The Pro-Life Movement Must Encourage Secular Participation in the Pro-Life Cause

Opinion   |   Secular Pro-Life   |   Feb 4, 2014   |   12:23PM   |   Washington, DC

The weekend before last I had a wonderful time meeting up with other SPL members and representing Secular Pro-Life at San Francisco’s various pro-life events. On Saturday afternoon, SPL spoke at the Walk for Life West Coast rally, then gathered together and held our banner high for the entire Walk. On Sunday, pro-life atheist Ellen and I tabled at the first ever west coast Students for Life of America training conference, which lasted all day.

Throughout all of these events, I was inspired by the number of religious pro-lifers who so warmly welcomed us. They said our speech was refreshing and our attendance encouraged them. They thanked us for our participation. Some people seemed downright relieved to have us there. It was a lovely response that recurred all weekend; it’s clear to me that most religious pro-lifers happily accept our presence. I think most religious pro-lifers actually want us to be more involved and visible in the pro-life movement.

But many other things happened last weekend that make me think, yes, people of faith want us involved, but they haven’t the slightest idea how to encourage our participation.

secularprolifeTime and again it was clear that the events were designed for Christian participation.  And I don’t feel that way simply because there were (as there always are) so many religious signs at the Walk, “Soul at conception,” “Such-and-such Parish for Life,” prayers over bullhorns, groups singing hymns, etc. That’s just how people participating in the Walk chose to express their beliefs, which is their right.

But beyond the average participant, the way the Walk itself was organized seemed to endorse a specifically Christian discussion.

Clearly it was not an exclusively Christian discussion, given Walk organizers were thoughtful enough to invite SPL to speak at the rally. To my knowledge that is the largest voice anyone has given to secular pro-lifers, and SPL supporters are very grateful, myself included. However, beyond SPL’s speech, here’s what the Walk rally had to offer:

The rally opened with a somewhat lengthy prayer from an Anglican bishop, continued with a brief speech from a Catholic chaplain discussing the “spiritual desert our country has become,” followed by the Archbishop of San Francisco* reading a letter from another Archbishop sending greetings and gratitude from the Pope, and every speaker except for me focused very much on God’s plan and purpose as reasons for our pro-life activism. In fact, I think I may have been literally the only person on stage who did not refer to God and faith in my discussion of pro-life activism.

The following day, the SFLA conference wasn’t as overt. There were many speakers whose messages applied independent of religious belief. (And, by the way, if you can go to an SFLA training conference sometime, I recommend it. It was very well put together, with a lot of ideas I hadn’t considered. Very interesting.) However, there were also many speakers who referenced or relied heavily on their Christian faith in their messages, there was a group-lead prayer, a sermon from Pastor Walter Hoye, and at least two occasions where speakers made a point of mentioning they think atheists really struggle to defend their worldview.

That last part really did me in. Abortion isn’t the only topic I’m passionate about. I have very strong opinions on a lot of topics, including religion and God specifically, and including topics indirectly related to religion, like homosexuality, like certain gender issues, and so on. I spent the entire weekend saying not one word about my passionate feelings on many other issues, despite being saturated by people expressing views I don’t hold, because I wasn’t there to push those views on people: I was there to work together to fight abortion. And here we are—Ellen and me—sitting at a table labeled “Secular Pro-Life,” having talked to people all day about the secular position and the fact that yes, we are both actually secular, and we get to sit silently by while people give us furtive glances and speakers talk about how our beliefs are indefensible?

And Christians ask me why they don’t see more involvement from secular pro-lifers.

Now, hear me out, because I’m a little bit conflicted about this. I have secularist friends who believe the pro-life movement would grow a great deal more if pro-lifers would remove religion from their pro-life advocacy. Nonreligious folk (including both people who don’t believe and people who believe but don’t really care) would take a greater interest if they realized there was something in this debate beyond faith. I think that’s true.

But, on the other hand, how many deeply religious people would take less of an interest? During the SFLA conference, one of the speakers whose message relied heavily on the Christian faith was David Bereit of 40 Days for Life. And, frankly, his talk was fantastic. While David and I don’t share the same faith, it was clear to me that the conference attendees were moved and inspired by his talk (“talk” doesn’t really do it justice though—it was more like very compelling story telling). And David wasn’t the only example—there were many speakers who spoke overtly about God and the role of Christians, and I think the overall effect of the day was that hundreds of pro-life high school and college students felt called to action, and excited to fulfill their roles in the pro-life movement. That’s a great effect to have on people.

Faith gives many people hope and courage and joy, and that moves them to do good things. Obviously I don’t believe you must have faith to feel hope, courage, or joy. I don’t believe you must have faith to feel inspired to action. I don’t have faith, yet still feel all of those things, and I know many secularists who are the same way. Still, I recognize that, for many people, their faith is their main source of inspiration.

So I’m not actually sure what overall effect we’d have if we removed religion entirely from the pro-life movement. I think it would encourage some people to participate, but it would leave others less inspired to help. And that’s one reason I don’t advocate removing religion entirely. I think there’s a time and place for religion in the movement. I just don’t think that time and place is constantly and everywhere.



Later during the SFLA conference, a speaker mentioned that “this is not just a Christian event.” I don’t know if this particular speaker was suggesting SFLA ought to make it less Christian, or if he sincerely believed it had already been an experience people of many faiths or no faith could equally engage in. I suspect the latter.

So again, I think many religious pro-lifers want secular pro-lifers to be more involved and more visible, but just aren’t sure how to make that happen. I have some ideas on that front, but before I put together a blog post of suggestions, I put the question to you guys, our SPL supporters. I don’t care if you personally are religious or secular or what—I’m interested in your ideas. What are the best ways the pro-life movement can encourage secular participation?

*Archbishop Cordileone said at the outset, in his greetings, that “we include everyone, of faith and no faith, of all ages, men and women.” Even just a small sentence like that makes a big difference in promoting inclusiveness, so thank you, Archbishop!

LifeNews Note: reprinted with permission from Secular Pro-Life.