Texas, Abortion Rights, and a (Temporary) Victory for Secularism

Photo used with permission from Flickr user  Tim Evanson . 

Photo used with permission from Flickr user Tim Evanson

We should all be happy that a federal district court judge in Texas has struck down sections of a law that would have restricted women’s access to abortion services in that state. This is a victory for secularism, plain and simple, and its value is completely independent of abortion debate itself. In light of how often the abortion debate comes up, and considering how often there are moves made to restrict or abolish access to abortion services in the United States, I’d like to highlight the components that are often a part of this debate. We need to see what really underlies a given premise or argument which, in turn, allows us to properly evaluate the situation. Doing so is critically important to the protection of people’s rights and avoiding undue religious influence within a free and secular society.

Generic Argument Against Abortion

I’ll start by laying out the basic premises that support the anti-abortion stance, few as they may be. Before we get to that, however, a definition is in order for the term “morally identical”. I will use this term to mean the following:

Morally identical (MI)def(1): a person is MI to another if that person possesses the same natural rights and privileges, regardless of the unique details that constitute a given person’s life story (age, gender, mental capacity, etc.).  

In other words, a person is a person is a person, regardless of the particular facts that describe them. Having established this (and please, don’t focus too much on the details as this is all for the sake of explanation, not argument), consider the following “generic argument against abortion”:

  • Premise (1): An unborn child is ‘morally identical’ to an adult human.
  • Premise (2): Per premise (1), an unborn child possesses the same rights as an adult person at every stage of pregnancy.
  • Premise (3): One right held by people is a right-to-life.
  • Premise (4): The taking of a person’s life (however justified) by another person is murder.
  • Premise (5): The act of murder denies a person’s right-to-life.
  • Premise (6): An act that infringes upon a right without sufficient cause (for example, legal retribution in the case of the death penalty) is an immoral act.
  • Premise (7): We should act so as to stop immoral deeds, particularly those as terrible as murder.
  • Conclusion: The destruction of the life of a fetus is the same as the destruction of a life of an adult person (1,2); thus, the destruction of a fetus is murder (3,4), which is an immoral act that we should seek to stop/prohibit (5-7).

I’m not attempting to summarize or condense every anti-abortion argument into this one, as there are those that come at it from completely different angles, but I believe this captures the premises that are most likely to pop up when discussing this topic. I assume that premises (3)-(7) are as uncontroversial for others as they are for myself, which means our disagreement likely centers on premises (1) and/or (2). As premise (2) hinges on the soundness (truth or falsity) of premise (1), then it is on that premise that our argument relies most heavily.

I have taken the time to spell this out in order to avoid any unnecessary distractions for what is ultimately a tangentially related topic – my position that the current secular arrangement on abortion, as enshrined in the ever-important Supreme Court decision in Roe. v. Wade, is the best (and possibly only) viable solution in a heterogeneous body-politic. Premise (1) demonstrates – as I will show in what follows - that anti-abortionists are generally arguing from a religious position that cannot be defended without recourse to disputed (and probably false) assumptions and beliefs. If premise (1) cannot get off of the ground without help from a higher power, then the current secular arrangement is the right one.

Relevant Beliefs

It is hard to see how ‘moral identity’ gets off of the ground without the help of a dualist worldview (dualists generally believe in a distinction between the body and the ‘soul’). In other words, the dualist believes that there are two constitutive aspects to reality, one physical and one immaterial. Anyone who believes in a soul that survives beyond death is espousing a dualist view: our immaterial soul can survive the destruction of our physical bodies. On the flip-side of a person’s timeline, the soul becomes paired with its physical compatriot at the beginning of a person’s life. For many people, this moment is that of conception, though there are other religious systems (such as Islam) that have the soul entering the picture at later stages of a pregnancy.      

The particulars aren’t terribly important, but the fact that most of the world’s major religious systems hold to a dualist view is. For someone like me – an atheist and a materialist - I lack the metaphysical framework with which to ground a belief in a soul. As an evidence-hungry heathen, I am inclined to believe I am made of only one kind of ‘stuff’; namely, matter. Because of this, when the light behind my eyes eventually goes out, I believe I will cease to exist. I don’t float off into the ether to enjoy the next stage of my ‘life’.

A materialist will have, almost by definition, a much harder time pinpointing the moment when an unborn child obtains the status of personhood – that moment when it is considered morally identical, i.e., the moral peer of other people. I believe most people will look at the object in question and let their moral inclinations guide their judgments regarding the permissibility of abortion. I, for one, cannot consider a microscopic contingent of cells as the moral equal to the women in whom such a contingent is contained, nor can I grant such status to any of the following developmental stages until around the time of viability (the time when it is reasonable to expect that the fetus could survive outside of the womb). In other words, I dispute the moment when a fetus is to be considered morally identical to a person. Even then I would consider the rights of the mother over those of the fetus in the case where only one is likely to survive without abortive intervention.

My particular thoughts on the matter are irrelevant, but they do help to illustrate the length of the gambit our beliefs can run when considering abortion. Given the disparity between religious beliefs regarding ensoulment (the moment when the soul ‘enters’ the body), as well as those metaphysical systems that do not allow for a traditionally-conceived soul, I cannot see how an open society could hope to enforce a ban on abortion without arbitrarily picking a given opinion on the matter. Is a fetus to be morally considered as a full-fledged human at the time of conception? At the end of the first trimester? The second? Or is the quickening the moment when moral identity is obtained? If we cannot agree on the time that a fetus becomes a person, then we have no consensus on when a fetus obtains the rights as described in premise (2).

Secularism to the Rescue

The current state of affairs in the United States – granting some deviation between states – allows for an abortion through roughly half of a pregnancy. Certain circumstances, such as when the life of the mother is in jeopardy, can extend this timeframe out even further, but the justification for doing so is obvious. Is this the right model to have? I am certain that the answer is a resounding ‘yes’, and the secular solution is the proper one for the following reasons.

Since we cannot agree when moral identity is achieved, we should remain agnostic on the issue from a policy perspective. In this way, we do not hinder someone with a restriction that goes counter to their moral inclinations, particularly when something as serious as abortion is being considered. Some might feel that allowing abortions is a hindrance, but allowing abortions does not force one to have one. Denying abortions does, one the other hand, actively impose your worldview on someone who might disagree with that position. The two situations are not symmetrical.

I understand, and even sympathize with those who believe this is a horrible crime, but unless they can provide a non-religious reason for a prohibition their position must remain personal, not legal. Simply put, in a country with a divide between religion and government, we must avoid instituting as law any religiously-based beliefs. This avoids the litany of issues that come from theocratic societies. If we can strike this balance with an issue as polarizing as abortion, then the standard will have been set for less impactful issues, like prayer in public schools. .

Since premise (1) strongly implies religious influence or teaching in order to ground it, we should avoid enshrining the premise into law. Were we to legally prohibit access to abortion, we would be doing so on dubiously-supported grounds. There is also the question of when this restriction should take effect. As I asked before, is this at conception? 40 days? Quickening? If we say conception, are we discriminating against Muslims? Buddhist? Atheists? Any government for and by the people must avoid these types of discrimination if it is to be truly inclusive. As such, the less restrictive the prohibition, the better the outcome.

Enter the secular answer: we will not codify a given premise that is widely disputed, but we will allow restrictions based on premises that are generally agreed-upon. In this instance, this means limitations on abortion services sometime around viability. This does not unnecessarily burden any one group, but does allow for individuals to make their own moral choices in this matter. You cannot legislate your morality, but you can freely exercise it in your personal life. This allows each to follow their conscience.

This is the beauty of the secular model, and it is why the current events in Texas are - and should be - anxiously watched by all parties. We do not mandate that you accept our beliefs, but we do allow for you to live your life according to yours – provided those beliefs do not impinge upon my rights as a morally identical individual. This political arrangement protects everyone, because it prevents any one group from forcing their beliefs on to those of a different philosophical orientation.

*       *       *

Sadly, it has proven to be a temporary victory as an appeals court reinstated many of the restrictions only three days later while legal challenges are moving through the courts. The discussion has been had on 'medical' grounds, but given the overt religiosity of the key players on the anti-abortion side, as well as the lack of evidence to support their non-religious objections, we can safely assume the age-old arguments are still in play. For those committed to a society that allows for disparate beliefs to occupy the same intellectual space, we must work to make the Texas ruling that protects abortion rights the norm, not the exception. There are those that want to impose their religious beliefs on an unwilling public, as the appeals court decision demonstrates, and the diligent wariness of secularists is the best line of defense against the encroachment of religious beliefs into the public sphere.

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