So apparently there's this podcast called Ask an Atheist (AaA) that asked their listeners to provide non-religious reasons to oppose abortion. On June 17th, AaA discussed these responses and other abortion-related topics during their show entitled "The Other A-word."
Listen to the full show (or download it) here. Please note: the online audio clip displays the time remaining in the show. All time stamps below are the time that has past in the show, based on the downloaded audio clip.
“Like, so, a dog barf slime mold is precious?”
During the first segment of the show, hosts Sam, Bob, and Eileen consider abortion from a "sort of medical point of view and a morality point of view" (0:57). Emphasis on "sort of." They quote from listener-submitted emails:
- "Address the question of when a fetus goes from something that is not a person to something that is" (1:11),
- "When two adults engage in consensual sex they are aware that a pregnancy could result from the encounter" (4:28),
- "As a humanist I believe strongly that every life is inherently precious and equally deserving of the right to life" (5:34),
- "From a biological standpoint, every egg and sperm combination is unique" (6:27),
- "As a humanist I believe that the more fragile a life is, the more it needs protection" (9:06); and
- "From a biological standpoint, every embryo is a growing entity with the potential to become a viable life" (10:45).
Perhaps because I am pro-life, it is clear to me that most of these queries are in reference to human organisms. Apparently this was not clear to our hosts, who managed to joke about the skin cells scratched off their arms screaming "help me, help me!" as they die (1:55), discuss whether "dog barf slime mold" is precious (5:40), point out that the single-celled germs we kill with hand cleansers aren't people (6:11), and laugh about how asparagus is fragile (10:01). They all heartily agree that "the twinkle in Dad's eye--I'm sorry, that's just not a baby" (4:19). I guess now that I know mold, asparagus, and twinkles aren't people, I can be pro-choice. I'm glad someone finally cleared that up.
To be fair, they don't spend the entire time attacking strawmen. They do discuss the zygote too. While there is an offhand acquiescence to the idea that the zygote is "a human" (2:57), the hosts repeatedly assert that it is not "a person":
- "The point is that green is not blue" (1:24),
- "A group of cells--whether they be a single cell organism, two cells, three cells, four cells--is not a person" (2:23),
- "Most people who don't have a very specific dog in this fight wouldn't say that it begins on day zero, as you put it. They'd say it begins sometime after day zero" (3:48),
- "Single cells, everyone agrees, just not a big deal. This idea that the potential is the same thing as person just collapses when you think about it" (6:03).
Unfortunately, they never quite get to the part where they define the significant moral distinction between, to use their analogy, blue and green (a newborn and a zygote). They offer their repeated assertion, but no rationale, no basis--no argument. Apparently the medical, moral standpoint boils down to "nuh-uh!"
“We cannot have abortion because that ‘unique little soul’ would go away!”
Aside: I am a big supporter of Secular Pro-Life because I want people to have frank, useful conversations about abortion. Quoting Bible verses to people who don’t believe in the Bible is not useful. There’s a flip side to that coin, though: rejecting pro-life claims because you don’t believe in a soul does nothing for pro-lifers who also don’t believe in a soul. Pro-choicers think religion should be irrelevant to the abortion debate? We do too! So why do some pro-choicers continue to discuss religion even when no one else has brought it up?
One listener emailed in saying, “from a biological standpoint, every embryo is a growing entity with the potential to become a viable life" (10:45). Bob’s response? (11:04)
Yeah, potential—what just drives me nuts about this Quiverfull movement...is the idea ‘We’re going to let God decide how many children we’re going to have.’ Which is, from my standpoint, the same thing as ‘I’m going to drink a big bottle of poison. I’m going to let God decide if I die or not.’
Why is Bob talking about the Quiverfull movement and God? Acknowledging the biological reality of the embryo does not somehow imply a religious value that everyone should get pregnant as often as possible, anymore than saying a 3-year-old is a human being implies that everyone should have lots of toddlers. If AaA wants non-religious arguments against abortion, perhaps they shouldn’t assign religious meaning where none was provided.
This disconnect arises again with Mike, Deanna, and Libbie, the next set of hosts. Mike poses an amazingly loaded (they prefer the term "open") question (21:54):
Can you find a rational, justified argument for making abortion illegal that doesn’t, when you dig down deep under all the equivocations, under all the bad science, under all the red herrings, that you won’t find religious ideology at the bottom of it?
Shockingly, Mike's fellow pro-choicers can't think of a non-religious reason to oppose abortion. Deanna claims pro-life arguments come down to claiming "the potential baby is a special, unique creature endowed with a soul at the moment of conception by their god" (22:35). She goes on to assert "when you look at the science that opposes that you're still not looking at a unique, special, magical, souled creature" (22:52).
Deanna is right. Science does not support anything "magical" or "souled." If you take those superfluous adjectives out, though, science actually does support the "unique creature" narrative. Unique DNA from the moment of conception, guys. The hosts earlier in the show already acknowledged this point (6:32).
“It’s not about abortion. It’s about making more little Christians.”
The biggest religious red herring—by far—comes from Libbie. According to Libbie, pro-lifers don't oppose abortion due to an actual problem with abortion. Instead (28:14):
What they care about, what's really at stake here for them, is the gradual decline in numbers of members of their religion.
This is what I think. I’m not a scientist okay? I’m not like a social scientist, whatever. This is just my opinion about the situation. But I think that the need to reproduce, to have as many babies as possible in any given family, is a feature that is built into religions that long-term exist, like I said a little bit earlier. And I think it’s kind of a three-pronged approach of how this happens, how this is actually built into the meme of religion.
Number One: The best way to keep a woman uneducated is for her to have children young. If she’s too busy raising kids she’s not going to go to school, she’s not going to educate herself, she’s probably not even going to have time to think too much about politics or anything like that. She’s going to be too busy running around taking care of kids forever because she’s going to be barefoot and pregnant for most of her life!
Number Two: An uneducated person is far more likely to be religious than nonreligious. I think a few different studies have shown, including, I believe, Darrel Ray's, that as a person’s level of education increases their tendency to become less religious also increases. So the more uneducated a person is, the more likely they are to cling to a religion.
And Number Three: The more religious a mother is, the more likely she is to raise her children religious.
So therefore you keep a woman uneducated, pregnant and having babies, she’s going to raise up religious babies. And that just keeps the religion going, and I think that’s what these people are really afraid of, whether it’s conscious or not, whether they realize this or not. This is so much a part of religion, that I think these people are really fearful of a loss of their culture, a loss of their religion, and that’s what they’re really fighting against. It’s not about abortion, it’s about making more little Christians.
I felt this amazing mischaracterization of the pro-life position deserved a very specific reply:
Of course, later the hosts go on to talk about how pro-lifers just want to guilt and shame people into not having or enjoying sex (32:41, 33:52, 35:16) (which, by the way, is apparently another tactic to ensure people are trapped in religion (35:31)). I'm not clear on how pro-lifers can simultaneously want everyone to procreate as much as possible and also want to stop people from having sex, but whatever. It seems any theories of pro-life motivation, however internally inconsistent, are acceptable, as long as those theories have nothing to do with, you know, the fact that abortion kills fetuses. The entire podcast tended to avoid that small detail.
We Are Here.
There’s no denying that the pro-life movement is strongly correlated with religiosity, particularly forms of Christianity. In that light, it is somewhat understandable that AaA puts forth so much energy rebutting Christian-specific assertions. It would be a lot more understandable, though, if they hadn’t asked for and quoted non-religious anti-abortion arguments throughout the show. As it stands, they side-stepped the non-religious points, and opted to focus on religion anyway.
Religion gives abortion advocates a cop-out. They can allege religious misogyny and ignore the historical anti-abortion stances of prominent feminists. They can claim puritanical views on sex and avoid the level of fetal development at the time of most abortions. They can talk all day about how there’s no proof of a soul and skip the part where there’s plenty of proof of a new human life.
This is exactly why I devote my pro-life activism to Secular Pro-Life. Perhaps if more people recognized the religious-free arguments against abortion, we could stop having the same sideshow conversations.