Overview

As in other progressive and humane social issues, reproductive rights are most reliably championed by the most secular among us

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Jenny was in her mid-twenties, with a two-year-old son. When she got pregnant a second time, she developed severe chest pains, had trouble swallowing, and was plagued by a persistent fever. It was discovered that she had lymphatic cancer.

She should have been put on radiation treatment immediately, but the doctors decided against it, worried that it would harm the fetus inside her. Things only got worse as her pregnancy went on: she started having bad nosebleeds and bloody coughing fits. Tumors grew larger and spread.

During the birth of the child, Jenny hemorrhaged badly and nearly died. She spent the next couple of years seeing various medical specialists and receiving treatments in various hospitals, doing what she could to stem the disease. And she was terrified of getting pregnant again, worried that it would kill her. Her doctor gave her a new brand of birth control pills, which turned out to be a defective brand that was later discontinued.

Too bad for Jenny—she was pregnant again.

Considering the amount of medicine, drugs, and radiation she had been exposed to in the previous two years, it was pretty much certain that her fetus would not develop normally, and that bringing it to term would once again endanger Jenny’s life. She begged for an abortion. Her begging was rebuffed. After all, this was the late 1960s, and women did not have such rights over their own bodies, their own healthcare, their own fates.

Sadly, such a medieval situation is back in America with a vengeance, thanks largely to a strong, vocal minority of conservative religious fanatics. It is those people who pledge fealty to a magical, invisible, wrathful deity above all else, and who seek to enforce the fruits of that fealty on the rest of us—constitutional rights and women’s rights be damned—who have succeeded in packing the courts with theocrats. Especially the Supreme Court, which is full of Christian Nationalists who will reign for decades to come. 

Alas, goodbye reproductive rights. Hello, more suffering.

Those who are most starkly opposed to such regressive, immoral legislation, and most supportive of a woman’s right to decide what goes on in her uterus, are the secular among us. Atheists, agnostics, humanists, and the generally postreligious take the most ethically sound, position when it comes to women’s reproductive rights.

Those who are most starkly opposed to such regressive, immoral legislation, and most supportive of a woman’s right to decide what goes on in her uterus, are the secular among us.

Consider:

Zooming out to the state level, we see that those states in America with the most secular populations—such as Oregon, Washington, Vermont, and New Hampshire—have the best, most enlightened protections of women’s reproductive rights, while those states with most religious populations—such as Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Louisiana—are those states with the worst protections.

Nic Frame, Purdue University Dept of Sociology

Internationally, highly secular societies are the best at ensuring abortion rights, while the most religious are the worst. Additionally, most societies increase women’s rights — including abortion rights — as they secularize; Ireland and Argentina are recent cases in point.

Thus, we see the importance of secularism’s pronounced, progressive values and commitments when it comes to the fundamental human right of bodily autonomy, and the danger of religion’s draconian, dogmatic reach in that domain.

Despite the stereotypes of secular people as being rabidly anti-religious, the reality is that the vast majority of nonreligious folks take a decidedly live-and-let-live attitude towards religion, which basically goes like this: I am not a believer or churchgoer, but if you are, that’s perfectly fine. You do you, and I’ll do me.

Problems only really arise when religious people seek to impose their beliefs and practices on others: forcing other people’s children to pray, forcing captive passengers on a plane to listen to gospel music; forcing Biblical gender norms on those who don’t believe in the Bible; denying other people the right to marry because it doesn’t conform with your deity’s plan.

Right now, conservative Christians are successfully forcing their faith on the rest of us by denying women abortion rights. It is truly a sad moment in our nation’s history, as more women will suffer and die from botched abortions, more children will be born who are unwanted and unloved, more women will be blamed and shamed for a pregnancy that they did everything they could to avoid, and—of course—the poorest among us will endure the worst of it. And wouldn’t you know it? The same pious legislators that will force these women to have babies are the ones who will fight the hardest to deny those babies and their mothers adequate, affordable healthcare, subsidized childcare, and well-funded public education.

What to do now?

Secular activist Joe Hill said it best: Don’t mourn, organize.

Phil Zuckerman is the author of several books, including What It Means to be Moral (Counterpoint, 2019) The Nonreligious (Oxford, 2016), Living the Secular Life (Penguin, 2014), Faith No More (Oxford,...