Pro-life materialists

Here’s a “talking point” I’ve been meaning to bring up for a while. Did you know that the pro-life movement is even more materialistic than atheists are? Who else but a die-hard, extremist materialist would insist that personhood could be reduced to mere DNA molecules? Talk about reductionism! Yet that is what they tell us. A single-celled organism (i.e. a fertilized egg) is a person, with all the rights and liberties of a person, just because it possesses human DNA. Simple, chemical molecules are the essence that makes that single cell a complete human being, a person, a living soul. Simple, physical chemicals.

Isn’t it ironic that those who will preach the loudest, and with the greatest indignation, about the evils of materialism, become such ardent materialists themselves when it suits their rhetoric? Yet this expedient sort of materialism is not, in fact, very well thought out. While it’s nice to see pro-lifers endorsing a purely materialistic definition of humanity and personhood, I can’t praise their application of materialistic principles because they do it so badly. Reducing the meaning and worth of human life to a mere tinker-toy assemblage of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and other atoms, is taking materialism blindly and clumsily. There’s a lot more to materialism than that.

Thoughtful materialists will realize, if they think about it, that there is more to the material universe than simply matter. Reality is not just made up of matter, but is also made of the properties of matter. For example, matter has properties like weight, size, location, and so on. These properties are not themselves made of matter (“weight,” for example, does not possess size or location). However, these properties are just as real as the matter they pertain to. To the materialist, therefore, not everything that is real is necessarily made of matter. Some things are the properties of matter, or the relationships between material things.

Notice, I’m not speaking of ghosts or fairies or magic or other so-called “immaterial” realities. I’m talking about things that are real; “immaterial” in the sense that they are not made of matter, but just as much a part of the material world as matter is. Indeed, if a rock has a certain size, that size is dependent on the material rock: if the rock is destroyed, the size of the rock also ceases to exist.

This is where pro-life materialists drop the ball. Humanity is not a quality that can be reduced to a chemical compound. There’s more to personhood than the electrostatic bonds between the atoms in a DNA chain. The person we are and the person we become are the product not just of biochemistry, but of life, of experience, of development and of choices. Consider the corpse: all the chemicals are still there, but the person they once were is no longer present.

Abortion is never a good thing, but there are times when it can be the least of multiple evils. We should not let the misguided and mistaken materialism of pro-lifers raise unnecessary obstacles in what is already a difficult choice.

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Posted in Unapologetics. 5 Comments »

5 Responses to “Pro-life materialists”

  1. Chris Says:

    Since practically every cell in my body has a copy of my DNA, except for the those little swimmers down there, every time I sneeze I massacre a whole host of persons.

  2. Sarah Says:

    Abortion is a good thing. It’s only because that the circumstances which lead to wanting an abortion are a bad thing (ie. unwanted pregnancy) that it would be great if abortions weren’t wanted any more. Open heart surgery is also a good thing; it would be great to live in a world where everyone had healthy hearts, but that’s never going to be the case.

    Your main point is well-made. Humans are not zygotes.

  3. Nevyn Says:

    I was under the impression that the anti-choice folks still believe in “ensoulment” at conception and that’s what makes them persons. One other thing; I’d say that “Abortion is never a good thing” is half right. It’s neither a good thing or a bad thing. If a zygote isn’t a moral agent (or a moral patient for that matter) terminating it seems like it would be neither good nor bad.

  4. Chigliakus Says:

    Every pro-lifer I’ve ever spoken with has also been pro death penalty, which always seemed like a contradiction in values to me. I also never really understood the motivations behind the pro-life movement. I mean I can understand wanting the believers to have more children – you’re breeding more easily-indoctrinated people to join your ranks. But why prevent non-believers from having an abortion? From a pragmatic view point it’s advantageous to let the heathen’s ranks diminish while yours swell.

    My mother, who is a Christian, used to refer to the bad old days before Roe vs. Wade as the reason she was pro-choice. I didn’t really understand what she meant until I read this:
    This debate is more complicated than a simple argument for the rights of a non-sentient clump of cells that happen to contain human DNA. And speaking of human rights, these same pro-lifers all seem to turn a blind eye to the human rights abuses that take place daily across the country in the US penitentiary system.

  5. Challenger Grim Says:

    Curiosity question.

    Wouldn’t a completely materialistic view also be against abortion because it violates natural selection and hurts our fitness as a species?