The Rise Of Pro-Life Atheism 

October 1st, 2012 - J. Hodgson 

“In fact, almost 80% of Canadians think our law already recognizes the rights of children after the second trimester. They are unaware that our 400 year old definition of human beings actually strips away such rights. When informed, over 70% of Canadians say they believe our law should recognize the rights of children, at least during the third trimester.”  - Stephen Woodworth, MP for Kitchener Centre, on Bill 312

Steven Woodworth has done what no Canadian politician has done, in any meaningful way, since 1989. He has attempted to re-open the abortion debate. He’s done it publically. He’s done it officially. 

Bill 312 seeks to legally redefine the point when life begins.

The current state of Canada’s law goes back 400 years, to a time when clergy debated as to whether the soul entered a baby’s body during the time of quickening or not. The modern result of this antiquated legalism has led to some legal outcomes many Canadians find horrific. 

For example? 

Roxanne Fernando was murdered by her boyfriend because she refused to have an abortion. No charges were laid in regards to the death of her baby, because a fetus is not a human under Canadian law. 


Katrina Effert secretly gave birth and then strangled her newborn and threw his lifeless corpse over her neighbour's fence. Her sentence? Three years in jail. The sentence was a suspended sentence, so...three years in jail, but without actually, you know, going to jail.

I suppose in the latter case, the issue wasn’t specifically abortion related, but the judge used unrestricted abortion to justify the light sentence. She wrote, "While many Canadians undoubtedly view abortion as a less than ideal solution to unprotected sex and unwanted pregnancy, they generally understand, accept and sympathize with the onerous demands pregnancy and childbirth exact from mothers, especially mothers without support.”

Er, right. So, strangle away then? Don’t worry, things are changing.

2009 marks the turning point for mainstream culture. The number of people who self identify as pro-life is now constantly on the rise. In the United States, pro-choicers are being whittled away rapidly. 

In Canada, the results are a little more varied, but the numbers for supporting restrictions are similar.

Why the trend? Jojo Ruba thinks he knows why...

“The question now is: what is the pre-born child? A secular person can take a pro-life position, but only if they believe in right and wrong.” 

We meet in downtown Calgary over lunch and while the other patrons discuss light-hearted topics over their sandwiches, Jojo and I immediately launch into abortion and atheism. Jojo Ruba is a pioneer of new wave pro-life activism and he has a very clear idea of why abortion is moving in a pro-life direction. It hinges on two elements.

#1. Science has caught up to the debate.

In the ancient days of bell bottoms and disco, the nature of abortion was more mysterious than it is today. When mass abortion arrived in Western culture, the science wasn’t developed to the point where we could definitively address the issue of when life begins. The debate, very quickly, became packaged up as a war between religious folks adhering to traditional beliefs about life in the womb and modern beliefs about the rights of female autonomy superseding the rights of a “clump of cells".

As technology and medical science have evolved, there is no doubt about life beginning at conception. 

#2. The debate is now a philosophical one about the value of human life.

Pro-choicers can no longer win debates regarding abortion. New Wave schooled pro-life activists such as Jojo Ruba and Stephanie Gray routinely wipe the stage with pro-choice challengers using logic, and as a result the pro-choice crowds have resorted to simply shouting them down.

“Most Canadians don’t seriously investigate abortion,” Ruba says. “So our tactic is to bring the investigation to them.” 

By engaging publically with people using science, reason and values, Ruba is able to win people’s hearts and minds without playing the religion card. The Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform is at the forefront of these new tactics. Graphics and controversy aside, his general question to people goes like this...

If we know the pre-born are human and alive, then why do we feel we have the right to kill them?

This is the question that causes secular people to struggle. This is the question that is slowly bringing atheists over to the pro-life side of the debate. It stops looking like an old preacher hating on a girl who made a sexual mistake and starts looking like an unexpected arrival of vulnerable life that should be protected by the able.

Jojo directed me to an atheist friend of his named Kristine Kruszelnicki. She’s writing an article about this very subject for The Humanist magazine, due out at the end of this year. I asked her why she’s a pro-life atheist and this was her reply...

“I'm pro-life for the same reason I'm an atheist: I trust science and I believe in critical thinking. When it comes to defining personhood, none of the differences between a born infant and preborn fetus - their size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency are morally relevant. Big humans aren't more important than little humans, and a teenager isn't more of a person because they can reproduce while an infant can't yet do so. The fetus may not be conscious or self-aware, but her body is operating as a human being of her age of human development is supposed to operate. And if a change of location doesn't change the essential nature of any born human being, neither can a journey of six inches down a birth canal transform a non-human tissue blob into a being we ought to recognize as our equal." 

"As for dependency, what kind of civilized society would argue that the more dependent one is, the less obligated the other is to protect and care for them? Human beings change in their dependency on others all throughout their lives. And while it's true that we gain rights and freedoms (such as the right to vote) based on our developmental skills and increased independence, younger and more dependent humans aren't killed and denied the opportunity of ever attaining these higher levels of development and independence."

"A fetus is not an intruder on the woman's body. She is in the rightful place which evolution has intended for a human being of her age and stage of development. A parent is morally obligated to provide basic care, food, and protection to their born offspring (at least until someone else can take the responsibility to continue the care). Likewise, if the preborn is a human being as biology indicates, than basic protection and sustenance must be offered to one's dependent preborn offspring while she is in utero.”

What about the pro-life movement being seen as a religious agenda?

“While I'm grateful for the Catholic Church's involvement in speaking up for their convictions on this matter, I'm desperate to see the abortion debate made secular. Our case is scientifically and philosophically sound, and the invocation of rosaries onto ovaries only results in too many people rejecting the pro-life position along with the supernatural claims of the Church,” Kruszelnicki says.

The secularization of the abortion debate is easily achievable, but it does hinge on one element that ties into religious belief: objective moral values.

"But tell me," I asked him, "what will happen to men? If there’s no God and no life beyond the grave, doesn't that mean that men will be allowed to do whatever they want?" 

"Didn't you know that already?" he said and laughed again. "An intelligent man can do anything he likes as long as he's clever enough to get away with it." - Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov

Peter Singer recently advocated infanticide by suggesting human beings don’t have a right to life until 30 days after they’re born.

Richard Dawkins recently advocated for eugenics policies in order to create a better quality of human.

Feminist Camille Paglia shocked the mainstream by suggesting that abortion is murder, and that’s okay. Using murder to improve your life isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

These sorts of prognostications strike fear into the hearts of many people, religious or not. This forces “non-radical” atheists to do a lot more soul searching (pun intended) in order to formulate their own consistent principles and values or else risk sinking into the total moral relativism that would naturally lead to anarchy.

It also explains the hesitation many faith based pro-life advocates feel towards welcoming atheists into activism. Kristine admits to feeling like a minority within the minority, but that doesn’t impact the value of choosing a side in the abortion debate. She believes the pro-life position is strong enough to withstand faith/non-faith factionalism. “Abortion is no more a religious issue than the civil rights movement, though it was predominantly led by southern churches. That people of faith would fight for the less fortunate should come as no surprise. But it behooves us all as civilized people to ask whether there isn't a better way that we can help women in crisis situation. I believe we can do better than abortion,” she states.

Jojo and I finish our lunch and part ways. His 20 year action plan to end the killing has already begun and time will tell if this new approach will have an effective impact.

In the House of Commons, Stephen Woodworth defied the orders of the Prime Minister and presented his defence of Bill 312. He lost by a vote of 203-91. Again, time will tell if Woodworth is a harbinger of social change, but in the meantime his ‘Xanatos Gambit’ has paid off in awareness and debate alone. As Bill 312 has shown, the abortion debate is a long way from being settled and, religious or not, people are finally thinking.