A repeated claim since Dobbs v Jackson upended the Roe v Wade regime over abortion law in the United States is that the pro-life movement is attempting to foist their religious convictions on other people. This, as the claim goes, violates the religious freedom of other Americans by creating an environment where the beliefs of one group may limit the free choices of another group to access abortion. There are many responses available to this claim, but these first three came up in a Q&A. I have expanded slightly upon them in this format:
1. Human beings should not kill each other without extreme justification.
Is there anything particularly religious about that proposition? Granted it is a moral claim, but is it necessarily a religious claim?
It is wrong to kill each other. We should not kill each other unless extreme circumstances attain which change the moral considerations e.g., to stop great moral evil or to protect innocent life from an aggressor.
I know plenty of non-religious people who accept the truth of that proposition without accepting this commits them to religious beliefs. Religious and non-religious people may disagree on how to ground the moral truth of that proposition, but people generally agree it is true. Under normal circumstances, human beings should not kill each other.
2. The proposition that we should not kill each other is objectively true.
It is true for all people in all cultures under all political structures. Therefore, when we hear of people being killed for no apparent reason, no matter where it is happening, we use terms like unjust and evil.
If the above proposition were only subjectively true, true from the perspective of the individual, or legally true, true from the perspective of specific communities, then terms like unjust and evil simply don’t apply. Those terms reference fixed standards of justice and goodness. In fact, there can be no principled opposition to advocacy of any sort as it pertains to killing if the proposition is not objectively true. All laws become the exercise of raw political power. If I can convince enough people to agree with me on any stance regarding that proposition, the result is neither just nor unjust. It just is what it is. We may think that killing others ought to be strictly limited while other cultures may see value in the broader use of killing as a means to create a stable society. If we owe no duties to other human beings as human beings, then our objections to murderous or tyrannical societies become grounded in arguments of utility and emotive considerations, not categories of injustice and evil.
To be able to fight for justice, there must be objective standards of justice. To advocate for good, there must be fixed standards of good that transcend the individual, the community, and the current culture. Killing each other isn’t merely a bad idea. Stating the wrongness of killing each other isn’t appealing to personal preferences. Beginning our human interactions recognizing the wrongness of killing each other without extreme justification is adherence to a deep and fundamental truth of human community.
3. There is nothing explicitly religious about the proposition human beings should not kill each other. Further, the proposition only appears to have deeper meaning if it is objectively true. This leaves us with an important question, who counts as one of us?
The pro-life argument champions what Christopher Kaczor terms an inclusive view of human value. Every human life ought to be treated with the same basic dignity and respect. Since biological human life inarguably begins at the completion of the fertilization process, our moral approach to all human life at every stage of development ought to include the proposition which began our reflection, we should not kill each other.
Many abortion supporters see a need to dehumanize the nascent human life. Here is where the true magic happens. Those accusing the pro-life community of forcing religious beliefs on society concede biological human life begins at fertilization. Then they draw a line through humanity and declare one side of the line are persons and the other merely human. We owe persons moral considerations, not mere humans.
The shenanigans aren’t from the pro-life position. They are from those who expect everyone to accept they have special insight into which human beings matter and which don’t. They set arbitrary standards concerning human value while offering poorly defined properties and poorly understood capacities as their justifications. They claim to accept that objective moral standards and justice truly exist while inviting us to risk living in violation of those standards and our initial proposition, it is wrong for us to kill each other, based entirely on their certainty they are right. They expect us to legally protect the killing of human life on their guarantee there is nothing wrong with doing that. Why? To borrow from Orwell, some humans are more equal than others.
There is nothing about the nature of early human life to provide the certainty they need to justify violating our first proposition. The only thing they are certain of is that this embryonic or fetal life, this human life, is inconvenient and disruptive to their plans. To protect their ability to destroy early human life they tell us a story. A story of two kinds of humans, those whom we can kill and those we can’t. The story does nothing to explain our intuitions of equal human dignity and reeks of the stench of past justifications for acts of inhumanity. The story exists for one purpose, to justify treating human life as a thing that can be violently moved out of our way. They create a non-personal human life out of thin air, declare they are allowed to kill that human, and then stamp their feet over forced religious beliefs.
Stating that it is wrong to kill each other is not religious. It is a statement of objective foundational moral truth. Stating that biological human life begins at fertilization is not religious. It is an unavoidable fact of embryology. Stating the best explanation for our intuitions of universal human dignity is that our equal dignity is grounded in our shared humanity is not religious. It is philosophy. These are the same categories that any supporter of abortion will have to use to engage this issue.
Further, the inclusive view of human value enjoys the virtue of an epistemic humility lacking in the competing view’s bifurcation of person and humans. We don’t claim to know that some human life is less important than others. We argue that based on what we can’t know we ought to treat all human life with dignity and respect. We don’t demand everyone take our word for it that some human life can be killed without explanation or apology.
The downside to the inclusive view of human value is that it requires us to govern our behavior and prioritize life over ambition. It also requires us to be aware of the struggles of our neighbors and be willing to create community institutions to help when needed. I would argue that makes us all better people.