Why I Changed My Mind about Abortion
I was pro-life all my life until I became an atheist. But even when I became an atheist, it took a long time before I switched to pro-choice, about a year, in fact. I knew that most atheists were pro-choice, but I didn’t want to change my mind for that reason. Atheism is not about conformity, and I was determined that only evidence of the highest standard would allow me to shift my ground.
First, let me explain why I was pro-life. Because I was never religious, my objections to abortion were not religious. I didn’t believe that God was against abortion. I never held the view that an embryo was a human life, and therefore that abortion was murder. Nor did I prescribe to The Great Beethoven Fallacy. My reason for objecting to abortion, was that I believed an embryo to be a potential human life, and that it was wrong to terminate it. Whether it would go on to be the next Beethoven, or the next Hitler, didn’t bother me. I believed that it had a right to find out, the right to a chance at life.
I was also distressed by the paradox of abortions being carried out while infertile couples were, through no fault of their own, cruelly unable to have the children they so strongly desired. It reminded me of learning about the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash, when people starved to death in the streets of New York while farmers on the West Coast were forced to burn their crops to keep the prices down, in a desperate effort to avoid the same fate. I saw adoption as a far more humane alternative to abortion.
As with many of the views I held prior to becoming an atheist, I am not ashamed looking back, but do feel that I was a little misguided. After I became an atheist, I thought long and hard about this, and read a lot around the subject. I came to realise that there were inconsistencies in my reasoning that, try as I might, I could not reconcile.
I believed that abortion was an act of preventing a potential human life from becoming an actual human life. I realised that if I thought that this was wrong, I had to accept that all acts of preventing potential life from becoming actual life were wrong as well. This would include contraception of any form, and even abstinence from any opportunity to have intercourse. Unless I could find an objective difference between abortion and other forms of birth control, I had to either condemn or condone them all.
Well, I thought, abstinence and contraception are only preventing the possibility of a human life. There is nothing to say that an act of unprotected sex would definitely lead to an actual human life, so it’s not certain that contraception or abstinence would be preventing it. Abortion, I thought, was definitely preventing a potential human life from coming into existence, which made it a different situation. It didn’t take a lot of research to see that I was mistaken. We have no way of knowing that a terminated pregnancy would have run its full term. It may have eventually been a miscarriage, or a still birth. I also learned that sometimes embryos are naturally terminated by the woman’s own body, and that some forms of birth control work in, essentially, the same way as a chemical abortion. So, I was back at square one. If I condemned abortion on the grounds of preventing a potential human life becoming an actual human life, I also had to condemn contraception and abstinence of any form. I was not prepared to do that, as the use of condoms is essential to preventing STI’s, and as for morally objecting to the abstinence from any opportunity to copulate, well, I suppose it would be fun for a while, but not really practical. I would have to look elsewhere.
Not wanting to give in too easily, I decided to examine the claim that an embryo is, itself, an actual human life. I read the arguments with an open mind, but I could not be swayed. A globule of cells, compared to which a gnat is infinitely more complex, is not a human life. I make the point about lack of complexity to illustrate just how far away an embryo is from being what we recognise as a human. I looked for as many possible definitions of “human”, “human being” and “person” as I could, to see if an embryo could be said to fit any of them. It couldn’t. Even the fact that the embryo is in the active process of preparing to become a human, that it has been given 50% of each of its parents genes and that its DNA code already holds the blueprint for the human being it could become, does not make it human. In the weeks before a new house is built, there will be architects at the site with blue prints and builders with bricks and cement preparing to get started. But the house itself does not yet exist. An embryo, unlike a human, has no cerebral cortex, which means it has no consciousness of any kind, and no nervous system, meaning that it cannot suffer in any possible way. If an abortion does not end any conscious life, and does not cause any suffering, I pondered, how can it possibly be wrong? The only reasonable answer, is that it can’t.
I returned to the question of adoption. Was it morally acceptable for people to have abortions when other people who were infertile would have been able to adopt the baby and provide a loving environment for it? What my reading lead me to conclude, was that if the embryo was not a human life, then it was part of the woman’s body, and therefore she should have the right to make any decision about what happened to it. Pregnancy and childbirth are gruelling ordeals for the woman’s body to endure, and I could not see how the law should be able to force them to suffer it against their will.
I realised that I had been mislead by the media and cultural stereotypes that unwanted pregnancies were always for young, irresponsible, promiscuous girls who were too arrogant, lazy or ignorant to take the proper precautions. Although that is certainly sometimes the case, it is ignorant to think that it is always the case. A couple in their thirties, deeply in love and monogamous, responsible and careful, could fall pregnant despite their best efforts with contraception. Unable to financially provide for a child, should they be prevented, by law, from terminating that pregnancy without causing any suffering to anyone or anything? I couldn’t find a rational, reasonable route to the answer “yes”.
With nowhere else to turn, I realised that my only option was to follow the evidence and change my position from pro-life to pro-choice. One thing that atheism had taught me, was that morality was rarely ever black and white, but nearly always varying shades of grey. I am in favour of abortion, but that doesn’t mean that I like it. I don’t. It is something that, if we lived in a perfect world, we wouldn’t need. Sadly, and I’m sure it hasn’t escaped your attention, we don’t live in a perfect word.