Choosing Reason Over Faith
December 30, 2008 by rsasecular
From Pro-Life Activist to Freethought Leader
By: Leslie A. Zukor
- Leslie Zukor
“Leslie, we’re doing God’s work by saving babies!” the voice on my cell phone receiver exclaimed, when I was sitting outside of McAfee Hall one fall afternoon. I was 18-years-old, fresh out of high school, and the newly named Vice President of Wellesley Alliance For Life (WAFL). I was a pro-lifer in principle; I believed that abortion was morally wrong, and I would do anything in my power to stop it. On the other end of the phone line was the lobbyist for Massachusetts State’s largest pro-life group. “We know the Committee Chair very well, and there’s some backdoor maneuvering going on.” There may have been a conflict of interest, but that was irrelevant, the voice explained. “We are doing the Lord’s work, and that’s all that matters.” Knowing full well that I wanted abortions to stop, I expressed my agreement. I would come testify on behalf of a friend in support of the “Woman’s Right To Know” informed consent bill that was then in Committee at the Massachusetts State Legislature. We had a great case, or so I thought. I would go before the House Committee, I had a friend who had supplied me with a gripping personal story, and I was “doing God’s work.” It was only after we hung up the phone that it hit me. “How could I be doing God’s work, when I didn’t believe in God in the first place?” I wondered, and then brushed aside any doubt. Thus, on a snowy October morning, I testified on behalf of “informed consent,” a mandatory waiting period, and giving women greater access to information about alternatives to abortion. Speaking in front of a State House Committee was not the only thing that I did for the pro-life movement during the 2003-04 academic year; I spoke in front of 3,000 people at the Massachusetts annual March for Life, I had a very unrewarding experience protesting at an abortion clinic, and I organized five pro-life speakers in only one year of serving on the leadership council.
Leslie Zukor (left) at the 2003 Massachusetts State Pro-Life March
After everything that I had done for the pro-life movement, I decided to resign my leadership role at WAFL, effective at semester’s end. Why had I, a successful anti-abortion crusader, decided that the pro-life activist’s path was not one that I wanted to take? The answer is that I could no longer associate myself with a movement that willingly chose faith over reason. At pro-life gatherings, Boston Archbishop Sean O’Malley was a regular guest. When I was a speaker at the State Pro-Life March, the majority of speeches made explicit reference to the Creator. Crosses dangling from the necks of organization leaders were as ubiquitous as were the words “right to life”. Harvard Right to Life, a student organization in Cambridge, actively collaborated with Harvard’s Society for Law, Life, and Religion. In short, it was no mystery that for one to belong, one must be religious. Furthermore, issue positions were decided not according to rational thought, but by Papal decree. During the first pro-life lecture that I sponsored, the speaker inveighed against birth control. “We’ve got a grant from President Bush’s Faith-Based Initiative to teach sex education in the public schools,” she explained. “We preach abstinence until marriage, and if that fails, then we talk about alternatives to abortion.” I was shocked. “Didn’t you miss something?” I asked, quite befuddled. “What about contraception?” Her reply was equally astonishing. “We teach abstinence only. And if that fails, then we give the kids alternatives to abortion.” In the course of our dialogue, she admitted to a startling truth. She wouldn’t even mention the word “contraception”, much less teach impressionable young minds about how to prevent unintended pregnancy. In short, because of this woman’s Roman Catholicism, the word of the Pope took precedence over rational thought on how to lower the abortion rate. Moreover, it shocked me that this woman, who also testified in favor of the “Woman’s Right to Know” bill, was only in favor of informed decisions when they were in concert with Catholic doctrine. Shouldn’t teenagers be able to make an informed decision about when to begin sexual activity and what contraceptive devices to use? Not according to those who put Roman Catholic dogma ahead of rational examination. Although I would have liked to have engaged in a meaningful dialogue about the issue, I knew that there was no winning with a woman whose beliefs about the world were shaped by faith alone.
Leslie Zukor speaks at the pro-life rally
For all of the implicit exclusion that I felt as an atheist pro-life activist, it paled in comparison to the overt discrimination engendered by my non-belief. In April of my freshman year at college, I wanted to become a member of a Boston-based pregnancy resources organization. Even though I wasn’t a theistic believer, I felt that giving women alternatives to abortion was a noble idea, and I was willing to pay the membership fee. The problem? As an atheist woman of Jewish descent, I was simply unwilling to take a mandatory oath of belief in Jesus Christ. Mandatory? That’s right. In order to be a member of this organization, I would have had to profess the Christian faith. What did I do? The answer was that I wrote the organization a courteous letter explaining my position; I simply could not in good conscience submit to an oath that I did not believe. Although I did get an answer back, I did not pursue membership with the organization. I was welcome to join, said the response letter, but the brusque tone insinuated otherwise. How could I believe in the value of human life, it asked, if I didn’t believe in God? Weren’t we all as good as dirt, if there were no spark of the divine in humans? Why even be nice to each other without fear of hellfire and damnation? While these are all legitimate questions, the way that they were written seemed more confrontational than interested in a rational exchange about religion. As a result, I didn’t pursue further action with this Massachusetts organization.
Since I took a year off from college, I had ample time to reflect on my experiences with Wellesley Alliance For Life. What stood out for me was the willingness of those in the movement to shun scientific evidence and medical advice, in favor of “facts” that fit their worldview. For example, the Campus Organizer of the state’s largest pro-life group told me to stop using the birth control pill, because of potential side effects and its abortifacient properties. However, as I told her, I was not even using the pill for birth control; rather, it had been prescribed for an endocrine disorder. Whom should I trust for medical advice, I began to wonder, a doctor with a medical degree or a Roman Catholic pro-life organizer? Such experiences led to my yearning to be a part of a movement where reason was valued for its own sake, where one could have a rational conversation without resorting to a statement of Papal authority. As a result of my experiences at Wellesley, I had a newfound desire to advocate for those who had been marginalized in our religious society. Furthermore, I wanted to ensure that teenagers were given adequate information about contraception and how to prevent unintended pregnancy. Since I was firmly devoted to advocating for reason over faith, I started a freethought club at my new college. In the Reed Secular Alliance, what was important was not what creed someone subscribed to, but being able to defend it with rational evidence. Still a believer in informed decisions, I started the Freethought Books Project, to give prisoners an alternative to the same faith-based ideology that I had encountered as a pro-life activist. The goal is not to convert the prisoners to atheism; rather, I believe that inmates should have the same access to all points of view, including the freethinking one.
In addition to promoting scientific reason, in my travels as an atheist activist, I have rethought my positions on “life issues”. While I still believe that abortion is unethical, I have less of a desire to outlaw all such procedures. In my time at Wellesley Alliance For Life, I realized that a woman doesn’t just have an abortion as another form of birth control; rather, there are legitimate reasons for terminating a pregnancy. For example, a Secular Student Alliance member confided in me that she had an abortion after being raped. Although I would have preferred that she had given her baby up for adoption, it was simply unfair for the State to force her to carry the pregnancy to term. In the worldview of the Pro-Life Campus Organizer, there is an absolute right and wrong “for everything”, ordained by God. However, as a woman committed to rational thought, I now realize that issues are too complex for so rigid a conception of morality. In short, Wellesley Alliance For Life’s slogan, “Pro-Life: From Conception to Natural Death”, is at best simplistic. After all, shouldn’t a woman have the right to take the “Morning-After Pill”, if her husband’s condom breaks? She may be inducing a chemical abortion, but it is far superior to surgically terminating the pregnancy weeks later. As well as disputing the first tenant of WAFL’s pro-life credo, I now disagree with the club’s position on doctor-assisted suicide. Rather than seeing Oregon’s “Death With Dignity” statute as another part of America’s “Culture of Death”, I now understand that it spares patients from end-of-life suffering. Instead of clinging to some nebulous belief that one must die a natural death – no matter how painful – shouldn’t a terminally ill individual have the right to a peaceful passing? Although I have abandoned some of my former opinions on “life issues”, I still believe that abortion is wrong, unless the woman is raped, is a victim of incest, or if the mother’s life is in jeopardy. However, instead of screaming at a woman outside of a Planned Parenthood clinic, “You are killing your baby!” as did a pro-life fanatic during our morning of “Sidewalk Counseling”, I prefer to engage in rational and non-threatening dialogue about abortion. Even though I still consider myself pro-life, I am proud to state that in the Freethought Movement, my opinions are respected, not because of tradition or Papal authority, but because of our shared commitment to rational thought.