I have been engaged in a discussion elsewhere regarding my position on abortion. I wanted to run this by the atheistnexus community as the perspectives here are particularly rational and helpful most of the time. Before I start, just know my mind is not made up. That is reason I am starting this discussion. Here are my arguments for my positions, which I openly admit may not be completely sound.

I support the practice of a death penalty. Yet I am resistant to some of the arguments of the pro-choice movement.

Regarding the death penalty, I am aware of the problem of wrongful convictions. This is a problem for the legal system. But in principle, I have no problem putting criminals to death that lack any hope for rehabilitation (mass murderers, genocidal war criminals, etc) if we can know for sure they are indeed guilty. The amount of evidence required needs to be extremely high to justify the death penalty. But if overwhelming evidence exists, then why keep these animals alive?

But abortion to me is the killing of innocent infant humans. It is a matter of location. If the child was only one minute 'old', having exited the womb, then killing the child would be murder. But because it is still inside a woman, we give it a different term 'abortion' and make it a choice. Isn't abortion just a nice way of saying unborn-infant-murder?

A common argument is that of choice. It is a matter of a woman's right to make decisions that affect her body. The pro-choice movement treats the opposition as weirdos that want to pass laws restricting what she can and cannot do with her own body. I feel they miss the point completely. There are TWO bodies in question, and the laws restricting abortions address the OTHER body - that of another human - living inside the woman. 

I understand there is a huge grey area here. When does the fetus become a human with the intrinsic right to life? Is it only when the brain has developed? But at what point in the brain development? I get it. It is not an easy question. That is why I do not actively oppose the pro-choice movement. I am still collecting information on the subject to refine my position. I certainly don't support the pro-life movement either. I am currently unable to form a completely justified position either way. 

I can see abortion as necessary or preferable in the cases of rape or to protect the mother's life. That makes sense. In other cases, where it is just promiscuity that resulted in an unwanted pregnancy, I feel a vacuous moral subjectivity seeping into society. 

I also do understand that for the vast majority of mothers, the decision to have an abortion is not an easy one and continues to affect them emotionally well after the event. But that is how it should be. We should not be just OK with the idea of killing infants. It should be taboo. Abortion should be thought of as terrible, whether you support the practice or not. Would this perspective of taboo discourage irresponsible sexual encounters? Would this would discourage inception when not in stable healthy relationships? For some who have abortions for selfish reasons, it certainly does not seem that the taboo nature of the act has any affect on their habits. It is not unheard of for some women to get multiple abortions in their life time. How the heck does that happen? 

And of course, 99% of the time, this only applies to people willing to engage in unprotected sex. Why on Earth would you engage in irresponsible unprotected sex? Accidentally? Broken condoms?

I have no problem with recreational sex. But we have several highly effective birth control methods. If a woman is on the pill and the male uses a condom, the chances for an unwanted pregnancy approach zero. If for some reason a birth control method fails, adoption is an option preferable to the death of a human. 

Abortion is not a birth control method. It is a life control method - the act following a decision to kill an innocent human. It is a decision we give no other person in society. It is illegal in ALL other cases to kill an innocent human. But since it is a woman, and the human in question is inside her, we grant the woman this unique ability, even in cases where the pregnancy was just due to irresponsibility. 

So please be kind and help me out here. I am not going to bash anyone's personal position on the matter as I want my own position to be as sound and fair as possible. I just want to hear the opinions, specifically from people with superior understanding and life experience. I might challenge a bad argument, but it only be to seek clarification, not as an attack on any individuals beliefs.

Specifically, my questions are as follows:

1. In the case of irresponsible conception, why do we permit women to kill another human?

2. If it can even be answered, when does a human fetus get the intrinsic right to life? This is an unalienable right of all Americans (and all humans, I would argue. When does this right kick in?

3. Why are many atheists opposed to the death penalty but absolutely (in all cases/situations) pro-abortion? How is that at all morally consistent?

4. Is the practice of abortion detrimental to the social health of our society? Is the religious right to blame for a lack of sex education?

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The death penalty is clearly the killing of a human person with an awareness of life, (usually) a desire to continue living, and a claim to autonomy.

I'm an atheist who's opposed to the death penalty (given the probable occurrence of deadly miscarriages of justice, and the lack of significant deterrent effect), and who's pro-choice on abortion.

As you said, there isn't that much difference between a fetus one minute away from being born and a one-minute-old baby. Yet there's no bright line, no clear, sudden demarcation between "this is a potential person developing in the womb" (obvious at the early stages, yet erased by pro-life* / anti-choice language of "children" and "unborn babies" at any stage of pregnancy) and "this is a baby" (towards the end of the pregnancy).

* (Too many "pro-lifers" apparently couldn't care less about kids' lives once they're born.)

Jonathan Glover's book Causing Death and Saving Lives, written from a completely secular perspective, deals with many issues, including abortion as well as capital punishment, euthanasia, triage, and war and assassination. Glover concludes that abortion becomes gradually more wrong as the fetus develops. If I recall correctly, he argues that even birth is more an arbitrary, socially useful dividing line than an "objective" one. Yet going with our instincts that recoil at killing a visible baby is better than trying to ascribe a right to life only at some later point!

In terms of the awareness of life, desire to continue living, autonomy, and living a "worthwhile" life -- if the fetus that went on to become me had been aborted, I wouldn't have been around to care. Just as if it had miscarried, or died shortly after birth. (My parents would have been devastated at losing their cherished, hoped-for potential child, but that's a separate issue.)

Something else to consider, that put me firmly in the pro-choice position: an argument articulated by Eileen McDonagh which makes any possible fetal "personhood" irrelevant.

  1. Consent to sex doesn't imply consent to pregnancy.
  2. Pregnancy is a massive, intrusive, risky transformation of a woman's body and liberty, not only causing prolonged discomfort (I don't think I or any other man can truly "get it"), but sometimes giving rise to major medical complications. If, hypothetically, someone caused such massive bodily changes by putting poison in her food, it would clearly be an assault. If the woman didn't consent to the pregnancy, she is entitled to defend herself, just as she would be if attacked on the street -- whether by a person with a knife (mentally competent or not) or by a "nonperson" such as a rabid dog.
  3. The only effective self-defense is terminating the pregnancy.

(I read about this in McDonagh's "Abortion Rights after South Dakota", Free Inquiry vol. 26 issue 4, May 17, 2006, currently behind a paywall. Her Emory Law Journal article is accessible.)

"I'm an atheist who's opposed to the death penalty (given the probable occurrence of deadly miscarriages of justice, and the lack of significant deterrent effect)."

I think you meant 'possible' there, not probable. I agree it is possible that an innocent man could be given the death penalty. But I would not think it is probable that a death penalty will be unjustly applied. Probable means likely. There have indeed been cases where people have been given the death penalty that were later found to be innocent. But this is a small number compared to the numbers of sadistic mass murderers that have forfeited their right to exist in cooperative society by violating a fundamental right to life.

That is why I am OK with the idea of a death penalty with the provision that there should be a ridiculous overwhelming amount of evidence. So I sort of agree with you there. But the lack of a deterrent effect is a really good argument. I have read that the data is a wash when comparing countries with death penalties and without. Given its effectiveness is on a statistically equal basis as that of prayer, I am inclined to concede my position on the matter and consider switching sides. I just wish it did not cost 60 grand a year to keep these wastes of flesh alive in prison. 

Regarding point 1, I agree. I am quite in favor with recreational sex, as I said in my opening statement. And recreational sex certainly is not for procreation. But I would say consent to sex implies the woman is ok with assuming the risk of possible pregnancy (if contraceptives fail, for example). Any other position would be wholly irresponsible. The avoidance of pregnancy is no guarantee of success in said avoidance, given no contraceptive is 100% effective.

Regarding point 2, while I agree with the setup, regarding the changes made to a woman's body, I would not necessarily equate pregnancy to being assaulted and acting in self defense. An unwanted pregnancy is the consequence of assuming the risk of a recreational sexual encounter. 

It just feels a bit cold and removed from the reality of sexual purpose. We might use sex for recreation, but the function of sex is indeed for procreation of course. It is a risk assumed. Causing negative bodily changes by poisoning is by no means a good comparison to pregnancy as the vast majority of pregnancies have no lasting harm on the mother (whereas poisoning is always harmful and intended as harm). We evolved to be good at reproducing. The pleasure aspect is a side effect of the sexual purpose. We do things that are pleasurable all of the time while assuming the risks of such acts as possibly harmful.

Just as if you smoke marijuana for recreation you are likely not consenting to getting cancer. That is a risk assumed, so if it happens, you can only blame yourself for gambling with your lungs. Of course I see your point here as we would not expect a cancer patient to not do anything about their new potentially deadly situation.

Hmmmm. I think I just got your point. In arguing against your point I actually am getting more drawn into agreement with you. Kudos to you for making a good point. Damn...

In light of a religious code that makes drug use equivalent to recreational sex, I can see where they are coming from. But I understand that these are just assumed 'objective' claims of morality without any sound basis, and in defiance of personal liberty. If we believe in personal liberty, as many atheists do, then drug use, recreational sex, and a whole mess of acts that religions maintain are immoral must be acceptable and up to the individual to assess. Thereby the consequences of these acts must be dealt with per the individual's personal subjective morality. In that respect, I can see why it is indeed the woman's choice.

But does this not open a slippery slope for subjective morality? What if I decided it was my choice to marry 6 women? What right does anyone have in making laws against polygamy? What if I decided to have sex with animals? How do we develop secular objective morals superior to religious pronouncements that can both rationally prohibit some questionable acts while not prohibiting others? Would that not be completely arbitrary

I agree it is possible that an innocent man could be given the death penalty. But I would not think it is probable that a death penalty will be unjustly applied.

Bad assumption.  I started a thread on wrongful convictions and the death penalty. From that thread,

Since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, in 1976, more than eighty death-row inmates have been freed from prison, their convictions overturned by evidence of innocence. That may not sound like many, given the huge U.S. prison population, but it is more than one percent of the 6,000 men and women who were sentenced to death in that same period, and equal to almost 15 percent of those actually executed.

Probably many more of the death-row inmates are actually innocent, but don't have the strong evidence of innocence required to vacate their convictions. 

A 1996 Justice Department report, Convicted by Juries, Exonerated by Science: Case Studies in the Use of DNA Evidence to Establish Innocence After Trial, found that in 8,048 rape and rape-and-murder cases referred to the FBI crime lab from 1988 to mid-1995, a staggering 2,012 of the primary suspects were exonerated owing to DNA evidence alone.

There is no logical reason to think that police-error rates in criminal investigations lacking DNA evidence are any better than the 25 percent error rate in those where it is present.

There are probably fewer wrongful convictions now, because of better DNA evidence gathering techniques.

But juries are truly frightening in how arbitrary they are.  I would absolutely quake in my booties if I were accused of murder, even if I was innocent and even if there were no good evidence against me.  Because I've seen too many crime shows about people who were convicted on crappy evidence. 

And the death penalty is applied in a discriminatory way - primarily to people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.  Like most criminals, most people sentenced to death come from a background where they were severely abused and had severe money stress as well.  It's a lot easier to be "good" in the eyes of the law if you aren't poor or horribly afflicted by abuse.  That's why the criminal justice system acts as an instrument of class (and thus racial) oppression.  And it acts to hurt people more, who have already been damaged as children. 

Thank you for a thorough answer. I guess I was getting at the use of the term probable as opposed to possible. If we presume as much as 25% are wrongfully convicted (though the data only shows 1 to 15%), it is still not 'probable'. If 75% were wrongfully convicted, then yes, you could say it is probable. Even if it was as high as 50%, it would not be probable. It is like rolling a dice. In that case you have a 1 in 6 chance of getting any particular value. It is not probable that any particular value will come up. It is only possible. In the case of a coin toss, you have a 50-50 chance, so it is still not probable that either heads or tails will show. Just nit-picking word usage here. Nevertheless, your point is well taken. 

If we are looking into a murder, we might suspect someone that has been damaged as a child as this increases the likelihood that the individual failed to develop proper empathy. An individual with a healthy family unit is less likely to murder someone that came from a broken home or suffered abuse. And where do we find a disproportionate amount of abuse, broken homes, and poverty? In the minorities of course, a result of social inequality.

It is a tricky problem for the justice system. How do you profile for likely suspects without looking like racists? Is it really sensible to stop a white old lady as a random check for bombs before getting on a flight or should we indeed focus on middle eastern individuals?

If a patrolling police officer observes a group of black males walking behind a shopping center at 2 am they are correct to suspect they are up to no good. Is this racism? If so, then why is it that when the police officer approaches them 9 times out of 10 they take off running and when caught are found to have drugs on them or other contraband? It creates a bias in law enforcement based on experience that externally look like racism. 

I think the corruption is far less an issue today in the majority of police departments due to civil liberty groups pushing back and improved policies. There are copious checks and balances in place that make wrongful arrests a serious problem for law enforcement, and thus we are seeing a transformation in how police work is executed. They are becoming more careful in how and when they search individuals and their property, trying to go through the hoops necessary to prevent any legal loophole from existing as it is quite counter productive to use energy in arresting someone only to have to release them on a technicality. 

There are problem police forces in many major cities that have not upgraded their policies sufficiently to protect civil liberty. And of course, larger cities have more crime anyway, so the numbers of individuals that are arrested and even sentenced improperly are still too high. Reforming a metropolitan police force takes a lot more time and money than getting a smaller force in, say, Northern Virginia to improve its procedures. 

This also might come down to the lawyers involved. When a poor, uneducated, minority gets accused they do have a right to a lawyer, but public defenders are overwhelmed (due to increased poverty in general introducing an increase in client need). These public defenders often do a poor job defending their clients compared to the state prosecutors. They let weak evidence seem valid. In contrast, a wealthy educated non-minority individual would likely afford and retain a superior lawyer, or one that at least can defend them better. Thus the prisons are packed with minorities who were poorly represented and put away on flimsy evidence.

This is again, not racism, but an inherent problem of the justice system that leads to the end result of appearing as if it is hell-bent on putting away minorities. Minorities get put away because they cannot afford adequate representation and are suspect due to their decreased opportunities, income and education. 

It is also a cycle that feeds into its own problems. If we start with a racist system (thinking back to the 1980's in New York City) where blacks are targeted unfairly, we pack the prisons initially with minorities in disproportionate numbers. Then minorities get perceived by society as untrustworthy. Employers then resist hiring individuals from minorities. These individuals are then unemployed, and resort to crime in some cases. They feed the stereotype by then creating an actually valid bias for law enforcement. Decades later police still target minorities because they now actually are disproportionately likely to commit crimes due to how society has treated them due to how earlier racism has portrayed them. The racial profiling keeps on going through the system, but not necessarily without valid reason. Inject a morally bankrupt thug culture enhanced by the media through (music, movies and biased reporting), and you are sure to keep the minorities in a sort of perpetual inferior place in society. How do we break the cycle? 

This is a mess for the justice system to figure out, which they will only do if civil liberty groups keep pushing for reforms. It is also a mess that society must figure out as a whole - the double digit unemployment among minorities (even under a black president) is a serious problem as it breeds more crimes of necessity/opportunity fueled by poverty. It is a mess for popular culture to address as well - the thug culture pervasive among minorities only encourages law breaking, drug use, and materialism and a dearth of empathy. None of these factors, the problems in the justice system, that of society itself, and that of the culture dominant in minorities are easy to solve. 

So perhaps you are right. The criminal justice system does indeed act as an instrument of class oppression. But this is caused by a complex sociological cycle and not necessarily a fault of the criminal justice system - it is a response to where crime happens most: in the impoverished lower class of our country which happens to be minorities due to our nation's racist past. I am not sure how the criminal justice system would act as an instrument of racial oppression - people of any race that pay their taxes, work, and don't commit crimes are not likely to get arrested and charged. An individual that keeps their nose clean typically rises out of the lower class at some point and is therefore no longer a target of this oppression. To accomplish this feat, a minority must only ignore the culture programming and keep working at improving their situation legally. President Obama is a good example of the truth of this. The idea that racism is so prevalent that minorities cannot change their stars is less valid today than ever in our nation's past. 

But why does our criminal justice system have a punishment mentality, when the people who commit crimes are doing so, largely because of a bad background - having gotten into bad company, having been abused as children, living in a high-stress situation? 

People say "there's a choice and not everybody from a bad background turns into a criminal".  The presumption is that what differentiates those who became criminals and those who didn't, is their choices - and therefore we are justified in punishing those who made bad choices. 

But in reality, people's choices are also caused, by their genes and their environment.  Each person has their unique experiences and genetic makeup.  Most or all of what differentiates the ones who becomes criminals from the ones who didn't, is genes and environment. 

The criminal justice system punishes mostly those who already have been damaged. 

As well as acting as an instrument for class discrimination, racial discrimination enters into criminal justice, because the people involved have prejudices.

So what moral justification is there for executing murderers, when they can be given life without parole?  Looking at it from a non-religious point of view, what is the justification for the state being more violent than is necessary to avert further harm?

The death penalty results in murder by the state, when innocent people are executed.  It's more expensive than keeping people in prison for life.  It results in the state executing preferentially people who have been damaged somehow. 

I see no good argument in its favor.

I'm wondering if the people who work in the criminal justice system are more likely to be conservative than liberal, that conservatives are more likely to be racist, and that conservatives are more likely to impose harsh penalties which they think function as deterrents?  Statistically, black men get the worst sentences for the same or similar crimes.

One thing that puzzles me, though, is that death row inmates usually seem to have been in prison 15-20 years before the sentence is carried out.  Wouldn't a justice system that actually wanted to find the truth actually be able to find it in all that time?  If we have the wrong man in prison, doesn't that mean that the real killer goes unpunished, free to kill again?  If we have the wrong man, we could let him out.  If he's already been cremated, there's not much we can do for him.  Statistically, there may not be very many wrongly convicted death row inmates, but does it matter how few there are if one is your father or mother, your son or daughter, brother or sister?  Or you yourself?

Just a thought. 

Regarding your first paragraph, I think it can probably be shown that most people in the criminal justice system are conservative to a degree. This comes down to an initial condition (likely from upbringing) of a definite black and white sense of right and wrong, a lack of a gradient in their moral evaluations, that predisposes a conservative to wanting to play a part in that judgmental system. Of course, depending on the job, most find that once inside that system, there indeed is a LOT of grey areas - a huge gradient between bad and good, between criminal and desperate. Considering the imperfect nature of human judgement in general, I am now against the death penalty due to the implicit errors that can occur. But I am also against making prisons into hotels full of comforts that many free citizens lack. 

I'm happy we have no death penalty in this country, so I won't talk about that.

Ending a pregnancy is a woman's own choice - no one else should have the right to make decisions about her. But she must make her choices knowing her responsibilities, having had sex education and having access to different birth control methods.

I've lived by these rules, and found that abortion is unnecessary when you're careful - or perhaps I was lucky. There are treatments to prevent a fertilized egg from nestling when you've had a broken condom. And getting your tubes tied is a secure way of having freedom without hurting something else - a tiny clump of cells cannot be called someone.  

I'd say that it's all about responsible behaviour, but that is easier at 60 than at 20.

1 Teach your young adults to act responsible, give them access to all the information they want and the birth control methods they want.

2 I don't know the difference between American and other fetuses - I vote we treat them all gently, but we shouldn't worry too much when a clump of cells is aborted.

3 The practice of abortion is as bad as selling sex (not just in the streets but also in the ads) or any other act that degrades another human being. It should be used as a last resort. And the religious right is certainly to blame for witholding information.

"Ending a pregnancy is a woman's own choice - no one else should have the right to make decisions about her."

But that is the argument I have the most trouble with personally. Why is ending a pregnancy (i.e. killing a human) a woman's own choice? Nobody else has a right to kill any innocent person. And the opposition is not making the argument that they have a right to make decisions about HER, it is about the OTHER human that happens to be inside her. 

But again, I realize this enters a grey area as I agree that terminating a pregnancy is not equivalent to killing a human early on - when the growing mass of cells is not a 'person'. That is a devil of a problem.

I appreciate your other statements. Especially point #3, which is more to my current position on abortion. 

But this leaves open the question of human rights - when does the right to life kick in for a human? Do they have to be outside the womb to be considered 'alive' and thus have the universal right to live? That is quite a difficult problem. I cannot fault you for not addressing it as it defies being answered to any satisfaction.

And how would you feel if an alien entered your body and started to grow there? Accept the alien and take care of it? Allow it to be born and have it adopted? You wouldn't give up the right to decide about your own body, let alone allow another person to decide about your body. I've coloured this a bit stronger to make you feel the problem - it's an impossible choice. That is why I always took care to stay on the safe side. Many women have great difficulty in accepting fetuses; it's not a pink cloud at all but a heavy responsibility. No one can bear a heavy responsibility without having to say something herself - so when a woman decides she can't bear it, she should be respected and have help.

A clump of cells can't have the same rights as an adult person, so the woman's rights must have precedence while respecting the fetus' right as much as possible.

That is a sound equivocation. You are making a great deal of sense. Thank you for the guidance. I am a father to be (first child due at the end of may) and have never considered abortion even given the less than optimal financial situation I find myself in. But I figured that if the lowest of society keeps on reproducing willy nilly and the intellectuals like my wife and I hold off (waiting to be financially ready), natural selection will kick in and humanity will become dumber over time. The movie Idiocracy comes to mind. But this all has nothing to do with the argument.

I think smart people over-think reproduction. We are well evolved to procreate with minimal complications. If one is healthy and fit, in this modern age, I can see very few good reasons to not give birth (it is 9 months of discomfort and minor symptoms versus the potential psychological and physical harm of having an abortion). But to your point, I now understand how this is indeed a choice of the mother - a right to decide their own fate. 

Glad to be of help. Greet your family from me!


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