We’d been chatting about our cities, children, and careers while sipping our coffees, when Dr. Matt McLennan asked me a question. “Do you find yourself motivated by religion in the things you do?” I didn’t mind the question—the purpose of meeting was to get to know each other on a personal level before publicly debating each other’s views. Little did I know that this tied directly into one of the main arguments the professor would put forward that evening.
In his opening statement, Dr. McLennan argued that the pro-life position creates a so-called double bind in which two conflicting messages negate one another. Either it’s religiously based and therefore insulated from rational criticism, or it’s secular and can be discussed to determine whether it’s sound. The position he then took was that harm only exists when it affects sentient humans and so abortion is only wrong once the pre-born have that ability. I’ve already reviewed whether human rights should be based on ability so the purpose of this article is to address the claim that the pro-life argument might actually be religious, and whether this matters.
The professor explained that if revelation rather than reason is at the base level of the pro-life position, this spiritual contract trumps the social contract and the laws of the land, which leaves no room for exceptions and is powerful for those who adhere to it. This advantage is also its downfall, he continued, because pro-lifers will have difficulty convincing non-believers.
The second horn of the double bind is secular, where arguments are rational and non-sectarian. Dr. McLennan asserted that when pro-lifers claim that human DNA confers human dignity which means human rights, the burden is on them to explain why our species deserve special rights over other kinds of life, and the answer is likely religious. If we say that human life is sacred or that we are created—which implies a Creator—this is not a secular argument and therefore holds no weight in a rational discussion.
Dr. McLennan was right when he said he might have opened “a can of worms much larger than this debate” since the time and format simply did not allow for a thorough discussion of worldviews. That, however, does not mean nothing can be said in return and I would welcome an opportunity to discuss this further in the future. But my main response that evening was that saying that the pre-born should have the right to life isn’t any different from saying that a toddler or teenager should have the right to life.
During the debate, I based my position on science when claiming that a human being comes into existence the moment a sperm and egg fuse. I appealed to philosophywhen maintaining that the differences that exist between us and the pre-born are one of degree, not of kind. Thus, my challenge for Dr. McLennan was this: unless you are willing to dispute human rights doctrines around the world and deny that humans have human rights at all, accusing me of holding a religious view doesn’t mean this refutes the scientific or philosophical evidence. I simply asked for consistency: if human beings have human rights, what about the pre-born’s rights?
When an audience member later asked where the right to life comes from, my response was that it is inherent, just like the right to liberty. Dr. McLennan rephrased that as “just because.” Now, there is certainly more to say about where human rights come from but, as Scott Klusendorf points out, it is important to note that the claim that we have them “squares with our basic intuitions and is the foundation for virtually all of Western Civilization—our legal codes, civil duties, as well as our understanding of moral obligations. It seems critics must present a good case for surrendering this deeply held intuition before insisting that we relinquish it.”
There are just some things we simply know through intuition. And the mark of any civil society that believes in equality rights is to acknowledge all humans are equal. Furthermore, saying that all humans are equal does not mean other species shouldn’t be protected. I’m not saying we shouldn’t protect other species—I leave that for another debate. I’m simply saying, can’t we agree that amongst our own species we are all equal?
But let’s get to the root of the matter to address the argument that the pro-life position is religious and therefore invalid in a rational debate. First, why should we accept that religious claims cannot be held to rational standards or considered in a logical discussion? Both the abolitionists in the 18th century and civil rights activists in the 20th century were founded on the concept of humans bearing the image of God, opposing injustice for precisely that reason. One need only think of Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech! Were they irrational? Similarly, pro-life advocates, though often founded on or motivated by religious beliefs, offer rational arguments for their position, as did I at the University of Ottawa.
At the same time, I did not deny that my claims have religious underpinnings, because they do. While we do not discuss theism while making our case for the pro-life view, we ultimately presuppose it when saying human beings have inherent rights that other species don’t. But so does everyone else. Let me explain.
Each time an abortion advocate makes a rights claim—“Women have the right to abortion!”—they make a religious claim. How? By saying that women have fundamental rights, regardless of what the state says, and that it is wrong to take them away, they are making an inherently theistic claim. They are appealing to a higher authority when they speak of “fundamental” rights that go beyond state claims.
The question is this: where do these rights come from? It can’t be the government because in that case, rights can be granted or taken away at any point, which is precisely what abortion advocates oppose. And so rights must be rooted in something—otherwise that argument, too, falls apart. In order for rights that transcend the state to exist, there must be a higher source that grants them. That’s a theistic, religious, or metaphysical claim.
Dr. McLennan didn’t make a rights claim but did make plenty of moral claims. For example, during cross examination he stated that “Nobody should not want a child with a disability”; he said that abortions pre-sentience “should be allowed”; and, to illustrate one of his points, he even called adultery “immoral.” But what authority can he refer to, if merely making a secular argument? By saying that morals are real—remember that Dr. McLennan opposes some abortions on moral grounds—he implies there is a moral law-giver. If not, if morals are merely a matter of preference without authority, why should we obey them? How could we say anything is wrong at all? All one could do is recognize moral truth but that does not mean they can be grounded in anything. You simply can’t have it both ways.
At one point, Dr. McLennan said that he might oppose the freezing of human embryos for reasons of human dignity, not human rights. But where does human dignity come from? While he deeply cares about people and advocates especially for equality for women, his philosophy of harm reduction cannot account for this. If a group of men decided to gang-rape a woman, and the pleasure gained outweighs the harm done, a person who solely determines right and wrong by virtue of harm reduction can’t condemn this awful act as immoral—unless we say this violates the woman’s rights or dignity. But guess what? That’s a metaphysical claim.
While I know the professor would be horrified at this example, it is important to think about the implications of the worldview he proposed. If harm is all that matters and metaphysical arguments don’t count, it is impossible to say that anything is ever objectively wrong.
Here’s why. A truly secular ethic cannot tell us why anyone has value and a right to life, nor can it prescribe moral truth for everyone to adhere to. As it turns out, not just pro-lifers but people on both side of the fence are asking the same question: what makes humans valuable and where do our rights come from in the first place? All of us use metaphysics to find an answer, unless we throw human rights out the window altogether.
So here’s the question we must consider: which metaphysical worldview better explains human dignity and equality? Is it the one that grounds human value in our common human nature or the one that grounds it in accidental characteristics that come and go over the course of one’s life?
In a society where many adhere to different worldviews, we have to face the question of how to value human life as this directly affects moral and legal matters on a day-to-day basis. Rather than dismissing the pro-life position because it implies metaphysical truths, let’s ask ourselves which view is more consistent with science and philosophy and equality. The way I see it, the pro-life position is the only one that’s one hundred percent consistent—it doesn’t base anyone’s value on arbitrary criteria, nor does is exclude some humans like every other view does.
We may never agree on the underlying metaphysics but by adopting the pro-life view of human rights for all human beings, at least everyone is safe. Religious or not, that’s worth fighting for.