Pharyngula

An Atheist’s View On Abortion

An Atheist’s View On Abortion
by Juno Walker

On the drive home from work tonight I was behind a pickup truck that had a rather large white sign with red letters that read: “ABORTION KILLS CHILDREN” taped to the inside of his back window. In addition, he had a bumper sticker with a picture of a smiling infant and a Bible verse, Jeremiah 1:5. For those who don’t know, this verse reads in part: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” I’ve seen this before; and one of my colleagues cited this verse as the main reason she attends anti-abortion rallies each year in Washington, D.C. But on bumper stickers — and the mouths of fundamentalists — only this first clause of the sentence is ever cited.

On the face of it, it would seem that the Christian — in her mind — has a relatively strong justification for her position of opposing abortion. However, it’s been pointed out by others that, not only is God talking specifically to Jeremiah, but the context refers to Jeremiah’s calling as a prophet. The context of the verse has nothing to do with abortion. But I don’t want to dwell excessively on this particular fact; most agnostics and even liberal Christians can see that this is a stretch. I’d like to talk more about the philosophical and scientific aspects of abortion.

There is much ambiguity and dispute between various Christian sects regarding the “soul.” The first problem is that Christians have no idea what a ‘soul’ is. What is it made of? How is it attached? What are its mechanisms? As someone who was raised in a fundamentalist church, I would say that the consensus — if it could be said that there is one — is that the soul is immortal but not eternal. That is, the soul is created at conception, and will live forever — either in Heaven or Hell — but it’s not eternal, which would imply that it has neither beginning nor end. In most Christian thought, God (or the Trinity) is the only eternal one. In other words, the human soul isn’t eternally existing like God, but is created at the moment of conception; but it will also survive the death of the physical body — to spend forever in either Heaven or Hell.

That said, let’s consider some practical implications. If — as is implied in Jeremiah chapter 1, verse 5 — God somehow knew us before we were born, what could that possibly mean? How could he know us? We only come to know us gradually throughout childhood, eventually developing a coherent, consistent sense of self. In what sense does God know us? Presumably only half of us is formed — i.e., our genetic blueprint. But what about the ‘nurture’ side of us? That hasn’t been formed yet. That results from our life experiences; and obviously we haven’t had any life experiences before we were born.

Of course, if — as many, if not most, theologians believe — God is outside of space and time, and presumably sees ‘time’ as one big frozen block; i.e., He sees past, present and future as one, then God might know us in the sense of knowing our entire lives — past, present and future. In that sense, God would truly know us before we were born. That’s really the only way the Christian could make sense of it. If I’m wrong, then by all means let me know.

Yet this notion, it seems to me, would present all sorts of thorny ethical problems for the believer. The most obvious one — and one theologians have debated for centuries, and still are debating — is the concept of predestination: if God knows the future, then he already knows who will end up in Heaven and who in Hell. Indeed, proponents of this theory even cite the Jeremiah verse in question. And some New Testament verses provide strong support for it as well — see Matthew 22:14 and Ephesians 1:3-5.

But how would a non-believer make sense of the soul? Well, first of all, the non-believer probably doesn’t believe in souls. The non-believer probably believes that the soul — or mind — is ultimately the brain, a physical organ. Exactly how the mind is the brain is still up for debate, but the consensus among philosophers and scientists is that material processes give rise to the subjective experience that most people would associate with the ‘soul.’ But here we need to distinguish between the Christian’s ‘belief’ in an immaterial, categorically different soul, and the atheist’s ‘belief’ that the mind is the brain.

The Christian bases her belief primarily on scripture — i.e., what she believes is a direct revelation of God, the Creator of Souls — and her personal intuition. non-believers possess that same intuition — which they believe is a product of our evolutionary heritage — but also come to their conclusion that souls don’t exist based on evidence from the sciences — primarily neuroscience. Anyone who has taken the time to read books by neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio, Michael Gazziniga, or V.S. Ramachandran — or even summary articles in popular media venues such as Scientific American and Science Daily — is quickly presented with some difficult and puzzling questions about the nature of the self and consciousness.

Phenomena such as split-brain experiments, anterograde amnesia, bizarre results of various types of brain damage, or even mental illnesses such as schizophrenia all seem to present an intractable problem for the believer in souls, namely, if the soul is separate and independent from the body (and has ‘free will’), then why can’t the soul overcome these difficulties?

Non-believers believe that the Self (i.e., the mind/brain) develops over time through the genetically-determined growth of the brain as well as the brain’s interaction with its physical and social environment. The Self is ‘conscious'; that is, it is aware of itself, it has desires, it feels pleasure and pain, as well as all gradations in between these two poles. And this is where a non-believer’s view of abortion comes in.

Since the non-believer believes that the Self is the brain, then the non-believer can provide a demarcation between Self and non-Self: the nervous system. Feelings of pleasure and pain presuppose a viable nervous system. Without a nervous system, not only are pleasure and pain not felt, but there is no Self to do the feeling. We could say that this is the baseline test for abortion — if you abort something that doesn’t have a fully-developed nervous system, then you are not aborting a Self. You are not aborting a person.

I don’t believe anyone out there is pro-abortion. Unless you’re a psychopath, you value life over non-life, existence over non-existence. Obviously, women aren’t getting pregnant merely with the intention of aborting a fetus. So the decision to abort is not a whimsical, capricious, or malicious decision (the potential immaturity and impetuousness of some teenagers notwithstanding). What is usually being weighed here is the strife of an unwanted pregnancy versus bringing a human being into the world. So we should have a method for weighing the needs and desires of the adult human versus the non-existent needs and desires of a potential adult human, assuming he even makes it to adulthood. (He’s like the sea turtle hatchling scrambling to get to the ocean before the sea birds get him.)

And this is where I believe the non-believer stands on firmer ground than the believer. The non-believer can present empirical, non-emotional, experience-based evidence in support of a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy that is deemed to be inimical to her life’s intentions and plans — and well-being. The non-believer can present the image of an actual person, with a history, with life experiences, with memories, with intimate and complex social relationships, and with a refined capacity for pleasure and pain, versus a non—Self with no memories, no life experiences — and indeed no capacity at all for pleasure and pain. The believer falls back on — what? — ‘scripture,’ on personal feelings, on intuition?

The truly gray area for the non-believer, in my opinion, is pregnancy terminations beyond this demarcation line. When does a fetus begin to feel pain? Does the nervous system have to be fully-developed? Partially? If so, which parts? Etc. But even if we could say that the nervous system is most likely registering pain, we can’t really say for certain that the Self of the fetus is experiencing it — or that there really is a Self there to be experiencing it.

But given the track record of the life sciences, the non-believer can possess a more justified confidence that these things will be sorted out with the development of new technology and new research methods.