Nonreligious and Pro-Life: The New Normal or Same Old, Same Old?

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THE AMERICAN ATHEISTS' annual convention held this past March had some surprising attendees. Between the usual suspects in the exhibit area selling secular literature and soliciting memberships to various groups was a table representing the organization Secular Pro-Life (SPL)--a nontheistic anti-abortion group. According to the organization's website, the mission of SPL is to expand the pro-life movement "beyond the cathedral walls" by mobilizing like-minded atheists, theists, and agnostics "eager to save lives" and to fight the media portrayal of prolifers as religious extremists. Could it be true? Is there really such a thing as a pro-life atheist? What's next, Intelligent Design Agnostics? How about Secularists for Sharia Law?

It would be easy to write Secular Pro-Life off as a very small fringe group with a less-than-professional-looking website. However, they are but one of a number of pro-life organizations (such as the Atheist and Agnostics Pro-Life League, Americans United For Life, the Susan B. Anthony List, Created4Life, and the National Right to Life Committee) that consider themselves secular-minded or that have refocused themselves towards a secular orientation in the last few years. Without a doubt, the secular identity is on the rise, even within movements that secular activists have traditionally opposed.

Even more astonishing is how groups like Secular ProLife may actually reflect the thinking of the average American. A recent Gallup poll showed that the number of people in the United States who identify as pro-choice has dropped to its lowest point (41 percent) in recorded history, while those who identify as pro-life have continued with their decade-long rise. In 1995, 33 percent of Americans considered themselves pro-life. Today that number has climbed to 50 percent--with a remarkable 9 percent jump in the last five years.

Part of the reason for this shift in the American zeitgeist has to do with tactical innovations within the pro-life movement. For years the arguments against abortion had been deeply embedded in religious--mostly Christian--rhetoric and doctrine. But, these overtly religious aspects of the movement have not meshed well with an increasingly secularized America. Despite the religious right's best efforts, people continue to leave their churches in droves. The fastest growing belief group in the United States is comprised of people who claim no religion at all. How then has the prolife movement remained politically relevant in the United States? The answer: follow the lead of other religiously based movements and co-opt popular aspects of secular culture to mask the faith-based nature of your beliefs. It used to be that creationists were creationist--then they became advocates of intelligent design; advocates for prayer in school used to defend Christian values--these days they're defenders of religious freedom; before, the Ten Commandments trumped the Constitution--now, the Ten Commandments inspired the Constitution; and so on.

The pro-life movement has gone through a similar transformation. Groups like SPL declare themselves "pro-life for a reason" and agree with conservative author and radio producer Dustin Siggins, who wants the pro-life movement to stop using biblical arguments to debate abortion. "The science of life is in our favor" states Siggins, "and we should emphasize this." Indeed, being pro-life "for a reason" and favoring the so-called science of life can be persuasive stuff. The only problem is that the reasons for being pro-life are often based on erroneous logic, and the "science of life" has been anything but scientific.

According to SPL, the secular argument against abortion rests on four basic premises: 1) the fetus is a human being, 2) there is no consistent, objective distinction between a "human being" (biologically speaking) and a "person" (legally speaking), 3) human beings merit human rights, and 4) bodily integrity is not sufficient to justify most abortions. …