During his lifetime, Christopher Hitchens seems to have been consistent always in perceiving the rightful place of the unborn as members of our human family; yet he seems to have been “all over the map” regarding public policy on abortion. He said different things about law and policy at different times. And that inconsistency seems to have been partly because he never made the ethics of abortion his main focus; he never became determined to get to the bottom of it. Nevertheless, because of his brilliance and because of his unsurpassed credentials as an atheist, in a world where the abortion-rights position owes a lot of its present ascendance to having succeeded in painting the pro-life cause as purely religious, anything that he said in support of the pro-life cause is understood to matter. In a debate last month, Dinesh D’Souza claimed that Hitchens had been “pro-life,” while Matt Dillahunty responded that Hitchens “wasn’t in favor of making [abortion] illegal.” So what is the reality?
If Hitchens is known to have said different things about abortion policy at different times in his life, what should clearly matter most is the last position he is known to have taken. His last position should reasonably be taken as his most mature and most definitive position. The last statement of his that I have been able to discover came in a debate with Frank Turek on September 9, 2008.* At 00:19 Turek says that Hitchens, in a book of his, advocated the termination of pregnancy in some cases. At 1:37 Hitchens replies:
I do as a humanist feel that the concept “unborn child” is a real one. . . . And I feel a responsibility to see the occupant of the womb as a candidate member of society in the future, and thus to say that it cannot be only the responsibility of the woman to decide upon it. It’s a social question, and an ethical and a moral one. And I say that as someone who has no supernatural beliefs. . . . The presumption is that the unborn entity has a right on its side, and that every effort should be made to see if it can be preserved . . .It seems clear that “it cannot be only the responsibility of the woman to decide upon it” aims squarely at some existing contention – that he is disagreeing with something – and that that existing contention is the one that says a woman should have a legal right to choose abortion. Hitchens definitely does not want that (“cannot be”). So when an abortion is proposed, clearly the outcome finally decided will in some cases not be the one the woman wanted, and the change would have been brought about by society exercising its responsibility. Society should sometimes overrule her. Hitchens opposed the policy of abortion choice.
Here some dissection of the word “responsibility” is in order. Normally we speak of a woman's legal “right” to abort, and also of the possible “right” of the state to intervene. But the only possible justification for intervention by the state is a responsibility to protect its members. (Hitchens somehow feels obliged to call them “candidate members,” but he does not discard the clear idea of social responsibility – which in Roe v. Wade was termed “interest.”) Hitchens insists that parties other than the woman bear responsibility, and clearly those parties are society. “Responsibility” can only mean society’s responsibility to intervene in some cases. I cannot hear what he says in any other way.
So the last position that Christopher Hitchens is known to have taken was that in some cases society should overrule the woman. If no later statement of his comes to light, he should go down in history as a pro-lifer in the most common sense of the word; that is, he ended up opposing legal abortion choice. People generally become more pro-life the longer they live, and Hitchens seems to have been no exception.
In 2015, a pro-choice blogger took up the same question – the question of Hitchens’s definitive position on abortion – and came to the conclusion “Hitchens was not anti-choice.” The blogger compiled nine quotes by Hitchens that I recommend reading, six of them from a 2003 article by Hitchens. However, she did not include the above “responsibility” quote. She included a quote that she calls a “smoking gun” justifying her conclusion. In that quote, Hitchens says, “Everything in one revolts against [saying, ‘We will force you to carry a child to term.’]”
That is a strong statement of the strongest argument for abortion rights. There is no denying that. It is the kind of moving statement that Hitchens was capable of. However, it dates to 1991, so by the time of his “responsibility” statement, Hitchens had had seventeen years to mature; and he had had five years to mature and deepen his thinking since his 2003 article.
Some sources claim that Hitchens opposed overturning Roe v. Wade, but such sources as I have seen either offer no support for the claim, or refer to Hitchens’s God Is Not Great. I do not find any support in the e-edition I have of that book, but in any case Hitchens wrote that book earlier than his debate with Turek.
In a couple of talks that, from Hitchens’s appearance, must have taken place subsequent to 2008, he offered a recipe for ending poverty that included “allow women control over – some control over – their cycle of reproduction . . .” Pro-lifers completely agree that no woman should have to conceive against her will. There is no reason to understand that statement as advocacy for abortion rights.
Hitchens seems to have been against legal abortion before he was for it (his above 1991 position) before he was again against it. In a 1988 interview he said:
Margaret Thatcher voted . . . for the abortion bill [liberalizing abortion]. I gather that she’s since changed her position on the latter. My own vote would have been, as so often, exactly the reverse of hers.Also worth quoting from that interview (though not all these quotes are on the topic of legal policy):
Nobody on the left can avoid noticing that the so-called “prolife” forces are overwhelmingly female and from income groups that traditionally voted Democratic. Yet this simple rebellion by what one might dare to term humble people has been written off as reactionary by people who can’t or won’t see the essential dignity of the right-to-life position. . . . . . . once you allow that the occupant of the womb is even potentially a life, it cuts athwart any glib invocation of “the woman’s right to choose.” If the unborn is a candidate member of the next generation, it means that it is society’s responsibility. I used to argue that if this is denied, you might as well permit abortion in the third trimester. I wasn’t as surprised as perhaps I ought to have been when some feminists—only some, and partly to annoy—said yes to that. They at least were prepared to accept their own logic, and say that the unborn is nobody’s business but theirs. That is a very reactionary and selfish position, and it stems from this original evasion about the fetus being “merely” an appendage. . . .
We need a new compact between society and the woman. It’s a progressive compact because it is aimed at the future generation. It would restrict abortion in most circumstances. . . .
. . . there is a debased compassion at work. It tends to be one-sided, exclusively focused on the female condemned, as they say, to domestic serfdom. We should recognize that there are proper concerns and aspirations behind this. Women have been kept down for too long. Their struggle for greater autonomy is, in general, a just one. But its simplistic extension to abortion, I think, has aspects of neurosis and over-reaction. I think some women are trying to take revenge in part for centuries of being told by men precisely how they should live. The prolife movement, if it is to be successful, must understand these sentiments. You cannot conduct any intelligent combat if you do not understand the impulses you oppose.And in the recent debate with Dillahunty, D’Souza said (at 11:00):
I interviewed Hitchens years ago for a magazine, and we talked about this issue, and he made what I thought was an interesting point coming from an atheist perspective: . . . “Look, it’s one thing if you say that you believe in Hindu reincarnation, [in] which we have many different lives , or if you believe that there is a life to come in which if you happen to be terminated in the womb, you’re going to go to life everlasting. . . . I don’t believe any of that. I believe we have one life – this is it, this is the only one, and so ultimately it’s the only value. And if you have a life that’s coming into being, and it’s snuffed out, all its choices interrupted at the outset . . . you got to think before you do that.”
* The relevant segment is linked above; to watch the entire debate, click here.