Secular ProLife founder Kelsey Hazzard, left, carries a sign at the 2012 March for Life in Washington, DC.
“Could it be true?” Marco Rossi asks in the September/October
2012 issue of The Humanist. “Is there
really such a thing as a pro-life atheist? What’s next, Intelligent Design Agnostics?
How about Secularists for Sharia Law?”
Although Rossi seems to think his analogies are comical and
highly effective, they are actually inapt. Pro-life atheists do not claim God
created prenatal children, that he endowed them with souls, or that he even
exists. Instead, pro-life atheists, agnostics, and secular people argue that prenatal
children are human beings who have rights, and that to abort them is wrong.
Kelsey Hazzard is a 24-year-old, pro-life University of
Miami alumna and recent graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law.
She was raised in the United Methodist Church, but as an adult began having
doubts about God.
“I took a break from religion
for a while, and soon realized that it had no impact whatsoever on my morals,”
She now describes herself as an “apatheist,” meaning she does not care whether
God exists or not, although she says she finds God’s existence “highly
pro-life the instant I learned what abortion was,” said Hazzard, who is a legal
fellow at Americans United for Life. “But my position became much stronger in
college, when I took a course on prenatal development.”
2009, Hazzard founded Secular ProLife (SPL), a group whose vision is “a world in which
abortion is unthinkable, for people of every faith and no faith.” Hazzard,
SPL’s president, created the group in part to attract non-religious people to
the pro-life movement.
first time I attended a March for Life, I was struck by all the religious
imagery,” she explained. “I thought ‘Wow, if this were an atheist’s first
impression of the pro-life movement, she would never come back!’ And from
there, it was a case of ‘build it and they will come.’”
points to opinion polls showing the US becoming less religious but more pro-life as compelling reasons to use secular arguments to support
the pro-life position. SPL, with a membership made up predominately of
college-aged students, has participated in the annual March for Life and the
Students for Life of America Conference. Last year, SPL attended the American
Atheist Convention in Washington, DC, which included Richard Dawkins among the
attendees. SPL also sent a representative to the Texas
Freethought Convention last year.
to SPL member Julie Thielen, who identifies as a gnostic antitheist atheist,
the best ways to reach secular people with the pro-life message are through biology and an appeal to human rights.
sperm meets the egg, a genetically complete human being is formed, and all that
is required for maturation is time and nutrition,” Thielen said. “As complete
human beings in the most vulnerable stages, there should be protections
afforded. As a society we are judged by how we treat the most vulnerablethe
young, the aged, the infirm, those who can’t speak for themselves. The unborn
For many, the historical argument for human equality is the
strongest secular argument in favor of life.
“History has many lessons about human beings who were not
legal ‘persons,’” said Hazzard. “What seems like common sense to one
generation‘Of course Negroes aren’t real people’is horrific to the next. What
criteria can we set that will prevent this from happening? Every criterion
proposed to exclude the unborn can also be used to exclude others.
Consciousness? Then it’s fine to kill someone in a temporary coma; they merely
have ‘potential.’ Physical independence? So much for conjoined twins. Human
appearance? Discrimination based on appearance has been some of the most
insidious of all. Birth? Totally arbitrary; there is no ‘personhood fairy’
residing in the birth canal, conferring rights upon exit. At the end of the
day, human rights are for all humans. If we don’t protect them for the weakest
among us, they’re rather worthless.”
Some pro-choice atheists have expressed skepticism about
Secular ProLife, pointing to an old article in the Miami Hurricane, the University of Miami’s college newspaper, in
which the student pro-life group was featured and Hazzard misidentified as
Catholic. “I understand their skepticism, but I’m not Catholic and never have
been,” Hazzard said.
The idea of a pro-life atheist is not new, as Doris
Gordon’s story proves. For Gordon, a Jewish, atheist libertarian and former
elementary school teacher, it all began in 1959 when she read Atlas Shrugged
by Ayn Rand. Ironically, although Rand and her associates were adamantly
pro-abortion, reading Rand set Gordon on the path to becoming a fervent
pro-lifer. This novel introduced her to Rand’s philosophy, objectivism.
Interested by what she read, Gordon was eager to learn more. In 1960, she took
the 20-lecture course “The Basic Principles of Objectivism” by Rand’s then-closest
associate, Nathaniel Branden.
Things began to unravel in 1967, however, when Gordon
attended a talk titled “Certainty v. Omniscience” at an objectivism conference.
The talk was given by Leonard Peikoff, a member of Rand’s inner circle and the
sole heir to her estate when she died.
“Following the talk, during a Q&A period, a
questioner angrily challenged [Peikoff] about abortion, and a big debate broke
out among the audience and the conference speakers on the topic. One point of
disagreement was on when the new human being begins to exist,” Gordon said.
“That word ‘exist’ really struck me,” she continued.
“Rand’s philosophy begins with the axiom ‘existence exists’; A is A. Nothing
can pre-exist existence. I am something concrete; I didn’t exist 100 years ago
but today I do. When did my existence begin?”
“Well, Rand taught us to think for ourselves, so
when I went home, I began to do so. My studying objectivism taught me something
about logical reasoning,” Gordon said.
She asked herself if there was any essential
difference between the moment before she was born and the moment immediately
after. She could not think of any. What about at the junction between the
eighth and ninth months? No. From there, she worked her way back, month by
month, to see if she could find any essential difference. She could not, until
she got to the point of fertilization, where something essentially different
occurs: the sperm meets the oocyte, then growth and development can begin.
“It has long been settled by science that in sexual
reproduction, the new human organism, a human being, begins to exist and to
grow and mature into an adult. On the other hand, individually, neither a sperm
nor an oocyte has the capacity to do the same. Logically, therefore, the human
zygote is already a living human being,” she said.
Gordon went on to wonder whether the new human being
has rights. Though Rand and Gordon have different ideas on the definition of
“human being,” Gordon came to conclude, “If all human beings have rights, as
Ayn Rand held, then so must this new human being.”
But there was a problem: “What about the mother’s
right to control her own body, her unalienable right to liberty?” The child’s
right not to be killed seemed to conflict with the mother’s right to control
her own body. In 1973, Gordon wrote a letter that was published in Reason,
which stated that unwanted pregnancy presented an insoluble conflict of rights
between woman and child. She argued that “the unfortunate child was unaware of
what was happening, and after all, the mother was in existence first.” For nine years, Gordon remained on the
“abortion-choice” side of the debate.
Then one day she thought back on an article by
Branden she read in The Objectivist
Newsletter, titled, “What are the respective obligations of parents to
children, and children to parents?” In a response to a reader’s question,
Branden stated that, like it or not, parents have the obligation to take care
of their children. “The key to understanding the nature of parental
obligation,” he wrote, “lies in the moral principle that human beings must
assume responsibility for the
consequences of their actions.” He insisted that the basic necessities of food,
clothing, and so forth are the child’s “by right.” This helped Gordon begin to
see why there is no conflict of rights between mother and child.
“A woman’s right to control her own body does not
trump a child’s right not to be killed,” she said. “Given parental obligation,
even in unwanted pregnancy, it is the child’s right to parental support and
protection from harm that is trump. Parents
have no right to intentionally or negligently destroy their children, nor do
they have a right to evict their children from the crib or the womb and let
In an article she wrote years later, “Abortion and Rights: Applying Libertarian
Principles Correctly,” Gordon
reasoned: “A child’s creation and presence in the womb are caused by biological
forces independent and beyond the control of the child; they are brought into
play by the acts of the parents. The cause and effect relationship between
heterosexual intercourse and pregnancy is well-known.”
“The parent-child situation is unique,” she
continues. “It is the only human relationship that begins by one side bringing
the other into existence. This fact of parental agency refutes any assertion
that the child is a trespasser, a parasite, or an aggressor of any sort. Prenatal
children have the right under justice to be in the mother’s body, and both
parents owe them support and protection from harm.”
Gordon understood Branden’s argument for parental
obligation was about born children only, but she wrote to him to ask whether it
could apply, in principle, to children before they are born. He wrote back
saying it can’t because they are not yet human beings. She wrote back to
Branden asking him for his definition of “human being,” but he never replied.
Gordon, a member of the Association of Libertarian
Feminists (ALF), agreed to handle publicity for a panel discussion the group
was planning for the 1976 Libertarian Convention. By the time the convention
rolled around, Gordon had become a pro-lifer, and tried to talk about abortion
and her move to the “other side” to Sharon Presley, one of ALF’s founders and a
pro-choicer. Presley, who was setting up an exhibit table, brushed Gordon off,
claiming she was tired and had not given much thought to the debate, which
shocked Gordon. Presley suggested Gordon talk to her expert on the topic,
Lucinda Cisler, who was one of the organizers of the New York chapter of NARAL,
originally the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws. “That was
Strike One,” Gordon said.
Then Gordon saw Branden at the convention,
approached him, and mentioned her letters to him. “I asked him again how he
would define ‘human being,’” she remembers. “Instead of defining the term, he
said, ‘How would you feel if your 15-year-old daughter got pregnant?’ He evaded
my question. One of the most evil things you can do in objectivism is evade the
question. And he added further remarks that made me feel as if he had taken
everything he had taught me and thrown it out the window. That was Strike Two.”
Later that day, Gordon attended an ALF panel at
which Cisler defended unrestricted abortion. Gordon recalls: “When it ended, I
ran after her and asked if she could please answer one question for me. She
stopped and turned to me. ‘Is a fetus a human being?’ I asked. She said, ‘Yes,’
and walked on. Strike Three.”
The experience inspired Gordon to join with other
like-minded libertarians to form Libertarians for Life (LFL). “LFL was different from other pro-life
organizations in that we seemed to be alone in focusing on why the so-called
woman’s right to control her own body is false,” she said of her group.
Another person who
proves that being pro-life is not just for the religious is Nat Hentoff.
Hentoff, a Jewish, atheist liberal, is a veteran journalist of 60 years, having
written for the Village Voice and the
Washington Post. He changed his mind
about abortion while writing a news story many years ago.
“I was doing a story about a very young child in Long
Island who had spina bifida, and the parents decided they would not treat her
anymore, because she would not recognize them and would never be able to
communicate with them,” he said.
The ACLU and the prominent media figures agreed with the
parents’ decision not to allow further surgeries for the child or use shunts to
drain fluid from her brain so she could continue living. “I said, ‘Wait a
minute. Anytime everyone agrees with something, I am automatically suspicious,’”
Hentoff remembers. He found several doctors who were neonatal experts on spina bifida,
and they told him,“No, it will take care, but the worst thing that would happen
is she would need a wheelchair,” and that spina bifida “would not affect the
Hentoff said he read books by physicians who treat babies
and their mothers at the same time andalthough they did not specifically use
the term “pro-life”it was clear the authors held that a living human organism
should be recognized as a human being.
“That made me pro-life,” he says.
encourages anyone who wants to find secular information to support the pro-life
argument to read works written by doctors who operate on babies in utero. “Read
them in terms of what they dosurgeons who deal with the child before the child
is actually a child, according to the law,”
Being an atheist pro-lifer often can have its
costs. Hentoff has lost lecture-circuit jobs and the opportunity to have a journalism
school named after him and was delayed in getting a Lifetime Achievement Award
from the National Press Foundation because of his pro-life views. “Being
pro-life has cost me a lot, but these are losses I am proud of,” he said.
to some atheist and secular pro-lifers on the Internet, not all Christians have
welcomed their collaboration. Some believers have even urged them to “go get
their own events.” This type of response does not help advance the cause of the
pro-life movement, according to Dr. Francis
Beckwith, who teaches philosophy and church-state studies at Baylor University.
In 2007, Beckwith wrote Defending Life: A Moral and
Legal Case Against Abortion Choice, which is widely regarded as one
of the strongest books defending the pro-life position. According to Beckwith, Christians should work
with all people of goodwill who are pro-life.
are instructed by the Church, and by Scripture, to advance the good of our
neighbor. The fact that we are not in ecclesial communion with those who want
to cooperate with us in advancing that good should not matter,” explained
Beckwith. “This is so commonsensical that it is a mystery why we would even
have to ask the question when it comes to the sanctity of life. Consider an
example outside of the abortion debate. Suppose you discovered that the chef
who prepares the food for the soup kitchen is an atheist. Would it even cross
your mind not to take the food he prepares? Of course not.”
Beckwith said there are three reasons
using secular arguments to defend the pro-life position is important. “First,
we want to show respect for those who do not share our faith. One way of doing
that is to try to persuade based on reasoning that those outside of our
communities are more apt to find convincing. Second, these rational and secular
arguments are part of the reservoir of the Church’s intellectual tradition,
which maintains that faith and reason are not rival understandings, but
complimentary ways of acquiring truth. So, when we are employing these
arguments we are actually being good Catholics, as well as setting an example
to those within the Church and the wider pro-life community on how to engage
those with whom we disagree. And third, because these arguments are good
arguments, we have an obligation to use them.”
This is not to say we cannot make
appeals to religion or Church teaching. “Having said that, there is nothing
wrong in principle with employing religious arguments,” Beckwith said. “But we
have to know our audience. Take, for example, St. Paul’s encounter with his
Gentile and Jewish critics on Mars Hill (Acts 17). When dealing with the Greeks
and the Romans, St. Paul did not appeal to the Torah. On the other hand, when
St. Paul engaged his Hebrew audience, he did not cite Roman and Greek
added, “The Church has a long and noble history of supporting its views by
appealing to the deliverances of rational argument.”