The doctrines that inspire religious people to become pro-life activists have been talked to death. Most significantly, my Christian pro-life colleagues believe that all human beings are precious because we are created in the image of God. But of course, Christianity does not have a monopoly on valuing human life. Sociopaths aside, in general it’s not controversial to value human life.
As a pro-life atheist, I find it more interesting to consider why some people place prenatal humans outside the class of lives that are valuable. The reasons may be philosophical, political, or social -- but, surprisingly often, support for abortion is influenced by beliefs of a fundamentally supernatural character.
Take late-term abortionist Curtis Boyd. He believes the “spirits” of pregnancies he ends are “returned to God with love and understanding.” Presumably, those “spirits” will continue life in a heavenly realm, or perhaps be reincarnated as another embryo.
It would be easy to dismiss all of this as so much New Age mumbo-jumbo, but it has consequences. In 2013, a 15-year-old girl had an abortion in the belief that “the spirit I named Mariah will go on to a woman who is ready for her.”
Late-term abortionist Leroy Carhart takes a different route. Rather than suggesting that the baby’s life will somehow continue, Carhart claims that, spiritually, an unwanted baby isn’t alive to begin with. In an undercover video, in which Carhart counseled a woman he believed to be an abortion patient, he told her: “Life begins when the mother says it begins, not when anybody else says it begins. For some women, it’s before they conceive; for some women, it’s never.”
This is a remarkable claim. An 8-week-old embryo that is scheduled to be aborted looks and functions just like an 8-week-old who is loved by his or her mother. I happen to be a woman myself, so allow me to state authoritatively that women do not have the power to create life by our words, as in Genesis. Perhaps the world would be a better place if women could create children without conceiving, or hit the pause button after conception. But that’s not reality, and it certainly isn’t sound medical advice.
The supernatural beliefs I have described are varied, and they may not have coalesced into a “religion” yet, but they certainly qualify as magical thinking. Abortion does not remove something that is lifeless because the mother never spoke it into life. Abortion does not send a fetus’s spirit to be reincarnated. Abortion kills a fetus.
Some abortion supporters will admit this, and defend abortion anyway. I vehemently disagree, but kudos to them for being honest. But that honesty only goes so far. The pro-choice movement as a whole could not survive without magical thinking. Pro-choice leaders are not about to educate their many supporters who believe either that abortion doesn’t really kill, or that the baby was never alive to begin with. Ignorance is votes.
Indeed, magical thinking is embedded in Roe v. Wade itself. The majority opinion discusses a variety of views concerning when human life begins: the ancient Stoics and Jewish tradition holding that life begins at birth; the common law developed in pre-industrial England holding that life begins at quickening; “the Aristotelian theory of ‘mediate animation,’ that held sway throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in Europe”; and lastly, the view of “many physicians” that life begins at conception. Faced with these conflicting possibilities, the Supreme Court declared life’s beginning an unsolvable mystery and, in the face of this alleged uncertainty, removed legal protections from unborn children in all 50 states.
The notion that science is just one possible approach among many is a hallmark of magical thinking. The consensus of modern embryologists, and the beliefs of a civilization that thrived a millennium before the invention of the sonogram, are not equally valid. That the Supreme Court of the United States pretended that they were, and that such a farce remains good law more than 40 years later, is an embarrassment to our legal system.
The scientific method cannot answer the moral question of whether every human life deserves equal protection of the law. But science can provide the first steps: identifying human lives, and telling us when they begin and end. Unfortunately, clear answers have limited usefulness if people refuse to accept them and turn to magical thinking.
My fellow skeptics are quick to call out magical thinking in the contexts of climate change, vaccines, creationism and a host of other issues -- and rightly so. But when it comes to magical thinking in support of abortion, there is shameful silence.
Kelsey Hazzard is the president of Secular Pro-Life. She received her B.A. from the University of Miami and her J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law. She lives in Naples, Florida.