Religious. Fundamentalist. Republican. This stereotype is how many people imagine pro-lifers. Monica Snyder, Executive Director of Secular Pro-Life, busts that stereotype in a two-part interview with “Know Why” Podcast. In this episode, Monica talks about Secular Pro-Life and uses her background in biology to discuss the beginning of human life and personhood. Ready for shattered perceptions and a biology lesson? Listen or read the transcript below!
Many thanks to our volunteer transcriber, Ginnie Pride. Want to join her? Learn more about becoming a Secular Pro-Life volunteer.
Monica Snyder: One of the biggest stereotypes about pro-life people is that they’re all religious fundamentalists, and so that’s what pro-choice people are expecting.
Liberty McCarter: Welcome to the Know Why Podcast. I’m your host, Liberty McCarter. For many of us it’s not enough to know what people say about life’s most important questions. We also want to know why. Each week, Know Why tackles tough questions on topics ranging from spirituality to current events. While we approach these issues from a Christian perspective, we discuss diverse opinions and ultimately dive into what the research says. Are you ready to know why? Let’s get started.
Welcome to the Know Why Podcast. I’m your host, Liberty McCarter, and I am so glad that you are joining us for this episode today because it is really interesting. I think you are going to like it. I think we might even shatter some stereotypes or correct some misperceptions that you may have or that some listeners may have, so, we’re going to start out with this question: Can you be anti-abortion without being religious? And to answer that question for us and talk about all sorts of fascinating things we have a special guest, Monica Snyder. She is the Executive Director of an organization called Secular Pro-Life. Monica, thank you for being with us today.
Monica: Thank you so much for having me.
Liberty: So, I’m excited to dive into this conversation, but for any listeners who are just jumping in, and they haven’t listened to any episodes previously, just to let you know, right now we’re in the middle of a series where we discuss one of the most divisive topics in America from several different angles, and that topic is abortion. We know that this is a debate with high emotions, intense passion on both sides, often times coming from a place of personal experience or trauma, regardless of where people land on this issue. So we want to deal with it compassionately and we want to talk about it responsibly. And just so that you know as listeners, wherever you’re coming from–whether you’re religious, non-religious, pro-life, pro-choice, not sure–we’re so glad that you’re listening today. Here at the Know Why Podcast, as your host, I am a Christian believer, that’s the perspective that I’m coming from and that’s often what we talk about here on Know Why, but we want to really help listeners understand why they believe what they believe, and if they disagree, to at least understand the other side of the argument a little better and so that’s why we welcome a diverse listener audience and perspectives here on the podcast to discuss different issues and specifically for this series, we are talking about the issue of abortion from a lot of different angles. And Monica I think sometimes when people imagine a pro-lifer, especially if they’re not very familiar with the movement, they may have a stereotype in their mind of somebody who maybe is from a red state, very traditional, deeply religious, maybe a man who is misogynistic and just wants to control women’s bodies, I don’t know. I know that not everybody believes that, but that might be a stereotype out there that people have about pro-lifers, and so your organization probably isn’t what they’re expecting. So can you talk a little bit about yourself first of all, I want to know about your scientific background and how you came to be involved in the pro-life movement. And then, tell us about your organization.
Monica: Sure. I have a Bachelor’s degree in chemical biology, and a Master’s degree in forensic science focused on the biology side. And before I worked for Secular Pro-Life, I worked in a forensics lab. I enjoy science, I think biology is fascinating, I also enjoyed chemistry when I did it, and I enjoy, generally speaking, just the scientific method and trying to come up with a question, ____, test a hypothesis, and figure out if it’s true or not. This can apply to all facets of life, it’s not specific to a biology lab, it can be anything. What that means for the work I do with Secular Pro-Life is a lot of times I will be looking at different factually verifiable claims having to do with the abortion debate and trying to figure out what evidence there is or isn’t for them. So, when people think about the abortion debate, most of the time we’re not talking about factually verifiable claims; those are informing our ethical, philosophical or religious worldviews. That’s the center of the debate, is, what does it mean to be a person? And what does it mean to be a parent? And what does it mean to have bodily autonomy? Those all get into a lot of philosophy which is super important. But I take a special interest in the facet of the debate where you do have facts you can verify, look into, that feed into that. And so that means with Secular Pro-Life a lot of times I’ll take a particular interest in talking about different aspects of fetal development, or different aspects of sociology research and what it tells us about why women are looking to get abortions, things like that. I have been volunteering with Secular Pro-Life since its founding in 2009, and I took the position as Executive Director in 2021. As you mentioned, it’s an organization with a three-part mission. Our first and foremost mission is to advance secular arguments against abortion. Next part is to create a space for secular people or just generally what I call “non-traditional pro-lifers” to do anti-abortion work. So we focus a lot on the secular aspect—atheists, agnostics, humanists, whoever—but it could also be lifelong Democrats, it could be LGBT people who might feel thrown off by some of the messaging of other groups. It could also be Evangelical Christians, or Roman Catholics, or straight-ticket Republicans. To be blunt, we don’t actually care what your religious beliefs are, or your political views; we care if you want to work with us, to advance arguments against abortion that are accessible to people broadly speaking, so non-sectarian, non-partisan arguments against abortion. So our leadership is atheist; I am an atheist, our board president and vice-president are atheists, and we have a lot of volunteers and donors who are atheists and agnostics, but we also have Christians, whether Mormon, Protestant, Catholic, we have Jews, and Buddhists, and Muslims, and all kinds of people, who just want to work with us on the overall mission of advancing that kind of argument, that kind of worldview for people. We actually have a lot of Christians who are interested in working with us because they don’t see their anti-abortion position as primarily based on religion. They see it as a human rights issue; they don’t see it that differently than other social justice causes. Their religion may also come to the same conclusion they do, just like you would say it’s wrong to steal, it’s wrong to kill, there’s other moral precepts in your religion that come to the same conclusion, but they don’t necessarily see that as their primary motivating force, and they want to have the language and the arguments and the ideas to talk to other people about this without it always being about religion, even if they personally are religious. So, we have all kinds of people who work with us in that way.
Liberty: That’s so fascinating and I think that’s great too, just as a side note, there’s so much division in our country and people are kind of getting siphoned off to factions and groups of, “I’m only interested in working with the people that are exactly like me.” So, even just in your organization which is centered around one particular issue, the fact that you have so many people from different backgrounds and beliefs working together and being willing and eager to do that, I think that’s a really neat thing.
Monica: Yeah, it’s very encouraging, every time we find someone else willing to… first of all, every time I find someone else who is an atheist or agnostic pro-lifer I enjoy it because there’s a solidarity and there’s an understanding between us, but also, every time we have someone come alongside us who isn’t secular but who wants to work with us, there is the sort of affirmation that they care about this issue more than they do about our differences, and in some ways that is really inspiring and encouraging. And also, similarly, our group is a single-issue group, so by that I mean we are not a consistent life group, we don’t do work on the death penalty or police brutality or immigration or many other things. The people who run the group and work in the group have strong opinions on a lot of these other topics, personally, but we keep Secular Pro-Life specific to abortion, specifically anti-abortion group because we are trying to build this coalition, we’re trying to get as many people as possible to be helping us fight abortion and the more requirements we have for you to be a part of it, say for example if you had to be anti-death penalty or something, the fewer people we can bring into the fold. So we focus specifically on this, specifically as long as you want to fight abortion using secular arguments, that’s our thing, and that’s what we’re tying to build a coalition of all kinds of people to do that.
Liberty: That seems like a smart strategy to focus on that single issue, and when you’re doing that, I’m sure you run into a lot of people that are surprised that there’s an organization called Secular Pro-Life, but do you find people are more surprised who are pro-choice or who are pro-life to find that you exist?
Monica: That’s a great question. I find that there’s surprise on both sides but it comes in different forms. I would say overall pro-choice people are more surprised, and I think that’s because pro-choice people, not speaking for everybody, there are obviously pro-choice people who have pro-life friends and have more awareness of it, but pro-choice people in aggregate are more likely to believe the stereotype and the exaggerated characterizations of their opponents—we all do it. And so one of the biggest stereotypes about pro-life people is that they’re all religious fundamentalists, and so that’s what pro-choice people are expecting. On the other hand, pro-life people, some of them are also surprised. But, like I mentioned a second ago, a lot of pro-life Christians don’t even consider their pro-life view to be religious. They consider it to be sort of apart from or in addition to their religious views. And so actually I think there’s a lot of pro-life, even deeply religious pro-life people, who aren’t that surprised when they find out that secular people can also oppose abortion, because for them, it wasn’t a religious thing to begin with. Overall, pro-choicers are usually more surprised, although we get all kinds. My favorite surprise is pro-life secular people, because they will think that, they might be the only person in their real life social circles that they know of who is opposed to abortion, and they tend to be very alienated, and when they discover our group and they realize they’re not the only one–and not only are they not the only one, but there is space for them to volunteer, to meet with other people, to get involved—that’s the best surprise. We have had people since 2009 to this day, we have people contact us and say “I’m so excited to find this group; I thought I was the only one.” And it means a lot to me, because I know how that alienation feels, and I’m glad to help mitigate it for other people.
Liberty: That’s great, and I would say too, I totally understand what you’re saying with people who are pro-life, like myself, I am pro-life, I would say primarily because of my faith, but not exclusively because of it, because I believe that all truth including scientific truth comes from my faith, but, I appreciate the multiple arguments that there are, and like you talk about, the scientific evidence, and asking those scientific questions about life, about biology, and I believe that when you look at that, then the evidence points to the same place where my faith is pointing to, like you said. So, I think it’s fascinating and I want to kind of dive in to the scientific side, which you’re so good at. So, can you talk to us about the beginning of human life. Pro-lifers often say that life begins at conception, or life begins at fertilization, but what does that actually mean? Is that just a philosophical position, or is that an actual biological fact?
Monica: That is a great and very important question. So overall, it is both. And it’s important for pro-life people to understand this because a lot of times what we will say is “biology says or science says that life begins at conception, therefore abortion is wrong.” And when we present an argument like that we’re sort of conflating biology and philosophy and it gets confusing and it can make it difficult for people to suss out exactly how we got to our conclusion and how they can respond to it. So I think a more accurate way of spelling it out is to say that, biologically, the human life cycle begins at conception, or you can say fertilization… it begins with the zygote. The first stage of a human organism’s life cycle is the zygote, and that is a biological fact. The philosophy comes in when we ask ourselves, okay, well is that human organism morally valuable? Is that human organism a person? Does that human organism have rights; if so what are they? How does that interplay with the rights of the woman who is pregnant? All those things. So it is, yes, a biological fact that in terms of us as organisms our life cycle begins at conception; that’s not a religious belief, that’s just straight biology. But the philosophy comes in in what we think of a human organism at conception. And both of these ideas, the biology idea and the philosophy idea, are important. So, sometimes I will have pro-choice people tell me, “oh yes, everybody knows you have a human organism at conception and that’s not important, everyone knows that, the question is the philosophy one.” And the philosophy question is important, but no, not everyone knows that you have the beginning of the human life cycle at conception. It’s very clear to those of us who are arguing about this all the time, that’s where you get people saying, “well, the sperm is alive, so why does a zygote matter?” You’re conflating a gamete with an organism. You get people saying, “oh, if abortion is murder, then menstruation is manslaughter. If abortion is murder then masturbation is genocide.” Or one I’ve seen a lot more recently, where it’s like, “if you think abortion is murder, then you think that when you eat eggs at breakfast you’re eating a chicken.” This represents unbelievable biological ignorance, because an unfertilized chicken egg is not a chicken, just like an unfertilized human egg is not a human, and it has nothing to do with what we’re saying. And so I do think establishing the biological fact is important, and we do know that a lot of people have converted from being pro-choice to pro-life when they got a better understanding of the biology of fetal development. We have a whole section on our website talking about specifically people who started to become pro-life when they realized the “clump of cells” rhetoric was at best misleading and dishonest, so the biology is important. But you can’t get there with biology alone, the philosophy is also important, and that opens up this whole other huge segment of discussion about okay, you have a human organism, zygote is the beginning of the human organism and you were a zygote once, I was a zygote once, but when did we become a person, when did we become a human being with moral value and rights? This is a huge question, huge. Whether you’re religious or not, it still involves talking about what grants rights, what makes us valuable, why do we care, why our species versus other species, all of these things, you have to get into the personhood debate. And that’s much broader. I think that the argument for morally valuable human beings from the beginning onward still does not have to rest on religious precepts. There’s a lot of thought out there about what the consistent definition of personhood, that would include all the born people we already consider valuable that have a right to live, and so far pro-choice people have a lot of different ideas of when a human becomes a person, but we find that they all involve major very scary flaws in the argument. For example, I’ll give an example…
Liberty: Yes, please.
Monica: to kind of bring this home… you’ll hear about the fetal pain debate, when can the fetus feel pain? Some people say as early as 11 weeks; some people say not at all in the entire pregnancy, not until they’re born. And a lot of us will be like, “well why does it really matter? Does it matter, it’s not like if you can’t feel pain you have no right to live or if you can feel pain we can’t just give you pain medication. Does it matter?” But it actually matters a lot for a couple of reasons, and one of them is the idea that some people think you don’t become a morally valuable human being until you can perceive in some way the world around you, and one of the ways you can perceive it is if you can perceive pain. And so the idea is if a fetus can feel pain, they’ve reached some kind of level where they are sensing the world around them and that’s significant. So you have this fetal pain debate, and the other side might say, this is hypothetical I’m making this up, well you might be a human organism but you are not a human being until you can experience things like pain, and pain isn’t possible until the end of the pregnancy, or until at least 28 weeks when your brain develops these certain connections, and therefore before that abortion is fine. So they’re saying, broadly speaking, “yeah sure, human organism, not a person until the brain develops enough that you can perceive pain.” That’s one possible argument a pro-choice person could make. My problem with that then is let’s say they’re saying, “oh 28 weeks up, you can’t feel pain until 28 weeks or up.” Well we know that premature infants have been born as early as, I think the record breaker, is around 22 weeks, but even by 24, 25 weeks they’re born they go into the NICU, we take care of them, and many of them survive. By this rationale, 28 weeks and up, you don’t have the brain development you need until then, then you’re saying that all those babies sitting in the NICU that we’re fighting desperately to keep alive aren’t even people. And theoretically you should have no problem, not only if they died, but if someone killed them, because this philosophy is saying “well they’re not people, and killing them might be bad, but it wouldn’t be the same as killing a person, and it’s kind of, sort of, fine.” So, I take great issue with a philosophy that results in, not only the dehumanization of embryos and fetuses and justifying abortion, but also the dehumanization of groups of humans that the person speaking wouldn’t even agree with. Same thing with abortion in cases of disability; this is a huge one, where they talk about what will the quality of life be? What if the child has Down syndrome? What if the child has spina bifida, and so on and so forth. How do we justify allowing them to be born? And they don’t see any connection between that mentality and those conversations, and the way we value a 5 year with Down syndrome, or a 25 year old with Down syndrome. What are you talking about? You’re justifying aborting them based on perceived quality of life in the future. There are people living that life right now that probably are glad that they exist. It’s just, there’s a lot of ways that you get into the personhood debate and it gets very dicey. And so generally speaking, Secular Pro-Life lays out this argument on our website, you can go to secularprolife.org/abortion and it spells it out right here, but we go with four premises, the first one is the biological one–the zygote, the embryo, the fetus are all biologically human organisms like we just talked about. The second premise is that all human organisms are morally valuable; we should be trying to take care of and protect all of us, it’s the most inclusive, kindest way to go about it. And then the third premise is that it’s generally immoral to kill people, so, abortion is generally immoral. You could make arguments about self-defense; there are ____ cases that are gray areas, but if we’re speaking in aggregate, bad idea. And then importantly, and we can talk more about this later if you want, kind of getting into a new subject, bodily rights are important, but they aren’t enough to justify elective abortion. And I think that’s something pro-lifers have to address.
Liberty: Right, and I do want to talk about that, and before we move on to that though and away from the debate about personhood and human organisms, so just assuming that somebody is listening and they’re like, “okay, what’s the definition of a human organism?” Cause I’ve heard the same thing too, like what about a cell from the inside of my cheek, that’s alive. But can you just give us the basic definition of a human organism as different than just another part of something that’s biologically alive.
Monica: Your skin cell is alive in a cellular way but it is not an organism. And sperm are not organisms; unfertilized eggs are not organisms. The organism is a paradigm shift in biology; when sperm meets egg, you go from two gametes that have, in humans specifically, 23 chromosomes each, and they combine to make a diploid organism, with 46, and then the key is, it shifts from reproducing via mitosis, which is one way of cells reproducing themselves, to myosis, it’s self-directed growth. It’s on a coordinated path to developing all of the organs, and systems that function together. Ideally, I mean obviously you can always have things go wrong for any of us, but generally speaking, you are developing on a path of self-directed growth where the parts are working in conjunction with each other and toward the good of the whole to become a baby and a toddler and a teenager and so on and so forth. Your skin cell is never going to do that; sperm by themselves will never do that. It’s a difference in kind entirely.
Liberty: And so at that point you’ve got a genetically unique organism or being…
Liberty: …that, like you said, has the capacity for self-directed growth, and will grow unless something happens to it. Which like you said, that applies to all of us, even today, we’ll continue to grow and change unless something happens.
Monica: Some people will compare it to a tumor, they’ll say “well a tumor is growing and it can have human DNA.” A tumor is not an organism. That is a clump of cells. A tumor is just, proliferating with no purpose or coordination and it’s not going to become anything beyond what it is right now except bigger. It’s not an organism. An organism is going on self-directed growth and a path of development into these more complex systems. I wanted to point out something else too because this is a common, I wouldn’t say a mistake, it’s just an important clarification for pro-life people to understand. Pro-life talk a lot about DNA… unique DNA. And I think sometimes pro-choice people hear that and think that all we care about is DNA, and that’s where you get this whole “well skin cells have human DNA, this other thing has human DNA and you don’t care about that.” The DNA is not the point; the DNA is just helping you see that you’re talking about an organism distinct from the parent. So, theoretically, there’s types of cloning, we’ve already done this with sheep, with cows, where you could take a cell from a cow and you could do this process to it called somatic cell nuclear transfer to create a new organism, a new cow, that is growing on its own, and it will have the same DNA as the original; it won’t have different DNA. They’re not the same organism; it’s still a separate different organism growing as its own unique cow entity. So what I’m trying to say is, unique DNA is important in that it signifies you’ve got a separate organism from the mother, from the father, it’s its own human…
Liberty: That’s a good point.
Monica: …but it’s what it signifies that matters, it’s not the DNA all by itself. And that’s why we don’t care about skin cells, and we don’t care about, for example, one-celled organisms like bacteria. We’re not talking about all possible organisms, we’re not talking about all possible cells with human DNA, we’re talking about a human organism. Specifically human. Specifically an organism. And that’s the difference.Liberty: Be sure to turn in next week to the Know Why Podcast for part 2 of our interview with Monica Snyder of Secular Pro-Life.