By Gina Liggett
A reader of Politics Without God calls himself a "pro-life atheist," and has commented that "there are plenty of atheist pro-lifers who oppose abortion on the basis of science and reason." But such arguments against abortion are just as irrational as those of religious "pro-lifers."
The "pro-life" atheist position is irrational because it does not adhere to the law of identity and it misapplies the concept of rights.
By the Law of Identity, a Human Being and Embryo Are Not the Same Thing
The "pro-life" atheist assertion that "abortion is wrong because it kills an innocent human being" violates the law of identity, which Ayn Rand explains as: "To exist is to be something....it is to be an entity of a specific nature made of specific attributes."
What is a human being? A common secular dictionary definition defines human as: "of, belonging to, or typical of man (Homo sapiens)... [and] having or showing qualities, as rationality or fallibility, viewed as distinctive of people."
Ayn Rand defines a human being as a living biological being with the distinctive characteristic of a kind of "consciousness able to abstract, to form concepts, to apprehend reality by a process of reason... [A human] is a rational animal." Ayn Rand further explains that reason is a human's fundamental means of survival, it is how an individual forms values and it must be exercised by one's own volition. This is the essence of the human being, qua human (despite when things go wrong, like head injuries, birth defects, Alzheimer's disease).
To further elucidate the distinctiveness of the human being, it is through this uniquely human process of reason that knowledge about reality is not only sought, but communicated to others across time. We don't have to wake up in the morning, discover electricity, manufacture a coffee pot, and discover how to cultivate and harvest foods to make fresh hot coffee. In contrast, every generation of animal, such as a wolf or squirrel, repeats the same cycles of reproducing, obtaining food and fighting predators according to the natures of their species -- by the law of identity.
What is an embryo? In the same vein, an embryo is not a human being. While an embryo possesses DNA just like the plant Botrychium lunaria, the quality of having DNA is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition to meet the identity of a human being. An embryo, beginning with one cell containing a complete set of human DNA then developing into a fetus, has its own characteristic identity, like every other entity in the universe.
The distinctive and essential characteristics of an embryo are that it is potential human life, it is physiologically attached to the human mother, and it undergoes embryological cell division and differentiation according to DNA "instructions." Its survival and growth are entirely passive and autonomic, and completely dependent upon the biological viability of the mother it is attached to. It has not yet entered the world as an autonomous, singular, separate entity.
An infant is a human being and so is a pregnant woman. But once it is born, even as a day-old infant, he is forced to interact with the world at large and begins the process of developing a capacity of reason that will enable him to survive -- as human qua human. The infant begins with perceptual-level reasoning--he wails and screams when perceiving hunger or a wet diaper. In contrast, an embryo functions entirely autonomically, passively receiving nutrients via the umbilical cord attached to the placenta. A pregnant woman, whose faculty of reason has developed beyond the infantile perceptual level, has learned that she can meet her need for pickles and ice cream by going to the store. A different woman with an unwanted pregnancy decides that having a baby is not in her best interest according to the values she holds by choice, by reason.
The atheist "pro-lifer" is dispensing with the law of identity which distinguishes a human being from an embryo when he says: "..it is ludicrous to then go on to say that 'it is the woman's choice' (to have an abortion). It is as ludicrous as saying that you believe slavery is wrong, but that people should still have the choice whether they buy a slave or not. Science tells us that abortion kills a human being."
This statement muddles two different entities. Science and the law of identity tell us that a slave and a pregnant woman are both human beings -- but an embryo is not; it is an entity called "a potential human being."
A Human Being Has Rights, an Embryo Does Not
Since I have established by the axiomatic law of identity that an embryo is not a human being, an embryo does not have the "inalienable right to life" written in our Constitution by the Founding Fathers, as some "pro-life" atheists claim. This becomes clear when you integrate the law of identity with a proper application of the concept of rights.
Ayn Rand succinctly clarifies what the right to life is:
"right" is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man's freedom of action in a social context. There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man's right to his own life...Individualism regards man--every man--as an independent, sovereign entity who possesses an inalienable right to his own life, a right derived from his nature as a rational being.Because of the law of identity, there is a distinct difference between a born human being and an embryo. They are as distinctively unique by identity as a brain cell (with its full complement of human DNA) is to a malaria-transmitting species of the Anopheles mosquito (also with a full complement of its DNA).
The inescapable truth is that human rights apply only to humans, qua humans, not to embryos---anymore than rights apply to Anopheles.
Simply put, "[an] embryo has no rights. Rights do not pertain to a potential, only to an actual being. A child cannot acquire any rights until it is born. The living take precedence over the not-yet-living (or the unborn)."
So there is no difference between religious and atheist (aka "scientific") positions against abortion. Both dismiss with the law of identity and erroneously claim that an embryo is a human being with a right to life.
One is Anti-Abortion Only By Accepting the Moral Code of Altruism
"The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value."
Atheist anti-abortionists are just as altruistically-minded as religious anti-abortionists: both uphold the idea that a woman who does not want to keep a pregnancy must do so anyway, despite her right to exist for her own sake. In order for the atheist anti-abortionist to say an embryo has an "inalienable right to life," the human mother must surrender her rights for the duration of the pregnancy with complete disregard for her own life, values, and rational self-interest.
But in a free society, individual rights do not just come and go or float about. They are not temporary depending upon a medical condition. A woman doesn't suspend her right to life and self-determination when becoming pregnant! In a free society, she must not be compelled to surrender to an imposed morality of altruism and self-sacrifice against her will because of pregnancy. Even a born human in a vegetative state retains the right to life (even though he requires a proxy spokesperson to act in his or her behalf).
In a repressive anti-abortion society, a woman keeps her status as a human being with that society's cultural rules only as long as she is not pregnant; but loses that status like a sacrificial animal when she's pregnant. If you extend the illogical, then men should lose their rights every time they have sex, because that could possibly cause a pregnancy (even if birth control is used, because of course birth control sometimes fails).
The Anti-Abortion Position Cannot Resolve the Inherent Conflict of Altruism
Some anti-abortion legislation deigns to permit abortion "if the life of the mother is threatened." Well, just how far does that go? On the brink of death when CPR and resuscitation are required in the case of a complicated pregnancy? When the mother is bleeding out and needs multiple blood transfusions? When she's past the point of no return on full life-support?
The correct answer in a non-sacrificial society is: Abortion should be allowed when the woman decides as a volitional human what constitutes a threat to her life, her values, her existence as a rational being.
Never can the "interests" of a fetus override the right to life and liberty of a born human. Only by the morality of altruism and the use of force can a society allow an embryo to hijack a woman's uterus and compel her to sacrifice her life and values to ensure the completion of a pregnancy. Only under dictatorial laws where individual rights do not prevail (such as in theocratic countries like Saudi Arabia or communist societies like Soviet-era Romania, for example, is a woman a fleeting human being.
The Right to Abortion is Absolute Because the Law of Identity and Individual Rights are Absolute
At all times, from the point of birth, a woman retains the right to life and the right to her body. At all times, from the point of birth, the woman's right to life is enduring, and does not fluctuate according to her fertility status.
The choice to retain a pregnancy is foremost predicated upon a woman's consent to incubate potential life. And it is nobody's right -- atheist or religious -- to deny her this choice.
By the law of identity; by the morality of individualism as against altruism; by the science of reason and individual rights, the right to abortion must not be abrogated.