Some of the easy, commonplace explanations for this question pro-choice adherents often give, first:
1. Traditional religions came into being at a time when women were seen as inferior to men and patriarchy was the norm, and such views were adopted by those who formulated the foundational texts of such religions. Christianity is a traditional religion. Hence, inherent in Christianity is a bias against women and in favor of patriarchy. Christians’ opposition to abortion is a reflection of this outdated worldview.
2. People who adhere to traditional religions tend to be conservative. Prior to antibiotics, abortion was dangerous for women. An older ethics established abortion as a sin — something which might not have occurred if people at the time had access to abortion. Traditional, conservative people — Christians and others — continue to cling to worn-out, retrograde ideas.
3. An ancient theological error (originating prior to the advent of medical/scientific knowledge about fetal development) continues to misinform the thinking of Christians on matters related to abortion. Here I’m primarily thinking about the idea that inside a sperm or an egg is a nested-doll series of tiny, post-fetal looking humans.
4. Bracketing ancient theological errors based on faulty science which continues to shape the present debate (despite a consensus rejection of the faulty science by all sides in the debate — including conservative Christians), still inherent in many present day understandings of Christianity is an error which distorts some Christians’ ability to properly understand the ethics surrounding abortion: namely, ensoulment or the idea that in addition to the human mind there is another entity called the soul which comes into being at the same time as conception. In adddition to philosophical problems inherent in such a “dualistic” view of reality, it also has the unfortunate side effect of leading to (incorrect) pro-life conclusions.
I don’t favor any of these explanations, though there may be elements of truth expressed in some of them. Instead, I’d like to suggest another (and I feel better) explanation: What if the reason that Christians aren’t as pro-choice as atheists involves their differences over general metaphysical principles? In other words, what if Abrahamic monotheism tends to lead conclusions on the abortion question which are different from the ones toward which atheism tends to lead?
To be clear: We would be locating tendencies which become apparent only when one looks at groups as opposed to individuals. (So, for example, the existence of pro-choice Christians isn’t in and of itself an argument against my position.) Because, clearly, there is no monocausal factor which inexorably/causally leads one to being pro-life or a pro-choice.
But before we examine this possibility any further, allow me to ask the bedrock question: Is it even conceivable that an ethical conclusion ever would hinge on one’s general belief in God? (“General” since if one held literalist views of scripture then the answer to the above question would be an easy “yes, of course”: For example, the literalist whose religious text informs him that it’s a sin for humans to eat food X on day Y will come to a different conclusion from the other literalist who holds to a different text which informs him that it’s a sin not to eat food X on day Y. And doubtlessly the atheist will be in disagreement with both of them.)
But what if we limited ourselves to moral issues which have no literal mandate in scripture? I’d be remiss not to mention that there is an interesting argument against the very possibility that there could be any differences in ethical conclusions between atheists and anyone else not adhering to divine commands — assuming that members of both groups, atheists and the religious, are reasoning correctly and not subject to irrational biases.
The argument goes something like this: If we assume God exists and is all loving, then God would want what is best for people. But people who don’t believe in God (at least those attempting to behave in enlightened ways) want what’s best for people, too. Hence, people who believe in God (barring those whose ethics is dictated by divine decree stemming from ancient texts) and those who don’t believe in God always–if logic errors, biases, and lack of good will on both sides are culled out–will come to precisely the same ethical conclusions.
I don’t buy it.
One of the assumptions in the above paragraph is that God only wants what is best for humans and doesn’t have wants which are unique to himself. Of course, if God had wants unique to himself, then humans might also adopt those wants as their own–and though in a sense those wants would no longer be unique, still humans’ adopted wants wouldn’t be “per se” or primary wants like God’s–instead, these adopted or “secondary” wants would be ones which develop out of an attachment or relationship to God. A “worldy” analogy of this situation might be the family member who braves cold, wet weather to bring home a special take-out meal–not because that person particularly likes the special dish but because he or she knows that the other family member–the one celebrating a birthday–will appreciate it.
Limiting ourselves to considering other (mortal) people, we know that no two people have exactly the same, overlapping set of wants. Hence, if God were just like another person, adding God’s will into the mix of our considerations would at least in some situations affect how we solve our decision-making questions. Of course, God isn’t just like another person and the abortion question might not be one of those situations in which God’s decisions are (in part or in whole) different from what humans would conclude were they not to attribute incorrectly (to play devil’s advocate) to him “pro-life” views.
But if we don’t prejudice ourselves from the get-go against the possibility of considerations of God’s will (determined even without reference to literalistic, divine commands) affecting how the abortion question is solved, I believe there are several “non-philosophical” reasons to think that there is something to be said for such a possibility. (Hang on, after that I’ll delve into more strictly philosophical/theological considerations–a section which, surpringly enough, will be relatively brief.)
Consider that in America and in Europe a large percent (certainly a heavy majority) of the opposition to unlimited abortion comes from Christian communities (other Abrahamic faiths in America at present make up only a small fraction of the electorate–perhaps in another essay I’ll comment on abortion within Judaism and Islam). Yet, interestingly enough, this considerable opposition comes despite there being no literal command in the Bible against elective abortion (or any kind of abortion). Also, consider that if abortion hinged more on identity politics related to sex (disputes between men or patriarchy and women), we would expect (as is the case with most other matters associated with identity politics) a man-woman divide on the abortion question. However, for many years the best polls have found no such divide–and this is to the point that even “liberal” news organizations have run articles (not merely opinion pieces) acknowledging that to the extent there is a small gap, it’s women who tend to be more pro-life than men. (In contrast, it’s almost unheard of for any issue that somehow might be described by sociologists or pollsters as one associated with race-based identity politics to not show deep divides directly related to–naturally enough–the race of the participants in the study.) Of course, unlike the sex of the participant, religious practices are to a degree predictive of how a person lines up on the abortion question.
Setting aside practical or “horse-sense” considerations which empirically link different abortion conclusions to differing worldviews, what can be said philosophically about the suggested linkage between abortion conclusions and general (again, even non-divine command oriented) worldviews?
People who adhere to traditional Abrahamic-like monotheisms believe that an omnibenevolent God actually is “out there”–as opposed to being merely a construction of our psyches or some type of wish-fulfillment or even the sum of all (mortal or living) consciousness. God, as an actual being, then, has a perspective on how thngs should be and run in this universe as well as on what’s valuable which humans should seek to emulate.
Looking at life “through God’s eyes” means that the universe is on some level a designed creation. (“Designed creation” not in the sense of the Creationist movement or even the Intelligent Design movement–both of which seek to deny evolution to varying degrees, but rather in the largest possible sense– in a sense in which evolution could be a tool–though not necessarily the exclusive tool–through which God’s plans manifest themselves in this world.)
From the standpoint of the designer/artist, humankind (a creation within a creation), then, like any other form of creation or artistry — despite having different facets and aspects to it and despite the fact that parts of it can be categorized or conceptualized in this way or that way –is ultimately a unified whole.
The mere fact that the human embryo–the beginnning of a human being–doesn’t exhibit consciousness or even low-level sentience doesn’t mean that it’s not part of a time-spanning artistic unit which includes the human at later, more mature stages of development. Also, as part of a unified artistic unit, the embryo isn’t insignficant to the designer. Instead, it plays a role–it is part of the “finished product”–part of the exhibition of artistry, as I believe this next analogy will show even more clearly.
Consider a time-based art form such as a novel or a movie. If one were to ask what features a movie has to have to be a movie, the following answer might be reasonable to many people: A movie (and here I’m limiting myself to “standard” movies–as opposed to Wharholesque-type productions which might feature people snoring for twenty minutes), at a bare minimum, must have a plot which involves a conflict of some kind.
But while this “essence” of what a standard movie is might be true enough, it fails to follow that because of this essence the beginning of a movie–which doesn’t (at least not directly) involve the conflict–is an artistically unimportant part of it. In other words, it’s not as if an auteur or a screenwriter would be happy with a person if he chose to unceremoniously cut away the beginning of a movie since, after all, it didn’t directly deal with the conflict.
The beginning is important! (Trust me, I can tell you this from firsthand experience–I’ve been working on a screenplay for over ten years.)
Beginnings are “custom-designed” by the artist–just as every other part of the creation has to be. A human embryo–while it may look like any other embryo–is nevertheless unique in ways that affect the latter stages of development.
How fast do the mitochondria of such an embryo kick out ATP? Granted, from one embryo to another we might notice merely fractions on nanoseconds in difference (it might be that such differences are as of yet undetectable). But those fractions of nanoseconds foreshadow the rest of the story–albeit in a slight, as of yet unknown way.
How about the number of pores in the cellular membrane? The placement and division of various organelles? The genetic code the embryo carries and which is a part of itself?
Of course, a person looking at an embryo and an adult human being from the standpoint of what each does and how each performs might not connect the two: they are, after all, very dissimilar. An adult human (typically) can think incredibly abstract and complicated thoughts, feel pain, set goals, self-direct, and feel a sense of his or her own worth, among many other notable achievements. In contrast, a human embryo can’t think, can’t feel, can’t set goals for itself, and can’t define itself. As it is at that moment, a human embryo matches up more to the embryo of any other species or to a very simple brainless creature.
I’m not arguing that one can’t “disconnect” the embryo from the adult human; I’m simply arguing that if a person chooses to disconnect the two things then he or she has done so by way of a particular lens and not any and all lenses or some “universal” lens of understanding and knowledge.
Since it’s of course true that everything in this universe is related or connected to everything else, one can argue for any kind of categorization system one wants and still not violate the cold, hard rules of logic. Still, that doesn’t mean we feel (because ultimately there is subjectivity involved here) that everything is connected in an equally strong manner. Some “things” feel to us to be more connected or tied to other things–some to the point that we would want to group them together, others not. A good argument doesn’t necessarily have to convince everyone (as if that were possible) but simply be logically coherent and consistent as well as emotionally more compelling than competing arguments for whatever particular subgroup of the population the honest outside evaluator a) is concerned about and hence is monitoring in some sense and b) respects as at least being rational.
If one chooses to look at the embryo and the adult human from the standpoint of a creator, the two–despite their dissimilarities–can be tied together quite “naturally” and easily–in a manner that, speaking only for myself, feels right.
Creators work the end and beginning of a story to achieve a desired effect. As a screenwriter, I might realize that the beginning of my story as I perceived it at the start of the creative process must be rearranged if it is to “flow” toward the end of my story as I now envision it. For example, initially I might want to make my character out to be a man-on-the-street type, but I might later realize that I need to plant in him seeds so that he becomes interested in a particular cause which factors into the story’s end–despite the fact that most people (such as the man on the street) aren’t interested in the cause.
Likewise, the end I first imagine for my character might need to be altered if I realize that the only way to achieve such an end is to start with a beginning I can’t stomach–perhaps because it’s implausible.
Of course, God doesn’t make mistakes which require alterations, but it seems that God would have to work through matters taking into account logical or aesthetic or moral constraints, and such a working-through process would require God to mentally link the embryo with the adult human in an incredibly “thick,” complicated manner–a manner worthy of the production of the greatest art.
Artistic units (or works or objects of art) not only resist being “essentialized,” but when we look at them from a creator’s standpoint they typically show a tremendous number of cross-linkages magnitudes of order above “things” outside of those units.
Of course, for the atheist life is really the result more of the accidental than artistic planning and design, so humans themselves need to impose meaning, and secondary wants deriving from inferring what a designer might have been thinking are illegitimate.
Again, however, I need to stress that ultimately there is a subjective factor involved–which is to say that one’s conclusion on the matter is subject to one’s feelings to an extent. What we view as a cross linkage is subject to debate. Typically, all one can do when it comes to ethical issues is to show that one’s position doesn’t violate known and accepted truths and, after that, feels right–plausible and not overly “stretched.” My concern isn’t with proving that the embryo and the adult human are in fact one unit to everyone out there, but merely with providing those who feel or suspect that there is or might be a connection an understanding of why they’re feeling as they do.
I wanted to write this because for some time I’ve felt that most pro-life explanations fall short of the goal line. Many make no reference to God at all–probably because the authors of such arguments feel their cases would be legally inadmissible on the grounds of violation of the principle of the separation of church and state. This puts those authors in the very untenable position of maintaining that despite the fact that there are a lot of smart atheists out there the vast majority of them just happen (coincidentally) to get their logic messed up–whereas the majority of Christians (many of whom haven’t thought about this issue in any kind of deep way at all) just happen to get their logic right. But, of course, there’s absolutely no connection between this odd set of coincidences and what differentiates an atheist from a Christian.
As to the legal inadmissibility of making my kind of argument: The problem with thinking that my argument is inadmissible is that I’m arguing that groups of people tend to come to the abortion conclusions that they do because of their worldview. In other words, worldview affects things, and there is no universally accepted “perch place” from which to view the world and render judgments. The law can’t assume that the Christian worldview is correct, but neither can the law assume that any other worldview is correct.
In short, there’s no good answer here. The sweet dictates of reason have led us to a sour legal pickle.
Lastly, the fact that the embryo and the human at later stages can be viewed as one unit doesn’t necessarily imply that the embryo is an exact stand-in for the adult human in terms of morality or law.
There’s one very interesting hypothetical which shows this very clearly: Consider the case of a man stuck in a burning room with a refrigerator-full of frozen embryos. Even if 100 million embryos had to die, we’d favor letting the adult man out of the door first.
This is an important hypothetical, but one can “over” conclude from it: It doesn’t mean that the embryo doesn’t deserve respect, it just means that an embryo shouldn’t be thought of as precisely the same thing as, says, a baby or an adult human. Abortion isn’t typically a matter of choosing one life over another (and when it is, most pro-lifers do favor the life of the mother). Those who feel that embryos shouldn’t be aborted only need make the case that the embryo is connected in a morally significant way (the beginning of God’s creation) to the rest of humanity; they need not make the case that an embryo always must be treated the same in all cases as other human forms along the continuum.
(Update: It occurred to me that an analogy which might be just as good as if not possibly better than the artistic creation analogy would be comparing human life to a wedding service. Yes, it’s all one indivisible wedding service, and, yes, guests would want to behave with decorum and respect the entire way through; still, if a guest had to excuse herself there might be moments during the service which are more suitable than others. So, for example, if one has to run to the bathroom–because it’s an absolute emergency–better to do it during, say, the opening music that’s just prior to the “Here Comes the Bride” music as opposed to, say, in the middle of the saying of the “I do’s.”
Update II: Perhaps the difference in the way we would treat one billion frozen embryos versus one born person can be explained by referencing how having a relationship with another affects what we think we should do to help that other being. Case in point: Most middle class Americans who own a dog or a cat would spend, say, $700 on a surgery if it enabled the dog to live a normal, pain-free life, assuming the pet wasn’t at the end of its natural lifespan. Of course, the person who spends this amount of money can’t not know that that same amount could go toward famine relief efforts in certain third-world countries overseas–and possibly save numerous people from dying of starvation.
Does this mean that the American pet owner believes 1) that pets are more valuable than humans or that 2) people in third-world countries somehow aren’t really people? Of course not. Relationship makes a difference in terms of what we feel we’re required to morally do in any given situation. Nearly all people will feel that they have much more of a relationship with another born person than with an embryo. But that doesn’t mean the embryo is insignificant or has no value.)
What does respect for an embryo mean and how much of it should be accorded to it? People will have different opinions on this matter. Some might think that an unchosen pregnancy sorts into such a level of affliction that one can still respect an embryo and allow an abortion for any reason. Most Christians–and I include myself in this category–don’t feel this way.
Drawing this last conclusion mandates that we rely on our feelings. People don’t like that part of the abortion conclusion comes down to feelings–one wants decisive, hard logic that leads the way (the whole way) to an exact answer. I don’t think we can expect this here.
So people have different feelings, but people who believe in an Abrahamic monotheistic understanding of God tend to feel in such a way that they come to a more pro-life conclusion than those who hold a different worldview. The distribution curve is bimodal, and here I’ve tried to flesh out some factors which cause that.
Politically, it strikes me that following on the heels of the realization that beliefs about abortion are tied to general theological beliefs (which, doubtlessly, will divide humanity for a long, long time) should come the conclusion that there’s wisdom in compromise–for both sides.