I recently purchased Mere Morality, a book by former pastor turned atheist activist Dan Barker. The premise interested me; it aims to distill morality to a basic secular principle of not harming others. That’s generally what guides my moral life as well, although it’s hardly that simple. What constitutes harm? And what is the frame of reference? If you’re not careful, an unsophisticated do-no-harm analysis can lead to things like “mercy killing” of people with disabilities, because “I could never live like that”—when of course plenty of people do live like that, and their perspectives are the ones that should count. Those are the sorts of questions I wished to explore.
I did not expect this to be a pro-life book by any means. Barker’s wife Annie Laurie Gaylor, with whom he co-leads the Freedom From Religion Foundation, is not merely pro-choice; she takes it a step further and actively finances the killing of unborn babies. Still, I had hoped for a book that was at least neutral on abortion, or didn’t mention it at all, so that the millions of intellectually curious pro-life people in the world could explore Barker’s ideas about universal, non-supernatural morality.
Instead, we get a giant middle finger—and a fun demonstration of scientific illiteracy on Barker’s part—not even 30 pages into the book (bold emphasis mine):
If a man cuts off one of his own fingers (or some other body part, as Jesus encouraged in Matthew 19:11-12), that is certainly harmful and destructive, and may be unhealthy but the act is only immoral if it affects other people—and it might indeed, especially if others are dependent on that person. (In my case, as a professional pianist, it would certainly affect others.) If I know in advance that a man is intending to lose a finger, and I suspect there is no good reason for it, then I am the one faced with the moral question of whether I should try to stop him I certainly want to keep people from harming themselves, and I think most of us feel that way. But if the person is not mentally unhealthy, then what he is doing might actually be a moral act, as in the case of the men who shot off their trigger fingers in order to avoid being drafted to fight in a war not of their choosing, preferring to stay home and raise their families. Similarly, virtually all women who choose to have an abortion are making a mentally healthy and rational choice, a difficult decision for moral and health reasons. I’m not directly comparing a fetus to a finger, although most abortions occur when the fetus is smaller than the tip of your little finger. Contrary to the dogmatic opinions of the misnamed “pro-lifers,” abortion is not the killing of an unborn baby. (See the chapter “Religious Color Blindness” in Life Driven Purpose for more on abortion.) The blinkered absolutist doctrine of some religious groups that “life begins at conception” interferes with moral reasoning.
Abortion absolutely is the killing of an unborn baby. Abortionists themselves freely admit this. Indeed, abortion kills an unborn baby by definition. If an unborn baby is not killed, no abortion has taken place. If you want to convince people of your position, maybe don’t open with something so easily debunked. I can’t put it better than Christopher Hitchens: “I do, as a humanist, believe that the concept ‘unborn child’ is a real one and I think the concept is underlined by all the recent findings of embryology about the early viability of a well conceived human baby.”
Life’s beginning is not a mystery. Your life, and the life of every human being you have ever met, began when a sperm met an egg. This is settled science that is not up for debate. If you want to talk about some lives being less worthy than others, or having no worth at all, because they are small or unwanted, I am willing to entertain those arguments. (Just don’t pretend you care about human rights or equality if you go that route.) But if we can’t begin from common facts, I’m done reading. Why should I value your take on foundational philosophical questions, when you can’t even tell me what an abortion does?
In conclusion, I’m not directly comparing Mere Morality to a steaming turd, although you definitely shouldn’t waste your money on it.