Christopher Hitchens is one of the most ardent supporters of atheism ; in the manner of Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, he is a very efficient pamphleteer against superstition, obscurantism and the excess of religion in general. Unlike Dawkins, however, Hitchens is only a pamphleteer with a journalistic backgound ; he doesn’t have the expertise on zoology the Oxford professor has, nor he is educated in philosophy and astrophysics like Victor Stenger, for instance. Most of the time, he makes up for this lack of expertise with his enthousiasm and passion for secularism, making him a very efficient soldier of the atheistic army against religion.
However, there is one subject on which Christopher Hitchens differs greatly from most atheist thinkers. He is, as well as a secularist and a humanist, a supporter of the pro-life movement.
And although he is not the only pro-life atheist in existence, he is certainly quite alone amongst the scientists he normally sides with. Surprisingly enough, discussions between fellow atheists on that particular subject are rather scarce, and most of the prominent figures of atheism take the answer for granted – abortion is a fundamental right – and leave the actual fight to the feminist movement. Richard Dawkins excepted, none of the important atheist books spare more than a few lines on abortion – and feminism in general, for that matters.
Despite his heretic position on the subject, Hitchens isn’t an exception : on the whole of his written works, I could only find one page on abortion (God is not Great, p. 221), and I had to infer his reasoning from a bunch of interviews I found on YouTube. Evidently, he feels very uncomfortable with that matter : the fact that he rarely talks about it, and only when asked, added to his physical and intellectual demeanour whilst debating it, are proof enough. Hitchens is faced with a dilemma : how can he reconcile his opposition to abortion with humanist arguments, when most of them have been monopolised by religious zealots?
His strategy aims mostly at giving pro-life arguments the credibility of science. That is why he never uses the word murder, although it is latent in his argument – I should point out that he doesn’t oppose abortion for therapeutic reasons. Hitchens makes the concept of « unborn child » the crucial point of his position ; according to him, human life doesn’t begin with birth, but is defined by viability. Therefore, a foetus is essentially « a candidate to the human race », and has rights of its own. Hitchens backs up these claims with the discoveries of embryology on viability, but mostly with the premise that our instinctive reaction to sonograms, or to seeing a pregnant woman being kicked in the stomach – which, he claims, are stronger than when the woman isn’t pregnant – are legitimate proof of the foetus’ status as a human being.
That being said, Hitchens then explains that in the name of humanism, abortion is a social issue, and shouldn’t be a woman’s responsability. This argument is never developed further.
The concept of « unborn child » is a fallacious one ; although Hitchens brings up the discoveries of embryology to support his argument, he never explains what they are, and how they define it. Firstly, this concept is everything but new. The idea that in the womb grows a potential life with human characteristics goes back at least to the 17th century. Anyway, modern embryology doesn’t say anything about the status of the foetus ; it merely explains and improves its viability, which is medically proven to be around the sixth month of pregnancy. Hitchens’s argument is based on the fact that a creature who is able to live on its own should be legally protected as a human ; however, virtually no abortion takes place that far into pregnancy, except in extreme pathological cases – against which Hitchens has no objection. In most countries where abortion is legal, it has to be done before the fourteenth week – on average, before the twelfth – that is to say nowhere near the viability limit. Hence, Hitchens’s argument, even if we accept it – which I don’t – cancels itself.
Moreover, the recourse to the emotional reaction one can have in front of a sonogram isn’t an argument ; it is a misleading premise to assume that the hope and joy of a parent means something legally or scientifically regarding the status of a foetus. Besides, trying to justify the claim that it is a life entitled to be protected legally by underlining the distress one might feel when seeing a pregnant woman getting kicked is just absurd. First of all, our society doesn’t make laws based on emotional reactions ; secondly, I am not even going to analyse the idea that a pregnant woman is worth more than a non-pregnant one – you don’t kick a polemist while he’s down ; thirdly, empathy towards a suffering being is not a valid argument to support its essential value, because it is merely a projection, and has no value as a philosophical hypothesis.
Besides, Hitchens deceitfully contrasts his pro-life position, which respects the rights of the foetus, with the pro-choice one, which apparently doesn’t. This is a false assumption ; a foetus is recognised as a legal object by the law ; in this regard, it is protected legally and medically. However, it only acquires legal personality at birth. Until it is able to live independently of its mother, her rights as a legal personality override its own. I would agree that the decision to abort beyond the sixth month limit a viable foetus which is in good health is problematic ; however, this is purely an academic discussion, since this situation is virtually non-existent. Progress in reproductive medicine means that it is almost impossible for women to discover they are pregnant after the foetus is fully developed – except in the case of denial of pregnancy (0,26% of all pregnancies), which in my humble opinion qualifies as a pathology.
Hitchens struggles to give his argumentation the credibility of science ; his thesis is extremely biased : he fails to make his arguments free of emotional prejudice which is generally summed up by the concept of « sanctity of life », but in his case just lacks the religious reference – and the bigoted rage which is the trend amongst pro-life activists. He tries to replace religious reasoning with humanist reasoning, but doesn’t define what he means by humanism ; one can only assume it is based on the value and respect of human life. However, because he is unable to prove that a foetus’s life is worth the same as its mother’s, this conception fails to convince on scientific and legal grounds.
On ethical and social grounds, it gets worse. The choice to abort, he claims, should not be left to the mother. As I have said before, Hitchens doesn’t bother to develop that matter ; in God is not great, he explains how the concept of a unborn child reconciles morality with embryology, then prudently distances himself from the religious view which considers contraception to be as evil as abortion.
Never does he even mention the matter of a woman’s choice. He does explain in great detail that a foetus is not just a growth in her body, however ; this consideration doesn’t seem to trigger any thought on the legal rights of a woman over her own body, and how pregnancy affects it.
In fact, Christopher Hitchens’s real target – depite the fact that he never mentions it – is the revoltingly named « comfort abortion ». He opposes it without ever challenging it, with an very insidious argument: 1) A foetus is an unborn child, and therefore has the status of a human being. 2) I’m not against therapeutical abortion. 3) I’m not against contraception. 4) Humanism is moral, and as such, abortion should be a social choice.
What we should understand in that development is this : a woman’s body is not her own : it belongs to society. Being pregnant takes away her rights on her own body from her, because the potential life she carries has more value as a viable human being than her own choices, although it affects her body’s integrity in the deepest way possible.
Hitchens tried to get rid of religious references in defining his pro-life argument ; apparently, he couldn’t get rid of the everlasting prejudice that a woman’s body is merely a container on which she has no rights. This position is not only filled with intellectual fallacies, it is also fundamentally patriarchal.
Hitchens’s humanism obviously doesn’t involve pregnant women.