Where Does the Secular Movement Belong in the World of Reproductive Rights?

CN: Mentions of rape and sexual assault.

Recently, someone asked me an interesting question. I came up with a short answer on the spot, but now, after I have had some time to think about it, I think I have more to say. Should the secular movement be involved in the reproductive rights*/sex positivity** movement, and if so, how? Is there a point at which the secular could go too far in supporting reproductive rights? Here’s my short answer: yes and yes. Right from the get go, most secularists are socially and politically progressive, and are in support of reproductive rights and sex positivity without applying the lens of a secularist, but let’s take a look through this lens and see what we figure out.

As a student who has been invested in these two movements since starting college, I often think about the intersections between reproductive rights and secularism. For one, reproductive rights are rights that are obtained and suspended through our government, which are secular institutions. There are also causes supported by many in the repro rights movement that don’t quite line up with secularism. (Not that they work against each other, either.) Why should secularists care about reproductive rights? Because the lawmakers that are working to eliminate rights such as access to birth control and abortion are almost completely religiously motivated.

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Reproductive rights would not even be up for dispute if it weren’t for religion. Religious teachings about sex outside of marriage, mastubation, homosexuality, trading women as commodities, prostitution, etc. are all behind the traditionally conservative fight against accessible reproductive health care. Some may not even realize that their sex-negative beliefs stem from religion, but that’s where it all starts. Sex-shaming provides all of the motivation for this dispute. It is still important to acknowledge that sex and morality do have some links, even outside of religion. Sex can be both moral and immoral, without consulting the Bible for those standards. For example, cheating or any other form of non-consensual sex is immoral. Does that mean that the only moral sex people can have is that which occurs between a man and a woman, sometime after they are joined in holy matrimony? No; God does not have to consent to anyone’s sex for it to be moral. God shouldn’t have any effect on your sex life unless you want him to. It is okay to tie morality and sex together, but we should think about tying this knot with a secular mind, not with a religious one. If we do make a secular statement about sex and morality, it would look something like this: Sex is moral if it is between consenting parties, provided that all parties are able to give their consent. No one should be sexually violated.

Since we have a secular government, the laws we make about reproductive care should be based on the above statement and not on any ideas pertaining to religion. That, unfortunately is not the case. In the fight for reproductive rights, there are many (ranging from the moderately to the extremely conservative) whose beliefs are derived from the Bible, and the laws they want to enact are based on statements such as the following: People  should not have sex outside of marriage. Women who have sex outside of marriage are whores, and they are ruined. People shouldn’t be having sex unless they want babies. Life begins at conception. (Side note: It’s worth acknowledging that the “life begins at conception” statement is not derived from the bible at all. It is actually just a belief cultivated and maintained by conservative religious communities, including the Catholic Church.)

The secular movement should support some agendas put forth by the reproductive rights movement, namely, those that are specifically religiously motivated. Primarily, the secular movement should actively support access to reproductive health services and products such as birth control, condoms, pelvic exams, etc. (Basically things you can get at a Planned Parenthood or other family planning center.) The conservative motivation for blocking access to abortion and birth control comes from the belief that women who have sex should be married, and that couples who have sex within a marriage should want to get pregnant. Now, to be honest, there aren’t many people out there trying to ban birth control (thankfully). There are, however, tons of people trying to ban some forms of birth control, limit access to all birth control, and ban abortion with few exceptions.

Secularists, who believe that decisions should be made based on evidence, should support access to IUD’s, the Plan B pill (or “morning after pill”). Conservatives call these methods “abortifacients” and believe they cause abortions by preventing a fertilized egg from implanting on the uterine wall, but science says differently. Multiple studies found that, while it’s possible for these methods to block implantation, they actually don’t. There are actual abortifacients, like mifepristone, but those can only be administered by medical professionals, and are used to induce abortions.

Secularists should also support access to birth control. The only arguments against access to birth control are religiously motivated. What’s more, there is substantial evidence to show that access to birth control, especially for young women, reduces abortion and teen pregnancy rates and promotes an overall healthy society. Great things happened in Colorado when they provided free birth control to young women in need.

Here’s where it gets hairy: Some secularists believe that the secular movement should support access to abortion, since most of the arguments against it are religious in nature. There are, however, a handful of secularists who think abortion is immoral, and though their beliefs are not supported by evidence, they are legitimate. (The belief that abortion is moral/immoral cannot be supported by evidence regardless of which side one takes.) Secular arguments against abortion do exist, and they are not all religiously motivated or motivated by sexism or sex-shaming. There seems to be a general consensus against non-believers that abortion should be legal, but I have met atheists who are pro-life, and that doesn’t make them any less atheist. I am in no position to make a statement about whether or not the secular movement as whole should support legal abortion. The debate certainly has ties to secularism, but it isn’t cut and dry.

There are also a few causes that the secular movement should stay away from, because they are secular debates about sexual morality, and not religiously motivated. The most relevant of these are affirmative consent laws. An affirmative consent law essentially states that parties participating in a sex act must give positive, out-loud consent every time an act occurs. Without the affirmative consent, a sex act can be considered rape or sexual assault. There is a lot of debate among all kinds of people about whether or not these laws should exist. Some say that is protects victims, others say that is turns too many people into rapists. Either way, it is not something on which the secular movement as a whole should take a position.

That was an interesting question to unpack. Overall, I think the secular movement should definitely support wide access to all birth control, and most reproductive health care needs. The movement could support access to abortion, but there are legitimate reasons to steer away from that debate, and the  movements should definitely stay neutral in the midst of debates on non-secular reproductive rights issues, like affirmative consent. Now, just because the secular movement should not take a stance, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take a stance, or at least get educated about these issues. Secular or not, reproductive rights are important and affect everyone’s lives. So get informed, make your own opinions, and go argue with other secularists. It’s something worth talking about.


*Reproductive rights include keeping abortion legal, making abortion accessible to the public, opening access to birth control, and allowing women and families if and when to become parents.

**Sex positivity is the mentality that people should feel comfortable and happy with their own sexuality. Sex positivity supports good consent, healthy relationships, healthy sexuality, etc. Sex positivity is closely related to the reproductive rights movement.

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