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.