The following was published in the May/June issue of MCCL News.
In a recent Star Tribune opinion piece, local writer Bonnie Blodgett attributes the pro-life view to "only religious zealots." Other pro-choice advocates routinely dismiss the pro-life position on the grounds that it is a mere religious belief and therefore may not be "imposed" on our pluralistic society.
No appeal to religion
This claim is mistaken in two ways. First, the pro-life position is not inherently religious. Pro-lifers contend that abortion takes the life of an intrinsically valuable human being and should be prohibited by law as a matter of basic justice. This view is supported by empirical facts of biology (which show that the unborn, the human fetus or embryo, is a bona fide member of our species) and a foundational moral principle (namely, the equal dignity and right to life of every human being). Thus pro-lifers offer serious moral arguments using science and philosophy; they need not appeal to God, religious authority or sacred texts.
Killing unborn human beings is unjust for the same reason as killing five-year-old human beings. Since one need not be religious to recognize and argue against the wrong of killing five-year-old children, one need not be religious to oppose the killing of abortion. Indeed, many non-religious people are pro-life, such as the atheist writer Nat Hentoff and the members of SecularProLife.org.
Dr. Bernard Nathanson, the prominent abortion doctor and co-founder of NARAL, was an atheist when he famously changed his mind and became a pro-life advocate (though years later he converted to Catholicism). Nathanson switched sides on the basis of the scientific evidence, not religious teaching.
Religious influence legitimate
Second, many pro-lifers do hold a religiously-informed and/or religiously-motivated pro-life position. But that fact does not render it illegitimate or unworthy of public consideration. Religion has played a central role in the work of social reformers throughout history. William Wilberforce passionately and tirelessly led the effort to abolish the British slave trade—and he did so with distinctly biblical motivation. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Christian minister who grounded his civil rights efforts in his religious perspective. Both Wilberforce and King successfully fought to change the law to reflect their religiously-informed moral views.
But those views—that slavery and racial discrimination are morally wrong—are not exclusively religious beliefs. And they should not be ruled out-of-bounds because they have deep ties to religion and religious people.
Ironically, some pro-choice advocates, such as the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, argue for their position on explicitly religious grounds. In an extraordinary bit of both ignorance and poor reasoning, U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has defended her support for unfettered abortion on demand by appealing to the teachings of her Catholic faith. If pro-life religious views are not a legitimate basis for public policy, then neither is Pelosi's pro-choice position. Many other pro-choice politicians, including Pres. Barack Obama, frequently offer religious references in support of their preferred public policies.
Separation of church and state?
Some people claim that religiously-informed policy positions violate the "separation of church and state" contained in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. But the Constitution only prohibits establishment of a national religion or interference with religious belief or practice. It protects religion from government, not the other way around. People of faith, and people of no faith, are free to propose and defend their views in the public square.
Hostility toward religion—or the nebulous fear of certain religious groups forcing their beliefs on others—is really just an excuse to reject the pro-life position without due consideration. The pro-life view is indeed supported and taught by numerous religious traditions. But it is also a moral truth accessible to people of any or no theological persuasion.
And pro-choice advocates will have to deal with it.