Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Atheist, Gay, Pro-Life: An Activist Describes His Conversion

[Today's post is an interview conducted by Sarah Terzo. Sarah is a pro-life atheist, a frequent contributor to Live Action News, a board member of the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians, and the force behind]

The pro-life movement is more diverse than its critics imagine. People of all religions, races, and sexual orientations oppose abortion.

Pok is an atheist and gay pro-life activist who grew up in the Philippines. He was pro-choice until he came to link the struggle for rights for preborn babies with the struggle for gay rights. Below is an interview I did with him.

Why were you originally pro-choice? 

There were several things that made it almost instinctive for me to be pro-choice. I grew up around grinding poverty. I have been lucky that my family has always had enough, but I saw what poverty did to relatives who hadn't been as fortunate. I saw what it was doing to my country, the Philippines, with young kids sleeping on sidewalks and under bridges—hungry, homeless, uneducated. Some my own cousins lived in a house without a roof—literally. Poverty was as ordinary as air.

You could walk down some street and literally step over children, curled up in sleep beneath the fumes of carbon-belching jeepneys and buses. I have an aunt who was involved with family planning at the community center. I think it was in their little house in the projects where I was first introduced to human reproduction and population control. I couldn't have been more than 7 years old at the time, but I started being really afraid of the population bomb. As a kid, I had visions of crowded cities with people standing on top of each in a dwindling space. But my fear was specifically directed at the uncontrolled reproduction among the poor. In my mind, I sincerely believed the way to help the poor was to stop them from reproducing.

Looking back now as a pro-lifer, that strikes me as ominous. In addition, just a few blocks from where I lived was the office of the Center for Population Control. I can't remember if that was the exact name, but I remember it having either the phrase "population control" or "population explosion" in its name. Also, for a small city in a religious country, my family was pretty unconventional. My mom was a single mom, which was pretty scandalous at the time. So, I am used to being odd. By 13 or 14 years old, I had gone beyond mere support for birth control. I was one of only two people I could remember in my debating class who was vocally pro-choice. But once again, my concern was almost wholly directed at the poor. I wanted them to have access to abortions because I saw them as a threat and a burden to the country.

What led to your becoming pro-life? 

My conversion wasn't an event. It happened gradually in the course of several years. By the time I was in college, I went through a depression which worsened year by year for over a decade. By the time I arrived in America, I had, by then, wanted to die. I realized I was gay in college, and the older I got, the more I thought I understood what it meant to be a homosexual. And to me, at the time, it meant a lifetime of unhappiness and ridicule. I had such a dark view of the world, and I simply couldn't see life worth living as a gay man. Every night, I would hope to never wake up again, and every morning, I hated that I was still alive.

I'm not sure if I was too cowardly to simply just jump onto an incoming train or I was always sane enough to actually commit suicide, but dying was constantly on my mind. I was so angry. I felt being attacked from every angle: by family, by friends, by the state, and by the church. I felt so alone, and I felt a terrible sense of injustice that society and its laws couldn't see that I am fully human. That sounds cliché, but I really can't think of any other way to say that. I know I am every bit as human as everyone else, but the law refuses to recognize that. That's the problem. For the first time, I became intimately aware of the difference between being human and being a legal person, but it wasn't until later when I saw the parallels between the status of homosexuals and the preborn. I did my best to deny that, and when I couldn't, I felt horrible for even daring to compare homosexuals to a clump of cells. That was hard to accept as a hardcore prochoicer. I felt like I betrayed my best friend. So, I resisted that for years by employing a bit of selective perception and cognitive dissonance.

I kept telling myself that homosexuals are human in a way that the preborn aren't, but deep down, I knew it was a mere piece of paper, a mere artificial and legal designation that created the difference. And deep down, I knew that the difference between homosexuals and the fetus is the same prejudice that differentiates homosexuals from heterosexuals. I could only deny that to myself for so long. When I saw the video of the hanging of two Iranian teens in 2005, I could no longer deny my denial. [Editor's note: In the incident Pok refers to, the teenage victims were targeted for their sexual orientation.] I could no longer reconcile my sense of injustice at the rejection of the personhood of homosexuals with my own rejection of the personhood of the preborn. We are both as human as the other and both as legal nonpersons as the other. The very same artificial legal boundaries that define what rights I may or may not have are the very same artificial legal boundaries that objectify our youngest human beings as mere body parts that could be thrown away at will.

How did your family/pro-choice friends respond to your new pro-life views? 

We don't talk about abortion openly in the family, except in the few times we had to deal with it directly. And even then, I couldn't say anything. My family is pro-choice. As for my friends, I have lost a few, but everyone of my closest friends are still there. I was lucky to have known them long before my vocal support for human rights for the preborn. We've bonded early on, and we've learned to respect each other and know our limits. But, initially, it created some strains in some of my relationships.

When abortion ever came up, there was this expectation that every reasonable person should be pro-choice. It was awkward to be at dinner parties with friends I've argued with, but we've learned to see past our differences, thankfully. Coming out as pro-lifer has also yielded some surprises from the unlikeliest places. I have friends whom I just assumed would be pro-choice, but let me know in private that they are, in fact, pro-lifers. There are also the pro-choicers who've appreciated hearing, for the first time, a secular side to pro-life arguments other than the usual religious claims.

What have you done in the pro-life movement, and what do you continue to do?

I do what little I can. I've attended the past two marches in Washington, DC, and tried to connect with more secular pro-lifers out there to lend a non-religious alternative voice to the pro-life movement. There's big gap in the pro-life movement that's waiting to be filled by people who are pro-life but are uncomfortable with religion. The pro-choice movement has been very successful in isolating pro-lifers and in making the pro-life movement socially and politically unacceptable.

Part of the problem is because it's easy to ignore and marginalize a movement when it's closely associated to religion at the precise time when the country is growing increasingly agnostic. Secular pro-lifers have been largely AWOL in the abortion debate, and the argument for life has almost entirely been left up the religious. But that's not because a secular defense for life doesn't exist. It's a combination of, both, a still very young organizational structure on the secular pro-life side, and the pro-choice movement's monopoly on the one-way dialogue on abortion.

I, too, didn't know about a secular argument for life when I was beginning move towards being pro-life. Knowing that secular pro-lifers are out there gave me validation for my developing prol-ife philosophy. Prior to being pro-life, I'd already made commitments to some charitable organizations, but being pro-life only underscored the importance of providing sufficient resources for those in need—not just those in the womb, but those already born. My family had also set up a small fund to send our poor cousins to school. A few have since graduated college. It's a small effort, but it's something we hope makes a difference.

Why do you feel that gays and lesbians should be pro-life? 

Homosexuals are natural pro-lifers because they are still insufficiently legal persons, like the preborn. The entire philosophy of revolt of the gay movement rests on a simple but powerful notion that our human rights as homosexuals are intrinsic on the very fact that we are organically human. Laws merely recognize a humanity that already preexists, but it cannot confer humanity, by itself. The absence of the evidence of our existence in our laws doesn't make us nonexistent. They merely make us legally invisible.

This was the very same injustice that the early feminists fought head on. That is why Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul, Mary Wollestoncraft, Victoria Woodhull and the first wave feminists were pro-lifers. And that is also why the refusal of our laws to recognize our humanity as homosexuals is so deeply unjust. Legal personhood is a pure legal construct that has nothing to say about our underlying humanity. Laws can artificially accord non-human corporations personhood, or it can make male-to- female transexuals into legal women. Our legal non-personhood is an unjust, artificial, self-perpetuating injustice mitigated by those who've defined the criteria for personhood in a way that disqualifies homosexuals from ever becoming persons. It is the same for those who set the personhood of humans in the womb at the moment of their birth. There is nothing miraculous about birth that biologically transforms a non-human being into a human being when a baby takes her first breath outside the womb. Her rights do not derive from her location and age, but are intrinsic to her humanity, in the very same way that the gay movement lays a claim to human rights on the simple, unalterable fact that we are human.

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