Chattering classes here in the U.S. have recently been absorbed in discussions that dance around, but never quite address, a question that cuts to the heart of how we think about the basic architecture of reality: are human beings purely material, or something more?
The first skirmish broke out when a major breast-cancer charity, Susan Komen for the Cure (the folks responsible for the ubiquitous pink ribbons), decided to cut their grants to Planned Parenthood, a decision they quickly reversed after facing an enormous public backlash. Planned Parenthood provides a wide variety of women’s health services, including birth control and screening for breast cancer, but is widely associated with abortion services. The Komen leaders offered numerous (mutually contradictory) reasons for their original action, but there is no doubt that their true motive was to end support to a major abortion provider, even if their grants weren’t being used to fund abortions.
Abortion, of course, is a perennial political hot potato, but the other recent kerfuffle focuses on a seemingly less contentious issue: birth control. Catholics, who officially are opposed to birth control of any sort, objected to rules promulgated by the Obama administration, under which birth control would have to be covered by employer-sponsored insurance plans. The original objection seemed to be that Catholic hospitals and other Church-sponsored institutions would essentially be paying for something they though was immoral, in response to which a work-around compromise was quickly adopted. This didn’t satisfy everyone (anyone?), however, and now the ground has shifted to an argument that no individual Catholic employer should be forced to pay for birth-control insurance, whether or not the organization is sponsored by the Church. This position has been staked out by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and underlies a new bill proposed by Florida Senator Mark Rubio.
Topics like this are never simple, but they can be especially challenging for a secular democracy. On the one hand, our society is based on religious pluralism. We have freedom of conscience, and try to formulate our laws in such a way that everyone’s rights are protected. But on the other hand, people have incompatible beliefs about fundamental issues. Such beliefs are often of central importance, and the duct tape of political liberalism isn’t always sufficient to hold things together.
When it comes to abortion and birth control, there’s no question that down-and-dirty political and social aspects are front and center. Different political parties want to score points with their constituencies by standing firm in the current culture wars. And there’s also no question that restricting access to contraception and abortion is driven in part (we can argue about how big that part is) by a desire to control women’s sexuality.
But there is also a serious question about human life and the nature of reality. What actually happens when that sperm and ovum get together to make a zygote? Is it just one step of many in an enormously complex chemical reaction that ultimately gives rise to a new person, who is at heart just a complex chemical reaction him-or-herself? Or is it the moment when an immaterial soul, distinct from the material body, first comes into being? Question like this matter — but as a society we hardly ever discuss them, at least not in any serious and open way. As a result, different sides talk past each other, trying to squeeze metaphysical stances into political boxes.
If it were really true that “a human life” was defined by the association of an immaterial soul with a physical body, and that association began at the moment of conception, then making abortion illegal would be perfectly sensible. It would be murder, pure and simple. (Very few people are actually consistent here, believing that mothers who have abortions should be treated like someone who has committed murder; but there are some.) But this view of reality is not true.
Naturalism, which describes human beings in the same physical terms as other objects in the universe, doesn’t actually provide a cut-and-dried answer to the abortion question, because it doesn’t draw a bright line between “a separate living person” and “a collection of cells.” But it provides an utterly different context for addressing the question. Naturalists are generally against murder, but it’s because they recognize certain collections of atoms as “people,” and endow those people with rights and privileges as part of the structure of society. It all comes from distinctions that we human beings ultimately invent, not ones that are handed down from a higher authority. Consequently, the appropriate rules are less clear. A naturalist wants to know whether the purported person can think, feel, react, and so on. They also will balance the interests of the fetus, whatever they may be, against the interests of the mother, who is unquestionably a living and functioning person. It’s perfectly natural that those interests will seem more important than those of a fetus that isn’t even viable outside the womb.
Most everyone, religious believers and naturalists alike, agrees that killing innocent one-year-old children is morally wrong. Consequently, we can happily live together in a society where that kind of action is illegal. But our beliefs about aborting one-month-old embryos are understandably very different. The disagreements about these issues aren’t simply political, they run much deeper than that.
It matters how people think about the world. Political liberalism is a good system, but it only works insofar as the citizens can agree on a core set of values and push cultural/religious differences to the periphery. Naturalism doesn’t answer all the value-oriented questions we might have; it simply provides a sensible framework in which they can be profitably discussed. But between naturalists and non-naturalists, profitable discussion is much more difficult. Which is why we naturalists have to keep pressing, making the best case we can, trying to convince as many people as we can reach that there is only one realm of existence, governed by unbreakable laws, and that we are part of it.