Ask an Atheist with Sam Mulvey

The Other A-Word

About a month ago, we asked for listeners to provide us with secular,  non-religious reasons to oppose legalized abortion.

We did this for two reasons. First, because we made a similar request last year on the topic of same-sex marriage.  And secondly, our worst kept secret is that we ask because we’re doubtful that you’ll find one.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that it is probably easier to make a secular case against abortion than it is to produce a non-sectarian argument against gay rights, but I have to admit that I’m curious. As a skeptic, I have to concede that there are facts I don’t know, and if there is a compelling reason to oppose abortion rights that I’ve somehow missed, then I’d like to hear it. If it’s good enough and it covers all of the concerns I have about the topic, it might even change my mind.

I am not speaking now as a producer or host of “Ask an Atheist,” but just as Mike Gillis. I’m a 32 year-old white guy and a fan of Aquaman, Mystery Science Theater 3000, and the band Queen. Without reservation, I want to state that I am 100% pro-choice and have yet to hear an argument against the legality of abortion rights that satisfies me.

Ninety-nine percent of the arguments that I have heard are totally irrelevant because they are completely entwined in a religiously-based presupposition about when a soul enters a zygote, or what the Bible says on the subject. These are not arguments I’m interested in.

I’ve been thrilled at the sheer depth of the responses we’ve gotten from our show’s listeners, and I really want to thank you all for your continued interest in this question. But — and there’s always a but — I’d feel less than honest if I didn’t put all of my cards on the table and let you know how I really felt about this.

So this is just me telling you what it would take to change my mind.


These are the objections that any anti-abortion argument must knock down in order to convince me:

I don’t believe there is a realistic scenario in which the rights of an embryo or fetus can supersede the rights of an adult woman to autonomy over her own body and her own sexuality. Likewise, I can’t imagine that an argument can be made for giving an embryo or fetus the same legal and moral consideration that we would given to an adult human being.

I don’t think such an argument can be found without appealing to a supernatural authority or a faith-based belief system. Like with opposition to gay unions, I think that once the abortion opponent fails to find the scientific rationale to respond to this question, they will inevitably begin talking about God, souls and try to inflame my feelings.

Now I want to share why I find the anti-choice movement in the United States to be so frightening and theocratic, but…

Before I dive in any deeper, I need to drop a couple of disclaimers.

Disclaimer the First: Just as my criticisms and denunciations of religion are not aimed at all religious people, nor will my criticisms of the anti-abortion rights movement be aimed at every single pro-lifer. That would be silly. But I will also say that the wide brush you feel in this post is based on my impressions of the movement at almost every level, from the politicians who espouse these views to the activists I see pushing for laws in state legislatures and those standing with signs outside of women’s health clinics.

Disclaimer the Second: I’m primarily interested in the question of the legality of abortion, rather than a simple moral objection. There are plenty of things that I find distasteful or immoral that I wouldn’t dream of actually banning. For instance, I find the way that Rush Limbaugh speaks on his radio program to be morally repulsive, but I would label any attempt to make his broadcast illegal to be oppressive and chilling. The debate I’m talking about is between people who think that the right to choose abortion should be legal, and those who think it should be outlawed.

The emails we’ve received so far from anti-abortion atheists have often included pleas to not paint them with the same brush as the Randall Terrys of the world. I can understand this and I can sympathize. Again, not every person opposed to abortion is a weeping anal sore of a human being like the president of Operation Rescue is.

However… the Terry voice is very representative of the pro-life movement in the United States and outliers are few and far between. And those same exceptions don’t have any position of prominence in that national movement.

The fact that the anti-abortion rights movement is so monochromatically religious, emotional and faith-based that I have a hard time believing it has a moderate that cares about nuance, science or the rights of people to make their own health and sexual choices.

At the top of my list of grievances with the anti-choice movement in this country is its barely-disguised goal of controlling sexuality in general and female sexuality in particular. One listener who emailed us worried about being included in this camp, and pointed out that she supported comprehensive sex education, widespread availability of contraceptives of all kinds and was opposed to forcing rape victims to have their attacker’s child against their will.

I sincerely wish that this point of view represented the majority of the American pro-life movement. From my admittedly limited experience, it’s a blip at best. I’ve certainly never heard it voiced by either politician or activist. This not a movement with much nuance, subtlety or to be perfectly, blunt…any class.

This is not a movement that shies away from the lowest common denominator, often using the worst sort of empty shock value to get their point across. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it’s necessary to use emotion or even a provocative image to get peoples’ attentions. However, that initial shock has to be supplemented by cold, hard facts and evidence. You can grab someone by the gut, but you need to also grab their brain. Anything else is white noise intended to fire the emotions, light the torches and sharpen the pitchforks.

By attempting to change minds exclusively through disgust or guilt or frightening lies, you’re all but admitting that you don’t have a real argument for your position.

This is a movement, that almost universal rallies around calling  a woman or her doctor murderers.

This is also a movement that when people actually do commit murder in their name, offer little in the way of condemnation. It’s just easier to criticize the murdered doctor, and rally the troops than it is to denounce violence and show compassion.

This is a movement that wishes to force women to endure humiliating and invasive vaginal procedures before allowing them to terminate their pregnancies.

This is a movement pushing for laws that require the state health department to release abortion data for the purposes of exposing doctors and patients to public shame — if not threats of violence.

This is movement that wishes to allow employers to enforce their own religious beliefs on their employees, even to the point of letting them fire people because they use birth control pills for the purpose of birth control.

This is a movement that often tells rape victims that they should view their forced pregnancy as a “gift from God.”

This is a movement that advocates fiercely for abstinence-only education, which has been conclusively proven not only to not work, but to actually make the problem of unwanted teen pregnancy worse.

This is a movement so deranged by the desire to make sexuality seem terrifying and dangerous that they would fight the distribution of a vaccine that would prevent a common sexually-transmitted virus that could lead to cervical cancer.

This is a movement that tries to pass voter initiatives that would ludicrously give an embryo the same legal standing as an adult human being.

If the pro-life movement in the United States was serious about reducing the number of abortions and unwanted pregnancies, they would be the strongest supporters of comprehensive sex education. They would be the loudest champions for the availability of birth control pills, condoms, the morning after pill. They would be pushing extra funding for Planned Parenthood – an organization that prevents more abortions than any other in the country – rather than pledging to defund it into oblivion.

By contrast, the anti-abortion folks fight these preventive measures almost as viscerally as they fight legalized abortion itself.  We see Rick Santorum, the presidential candidate of choice for the voter who thinks that abortion is the most important issue, is railing against the “dangers of contraception” because of the permissive sexual culture he feels it creates.

We saw an anti-abortion presidential candidate, Rick Perry, completely backpedal on a previous stance where he had distributed an HPV vaccine that would have prevented cervical cancer in young women after he was slammed by religious, pro-life voters. In electoral campaigns all across the country, we’re seeing this anti-choice movement fighting against measures that would reduce the number of abortion, make unwanted pregnancies less likely and help prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

The  accusation that abortion opponents want to control women’s bodies bothered more than one of our listeners. But it’s a charge made for a damn good reason. It appears to me that the anti-abortion movement is primarily concerned with making sex appear dangerous and frightening, so to coerce people by lack of options and education into making their prescribed narrow moral choices.

Do exceptions exist? I’m certain they do, but where are they?

But more importantly, can anyone circumvent all of this pious, oppressive noise and please give me a damned good reason that a fetus should be given legal equality with an adult human being?

About the Author: Mike Gillis

Mike Gillis is co-creator, and co-host of Ask an Atheist. He hosts the Radio vs. the Martians! and Mike and Pól Save the Universe! podcasts. He also enjoys comic books, the Planet of the Apes, and the band Queen.

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In a word, no.

The Honorable Redorblack Niglebottom

From a legal standpoint, women have been considered chattle for centuries. Their job is to reproduce (and make me a sammich). Interrupting that cycle reduces the value of one’s investment. Since pregnency through rape is a gift, and gifts have value, we can’t destroy it… that is obviously just an attempt to skirt paying a gift tax. Ah… Swift has the right idea and it fits in with the religious rights agenda of caring until the baby is born.

Tom Smith

I am an atheist and I’m against abortion. Here’s why. The major conflict that arises when we discuss abortion seems to be “When does life ACTUALLY begin?” Yes, I realize there are other conflicts in the abortion question. But when the two sides are engaged in argument, it seems to always boil down to that single question. On one side, the pro choice advocates will tell you that there is no human life present until 60 days, or the first trimester, or the second trimester, or the development of the spinal column, etc. I have heard versions of all of… Read more »


RE: Tom Smith I see your point and I think it’s one of those arguments which makes me feel it’s not AaA’s duty to represent the atheist movement as a pro-choice one. However I must take critique you. You and I are both skeptics. We both essentially take evidence as our highest standard upon which to base our judgements and decisions. Well, I suppose you know that the abortion rates in countries where abortion is illegal are not in any significant or even consistent way different from those in countries where it’s legal. You should also know that the safety… Read more »

Beth Presswood

There is NO secular counter to the bodily rights argument. It is illegal to force blood or kidney donation upon anyone, yet anti-choicers think it is completely fine to force women to donate the use of their uteruses to a fetus.

Wayne Rogers

I am an atheist and am personally against abortion. However I must admit that i have softened my stance to identify as pro-choice politically, for various reasons including utilitarian and libertarian ones. But personally, yes i do believe that abortion is an act of killing a human being. It has nothing to do with ‘souls’ or when a fetus becomes a ‘person’. A human fetus is a human. Period. It has to do with age. It is not ethical to classify a group of humans as ‘killable’ based on their age. In what area of life is it allowable to… Read more »


Well, a zygote is at best a potential human since about 80% or so fertilized eggs never implant.

The question of abortion that disturbs me is when it is done to prevent a certain type of child from being born (female or potentially disabled). Again, I think the solution is not to ban abortions but to increase social supports and value for females and people with disabilities.


Education will prevent more abortions than laws and bigotry and bibles and abstinence only programs ever will.

Charles Walsh

ARGUMENT or OBJECTION 1: We know now what we didn’t know then. Science via medical technology has shown that a baby exists, living in the womb. This baby is connected to the mother ship if you will by a life support cord. This could be analogous to a deep sea diver or an astrononaut on an EVA. So we are looking at a formed human being that is reliant on the mother. This same human being would be rieliant on the mother, or other adults as a Toddler. A Toddler or a newborn would not survive if left out in… Read more »

Charles Walsh

If you choose to not publicly print my response, then I respectfully request that you consider it and personally email me your thoughts as I sense we have both grappled with this question for some time.

With kind regards,
Charles ( Chuck ) Walsh

Charles Walsh

Type in this link which should take you to a YouTube video.

[…] is the culmination of a long discussion we’ve had on the subject of abortion.   Please see Mike’s post about it in May.  It’s a special episode with a wide variety of guests, so calls will be […]

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