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Why this liberal atheist was anti-abortion
Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

Why this liberal atheist was anti-abortion

"'Pro-Life' or 'Pro-Baby,' Republicans Can't Outrun Abortion," reads a recent Intelligencer headline. I couldn't agree more.

Enough with the mealy-mouthed "branding" games. Lord knows we shouldn't expect much courage or vision from the Republican Party, but anyone serious about changing hearts and minds on this issue must first accept the label "anti-abortion."

Speaking in plain, blunt language is the first step toward seeing the truth and helping others see it. The truth is simple: every abortion ends a unique human life.

It's easy to understand why we want to deny this. Our culture has worked very hard to separate sex from procreation. Sex is for fun or for expressing affection or love. It only creates life if we want it to. Unfortunately, the science hasn't caught up with our utopian self-determination. Birth control is either not reliable enough or too obtrusive to use consistently. From the perspective of our enlightened, egalitarian understanding of the sexual marketplace, the unequal burden pregnancy places on women seems embarrassingly retrograde.

Then, of course, there is the cruel indifference of nature, relentlessly propagating itself no matter how terrible the circumstances. Men rape women and children, and some of those women and children get pregnant.

Life would certainly be less tragic — not to mention more convenient — if we could simply and cleanly undo unwanted pregnancies, as if they'd never happened. Is that what abortion does? Many have bought into this wishful thinking.

We tell ourselves abortion is complicated. But that's not exactly correct. More than ever, advanced technology supports our moral intuition that abortion destroys a genetically independent and distinct new person and that this person emerges at conception. What's complicated is how best to confront this truth.

To argue about personhood is to postpone this confrontation indefinitely. What developmental milestone must a fetus achieve to merit protection? Is it measured in weeks? Or ounces? Or something less tangible, such as the ability to feel pain?

The point of such discussion is not to arrive at an answer, but to create the impression of a hopeless ethical morass. Only those willing to claim special, revealed insight from God, "tradition," or some other transcendent source dare judge anyone else trying to navigate it. Decent, sensible, and sane people will mind their own business.

But do we accept abortion out of intellectual and moral humility, or is it for more self-interested reasons?

Journalist Nat Hentoff, a self-proclaimed liberal atheist who began speaking out against abortion in the 1980s, had the honesty to describe his earlier stance as a matter of unthinking conformity. "I didn’t see that an actual baby, a human being, was being killed by abortion for years because just about everyone I knew — my wife, members of the family, the reporters I worked with at the Village Voice and other places — were pro-choice," he wrote.

Hentoff's view began to change in 1984 when he covered the case of Baby Jane Doe, an infant born with spina bifida. The parents sought the right to refuse the surgery that would allow her to live. Through his reporting, Hentoff also encountered the story of a baby born two years earlier with Down syndrome; he slowly starved to death after his parents refused surgery on his deformed esophagus. Hentoff also encountered many doctors and other “experts” who considered these actions perfectly moral.

Before long, Hentoff was anti-abortion across the board.

Hentoff began his journey to the truth with a simple decision: "to examine abortion seriously." The journey he took is open to everyone, regardless of tribe or ideology or identity, but labels like "pro-choice," "pro-life," and "pro-baby" can often prove cumbersome. It's advisable to travel light, both for new explorers and those who would guide them.

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Matt Himes

Matt Himes

Managing Editor, Align

Matt Himes is the managing editor for Align.
@matthimes →