choice is between the temporary, partial abrogation of some rights of the woman, versus the absolute and permanent abrogation of all rights of the unborn.
This is such a troublesome situation because it remains one of the few where there is a genuine conflict of rights. Most discussions about ‘conflicts of rights’ are bogus, but this is one of the few where it is real.
There’s another way this argument is made that goes like this ‘It doesn’t matter whether or not the unborn is a human life, all I am insisting on is separating it. If it cannot survive on its own, outside my body, that’s not my fault.’ First of all, this standard would still leave you with the three Sobibors (something to think about), but really, that strikes me as casuistry at best. If someone abandons an infant, we don’t say “well it is not the adults business that the child couldn’t provide food, water and shelter for itself and so died”. There’s a reason we have such concepts as criminal neglect.
In actual fact, things are harsher than that, because we are dealing with the difference between sins of commission and omission. Criminal neglect is less of a crime than infanticide. (Yes, the parallel holds – just for starters, look at what partial-birth abortion entails.)
I’m also asked whether a parent is obliged to donate a kidney to save a child’s life. First of all, I know either of my parents would, and any child of mine could rely on the same. Could that be made into a legal principle – that is, could the principle that parents are expected to take care of their children be extended that far? It’s an interesting questions, one I leave to others – because, again, we come to the distinction between commission and omission here. Failing to donate a kidney is nothing like deliberately choosing to destroy a life.
I’m also told that bodily autonomy can’t be violated even if you are directly, and criminally responsibly for my crippling. Here I can be more direct – that’s bollocks. If you poison me in a way that destroys my kidneys, and I am going to die for want of spare parts, and your kidneys are compatible, then I think it is absolutely okay to take them. If you are directly and criminally responsible (this runs into the questions of perfectibility and what the law can and cannot do, subjects for another time, but I wanted to outline the general moral principle).
– Just to clarify my point, vis a viz Miss Rand’s comments, I do agree with them; I simply think that the exception she pointed out, “when the child is fully formed”, occurs much earlier than thought. Science moves on
Some further questions:
– Isn’t this a slippery slope? Doesn’t the partial, temporary abrogation of some rights of women place on a very slippery ride to Iranian or Afghanistan levels of the treatment of women? Abortion is the lynchpin of women’s rights.
The above question is actually less hyperbolic and ridiculous than the one put to me (the implication that the logical end point of being anti-abortion is the establishment of ‘breeding camps’ – yes, this is the level of argument).
(shamelessly lifted from SlateStarCodex)
Does a willingness to be pro-abortion go along with a defence of women’s emancipation? Conversely does being anti-abortion necessarily lead to misogyny? I know there are people who would like to think so, as part of a particularly lousy argument that I will do a follow up post on, but does it hold true?
First of all, there is quite a substantial movement of pro-life feminists. Please skip the ‘No True Scotsman’ argument; there are more than enough anti-abortion movements out there that do not care for feminism, so there really is little incentive to be dissimulating on that. Further, there were plenty of historical anti-abortion feminists, according to my google-fu: Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton etc. And lookie here, courtesy of BlackGenocide, it turns out that a lot of the defenders of abortion had a very specific end in mind (yes, I know – genetic fallacy – but the argument I’m responding to isn’t even genetic).
What about the flip side of this? Are pro-abortion types more likely to defend women’s rights?
My own experience argues to the contrary. I’ve generally found that the kind of feminist who is all fire and fury for abortion is less than worthless when it comes to defending women’s rights elsewhere. The most obvious example here would be Islamic misogyny. It’s pretty much an open secret that Western feminists are not particularly good at standing up to Islamic misogyny, and feminists who actually do do so are attacked quite viciously by the rest. Vide Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Wafa Sultan, Nonie Darwish etc. If you read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s books – and, remember, she comes from a culture where ‘having your body autonomy taken away’ really means something – you will not find much discussion of abortion, and you will learn a lot about the utter uselessness, the active betrayal, on the subject of the rights of women who are not middle-to-upper class, university educated, Western women.
For example, let’s take FtB. I know looking for petty, spiteful, small-minded bullshit from FtB is like panning for salt in the dead sea, but why make things hard? Anne Marie Waters is at the forefront of trying to roll back Sharia and prevent honour killings, FGM etc., and just look at the reception she gets from this crowd (incidentally, do read her response; it is excellent).
Or let’s take President Obama, a man so committed to being pro-Abortion that he voted against saving the lives of babies who survived the procedure, and has made exactly one speech on the subject of women’s rights under Islam, about the right to wear a hijab. Very brave.
Conversely, it is right wingers like myself, often right-wingers who are quite anti-abortion who are making a fuss about Islam’s gender jihad and sticking up for people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
But there is more. Oddly enough, abortion isn’t always something that benefits women. There are unscrupulous men who can and do take advantage of that (Hills like White Elephants, anyone?). And abortion is liked a great deal by societies where women are considered second class and second rate.
Sex-selective abortion is at such a widespread phenomenon in China and India, that even feminists gung-ho for abortion have noticed that it is mass killing, apparently believing that you can be for abortion in general, and against ‘gendercide’ in particular. The massive imbalance in sexes is fueling spikes in rape, abduction and sex-slavery. More generally, the phenomenon is leading to what Phillip Longman calls ‘The Return of Patriarchy‘. And this isn’t any wimpso ‘patriarchy’ as defined by loud boring people yelling from the heights of pelf and privilege, this is the real thing. You asked for it.
So, does being pro-abortion = pro-women’s emancipation? The evidence is the other way.
– Can one legally prescribe that a pregnant woman take supplements etc, given the responsibilities to the child?
No, I don’t believe so. Parents have responsibilities for their children, but the flip side of that is having authority. I don’t support the state being able to tell parents how to feed their children, and, yes, I know that that does mean that some kids get a bad diet. But I cannot see any legal fix there, without causing worse abuses of governmental power. The same principle applies here.
Where is the line drawn? I am not sure. But in the same way that we are unsure as to when the state should step in to protect kids from abuse, but are sure that it should definitely prevent infanticide, I am unsure about the line here, but am sure that abortion should not happen beyond the eight week cutoff.
– Anti-abortion types invest the unborn not with equal rights, but with extra-rights, because they insist that the foetus’s right to life trumps the rights of the woman over her body. No person has the right to crawl into another person’s body and live there parasitically for a few months.
Try the following on for size: “No person has the right to invade another person’s home, live off their work, expect food, shelter, security and education without paying for it – for years on end. Therefore: if parents decide to abandon their newborn in the snow, or not feed him, that is perfectly fine.”
Children do not enjoy full rights for a very good reason, and they do enjoy extra protections for an equally good reason. Just because a child is unborn does not change that fact.
– Atheist anti-abortion types are just like religious anti-abortion types. The religious anti-abortionist has an irrational faith that God considers all life sacred, the atheist anti-abortionist has an irrational faith in the sanctity of all life. They are both equally irrational.
I swear, this argument is being made with a straight face.
“Martin Luther King used religious arguments to defend the equality of the races, but I’m an atheist and therefore I don’t believe in anything that irrational! Solzhenitsyn used religious arguments to indict the Soviet Union, but I’m an atheist, so therefore praise Stalin!”
Yes, that is quite enough of that. And the first argument is indeed being made by genuine racialists.
For those who want an absolute, objective basis for the value of life, please read Atlas Shrugged.
Shadow of a Doubt has a good post on the utter refusal to engage in rational discussion of this subject by the SJW/Feminist crowd. He links to this prime example of ‘Shut up,’ she explained,the ‘Secular Woman Community’ demanding that this is not be discussed, addressed, in any way, shape, or form in the secular community. Whatever happened to Nullius in Verba?
Do give Shadow a read; I confess, I’m happy for the other side to abandon the field here, but his post is good.