A Left-Wing Atheist’s Case Against Abortion

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the January 1988 print edition of Crisis Magazine. It has been edited for brevity.

CRISIS: Is abortion really a political issue? It seems not. After all, politics is a dispute over the arrangements by which a community lives. Abortion raises a prior question: who belongs to the community? In this sense it seems to be a pre-political question.

HITCHENS: All human value disputes are either political or are capable of being politicized. Even allegedly transcendent matters like transubstantiation have been intensely political, as you well know. The politicization of abortion stems from its central position in the feminist agenda. To a lesser extent, the axiom of “the woman’s right to choose” is an organizing principle in what you might call the broader humanist program as well. As a supporter of humanism and feminism I have strong misgivings about the wisdom, in both senses, of this one-dimensional position. I don’t think feminism should contradict humanism.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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What do you mean?

I agree with Michael Kinsley (editor of the New Republic) who once wrote a column saying that the Roe v. Wade decision, which was of course made by a conservative-centrist Court, was the biggest reverse for liberalism in our time. He was speaking tactically, and about the “backlash.” Nobody on the left can avoid noticing that the so-called “prolife” forces are overwhelmingly female and from income groups that traditionally voted Democratic. Yet this simple rebellion by what one might dare to term humble people has been written off as reactionary by people who can’t or won’t see the essential dignity of the right-to-life position.

When did you first start thinking seriously about the abortion issue?

In Britain during the 1960s, there was a “liberal hour” when Parliament during one session voted to abolish capital punishment, to legalize homosexuality for adults, to relax the provisions of the divorce law, and to permit abortions for social reasons as well as the usual clinical or traumatic ones. This was the foot in the door for abortion on demand. It might interest your readers to know that Margaret Thatcher voted to keep capital punishment, to keep homosexuality criminal, to make divorce harder to get, and for the abortion bill. I gather that she’s since changed her position on the latter. My own vote would have been, as so often, exactly the reverse of hers.

Why so?

I really couldn’t bring myself to accept the so-called “social clause.” I had a queasy feeling about the disposability of the fetus. This queasy feeling has not gone away.

What about the feminist claim that abortion is an issue of a woman’s right to control her own body?

Look, once you allow that the occupant of the womb is even potentially a life, it cuts athwart any glib invocation of “the woman’s right to choose.” If the unborn is a candidate member of the next generation, it means that it is society’s responsibility.  I used to argue that if this is denied, you might as well permit abortion in the third trimester. I wasn’t as surprised as perhaps I ought to have been when some feminists—only some, and partly to annoy—said yes to that. They at least were prepared to accept their own logic, and say that the unborn is nobody’s business but theirs. That is a very reactionary and selfish position, and it stems from this original evasion about the fetus being “merely” an appendage.

But it’s only an evasion if we have some firm grounds for suspecting that the fetus is a human being.

True. But I think that by now we know where babies come from. And dialectics will tell you that you can’t be meaningfully inhuman unless you are actually or potentially human as well. Pointless to describe a rat or a snake, say, as behaving in an inhuman fashion. I put the question like this. You see a woman kicked in the stomach. Your instinct is properly one of revulsion. You learn that the woman is pregnant. Who will reply that this discovery does not multiply their revulsion? And who will say that this is only because it makes it worse for the woman? I don’t think this is just an instinctive or an emotional reaction (not that we should always distrust our instincts and emotions either). We are stuck with a basic reverence for life.

But aren’t all these notions of the sanctity of human life and so on alien to your otherwise Marxist view of the world?

Hitchens: On the contrary. As a materialist I hold that we don’t have bodies, we are bodies. And as an atheist I believe that we do not have the consolation of the afterlife. We have only one life to live, so it had better be good. All the nonsense we hear about mediate and immediate animation, the point where a soul enters the unborn and so on, is at best beside the point. It has in common with the sectarian feminist view a complete contempt for science and the theory of evolution—which establishes beyond reasonable doubt that life is a continuum that begins at conception because it can’t begin anywhere else.

Would you favor reversing Roe v. Wade and returning abortion to the states, so that there would be local prohibitions on abortion, perhaps with the exceptions you recommend?

I would prefer to see abortion as a federal issue. Nothing is more horrible than inconsistency on the life question. Just look at capital punishment. The tremendous variance from state to state totally undermines the idea of stable justice or fair retribution. This moral objection applies whether or not capital punishment is a deterrent, which I don’t think it is.

A federal prohibition on abortion, then, with rape and incest exceptions?

Yes, but I would like to see something much broader, much more visionary. We need a new compact between society and the woman. It’s a progressive compact because it is aimed at the future generation. It would restrict abortion in most circumstances. Now I know most women don’t like having to justify their circumstances to someone. “How dare you presume to subject me to this?” some will say. But sorry, lady, this is an extremely grave social issue. It’s everybody’s business.

What about people who say they are personally opposed to abortion but think it should be legal? Is that a coherent position?

Hitchens: I suppose it could be made coherent in libertarian terms. I mean, people, say that they object to drinking or racial discrimination but they don’t think the government should ban either. Actually, the popularity of the position comes from people’s reluctance to tell women they haven’t met, who have gone through circumstances they cannot begin to comprehend, that “they know” what she should do about a pregnancy. I myself was reluctant to do this even when my wife got pregnant. It came at the worst possible time. Neither of us wanted to have a kid. My wife was considering an abortion. I urged her not to get one, and ultimately she decided not to, and didn’t. But I wouldn’t have, even if I could, gone beyond an effort to persuade her.

Liberalism claims, for its cardinal virtue, caring or compassion. Isn’t this claim rendered suspect by liberal inability to feel for the fetus?

Well, I’m not exactly a liberal. But there is a debased compassion at work. It tends to be one-sided, exclusively focused on the female condemned, as they say, to domestic serfdom. We should recognize that there are proper concerns and aspirations behind this. Women have been kept down for too long. Their struggle for greater autonomy is, in general, a just one. But its simplistic extension to abortion, I think, has aspects of neurosis and over-reaction. I think some women are trying to take revenge in part for centuries of being told by men precisely how they should live. The prolife movement, if it is to be successful, must understand these sentiments. You cannot conduct any intelligent combat if you do not understand the impulses you oppose.

Photo credit: Getty Images


  • Christopher Hitchens

    Christopher Hitchens was a celebrated essayist, debater, and social critic. A self-professed contrarian known for his dry wit, Hitchens is perhaps the best-known proponent of the “New Atheism.” He died in 2011 at the age of 63.

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