Atheism, Abortion, Guilt, and Forgiveness

This is an article that deals with the moral status of abortion. It attempts to show that any worldview that claims (1) science as its ultimate arbiter of truth, and (2) that all human lives are of equal value, must find abortion to be morally impermissible. This is the position that atheism would otherwise find itself in, inasmuch as it strongly agrees with (1) and generally agrees with (2).  And, as expected, some atheists do argue that abortion is morally impermissible.

But this is not the position that all forms of atheism take.  Some forms of atheism, against the conclusion dictated by their own principles, hold to the moral permissibility of abortion.  But how? Ostensibly, any worldview that claims both (1) and (2) cannot hold abortion to be morally permissible without being in contradiction.  And yet, some atheists, apparently, prefer the contradiction.  Why is that?

Though this article deals with abortion, this article is not about abortion per se. Abortion, however, serves to illustrate the lengths to which some forms of Atheism will go to avoid dealing with one of its intractable problems: The problem of guilt.

Science Proves that Abortion is Morally Impermissible?

Does science by itself prove that abortion is morally impermissible? Not quite. Science is in the business of describing what is, not what ought to be. It is mute as to even the most benign of ethical pronouncements.  Science cannot form our ethics. It can, however, inform our ethics. Specifically, it can inform our ethics as to the nature of the inhabitant of the womb.  So what does science have to say?

Consider the following example: Alexandra Kimball recently wrote a heartbreaking article about suffering through the miscarriage of her first child.  In part, Kimball is writing to try and reconcile her view that abortion is morally permissible with the loss she experienced in miscarriage. The heart of this discussion is where she writes:

How could I grieve a thing that didn’t exist? If a fetus is not meaningfully alive, if it is just a collection of cells – the cornerstone claim of the pro-choice movement – what does it mean to miscarry one? Admitting my grief meant seeing myself as a bereft mother, and my fetus as a dead child – which meant adopting exactly the language that the anti-choice movement uses to claim abortion is murder.

Some feminist thinkers have posited a way out of this paradox, by admitting the personhood of the fetus as they champion a woman’s right to abort it. In other words, abortion is murder, but a justified one.

This didn’t feel quite right to me, either. I began to wonder if the personhood of the prawns we carry is a result of our relationship with our own pregnancies. Unlike the aborted fetus, the miscarried child has been spoken to, fantasized about, maybe even greeted on an ultrasound or named. My precious angel.

How ought a worldview that claims to be informed by science respond to Kimball`s argument?

First, I hope that we can sympathize with Kimball and her husband as to both the loss of their child, and to the contradiction that she has experienced given her stance on abortion.  To Kimball, her loss is contingent on a scheme that classifies the inhabitant of the womb based on the attitude of the mother – a wanted inhabitant is a ‘child’ (ie. person), while an unwanted inhabitant is a ‘fetus’ (ie. non-person).  Though perhaps existentially satisfying to her given her situation, her view simply cannot be reconciled with a scientific worldview.

Any repeatable empirical test would show no difference between a `wanted` and an `unwanted` pregnancy.  In fact, repeatable empirical tests are the basis upon which multiple biological and medical textbooks report that conception is the beginning of a human life.  There is no discussion in any science textbook anywhere which could support the idea that the life in the womb is contingent on the disposition of the mother. Even the embryologists that do not agree that conception is the beginning of a human life do not claim to do so on the basis of science, but rather on philosophy and ’emotion’. The difference that Kimball posits between a ‘miscarried child’ and an ‘aborted fetus’ simply cannot be supported by science.

A worldview informed by science must view human life as beginning at conception, and must reject the view human life is contingent on the attitude of the mother. It is a basic scientific fact that the inhabitant of the womb, from the moment of conception onward, is a living and growing and developing human being.  Any worldview that claims to be informed by science, and yet denies this ascription is in contradiction.

Atheist Kelsey Hazzard provides her own rebuttal:

An 8-week-old embryo that is scheduled to be aborted looks and functions just like an 8-week-old who is loved by his or her mother. I happen to be a woman myself, so allow me to state authoritatively that women do not have the power to create life by our words, as in Genesis. […] That’s not reality, and it certainly isn’t sound medical advice.

Science can [clearly] identify human lives, and tell us when they begin and end. Unfortunately, clear answers have limited usefulness if people refuse to accept them and turn to magical thinking. My fellow skeptics are quick to call out magical thinking in the contexts of climate change, vaccines, creationism and a host of other issues — and rightly so. But when it comes to magical thinking in support of abortion, there is shameful silence.

The Ethical Calculus

Science gives us the conclusive description of the inhabitant of the womb: a living human being. But how ought a preborn human life be treated? The question to the atheist is: given that science shows that the inhabitant of the womb is a human life, under what conditions would a moral system informed by science accept the moral permissibility of abortion?

Mary Elizabeth Williams is herself a pro-abort, and agrees with science that human life begins at conception.  She has written an eye opening article about abortion, in which she summarizes her view:

When we on the pro-choice side get cagey around the life question, it makes us illogically contradictory. I have friends who have referred to their abortions in terms of “scraping out a bunch of cells” and then a few years later were exultant over the pregnancies that they unhesitatingly described in terms of “the baby” and “this kid.” I know women who have been relieved at their abortions and grieved over their miscarriages. Why can’t we agree that how they felt about their pregnancies was vastly different, but that it’s pretty silly to pretend that what was growing inside of them wasn’t the same? Fetuses aren’t selective like that. They don’t qualify as human life only if they’re intended to be born.

Williams agrees with the objective scientific conclusion, that the inhabitant of the womb is a human life.  How then does Williams, a pro-abort, claim the moral permissibility of abortion?  She tells us directly:

Here’s the complicated reality in which we live: All life is not equal.

Abortion is morally permissible because all life is not equal.  Be sure that Williams, in context, is talking about human life – All human lives are not equal.  Some lives are more important, more valuable, more worthy than others.  This is not just a bare claim of inequality – Williams is saying, evidenced by her support of abortion, that we have actionable knowledge as to which lives in particular are more worthy, and which are less.  Williams is effectively saying that there exists a hierarchy of human life, where the comforts of the upper-class trump the rights of those in the under-class.

This is the same basic claim that fuels sexism, racism, antisemitism, and any other number of condemnable -isms .  All Williams is doing in bargaining over which lives are more valuable than others. In this way, both abortion and race-based chattel slavery are upheld as being morally permissible using the same basic claim, with the only difference being the group of people whose right to life has been subordinated to the convenience of another. As J. Leeman and M. Arbo observe:

You see how the argument works. It follows the same script as nearly every other slave-holding or genocidal regime in history.

Atheism and Guilt

As it turns out, I find very few atheists who fail to affirm the equal value of each human life. So why is it that some atheists continue to support the moral permissibility of abortion, even after being shown that (1) science reveals the humanity of the preborn, and (2) abortion is therefore only morally permissible if (as the racist and sexists agree) all human life is not equal.  Atheists, generally, will not abandon (1) or agree with (2).  So what gives?

When questioned, some of my atheist friends, after much thinking, gave the honest response that they simply do not want to see their family, friends, or themselves as bad people.  They prefer to accept irrationality to an evil instantiated in the lives of their loved ones.

Consider the cost of changing views: Every woman who has walked into an abortion clinic with life in her womb and walked out without it has then committed murder. Every boyfriend who has pressured his girlfriend to end her pregnancy is guilty of the same.  Every father or mother who has escorted their pregnant daughter into an abortion clinic has participated in the intentional killing of their own grandchild.  125,000 abortions are performed around the world per day, and it is our mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, friends and neighbours, who have participated in this evil.

I can appreciate the mental gymnastics, inasmuch as atheism has no solution to offer those who have participated in moral evil. It’s not hard to find stories of both women and men who, even years later, suffer enormously from guilt due to an abortion – what does atheism have to offer them? In the atheist worldview, those against whom the offense of abortion was committed are no more – the preborn child no longer exists to grant forgiveness, so as to absolve the guilt of those who orchestrated its death. No reconciliation is possible. In atheism, the guilt that visits the conscience of such a one is made unable to leave; and so it takes up residence in the attic of the mind where it anxiously paces the floor, sometimes quiet enough to be ignored, but never giving any real peace.

Under this pressure, some atheists opt to simply deny that any evil has occurred, rather than face the guilt that accompanies wrongdoing. For some atheists, the weight of guilt that accompanies accepting a rational ethic that condemns abortion drives them to adopt the irrational alternative. This is, of course, a non-answer to human guilt. Is the only absolution in atheism in the form of denial?  Can solace be truly found in the great cosmic shoulder shrug of meaningless indifference?

The Solution to Guilt

Thankfully, atheism does not describe the world as it actually is. Guilt does have a solution in the real world, a solution rooted in a loving God – the Triune God who exists as three co-eternal co-equal Persons.  God created humanity in his image, and determines the pattern for all human relationships with His own being. God intends mankind to be that which reflects Him in creation, and thus it is incumbent on humanity to love both God and neighbour in the same fashion that the Persons in the Trinity express love amongst themselves – a love that is selfless and perfect.  The love between mother and father and child should be such.

Christianity agrees with the findings of science as to the nature of the preborn, and it affirms the value of the preborn as equal human beings.  In abortion, a child that should have been selflessly loved, who bore the image of God, is killed.  Many people who have participated in this evil confess that they daily suffer under the weight of guilt for their actions. Here, then, is the solution that atheism is unable to provide: To those who are willing to admit to their evil deeds and not excuse them – to those who weep and despair over their actions – this God of perfect love extends forgiveness. God is willing to pull even those who have effaced his image in an act of abortion out of the captivity of guilt:

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.
1 Timothy 1:15-16, ESV

The man who wrote this passage was himself a murderer.  But the guilt that would otherwise lay on his conscience has been erased by divine forgiveness – a forgiveness effected by Jesus of Nazareth, in space-time history.  In Jesus, God entered His own creation so that He could absorb into His own being the punishment of all evils committed against Him. This act of forgiveness was carried out in a crucifixion on a Roman cross on a hill in Judea, where the Wrath of God towards evil was utterly disbursed upon Jesus, on behalf of those who repent of their evil deeds and trust Him for their right standing. The Christian account, being rooted in history, finds the assurance of God’s forgiveness in the historical resurrection of Jesus from death – an event open to evidential verification.  It is out of this forgiveness, extended by God as a free gift, that humanity can be free from guilt.

Perhaps you fathered a child and bear guilt over having pressured the mother to have an abortion. Perhaps you are a mother who bear guilt over your aborted child.  You are right to feel guilt: abortion is as tangible an attack against God as is possible in the world. But God has so loved even those that make themselves His enemies that He acted to effect their redemption. Whether the guilt is due to abortion, or any other evil, the Christian answer to guilt is to admit the true depth of evil that has occurred, and to go to the One offended to ask forgiveness.  He will not turn you away.

You who were dead in your trespasses and sins, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.
Colossians 2:13-14, ESV


Atheists who claim both science and the moral permisibility of abortion can only do so using the repugnant proposition that some human lives are more valuable than others. But even if atheism does take the rational route and say that abortion is an evil, atheism has no solution to offer to those guilty of participated in this evil.  So how might atheism equip itself to deal with the guilt that accompanies taking an ethical stand that condemns friends, family, countrymen, and perhaps even one’s own self?  By offering the forgiveness of God to those who would repent and trust Jesus – by becoming Christian Theists.

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12 Responses to Atheism, Abortion, Guilt, and Forgiveness

  1. David K says:

    I won’t debate you on all points but there is a great deal to be said. You do realize that abortion is not limited to atheists, right? Many Christian (and other religious) women face the same difficult decision to have an abortion but of course your argument would not fit your conclusion if you didn’t carefully craft your argument.

    At some point, irregardless of religion or worldview, in the case of abortion, one must take the rational that one human life* is more valuable than the other. It must be nice that the Christian woman just needs to repent and ask God for forgiveness so she can start off with a clean slate. And what happens the next time she has an abortion? All she needs to do is repent and ask forgiveness again?! All you need to do is become a Christian Theist!

    In fact it is rather ironic that you are offering salvation and telling atheists that all they need to do is become a Christian, it’s not like any Christians ever get abortions, right?

    • veldsboto says:

      Hello David, thanks for commenting. I have three points of response:

      1. Yes, I know that abortions are not sought by only atheists. That wasn’t exactly the point of the article, though. I was exploring the fact that *some* atheists will abandon even their highest principles in order to avoid the problem of guilt. Abortion simply provides a convenient context for that discussion, as I have atheist friends who do this very thing.

      2. The Book of Romans, chapter 6 specifically deals with the situation you describe in your second paragraph, in which you are seemingly describing idea that Christians have unlimited freedom to do evil because God will simply forgive them. This is known as the heresy of antinomianism, and is specifically taught against in the Bible.

      3. I’m curious: you say that “At some point, in the case of abortion, one must take the rational [view] that one human life is more valuable than the other.” Can you explain the reasoning behind this statement? What is so rational about that position? And how would you avoid the parallel arguments that affirm sexism and racism, as mentioned above?

  2. David K says:

    1. As do people of every faith.

    2. Was more of a reference to telling atheists all is well as long as you repent and take JC as your savior. I hear it all the time and some theists believe it is true, no matter what, repent and be saved.

    3. Sounds like I probably edited my statement and did not proof read it. I think what I meant to say was in the decision making on having an abortion, if one felt all lives were equal, then they would need to rationalize that their life is more important than the other. Some may consider a human life more important than a Zygote, Blastocyst, Embryo or Fetus. (That is why I placed an asterisk after human life.) I am not taking a stand on whether one life is more important than the other, I cannot control the mind of others. The same could be said about sexism and racism. I could be personally against it but I cannot control what you think.

    The vegan can rationalize animals have a right to live and not be abused by humans. Do you feel that ALL lives are equal?

    • veldsboto says:

      Hello again, David.

      1. It may be, but I’m having a hard time thinking of examples. Can you? I’m genuinely curious, because it seems that atheism is particularly susceptible to denying guilt rather than dealing with it, because atheism has no means of expiation. Forgiveness can only be offered by the offended party, who, if dead, are unable to forgive. It seems that this is not the case in many other religions, who either posit either some form of afterlife, or karmic retribution, or deity to whom is thought to be able to act to forgive.

      2. In a sense, that is exactly what i`m saying: repent and be saved from God`s anger at the evil that you have done. Repentance, though, is not just mental ascent, but rather it entails an active fight against evil, in all its forms, as it is found to still exist within your person. This is what the Bible describes as the mortification of sin. People who call themselves Christians, who claim to be forgiven, and yet run willfully and continually to perform evil are simply fooling themselves into believing that they are forgiven.

      3. I think my point was that this rationalization cannot be done on the basis of science, as science says they human zygotes and human fetuses are living human beings with no qualifications as to their ontology. They are not *living human beings*, with an asterisk. They are living human beings at an earlier stage of development.

      3.5 I would love to meet a vegan and ask them as to how they defend the ontological equality of all life, over and above the science based equality of all human life. That`d be a great conversation, but I don`t think they could (inasmuch as I don`t think veganism is borne out by Christianity, and inasmuch as I think Christianity is the true description of reality). That said, I`m willing to hear the argument. As a side note, veganism entails the moral impermissibility of abortion, yes?

      Thanks for commenting!

      • David K says:

        1. I see what you are trying to say. Because an atheist does not have a system of punishment/rewards (Heaven/Hell). That has been debated a great deal in the Atheist/Theist circles. The flip side of that argument is: How can a Christian do evil if there is a system of punishment/reward? Learning right from wrong happens during the course of life, we evolve to learn that it is not okay to kill our friends 🙂 Christianity was not the first to say killing was bad, Buddhism (which is considered an atheistic philosophy/religion) also states that killing is wrong (one of the Five Precepts).

        2. I think we see eye to eye here.

        3. Does science consider them a living *human being* or developing fetus? We do not call a fly larvae a “living house fly”. But the Zygote, Blastocyst, Embryo or Fetus are often called a Baby, a Child, a Human Being. I think the use of the terminology has much to do about how guilty one may feel by having an abortion. If you refer to it as a Zygote, it doesn’t have that much of an impact but if you refer to it as a living human child, that gives more of a sense of wrong doing/guilt. Then there are other aspects that depend on your level of belief. Then there is another level we need to cover. is there ever a time when abortion or use of an abortifacient is moral? or a time when guilt is not part of the thought process? Ie. Birth control fails (Morning after pill) rape, incest..etc. Some people believe that once two people have sex, nothing should stop what “god intended”. I’m not saying I prescribe to any of these views.

        3.5. I think many things are subjective to ones views. For instance, there was a vegan uproar concerning a delicacy called “Balut” (Duck Embryo). Of course, the vegan is totally against it. A little while later there was a debate on abortion and it was pretty mixed. I was quite confused why, to some, the duck embryo was considered more important than a human fetus. Again, these are not necessarily my views but information I picked up by asking. and I seem to bring up random items during a discussion.

  3. Pingback: Atheism, Abortion, Guilt, and Forgiveness | A disciple's study

  4. notabilia says:

    I assume that you will, as a somewhat sentient, though thoroughly confused upright being, will be adopting all the children, let’s put it in the millions, who will be born instead of aborted. You are stating some lunatic opinion about the supposed value of all life, but you want to have these unwanted fetuses to be born, so you will have to have the highly dangerous process of birth yourself, you will have to nurse them all, find them clothes and shelter and raise them with sufficient guidance and money, all because you choose some idiotic opinion of “where life begins.”
    You’ve got a lot to get ready for. I’m talking of millions of babies you will be responsible for, just this year.

    • veldsboto says:

      Hello Notabilia, Thank you for commenting.

      Absolutely! As an immediate corollary to ending abortion, I would say that there are easily implementable policy changes that could make the transition much easier. Full paid maternity, longer maternity, subsidization or elimination of adoption costs, increased child tax benefits among them – these are things that I am willing to pay more taxes to implement! In addition to that, Christians would absolutely need to practice what they preach and demonstrate that all lives are valuable by acting as foster and adoption parents.

      That said, I think it’s notable My uncle has adopted. My cousin has adopted. Two of my christian work colleagues have adopted. At my church of around 200, there are probably around eight adopted children that I can think of. Of the two families I know who attend our son’s Christian school, they have adopted two children. The willingness is already there to receive these children with open arms. I can think of nothing else more worthwhile to exhaust our lives on.

      • notabilia says:

        1. It is impossible to “end” abortion. Men and women need to have sex, all across the world, and women will need to have abortions to terminate unwanted pregnancies. This is true for millions of women, and will always be true.
        2. You literally will have to make room for millions of children in your homes, and Christians are notoriously stingy and horrible parents. So unless you make the necessary plans, and show the trillions of dollars and floor plans that are necessary to “practice” the hate that you preach. you are hereby ordered to cease and desist from any and all “anti-abortion” illegal hate speech. If not. you will be arrested and put in jail.

        • veldsboto says:

          Hello again, Notabilia.
          As best as I can understand your argument, it is a reductio, reproduced below. (Let me know if I have correctly summarized it, if it can be improved in some way, etc.)
          A. – abortion is morally impermissible (for reductio)
          B. – that which is morally impermissible ought to be enforced
          C. – Enforcing the moral impermissibility of abortion will require housing all the babies that would have otherwise have been aborted
          D. – It is not possible to house all all the babies that would have otherwise have been aborted
          E. – it is not possible to enforce the morally impermissible of abortion
          F. – that which cannot be enforced is morally permissible
          G. – therefore, abortion is morally permissible
          Although I would dispute premise D, I think that the major problem with the argument is premise F. – “that which cannot be enforced is morally permissible”. This premise could be used to support the moral permissibility of looting, rape, murder, or any other number of evils that occur that are during periods of unenforceable. It is also give de facto moral permissibility to racism and sexism in places where crimes committed against minorities cannot be prosecuted because of jury acquittals. Just think: Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner – all moral killings if premise F is true. Given this, do you really want to affirm premise F? Inasmuch as F fails, so does G. Abortion is morally impermissible no matter if we can enforce it or not.

          • notabilia says:

            Abortion is completely morally permissible, to the women who need to have them, and the people that support them. Only outsider, deluded freaks seem to consider the safe and effective procedure their moral concern. These freaks have irrationally permitted themselves to feel morally superior by making a blanket, reprehensible opinion into a form of political oppression that denies family planning to these women. This causes untold suffering and hardship, and must be stopped by relentless imprisonment of these horrific monsters of illogic.
            Abortion is morally permissible should be Premise A. Only a lunatic affirms some sort of moral harm in the population of humans being increased by the hundreds of millions of all fetuses ever formed. The only way for you to see the arrogance, stupidity, and contumacious sophistry in the effort to ascribe some sort of immorality in abortion is to emphasize the patently evident failure of adoption by morally and intellectually defective, abusive, insincere, and dangerous Christian parents.

            • veldsboto says:

              Hello again, Notabilia
              I appreciate hearing what you have to say, thank you for commenting. I think it has become obvious that we hold very different standards of rationality. This is worth discussing, but the a comment box is probably not the best forum to do so. If you wanted to continue the conversation, let me know. You can email me at veldsboto(at)gmail(dot)com.

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