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January 25, 2015

Secular Arguments for Life [Y-not]

Earlier this week there was quite a lot of back and forth on Twitter and elsewhere about abortion, including some challenges to the pro-life position based on secular arguments. The thesis appeared to be that there was no way to argue against abortion without invoking The Almighty.

This post is not about abortion per se. Rather, I wanted to point out that it is certainly possible (and I might argue more powerful) to make the case for life on purely secular grounds.

There are two major issues at play. The first is establishing whether or not the living being (there is no argument that embryos and fetuses are living beings; that's simple biology) in utero is a "person."

And the second is whether or not a mother (or mother and father) have unique rights to end that life based solely on where that living being resides.

Thoughtful secular humanists have tackled these questions. A few examples are provided below:


Kristine Kruszelnicki in A Secular Case Against Abortion:

The question of personhood leaves the realm of science for that of philosophy and moral ethics. Science defines what the preborn is, it cannot define our obligations toward her. After all, the preborn is a very different human entity than those we see around us. Should a smaller, less developed, differently located and dependent being be entitled to rights of personhood and life?

Perhaps the more significant question is: are these differences morally relevant? If the factor is irrelevant to other humans' personhood, neither should it have bearing on that of the preborn. Are small people less important than bigger or taller people? Is a teenager who can reproduce more worthy of life than a toddler who can't even walk yet? Again, if these factors are not relevant in granting or increasing personhood for anyone past the goal post of birth, neither should they matter where the preborn human is concerned.

One might fairly argue that we do grant increasing rights with skill and age. However, the right to live and to not be killed is unlike the social permissions granted on the basis of acquired skills and maturity, such as the right to drive or the right to vote. We are denied the right to drive prior to turning 16; we are not killed and prevented from ever gaining that level of maturity.


Nat Hentoff describes his journey to the pro-life position in
The Indivisible Fight for Life
:

But then I started hearing about "late abortion." The simple "fact" that the infant had been born, proponents suggest, should not get in the way of mercifully saving him or her from a life hardly worth living. At the same time, the parents are saved from the financial and emotional burden of caring for an imperfect child.

And then I heard the head of the Reproductive Freedom Rights unit of the ACLU saying - this was at the same time as the Baby Jane Doe story was developing on Long Island - at a forum, "I don't know what all this fuss is about. Dealing with these handicapped infants is really an extension of women's reproductive freedom rights, women's right to control their own bodies."

That stopped me. It seemed to me we were not talking about Roe v. Wade. These infants were born. And having been born, as persons under the Constitution, they were entitled to at least the same rights as people on death row - due process, equal protection of the law. So for the first time, I began to pay attention to the "slippery slope" warnings of pro-lifers I read about or had seen on television. Because abortion had become legal and easily available, that argument ran - as you well know - infanticide would eventually become openly permissible, to be followed by euthanasia for infirm, expensive senior citizens.

And then in the New York Review of Books , I saw the respected, though not by me, Australian bio-ethicist Peter Singer boldly assert that the slope was not slippery at all, but rather a logical throughway once you got on to it. This is what he said - and I've heard this in variant forms from many, many people who consider themselves compassionate, concerned with the pow erless and all that.

Singer: "The pro-life groups were right about one thing, the location of the baby inside or outside the womb cannot make much of a moral differ ence. We cannot coherently hold it is alright to kill a fetus a week before birth, but as soon as the baby is born everything must be done to keep it alive. The solution, however," said Singer, "is not to accept the pro-life view that the fetus is a human being with the same moral status as yours or mine. The solution is the very opposite, to abandon the idea that all human life is of equal worth." Which, of course, the majority of the Court had already done in Roe v. Wade.

Read the whole thing.


Finally, Christopher Hitchens speaking in January 2008:

"I've had a lot of quarrels with some of my fellow materialists and secularists on this point, [but] I think that if the concept 'child' means anything, the concept 'unborn child' can be said to mean something. All the discoveries of embryology [and viability] - which have been very considerable in the last generation or so - appear to confirm that opinion, which I think should be innate in everybody. It's innate in the Hippocratic Oath, it's instinct in anyone who's ever watched a sonogram. So 'yes' is my answer to that."


Abortion is a very difficult subject about which to argue constructively and effectively. Those of us with strong positions about it, pro and con, can easily throw up our hands, demonize our opponents, and assume we will never come to an understanding. There are certainly times when I simply block out those arguing for "abortion rights" out of sheer exasperation.

And, to be honest, I sometimes block out the arguments being made against abortion, especially when they are based on emotionalism and vitriol, despite the fact that I am sympathetic to those making the arguments.

But these words always bring me back around to continuing the struggle:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

I do not want to subject myself to a government that is not committed to securing the right to life for its most vulnerable residents.

Do you?


Open thread.

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posted by Open Blogger at 11:00 AM

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