“We’re a millennial group. Our leadership is millennials. Most of our support is millennials.”
How it all began
Secular Pro-Life is an advocacy group based in the US. Their website makes a surprising claim:
“Fact: There are over six million pro-lifers in the United States who aren’t affiliated with a religion.
According to the Pew Research Center, 19.6% of American adults have no religion. That’s approximately 46 million people given the current population of the United States. And according to Gallup, somewhere between 15 and 19 percent of Americans with no religion are pro-life. Do the math, and it comes out to between 6.9 and 8.7 million. Out of an abundance of caution, Secular Pro-Life calls it 6 million.”
I recently spoke to Kelsey Hazzard, the organisation’s president, over Skype. She started caring about the issue while still in the United Methodist church (a pro-choice denomination of Christianity). “I never heard a sermon about abortion growing up. It was never a religious issue to me, and when I got involved in pro-life activism, it was in opposition to my church, which I realise is sort of a minority scenario to be in, but that’s how it came about for me. So the idea that I’m a secret Christian or something, or secretly motivated by religion, is rather funny to me. Because even when I was a Christian, my pro-life activism was secular.”
Kelsey’s drift away from religion came afterwards, and was “pretty much unrelated”. Due to the fact that her activism had a strong secular basis beforehand, “it didn’t really make a difference. I was just a pro-life atheist. As far as religion and the question of why you would be pro-life go, for me, it would be a human rights issue.”
Secular Pro-life was founded in 2009, around the time Kelsey graduated from the University of Miami, where she had run a pro-life group. She “saw a need for religiously neutral pamphlets and materials. You know so many of them: there would be a great summary on prenatal development, and then there would be a bible verse at the end that would just ruin it.”
The advocacy group started as a way of providing downloads and as a website that approached the issue in a secular way. But from there “[i]t was a really a ‘build and they will come’ kind of situation. I think a lot of people were looking for something like this, where people of every faith and no faith could come together under one umbrella.”
Their support base is “mainly online” and predominantly young – mostly students and people in their twenties and thirties. “We’re a millennial group. Our leadership is millennials. Most of our support is millennials.” As for the gender balance, “we welcome men but women are the majority in secular pro life.”
Being secular and pro-life
Kelsey explained that while the group’s leadership is atheist and agnostic, “secular just means that it is religiously neutral. We do get a lot of religious minorities who would be uncomfortable as part of the religious right. So we get a lot of Muslims, Mormons, pagans.” The group also receives “liberal Christians who appreciate our secular approach.” Members are also politically diverse. “We have everything from die-hard libertarians to basically socialists.”
I asked Kelsey if it is common for college students to find the experience of being pro-life and non-religious isolating. She says that it depends on where you go to college, and who your friend group is. “I get emails all the time, not especially from students, but from pro-life atheists in particular, who say ‘Oh thank goodness you exist. I thought I was the only pro-life atheist’.”
But Kelsey is keen to emphasise that “we have been seeing two trends that just happen to have arisen independently. One is that people are becoming less religious, and young people are the main drive toward that. We’re much less religious than the generations that came prior, and we are also the pro-life generation – we are more pro-life than our parents’ generation was. Those two trends are bound to overlap.” In other words, there are more pro-life atheists than there ever have been before, especially among young people.
This might sound odd when opposition to abortion is often tied to the view that life begins at conception; a view sometimes seen as religiously motivated. But Kelsey thinks “it’s just one of those areas where religion and science happen to come to the same conclusion.” Additionally, she highlights that she wants to avoid judging people based on their religion or upbringing. “The fact that someone comes to a conclusion and is religious doesn’t really tell you much. You need to know why they believe what they believe.”
However, Kelsey also points out that while she agrees that life begins at conception, she sometimes thinks “this point causes us to get off course and fail to appreciate how quickly prenatal development occurs.” The focus on conception creates a disconnect where people end up discussing the issue as if there is not a period of time before you can confirm you’re pregnant, or before the pregnancy has progressed to the point where an abortion is physically possible. In reality, she says, “when we talk about abortion, we’re not in the weeds of the moment of conception, we’re really talking about an embryo that is quite obviously alive.”
“The fact that someone comes to a conclusion and is religious doesn’t really tell you much. You need to know why they believe what they believe.”
Are human rights for all human beings?
For Kelsey, the issue is ultimately about human rights. “We have to ask ourselves if human rights are for all human beings, or if they are for planned human beings, or able bodied human beings, or human beings who are independent enough, who are good enough. Essentially, all these various justifications that are put forward for abortion rest on the implicit assumption that human rights are earned, and I can’t get on board with that.”
As for the idea that though a fetus of human parentage is biologically speaking a member of the human species, but may not be a person until it is conscious, Kelsey says, “I think that’s a criterion that has been invented to justify abortion, and that is not applied across the board, and we see that in terms of how temporary unconsciousness is treated in every other situation. Someone who is comatose, even for nine months, is not thereby deprived of their legal rights. It’s an ad hoc rationalisation. The reason we don’t kill the person who’s in a coma is because they may wake up, they may obtain consciousness, and that is true of the unborn child as well.” She also argues that trying to define “person” in a way that goes beyond being a member of the human species is suspect. This “new category called person” has historically meant “whatever people in power want it to mean.”
Nor does Kelsey buy the idea that abortion is necessary for women’s equality. “As a woman, I do find it offensive to suggest that I need the ability to kill my children to be equal. That bothers me a great deal.” She adds that in the US “about half of women are pro-life. And the feminist movement just ignores us”.
She objects to the framing of the pro-choice position as a neutral option. “Just to say, ‘it’s too difficult for me, so we’ll leave it up to the woman’ is a cop out, because if you’re wrong and the child is alive, that child has been sentenced to death.” Unless you’re sure that the unborn child is not alive, abortion is not a victimless crime. If someone thinks that, “then we can have a real conversation about what is truly motivating the support for abortion.”
Does she have any advice for students who would be on the fence regarding this issue or who would be hesitant to get involved? “I would implore you to not rely on stereotypes, and do your own investigation. I highly recommend a website called ehd.org which is the endowment on human development, which gives you a fantastic education on life in the womb and prenatal development from conception to birth.”
But equally, she emphasises that being pro-life is “more than just taking up a position.” It is about what you do as well as what you say. “You know, I myself have had a pregnant woman in crisis stay in my home, I have had friends who have gotten arrested at protests. It’s a commitment that involves making sacrifices.” Being pro-life starts at home – by being ready to support friends if they get pregnant, for example. “That is, I hope, a common ground for those who are pro-life, pro-choice and on the fence.”
“I care less about what you think and more about what you do.”