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This Week: Sam Hasn't Read Calvin & Hobbes

Ask an Atheist about that Other A-word

As early as our days on public access, our viewers and listeners have eagerly asked us “When are you going to discuss abortion?”  In keeping with our founding purpose as a show dedicated to atheism, skepticism, and the separation of church and state, we searched for a way in which this intersects with the topic.  A few months ago we put our an open call to our listeners to provide us with non-religious reasons to oppose abortion rights.  While some listeners responded with a few arguments they’d encountered, we heard very few atheist abortion opponents.

On Sunday, you’ll hear from a range of us who’ve been involved in Ask an Atheist: Sam, Eileen, and Bob; Mike, Libbie, and Deanna; and Becky, Nick, and Scott.  I’ll save the bulk of the discussion to this awesome cast, but want to give a few points that will guide our discussion.

The majority of arguments against abortion are religiously motivated and not based on science.  Science says nothing about souls, about any god giving the breath of life or dreaming us into the wombs of our mothers.  Because of these deeply held beliefs, religious folks then attempt to make all sorts of reasons why abortion is bad, including but not limited to misinformation that abortion is dangerous, or that it leads to murder or infanticide being legalized, or any number of spurious arguments. AaA contributor Bob Seidensticker has deftly addressed these at his blog GalileoUnchained.

The question of when human life begins is, possibly inextricably, linked to the question of moral permissibility of abortion, and isn’t inherently religious nor spurious. I’m moved by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s essay that originally appeared in Billions and Billions (Thanks to listener Crankyhumanist for the link).  “We offer for consideration the earliest onset of human thinking as that criterion [for when abortion is not permissible],” they state.  Human thought, they explain, is as observed by brain waves characteristic of people age infant through adult. This essay is written, albeit years ago, from an intensely sensitive and humanistic perspective.

Please join us this Sunday as we discuss these and other issues related to abortion, reproductive rights, religion, and atheism.  It’s bound to be a chock-full episode!


About the Author: Becky Friedman

Becky works on the Ask An Atheist production team, frequently appears on episodes, and lends her voice to commercial announcements. She speaks Spanish, works as an educator in the Seattle-Tacoma area, and sits on the Board of Humanists of Washington.

Feedback and Commentary

9 Comments 1 Trackback
Iamcuriousblue June 16, 2012 at 8:39 am

“As early as our days on public access, our viewers and listeners have eagerly asked us ‘When are you going to discuss abortion?'”

Well, on to a relatively safe, non-controversial topic after the last threads. 😀

David M June 16, 2012 at 9:23 am

It would be nice if you could touch base with Robert Price on this issue. I couldn’t care less about religious arguments against abortion and he is one of the few prominent atheists that I’m aware of that opposes abortion (I seem to remember that Hitchens was opposed as well though I never knew the particulars of his views). On the opposite side of the debate you have someone like Peter Singer who not only supports abortion but makes a rational case for infanticide as well.

Iamcuriousblue June 16, 2012 at 10:01 am

I’m not so sure Hitchens was completely anti-abortion, but did question some standard pro-choice arguments, notably that a fetus doesn’t constitute a human life. And obviously, that’s an area where the devil is in the details. At one extreme, you have the ridiculous claim that a fertilized egg constitutes a “human life”. On the other, the idea that a baby is not an actual life until it has emerged from the womb. Lots of reasonable interpretation in between these extremes.

Of course, it should also be pointed out that the idea of an embryo or fetus as not fully human is not the sole argument for allowing abortion.

Kal-el H June 17, 2012 at 7:55 pm

Apparently, Michigan’s legislature finds the word “vagina” offensive. A rep. was booted off the floor…even though they were discussing an abortion unfriendly bill HB5711.

Grammar Merchant June 17, 2012 at 8:57 pm

If I can recommend a helpful and fascinating book to any of the Ask an Atheist crew who have not already read it, that book would be “Practical Ethics” by Peter Singer. For those who don’t know, Singer is a consequentialist (full disclosure: Me, too!) who tackles everything from animal rights to the obligation of rich nations to assist poor nations to the argument over abortion. His abortion section lays out some pretty helpful encapsulations of the most common arguments of both sides and shows why BOTH sides fail to carry the day. It’s probably not a happy read for anyone who has ever been faced with the decision whether or not to abort a child, but it is informative and lucid. Check it out, and let me know what you think.

P.S. The book is written as an argument built up in stages from the first pages, proceeding from principles and reasons which undergird the remainder of the book, so skipping ahead by way of the index is probably not the best way to get a handle on his reasoning. So ya know.


[…] Reasons to Oppose Abortion?June 19, 2012 By Hemant Mehta Leave a CommentThat was the topic on the Ask An Atheist podcast this past weekend:A few months ago we put our an open call to our listeners to provide us with […]

Anne C. Hanna June 20, 2012 at 10:44 pm

Great show, all.

It was a little surprising to me that you were willing to take on such a heavily politicized topic in such a direct way as opposed to solely discussing it in terms of its relation to atheism. In my experience many atheist shows tend to shy away from the kind of approach you took to some extent, generally either because they want to stick fairly strictly to atheism, or because they have libertarian or conservative constituencies that they don’t want to marginalize. What made you decide that you wanted to (or were able to) take a different approach on this issue?

This kind of thing is why I’ve been liking this podcast (with, of course, the one notable exception we argued recently :-P). You’re almost always doing something a little bit different from what I hear and read in other places.

Andrew June 21, 2012 at 4:22 am

Hey, guys. I thought you may enjoy my recent story about the “other A word”. I’ll post a link here:

I entered a small contest to try to pitch a local atheist network. The people running the contest were a little put off by the idea of an atheist network. But when I sumbitted a new idea the the contest, suddenly atheism was tame.

Awesome show. I just wanted to add one thing:

It ought not matter if a fetus is or is not a person. The whole personhood argument is smoke and mirrors. The question is, “Is it ethical to legislatively force anyone to use their body to extend or support the life of another?” If the answer is no, and I submit that it is, then even if a fetus is a person, no law should be able to force a woman to use her body to support the life of another. Ever.

Mike Gillis June 21, 2012 at 1:43 pm


The reason we tackled it was because the motivations and organizations involved on one side of this battle are helplessly entwined with religion.

This is the same reason the show has taken a position in favor of same-sex marriage. We see both battles as a way for religious people to impose their supernaturalist
belief systems on other people.

SammyJohn1234 July 27, 2012 at 1:15 pm

Andrew –

Time to bludgeon this “debate” with facts, logic, and the failure of instrumental reasoning.

You know what argument is actually a false equivalency? That the inconvenience of a child is equal to the death of a in-uterine human. There’s a small risk to the health of the mother. There’a a 100% death rate for an aborted human.

Debunking the “bodily autonomy” argument –
There are intrinsic bodily demands on mothers and fathers by children and society post birth so it’s ridiculous to make an argument for bodily autonomy pre-birth. Going and earning a living, foraging for food, getting clean water, providing shelter, breastfeeding etc, etc, etc. This all entails true salutary RISK. True risks to the health and bodily well-being of the people responsible for child rearing. This is true for ALL human endeavour as every human behavior is SOCIAL and RELATIONAL. FACT.

Fyi – I’m not religious.

I don’t think there’s any instrinsic value difference between existence and non-existence. In other words, I think if my parents hadn’t had sex that night oh so long ago and I hadn’t popped out nine months post hence that there would have been some sort of lessing of the overall universal karmic balance sheet. Nor do I think because I do happen to be here that it’s added anything of instrinsic value to the universe. It just is.

I finally had to face the fundamental logical contradiction propping up the pro-choice argument that’s at the core of the abortion debate. When does life begin? At conception. Here’s why. It is an ORGANIC process that is ONGOING and CONTINUOUS from start to finish. There’s no abrupt starting and stopping to the process. Cells die and regenerate continually. It’s completely ARBITRARY to delineate this process as switching from “non-human” to “human” at some point on the continuum. It’s an all or nothing proposition. I don’t think it makes end of life scenarios such as assisted suicide or euthenasia intrinsically immoral though. Choosing to end one’s life is different than having that decision made for you.

Why is life sancitified then? It is the only basis upon which cooperation can be sustainable for progress to be achievable. Bar none. No one would debate this. This moral imperative is rooted deep in our biology. It must precede any feeble, subjective attemtps to attribute meaning to existence.

The only way to counter this foundational reality for abortion advocates is to redefine what “being human” means. However, the stone cold fact of the matter is a fetus will grow into a full term baby which will appear post-uterus nine months later, which will grow into a toddler, then a child, adolescent, mature adult, then decrepit dying frail elder followed by death.

As much as it pains me, and believe me it does because I am extraordinarly empathetic to the fact that women are the ones who face the decision between raising a child they will be responsible for decades to, and killing a baby human. But the fact remains it is still killing a human. I can no longer deny that declaring a 3 month old in-uterine human is somehow not human.

I understand the need for the cognitive dissonance though. I really do. How else do we justify the abortion meat grinder machine? I also understand the reason why this false equivalency needed to be propagated because without a ethical leg to stand on, the real issue (which is about sexual freedom) is uncomfortable for most people. It’s only recently I’ve come to accept the fatal flaw in the abortion debate because believe it or not, I am for gender equality. It just HAS to be ethical and moral. For me, I believe abortion fails that prerogative. Sorry.

You know what I would like to see? The end of the group deception around the abortion debate. The reality is that we as a society have collectively decided that it’s okay to dispose of tiny humans in order to allow for much greater sexual freedom. We want to fuck a lot without consequence. That’s it that’s all. I’m not saying it’s necessarily ethically wrong but that’s the discussion we need to be having. For f’s sake let’s a least be HONEST about what we’re talking about here.

Firstly, though, we need to smash the glass bubbles of cognitive dissonance surrounding these ludicrous “discussions”.


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