Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The atheist consensus on abortion

Right, let's get this blog going by jumping in the deep end. Abortion brings out the deepest emotions in people, both atheists and non-atheists alike.

On many modern topics of discussion, I am quite well versed in knowing what the general consensus is amongst atheists and people in general who follow evidence based reasoning. However, when it comes to abortion, I am quite at a loss to know how such people truly view the issue. My understanding, up until yesterday at least, was limited to the following:
  • Fundamentalist Christians: "pro-life", all forms of abortion, even the "morning-after" pill are evil.
  • Atheists/Rationalists: "pro-choice", abortion of some shape or form is a fundamental human right.
But the thing that always bugged me was not knowing what form of abortion is acceptable to the majority of atheists. To me, having been raised Catholic, abortion does admittedly feel icky, so I contented myself with accepting the status quo of most western European countries: abortion is generally okay up until 12 weeks of pregnancy. I also have a current conviction that any abortion beyond 6 months pregnancy is not morally right as the fetus is, well, human. I would agree to some exceptions, for example in cases where the life of the mother is at risk or if the fetus is significantly deformed.

Anyway, I then came across an article by PZ Myers on his excellent Pharyngula blog. The article mocked some of the ridiculous claims made by "anti-choicers", but crucially, once again, I got no feeling as to what the consensus is among the atheist community on when, as PZ put it, "[a] living thing [becomes] a person requiring extensive legal and moral protection". So, I posted the following question in the comments section of that post:
I just can’t figure out what the general consensus among PZ and like-minded people is on when the fetus should acquire legal/scientific status as a human?
Some people took the time to reply (ah, Internet, you make me feel important sometimes), and I've gathered the initial replies here:
#109 Rookie: Birth. There, wasn’t that easy?
#110 @rookieatheist: Birth. For me at least.
#112 @rookieatheist When it is born. Simple as that
#116 You’re either a liar or an idiot: the answer is, of course, at birth.
#118 @rookie In general, I would say when the fetus is viable outside the woman. Baby=capable of independent existence.
#127 rookieatheist: I tend to agree with others about birth, at least as a practical line.
#197 When it is BORN. Seriously, why is this difficult?
So seven people replied and they ALL replied that birth was the dividing line! Yikes, I really didn't expect that. Was I truly that naive? Apparently yes. So I replied (comment #542), and got some more answers:
User Eris replied with this very interesting argument:

@rookieatheist Assuming the fetus IS viable (it can live outside the uterus), then what would be the problem with inducing early labor? Because I think most of the people here would argue that if the fetus is viable and the woman wants it removed, then removing it in a manner that does not result in the fetus’s death is the best road to go if at all possible.
Inducing early birth only becomes a problem if one assumes the fetus will be harmed if it comes out, but that would indicate the fetus wasn’t REALLY viable.
I'll have to think about that one. User "Nerd of Redhead" wondered whether I was an anti-choicer trying to move the goalposts (I'm not).
User "Dr. Audley Z. Darkheart" wrote (attacked?) back at me with the following:
Limiting my rights because you feel squicky? That makes your pretty fucking bad, in my book.

That's a very bad argument from where I'm standing. I also feel "squicky" about many things that I think most atheists abhor: the death penalty, female circumcision, adoration of crucifictions, and so on. Sometimes we feel squimish because we know something to be morally wrong. Of course, that's not always true, but it's not to be dismissed easily either. But maybe she has a point and I should avoid arguing against late term abortion because of the "squicky" factor.

I'll stop there. For my first true blog post I've certainly rambled on for quite some length.


  1. Hi rookie atheist.

    I appreciate that you are trying to understand the issue and your feelings of squickiness.

    I have similar thoughts to you. I'm "squicky" about abortions after ~ 6 months or so. BUT, all that means is that when I am making my own decision about abortions in my own body, I personally will not be having an abortion after 6 months. I have no right to impose my own squickiness on other people's bodies.

    It is necessary to accept that other people have personal bodily autonomy and can make their own decisions about morality or squickiness for themselves, and that we have no right to decide for them.

    I believe you've implied that you have no possibility of being pregnant. But I hope you can understand that if you can thoughtfully consider morals and values and safety and questions, so can any pregnant person, and they can make their own decisions.

    Hence, the dividing line birth. At that point the baby is not a part of the pregnant person. Until that point, it is the decision of the pregnant person to do what she (mostly) decides with her own body, and as a human being she fully capable of evaluating the situation according to her own beliefs and morals.

    1. Hi Muon, and thanks for being the first person to reply on this new blog of mine.

      I indeed have no possibility of being pregnant as I am a man. This of course means that I will never be able to truly feel what it's like to be faced with the prospect of being pregnant. I realize, therefore, that my opinions on this subject are likely to be skewed by that perspective. I cannot make apologies for that, however, as I am who I am.

      The personal bodily autonomy argument has, in my opinion, a major weakness: Our society today does not accept such a right outside of abortion, so why should it accept it for abortion? Take the following examples:
      - suicide: all modern societies believe it to be morally and legally wrong for a person to end their lives whenever they feel like it.
      - euthanasia: even in countries where it is allowed it comes under strict control of the law and the medical profession.
      - personal mutilation: hardly any modern society finds it acceptable for a person to personally mutilate themselves. No doctor would be legally allowed to amputate my arm simply because I invoked my "personal bodily autonomy" to request such an amputation.
      - drugs: even the most liberal societies have strict regulations on what drugs can be used for personal use.

      Compared to the amputation example above, there's a helluva difference between an arm and a fetus. Scientifically, the fetus is never a part of the mother's body. It has its own DNA , its own blood type, its own nervous system. It is, as far as I'm aware, technically a parasite.

      The points I'm making here are what make me think that society has a role to play in deciding where the limits of abortion lie. Even though I initially invoked my feelings of being "squicky", ultimately I believe my opinions are based on a rational reasoning informed by both science and modern secular morals.