This is an entry in the Pro-Abortion series.
UPDATE: In case this is not clear, the comments thread is there for answers to the challenge. It is not your personal soapbox. Please post a comment if, and only if, you are answering the challenge. Thank you.
UPDATE 2: See my response to the proposed arguments on the comments thread.
Throughout this series, I assume that the anti-abortion position is partially grounded in a belief in God. I anticipate that this will raise many objections from a contingent of people who profess to be atheists and call themselves pro-life as well. So I think this needs to be addressed before I continue.
Note that I am not arguing against the anti-abortion position generally in this entry; there’ll be plenty of time for that.
Now, the fundamental premise of the anti-abortion position is that “life/beingness/personhood/etc begins at conception.” In general, there is something that makes conception special and makes abortion wrong, while the wasting of sperm or ovum is not wrong.
The question then arises, how is such a proposition justified? I accept that an atheist may utter this proposition and believe that it is justified, but how is it justified without some implicit belief in ensoulment?
Here I have hit somewhat of a snag. I have done everything I could to find anti-abortion atheists and get their answers. I’ve posted on any forum where I thought I found anti-abortion atheists, sent emails to every single individual and organization professing to be secular and against abortion that I could find, and I posted an entry on this blog as a call for answers. But on the whole I’ve gotten only two answers (one of them from Robert Price on his podcast Bible Geek). In general, they have refused to answer me. I did, however, get a lot of personal attacks, some rather insulting, which I found rather hard to understand given that I merely wanted to get answers and deliberately did not criticize any anti-abortion atheist’s position.
In general, it seems that anti-abortion atheists were eager to tell me what their beliefs are, but when I asked them to tell me what the basis for those beliefs were, they either simply repeated those beliefs, called me confrontational or even a troll (when I asked him to tell me how his belief in “life begins at conception” is justified, one well-known anti-abortion atheist blogger called my question a “troll-tactic” and refused to talk to me any further). The Secular Pro-Life organization was happy to reiterate their beliefs to me but outright refused to answer my question. And I am not even talking about the discussions I had on atheist or abortion message boards. I am not telling you all this to complain but to describe the strange behavior I have observed.
I’ve only received two answers from anti-abortion atheists, but in general every proposed answer given by atheists were evidence-oriented. This is not too surprising, given that atheists tend to have a strong belief in science as the means to find answers. But how can any evidence make sense of such a proposition? The only difference, on the whole, between the states before and after conception is that two entities have been fused together.
There is no human life there, at least no more human life than that present in cancer cells. There’s no beingness or personhood there. I see no secular evidence that could make sense of any contrary belief.
Some people claim that such evidence exists. One claimed that there is an organism there at conception and that scientists have observed it, which is a straightforward lie. No such organism exists (at least, the zygote is not an organism: if there is some other life in the womb that qualifies, I am not aware of it). Similar claims that “conception is when human life begins” were made by other atheists. But this doesn’t make much more sense, as the sperm and ovum were already alive, so conception cannot be the “beginning”; and if we consider genetics as the indicator of what is “human,” there is not the DNA of the future organism there until 16 days after conception.
Granted, this does not give a big window for a zygote to be, to borrow a term, pre-human. But there is no particular reason why DNA should be our standard for what “human” means. Our most commonly used standard for defining a species hinges on reproduction, not DNA, and by that or any other non-DNA standard the zygote is no more and no less human than the sperm and ovum. There is no particular reason to adopt the DNA standard. And how can we call human something that grows a tail, a yolk sac, and gill structures? That’s just bizarre! For the sake of being understood, I will assume that the fetus is human throughout the rest of this series, since it is not really relevant to my arguments anyway and I don’t want to have to answer to this point again and again, but factually there is little reason to consider the fetus human at all.
Taking this into consideration, the claim that “conception is when human life begins” is bogus. But is it atheistic, or is it based on a religious premise? My question is not whether anyone can profess to be an anti-abortion atheist. I don’t deny that anyone can profess to be anything. What I am asking is whether the position is coherent at all, whether an atheist can consistently advocate that conception is a special event which happens to preclude abortion.
I just don’t see how that’s possible. The only way I can make sense of their aggressive reactions is to posit that asking the question makes them aware of this flaw in their own position, and thus they may believe that I am trying to expose them. Another explanation is that they believe that propositions about conception are self-evident and in no need of justification, and that thus my requests were seen as absurd or troll-ish.
Either way, I did not do it on purpose. But what it tells me is that they know at some level that their position is not coherent (whether they care about that fact is not really my concern). I believe ensoulment, and therefore a religious background, is the only way to make sense of such a position. There is no scientific evidence for the proposition that conception creates any entity which gains any attribute that makes it an ethical concern that was not already present with the sperm and ovum.
The simple fact is that anti-abortion atheists have an unnerving tendency to fall back into the insanity of religion again (such as The Raving Atheist, an outspoken anti-abortion atheist, who became the Raving Theist- I’ve seen others during my search). Why? Because, again, it’s impossible to be anti-abortion without religious dogma being in the background of your mind.
The upshot of this entry is that, for the reminder of this series, I will keep connecting the anti-abortion position with Christianity, and ignore anti-abortion atheists. This is not out of ill-will but rather because anti-abortion atheists are borrowing their justification from the Christian worldview, and as such have no unique justification of their own for me to analyze. If some anti-abortion atheist decides to pipe up now and give me a new justification (a specifically secular one, that is) that makes any scientific sense, then I will debate it separately in an added entry; otherwise, I have no reason to talk about this topic any further.