My years in the pro-life movement

So Doonesbury is taking on the medical rape bill this week, and there’s all the associated uproar you’d expect. Maybe now would be a good time for me to reminisce about my experiences as a pro-life advocate.

This was back during my evangelical Christian days, of course. As a conservative evangelical, I was automatically pro-life, almost without thinking. And yet, I did think too, which got me into a bit of trouble. Creationism was the biggest factor that ultimately made me question my faith, but my pro-life experiences made no small contribution to that outcome.

I remember the time I signed up at church to go to the Roe v. Wade protests in DC. It was kind of exciting, of course—all those Christians in one place, taking a stand against the evil secular world, yadda yadda yadda. But one thing bothered me: it was too Christian. The whole bus ride there was spent singing hymns and praying, with just a few breaks for the passengers to pull out their Bibles for a quick study, or spend a few moments sharing their testimonies with each other.

I didn’t disapprove of course—I was pretty hard core evangelical myself at the time—but I couldn’t help wonder how a non-Christian would feel riding that bus. America is more than just Bible-believing Christians. For the pro-life movement to succeed in a democracy, it needs the support of non-Christians as well as Christians. And by “non-Christians” I mean more than just the few Orthodox rabbis brought in to lend token diversity to the movement.

My suggestions along those lines met with a strangely cold reception. Pro-lifers, I found, generally don’t want secular support. The pro-life movement belongs to Jesus, and Jesus alone. One pro-lifer on Usenet even told me flat out he’d rather see abortion stay legal forever than see America overturn abortion for secular reasons.

The whole point of the pro-life movement, according to this guy, was to bring the American government under subjection to the will of God (i.e. to Christian fundamentalism). He could care less about babies. It was all about theocracy.

Not many pro-lifers have been so open and forthright as that guy, before or since, but I saw the same general attitude running all through the pro-life movement when I was a part of it. I even knew a few atheists who, for one reason or another, believed abortion was wrong, and wanted to be part of the pro-life movement. Not a chance. Would you let one on your church bus?

Anyway, that’s my insight into the pro-life movement. It’s not just about patriarchy and dogma. This is Christian supremacist politics, pure and simple.



  1. resident_alien says

    Huh.That Usenet-fellow actually ADMITTED that he doesn’t give a rodent’s posterior about all those precious baybeez,he just wants Cristian theocracy? My,my,give them enough rope and they’ll hang themselves….

  2. Hunt says

    That’s been my experience too. Abortion has been so politicized and commandeered into various camps that there really isn’t any actual debate about abortion per se at all anymore. When was the last time there was an honest public debate about what science has to say about the inception of sentient personhood? Each side has become obdurate and invested in the political strategy of its own interests. Pro-lifers don’t ever want to admit that there may be no good scientific reason to object to abortion up to significantly into term, and of course pro choice don’t want to admit the possibility that there may be a line after which there may be cause to prohibit abortion. Each side is terribly paranoid of slippery slope, that if they give an inch they will have to give a mile and they will lose the entire game. Unfortunately, they’re probably both correct in that assessment. Certainly, the pro-life position is much closer to where an honest assessment by both sides would arrive if they were capable of doing it. Nobody is gleeful about the prospect of late term abortion; everyone (pro-choice) wants to make it early and safe. Pro-life, of course, remains hopelessly glued to the conception=person position.

    • Anonymous Atheist says

      I seldom see much validity in ‘both sides are just as (x)’ talk.

      “of course pro choice don’t want to admit the possibility that there may be a line after which there may be cause to prohibit abortion”

      This seems rather strawmannish to me, for the sake of creating an equivalence for the ‘both sides are just as (x)’. Everyone places a ‘line’ somewhere, whether it’s at birth, or at some various number of weeks of pregnancy (but then needing exceptions after the ‘line’ for medical problems), or at implantation or even fertilization at the anti-choice end of the spectrum. Opinions about the number of weeks positions are generally based on the timeline of brain/nervous system development.

      • Hunt says

        It probably is a bit of a straw man, since there already is about as solid a line as there is ever going to be. As far as I know very late term abortions are only performed for extraordinary conditions. Even if there were a solid line drawn, those abortions would probably still be justified on medical grounds, so I suspect that pro-lifers think they have nothing to gain and everything to lose by submitting to a rational dialog and committing to abide by the facts derived from it. Pro-choicers are already guided by the principle that nobody is thrilled with late term abortion, except for the caveat listed below.

    • Nepenthe says

      Nobody is gleeful about the prospect of late term abortion; everyone (pro-choice) wants to make it early and safe.

      I wouldn’t be so sure about that. While I wouldn’t describe my feelings about the ability of women to abort, say, anencephalic fetuses as “glee”, it’s certainly a net positive feeling.

      • Hunt says

        I agree. And also the fact that late term abortions are often done due to life-threatening conditions that have developed for the mother.

    • says

      The “entire game” (thanks, btw, for illustrating that this is all an intellectual exercise for some people) has nothing to do with the zygote, blastocyst, foetus or sperm. It’s about a woman’s right to autonomy over her own body. Period. Unless she’s the one making the decision for herself, you’re talking about enslavement. So no, unless humans become an endangered species due to a catastrophic disaster, I won’t give an inch.

      • wilsim says



        You put it about as clearly as I could have done, and even managed to do it without the snark, vitriol, or sarcasm that I would have used.

      • Hunt says

        So abortion should not be investigated scientifically because what science has to say won’t factor into your decision and therefore, by extension, all other women as well.

        That’s what it seems like you’re saying.

      • Deacon Duncan says

        I had rather the impression that Ibis3 was pointing out the fact that science doesn’t enter into the decisions of those who oppose abortion, and that therefore we should not let the scientific issues distract us from opposing the misogyny inherent in the pro-life movement. I may not have that exactly right, though.

        At most, science can identify the processes that make up what we regard as personhood, and detect their presence or absence (or partial presence) in the fetus. If they are present, however, that does not address the moral question, which is a woman’s sovereignty over her own body.

        I was reading someone recently (Richard Carrier?) who used the illustration of the famous violinist: one day you wake up to find you’ve been kidnapped and surgically hooked up to a famous violinist, such that your kidneys will serve the function of his diseased ones. The doctors taking care of you are not the kidnappers, and are as outraged as you at your mistreatment—but if they disconnect you, the violinist will die. You have to stay hooked up for 9 months until his own kidneys heal well enough to function on their own.

        Pretend for a moment that the medical details are plausible. Is there any way it would be ethical to deny you the ultimate decision of whether or not to remain hooked up to the violinist? Yes, he’s a person, no one denies that. The question is, who has the right to require the use of your body, with possibly harmful or even life-threatening consequences, for such an invasive procedure, without your consent? This is an ethical question that won’t be answered by any scientific investigation into whether or not the violinist is a person.

      • Hun says

        Yes, I do find the violinist thought experiment compelling:

        And I find the body sovereignty argument in general compelling as well. The place that gives me a slight hiccup is the sentiment that perhaps science should not investigate the developmental biology of personhood only because doing so might be considered a challenge to that argument. I smell anti-science, which always makes me a bit queasy.

      • Hunt says

        Aah! nested comments are driving me crazy. In my eaten comment I just wanted to say that I agree with the violinist thought experiment, or at least I find it very compelling. However, there still seems to be an anti-scientific sentiment present for those who want to preempt anything science has to say with what they consider a trump argument. As I said earlier, neither side is terribly interested in what science has to say anymore.

      • Janney says

        Unless she’s the one making the decision for herself, you’re talking about enslavement. So no, unless humans become an endangered species due to a catastrophic disaster, I won’t give an inch.

        Seconded. Except I don’t like the catastrophe exemption: it wouldn’t be any less an enslavement just because the species needed regenerating.

      • says


        The science related to consciousness and/or sentience (note: personhood is a legal concept, not a scientific one) is of interest in its own right, but is utterly irrelevant to the question of the right to abortion. Thus, to bring it up at all is a red herring designed to shift the focus away from the fact that a woman *is* a person and not an incubating machine.

        If an individual woman wants to make her own personal decision about whether to have an abortion taking what science says about sentience into account, that’s her right. But that’s *not* a legal question.


        I agree, it would still be enslavement under such conditions.

      • Hunt says

        Yet bringing it up is the easiest way to shoot down some of the more absurd arguments against anything fertilized human egg related, like embryonic stem cell research. I do understand what you mean by the red herring aspect to it. Once you open the argument to things like neural development, etc, you immediately admit the possible counter argument that neural development will also factor into prohibiting abortion.

        The fact remains that for many women your argument just doesn’t convince, even though it may be ethically correct. However, for them the fact that there is no scientific reason to believe that abortion terminates sentience or the impossibility of fetal pain may well be very convincing.

        So we face a dilemma. Either convince them that the body sovereignty argument is correct, or utilize science, knowing that it might be a double edged sword.

      • Hunt says

        But legally, the body sovereignty argument has held pretty solid ever since R v W, which is one reason I doubt it will ever be overturned.

      • says

        You still are treating this as a game. Win with this strategy or that. It’s not a game. Forced-birth slavery has real world consequences, just like race-based slavery or sexual slavery. That’s the ground that matters to actual women–people if you will.

        It’s the anti-choice people who want to conflate the arguments about embryonic stem cell research and abortion. Don’t fall into that trap. Bring science to bear in *that* discussion. Demonstrate that cells aren’t suffering, that for all intents and purposes (except for the one that makes such research so promising), there’s hardly a difference between a stem cell and a skin or blood cell. Put the quality of life of grandma with Alzheimer’s or Johnnie who was paralysed by a drunk driver against the exploitation of a lab culture.

        But if there’s something growing inside my body, I get to decide what to do with it. By all means, educate the public with science so that women can make informed choices. But first make sure that the choice is theirs to make. Legal, safe, accessible, –once that’s accomplished, give me free, informed, and shame-free.

      • Hunt says

        To an extent it will remain a political game for as long as it’s still legislated. As we know, abortion rights can be radically infringed at state and local levels without needing to overturn RvW. A lot of people will turn their personal antipathy about abortion into a preference to see women’s bodies controlled. And these people vote and support political candidates like Santorum.

        This is actually one place where the moral/ethical distinction is important. The two issues are whether abortion is ethical and whether it’s moral. You seem to address the ethical position effectively, as does RvW, but there are still tons of people who think abortion is not always moral (and again, these people vote). Science can be crucial in convincing these people (myself included) that most abortions are morally permissible.

        If I thought most abortions actually did kill a sentient being, I can’t say that the body sovereignty argument would be enough to convince me it shouldn’t be outlawed. (I’m not sure it wouldn’t be enough either, as per the violinist thought experiment.)

        So, yes, to a large extent the legal aspect is a “game” in that you need to marshal all the evidence, from disparate sources to convince the most people. At least when you live in a democracy.

      • says

        When you have a uterus and something growing inside it, weigh all the emotional crap and theoretical crap and scientific crap you want when making the decision for yourself. Don’t condone anyone taking my rights over my own body–because that’s exactly what you’re doing when you treat it as an intellectual game. Slavery is wrong. We decided that *moral* question back in the 19th century.

  3. Hunt says

    Oops, I meant “pro-choice position is much closer to where an honest assessment…”

    The pro-life position in the strict “every embryo is sacred” sense is one of true anti-science and anti-materialism.

    • Aaron says

      Don’t forget anti-feminism, as well. Some groups condemn men to hell for wasting sperm, but you don’t ever hear an outcry over legalizing vasectomies, just vague mutterings about guilty self-pleasure inherent to masturbation.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      The pro-life position in the strict “every embryo is sacred” sense is one of true anti-science and anti-materialism.

      And yet they claim that the reason a fertilized egg should count as a fully human person is because it contains DNA. In other words, they’ve reduced humanity and personhood to a particular arrangement of physical nucleotides. I’d argue that this is an extremely materialistic position to take. Granted it’s a very naive and uninformed materialism, precisely because it reduces the essense of humanity down to the level of a mere chemical formula.

      A more thoughtful and reasonable materialism would recognize that true personhood and humanity require much more than just configuring molecules a certain way. What makes us people and not just meat are the processes that begin to emerge as our bodies develop and mature—processes that manifest as mind and will and intellect and emotion. The only thing conception does is to begin to build the physical framework within which our true humanity and personhood will later manifest itself.

      So pro-lifers are materialists, they just take materialism to an ignorant and inhuman extreme.

      • Hunt says

        Agreed, although I do always get the feeling that they use the “full complement of DNA” thing only as a lame feign toward scientific materialism and that they really have nothing vested in it whatsoever. I don’t think for a minute that they actually consider it a valid argument. They think it might appear that way to people who actually do take materialism seriously.

        That’s my take on it anyway. Perhaps some do actually think it’s a good argument. Of course, it’s not, as you point out, they’re really addressing the problem at the wrong metaphysical level.

      • Reginald Selkirk says

        As Hunt says, it is not a good scientific explanation by someone who actually cares about the validity of science. Rather, it is sciencey, intended to give the appearance and cover of caring about science, in the same way as many Creationist stories.

  4. davidct says

    The Pro-life movement has nothing to do with the sanctity of life. If it were the proponents would act very differently when it came to children and adults.

    • Gregory says

      I’ve always found it amusing (in a sick kind of way) how so many “pro life” people enthusiastically support the death penalty and using armed conflict to kill anyone deemed to be too different.

    • Yellow Thursday says

      Reposted from my Facebook page:
      To all my pro-life friends who promote adoption: How many unwanted children have you adopted? If the answer is zero, you’re a hypocrite.

  5. Reginald Selkirk says

    When you were pro-life, what was your position on an exception for cases of rape?
    Here, on a Christian pro-life site is: Confessions of a Pro-Life Atheist, Why I Fight Abortion
    by Patrick Ptomey. He claims it is the science that convinces him that life begins at conception, and yet oddly he never presents the science. I guess I’m just supposed to take his word for it in an authoritarian sort of way. Also, he never discusses the issue of rape. Nothing about the science of conception changes in cases of rape.

    • fastthumbs says

      …”by Patrick Ptomey. He claims it is the science that convinces him that life begins at conception, and yet oddly he never presents the science.”

      In the strictest sense, he’s correct – a blastocyst (A mammalian blastula in which some differentiation of cells has occurred. Also called blastodermic vesicle) is just as much alive as muscle, nerve, skin, hair, bone cells, and of course egg and sperm.

      What is avoided is when personhood applies, which is more of a legal/moral question. I think the idea of a blastocyst having personhood is ridicules because it’s no more aware than any other lump of cells (and really, not until the frontal lobes are fairly developed, which occurs roughly around the third trimester would remotely fullfill personhood IMNSHO).

      The religious pro-lifers believe in the notion of soul and all attribute a soul is “injected” magically when the egg and sperm unite (and they show the propaganda posters of 9 month old babies, and you’ll have to hold a gun to their head to make them say “zygote” or blastocyst” or other accurate medical terms). And as the blogger pointed out, it’s more of being a Christian owned notion, secular outsiders not welcomed.

      • peterwhite says

        In the strictest sense Ptomey is not correct. Life does not begin at conception, life is continuous. Eggs and sperm are alive, as are the people who make those living cells, as were all their ancestors.

        Life began about 3.5 billion years ago and has remained in existence continuously ever since.

      • fastthumbs says

        Hmmm. You know what, I stand corrected. You are quite correct. I suspose I could modify my statement and say that DIPLOID human life begins at conception… 😛

      • Hunt says

        Which then comes full circle back to the “unique full complement of DNA” specification for what it means to be a person. It’s not actually the beginning of diploid human life either, since egg and sperm are created from previous diploid individuals. It’s only the creation of a new diploid individual.

        Of course, the definition above runs into other problems, like does it mean that a clone is not actually a full person? since it’s not a unique genetic individual, minus epi-genetic considerations. How about an identical twin?

      • Monimonika says

        So, what about people with Turner syndrome (particularly, full monosomy)?

        For those who don’t want to look it up, basically, what about those people whose chromosomal makeup is just “X”, not “XX” or “XY”?

  6. Randomfactor says

    If a unique set of human chromosomes is the hallmark of a human being then my late wife, who at one point had two different transplanted organs from two different donors, should have been counted as three people.

    As all three were adults, should she have had three votes in elections?

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