In this post, Jeremy who is guest blogging at Philosophy et cetera argues that the pro-life argument is not necessarily religious. I have said before that the sanctity of life view rests on a worrying religious contention (that our value is based on being God's property). But is there any other way this view can be upheld?
I will deal purely with the abortion question here, and take pro-life to mean someone who disagrees with the killing of an embryo from the point of conception (the usual, if not only, meaning). I will accept that there are theoretical ways to be pro-life which do not rest on God, but will assert that holding these views to any degree of consistency is either ridiculous, or in no way representative of any significant part of the pro-life community.
Note: It is difficult to distinguish religious from non-religious arguments. Jeremy suggests whether an argument is based on religious revelation or not, but I believe this is insufficient. If I make an argument based on the premise that during Holy Communion the bread and wine physically becomes the body and blood of Jesus (transubstantiation) then that is still a religious argument because the premise only makes sense with a religious underpinning. However, since everything eventually must lead to some unsupported underpinnings, I will say that a non-religious argument is one whose premises can eventually be tracked back to observations about the empirical world but not the existence of God. (This last requirement is necessary because an argument for God could itself be non-religious by relying on the world rather than revelation, like the argument from design. If this was used then one could collapse the religious / non-religious distinction.) An argument involving transubstantiation relies on faith in God, and so is religious. Any premises have to be tracked back to see if they could rely on the empirical world without belief in God. Only if so can they be non-religious.
Here, therefore, are the possible non-religious foundations for the pro-life view:
It is always wrong to kill
This argument would hold that killing anything with the criteria of life is wrong. If this was held then the problems with the pro-life view disappear. However, this is a radical view. Since it is not based on faculties, it requires upholding the right to life of a cabbage to the same extent as a human. Certainly, this would justify protection of a newly created embryo. But at the same time it would make life incredibly difficult to live. It would essentially require the Fruitarian lifestyle of only eating what dies naturally. I do not believe that any realistic portion of the pro-life community is represented by this view. Moreover, I do not believe that the belief in the sacredness of all life can survive without religious underpinning. The mere facts of being able to grow and reproduce appear to have no more importance ethically than the colour of one's skin. Only by having a God who gives special value to them can life in and of itself be ethically prejudiced.
If this cannot be a consistent non-religious ethical basis, then we must find some criteria which distinguishes the newly conceived foetus from a cabbage.
We must value things based on their potential
This is the only argument here that can be based on faculties. The only other change of ethical importance which happens to the embryo is that it will become able to survive on its own without constant help. If we take this latter as the important potential point, then this would exclude from the argument any child doomed to die in its first few years. This is because although after birth a child will not be bodily dependent on the mother in the same way, it will still be unable to live without constant care for many years. I am pretty sure that no pro-lifer would argue this way, so I will assume that the key to potentiality is faculties that will naturally develop.
Potentiality basically involves treating beings as they will naturally become. I say naturally because that seems to be the only way to treat it. Clearly it makes no sense to treat beings as they could possibly be, given the right conditions. This would require treating a sperm and egg as a person, because in the right circumstances they could be. The 'naturally becoming' test is the least bizarre potentiality requirement. However, this is clearly difficult to identify. Natural cannot mean 'without outside influence' because embryos require outside influence to grow into the beings we are considering. The only way in which it seems that embryos naturally grow into children and then adults is through pure probability, which seems a very odd way to identify their moral status!
The big problem however is that no-one takes any kind of potentiality truly seriously. It is a cliche to point out that no-one treats an acorn as an oak, but it is true. No-one treats a law student as a lawyer (or at least they are foolish if they do, believe me!). But let's move on to fully moral issues. It is possible to say that certain classes of people will probably and quite naturally become criminals and commit many crimes. Potentiality would presumably therefore have us treat them as criminals. But what if a very intelligent person is in that category, with the potentil either to become a criminal or a brilliant doctor. Are we obliged to ethically treat them as both - worthy of punishment and praise? This all seems ridiculous, but this is the reality of potentiality. It is not applied consistently by, I believe, any significant slice of the pro-life community.
Humans have souls
Jeremy asserts (in the comments) that souls are not necessarily a religious creation. However, I would take issue with this. There is no direct evidence for souls in the world, as I'm sure Jeremy would admit. We cannot see, hear or touch souls. The only arguments for them come from the incidents of those who supposedly have them. They rest on certain special qualities and abilities of those with souls, like the ability to think and reason. However, by basing evidence for the soul on faculties, we deny souls to those without those faculties, and this includes newly conceived embryos.
In order to include these, many say all humans and only humans have souls. However, by doing so they concede almost all of the arguments in favour of souls: Animals live and move but apparently they do not need souls to do so. Therefore the only evidence for souls must come from religion. Alternatively, if we argue that life itself is the incident of souls, and grant souls to all living beings, we are brought back to the first heading above. If destroying souls is wrong, then it must be wrong to kill any living thing. More than that however, there is absolutely no need for a soul in our understanding of, say, a cabbage. We understand how they work much better than complicated higher animals where there may, somewhere, be room for explanation by soul. The declaration that all life has a soul therefore can only rely as evidence upon religious belief.
There is of course an alternative like that suggested at the beginning of this section - the idea that there are different levels of soul according to faculties. However since an embryo has no more faculties than a skin cell, it cannot demand a soul on this arguement.
I have argued therefore, that there are three key ways to argue from a pro-life perspective without being explicitly religious: The wrong-to-kill argument, the potentiality argument and the souls argument. In all three cases, the arguments either require resort to religious backing or require massive changes to ethical systems in a way completely unrepresentative of any significant slice of the population as a whole, let alone pro-lifers. It is possible to consistently be pro-life for non-religious reasons, but I confidently believe that almost no-one is.