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Theocratic or pro-choice: Not much middle ground between them

By Amanda Marcotte
Saturday, December 27, 2008 18:07 EDT
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I’m almost a little worried about engaging on this topic, though I’m grateful to Auguste for pointing out that the Raving Atheist finally completed his conversion 2 and a half years after I said that he would have to or the cognitive dissonance would break him down. Ever since I wrote that post, he’s been violently angry at me, to the point where it’s scary, so it’s worrisome to pay attention and feed his super-narcissism. But this isn’t and has never been about the sad little dweeb who was giving online atheism a bad name. This is about the relationship between atheism and feminism, or more specifically, between humanism and feminism, with the understanding that most atheists are humanists and rationalists. (Raving Atheist, however, appeared to be an assholist.) I tend to think that a science-and-reason-based worldview will slowly but surely chip away at sexism. A lot of feminists would no doubt violently disagree, pointing out all the historical examples of science-based sexism, but my argument is that the way to push back against science that’s based in prejudice-justification instead of actual evidence and reason is to apply evidence and reason. No one is saying that science comes up with perfect solutions right out of the box, but that’s no reason to abandon it. The history of science is chock full of sexist blathering, but it’s just as chock full of examples of people bravely putting reason before sexism and prevailing.

The specific issue in question—the one that drove the assholist in question towards conversion—is abortion. One of the reasons I suspect this issue fascinates me so much is because it’s one of those issues where there’s not actually a legitimate disagreement, so long as everyone in the debate accepts the idea that ours is a secular government and religious oppression is wrong. There are no rational arguments against legal abortion. Some controversial topics actually make sense, because both sides have a point within a shared values system. For instance, I disagree with the idea of preemptive war, but I can understand how it makes sense theoretically. (It just falls apart in practice, which is something we’re learning the hard way.) But there’s no rational reason to oppose legal abortion, especially with current restrictions that protect the fetus after it really has developed into a baby that feels things and could survive outside the womb.* So far, the most popular of the Reality Cast videos has been the one where I posit that abortion should remain legal precisely as a matter of religious liberty, because the only real arguments against it are based in religious dogma, not reason.


RH Reality Check: Does Personhood Start At Fertilization? from RH Reality Check on Vimeo.

What I really don’t get about mainstream media coverage of this issue is how they avoid pointing out that this is fundamentally a debate about theocracy, not “life”. Considering how everyone just wishes the issue would go away, it would be fucking wonderful if the mainstream media quit wringing their hands over this and pointed out what is obvious—that the anti-choice movement is fundamentally a theocratic movement that wishes to ban abortion as a way to push their religious beliefs on everyone else. And that there are no rational, secular anti-choice arguments. None. Abortion bans are in the same pile of issues as gay marriage bans, creationism in schools, prayer in schools, and other theocratic movements—ways to get around the First Amendment that protects religious freedom. Because to believe that an embryo has equal or usually greater value than a woman is to imbue it with magical properties derived usually from god. Most anti-choicers really do quietly believe that embryonic life does have more value than adult female life, because embryos are “innocent” and pregnant women clearly are not, because they’ve touched a penis and we have proof.

Not that there aren’t anti-choice atheists. I’ve met a handful online, and to the last one, they were raving misogynists who I suspect wish to punish women for not choosing them (they’re ALL men), and thus—and this is the most important part—they’ve set aside their commitment to rational thinking in order to hurt women. So that’s your abortion ban supporters: religious maniacs, raving misogynists, and a few people who sympathize with them because they’ve absorbed our culture’s malice towards sexual women. If you buy into the idea that women should be full citizens with equal rights, and you believe that the government should respect the protections of the First Amendment, you must be pro-choice. There are no secular anti-choice arguments.

Not that people haven’t tried. Misogyny runs deep in our culture, and even rationalists and humanists fall into the trap of trying to justify it. But all their arguments are pretty worthless.

Embryos have unique DNA, and therefore they’re unique people from conception and deserve equal or greater status in our society than women. I deal with this one in the video. Embryos are far from unique in having DNA separate from the person housing the cells—so do sperm and eggs, as do cancer cells, I do believe. More to the point, 1 in 250 births results in two babies that have identical DNA—we call them identical twins. If you believe that unique DNA = unique person, you have to believe that these two separate individuals are one person. It’s clear we don’t believe that.

What do humans tend to use as marker for what is and isn’t a person? Well, I think the example of Siamese twins is quite telling in this department. Siamese twins are identical twins that split, as all do, from one fertilized egg, but they didn’t split completely. (Or re-fused in the womb.) Either way, they’re attached. What’s interesting is that we only consider Siamese twins two separate people in some cases. If someone is split from the waist down and has like 3 legs but only one head, we call them one person. If they’re split from the waist up so they have two heads, we call them two people. The definition of when a person is a person is when they have a unique consciousness, not unique DNA. It’s historically true, but it’s also the most rational approach, because people experience personhood as a form of consciousness. But it also means that a fetus doesn’t really become a person until it has a consciousness, so really the earliest point that the state should even care to protect it should be about 29 weeks. Even then, the pregnant woman deserves more protection, so health exceptions should apply to abortion restrictions. It’s clear that human beings do not really consider embryos and first trimester fetuses to be anything close to people. When first term pregnancies end in miscarriage, there is no name, no funeral, and generally none of the reaction that we have when an actual person is lost. Not that it isn’t sad—losing a pregnancy is sad if you wanted it. But it’s not like losing a child, and we know it.

That’s the biggie. But there’s a few other arguments that could conceivably be secular.

Abortion rights promote female promiscuity. This is what people mean when they say they don’t like it to be used as birth control. It’s assumed that a woman who chooses abortion for the simple reason she doesn’t want to have a baby is somehow getting away with something, and that something is having sex. However, the underlying assumption is that there’s a rational reason to oppose sexual liberation for women, and so far, I haven’t seen it. What few and tenuous social benefits we get from controlling women’s sexuality and shaming it are minor compared to the damage that this control visits upon women. Shaming and controlling female sexuality may make a few men’s lives easier because they can keep women in unhappy, servile relationships by invoking slut shame if they leave, but it makes women’s lives much harder. Sexual shaming of women contributes to bad outcomes on a number of levels: worse health care, lower incomes, lower self-esteem, and even violence against women. Sexual shaming also hurts the majority of men at the expense of the few. Most men are better off in a system where people can try partners on without shame until they find one that suits them best. If half the human race can’t engage in sexual contact freely, the other half has pretty limited options, except for the few that are gay, and even that presumes that misogyny doesn’t lead to homophobia, and we know in the real world that it does.

Abortion is the behavior of neurotic women who don’t enjoy being women. This one very rarely trickles up to the official discourse, but there’s still this lingering belief that motherhood is every woman’s destiny and that abortion must therefore be a neurotic rejection of your biology. Pointing out that most women who have abortions have children already—and that the rest probably will eventually—shuts this avenue down pretty quickly. But it’s worth noting, because it used to be, from what I can tell, a very popular secular anti-choice argument. In fact, I just finished reading the book Revolutionary Road, and (SPOILER ALERT), the non-religious couple at the center of the book gets into an epic struggle over abortion—she wants to terminate an unplanned pregnancy, he doesn’t. And the “rational” anti-choice arguments he invokes are kind of hilarious in modern terms, and I suspect were meant to be darkly comical at the time. The wife quietly gives in during an argument to the idea that he desire to terminate might be a neurotic thing, and her husband jumps on it.

“Believe me, it’s a thing about which your guess is as good as mine. It does sound sort of logical, though, doesn’t it? I do remember reading somewhere—oh, in Freud or Krafft-Ebing or one of those people; this was back in college—I do remember reading something about a woman with a sort of infantile penis-envy thing that carried over into her adult life; I guess this is supposed to be fairly common among women; I don’t know. Anyway, she kept trying to get rid of her pregnancies, and what this particular guy figured out was that she was really trying to sort of open herself up so that the—you know—so that the penis could come out and hang down where it belonged…..”

Another example, I must point out, of how science is self-correcting. Once psychology moved from its bullshit phase to a research-oriented phase, the idea that women who have abortions are especially neurotic died amongst everyone but anti-choicers grasping for a “secular” reason to attack abortion rights.

But this really gets back to where we stand when it comes to the relationship between humanism and feminism. Humanism increasingly tends towards celebrating humans in all their diversity, and so the idea of labeling happy, healthy women as “neurotic” just because they don’t submit to certain gender norms is offensive. So is the idea of deciding that half the population’s basic bodily autonomy should be yanked from them to suit the ideals of a few miserable people who are suspicious of sexual pleasure and of freedom. Really, so is the idea that taking pleasure in sexuality so long as you don’t hurt others is somehow wrong. I could go on, but I figure leave some for the commenters to hash out.

*Yes, trolls, I’m aware that women can get later term abortions for health reasons. Not having these exceptions is blatantly misogyny, a willingness to kill and maim existing women as a way to demonstrate how little their lives matter compared to the offspring of men. That pregnant women suffering complications have fathers who love them would seem to matter, but alas, daughters cease to have value in a patriarchal system once they’ve fucked, I guess.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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