A UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief recently made an unconvincing argument in favor of abortion by claiming opposition to abortion is a religious belief. Ahmed Shaheed presented a report to the UN Human Rights Council, where he objected to the idea that “religious beliefs can be invoked as a legitimate ‘justification’ for violence or discrimination against women.” The UN independent expert called for “gender-based discrimination laws” prohibiting abortion to be repealed, adding that criminalizing abortion somehow “impedes [women’s] ability to fully enjoy their human rights, including their right to freedom of religion or belief.”
Shaheed asserted “the right to freedom of religion protects individuals and not religions as such.” He also voiced concerns about religious institutions and their followers supposedly using their faith to undermine gender equality.
“While religious organizations are entitled to autonomy in the administration of their affairs, such deference should be extended within a holistic conception of rights grounded in the universality, indivisibility, interdependence and inalienability of all human rights,” Shaheed said. “States have an obligation to guarantee to everyone, including women, girls and LGBT+ people, an equal right to freedom of religion or belief, including by creating an enabling environment where pluralist and progressive self-understandings can manifest,” he continued.
Shaheed has concluded that the pro-life position can only result from religious reasoning, which has led him to fear one group of people are attempting to force their religion on those who may not agree. However, Shaheed’s assertions reveal a crucial misunderstanding about the nature of the abortion debate, and he has failed to see how his arguments undermine his own abortion stance.
The ‘Religious’ Label Is Not a Refutation
Pro-lifers argue abortion is wrong because it intentionally deprives an innocent human being of his or her life. To dismiss this claim as a ‘religious belief’ does not prove the position to be untrue, and does not actually even address the issue, as it fails to make a case for why children in the womb are not human.
Both sides of the abortion debate rely on the same metaphysical question: What makes humans valuable? Pro-lifers defend their view by saying all humans have intrinsic value because they are part of the human community with their own distinct human DNA. Abortion supporters often counter by saying certain arbitrary properties are necessary to achieve complete personhood. Whether an abortion proponent acknowledges it or not, this position is related to the metaphysics of the human person.
However, unlike the pro-life stance, there is a fundamental flaw behind the pro-choice reasoning for personhood. The nature of what someone is cannot change if things like a working set of limbs or a certain mental capacity are lost or never fully acquired, as these are traits that do not change the nature of that being. The preborn child is still human, even if he or she lacks the properties that abortion advocates claim grant them humanity.
Abortion advocates like Shaheed cannot fairly push the rightness of their own philosophical standing while also dismissing the pro-life view. Both sides have to present a claim on human dignity and worth. This aspect of the discussion cannot be ignored merely by pointing to the personal beliefs of the arguer.
Moral Arguments Cannot Be Rejected Simply Because They Align With Religious Values
Laws are implemented to provide citizens with direction about what actions are permitted, and which ones are forbidden. Pro-lifers who do not want the law to be permissive of abortion are not attempting to impose their religion on others. Rather, they want the law to protect vulnerable members of society, such as preborn humans.
Shaheed called for religion to have no bearing on public policy, but this is short-sighted. For example, the Bible explicitly forbids theft. Is a law against theft therefore invalid because it aligns with religious principles? Abortion advocates cannot call for the removal of ‘religious beliefs’ from the public forum while simultaneously upholding certain select viewpoints these religious views happen to support.
Religious Voices Have a Right to Participate in the Abortion Debate
Some religious people may object to abortion in part because their faith supports the sanctity of human life. Their voices are just as relevant to the discussion as anyone else’s. Can a society truly be considered just if it silences those who hold religious perspectives? Political dialogues regarding the morally objectionable nature of abortion cannot be discouraged merely because people of faith and religious groups strongly oppose abortion.
If Shaheed wants societies to respect others’ freedoms, advocating against taking the views of religious people into consideration when making government policy is not the way to do that.
Nonreligious Arguments Can Still Prove Abortion Is Wrong
Another error on Shaheed’s part is the assumption that one must ascribe to a certain religion in order to oppose abortion. It is entirely possible to be an atheist or an agnostic who believes abortion is a wrongful act.
Journalist Nat Hentoff was a lifelong atheist who advocated against abortion because it kills children in the womb. Secular Pro-Life and Pro-Life Humanists are two groups who do make no faith-based claims when educating the public on the injustice of abortion. Religious people can also make nonreligious arguments to support their claim that abortion is morally wrong. Pro-lifers who keep a certain faith may use it as the basis for their abortion stance while still presenting talking points that appeal to secular audiences.
Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro practices Orthodox Judaism, but he routinely makes his case for life by pointing to the scientific evidence of the preborn child’s humanity. Pro-life activist Lila Rose is Catholic, but she regularly exposes the multiple instances of abuse abortion businesses have engaged in. Rose’s pro-life position that “Every innocent human being has a right to not be killed…” is universal enough to be applicable to nonreligious people.
Abortion advocates cannot conclude that the pro-life view is irrational because it is consistent with religious principles. They must still pose a counter-argument about why certain humans are undeserving of rights based on their size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency.
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