November 6, 2008

Religion's Toxic Effects in the Abortion Controversy

Photo from the 2004 March for Women's Lives, t...
Photo from the 2004 March for Women's Lives (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Intelligent, open-minded people can disagree about a woman's legal right to abort a pregnancy. Why do I get the feeling that I probably pissed off nearly every reader with that first sentence? I recognize that I may be wrong about this, but I believe that rational and respectful debate over abortion can happen, at least up to a point. Moreover, I believe that this point is the precise moment that religion enters the arena. The entry of religion seems to render productive discussion or debate over abortion virtually impossible.

Let me begin by saying that I am a firm believer in protecting female reproductive freedom. Among the various freedoms which I seem to preserve is a woman's right to terminate her pregnancy, at least under certain circumstances. Yes, I think that the limitations already in place regarding the length of gestation are warranted. However, the termination of a pregnancy can indeed be a moral choice.

At the same time, I believe that we all have a vested interest in reducing the number of abortions performed. While many women who have abortions suffer no psychological damage, some do. Minimizing the number of abortions performed is thus a worthy goal. Reality-based sex education and access to affordable and effective contraception prevent unwanted pregnancies and reduce the frequency of abortions.

I recognize that there are secular arguments against abortion. Depending on when one believes life begins, one may consider terminating a pregnancy to be a form of homicide, independent of any religious convictions. Of course, defining an embryo as a person has many interesting legal implications beyond abortion. One might also believe that the federal government has no right to tell states what to do and that individual states should be free to pass whatever laws they want. The outcome in a particular state might be that abortion is outlawed, but this may not even be the primary agenda. Atheists who oppose female reproductive freedom may be scarce but are not necessarily walking contradictions.

As soon as religion enters the debate, we see a predictable effect - positions solidify, and rational discourse becomes all but impossible. Why? Through the lens of religion, disagreeing parties become agents of good and evil. "You're wrong" transforms into "You're evil," and we all know that evil demands punishment. Religion in this context leads to cognitive rigidity, inflexibility, and condemnation of the other. There can be no more compromise.

One of the clearest and most frustrating (for me at least) examples of what religion does to the debate can be found in how many in the religious community respond to efforts to minimize abortion. We know that reality-based sex education and contraception reduce the number of abortions performed. But these measures tend to be opposed on the same religious grounds that lead some to view abortion as immoral. Worse still are those who seek to outlaw abortion in all cases, including those where the life of the mother is in jeopardy.

A meaningful debate over abortion needs to happen; however, it cannot happen as long as people insist on injecting their religious beliefs into the equation. Where does this leave us? I'm not optimistic that we will make real progress anytime soon. Of course, it is too important not to try.