The accusation that Christians have been “imposing their religion” on everyone through the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade has been widespread. Leaving aside the relevant point that the Supreme Court has not imposed a view of abortion on society but has merely returned abortion legislation to the states (since there is no actual right to abortion in the Constitution), is there any merit to the idea that the pro-life argument is religious? Well, yes and no. I do think the pro-life view is ultimately grounded in the Christian view of human beings, but not in the way most people think (and not in a way that would justify calling the argument “religious,” but we’ll get to that in a moment).
The pro-life argument, in its foundational form, is simple:
- It’s wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings.
- Abortion intentionally kills innocent human beings.
- Therefore, abortion is wrong.
The first thing to do when someone accuses you of making a religious argument against abortion is to clearly state the premises and conclusion of the argument and then ask, Which premise of this argument is religious?
I suspect most people’s answer will be #2,* but that is incorrect. The second premise depends on scientific reasons, not religious ones. It’s a biological fact that human beings are the same kind of organism from the moment they begin to exist, throughout every normal stage of development. Any embryology textbook will explain this. There’s no scientific reason to think we start out as some other kind of being and then become human at a later date.
The scientific truth is that the unborn is a living, growing, developing, very young human being. Abortion intentionally kills that human being. So no, the second premise is not where uniquely religious truth is hiding. (Incidentally, only those who argue for the mystical view that the unborn is later infused with a soul, or value, or whatever are making a “religious” claim about the unborn when it comes to this premise. Pro-lifers do not argue this way.)
Why Human Beings Have Equal Value and Equal Rights
That leaves the first premise: It’s wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings. Here is where Christianity (and Judaism before it) is informing the view that human beings are intrinsically valuable (having equal rights because all equally share a valuable human nature made in the image of God), not merely instrumentally valuable (with unequal rights earned as a result of individual characteristics), and that it’s wrong to end the lives of those who are inconvenient, or damaged, or unwanted. That religious idea utterly revolutionized the world over the last 2,000 years as Christianity spread—ending slavery in the West, fighting racism, making infanticide unthinkable, and more.
At each point in history when these evils were first opposed by those who believed in the Christian idea of intrinsic, equal human value, the Christians were ridiculed, but since the Christian view of human beings is actually true and beautiful, it has, by the mercy of God, prevailed. Thankfully, today in the West, Christians are no longer ridiculed for being against infanticide. Instead, most people are horrified by the very idea of it. But please hear me when I say you should not imagine you would have been against infanticide then if you are for abortion now. The same reasoning—a lack of belief in intrinsic human value, a belief that one’s convenience, economic situation, desires, etc. justify disposing of your children—has undergirded support for both practices.
So yes, it is very Christian to think human beings are valuable and should not be disposed of—no matter their characteristics, no matter the care they require from others, no matter whether or not they’re wanted by the world—and it is indeed lurking behind the first premise of the pro-life argument. After all, even our own founding documents here in America recognize the fact that our unalienable natural rights come from our Creator, who endowed them.
Do You Really Want to Argue against the Equal Value and Equal Rights of Every Human Being?
But the question the non-Christian needs to ask himself is this: Do you really want to argue against this premise undergirding our entire legal system? Do you really want to remove the premise of equal human value and natural rights from our public conversation? Please understand that doing so leaves open the option of slavery, and racism, and eugenics, and infanticide, and evils not yet thought of. For if we only have value according to some arbitrary characteristic (size, level of development, race, sex, etc.), then those in power will set the criteria for human value and define the “rights” they will allow. It’s the difference between “It’s wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings” and “It’s wrong to intentionally kill some innocent human beings.” This has not gone well in the past.
And if you do insist on arguing against the idea of intrinsic human value (and its accompanying universal human rights), where will it get you? If human beings do not possess natural rights simply by being human, then there is also certainly no “right” to abortion, and this saws off the branch you’d like to sit on. But if human beings do have natural rights, then so do unborn humans, which also means there’s no right to kill them. Either way, there is no right to kill innocent unborn human beings.
Thankfully, most people in our culture, as products of a civilization that was built by Christianity, accept premise one and do not think it’s okay to kill innocent human beings. For those people with whom we are in agreement on this issue, it matters not where the idea originally came from—if we agree, we agree. We need only adhere to that founding principle of our nation, applying that agreed-upon principle to every human being in our society.
Every Political Position Reflects a Particular Worldview
It’s important to note that there is no neutral view of human beings here. Whether you are religious and believe in intrinsic value or you’re an atheist who believes in instrumental value, your view of human beings affects your political views and the policies you prefer—the policies you wish to be the law of the land for everybody. Those who convince enough people their view is correct will have their preferred policies enacted, regardless of how they came to believe in their view, and there’s nothing wrong with that. A religious person is not excluded from the political process simply because of his religious views, and a non-religious person is not excluded because of his non-religious views. A policy is not illegitimate if it comes from a theistic worldview any more than it would be illegitimate if it came from a non-theistic worldview. (It may be correct or incorrect, depending on the truth of the worldview, of course, but it is not illegitimate to propose it as a policy.) This is because there is no such thing as a neutral view. Every position comes from the perspective of a particular worldview, and everyone has the right to argue for his view. That’s how our form of government works.
Clearly, this principle has limits since Congress is not allowed to establish a religion. But are Christians violating the Constitution’s Establishment Clause when they work to enact pro-life policies? No. Arguing against abortion from the moral principle of universal human rights (an idea central to the founding documents of our nation—an idea accepted today by more than just Christians, though it was grounded originally in Christian theology) is not in the same category as establishing a religion by creating a state-sponsored church or mandating particular religious rituals or observances. It is not the government’s role to run churches. It is the government’s role to address many moral issues, particularly ones that have to do with the protection of human life. And on these issues, Christians have as much right to enact policies as anyone else.
Why the Pro-Life Argument Is Not “Religious”
And finally, just because a moral principle in an argument is grounded in the Christian worldview, that doesn’t mean the overall argument itself is “religious.” Here’s an example of what I mean: Ultimately, any claim that something is immoral and ought to be illegal requires the existence of an objective moral standard, and an objective moral standard points to the existence of God. Therefore, the idea that something—like murder—can be objectively right or wrong is grounded in a theistic worldview, but it doesn’t follow from that statement that arguments made by Christians for laws against murder are “religious.” The fact is that non-Christians can recognize objective moral truths even if they don’t have a way to ground them in their own worldview, and we can reason together from those accepted principles.
And indeed, this is what pro-lifers do. They usually do not make religious arguments when making their case publicly. Instead, they reason from widely-accepted moral/philosophical principles (e.g., murder should be illegal and every human being should have equal protection under the law) and scientific principles (e.g., a human being is the same kind of being from conception to death). Because both Christians and non-Christians share the ability to recognize basic moral truths (regardless of how those truths are actually grounded), and because the case against abortion can be made by arguing from these basic moral truths to pro-life conclusions, you will rarely (if ever) hear pro-life advocates appeal to their specific theological doctrines or cite the Bible to argue publicly against abortion. They have no interest in imposing their religion on others. They merely want the laws of our land to protect the lives of innocent unborn human beings just as they protect the innocent born ones.
*The number of people who would answer #1 rather than #2 (that is, those who agree that abortion kills a human being and thereby accept that #2 is not a religious argument, objecting instead to #1, saying they have a right to kill that human being because it violates their bodily autonomy) is currently a smaller number, but it’s increasing. See here for responses to bodily autonomy arguments.