First Person: Why I am a pro-life atheist

by Oxford Students for Life

Rob 1A new series in which contributors discuss what being pro-life means to them. Our first piece is by Robert Stagg, a PhD student in English at the University of Southampton.

A couple of weeks after I agreed to write this blogpost, a friend handed me a book she had published: Poems That Make Grown Men Cry. The book sat at the bottom of a pile for another couple of weeks, and I cast a suspicious glance at it every night before going to bed. Everything about the title seemed wrong. What’s the difference between a man and a “grown” man, or is the adjective only there as a sentimental intensifier? And the title’s “that make” was presumptuous to the point of seeming imperative, insisting upon the book’s efficacy even before I’d opened it. This is all to ignore the most obvious objection to the book: the idea that men shouldn’t or don’t cry (an objection which, unlike the others, is at least addressed by the anthology’s editors).

Realising that these poor relations with an inanimate object could only continue at the expense of my sanity, I decided to pick up the book. I started to read and didn’t stop until I reached a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks (selected by Terrance Hayes) titled ‘The Mother’ (1945).

The poem can be read here.

Straight after reading it, I (a grown man) cried uncontrollably for at least five minutes.

Why? The poem had, as poems often do, lent force to a question that had been bothering me for a few years: if scientists can’t draw a clear line between a foetus and a human being, is our culture then killing human beings? There is no scientific answer to the question as to when a so-called foetus becomes a so-called human being, and this ought to cause severe and sincere distress among those who otherwise appreciate science. Philosophers have tried stepping into the breach, but with surprisingly undeft footing. First there have been attempts to locate the humanity of an organism in its consciousness, a typically brainy move for a brainy philosopher to make. Yet kindred philosophers are finding consciousness itself puzzling, and scientists are still unable to locate the presence or node or origin of consciousness in the body. More recently, philosophers have attempted to distinguish between ‘human beings’ and ‘people’ or ‘persons’; but, again, these debates tend to circle back upon consciousness.

I cannot think of any other area of science or public policy that is so incautiously policed as that around abortion. Given the radical and fundamental uncertainties about the division – or, rather, the current lack of a division – between foetuses and human beings, it seems wildly dangerous to permit a process like abortion to continue in its present form.

You will notice that I have not yet used the words ‘soul’ or ‘ensoulment’, often and erroneously seen as crucial to the abortion debate. That is because I am not religious, and nor do I share some of the larger philosophical convictions about life which motivate much of the pro-life movement. Instead my argument makes reference to science – without paying it, or its practitioners, obeisance – and to ethics. It appeals to the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, and her heartbreaking perceptions of potentiality (delivered via pun, of all things): “You remember the children you got that you did not get”.

Nor have I yielded to the mis- and distrust of women that can animate sections of the abortion debate. Brooks’s poem is delicate and sympathetic on this point, gliding between a detached (but not disinterested) narrative voice and the first-person dramatic monologue of a mother who has had more than one abortion. The poem ends with the insistent iterations of a woman who is unable to evade her own evasiveness: “Believe me, I loved you all. / Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you / All”. This reader, at least, inclines to believe her.

I have argued with fellow atheists and agnostics about abortion in two ways. One: by setting out the critical gaps in scientific knowledge about abortion, and the inability of philosophers to fill or bridge those gaps. Two: by reading Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem. The first provokes the irrational outrage of those whose rationality has been challenged. The second provokes silence and, often, tears. Sometimes I should like to think that those reactions could be reversed; but only sometimes.