Since Jeremy Hunt's comments just before Party Conference, abortion has been back in the news. When abortion is discussed, there are three issues that seem regularly to be raised by those describing themselves as "pro-choice" that seem to me deeply confused, and which I'd like to address here. These are:
- The notion that anti-abortionists should be open about the religious motivations for their anti-abortion views
- The claim that abortion is a women's issue on which men should not express an opinion or have an influence on policy
- The claim that being anti-abortion is "right wing"
Let's take these in turn.
First, when anyone argues against abortion or for any reduction in abortion time-limits it is common to ask what her religion is and to say she should be open that she is anti-abortion because of her religious beliefs.
I have no objection to saying I believe in things for religious reasons. It's for religious reasons that I believe in liberty and monogamy and racial equality and all kinds of other things. But in the case of abortion I honestly haven't the faintest idea what is being referred to here. I can only imagine that many folk think there is some Bible passage or other that goes something like "And the LORD breathes his spirit upon the zygote in the womb, and the soul enters unto it, and the man is formed". But there isn't any such passage. There really isn't. The closest thing I know of to such a Bible verse is Psalm 139:13 which says: "For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb." But that doesn't provide us with anything we can use in the abortion debate (When "in my mother's womb"? 39 weeks?) and I know of precisely zero people opposed to abortion that are so opposed on the basis of that verse.
What else could be meant by this appeal to be "open" about the "religious basis" for one's anti-abortion views? Maybe the thought is that the Pope says abortions shouldn't be allowed, and Catholics are supposed to do what the Pope says, so anyone Catholic opposing abortion should be assumed to be so opposed because of the religious obligation to obey the Pope rather than because of any beliefs of her own? Even if, at a stretch, one thought this was what was meant by those demanding the declaration of religious bias, why would anyone think Protestants had a religious basis for being anti-abortion?
I emphasize, once again, that I wouldn't mind declaring my religious reasons for opposing abortion if I thought I had any. But I honestly don't know what you mean. And I find it a rather bizarre line of discussion because it seems quite clear to me that almost everyone in favour of abortion is so for religious reasons.
The key reason most have for favouring abortion is that they do not believe that embryos are really people – they don't think they have "souls". Most people in the world today, as has been the belief of the vast majority of people throughout history, believe that the true person is a soul or spirit that is, in principle, separable from a body. That is why they believe in ghosts. Many believe that souls pre-exist bodies, and that at some point in the development of an embryo a soul attaches itself to a body. Others think that at some point in the development of an embryo it itself gives rise to a soul as a new emergent entity.
I think it completely obvious that this is why most ordinary people favour abortion. I, on the other hand, am an orthodox Christian and hence do not believe in souls separable from bodies and do not believe that souls pre-exist bodies and attach to them. I freely admit that not believing in pre-existing souls, separable from bodies, is a religious belief – indeed, a controversial religious belief in that it is a minority opinion today and has been a tiny minority belief throughout history. So if someone asking for me to be open about the religious basis of my anti-abortion stance meant that I should be open about my disbelief in the transmigration of souls then, fine! But I don't honestly think that is what anyone is asking, because although my view may be controversial, it is not disputed – I've never heard a single pro-abortion advocate say the problem with anti-abortionists is that they don't accept the transmigration of souls.
An alternative important reason for favouring abortion is that, even though an embryo is indeed a living human being, killing embryos is an exception to the principle of the sanctity of life. Even if an embryo didn't need a soul to be a person, it would still not attract the legal and moral protections of born humans. I have heard this argument made, very occasionally. And I do have a religious objection to it. My belief is that, in old words of the advocates of abolishing slavery, "Every man is a man" or as Galatians 3:28 puts it: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ."
Again, my religious belief is clearly controversial. Through most of history, in most cultures it has not been accepted that "Every man is a man". Instead, women or members of certain races or the disabled or the homosexual or children or political dissidents were not though truly people, entitled to the same legal and moral protections as proper people. But, again, though my belief is controversial, it is not disputed. I don't think that when pro-choice advocates demand to know the religious basis for my anti-abortion views they really have in mind my belief in pan-human moral equality.
So that brings me back to my first thought. My honest best guess is that people think there is some Bible passage or other that says something or other about things in the womb and that that's why Christians are opposed to abortion. And that simply ain't so.
Next, the claim that abortion is a woman's issue on which men should not have influence or perhaps even express opinions. This claim is less mysterious, but more ridiculous. The idea appears to be that abortion is a "My body; My choice" issue. Except that that's precisely what's under dispute. Almost no anti-abortionist thinks that abortion is solely a matter of what a woman does with her body. They think it's about what is done with a child's body. Now clearly the pro-abortionist typically disputes that there is another person's body here. So the way they see things, there is just the woman and some of her reproductive material, so it's about her body. But that isn't what their opponents think. They aren't entitled to assume themselves correct and then reason, from their own correctness, what opinions others are entitled to! Saying "It's a woman's body so nothing for a man to express an opinion on" is equivalent to saying "I'm right so you are not allowed to question whether I'm right."
Even were it truly the case that it were only a woman's body involved, that still wouldn't exclude men from having an opinion. Suppose, for example, a woman wanted to be able to use an NHS doctor, that other people's taxes funded, to cut off her own foot. Are we really to say that's not a question anyone else is entitled to have an opinion on? An assisted suicide revolves around the body of the person that dies – is no-one else entitled to an opinion on whether it should be legal? Female genital mutilation is not something any man can ever experience – does that mean no man is entited to think it wrong?
So even if abortion were simply about what a woman did with (or asked others to do with) her own body, it would still be a matter that men could legitimately have opinions and influence upon. But at least in that case one could understand the debate as about libertarianism of some sort. In the case of abortion, the libertarian argument never gets off the ground, because the dispute revolves precisely over whether it is really true that abortion is just about what a woman does with her own body, or whether it's what she does with someone else's body, namely her child's. It makes no more sense to say abortion isn't something a man can have an opinion on than it would to say that theft by women isn't a matter for men to have an opinion on. It's simply utter nonsense (and, frankly, deeply offensive).
Lastly, the notion that abortion is a left-right issue. I hadn't come across this thought until fairly recently. I presume it's become thought right-wing to oppose abortion because in the US Republicans typically oppose abortion. Well, perhaps in the US political debate it is indeed a right-left issue because there the main political dividing lines concern a suite of socio-ethical issues of which abortion is just one.
But in the UK, what's "left" or "right" about being anti-abortion? Someone anti-abortion thinks an embryo is a person. That's controversial and philosophically disputable, but how is it "right wing"? The only sense I can make of the idea that it's right wing is related to the "my body; my choice" concept above. Perhaps some pro-abortionists think that anti-abortionists can't seriously believe that embryos are people, and instead are just using that claim as a cover for trying to control women. So they think being anti-abortion is authoritarian, and (rightly or wrongly) being authoritarian is often regarded as an attitude of the right.
Let me put this straight. I don't want to control women. If I really thought that an embryo became ensouled at 35 weeks I would favour a 35 week limit for abortion. In fact, I don't want to have any abortion laws at all. My view of what it is to be a person is as scientically materialist as it could possibly be. I think the only thing that makes you a person is the fact that you are a human being, a working instance of the human animal. I truly believe that. I'm not trying to use it as a cover for something else.
So when I say I want all abortion laws abolished and all human animals treated as people, I'm not expressing any authoritarian idea, I'm not doing it because of some obscure Bible passage, and I'm not trying to control women. I just care about what should and shouldn't be done with children.