Thursday, March 20, 2014

What Does Secularism Have to Do With Women's Rights?

For a long time I've sort of taken my reproductive rights for granted. While I've never been faced with an unintended pregnancy, I've faced that possibility since puberty, and will continue to face it until menopause. I've always felt assured that I'd be able to get a safe, legal, early-term abortion, if that's what I so choose. Based on the privileges of where I livemy age, and my income, that presumption is sound. 

For now. 

Forty years after Roe v. Wade, Americans remain conflicted about abortion. Anti-abortion activists continue to harass women at clinics, commit horrific acts of violence, and passionately lobby for countless laws that restrict women's access to abortion, regardless of the real life financial, healthcare, and even criminal consequences. If we value reproductive choices and the most sound public health care policies, this is not an issue where we can afford to back down. 

There's another thing I've always taken for granted: that the secular movement, which I've been involved with since I was 19, politically stands for women's reproductive rights. 

When I say I've "been involved" with the movement for 16 years, this is no casual interest. After being VP and President of the campus freethought club at the third largest university in the USA, I became one of the founding board members of the Secular Student Alliance, and editor of the first publication of the SSA's Group Running Guide. I've been VP of HCCO, one of the largest local chapters of the AHA, and when I moved to Philadelphia I became heavily involved with HAGP, one of the AHA's oldest local chapters. I was twice a camp counselor for Camp Quest. I was a celebrant certified by the Humanist Society, and for 6 years I officiated secular weddings, baby namings, and one memorial service. I have given talks on secular humanism for a class at Penn State. I was the coordinator for the launch of PhillyCoR (the precursor to UnitedCoR). I'm even mentioned by name in Greg Epstein's book Good Without God. At this point the number of volunteer hours that I have put into this movement are incalculable.   

I list all this to make clear just how much of a personal stake I have in the secular movement. These are "my people." This is my "comfort zone." Of course I don't agree with everything I hear anyone at a meeting or conference say. I enjoy a spirited and intellectually challenging debate with a Libertarian atheist over, say, school funding or gun control. 

On the issues where critical inquiry, scientific evidence, and compassion heavily weigh on one side (vaccination, science education in public schools, government funds for faith-based initiatives, and embryonic stem cell research, for example) our leadership and the most visible representatives of our community take a firm stance. 


Maybe not. 

Three days ago I wrote about David Silverman's statement at CPAC about "secular argument against abortion" and Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta's giving a platform to two different secular, anti-choice organizations. 

Massimo Pigliucci of the long-running and popular blog Rationally Speaking weighed in with David Silverman and the Scope of Atheism

Pigliucci puts a lot of effort into defending philosophical debates over the morality of abortion. And he repeatedly makes it clear that he thinks this is okay because supposedly we're not talking about anti-choice laws and political activism. He writes (my emphasis in bold):  

Of course there are logical, science-based, and rational arguments against abortion. They may turn out to be ultimately unconvincing, or countered by better arguments — as I believe they are — but they certainly exist.
Are these arguments sufficient to justify forceful state interventions on women’s bodily integrity, under any circumstances? Very likely not. But plenty of countries (including the US) do already regulate, for instance, late term abortion, noting the ethical complexity of the issue and of course making room for a number of special circumstances, usually having to do with the health of the mother. 
Now, does that mean that we should therefore advocate a restriction of women’s rights as they are currently defined in the US? Of course not, nor do I see any evidence that that’s what Dave meant to suggest.

Regardless of what Dave Silverman meant to suggest, while at a convention of parties which officially advocate severely restricting if not outright banning abortion, Silverman made a statement which implied that there are reasonable, secular arguments that favor such anti-choice political activism. It is worth noting, too, that American Atheists allowed Secular Pro-Life, an extremely anti-choice activist organization, to table at their 2012 conference
Regardless of his own pro-choice stance and pro-choice writings, Hemant Mehta gave a platform to two anti-choice organization leaders, both of who, through their anti-choice activism, apply the same sort of irrational and dishonest arguments and tactics used by religious anti-choice activists. 
I was heartened to learn that the AHA's Humanist magazine not only published criticism of this rise of secular "pro-life" activists, but also refused to publish this response by anti-choice activist Kristine Kruszelnicki. 
At least the humanist wing of the movement maintains integrity on this issue. 
Massimo Pigliucci's article evoked such a critical response that he added a Postscript defense. In it he writes: 
Look at it from the point of view of a parallel between atheism and gay rights. The gay rights movement has rightly focused on the issues that are closest and most specific to it: the legal rights of gay people.
So women's rights are not one of the "closest and most specific" issues to the secular cause? Even though the scientific evidence tells us that women are equal to men in terms of sentience and intellect, but a non-viable embryo/fetus has no more sentience than a tree? Even though evidence also tells us that early-term abortions (which account for almost all abortions) are safer than pregnancy? Even though critical inquiry tells us that late-term abortions are rare and sought for reasons which are tragic? Even though compassion should compel us to defer to the women's personal moral judgement and the ethical standards of the medical establishment?

The importance of quality science education public schools is close and specific enough to our cause, but women's rights are not?

The importance of preventing school authorities from leading students in prayer is close and specific enough to our cause, but women's rights are not?

The Secular Coalition for America unites 13 of the largest and most active organizations in our movement, including American Atheists. On the issues page Health and Safety they indeed state they have an interest in defending women's rights with regard to abortion:

Religiously Based Health Care Policy- Government officials should rely on high quality research, not religious beliefs, when making health care policy decisions. (stem cells, women’s health care, substance abuse treatment)
Image by artist Barbara Kruger
So maybe this is why Massimo Pigliucci focused on a philosophical debate over the morality of personally choosing to have an abortion. Maybe he's taking Roe v. Wade and its support for granted.  
I might not mind people sitting around discussing the morality of abortion (as a personal decision, not something up for legal banning) so long as my right to a safe, legal, abortion for any reason during the pre-viability stages of pregnancy AND my access to health care which promotes my health over that of a fetus is fully supported by all present company

If not, I'm not having that conversation. I refuse to have a calm, philosophical discussion about the morality of abortion with anyone who doesn't respect and defend equal rights for me and all other women. To expect me or any other feminist to do so is belittling and offensive. 

The secular movement is better than that. At least I hope it is. Otherwise I've seriously wasted much of the last 16 years of my life. 


  1. > I refuse to have a calm, philosophical discussion about the morality of abortion with anyone who doesn't respect and defend equal rights for me and all other women.

    It sounds like you're saying that you aren't willing to have a calm discussion about the topic with anyone who doesn't already agree with the conclusion you want. That's very much not what I expect from someone in the secular movement. If I were presented incontrovertible proof that a third-trimester fetus was conscious and self-aware, I would become rabidly pro-life regarding late term abortions, and I would hope you would be as well.

    As it stands, I believe the evidence falls pretty far on the pro-choice side, but if I'm wrong about that, I damn well want to know about it: I don't get a free pass for morally repugnant choices just because I'm ignorant of the data needed to know that.

    You should be able to have a calm discussion with someone like that, even if they came to a different conclusion based on a different perception of the evidence (as distinct from largely ignoring evidence, etc).

    1. Cwillu,

      I suggest that you go back and read my post a little more carefully, because you seem to have not understood at all what I have written.

      First of all, you may “believe” that the evidence falls pretty far on the pro-choice side. I don’t believe that. I have concluded that because I looked at the evidence and arguments. Same way I concluded that biological evolution happened and thus should be taught in science classrooms. Same way I concluded that gay people are not mentally ill, and thus it is a gross violation of human rights to deny homosexuals equal rights as heterosexuals. Same way I concluded that the genetic difference between the various “races” of human beings are relatively small, to the point where it is also a gross violation of human rights to pass racist laws based on the idea that any race is superior to another.

      There is not “different perception” of the evidence. The difference is purely philosophical. Philosophical concepts don’t trump my right to body autonomy and my right to appropriate health care.

      Since you seem to not get it, here’s what my point in this post is:

      The evidence is conclusive that in the early term of pregnancy the embryo/fetus is completely non-sentient. A woman’s right over her body vs. an organization that has not yet achieved any kind of awareness – kind of a no-brainer who *should* win that legal battle.

      Then you get into late term pregnancy. You say that if you were presented with incontrovertible proof that a third trimester fetus was conscious and self aware, you’d become rabidly pro-life. Two problems with that statement.

      First, well, gee, if I were presented with incontrovertible proof that the Biblical flood really happened, the world was 4,000 years old, and evolution is completely wrong, I’d become a Creationist. But seeing as that proof doesn’t exist, not only am I not a Creationist, but I mock creationism (opposed to engaging them in calm debates that serve to give legitimacy to their claims) and will fight for quality science education in schools.

      However, if I were presented with such evidence that a late term fetus were self aware, my stance on abortion would not change. Here’s why. I support Roe v. Wade, which allowed states to regulate and even ban late term abortions except in the case of the woman’s life and health being threatened. Even if a late term fetus is equally a person, if there is a medical conflict between the woman whose body is serving as host and the fetus, the woman gets to make the call because it’s her body. What’s more, if there were such proof that the fetus were self aware, the bio-ethicists would be on that shit and the medical establishment would also weigh in. Basicaly you’d end up with EXACTLY WHAT WE HAVE NOW, which is to say the ONLY women who seek out and get late term abortions are those dealing with tragic circumstances.

      So what’s your point?

      If a gay person refuses to engage in a “calm philosophical discussion” about the morality of gay couples adopting children with a person who is actively fighting to prevent gay couples from adopting children less of a critical thinker?

      If a black person refuses to engage in a “calm philosophical discussion” about the possible inferiority of the black race with a white supremacist less of a critical thinker?

      My point, again, is this: given that the evidence is on my side (the political pro-choice side) AND that I am one of the people (a sexually active woman of child-bearing age) who could be impacted by anti-choice legislation , it is perfectly appropriate for me to respond to any Anti-choicer who wants to debate the issue with, “Shut the fuck up.” Just like I close the door in the faces of Jehovah’s Witnesses at my door, homophobes who open their mouths about gay people, and racist fucks.

    2. You're right, we're not disagreeing on any factual point, nor the conclusions reached. People don't do door-to-door evangelism to discover opposing views, or make remarks about skin colour to see if maybe they have it all wrong. Those acting as if their current understanding of the world can't possibly be wrong aren't going to be convinced by any amount of discussion, calm or otherwise.

      My only point is that it's possible for someone to be misinformed about the evidence without being such a fuckwit, and that such a person expressing curiosity about the opposing viewpoint may actually be persuaded by the discussion.

    3. cwillu,

      I agree, and actually I've had many calm, rational discussions with politically anti-choice individuals who I met casually in some other context, and I've actually argued 2 of them into being politically pro-choice by presenting certain verifiable facts of which they were previously unaware. (A lot of people, for instance, are really only are against late term abortions and don't realize that such abortions are, in accordance with Roe v Wade, already banned in most states and very difficult to obtain without doctors diagnosing a serious threat to the woman's health or life.)

      What mean to take objection to with this post is the idea that the organized secular movement should give any kind of platform to anti-choicers (such as when Friendly Atheist published the guest post "Yes, There Are Pro-Life Atheists Out There. Here’s Why I’m One of Them" by Kristine Kruszelnicki) in the spirit of being intellectually impartial and inclusive to differing points of view. Some ideas and causes are just so unsupported (such as the idea that the moon landing was faked) and/or so abhorrent to our sense of decency (such as white supremacy) that we don't engage it's *organized proponents*. We mock or simply outright dismiss them, because they don't deserve anything more.

  2. Martha, would you have any blog posts you might submit to CAP?

    CAP: Carnival for Atheist Parenting