Lately, a small number of abortion rights activists have begun to argue that it is important to emphasize that choosing an abortion is “normal.” They want more women who have had abortions to speak up about their choice and to convey how many of them made it without reservation. Following their lead, some women have joined an online campaign called “#ShoutYourAbortion” to express solidarity about their choice without apology or shame. As one leader of the campaign has expressed, “Without real human touchstones, situations that we haven’t experienced ourselves become unimaginable. People do not find empathy in a theoretical exercise.”1
As someone who supports both abortion rights and the morality of abortion, I think there is something encouraging about this trend. To defend abortion rights, we do need to put a human face on the women whose lives are affected by abortion restrictions. But more than this is needed. Notably missing from most of the “#ShoutYourAbortion” rhetoric is any recognizably moral language. Without the perspective that abortion is normal and morally good, their claim amounts to the cynical and amoral schoolyard slogan “everybody’s doing it.” Worse than that, it comes across as monstrous if it does not address the concern that what everyone’s doing is murder.
A notable example of the trend is Kate Watson’s book Scarlet A: The Ethics, Law, and Politics of Ordinary Abortion. Her book leads with a lengthy section filled with statistics about how many women have abortions and how many of them do so without feeling conflicted about it. She admits that “everyone’s doing it” doesn’t justify abortion, but thinks it is a fact worth considering. I think that’s true, but as a professor of bioethics, Watson would have done better to start off on a different foot.
What would a stronger case in defense of the morality of abortion look like? How can abortion rights be seen as protecting women’s moral agency? In particular, what can an advocate of abortion rights say to appeal to any values that resonate with some of the more active-minded people who currently disagree with the practice of abortion?
Secular-minded people sometimes bristle at references to “sanctity” or “the sacred.” If they don’t believe in God, they might dismiss these concepts as hokey. I myself no longer believe in God, but I think this dismissive attitude about the sacred is a grave mistake. Human life is sacred — to those human beings who exercise the agency to live it. A secular embrace of this conception of the sacred can actually strengthen the case for the morality of abortion.
A secular sanctity
We can understand something about the sanctity of human life by looking to a place where life was considered cheap: Soviet Russia under communism. Ayn Rand was a thinker who formed her view that life was sacred, in part, by observing firsthand the consequences of this system of tyranny. And unlike a figure such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, she did it without an appeal to religion.3
“There’s something I would like to understand. And I don’t think anyone can explain it. . . . There’s your life. You begin it, feeling that it’s something so precious and rare, so beautiful that it’s like a sacred treasure. Now it’s over, and it doesn’t make any difference to anyone, and it isn’t that they are indifferent, it’s just that they don’t know, they don’t know what it means, that treasure of mine, and there’s something about it that they should understand. I don’t understand it myself, but there’s something that should be understood by all of us. Only what is it? What?”5
Irina is studying diligently to become an artist. But she falls in love with a counterrevolutionary, who is arrested. She had one chance to make a life for herself, and now it will be stolen away from her. Rand was an atheist, but she opposed communism because she thought it “forbade life to the living,” and so violated the sanctity of the individual’s life. Especially because she was an atheist, Rand thought each of us has only one life to live, making our time on earth “precious and rare.” Her oppressors are indifferent to it, but Irina’s life is sacred to her.
Rand had much more to say that helps enlighten a secular perspective on the supreme value of an individual human life. After writing We the Living she would go on to explore the philosophical underpinnings of her idea in much greater depth than I can present here. But here is the essence of her view.
In this perspective, it is your own life that is of supreme or ultimate value to you. And it is only by choosing to engage your mind to identify and embark upon a series of self-reinforcing activities that your life becomes your goal, and it is only in relation to that goal that anything else can be valuable to you in the first place. Only by choosing the projects of a human life can any material objects, productive activities, or personal relationships count as good or bad, i.e., take on value in relation to that choice.
A woman sentenced to become a vessel for some other being loses a grip on her ability to make crucial life choices as well. A right to abortion protects her ability to make crucial choices and to guard the sacred treasure of her own life as a rational agent.
Whose life is sacred?
Because she thought that chosen values were themselves the essence of the life process for an individual, Rand opposed all restrictions on abortion. In particular, she characterized the religious opposition to abortion, which opposed abortion even for health reasons, as treating a woman as though she were only “a screaming huddle of infected flesh who must not be permitted to imagine that she has a right to live.” Rand considered it a perverse inversion that such a position would be advocated in the name of the sanctity of life, when the life for the sake of which a woman was to become this screaming huddle was that of a mere embryo.
This last issue, the alleged sanctity of the life of the embryo or fetus, is of course the chief reason people object to the morality of abortion. But if we approach this issue from a secular perspective, and if we think there is no reason to believe that the newly fertilized ovum has been infused with a soul by a divine power, there is a serious question about to whom and for what its life is supposed to be of supreme value.
There is no rational, scientifically defensible answer to this last question. No doubt the embryo has human DNA and as such has the potential to develop into a fully grown human adult. Its parents may value it for this potential, but not someone who does not want to raise children. Further, a potential human being is no more an actual human being than an acorn is an actual oak tree. As such, as I have argued elsewhere (from a perspective informed by Rand), there can be no rational ground for assigning the rights of an actual human being to a mere potential. Even though there are moral reasons to respect the lives and rights of other human beings, these reasons don’t apply to a being as primitive as the embryo or fetus or to a being so dependent on another for its very existence as is the embryo or fetus, especially when its mother does not want to keep it.
All of this means that a law prohibiting the abortion of an unwanted embryo or fetus has the effect of abridging the sanctity of the woman’s life. Rand saw this as a tremendous inversion, one that gave the lie to abortion opponents’ claim to stand for the sanctity of life.
The sacred self
Secular supporters of abortion need to defend its morality on the ground that the individual’s life is sacred. A woman is not a “brood mare” who can be forced by the state to give birth, but a human being who must be free to plan her life rationally. If secular supporters of abortion frame their arguments in these terms, they will make it clear that they do not regard human life as cheap or as subject to mere cost/benefit calculations. They will even help show that it is actually the anti-abortion position that treats individual life as cheap or dispensable.
But to embrace this perspective, secular defenders of abortion rights must come to terms with an especially challenging problem. Most of them lean to the political “left.” As such, they embrace policies informed by a moral perspective that is itself at odds with the view of the sanctity of life articulated above.“The Sacred Self.” It illustrates how Rand’s view of the sanctity of the individual human life applies to three contemporary controversies, about abortion, the environment, and foreign policy. On abortion, of course, Rand held that a woman, not a fetus, has a sacred right to her life. On the topic of the environment, she held that human beings have the right to flourish by reshaping the earth to their purposes through industry and technology; it is not insentient nature that has a “right” to remain pristine and unaltered. On the topic of foreign policy, she held that the citizens of a free nation have the right to defend themselves against aggression, even at the cost of the lives of the aggressors (and their hostages).
But, as Lockitch notes, even as the left occasionally embraces reproductive freedom and abortion rights, it usually defends the value of pristine nature over the value of human industry, and the value of military restraint over the value of self-defense. In each case, this means it actually undercuts or repudiates the sanctity of innocent individual human life.
Consider just one example. If a woman is asked by religious conservatives to give up nine months of her time to carry her pregnancy to term, the secular left will speak up in defense of her rights. But if that very same woman wants to start a business, the same secular leftists will argue that she should have to spend the rest of her productive life being subject to any number of environmental regulations and restrictions and taxes in the name of a collection of “values” that have nothing to do with her own life. For instance, she may be restricted from building a factory because it is on property that might inconvenience some “endangered species.”
There are many other similar cases in which the secular left takes sides against the sanctity of the individual’s life, the sanctity of the human self, and instead sets up some other value, whether “the public good” or “diversity” or “equality,” as a value in the name of which the individual self is to be sacrificed. How many hours of that businesswoman’s life are being sucked away to comply with these kinds of laws and regulations, hours that do not serve her own dreams or purposes, hours which she can never get back?
Secular advocates of abortion rights should begin to employ the concept of the sanctity of human life in defense of their position. But to do so will require real soul searching. The modern left notoriously embraces the view that morality demands self-sacrifice for others, and disparages the individual pursuit of self-interest. But the same perspective on the sanctity of an individual human life that leads Rand to defend abortion rights also leads her to endorse the morality of self-interest and to reject calls for self-sacrifice as evil.
It is not an accident that her first articulation of the supreme value of the individual’s life appears in a novel that opposes communism, the major ideological ancestor of modern leftism. Here is that novel’s heroine, Kira Argounova, invoking the sacred in opposition to the Soviet State:
“Don’t you know,” her voice trembled suddenly in a passionate plea she could not hide, “don’t you know that there are things, in the best of us, which no outside hand should dare to touch? Things sacred because, and only because, one can say: ‘This is mine’? Don’t you know that we live only for ourselves, the best of us do, those who are worthy of it? Don’t you know that there is something in us which must not be touched by any state, by any collective, by any number of millions?”7
This is Kira’s cry on behalf of her sacred self, but also on behalf of the value of the life of the individual, more generally. Her life is sacred because it is hers, just as Irina’s is sacred because it is hers, just as each life is sacred to each of those who truly chooses to live it. Embracing this perspective, advocates of abortion rights should encourage women to “shout their abortion.” Their own life, not the life of a fertilized embryo, is the only thing truly sacred to them. But then they, like Kira, should also be willing to “shout their life,” and resist all calls to suck it away for any other unchosen, unholy purpose.
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- Amelia Bonow, Preface to Shout Your Abortion (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2018), xii.
- Katie Watson, Scarlet A: The Ethics, Law, and Politics of Ordinary Abortion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 104.
- Ayn Rand, We the Living (New York: Signet, 2011 75th Anniversary edition).
- Rand, We the Living, pt. 2, ch. 8.
- Rand, We the Living, pt. 1, ch. 6.