Beliefwatch: Pro-life Atheists

Before the election I wrote a piece for about white evangelicals and abortion. In that piece, I predicted that conservative Christians would not move in large numbers away from the Republican Party because of their fundamental theological and cultural objections to abortion. In response, I received many comments—mostly the usual entrenched rhetoric on both sides. But embedded in the comment boards was a surprising point of view: a tiny fraction of readers objected to the relentless framing of the pro-life arguments in religious terms. The case against abortion could be made without God, they said. Atheists could be pro-life.

Few of them are. Abortion has been a wedge for more than 30 years because its moral volatility has forced Americans to choose sides: religious vs. secular, right vs. left, traditional vs. progressive. Atheists have generally aligned with the left. In a three-year-old Gallup poll, nearly 40 percent of Christians who attended church weekly said they believed that abortion should always be illegal. Meanwhile, nearly 40 percent of people with no religion (not atheists necessarily) said that abortion should be legal in all circumstances. Just as pro-life Christians argue that life is sacred because it's given by God, pro-life atheists insist that human life is intrinsically valuable without God's help. "I think there is nothing beyond this life—but life in and of itself is unique and special," explains Matt Wallace, a UPS package handler in North Carolina who started an online group for pro-life atheists in 1999. "In abortion, a human being ends up getting killed for no other reason than he or she wasn't planned or wanted. One should always err on the side of innocent human life." Wallace is likely one of the very few atheists who voted against Barack Obama, largely because of his abortion views.

Christopher Hitchens, the bombastic and verbally double-jointed atheist intellectual, says the articulation of such points of view represents progress, a reaching for common ground after 30 years of oppositional acrimony. Hitchens, known for his defiant and politically incorrect positions, takes an uncharacteristic middle path on abortion. When asked whether he is "pro-life," he answers in the affirmative. He has repeatedly defended the use of the term "unborn child" against those on the left who say that an aborted fetus is nothing more than a growth, an appendix, a polyp. " 'Unborn child' seems to me to be a real concept. It's not a growth or an appendix," he says. "You can't say the rights question doesn't come up." At the same time, he adds, "I don't think a woman should be forced to choose, or even can be." Hitchens does not recommend the overturning of Roe v. Wade. What he wants is for both moral callousness and religion to be excised from the abortion debate and for science to come up with solutions to unwanted pregnancies, like the abortifacient mifepristone (RU-486), "that will make abortion more like a contraceptive procedure than a surgical one. That's the Hitchens plank, and I think it's a defensible one."

One of the most sympathetic and intriguing aspects of the Hitchens plank, as he outlines it, is how little the atheist talks about fetal science (terms like "viability" and "neural development" rarely come up) and how much he cedes to his squeamishness on the matter, a squeamishness he comes by honestly, he says, out of two personal experiences with abortion. Though he vehemently rejects religious arguments, one senses something very much like a rabbinical inner struggle in the development of his position. It's inconsistent and imperfect, for how is a pharmaceutical abortion any different from a surgical one? But as he says, "I'm happy to say some problems don't have solutions." In the abortion wars, such honest reflection is progress indeed.