Our Executive Director, Monica Snyder, recently appeared on “Positively Pro-Life,” the podcast of the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation. You can listen to the recording or read the transcript below.
Bonnie Finnerty: It is my pleasure at this point to introduce our guest: Monica Snyder is an atheist and executive director of Secular Pro-Life.
Secular Pro-Life seeks to advance secular arguments against abortion and make space for pro-life atheists, agnostics, and other non-religious people to do anti-abortion work. Monica has a bachelor’s in chemical biology from UC Berkeley and a master’s in forensics from UC Davis, and she takes a particular interest in discussing the biology relevant to the abortion debate. We are very pleased to have Monica Snyder join us today. Welcome, Monica.
Monica Snyder: Thank you so much for having me.
Maria Gallagher: It’s a pleasure to have you with us today. Now, Monica how did you come to hold your pro-life beliefs?
Monica Snyder: I have been pro-life my entire life. I was raised Catholic. It was a big part of my upbringing, my parents both were in pro-life activism on and off throughout my childhood. And I left the Catholic church in high school, and when I left the Catholic Church there were other aspects of Catholicism that I left behind, but the pro-life view has never altered for me. The knowledge that abortion kills humans is unshakable, and so as I transformed from Catholic to sort of vaguely Christian to agnostic to atheist (which took several years), a lot of things changed for me, but that one did not. And it’s been that way ever since.
Maria Gallagher: Now, what does it mean to be secular and pro-life?
Monica Snyder: In a lot of ways it’s not very different from being religious and pro-life, there’s a great deal of overlap, I find, between the arguments Christian pro-lifers make are the ones that we make. It means that you recognize that abortion kills humans. You hold that those humans are morally valuable people, our prenatal children. And you oppose abortion at least morally, and in many cases, you think it should be legally restricted. There’s different views about that, some people prefer to focus more on social support to decrease the demand, and some people prefer to focus more on legal restrictions to decrease the supply. But in any case, they all, the commonality is you definitely think it’s a travesty that needs to be opposed in some form.
Maria Gallagher: Definitely. Now how do you respond to people who say that pro-life is a religious viewpoint? We get this all the time.
Monica Snyder: It depends on who’s saying it, there are sort of two categories here. If it is a non-religious pro-choice person or even a religious pro-choice person really, claiming that it is only a matter of religion, then I just point out that I’m an atheist.
And that—I know that most atheists are pro-choice, but there are more pro-life atheists than people realize. I think it’s like 1 in 10 or something like that. And it gets even larger when you expand the definition of atheist to just non-religious broadly. It’s something like 1 in 5 or up to 1 in 4 who have a problem with abortion, because we can all recognize that abortion kills human beings and at a minimum be uncomfortable with that reality.
I think it’s very telling that the most vocal pro-choice activists usually do not want to discuss anything to do with embryos or fetuses or unborn children. They don’t want to discuss it at all. The pro-choice position, in my opinion, is actually quite frail because it requires very stridently not talking about that pretty fundamental aspect of the situation. And they don’t want to discuss that, I think because all people can recognize that that’s problematic. So, I don’t think you need to be religious to recognize that.
Non-religious people, atheists and otherwise, already care deeply about human rights in many other realms. You know, you could talk about immigrant rights, transgender rights, all sorts of other categories where you have passionate activism from non-religious people because they care a lot about other human beings.
The question is just how to expand that mentality to apply to human beings before they’re born. It doesn’t require religion, it requires some discussions of consistency, I think. So if pro-choice people are claiming it’s only about religion, I just point out: clearly, it’s not. It’s such a sweeping statement, all you need to do is point to some exceptions.
We do also occasionally have pro-life people tell me that you basically have to be religious to be pro-life. Because, without religion, they don’t see any reason to hold any moral precepts. That’s a very different kind of conversation. And frankly, it’s one we usually refuse to engage in. Because part of Secular Pro-Life’s mission is to build interfaith coalitions that want to advance secular arguments against abortion. And we find that getting into religious debates directly undermines that mission. We like to say we don’t actually really care what you believe about religion or where you believe human value comes from, we just care if you do believe humans are valuable, that you join us in this fight.
So again, there are sort of two different answers. If it’s pro-choice people saying it, I point to the exceptions. If it’s pro-life people, I say: okay well, we might have that conversation privately over coffee, but I’m not going to engage in that during my pro-life activism. And that’s generally the response.
Bonnie Finnerty: And Monica, we’ve been hearing a lot about following the science, and I find it so interesting that there’s so many people not willing to follow the science. And as somebody with a biology degree, I’m sure you find that somewhat frustrating. Because the science of embryology has become—well has expanded so much in the last ten, twenty, thirty years.
Monica Snyder: Yes.
Bonnie Finnerty: Can you add to that?
Monica Snyder: Yes I can! I can add to that. It’s actually one of my most enormous pet peeves. Because I believe that it is very possible to be pro-choice and acknowledge the scientific facts. We can have different philosophical interpretations of things and still acknowledge the scientific facts. And yet I find, that generally pro-choice activists really do not want to.
So for example, it is a scientific fact that the human life cycle begins with the zygote, that is the first life stage of the human organism. That has nothing to do with religion and frankly has nothing to do with abortion, it’s just a very—should be—a very accessible scientific fact.
Also worth noting, especially in the last three to four years: it is a scientific fact that embryos at six, seven weeks LMP have hearts. And I’ve noticed an uptick recently in the other side trying to claim they do not. Trying very hard to claim they do not.
And I think that that is very telling, because if you are confident in your arguments about bodily rights and women’s autonomy and feminism, if it’s true—if it is true as they say it is, that it does not matter if the fetus is a person or not because women have a right to control their own body, then why lie about hearts? I think we know that most Americans who aren’t super involved in this debate, and they’re kind of on the fence, and they kind of feel uncomfortable about it, if they had more understanding of the biological facts of when life begins in terms of biology and not in terms of Catholic catechism, and in terms of when heartbeats begin and other fetal development milestones, they would be much more uncomfortable with abortion than they already are. And Americans are already pretty split on it.
I think that the phrase “follow the science,” most people—this is independent of the abortion debate, and this is independent of the two sides—most people use that very selectively, it depends on the science agrees with the political agenda that they already like. And so that’s true here as much as anywhere else. The science isn’t the end of the question, you can acknowledge that human organisms begin in zygotes and still believe that women should have the right to abortion depending on what you think about the other factors involved. But we can’t really have a real conversation about this if you’re refusing to acknowledge that abortion kills humans. Which it absolutely does.
And so, I get very frustrated when. Just this morning, just this morning before I was speaking to you. I was on our Twitter account which, generally—generally don’t go on Twitter.
I was on our Twitter account and I had someone argue with me about embryonic hearts. And I’m a sucker for that argument I like, like can’t avoid it, and I have a whole thread of sources, online accessible sources from embryology textbooks, from peer reviewed research discussing embryogenesis and cardiovascular development, and I’m talking to this person and he’s making claims such as: there’s no heart there at all. Okay, well, it kind of looks like a heart, but it’s not pumping anything, it’s just twitching. Okay, well, it’s pumping something, well what is it pumping, is it blood? Okay, it’s blood. Well, it doesn’t have oxygen in it. Okay, it has oxygen, but it got that oxygen from the mom. And it’s just like, this chaos.
None of this should be—none of this should be a threat to you. You should be able to see that there is a heart, it is pumping blood. Abortion causes that heart to cease pumping blood. And either you accept that because of other reasons or you don’t. But what you shouldn’t be doing is saying no, there’s no heart. There’s nothing to see behind the curtain. Why is it such a threat? Why is it such a threat to acknowledge that there is a heart? I think we all know why it’s such a threat.
So, yeah, agreed. They don’t want to follow the science, because the science overwhelmingly supports the pro-life perspective, which is that you have more than clumps of cells, you have a developing organism. Embryogenesis is actually quite fascinating and impressive. And you have to talk about—or we think you should talk about—the fact that the mother is very important and what she goes through is important, and the circumstances of her life and the way pregnancy affect it, those are all very important. But it is also true that there is another human being involved in the situation. And if you can’t acknowledge that, then how strong is your position?
Bonnie Finnerty: Very well said, very well said. Monica, tell us about some of the things your organization does to restore a culture of life.
Monica Snyder: So our primary mission is to advance secular arguments against abortion. But we also try, through that, to make space for pro-life secular people and as I said, to build interfaith coalitions.
But the main objective for us is to develop these arguments and to make them accessible to other pro-life people to use in their discussion with family, friends, or activists. So most of what we do is online, we do go to conferences and marches and rallies, and we do speak at college campuses. But a lot of it is online. And we try to, we try to read carefully the responses from not just online trolls, but pro-choice people who generally genuinely want to engage and challenge what we’re saying, and then develop the responses that we give to people.
So for example, I created a presentation a few years ago (and I’ve given it a few times now with updates) called Deconstructing Three Pro-Choice Myths. And the idea is that I’m trying to give people, from the research we have done, cited, well-sourced, accessible information that they can take with them in their activism. That you can have any kind of religious view, you can have any kind of philosophical interpretation, but we should all be able to access the same facts. And so, we talk about when life begins in terms of biology. We talk about the statistics around late-term abortion and the reasons women seek them. We especially talk about how abortion restrictions and abortion law affect abortion rates. And we tried to distill these into easily digestible pieces of information that people can absorb and use.
That’s the main, that’s the main way that we are trying to restore a culture of life, is to empower and equip pro-life advocates to talk to people often very different from them. You know, not just your own social circles, not just your own family or your own church or your own school, but also people that might have a very different background than you. But we can all access the same facts, and at least discuss from this context. That’s the main thing that we try to do.
Bonnie Finnerty: What are some of the biggest challenges that you see, or myths that you think need to be addressed?
Monica Snyder: I have a list, actually.
The presentation I have addresses three myths: we don’t know when life begins (in terms of biology), late-term abortions are only done for medical emergencies, and outlawing abortions doesn’t stop abortions. Those are the three main myths we discuss.
But since I created that presentation, there’s also some other ones I’ve come—the idea that embryos don’t have hearts has become a big one. Which is just mystifying to me.
And another one that I have started talking about a lot more is pro-life demographics. The idea that the abortion debate is a strongly gendered debate with these controlling men and these liberated women fighting each other. That is a myth—absolute myth. It is true, it is true that pro-life views correlate with religion. Christians, especially people who actively go to church, are more likely to hold pro-life views than atheists. Now there are atheists who are pro-life, it’s not one-to-one, but at least that’s based in the truth.
But the idea that pro-choice people are these liberated, empowered, intelligent women. Not saying they aren’t, but saying only intelligent women are pro-choice, but that pro-life people are trying to hold them back. The idea that it’s women versus men, that is a myth. And we’ve collected quite an extensive amount of research over many years from many different sources. It’s been true for decades that the abortion debate does not break down on gender lines. In fact, women are just as likely as men to oppose abortion. Women are just as likely to oppose abortion as they are to support it. And I feel like this gets greatly overlooked. It’s become one of my greatest sticking points, because I’m a pro-life woman, our group is led by pro-life women. Many major, as you already know, many of the biggest pro-life organizations are led by women. And we just get erased constantly in the conversation. I think it’s another example of the frailty of the other side that they need to purport these smoke and mirrors narratives in order to get their points to be palatable. And it’s not true at all.
Bonnie Finnerty: Yeah, yeah, I share your frustration. I just think, well what about all of us women out there? We’re like, we’re invisible to them.
Monica Snyder: I am literally standing right here.
Bonnie Finnerty: Well, Secular Pro-life recently submitted an amicus brief to the United States Supreme Court for the Mississippi case that they will be hearing in a few weeks. What did your brief argue?
Monica Snyder: Yeah, similarly kind of to what I was just speaking about. I don’t know—forgive me if you are already familiar, but essentially, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey in the early 90s, that Supreme Court case talked about if I’m remembering correctly, it talked about the reliance interest. The idea that maybe Roe v. Wade was not decided, like correctly per se, but we can’t get rid of it now because it’s been several decades and so many women rely on the ability to get an abortion to be successful economically, professionally, politically, etc. And so it was this argument that we must have access to abortion because women rely on it to succeed.
And the brief that—we didn’t write the brief by ourselves, it was a group effort. But the brief we co-signed on argued that there is not even a correlation, much less causation. There’s not even a correlation between women’s increasing different metrics of success in society over the last several decades and abortion rates. At all.
And I would go further and argue that unfettered, destigmatized, taxpayer-funded abortion can greatly impede women’s success. Because the more we treat this as this morally neutral, empowered choice, the more it implies that if you choose to carry a pregnancy in anything less than like the perfect circumstances, that’s your fault because you could have just taken care of it. So women in poverty, women with children with disabilities, women in difficult relationships who may love and want to have their children, suddenly are experiencing this wave of social-cultural pressure suggesting that it would be basically irresponsible—possibly stupid—for them to carry these children who they often already love. Because abortion is a neutral, easy, simple, paid-for decision. It’s not a neutral thing to promote abortion in this way. Even if you’re pro-choice, I wish more people could recognize that’s not a neutral thing. That’s dramatic pressure.
And so, our brief is arguing that the idea that women must have abortions to succeed is incorrect. I would further argue it’s remarkably insulting. And in some ways, it’s actually the opposite of what often happens and what our lived experience is our day-to-day. We don’t need abortion, we need support caring for our children.
Bonnie Finnerty: And I want to jump on that. Because I happened to read this book called Holistic Feminism recently. And part of the argument in that book is that we need to do a better job answering the needs of women after they give birth. For instance, support for lactation, support in terms of childcare, and all of those things. Is that something that we need to address as well?
Monica Snyder: Oh, yeah, I believe so, yes. I believe so. Speaking as a woman who has had three unpaid maternity leaves. And with planned, wanted pregnancies in a stable situation, that’s still difficult. I can only imagine what it’s like under the variety of circumstances when women find themselves with unintended pregnancies. In an intimidating and in some ways very difficult situation, you should not be made to choose between the lives of your children and your livelihood or the safety and security of the rest of your family or anything like that. That’s not choice. That’s just a Band-Aid so that we don’t have to deal with the fact that it takes villages to raise children and our villages are saying “Just get an abortion.” What is that? That’s not feminism.
Bonnie Finnerty: Exactly.
Bonnie Finnerty: How is Secular Pro-Life making a difference in the US?
Monica Snyder: Well our hope is that we are helping people who want to—there are a lot of people, I think, who are philosophically with the pro-life movement. They, they see abortion as a major problem, and they’re not very sure where they fit in. And our hope is to show them that we can find places for them to fit in.
I believe that the pro-life movement has far greater numbers than the pro-choice side. But not as much organization maybe, not as much funding, not as much top-down effectiveness. And this is just conjecture on my part. And I think if we can make more space for more people to get engaged, we can increase our influence and our power and our ability to help people not need this choice, dramatically.
So Secular Pro-Life, especially as we see the rise of secularism in the United States—we’ve seen, you know, that increase in the “none”s (nones, not nuns) over the last decades, we want to make sure that trend does not relate to how large the pro-life movement is. And how much we are helping women, empowering women and families to keep their children. And Secular Pro-life is trying to fill that space.
Bonnie Finnerty: And you are doing it marvelously well.
I want to thank you so much, Monica Snyder.
Monica Snyder is an atheist and executive director of Secular Pro-life. She seeks to advance secular arguments against abortion and make space for pro-life atheists, agnostics, and other religious and non-religious people to do anti-abortion work. Thank you, Monica.
Monica Snyder: Thank you again for having me.
Maria Gallagher: Thank you, Monica.