Jen Roth – Atheist Against Abortion

September 17, 2010

In this episode of Point of Inquiry, Robert Price interviews Jen Roth, co-founder of All Our Lives, a secular organization committed to advocating for women’s right to exercise freedom of conscience in making voluntary, nonviolent, sexual and reproductive decisions.

Jen is an atheist who seeks no grounds for human rights in God or religion, but also one who happens to oppose abortion. Not an advocate for outlawing abortion, though, she believes there is much to be done by way of clarifying and defending the sexual autonomy of women.

Jen Roth has written for the Secular Web and the online political magazine Shared Sacrifice. She was formerly on the board of Consistent Life, an organization which opposes war, abortion, and the death penalty. In spring 2010, she co-founded All Our Lives.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, September 17th, 2010. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m Robert Price Point of inquiring as the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reasons, science and secular values and public affairs and at the grass roots. 

Jan Roth has written for the Secular Web and the online political magazine Shared Sacrifice. She was formerly on the board of Consistent Life, an organization which opposes war, abortion and the death penalty. She recently co-founded All Our Lives, a group which advocates for nonviolent sexual and reproductive choices. 

Jan, welcome a point of inquiry. 

Thanks very much for having me on. It’s great to be here, CEO. 

Gen. Many people think that arguments against abortion are necessarily religious in nature. How does a nonbeliever argue against abortion? 

Well, obviously we don’t have recourse to arguments about souls, although in my experience, a lot of people who are religious, who are abortion opponents don’t argue on the basis of souls. 

They argue on the same secular basis that a nonbeliever might, which is they make more of a human rights argument. One thing that humanist value in particular I hate, I hesitate to make broad sweeping statements about nonbelievers, atheists, agnostics, etc. But certainly people identify us as humanists that are very much value. The use of reason in making their judgments value the role of looking at one’s actions and the effect that they have on other human beings. And I tell how humanist ethics are derived. And I think that opposition to abortion fits very comfortably into this. I find that a lot of the arguments in favor. Well, let me put it this way. A lot of the arguments against ascribing for humanity, for personhood to the human fetus are actually not so much rational in nature. They’re often kind of cloaked in rationality. But I often find that they’re very emotional in nature. Oh, it’s so small that can’t possibly be human, you know. Look at look at something is the size of the period at the end of the sentence. That’s a blob of cells. How can that possibly. Well, these are these are emotional arguments. These are sort of rational philosophical arguments. They’re just say, well, this looks different from me. This functions different from me. Therefore, this can’t be fully human. Well, that’s if you look back over the course of history. That’s never been an argument that we’ve been particularly proud of. If you look back over the course of history, what we consider to be ethical progress has been an expansion of the circle of concern expansion to more and more of humanity. Are persons are people that we need to be concerned for their well-being, that we need to consider as part of the human family. And we need. I think we need to look and see if we’re looking to cut off a segment of the human species. We need to really examine our motivations and see, is this really an ennobling act or is this something that is satisfying, something lesser in our psyches? 

Some would say, well, yeah, ya right. It’s it’s got a human genetic code. It’s certainly human, but it might yet not be a person that a fetus is human, but only potentially a person and doesn’t possess any actual right to life. Do you think that cuts any ice. 

The arguments that are usually brought forth to make that claim, I find tend to be inconsistent with the ethics that we apply to other situations. If you say that, well, can’t be considered, a person can be considered fully human because, you know, you can’t think it’s not conscious. Well, we don’t apply that same reasoning across the board. We don’t say that any creature that’s conscious is a person. We don’t say that any human being that has not yet reached a certain level of development is not a person. I mean, we read we regard infants as persons. And if you regard an infant, a newborn infant who really can you know, I have a child and I can I can tell you first hand really can’t do a lot besides cry, sleep, eat and learn. And there’s a lot of learning that goes on prior to birth, of course, to there’s a lot of development that goes on prior to birth. So if you say, well, a certain level of personality is needed, a certain level of rationality is needed. I find that those arguments are applied consistently as some people will carry. 

This will be like sharp. 

The point to say, well, look, rights and and responsibilities have to be correlate. And if you don’t have any responsibility, you assess a fetus obviously does not. Can you have any rights? It’s not the kind of being yet that could have or any right. Including the right to life. How does that strike you? 

I think on a macro level, there’s a certain point to be made here. I think that the reason that human beings are considered to have rights and have, you know, what we call personhood does derive from the fact that human beings are the type of creatures which can have responsibilities, which can respect. Right. Which can reason and can make moral choices. So on a macro level, I see where that argument is coming from. I would argue, though, that, again, this is inconsistent to say that a human being must be currently manifesting the ability to reason or the ability to make moral choices or the ability to bear responsibility in order to be considered a human person and then turn around and say that you consider a newborn infant, a human person which can’t do any of those things, which is still very much in in the process of developing those abilities, much as the embryo or fetus of the human species is in the process of developing those abilities. And I would point out that it is not sort of those abilities are magically bestowed upon an organism at a certain point of development, but instead are built by organic processes that are inherent to that organism. Of course, obviously there is interaction with the environment that’s necessary, but it is nonetheless in the organism’s nature to be the kind of being which at a certain point in its lifecycle has the ability to reason and make moral choices and bear responsibility. 

So it would seem arbitrary to have a cut off date like that. I’ve heard people say that. Yeah, there really isn’t an argument that would legitimate abortion that would not also legitimized infanticide. And I’m okay with that. And I was surprised to hear someone I’d take the bull by the horns that way, but some would admit that. Do you know of any argument that justifies abortion? That would not justify infanticide, too. 

Well, I do. The argument that whether or not one considers a human fetus to be fully human, to be a person. 

The fact is that it’s relying on the body of a woman to live and that she has the right to revoke consent for that at any time. That would not naturally to infanticide. And I think that that is a sounder argument on the whole. There are some issues with it. But I think that people who argue that a little bit firmer ground than people who say, well, you have to reach a certain level of development in order to qualify as fully human. I find it really profoundly antique quality, antihuman equality to make the argument that people who are in a privileged position, a position of power in this case, have grown. A fully developed human beings get to set conditions and say if you qualify, if you meet our conditions, you get to be fully human, you get to be a person. And if you don’t qualify, you know, we can bestow humanity upon you. We can bestow personhood upon you by allowing. To develop to our level, but we have the right to give that or take that away. And that profoundly A.I. equality, I think that that denies that there is an inherent quality about being a human being. That in itself makes us persons. And it says that it’s something to be to be given or taken away. 

Where do you think rights come from? This is a favorite question of mine and I don’t have any particular answer to it yet. But I mean, obviously, you don’t think God bestows rights being an atheist. Where do they come from or are they a kind of legal fiction? 

Well, this is something I touched upon a little bit earlier in the conversation. I think the fact that we are the kind of animal that can recognize rights, that can bear responsibilities toward each other, that can bear the responsibility of respecting another’s rights, is the foundation of rights themselves. That is to say, if there were no such creatures living, if it were a planet and entirely populated by by beings, whatever they may be, without that ability, there would be no such thing as rights that wouldn’t exist. 

What would be an example of a nonviolent alternative to abortion? 

Well, first and foremost, it comes down to women having the ability to freely choose their sexual partners, to freely choose when they will and will not have sex, to freely choose the method by which they prefer to try to prevent conception. If they do prefer to. Those are fundamental. And in this society, we tend to think, well, of course, you know, rape is illegal. Of course, you know, contraception is legal and it’s everywhere. And women already have these rights. But it’s really certainly around the world that’s not the case. But even here in the U.S., that is far from always the case. There was a study published earlier this year in the journal Contraception about something called reproductive coercion. And they found that some staggering number, something like three quarters of women who are in abusive relationships. A lot of women, unfortunately, have experienced it, birth control, sabotage, be it the partners simply forbidding a woman to use birth control. About three quarters of these relationships have experienced a partner deliberately trying to make them pregnant as a form of control. Now, you know, that’s just that’s just here in the U.S. where we comfortably say, oh, we know women have these rights and they don’t always. So for me, that’s the key. That’s the key that underlies the whole thing is for women to have these freedoms over their sexuality, over contraception. And that would strike at the very heart of the problem. 

Yeah. This is a dimension of sex education that goes beyond just the plumbing. And maybe he had at least as important as the sheer biology of it. But then you get into problems and people say, well, these are value judgments that some parents wouldn’t like well and let him do better. 

I don’t know that there’s a better score card among the people that oppose, and I doubt it. 

What do you think? 

This is a related question, but it’s often put a slightly different way. So I it to you this way as well. What do you think of the argument that it is a woman’s fundamental right to do as she feels best with her own body and that a fetus is part of her body? Period. And then and I assume this ties in with the often heard viability argument that if the fetus is not viable, then certainly it’s simply a part of a body that can be exercised. How does that strike you? 

Well, first of all, I really have to laugh when I hear people who claim to be very much on the side of science are very pro science. They hate those anti science anti choices. Who then will say that a fetus is part of a woman’s body? I mean, biology. Want to one, people learn it. Humans don’t reproduce by budding. What I think one has to argue, to be intellectually honest in that case, is that, yes, this is a human organism, but one that we choose not to treat as fully human. And I’ve done it arguments before as to why I don’t think that that really is consistent with our ethics and other matters. And I don’t think that that’s good for humanity. You’ve been making that argument as far as as far as the argument that it’s a woman’s choice, basically what to do with her own body. Ideally, what I’d like to see is that we’d have the argument on the level of saying that, yes, there are there are there are two human persons involved in a pregnancy. There’s the mother and the child. And. We need to do is figure out how to balance the interests of these two human beings. And then once you’re having that argument, there are there are various ways I can go. One can say, for instance, that one always has bodily autonomy and thus cannot be forced to allow another person to to gestate in your own body. That that that the other person that the fetus does not have a right to live off of one’s bodily resources. One could make the argument that parents, by virtue of bringing their child into existence, by virtue of a voluntarily assuming that it is voluntary, by virtue of voluntarily taking actions that that bring that child into existence and make that child dependent, have obligations, that one of those obligations is the obligation to allow gestation, if it is, if it’s medically possible to do so. And there are other arguments that are sort of in between those two. I think there are defensible arguments to be made all along the spectrum. So if we were having the conversation saying that we have two human beings here, how are we going to balance their rights and interests then saying, well, fourth gestation is like forced organ donation, even though the person to whom it would be donated is a fully human being. They don’t have a right to that. That would be an argument. I have some sympathy with an argument that I could entertain. But that’s not that’s not the argument we’re having the society. Instead, we’re having the argument that says in order for women to be fully human members of society, we have to deny the humanity cut off from the human family. You know, this entire segment of the human species. So I think we’re asking the wrong question. I think we’re having the wrong discussion. 

And the same way I gather this would apply if someone said, well, women have to have the right to a board or there can be no male female equality. I would just say that’s also the wrong way of putting the thing. 

I would say that’s the wrong way of putting saying a couple of different ways. First of all, I have somewhat with the notion that because men can walk away, they can have sex and walk away from their children, they create that women need to be able to do the same thing. We need to be able to emulate some of the worst of male behavior to be equal. I think that’s going about it the wrong way. I think we need to be able to instead prevent men from walking away from from their responsibilities. But that would be the more pro equality approach, because equality to me implies no one party dominating over another. And there’s nothing more more dominating and more at high equality than saying, OK, segment of humanity. You know, we’re going to deny their humanity, their personhood. I think that it completely undermines the entire notion of equality. Instead, we need to look for ways to, again, as you say, acknowledge everyone’s rights and interests and come up with a way to balance them. People sometimes. Are you pro-life or pro-choice? How do you identify? Well, mostly I identify as pro balance. 

Yes. Yeah. Often if you if you slice of pie differently, things look altogether different from the fact that you were involved in this consistent life movement. I am. 

I’m inferring you are not a fan of euthanasia or capital punishment, is it? Will that be a fair guess? 

Capital punishment was that was something that was undecided on for some time until I looked at it within the context of my other positions. I looked at it within the context of my positions on war and abortion. And I thought, well, I can hardly say that human beings should be equal and that we should be seeking nonviolent solutions to our problems instead of taking each other’s lives and then B, for the death. I’ve never really for the death penalty was undecided. But when I looked down in the light of these other positions, I realized that to actually apply those ethics consistently across the board. I need to oppose the death penalty as well, to say that one human being has so much power over another that they can just decide whether they live or die. You know, I’m not talking about an emergency situation that I’m not talking about an immediate self-defense situation. But but when someone is in prison, you essentially have them at your mercy. And to say that you then have the power to decide whether that person lives or dies is, again, I believe, fundamentally antihuman equality on the question of euthanasia. A little complicated in theory. I would say that, well, your life is your life. And if you are making the decision in sound mind what to do with your life, that that’s your right. In practice, I worry. In practice, I worry because we won’t guarantee a person’s right to the health care they need in this country. We’re getting all calls. But we will guarantee a person’s right to the health care we need, but they’ll will guarantee the right to to end their life. You know, it seems like the wrong priority. I worry about pressures being put on people who are considered sort of useless to society. I worry that screening for depression, for instance, would be less. Let me give you an example. Not to get too into personal details, but I am a person who, at one point in my life was not sure she wanted to continue on. I was a young, able bodied person, so if I had expressed that feeling to a health professional, they would have done everything they could to save my life if I had been an older or terminally ill or disabled individual. They might have seen it as more understandable, but that oh, you know, I can see why you wouldn’t want to live in these circumstances. 

Yeah, that that is definitely ageism. 

Yeah. Ageism, Abel ism would play into these decisions about whether it’s rational for a person to want to take their life. And we often find it’s the case that someone will look at the life of a person who’s profoundly disabled and say, oh, I wouldn’t want to live that way. So I certainly understand why they would want to die. But that’s not about the person who’s disabled. That’s about the person who’s who’s looking at them and projecting. You know, in theory, I think that you can’t tell another person that they have to live or die in practice. I think there are a lot of pitfalls because we live in a society that is ages that is ablest and that does present a lot of hurdles to really sort of fully living one’s life. And to have those hurdles up and take down the hurdles to dying just seemed backwards to me. 

I gather you are not suggesting in your opposition to abortion that it be that Roe versus Wade be overturned and that, it dawned mean me to the question, but I gather you don’t think the law should necessarily be overturned and abortion should be criminalized again. You’re just trying to persuade isn’t more, is that correct? 

I think, yeah, that’s pretty much the position I’m working from. I’m not opposed to legal abortions. I don’t say I don’t want to stop legal abortions. I want to stop abortions. You know what I mean? I think that if Roe v. Wade were overturned tomorrow, all the social pressures that lead women to abortions would still be there. I think that the drive by many on the right to overturn Roe v. Wade proceed from a fundamentally unjust premise, that premise being that there isn’t a right to privacy. You’ll note that if Roe v. Wade is overturned on the grounds that there’s no constitutional right to privacy, which which is the grounds on which it would be overturned, if you look at the questioning of Supreme Court justices and if you look at what people like Antonin Scalia say is their opposition to Roe, it comes down to this belief that in quote unquote originalism, that there’s no right to privacy in the Constitution. You’ll note that that doesn’t mean what they’re not saying is that a human fetus is a legal person. So if you say that, well, there is no right to privacy and that women can be legally restrained from having abortions, are from from doing whatever, not because there’s another person involved, because legally there still wouldn’t be, but because we can decide as a society that we think she’s doing something immoral with her body. I think that’s a fundamentally unjust premise. I think that there is no logical way to then say that birth control couldn’t be restricted. If that’s your premise, I think that if that’s their premise, there is no logical way to say that abortions couldn’t be required in some circumstances. If you’re saying that there’s no right to privacy and that the human fetus is not a legal person, then legally, how does it proceed that you can’t compel abortion? You know, I mean, I think I think that this all proceeds from a fundamentally unjust premise. And so, no, I’m not out there begging for the overturn of Roe v. Wade because I do believe that there is a right to privacy. And I do believe that nothing short of the interests of another fully human, you know, legal human being is sufficient to restrict what a woman can do with her body. 

You really turned the rock over and revealed all kinds of unintended consequences that could be all too real. I never thought of that. Would you and do you think other atheist. 

Opponents of abortion would be considered part of a pro-life movement. 

It very much depends. I know that I used to. I’m not sure that I would say that. I do consider myself part of that anymore because it’s so hard to define. It depends not only on how one defines pro-life movement, but also on one’s approach to the problem of abortion. There are certainly atheists who take not the position that I’ve espoused here, but take more of a sort of you might call it a law and order position that say, well, it’s a human being and therefore has a right not to be killed and therefore abortion should be illegal and if any. And that’s the end of it. I tend to look at it as more of a systematic approach, not just looking at the act of abortion in isolation, but looking at all of the factors that lead to it. And so I don’t come to the same conclusions that they do. There are some people on both sides who regard being pro-life as nothing more or less than trying to get abortion banned. 

If you’re trying to get abortion banned, you’re pro-life, you’re not you’re pro-choice and story are there. But there are people on both sides who say that. 

And then there are others who take a view that if you consider abortion, you know, an act of violence, that’s something that you want to see ended or at least if not ended, because they’re always, for instance, going to be some medical issues that arise, etc. you. But end it as much as possible, no matter what approach you’re taking to that, that you’re pro-life. And I think under that definition, certainly there would be quite a few atheists that that could consider themselves part of the pro-life movement. But I’m not sure. As a matter of semantics, if that’s really if you say pro-life movement, I’m not sure that’s what’s communicated. So it’s a it’s a term that I have lessened my own use of Jim Underdown. 

You have to pass these things to the point where it seems like it dissolves into semantics, but there’s no alternative, really. But if you want to communicate at all. 

Exactly. I feel like I get very wordy and I go on and on and feel like if I don’t, I feel as if I’m not worthy, worthy. If I don’t go into explaining a lot of details that people aren’t really going to know what I’m saying, because some of the the semantic shortcuts that we have in our society, like pro-life, pro-choice, etc., have, you know, have become so freighted and yet with all of these meanings that may or may not be what a person intended. So you really have to be very specific and very clear. 

How do you find. Do you give to put this. Exactly. But do you get more suspicion directed at you with your motives from religious pro-choice people or from. I’m sorry, are religious, pro-gay rights advocates or non-religious pro-choice advocates? I can imagine both would find themselves feeling like they’d be strange bedfellows with you. Who’s more suspicious of you? 

I think hands down non-religious pro-choice people are more suspicious. Religious, pro-life people now, bearing in mind that I tend to have a lot of contact with the really sort of extreme end of that, that might be a different story. What I do get sometimes from religious, pro-life people is that it’s nice that you don’t believe in abortion, but you don’t really have a basis for that. You don’t really have a foundation for that. It’s it’s just a preference. 

And then I get the joy of trying to explain to them, you know, humanist ethics, which have not had a lot of exposure to. But that’s usually not hostility to a misunderstanding. There is there is some hostility from the more extreme ends. But as I said, I just tend not to have a lot of contact with them. I certainly there are a lot of religious people who identify as pro-life who are more than happy to work with atheists and agnostics. They tend to see the more, I guess you could say liberal and whether that’s theologically liberal or politically liberal. Oftentimes those go hand-in-hand, always. They tend to be them, the people who are more focused on trying to prevent abortions. The sex ed and contraception. And then through helping women who are pregnant to have the resources that they need if they want to carry to term that kind of thing, that that stripe of pro-life. Right. No problem. You know, they don’t they’re they’re happy to welcome, you know, diverse people. Again, they might be a little I you know, I get some curiosity. I get. That’s interesting. How do you how do you come to that position? But, you know. But it it’s curiosity. It’s certainly not hostility. 

Well, you’re certainly an articulate and able advocate for your viewpoint. Where could our listeners go to learn more about your organ? Is that well, can you tell us more about your organization and where we could go to find out more about it? 

OK. Yeah. I recently this spring actually. So it’s quite new. 

And the co-founder of a group called All Our. And our mission is to advocate for the full range of what we call nonviolent sexual and reproductive choices for women. 

So in other words, though, we don’t obviously we don’t advocate for abortion. We advocate for women’s ability to choose their partners, choose when and whether to have sex, choose when and whether and what method of contraception to use to to have whatever kind of childbirth is appropriate for them to have the the social and financial resources that they need to parent. 

Your working against pregnancy discrimination are working to provide sex education and contraception, particularly in countries around the world where there is an unmet need for these things. 

We currently have a project. We’re working with a group in Kenya to try to get female condoms so that the women there can have more autonomy over their own sex lives while still preventing pregnancy and preventing especially HIV, which of course is a huge problem there. So, you know, that’s that’s what we do. Again, it’s not the kind of well, we’re not doing legal advocacy on the issue of abortion because like I said, so much of that is just being done completely from the wrong at the wrong end. But instead, what we’re doing is trying to solve a lot of the problems that lead to abortion. That’s all we do. That’s called all our lives. All our lives, Dorji, if you’re looking for it on the network, Facebook, etc.. 

I also want to mention there is an organization called Secular, Pro-life, Secular, Pro-life that Awaji, it’s actually founded by a Christian, but it is not explicitly has the mission of working with atheists and agnostics and also working with religious people to develop secular, science based, human rights based arguments against abortion. They are very pro sex ed, pro contraception aside. 

They are working on developing a sort of comprehensive sex ed game on the Internet to teach people about contraceptives and what have you. I don’t think they take a stand on LGBT rights as an organization. I know the people involved are very pro LGBT rights. 

So that’s the kind of thing that I think a lot of atheists and agnostics would would find themselves very comfortable with the whole realm of this thing I knew nothing about and I’m glad to be educated about. I really appreciate you being on the show, Jan. I hope to hear more from you. 

I certainly appreciate you having me. I’m certainly very honored to be on. 

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Robert M. Price

Born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1954, Robert Price moved to New Jersey in 1965. At Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary he took an MTS degree in New Testament (1978), then, at Drew University, a PhD in Systematic Theology (1981) and a second PhD in New Testament (1993). He has served as Professor of Religion at Mount Olive College, North Carolina, pastor of First Baptist Church, Montclair, NJ, and Director of the Metro NY Center for Inquiry. He founded and edited the Journal of Higher Criticism and has authored scores of articles on the Bible and religion. His books include Beyond Born AgainThe Widow Traditions in Luke-ActsDeconstructing JesusThe Incredible Shrinking Son of ManThe Da Vinci FraudThe Reason-Driven LifeThe Pre-Nicene New TestamentJesus Is Dead, and The Paperback Apocalypse. Price is a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar. He served as Professor of Theology and Scriptural Studies at Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary and Professor of Biblical Criticism for the Center for Inquiry Institute in Amherst, NY. He and his wife Carol and daughters Victoria and Veronica live in Selma, NC.