Pro-life atheism, or Christopher Hitchens is (not always) great.

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.

10 Comments

  1. In my opinion, I think you are far too dismissive of Hitchens’s position, though I respect your argument and obviously agree with all the feminist aspects.

    As a feminist, I will always fight for a woman’s right to a safe abortion. Of course society does not own the woman’s body, any more than it owns a man’s body, and of course the choice to abort should always be hers and hers alone. On this matter, I too find Hitchens’s views downright wrong (or rather I should say your portrayal of his views, as I barely know him from Adam).

    However, I define myself as pro-life, in the sense that I think that abortion should be avoided where possible. I do believe in the viability principle. I don’t think it matters that an embryo cannot support itself independently – the fact is that in a matter of mere months, it could be a living human being. I find the thought of destroying such potential upsetting. I think both men and women should feel morally (but not legally) obliged to use as effective contraception as possible if they do not intend to conceive. I think the dismissiveness with which a certain number of feminists (and others) treat the notion of terminating the process of gestation is fairly distressing.

    Of course, contraception can fail, and accidents can happen. Unwanted pregnancy and abortion should not carry moral sanction, they are understandable: but equally importantly, they are also regrettable. Of course no woman is happy to abort a foetus; it is obviously not a pleasant procedure. And in any situation where the parents are unable to raise a child effectively, abortion is a valid option. But I think it is not a contradiction to say that abortion is suboptimal on humanistic grounds. It is part of respecting the sanctity of life – one of the few things religion can do well. On this score I respect Hitchens’s views, though his reliance on scientific evidence seems dubious and unnecessary to make his point, as you say.

    Ironically, rather than disagreeing with him on his pro-life views, I disagree with him more about atheism, as I happen to think religion has a positive role to play in society, but that’s a totally separate argument.

  2. Mathilde Mérat-Balaïan

    November 23, 2010 at 1:32 pm

    “However, I define myself as pro-life, in the sense that I think that abortion should be avoided where possible. I do believe in the viability principle. I don’t think it matters that an embryo cannot support itself independently – the fact is that in a matter of mere months, it could be a living human being. I find the thought of destroying such potential upsetting. I think both men and women should feel morally (but not legally) obliged to use as effective contraception as possible if they do not intend to conceive. I think the dismissiveness with which a certain number of feminists (and others) treat the notion of terminating the process of gestation is fairly distressing.”

    I quite agree with you on that point, and I didn’t mean to imply abortion is like having one’s tooth out. I was merely analysing Hitchens’s position on that point. If only from a medical point of view, abortion cannot be taken lightly, because it is pretty safe, but is still a surgical procedure, with possible complications. From an ethical point of view, I also feel it is a difficult decision, especially when the mother is far along in the pregnancy (however, these are very rare cases).
    However, I think this decision have to be a personal (and medical) one, and should not be judged. Ethics, in this particular case, has to be stricly personal : I know it seems paradoxical, but since you basically have to choose whether to put your body at risk, your priorities, your life in general for another human being, I hardly think this decision should be made by another person, or by society.

    I especially agree with what you said about contraception, so I won’t say more on that point, you summed it up quite well. 😉

    I disagree on the term “sanctity of life”, because it is a term which has no meaning outside of the religious reference, and I refuse to define ethics on that basis. How is life sacred?

    Besides, on that particular subject, this term always been used to establish a hierarchy between the woman and the foetus. Life is sacred, therefore you can ruin a body / a life / a citizen to preserve a potential life is not a hierarchy I feel respect the so-called sanctity of life.
    I understand what you mean, however, and I know that’s not what you were implying at all.

    I would prefer to use the term “value of a human life”, which introduce the possibility to establish a priority between what is human and what is not (or not yet) – on another but related subject, it allows to work on stem cells reearch, for instance, where the concept of sacredness did not. It seems like moral relativism can be a slippery slope, but I don’t think it is, on that subject. Women are extremely aware of the dilemma they face if they ever get pregnant by accident ; the path to abortion is filled with psychological appointments, refusals, administrative delays, sometimes guilt-trips. And before that, everywhere, you except to feel awful and to regret it the rest of your life ; abortion syndrom, although it had no medical meaning and concern less than 10% of women, seems to be inevitable (and not only in the antiabortionnist literature, in the mainstream media and chick press also).
    This is a real problem, because women make their choice based on fear or social stigma, when they should be doing it with a clear conscience and a sharp knowledge of the medical and social reality they are facing.

  3. I think this just generalizes to the case that you can agree with someone 100% on something, but not necessarily with everything they say. I think Dawkins’ insights into Biology, genes and evolution are breathtaking, but a lot of what he says about atheism is misguided, and ill-thought-through. The world is full of people who speak to lots of people through their views and insights on one thing but have strange seemingly contrasting views about something else.

    A case in point: Prof. Brian Josephson is a Nobel Laureate, which means he’s about as respected as you can be by the scientific community. His work in Condensed Matter Physics is ranked amongst the most important scientific achievements of the world, and yet he also is an ardent believer in telepathy and homeopathy, and leverages his academic clout to organizes talks at the Cavendish by noted homeopathic gurus.

    • Mathilde Mérat-Balaïan

      November 23, 2010 at 4:44 pm

      “A case in point: Prof. Brian Josephson is a Nobel Laureate, which means he’s about as respected as you can be by the scientific community. His work in Condensed Matter Physics is ranked amongst the most important scientific achievements of the world, and yet he also is an ardent believer in telepathy and homeopathy, and leverages his academic clout to organizes talks at the Cavendish by noted homeopathic gurus.”

      Well, we all know that getting a Nobel prize just crowns your scientific research, it doesn’t prevent you from becoming gaga… or being a racist bigot (cf James Watson).

  4. Coincidentally Hitchens is debating his atheistic views with Blair soon. The summary of his argument in this article greatly damages my opinion of him. It’s patronising and highly inaccurate. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/politics/blair-vs-hitchens-the-dress-rehearsal-2144012.html

    Would be interesting to see the same two debate abortion.

  5. This is what Christopher said:

    ”As a materialist, I think it has been demonstrated that an embryo is a separate body and entity, and not merely (as some people really did used to argue) a growth on or in the female body. There used to be feminists who would say that it was more like an appendix or even- this was seriously maintained- a tumour. That nonsense seems to have stopped. Of the considerations that have stopped it, one is the fascinating and moving view provided by the sonogram, and another is the survival of premature babies of feather like weight, who have achieved ‘viability’ outside the womb.
    This is yet another way in which science can make common cause with humanism. Just as no human being of average capacity could be indifferent to the sight of a woman being kicked in the stomach, so nobody could fail to be more outraged if the woman in question were pregnant. Embryology confirms morality. The words “unborn child,” even when used in a politicised manner, describe a material reality.

    But the whole case for extending protection to the unborn, and expressing a bias in favour of life, has been wrecked by those who use unborn children, as well as born ones, as mere manipulable objects of their doctrine.”

    and here is a video of him: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UcYv9hAkenI&feature=related

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