What It’s Like to Be a Secular Sidewalk Counselor

 

The author stands on a sidewalk with prenatal development education materials.

“What parish do you attend?” That’s the question I often get when someone new arrives. When I respond that I’m secular, I get a look of amazement and whispered apologies, as if their question was somehow offensive to me. It isn’t. 

I’ve been doing sidewalk counseling outside of a local abortion facility for almost two years now. I’ve gotten used to the fact I’m the least likely person you’d expect out there. After all, it seems majority of those who are pro-life tend to be of some religious background. What I didn’t expect was to be standing on the sidewalk with so few.

My greatest frustration (aside from mothers going in to terminate their babies, and dads who sit in the parking lot playing games on their phone while it happens) is the lack of involvement from those who are of faith. 

I live in a city with a population over 300,000, in a county with a population over 2 million, with over 100 churches. Yet on any given Saturday, one of the busiest abortion days, there’s usually no more than three or four people trying to reach these moms and dads with help before they go inside. On a weekday, you’re lucky if there’s one person on the sidewalk. 

When there is nobody in front of the abortion center, mothers are not made aware of the local resources for help, fathers are not encouraged to step up and save their baby, and nobody hears the truth about how destructive abortion is for all involved. I shudder to think what would have happened to those mothers who chose life on the sidewalk, if no one had been there that day.

So what can secular pro-lifers do? Get involved in sidewalk counseling. If nobody is outside at your local abortion center(s), be that person who shows up. Don’t allow yourself to feel like you have no place out there. The need for sidewalk advocates, especially secular ones, is huge! I am thankful for the small group of people who stand with me. Despite our differing religious beliefs (or lack thereof), we work together and have saved lives. 

We still have much work to do. Won’t you join us?

[Today’s article is by Christine Sorrell. If you would like to contribute a guest post, email your submission to info@secularprolife.org for consideration.]

Interview with a secular sidewalk counselor

Interviewer’s note: People who aren’t involved in the pro-life movement—and even some within it—tend to believe that those standing outside abortion clinics are there to shame and frighten women seeking abortion. Videos of street “preachers” screaming at everyone tend to be much more viral than depictions of people quietly holding signs offering resources. I’m interested in shining more light on the latter group. 

From what I’ve seen, the people waiting peacefully outside clinics to offer help (referred to in pro-life circles as “sidewalk counselors”) are particularly brave and compassionate. In my experience they also tend to be particularly devout Christians. I was therefore happy to get an opportunity to interview one of Secular Pro-Life’s own, Nick Reynosa, on what it’s like for an agnostic to sidewalk counsel.

Before we begin, Nick asked that I clarify that while he sidewalk counsels when he has the chance, he doesn’t counsel on a consistent basis the way some do. He didn’t want to give the false impression that he has devoted the same time and energy as some of his trainers and friends have, although he has enjoyed the experience and will continue to counsel when he has the opportunities.


(Nick in the upper right.)

How did you get started sidewalk counseling? What draws you to the sidewalk compared to other types of pro-life work?

My campus pro-life club (through Students for Life of America) went to the sidewalk once or twice a week. In my area of northern California, Students for Life and 40 Days for Life formed a natural partnership such that about a half dozen people would counsel regularly.

So through the pro-life club I started sidewalk counseling in Sacramento in 2011. After I left the sidewalk during one of my very first visits, the other counselors saved three babies in a single day! So that was a fortunate and very encouraging beginning.

Sidewalk counseling is a great way to help women at the one-on-one level. Often pro-lifers are discouraged by a seeming lack of political progress, but the individual victories at the sidewalk can be encouraging. You really see how you can make a difference. Also sidewalk counseling helps you get to know the flesh and blood members of the pro-life movement, which serves as a powerful contrast to the stereotypes the media portrays.

What does your work entail? Describe an average day of sidewalk counseling.

I try to create a peaceful presence and provide women materials and references to local pregnancy resource centers (PRCs) (usually located in close proximity to the clinic). Not all pro-lifers at the sidewalk necessarily talk to the women; conversations are usually reserved for more experienced (and usually female) counselors. The rest of us keep a general presence, often holding signs with information, being eyes and ears in case there are any altercations, getting water or snacks for the group, and sometimes providing more security than one or two female counselors might have alone. Many of the counselors who aren’t interacting directly with the women approaching the clinic take the time to pray instead, though of course that’s not something I do personally.

Typically at least some of the women accept our information. Nearly always some passersby will hurl profanity or flip the bird. It’s common to hear street preachers mix evangelization with sidewalk counseling. It’s also common for clinic escorts to play loud music or put up barriers like tarps in order to block the women’s view of the counselors.

What are the most difficult aspects of this work, and how do you handle those?

By far the hardest part is being a man. Successful male counselors are unicorns. Pregnancy is an intimate, personal, and deeply feminine experience. Often women associate their situation with their sex lives and this association make establishing trust and comfort with a man more difficult. Women going to the clinic often seem to feel more comfortable talking with other women, so if possible, I defer to the female counselor present.

However there are some circumstances in which it’s helpful to have a male counselor. For some women, interacting with a man who cares about what they’re going through can be a refreshing experience. And for some, having male counselors there makes them feel safe from an abusive situation. Additionally, men sometimes accompany the women in their lives to abortion appointments and end up waiting outside. Some of them find it helpful to talk to male counselors about the experience.

Do you hand out literature? If so, what is it about?

Yes, usually basic information about abortion and marketing materials for local PRCs. If you’re going to sidewalk counsel, I would recommend you read through these materials before you start handing them to people. Make sure you understand and agree with what you’re telling others. Some publications are particularly religious, or anti-sex or anti-contraception. Not all pro-lifers agree with those views. Usually, though, the reading material is straightforward, honest, harmless, and very helpful.

Do you refer people to local services? If so, what types or services? Provided by whom?

Yes, I usually refer to local PRCs, primarily for pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, and counseling. I try to send them to the closest PRC with the highest level of medical services. It’s also common for counselors to refer to maternity homes.

It’s my impression most sidewalk counselors are fairly devoutly religious, but you’re an agnostic. How does being a secular person intersect with sidewalk counseling? Does it hinder you in any ways? Help you in others?

I think being secular can be very helpful when you’re speaking to women, because you’re presenting life-affirming resources that are religiously neutral and unlikely to come off as anti-contraception or anti-sex. I think female secular sidewalk counselors have the greatest potential of any demographic to connect with women at the clinic.

But being non-religious can be negative in two ways: (1) People tend to assume all of us at the sidewalk are from the same group or all together, which means if someone evangelizes at the sidewalk I’m held liable for everything they say, despite agreeing with probably very little of it. (2) If and when religious sidewalk counselors find out I’m agnostic, some feel the need to evangelize to me. They often believe that without faith in God, a person cannot believe in or access objective morality, and so they find a secular pro-life worldview nonsensical, and they want to debate it.

While I don’t especially want to be evangelized to, I do admire the honesty. Sometimes Christian pro-lifers will be happy to have a secular person around to show that this is not a purely religious issue, but then the same people will argue that secular morality is impossible. I’m glad to get along well with religious allies, but if they really do think my worldview is foolish, I’d rather they be honest about it than placate or tokenize me.

Overall I think the fact that I’m at the sidewalk is encouraging to some but also causes cognitive dissonance for others.

How do you respond to people who say they are at the clinic for reasons other than abortion?

I say three things:

  1. I’m sorry if they felt we were making an assumption about why they were there. We’re just trying to provide options to women in difficult situations.
  2. If they are there for contraception services, I recommend they get their contraception from providers that do not offer abortion, such as Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs). Some counselors keep lists of local FHQCs. There are actually 25 FHQCs in the San Francisco area alone.
  3. I let them know that life-affirming clinics like PRCs often offer health care services like STD tests and pregnancy tests.

What are some of the most common circumstances women describe that brought them to the clinic?

  1. Economic concerns
  2. Tumultuous and dysfunctional relationships
  3. Educational concerns (primarily among younger women)

Do you have ongoing relationships with any of the women you have met at the sidewalk? If so, what are those like?

No, but I know this is very common. Often women who choose life will be in touch with PRCs for several years to come.

Do you interact with clinic staff? If so, what has that been like?

Yes. It has been almost universally negative. Everything from them playing loud music and erecting large barriers, calling the cops unjustifiably, threatening with non-existent buffer zone laws, taking my picture without my consent, etc.

Many people believe that sidewalk counselors primarily try to shame and intimidate women. How do you respond to that idea?

I find this to be patently absurd. I have only seen pro-life women being harassed, yelled at, cursed at on the sidewalk. While it is true that are clips of people doing this sort of thing in 1980s and 1990s, this behavior has almost entirely fallen away. The most common sight at the sidewalk is harmless middle-aged Catholic women.

What do you think of buffer zone laws? Has your work been impacted by such laws?

Buffer zone laws are blatantly unconstitutional. If they were consistently applied for all political topics, they would severely restrict all forms of speech and activism. As such, even a lot of passionately pro-choice people should oppose buffer zone laws.

I’ve never had my speech restricted but I have been threatened by escorts with nonexistent buffer zones. Another time I encountered some ridiculous doublespeak from the San Francisco Police Department. They began our interaction by claiming that “buffer zones are unconstitutional” and then proceeded to cite a city ordinance (which was a buffer zone in all but name) and threaten us with a citation. We promptly called the bluff, and nothing happened to us.

Pro-Life San Francisco actually maintains access to legal assistance in case there’s a problem, but I find that if they try to cite us and we threaten action, they usually back down because the law is already on our side.

What advice would you give someone interested in sidewalk counseling?

You shouldn’t feel guilty if you decide not to do it. There are many ways you can help women in need. If you are going to counsel and you’re a man, I would suggest making sure a female counselor is also there. But overall I think it is a great way to see the movement in action and help women in your community.

What advice do you have for people who don’t sidewalk counsel but still want to help women with crisis pregnancies?

Be a brand ambassador for your local PRC. Distribute their contact info everywhere: community poster boards, campuses, restrooms, gas stations, anywhere and everywhere helps. Attend annual fundraising dinners at local PRCs and donate. Help your local campus student group; they are often the best contact for the 18-24 age group where nearly 40% of abortions occur.

What do you believe the pro-life movement is getting right? What do you believe could be better?

The pro-life movement is doing an excellent job of providing a peaceful, compassionate, consistent, and nearly ubiquitous presence at abortion clinics throughout the country. However, too often well-meaning counselors mix their evangelization with their sidewalk work. The simple fact is that many secular women are on the fence about getting an abortion but not on the fence about premarital sex, contraception, and cohabitation. The stakes are too high for a potentially off-putting overtly religious approach, at least at the outset. Choosing life is a life-altering decision, and we are most effective when we focus on that specific issue and take care not to spend energy on other issues that may be major differences between the women and the counselors they’re speaking to.

Read more interviews:
Sidewalk counseling training resources:

Interview with a secular sidewalk counselor

Interviewer’s note: People who aren’t involved in the pro-life movement—and even some within it—tend to believe that those standing outside abortion clinics are there to shame and frighten women seeking abortion. Videos of street “preachers” screaming at everyone tend to be much more viral than depictions of people quietly holding signs offering resources. I’m interested in shining more light on the latter group. 

From what I’ve seen, the people waiting peacefully outside clinics to offer help (referred to in pro-life circles as “sidewalk counselors”) are particularly brave and compassionate. In my experience they also tend to be particularly devout Christians. I was therefore happy to get an opportunity to interview one of Secular Pro-Life’s own, Nick Reynosa, on what it’s like for an agnostic to sidewalk counsel.

Before we begin, Nick asked that I clarify that while he sidewalk counsels when he has the chance, he doesn’t counsel on a consistent basis the way some do. He didn’t want to give the false impression that he has devoted the same time and energy as some of his trainers and friends have, although he has enjoyed the experience and will continue to counsel when he has the opportunities.


(Nick in the upper right.)

How did you get started sidewalk counseling? What draws you to the sidewalk compared to other types of pro-life work?

My campus pro-life club (through Students for Life of America) went to the sidewalk once or twice a week. In my area of northern California, Students for Life and 40 Days for Life formed a natural partnership such that about a half dozen people would counsel regularly.

So through the pro-life club I started sidewalk counseling in Sacramento in 2011. After I left the sidewalk during one of my very first visits, the other counselors saved three babies in a single day! So that was a fortunate and very encouraging beginning.

Sidewalk counseling is a great way to help women at the one-on-one level. Often pro-lifers are discouraged by a seeming lack of political progress, but the individual victories at the sidewalk can be encouraging. You really see how you can make a difference. Also sidewalk counseling helps you get to know the flesh and blood members of the pro-life movement, which serves as a powerful contrast to the stereotypes the media portrays.

What does your work entail? Describe an average day of sidewalk counseling.

I try to create a peaceful presence and provide women materials and references to local pregnancy resource centers (PRCs) (usually located in close proximity to the clinic). Not all pro-lifers at the sidewalk necessarily talk to the women; conversations are usually reserved for more experienced (and usually female) counselors. The rest of us keep a general presence, often holding signs with information, being eyes and ears in case there are any altercations, getting water or snacks for the group, and sometimes providing more security than one or two female counselors might have alone. Many of the counselors who aren’t interacting directly with the women approaching the clinic take the time to pray instead, though of course that’s not something I do personally.

Typically at least some of the women accept our information. Nearly always some passersby will hurl profanity or flip the bird. It’s common to hear street preachers mix evangelization with sidewalk counseling. It’s also common for clinic escorts to play loud music or put up barriers like tarps in order to block the women’s view of the counselors.

What are the most difficult aspects of this work, and how do you handle those?

By far the hardest part is being a man. Successful male counselors are unicorns. Pregnancy is an intimate, personal, and deeply feminine experience. Often women associate their situation with their sex lives and this association make establishing trust and comfort with a man more difficult. Women going to the clinic often seem to feel more comfortable talking with other women, so if possible, I defer to the female counselor present.

However there are some circumstances in which it’s helpful to have a male counselor. For some women, interacting with a man who cares about what they’re going through can be a refreshing experience. And for some, having male counselors there makes them feel safe from an abusive situation. Additionally, men sometimes accompany the women in their lives to abortion appointments and end up waiting outside. Some of them find it helpful to talk to male counselors about the experience.

Do you hand out literature? If so, what is it about?

Yes, usually basic information about abortion and marketing materials for local PRCs. If you’re going to sidewalk counsel, I would recommend you read through these materials before you start handing them to people. Make sure you understand and agree with what you’re telling others. Some publications are particularly religious, or anti-sex or anti-contraception. Not all pro-lifers agree with those views. Usually, though, the reading material is straightforward, honest, harmless, and very helpful.

Do you refer people to local services? If so, what types or services? Provided by whom?

Yes, I usually refer to local PRCs, primarily for pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, and counseling. I try to send them to the closest PRC with the highest level of medical services. It’s also common for counselors to refer to maternity homes.

It’s my impression most sidewalk counselors are fairly devoutly religious, but you’re an agnostic. How does being a secular person intersect with sidewalk counseling? Does it hinder you in any ways? Help you in others?

I think being secular can be very helpful when you’re speaking to women, because you’re presenting life-affirming resources that are religiously neutral and unlikely to come off as anti-contraception or anti-sex. I think female secular sidewalk counselors have the greatest potential of any demographic to connect with women at the clinic.

But being non-religious can be negative in two ways: (1) People tend to assume all of us at the sidewalk are from the same group or all together, which means if someone evangelizes at the sidewalk I’m held liable for everything they say, despite agreeing with probably very little of it. (2) If and when religious sidewalk counselors find out I’m agnostic, some feel the need to evangelize to me. They often believe that without faith in God, a person cannot believe in or access objective morality, and so they find a secular pro-life worldview nonsensical, and they want to debate it.

While I don’t especially want to be evangelized to, I do admire the honesty. Sometimes Christian pro-lifers will be happy to have a secular person around to show that this is not a purely religious issue, but then the same people will argue that secular morality is impossible. I’m glad to get along well with religious allies, but if they really do think my worldview is foolish, I’d rather they be honest about it than placate or tokenize me.

Overall I think the fact that I’m at the sidewalk is encouraging to some but also causes cognitive dissonance for others.

How do you respond to people who say they are at the clinic for reasons other than abortion?

I say three things:

  1. I’m sorry if they felt we were making an assumption about why they were there. We’re just trying to provide options to women in difficult situations.
  2. If they are there for contraception services, I recommend they get their contraception from providers that do not offer abortion, such as Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs). Some counselors keep lists of local FHQCs. There are actually 25 FHQCs in the San Francisco area alone.
  3. I let them know that life-affirming clinics like PRCs often offer health care services like STD tests and pregnancy tests.

What are some of the most common circumstances women describe that brought them to the clinic?

  1. Economic concerns
  2. Tumultuous and dysfunctional relationships
  3. Educational concerns (primarily among younger women)

Do you have ongoing relationships with any of the women you have met at the sidewalk? If so, what are those like?

No, but I know this is very common. Often women who choose life will be in touch with PRCs for several years to come.

Do you interact with clinic staff? If so, what has that been like?

Yes. It has been almost universally negative. Everything from them playing loud music and erecting large barriers, calling the cops unjustifiably, threatening with non-existent buffer zone laws, taking my picture without my consent, etc.

Many people believe that sidewalk counselors primarily try to shame and intimidate women. How do you respond to that idea?

I find this to be patently absurd. I have only seen pro-life women being harassed, yelled at, cursed at on the sidewalk. While it is true that are clips of people doing this sort of thing in 1980s and 1990s, this behavior has almost entirely fallen away. The most common sight at the sidewalk is harmless middle-aged Catholic women.

What do you think of buffer zone laws? Has your work been impacted by such laws?

Buffer zone laws are blatantly unconstitutional. If they were consistently applied for all political topics, they would severely restrict all forms of speech and activism. As such, even a lot of passionately pro-choice people should oppose buffer zone laws.

I’ve never had my speech restricted but I have been threatened by escorts with nonexistent buffer zones. Another time I encountered some ridiculous doublespeak from the San Francisco Police Department. They began our interaction by claiming that “buffer zones are unconstitutional” and then proceeded to cite a city ordinance (which was a buffer zone in all but name) and threaten us with a citation. We promptly called the bluff, and nothing happened to us.

Pro-Life San Francisco actually maintains access to legal assistance in case there’s a problem, but I find that if they try to cite us and we threaten action, they usually back down because the law is already on our side.

What advice would you give someone interested in sidewalk counseling?

You shouldn’t feel guilty if you decide not to do it. There are many ways you can help women in need. If you are going to counsel and you’re a man, I would suggest making sure a female counselor is also there. But overall I think it is a great way to see the movement in action and help women in your community.

What advice do you have for people who don’t sidewalk counsel but still want to help women with crisis pregnancies?

Be a brand ambassador for your local PRC. Distribute their contact info everywhere: community poster boards, campuses, restrooms, gas stations, anywhere and everywhere helps. Attend annual fundraising dinners at local PRCs and donate. Help your local campus student group; they are often the best contact for the 18-24 age group where nearly 40% of abortions occur.

What do you believe the pro-life movement is getting right? What do you believe could be better?

The pro-life movement is doing an excellent job of providing a peaceful, compassionate, consistent, and nearly ubiquitous presence at abortion clinics throughout the country. However, too often well-meaning counselors mix their evangelization with their sidewalk work. The simple fact is that many secular women are on the fence about getting an abortion but not on the fence about premarital sex, contraception, and cohabitation. The stakes are too high for a potentially off-putting overtly religious approach, at least at the outset. Choosing life is a life-altering decision, and we are most effective when we focus on that specific issue and take care not to spend energy on other issues that may be major differences between the women and the counselors they’re speaking to.

Read more interviews:
Sidewalk counseling training resources:

Christopher Hitchens Wound Up Opposing Abortion Choice

[Today’s guest post is by Acyutananda.]

During his lifetime, Christopher Hitchens seems to have been consistent always in perceiving the rightful place of the unborn as members of our human family; yet he seems to have been “all over the map” regarding public policy on abortion. He said different things about law and policy at different times. And that inconsistency seems to have been partly because he never made the ethics of abortion his main focus; he never became determined to get to the bottom of it. Nevertheless, because of his brilliance and because of his unsurpassed credentials as an atheist, in a world where the abortion-rights position owes a lot of its present ascendance to having succeeded in painting the pro-life cause as purely religious, anything that he said in support of the pro-life cause is understood to matter. In a debate last month, Dinesh D’Souza claimed that Hitchens had been “pro-life,” while Matt Dillahunty responded that Hitchens “wasn’t in favor of making [abortion] illegal.” So what is the reality?

If Hitchens is known to have said different things about abortion policy at different times in his life, what should clearly matter most is the last position he is known to have taken. His last position should reasonably be taken as his most mature and most definitive position. The last statement of his that I have been able to discover came in a debate with Frank Turek on September 9, 2008.* At 00:19 Turek says that Hitchens, in a book of his, advocated the termination of pregnancy in some cases. At 1:37 Hitchens replies:

I do as a humanist feel that the concept “unborn child” is a real one. . . . And I feel a responsibility to see the occupant of the womb as a candidate member of society in the future, and thus to say that it cannot be only the responsibility of the woman to decide upon it. It’s a social question, and an ethical and a moral one. And I say that as someone who has no supernatural beliefs. . . . The presumption is that the unborn entity has a right on its side, and that every effort should be made to see if it can be preserved . . . 

It seems clear that “it cannot be only the responsibility of the woman to decide upon it” aims squarely at some existing contention – that he is disagreeing with something – and that that existing contention is the one that says a woman should have a legal right to choose abortion. Hitchens definitely does not want that (“cannot be”). So when an abortion is proposed, clearly the outcome finally decided will in some cases not be the one the woman wanted, and the change would have been brought about by society exercising its responsibility. Society should sometimes overrule her. Hitchens opposed the policy of abortion choice.

Here some dissection of the word “responsibility” is in order. Normally we speak of a woman’s legal “right” to abort, and also of the possible “right” of the state to intervene. But the only possible justification for intervention by the state is a responsibility to protect its members. (Hitchens somehow feels obliged to call them “candidate members,” but he does not discard the clear idea of social responsibility – which in Roe v. Wade was termed “interest.”) Hitchens insists that parties other than the woman bear responsibility, and clearly those parties are society. “Responsibility” can only mean society’s responsibility to intervene in some cases. I cannot hear what he says in any other way.

So the last position that Christopher Hitchens is known to have taken was that in some cases society should overrule the woman. If no later statement of his comes to light, he should go down in history as a pro-lifer in the most common sense of the word; that is, he ended up opposing legal abortion choice. People generally become more pro-life the longer they live, and Hitchens seems to have been no exception.

In 2015, a pro-choice blogger took up the same question – the question of Hitchens’s definitive position on abortion – and came to the conclusion “Hitchens was not anti-choice.” The blogger compiled nine quotes by Hitchens that I recommend reading, six of them from a 2003 article by Hitchens. However, she did not include the above “responsibility” quote. She included a quote that she calls a “smoking gun” justifying her conclusion. In that quote, Hitchens says, “Everything in one revolts against [saying, ‘We will force you to carry a child to term.’]”

That is a strong statement of the strongest argument for abortion rights. There is no denying that. It is the kind of moving statement that Hitchens was capable of. However, it dates to 1991, so by the time of his “responsibility” statement, Hitchens had had seventeen years to mature; and he had had five years to mature and deepen his thinking since his 2003 article.

Some sources claim that Hitchens opposed overturning Roe v. Wade, but such sources as I have seen either offer no support for the claim, or refer to Hitchens’s God Is Not Great. I do not find any support in the e-edition I have of that book, but in any case Hitchens wrote that book earlier than his debate with Turek.

In a couple of talks that, from Hitchens’s appearance, must have taken place subsequent to 2008, he offered a recipe for ending poverty that included “allow women control over – some control over – their cycle of reproduction . . .” Pro-lifers completely agree that no woman should have to conceive against her will. There is no reason to understand that statement as advocacy for abortion rights.

Hitchens seems to have been against legal abortion before he was for it (his above 1991 position) before he was again against it. In a 1988 interview he said:

Margaret Thatcher voted . . . for the abortion bill [liberalizing abortion]. 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. 

Also worth quoting from that interview (though not all these quotes are on the topic of legal policy):

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. . . .

. . . 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. . . .

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. . . .

. . . 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. 

And in the recent debate with Dillahunty, D’Souza said (at 11:00):

I interviewed Hitchens years ago for a magazine, and we talked about this issue, and he made what I thought was an interesting point coming from an atheist perspective: . . . “Look, it’s one thing if you say that you believe in Hindu reincarnation, [in] which we have many different lives , or if you believe that there is a life to come in which if you happen to be terminated in the womb, you’re going to go to life everlasting. . . . I don’t believe any of that. I believe we have one life – this is it, this is the only one, and so ultimately it’s the only value. And if you have a life that’s coming into being, and it’s snuffed out, all its choices interrupted at the outset . . . you got to think before you do that.” 

* The relevant segment is linked above; to watch the entire debate, click here

Christopher Hitchens Wound Up Opposing Abortion Choice

[Today’s guest post is by Acyutananda.]

During his lifetime, Christopher Hitchens seems to have been consistent always in perceiving the rightful place of the unborn as members of our human family; yet he seems to have been “all over the map” regarding public policy on abortion. He said different things about law and policy at different times. And that inconsistency seems to have been partly because he never made the ethics of abortion his main focus; he never became determined to get to the bottom of it. Nevertheless, because of his brilliance and because of his unsurpassed credentials as an atheist, in a world where the abortion-rights position owes a lot of its present ascendance to having succeeded in painting the pro-life cause as purely religious, anything that he said in support of the pro-life cause is understood to matter. In a debate last month, Dinesh D’Souza claimed that Hitchens had been “pro-life,” while Matt Dillahunty responded that Hitchens “wasn’t in favor of making [abortion] illegal.” So what is the reality?

If Hitchens is known to have said different things about abortion policy at different times in his life, what should clearly matter most is the last position he is known to have taken. His last position should reasonably be taken as his most mature and most definitive position. The last statement of his that I have been able to discover came in a debate with Frank Turek on September 9, 2008.* At 00:19 Turek says that Hitchens, in a book of his, advocated the termination of pregnancy in some cases. At 1:37 Hitchens replies:

I do as a humanist feel that the concept “unborn child” is a real one. . . . And I feel a responsibility to see the occupant of the womb as a candidate member of society in the future, and thus to say that it cannot be only the responsibility of the woman to decide upon it. It’s a social question, and an ethical and a moral one. And I say that as someone who has no supernatural beliefs. . . . The presumption is that the unborn entity has a right on its side, and that every effort should be made to see if it can be preserved . . . 

It seems clear that “it cannot be only the responsibility of the woman to decide upon it” aims squarely at some existing contention – that he is disagreeing with something – and that that existing contention is the one that says a woman should have a legal right to choose abortion. Hitchens definitely does not want that (“cannot be”). So when an abortion is proposed, clearly the outcome finally decided will in some cases not be the one the woman wanted, and the change would have been brought about by society exercising its responsibility. Society should sometimes overrule her. Hitchens opposed the policy of abortion choice.

Here some dissection of the word “responsibility” is in order. Normally we speak of a woman’s legal “right” to abort, and also of the possible “right” of the state to intervene. But the only possible justification for intervention by the state is a responsibility to protect its members. (Hitchens somehow feels obliged to call them “candidate members,” but he does not discard the clear idea of social responsibility – which in Roe v. Wade was termed “interest.”) Hitchens insists that parties other than the woman bear responsibility, and clearly those parties are society. “Responsibility” can only mean society’s responsibility to intervene in some cases. I cannot hear what he says in any other way.

So the last position that Christopher Hitchens is known to have taken was that in some cases society should overrule the woman. If no later statement of his comes to light, he should go down in history as a pro-lifer in the most common sense of the word; that is, he ended up opposing legal abortion choice. People generally become more pro-life the longer they live, and Hitchens seems to have been no exception.

In 2015, a pro-choice blogger took up the same question – the question of Hitchens’s definitive position on abortion – and came to the conclusion “Hitchens was not anti-choice.” The blogger compiled nine quotes by Hitchens that I recommend reading, six of them from a 2003 article by Hitchens. However, she did not include the above “responsibility” quote. She included a quote that she calls a “smoking gun” justifying her conclusion. In that quote, Hitchens says, “Everything in one revolts against [saying, ‘We will force you to carry a child to term.’]”

That is a strong statement of the strongest argument for abortion rights. There is no denying that. It is the kind of moving statement that Hitchens was capable of. However, it dates to 1991, so by the time of his “responsibility” statement, Hitchens had had seventeen years to mature; and he had had five years to mature and deepen his thinking since his 2003 article.

Some sources claim that Hitchens opposed overturning Roe v. Wade, but such sources as I have seen either offer no support for the claim, or refer to Hitchens’s God Is Not Great. I do not find any support in the e-edition I have of that book, but in any case Hitchens wrote that book earlier than his debate with Turek.

In a couple of talks that, from Hitchens’s appearance, must have taken place subsequent to 2008, he offered a recipe for ending poverty that included “allow women control over – some control over – their cycle of reproduction . . .” Pro-lifers completely agree that no woman should have to conceive against her will. There is no reason to understand that statement as advocacy for abortion rights.

Hitchens seems to have been against legal abortion before he was for it (his above 1991 position) before he was again against it. In a 1988 interview he said:

Margaret Thatcher voted . . . for the abortion bill [liberalizing abortion]. 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. 

Also worth quoting from that interview (though not all these quotes are on the topic of legal policy):

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. . . .

. . . 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. . . .

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. . . .

. . . 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. 

And in the recent debate with Dillahunty, D’Souza said (at 11:00):

I interviewed Hitchens years ago for a magazine, and we talked about this issue, and he made what I thought was an interesting point coming from an atheist perspective: . . . “Look, it’s one thing if you say that you believe in Hindu reincarnation, [in] which we have many different lives , or if you believe that there is a life to come in which if you happen to be terminated in the womb, you’re going to go to life everlasting. . . . I don’t believe any of that. I believe we have one life – this is it, this is the only one, and so ultimately it’s the only value. And if you have a life that’s coming into being, and it’s snuffed out, all its choices interrupted at the outset . . . you got to think before you do that.” 

* The relevant segment is linked above; to watch the entire debate, click here

The religious diversity of the pro-life movement

Last week, we posted the above graphic to our social media pages with the caption “In the United States, 23% of abortion opponents are Catholic and 12% have no religious affiliation. We are proud to stand with our pro-life brothers and sisters of all faith backgrounds to end the violence of abortion!”

We got a ton of likes and shares, and also questions. Mostly, “Wait, what about the other 65%?” and “Where are all the Protestants?”

We did not, of course, mean to suggest that pro-life movement is made up entirely of Catholics and secular people. It’s far more diverse than that. We simply found the two-to-one statistic interesting, in contrast to the oversized role that Catholicism has played in the pro-choice imagination (e.g. “Keep your rosaries off my ovaries!”).

Our source is the Pew Research Center Forum on Religion and Public Life, and if you’re as nerdy as I am, you could get lost in that data set for hours. But I won’t keep you in suspense. The religious makeup of Americans who say abortion should be illegal in all or most circumstances* is:

  • 38% Evangelical Protestant
  • 23% Catholic
  • 12% Unaffiliated
  • 12% Mainline Protestant
  • 6% Historically Black Protestant
  • 3% Mormon
  • 1% Jewish
  • 1% Muslim
  • 1% Orthodox Christian
  • 1% Jehovah’s Witness
  • 1% Other Faiths

It’s not surprising that, in a largely Protestant nation, the pro-life movement is also largely Protestant. However, no one Protestant tradition commands a clear majority. Evangelical and Mainline Protestants would add up to exactly 50%, but speaking as someone who grew up in a mainline denomination (the United Methodist Church, which is officially pro-choice), Pew is right not to group those two together. And as for how Protestant denominations and Catholicism can clash… literal volumes have been written.

Ironically, the godless approach may offer the best chance to unite these disparate factions into a cohesive movement for the human rights of the smallest and most vulnerable humans among us.

*Note: These figures add up to only 99% due to rounding.

The religious diversity of the pro-life movement

Last week, we posted the above graphic to our social media pages with the caption “In the United States, 23% of abortion opponents are Catholic and 12% have no religious affiliation. We are proud to stand with our pro-life brothers and sisters of all faith backgrounds to end the violence of abortion!”

We got a ton of likes and shares, and also questions. Mostly, “Wait, what about the other 65%?” and “Where are all the Protestants?”

We did not, of course, mean to suggest that pro-life movement is made up entirely of Catholics and secular people. It’s far more diverse than that. We simply found the two-to-one statistic interesting, in contrast to the oversized role that Catholicism has played in the pro-choice imagination (e.g. “Keep your rosaries off my ovaries!”).

Our source is the Pew Research Center Forum on Religion and Public Life, and if you’re as nerdy as I am, you could get lost in that data set for hours. But I won’t keep you in suspense. The religious makeup of Americans who say abortion should be illegal in all or most circumstances* is:

  • 38% Evangelical Protestant
  • 23% Catholic
  • 12% Unaffiliated
  • 12% Mainline Protestant
  • 6% Historically Black Protestant
  • 3% Mormon
  • 1% Jewish
  • 1% Muslim
  • 1% Orthodox Christian
  • 1% Jehovah’s Witness
  • 1% Other Faiths

It’s not surprising that, in a largely Protestant nation, the pro-life movement is also largely Protestant. However, no one Protestant tradition commands a clear majority. Evangelical and Mainline Protestants would add up to exactly 50%, but speaking as someone who grew up in a mainline denomination (the United Methodist Church, which is officially pro-choice), Pew is right not to group those two together. And as for how Protestant denominations and Catholicism can clash… literal volumes have been written.

Ironically, the godless approach may offer the best chance to unite these disparate factions into a cohesive movement for the human rights of the smallest and most vulnerable humans among us.

*Note: These figures add up to only 99% due to rounding.

Non-religious pro-life population grows to 12.8 million

There are 12.8 million non-religious pro-lifers in the United States. That’s equal to the population of Illinois! And it’s a huge jump from just five years ago, when you may remember that Secular Pro-Life ran a visibility campaign touting 6 million non-religious pro-life Americans.

How did this happen?

First, let’s show our work. As of 2017, there were 55.8 million Americans with no religious affiliation. The Pew Research Center Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that among the unaffiliated, 23% say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. 55.8 million times 0.23 is 12.8 million.
The growth in the secular pro-life population is due to at least three factors:
1. More people are leaving religion. In 2012, there were approximately 46 million Americans who answered religion surveys as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.” That number has continued to rise. As there are more secular people, there are naturally bound to be more pro-life secular people. That would be true even if the percentage of “nones” opposed to abortion remained unchanged. But in fact…
2. More non-religious people are taking a pro-life stance. Back when we ran the “6 million” campaign, we pointed to Gallup polls showing that between 15% and 19% of non-religious Americans were pro-life. We’re now up to 23%, a gain of 4 to 8 percentage points. Don’t get us wrong: we still have a long way to go. But to make that gain despite extremely limited funds and media attention is definitely something to celebrate. (Want to keep the momentum going? Please donate!

3. Non-religious pro-lifers were previously under-counted. At the time of the “6 million” campaign, the data suggested a true number of between 6.9 and 8.7 million. We rounded down in an abundance of caution because at the time we were a young organization and lacked the know-how to fend off pro-choice P.R. attacks. 
The next time you hear someone equate opposition to abortion with religious dogmatism; the next time a national commentator erases your existence; the next time a group that claims to speak for all secular people advocates for abortion on demand; remember that you have backup. We are 12.8 million strong. The abortion industry ignores us at its peril.

Non-religious pro-life population grows to 12.8 million

There are 12.8 million non-religious pro-lifers in the United States. That’s equal to the population of Illinois! And it’s a huge jump from just five years ago, when you may remember that Secular Pro-Life ran a visibility campaign touting 6 million non-religious pro-life Americans.

How did this happen?

First, let’s show our work. As of 2017, there were 55.8 million Americans with no religious affiliation. The Pew Research Center Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that among the unaffiliated, 23% say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. 55.8 million times 0.23 is 12.8 million.
The growth in the secular pro-life population is due to at least three factors:
1. More people are leaving religion. In 2012, there were approximately 46 million Americans who answered religion surveys as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.” That number has continued to rise. As there are more secular people, there are naturally bound to be more pro-life secular people. That would be true even if the percentage of “nones” opposed to abortion remained unchanged. But in fact…
2. More non-religious people are taking a pro-life stance. Back when we ran the “6 million” campaign, we pointed to Gallup polls showing that between 15% and 19% of non-religious Americans were pro-life. We’re now up to 23%, a gain of 4 to 8 percentage points. Don’t get us wrong: we still have a long way to go. But to make that gain despite extremely limited funds and media attention is definitely something to celebrate. (Want to keep the momentum going? Please donate!

3. Non-religious pro-lifers were previously under-counted. At the time of the “6 million” campaign, the data suggested a true number of between 6.9 and 8.7 million. We rounded down in an abundance of caution because at the time we were a young organization and lacked the know-how to fend off pro-choice P.R. attacks. 
The next time you hear someone equate opposition to abortion with religious dogmatism; the next time a national commentator erases your existence; the next time a group that claims to speak for all secular people advocates for abortion on demand; remember that you have backup. We are 12.8 million strong. The abortion industry ignores us at its peril.

This post is going to get lost

Because Justice Kennedy has retired, and why would any other topic appear in your newsfeed?

But for those lucky few who do see this, I will be speaking at the National Right to Life convention in Overland Park, Kansas this Saturday. My topic is “Making the Pro-Life Argument from the Secular Perspective” and it will go from 1:15 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. I’ll talk about the historical reasons abortion is treated as a “religious issue,” why it’s so important for us to push back against that stereotype, and how to make the case against abortion without presuming the existence of a deity.

In addition, I will of course be promoting the #NextNominee petition to replace Justice Kennedy with a pro-life woman. If you haven’t already signed it, do it now.

Finally, an apology to our readers: I know the blog has been off-schedule lately. The Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday routine has gone completely out the window. Life got hectic. I promise we’ll be back on track by mid-July.