The Moral Conflicts of Abortion Advocates

Among secular humanists – if we may give that name to members of the anti-Christianity movement that is rapidly becoming culturally dominant in America – two of the greatest values are sexual freedom and a hatred of violence. But these values are in conflict with one another – or at least apparent conflict – when it comes to abortion.

On the one hand, abortion is a virtual necessity in a moral regime of sexual freedom, for without it how would we clean up “mistakes”? On the other hand, abortion appears to be an act of extreme violence.

If you are a secular humanist how do you reconcile these conflicting values of sexual freedom and hatred of violence? How do you avoid cognitive dissonance?

There are many rationalizations available to you – none, however, very persuasive.

First, you might say that the “thing” to be killed in abortion is not a single entity; it is a mere “collection of cells” or “mass of tissue.” But you are likely to find this answer unconvincing. It may be a good enough answer for uneducated girls from low-income neighborhoods, who are clients of an abortion clinic, but it won’t do for educated persons – and the typical secular humanist is well educated. For the entity being killed is obviously a single living thing.

Or you might make a distinction between a human being and a “potential human being.” Now, even if you assume that this is a valid distinction (which it isn’t), you still have two problems. For one, where is the dividing line between a potential and an actual human being? For another, even if a potential human being is not as valuable as an actual human being, isn’t it almost as valuable? Isn’t it the second most valuable living thing in the world? If so, how can it be morally licit to kill it – except, perhaps, in the most extreme circumstances?

Some might say that personhood is not something found in nature; it is a legal construct. A living entity becomes a person, and is therefore entitled to a right to life, when the law says it’s a person. But this means that a dog is a person if the law says it is, and that a baby is not a person till its first birthday – if the law decrees that. Nor is X a person if the government of this or that society declares X a non-person.

LIFE (April 20, 1965): Lennart Nilsson’s famous cover photo
LIFE (April 20, 1965): Lennart Nilsson’s famous cover photo

Others might say that there is no such thing as objective value, that all value is subjective; and that until the mother (or mother and father) value it, the embryo/fetus has no value. But if you hold that all value is subjective, not objective, this commits you to saying that the music of Beethoven is of no more value than the music of Beyonce. Besides, even if value is purely subjective, can’t persons other than the parents confer value on the unborn baby? The grandmother, for instance? Or a friend of the parents? Or Mother Teresa?

The most convincing argument is at the same time the least logically defensible one. It goes like this: “We secular humanists have gone to good colleges; we have good jobs; we have ample incomes; we live in high-rent neighborhoods; our kids go to good schools; we often visit art museums; we read the best current novels and see the best foreign movies; we dine at interesting restaurants; we drink good wine and beer and coffee. In short, we are superior people. You pro-life Christians, on the other hand, are inferior in almost every way – in education, in income, in residential neighborhoods, in artistic taste, in the quality of your favorite spaghetti and meatball restaurant. You drink instant coffee and sweet wine, and you think you’re doing something classy when you drink Budweiser. Your kids are usually a reflection of your poor inadequate selves. Therefore abortion is morally permissible, and opposition to abortion is morally obtuse.”

From a logical point of view, this kind of reasoning is, of course, absurd. But it’s a kind of reasoning that “works” – that is, it persuades those who are socially superior that they are superior in every way. And it isn’t just today that it works; it works in all ages and in all countries.

If you belong to the superior group – whether in ancient Rome or in 18th century Paris or in 21st century Boston, you don’t have to take seriously the point of view of your social inferiors. Their social inferiority is sufficient proof that they almost certainly wrong when they disagree with you. There is no need to go step by step through their arguments or their grievances to refute them. You simply dismiss the arguments, sometimes with a sneer, often with a laugh.

The trouble is, inferior classes from time to time grow tired of being treated with contempt, and they rally behind a champion they believe to be a great man. Sometimes he really is a great man – Julius Caesar, for example, or Napoleon. And sometimes he’s a poor imitation of a great man – Mussolini, for example, or Juan Peron or Donald Trump.

Many pro-life persons, including many pro-life Catholics, have rallied behind Trump in the belief that he will strike powerful blows against America’s abortion regime. If he gets elected President, it is possible (but no more than possible) that he will nominate anti-abortion justices to the Supreme Court. But if he loses (which seems far more likely at the moment I’m writing this), the pro-life cause will suffer.

The secular humanists will use the loss to advance still one more false argument, “There is further proof that anti-abortion people are moral idiots, for they backed that dreadful man Trump. If you are pro-life, you are a crypto-fascist. There is never a need to listen to them.”

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist, and most recently Atheistic Humanism, the Democratic Party, and the Catholic Church.