Eliminationists on the March

After the horrific Arizona shooting in which six people were killed and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was gravely wounded, we came close to civility in American politics, at least for a few days. Unfortunately, our public discourse is already returning to normal, as you can tell from reading this front-page post on the leading conservative blog RedState (HT: Pandagon).

Here at RedState, we too have drawn a line. We will not endorse any candidate who will not reject the judicial usurpation of Roe v. Wade and affirm that the unborn are no less entitled to a right to live simply because of their size or their physical location. Those who wish to write on the front page of RedState must make the same pledge. The reason for this is simple: once before, our nation was forced to repudiate the Supreme Court with mass bloodshed. We remain steadfast in our belief that this will not be necessary again, but only if those committed to justice do not waiver or compromise, and send a clear and unmistakable signal to their elected officials of what must be necessary to earn our support.

The Arizona shooting silenced right-wing eliminationists for a brief time, but they're already showing their faces in public again. Even if they're historically illiterate - the Civil War was started by the slaveholders, not by the abolitionists - it doesn't change the nature of this brutish, unsubtle threat to rise up in violent rebellion if they can't get the outcome they want through the democratic process, just the same way as Islamic fundamentalists seek to kill journalists and wage war on nations that won't agree to censor depictions of Mohammed.

The next logical question has to be, if they're anticipating "mass bloodshed" to overturn abortion rights, whom do they think should be killed? Doctors and nurses at family planning clinics? The patients of those clinics? Police officers and security guards who protect the clinics? Elected officials who vote for pro-choice policies? Ordinary citizens who vote for those politicians? I'm pro-choice; am I on their target list? Are you?

I don't think most of the posters on RedState have any stomach for actual violence, no matter what they say. Most of them are just empty braggarts, swaggering chest-beaters who want to show how strong and tough they are by playacting the role of heroic revolutionaries. But even if they don't intend to follow through on their own words, when poisonous rhetoric like this becomes normalized and common, there will inevitably be others who see that as permission. Horribly, that seems to be just what happened in the murder of Ugandan gay-rights advocate David Kato:

A prominent gay rights activist, whose photo was printed on the front page of a Ugandan newspaper that called for homosexuals to be hanged, was bludgeoned to death at his home after weeks of death threats and harassment...

I wrote last year about the bloody-handed American evangelicals who encouraged brutal anti-gay legislation in Uganda with apocalyptic rhetoric. If David Kato's murder was inspired in part by the rampant homophobia they sowed, as seems likely, they now have more blood on their hands. (See also this outstanding article on Dangerous Intersection about the atheist movement in Uganda.)

The depths of how bad Christian homophobia has gotten in Uganda can be seen in the unbelievable excuse offered by the editor of the newspaper:

After Wednesday's killing, Giles Muhame, the editor of Rolling Stone, condemned the murder and said the paper had not wanted gays to be attacked. "If he has been murdered, that's bad and we pray for his soul," Muhame told Reuters. "There has been a lot of crime, it may not be because he is gay. We want the government to hang people who promote homosexuality, not for the public to attack them. We said they should be hanged, not stoned or attacked."

Stories like these make me despair for Africa's lonely, brave freethinkers - people like Micheal Mpagi, or Leo Igwe, or Alain Mouanga - fighting heroically against a rising tide of savage, brutal theocrats aided and abetted by their American evangelical cousins. The darkness is so vast, and the light-carriers so few. Can we advocates of reason hope to stand against it and triumph?

January 31, 2011, 6:57 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink17 comments

Abortion Care at Catholic Hospitals

"When There's a Heartbeat: Miscarriage Management in Catholic-Owned Hospitals." American Journal of Public Health, vol.98, no.10 (October 2008).

While writing my recent post about how the Catholic church ordered a hospital to let a pregnant woman die, I came across this letter from the ACLU about hospitals' legal obligation not to deny life-saving care. And I noticed that the letter mentioned an article in the American Journal of Public Health about "religiously-affiliated hospitals denying emergency reproductive care to patients".

Well, I went and found that article, which was published in the October 2008 edition and is available for free online, and it's even more appalling than the subject matter implies. The authors of the paper interviewed doctors working at Catholic hospitals in different parts of the U.S. They observe that "Catholic-owned hospitals are the largest group of religiously owned nonprofit hospitals", about 15% of those in the country, and in some regions they're the only hospitals available. Many women go to them for convenience, or because they're the nearest one in an emergency, without knowing in advance how this limits their options for both routine and emergency care.

In the Phoenix case, permission to perform a life-saving abortion on a critically ill woman was granted by the hospital's ethics committee, including a Catholic nun, Margaret McBride (who was, naturally, excommunicated for her sin of valuing a woman's life over a bishop's dogma). But at other Catholic hospitals, the ethics committees aren't always so rational and compassionate. In several cases detailed in the paper, as long as there was a fetal heartbeat, doctors were instructed to do nothing - even if a miscarriage was in process, even if the woman was hemorrhaging, even if she'd become septic. One doctor's account in particular turned my stomach:

I'll never forget this; it was awful — I had one of my partners accept this patient at 19 weeks. The pregnancy was in the vagina. It was over... And so he takes this patient and transferred her to [our] tertiary medical center, which I was just livid about, and, you know, "we're going to save the pregnancy." So of course, I'm on call when she gets septic, and she's septic to the point that I'm pushing pressors on labor and delivery trying to keep her blood pressure up, and I have her on a cooling blanket because she's 106 degrees. And I needed to get everything out. And so I put the ultrasound machine on and there was still a heartbeat, and [the ethics committee] wouldn't let me because there was still a heartbeat. This woman is dying before our eyes. I went in to examine her, and I was able to find the umbilical cord through the membranes and just snapped the umbilical cord and so that I could put the ultrasound — "Oh look. No heartbeat. Let's go." She was so sick she was in the [intensive care unit] for about 10 days and very nearly died... Her bleeding was so bad that the sclera, the white of her eyes, were red, filled with blood... And I said, "I just can't do this. I can't put myself behind this. This is not worth it to me." That's why I left.

As you'd expect, most doctors suffer agonies of conscience when forbidden to save the life of a dying woman. This one ignored the hospital's orders and covertly cut the umbilical cord, slightly speeding up an inevitable fetal death, so that he could get permission for an abortion while there was still time to save the woman's life - and even so, she hovered on the brink of death for days afterward.

In another case where a woman was septic and hemorrhaging, the doctor was told by a colleague to put her in a bed and try to keep her alive with blood transfusions until the fetus died. Another doctor sent her critically ill patient to the nearest secular hospital, a 90-mile ambulance ride, because she judged that this long and hazardous journey would result in her getting a needed abortion more quickly than waiting for the ethics committee at her own hospital to give permission.

In none of these cases did the woman actually die, although it's statistically all but certain that it's happened at least a few times. But regardless of the actual outcomes, these accounts show the Catholic hierarchy's cold, callous attitude. Whether a woman dies is of no importance to them, so long as their dogma is respected, and they're ready and willing to enforce that on every woman who comes into their power. The most hideous absurdity is that these monsters have the audacity to label themselves "pro-life", when their beliefs have the exact opposite effect in practice.

These stories resemble nothing so much as the Catholic-backed anti-abortion law in El Salvador, in which no abortion is permitted for any reason, not even to save the woman's life, as long as there's a fetal heartbeat. Even women with ectopic pregnancies are denied abortion until their Fallopian tubes rupture inside them. If the bishops had their way, that sadistic, woman-killing policy would be the law of the land in the United States and throughout the world. These stories are further proof, if any was needed, that society's embrace of this or any other religious dogma is incompatible with the life and health of women, and that hospitals must not be allowed to use religion as a justification for withholding the life-saving treatments that science and reason make possible.

January 5, 2011, 6:46 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink75 comments

The Dignity of Human Life

I've been criticizing the Roman Catholic church a lot this year, but I can't help it: every month, they're in the headlines again with some new outrage that I can't let pass. And now they've done it again.

In November 2009, a woman - three months pregnant, and already a mother of four - came to St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix. She was suffering from pulmonary hypertension, a life-threatening complication of pregnancy that can lead to stroke or heart failure. Her condition was worsening, and the doctors judged that if she continued her pregnancy, her death was certain. They therefore carried out the only possible treatment, a surgical abortion.

But St. Joseph's is also a Catholic hospital. In May, Thomas Olmsted, the bishop of Phoenix, declared that Margaret McBride, a nun serving on the hospital's ethics committee, was "automatically excommunicated" because she had consented to the abortion (see also). Olmsted demanded that the hospital certify that such a procedure would never occur there again, not even to save a woman's life. To their credit, the hospital refused, and Olmsted responded by officially stripping them of their Catholic affiliation. The contrast between their words and beliefs - one concerned with saving human lives, the other with obedience to religious dogma - couldn't be clearer:

Linda Hunt, president of St. Joseph's, said doctors performed a necessary procedure on a patient who was getting worse by the minute and was in imminent danger of death.

"If we are presented with a situation in which a pregnancy threatens a woman's life, our first priority is to save both patients. If that is not possible, we will always save the life we can save, and that is what we did in this case," Hunt said. "Morally, ethically, and legally, we simply cannot stand by and let someone die whose life we might be able to save."

"In point of fact, throughout our dialogue and cooperative efforts during these last few months, it is more than apparent that the position of [St. Joseph's hospital] is that discerning minds can disagree... But this resolution is unacceptable because it disregards my authority and responsibility to interpret the moral law and to teach the Catholic faith as a Successor of the Apostles."

Since the hospital wasn't owned or financially supported by the church, the actual impact of this decision is nil. The only real change is that Mass will no longer be held in the chapel. But the bishop's decision sends a clear message about what he values, and that message is that women's health and lives are of no concern to the Vatican. Ironically, the church is echoing the position of its bitterest enemy, Martin Luther, who allegedly said, "Even though women grow weary and wear themselves out with child-bearing, it does not matter; let them go on bearing children till they die, that is what they are there for."

What's most appalling is that the bishop's letter to the hospital doesn't argue any of the facts at issue. He doesn't dispute that the woman's life was in grave danger, or that abortion was the only possible treatment. If his position was that abortion can be justified if it's the only way to save the woman's life but that this was not the case in this instance, you'd expect him to dispute these facts. But he doesn't. The only possible conclusion is that his opinion, and by extension the Catholic church's opinion, is that in future cases like this one, the doctors should do nothing and the woman and the fetus should both be left to die.

This is of a piece with the church's other decisions consistently valuing obedience to dogma above human lives and well-being, such as their well-known stance that they'd rather see children go homeless than place them with loving, stable same-sex parents, and that they'd rather see Africans die of AIDS than encourage them to use condoms. Their contempt for women's lives - treating them as disposable baby-making machines, to be discarded when worn out or defective - is a continuation of this.

But in the end, however much the bishop may sputter and stamp his feet, the wicked and heartless church lost and the good guys won. There are four children who still have their mother because human rights and rationality prevailed over this petty medieval principality. If the bishop wants to withdraw his endorsement from this hospital for saving a woman's life, then I'm glad: it only underscores the point of how useless and irrelevant the Catholic hierarchy has become. It makes no difference to the hospital's continued ability to restore health and save lives.

There are Catholic individuals, like Margaret McBride, who are people of courage and conscience, who run schools, hospitals and other important and necessary institutions. But for the most part, their views are more progressive than the pompous, tyrannical old men who run the church. Nearly every moral advance that's been helped along by Catholic laypeople has been made in direct defiance of the hierarchy, and as the church shrinks and grows even more conservative, this will probably become all the more true.

December 29, 2010, 6:22 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink19 comments

In Praise of Human Diversity

The Nobel committee has awarded this year's prize in physiology or medicine to Dr. Robert Edwards, a pioneer of in vitro fertilization. Given how long ago this achievement took place, this decision is surely meant to be read partially as a political statement - an implicit rebuke of the right-wing churches that want to deny people the right to exercise control over their own bodies.

And right on cue, the Roman Catholic church stepped in to once again remind us of its existence:

The Vatican-based International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations also expressed its dismay about the Nobel committee's announcement.

Jose Simon Castellvi, the federation's president, said: "Although IVF has brought happiness to the many couples who have conceived through this process, it has done so at an enormous cost. That cost is the undermining of the dignity of the human person."

A 2008 document on bioethics issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith repeated earlier Vatican condemnations of in vitro fertilisation because it separates procreation from the conjugal act in marriage...

Whatever else you can say about them, at least the Catholic hierarchy realizes the implications of their own beliefs. A normal IVF cycle involves the fertilization of multiple eggs, of which only one is usually implanted and the rest discarded - so if a fertilized egg is a person possessing a soul, then fertility clinics would be engaging in destruction of human life akin to abortion. So it makes sense, given their starting premises, that they'd be opposed to that as well. On the other hand, you have to admit that their opposition seems much more perfunctory, compared to the time, energy and effort they spend trying to stop abortion. When was the last time you heard of someone being denied communion for having a test-tube baby, or pro-lifers picketing a fertility clinic?

But regardless, their position is still a ridiculous and irrational superstition. A fertilized egg is not a person, just as an acorn is not an oak tree. Personhood requires sentience, consciousness, thoughts, feelings, and the zygote has none of these. It's a seed from which those qualities may someday develop, but only if a long and complicated chain of developmental events occurs successfully. If that chain of events doesn't occur, the zygote has no more chance of becoming a human being than a swab of cheek cells.

In truth, I find the Catholic church's ranting against IVF more than a little sad and comical. They really haven't advanced at all since the Dark Ages, and their attempts to interpret the world of the 21st century through the lens of a medieval worldview are pitiably ridiculous. Even after everything we've learned about how the mind arises from the brain, and how an intricate genetic program choreographs the development of a ball of cells into a thinking, feeling human being, the Catholic theologians continue to insist that personhood exists solely in virtue of possessing an undetectable supernatural appendage called a soul. This idea is of the same vintage as the belief that the solar system is a set of nested crystalline spheres, and bears just as much correspondence to reality.

But there is one thing about this that's truly offensive, and that's the belief - not unique to Catholics, but found among the hierarchs of most religions - that there is only one acceptable way to live, and that they alone are the authorities who know what it is. If anything at all disrespects "the dignity of the human person", it's telling people how they must lead their lives - only one kind of birth, one kind of love, one kind of marriage, one kind of death that's allowable, and that they're sinful and disordered if they don't conform.

The true nature of human beings is diversity - diversity in who we love, in how we pledge our commitment, in how we organize our families, in how we react to the slings and arrows of fate - and there is more than one way to lead a healthy, happy, ethical life. As long as religious fundamentalists deny this and try to force all human beings onto the one narrow path they deem permissible, they will deserve only scorn and condemnation.

October 7, 2010, 9:22 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink33 comments

Ensuring Access to Abortion

As a neutral observer of religion, one of the most striking characteristics I find is the rampant misogyny in nearly every religion in the world. Worldwide, women are denigrated as lesser beings, barred from positions of leadership, commanded to be subservient, and told that they're weaker or more sinful than men. Even in the relatively few religions where women play a significant role, it tends to be a late-arising development brought about by modern moral progress. By comparison, just consider how many major world religions clearly state in their founding documents that women and men are equal (can you think of any?). Why is the hatred and oppression of women such a common thread, even in faiths that otherwise have nothing in common?

In the wake of some recent discussions about feminism, I had an inspiration, and I'd like to share it: it's rooted in how religion propagates itself.

Despite the evangelistic efforts of some faiths, it's clear that the primary vector of religious memes is vertical, from parents to children. And conservative religious leaders know very well that women hold the key to that effort. Given the choice, most women limit the size of their families, but it's not in the best interests of religious authorities to allow that. Hence, all their misogynist rhetoric, demands for female subservience, opposition to sex education and contraception, and alloting sole authority over sex to men (who, it has to be said, have far less at stake): all part of a strategy to ensure that women don't exercise control over when or whether to have children.

This suggests a counterstrategy: to advance the atheist cause and stop the spread of religions that seek to grow by proliferation, we have to work to ensure that women have access to contraception, abortion and other reproductive health services. And for that reason, I was very pleased to read this article about a massive charitable gift by Warren Buffett:

Last year, The Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, named for Buffett's first wife, who died in 2005, gave more than $2 million each to Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Abortion Access Project Inc. and Washington-based Catholics for Choice and more than $40 million to Ipas, which works to expand the availability of safe abortions and provides reproductive health care.

There's also this encouraging article, "The New Abortion Providers". It details how doctors' groups are making a greater effort to train abortion providers and bring them into the medical mainstream, while anti-choice activists' attempts to intimidate and harass doctors are meeting with less success than they used to. There's an important point in it that clinics which only offer family planning services are easy for zealots to target, whereas if abortion care is brought into hospitals and performed like any other procedure, it makes it much more difficult for them.

And besides charitable gifts and support from the medical profession, there's one more very effective way we can give women control over their own reproductive destinies: make it possible for women to abort a pregnancy themselves, without having to travel or find a cooperative doctor or clinic. That's why I was greatly encouraged to read this column by Nicholas Kristof about the increasing use of misopristol, a cheap, common drug used to treat ulcers and hemorrhaging. It's one component of the RU-486 pill, but it's almost as effective at terminating pregnancy if taken on its own. It also causes a miscarriage indistinguishable from a natural one, which is crucial in countries whose theocratic laws punish women who are found to have exerted control over their own biology.

Unfortunately, there are still such countries. One of them is the Philippines, whose laws are largely dictated by the Catholic church. Abortion is outlawed there without exception, with the following result:

According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, more than half a million Filipino women undergo illegal abortions every year. Of this number, 90,000 suffer complications, and a thousand eventually die, the center said. Abortion-related complications, it said, are one of the top 10 causes of hospitalization among women in the Philippines. According to the World Health Organization, 20 percent of maternal deaths in the country are a result of unsafe abortions.

It's often observed, but still indisputably true: outlawing abortion doesn't prevent abortion, it just makes women more likely to die or be maimed in the bargain. As in many other countries around the world, Filipino women's lives are being sacrificed on the altar of Catholic dogma, their bodies treated as breeding stock to produce more children for the church. Atheists and freethinkers have every reason to stand against this - to reduce the power of a tyrannical religion, to promote human happiness by ensuring that every child is wanted, and to defend human liberty. But if we're ever going to succeed, we need to build alliances with all women and treat them as full and equal partners in the effort, capable of exercising autonomy over their bodies and minds alike.

August 6, 2010, 5:47 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink110 comments

Spread the Good News

By Richard Hollis (aka Ritchie)

Two rather interesting and welcome stories have hit the headlines in as many days that I thought I'd bring up here.

The first bit of news is that from next week, for the first time, an abortion advisory service is to screen an advert on TV in Britain. Centred around the slogan 'Are you late?' the commercial will advertise the services of the organisation Marie Stopes, which offers advice on sexual health matters, including abortion services.

Abortion has been legal in Britain since the Abortion Act of 1967, but Marie Stopes is adamant that there is a need to promote sexual health issues. "Clearly there are hundreds of thousands of women who want and need sexual health information and advice, and access to services." (source)

Unsurprisingly this has been met by a backlash from pro-life organisations who insist that the advert will be promoting abortion. The campaign Pro-Life had this to say: "The purpose of an abortion commercial is clearly to 'sell' abortion and it will not provide full information about foetal development, the abortion procedure itself, the health risks which abortion poses for women, let alone the alternatives to abortion." (source) While religious organisations are more hysterical. "These adverts will just mean more women will end up on the abortion industry conveyor belt," said the Christian Medical Fellowship. "Getting an abortion is not like buying soap powder, and it shouldn’t be advertised on TV," said the Christian Institute. (source)

I for one, however, am delighted at the news. This is more than about advertising a particular helpline - it is about introducing the topic of sexual health into the public domain and breaking through this taboo topic. It is about power and control. It is about shame and repression.

While the media is absolutely awash with images of a superhuman ideal of female perfection, marketing everything from cosmetics to operations to endow youth and beauty, actual frank discussion about sexual health is still woefully sparse. If organisations which promote impartial advice on such matters are not to be advertised, then how are women to know about them? How are they to know the options if faced with an unplanned pregnancy?

Presumably pro-life groups would prefer it if women never knew about such organisations - and never needed to. Women should never have sex unless they intend to get pregnant and then should turn into good little breeding machines.

Granted I haven't actually SEEN the advert. For all I know it might be the tasteless promotion of cheerful abortion Pro-Life and the Christian Institute envisage. But I doubt it. I am confident this is nothing more than an impartial advisory service offering their services. And its presence encourages open debate on a sensitive subject. I applaud this and certainly intend to tune in to watch its first screening (Monday 24th May, Channel 4, 22.10, to those who want to do the same).

The second news item is that US scientists, led by Dr Craig Venter has developed a cell controlled entirely by synthetic DNA. He and his team had already succeeded in transplanting a genome from one bacterium into another, and in creating a synthetic bacterial genome, but this is the first time they have combined the two already remarkable achievements. (source)

The potential of this breakthrough is massive. This could be the start of gigantic leaps in the fields of medicine, biology, and even climate change. It is also another milestone reached by dedicated scientists doing empirical research into unlocking the mysteries of life itself.

As the religious right never tire of reminding us, we don't know exactly how life started or works. We do not have all the answers. Yet we are making progress. Scientific investigation based on methodological naturalism and materialism is yielding results. Answers are being uncovered. And those who care about human progress should rejoice that we are one step nearer to an answer which will never be found just by sitting around in slack-jawed bewilderment at how complex everything is and concluding magic fills in the gaps in our knowledge.

The rather tepid reaction to scientific progress was demonstrated well by the Vatican's response to the news. While, to their credit, Catholic church officials praised the pioneering scientists, they tempered this with words of caution. "Pretending to be God and parroting his power of creation is an enormous risk that can plunge men into a barbarity," warned one. "In the wrong hands, today's development can lead tomorrow to a devastating leap in the dark," cautioned another. (source)

So it's, 'Well done on getting us this far, but think twice before you take us any further', is it? How encouraging.

While outraged accusations of 'playing God' and visions of the imminent zombie apocalypse inevitably accompany the experiment, I am left wondering if there has ever been a significant scientific achievement that was NOT met with such cries? Were we 'playing God' when we performed the first organ transplant? When we discovered antibiotics? When we drew up the periodic table? When we discovered how to make fire?

Yes, new technology always needs to be handled with caution. But that is no reason to be afraid of it. Science puts the 'ability' in 'responsability' (if you spell it wrong).

May 21, 2010, 4:00 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink23 comments

Weekly Link Roundup

I'm happy to report that there's quite a lot of good news this week:

• The U.K. government recommends that primary school religious education classes should teach about "secular beliefs such as humanism and atheism", in addition to learning about major world religions like Christianity, Buddhism and Islam. This is just one more symptom of how far ahead of us our European friends are in some respects - can you imagine the religious right frenzy that would ensue if a U.S. politician recommended teaching about atheism in public high schools?

• In a story that made me especially happy, Andrew Wakefield, the pseudoscientific doctor who's almost single-handedly responsible for the anti-vaccination movement, was found to have seriously abused his trust as a medical practitioner by a U.K. ethics panel. According to the ruling, Wakefield ordered unnecessary and invasive tests on autistic children (including spinal taps and colonoscopies), without securing proper ethical approval, in the paper that claimed a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. He also failed to disclose major conflicts of interest (he was being paid by trial lawyers looking to file claims against vaccine manufacturers). The General Medical Council ruled that Wakefield was "dishonest, irresponsible and showed callous disregard for the distress and pain" of the children, and is still evaluating a charge of professional misconduct that could lead to Wakefield's losing his license to practice medicine.

• And lastly, I'm glad to report that Scott Roeder, the Christian terrorist who shot and killed Dr. George Tiller, was convicted of first-degree murder by a Kansas jury this week. The judge rejected the defense's ludicrous request that the jury be allowed to consider voluntary manslaughter, and they returned the verdict after just 37 minutes of deliberation. Roeder faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison, the most fitting punishment for a cold-blooded and vicious killer like himself.

Although the cause of justice was served, this verdict can't undo the damage; Dr. Tiller's clinic will be closing for good, which means in a way that Roeder got exactly what he wanted. Still, the verdict sends a message that anti-choice zealots cannot commit these crimes with impunity. It may not be enough to discourage future acts of terrorism against abortion providers, but at least we have assurance that the rule of law is still operative in America.

January 30, 2010, 11:00 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink5 comments

Book Review: The Means of Reproduction

Summary: An outstanding book, broad in its sweep and compelling in its use of fascinating detail, that paints a clear picture of the international forces opposing women's rights - and what's at stake in the fight against them.

I've said in the past that I believe all feminists should be atheists, the better to deny power and legitimacy to the religious belief systems that have treated women unjustly throughout history. But after reading Michelle Goldberg's outstanding new book The Means of Reproduction, I'm convinced that the converse is also true: all atheists should be feminists, in recognition of how many of the goals of religious fundamentalists entail the subjugation of women, and how effectively we can defeat them at home and around the world by working to uphold gender equality.

Goldberg's book examines the state of women's rights throughout the world and explores how the inevitable clashes with fundamentalist religion and traditionalist culture play out in the lives of millions of women. It's not, as I had assumed, primarily about the culture wars in the U.S. over abortion - although both abortion and American culture war politics do play a central role. But the legal and cultural equilibrium in this country hasn't changed much in the past several decades, and as Goldberg brilliantly shows, by far the most consequential impact of America's shifting political winds isn't felt at home, but abroad.

The opening chapters of the book offer a historical perspective on this fight by showing how, ironically, the U.S. was once the biggest provider of contraception and abortion services to developing countries worldwide. This happened during the Cold War era, when Malthusian fears of overpopulation were intertwined with concerns over the spread of communism in impoverished countries. The ways that American politicians lined up to combat this seem bizarre to anyone used to today's ideological battle lines. (One of many great tidbits is that former president George H.W. Bush, when he served in Congress, was so zealous an advocate of contraception that he was nicknamed "Rubbers".) By fighting overpopulation, politicians hoped to check the spread of Marxism - and so the U.S. in its heyday spent millions of dollars to launch family-planning clinics and distribute birth control pills around the world.

But these programs, in many cases, were victims of their own success. Most of them focused only on preventing births, while doing little or nothing else to help or empower the poor and disenfranchised women who most needed them. As a result, the growing international conservative movement, which took off during the Reagan administration, was able to frame them as Western racism and cultural imperialism - a charge that was not always without merit. Today, the worldwide feminist movement is opposed by a bizarre, but equally transnational, coalition of Christian and Islamic conservatives who join together in defense of patriarchy - often working hand-in-hand at the U.N. even as they denounce each other at home.

Goldberg next traces the origins of the international conservative movement. At the root of this bitter tree stands the Roman Catholic church, which was and is the staunchest opponent of women's rights in the world - as she points out, even Islamic theocracies like Saudi Arabia and Iran have a more permissive view of abortion than the Vatican. There are some truly amazing details here: I was startled to learn that a papal commission in the 1960s actually recommended that the Catholic ban on birth control be lifted - but Pope Paul VI overruled his own commission's advice and issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae, reiterating the church's absolute ban on contraception. Several prominent bishops explained at the time that the pope had to do this, because anything else would have been a tacit admission that the church's prior beliefs were wrong and that can never be permitted, regardless of the consequences.

But the Catholic church alone was largely ineffective in stemming the tide of women's rights, until it was joined by conservative Christians from other denominations. Goldberg argues that, contrary to popular belief, it wasn't Roe v. Wade that galvanized Protestant evangelicals into entering politics, but the rise of the feminist movement that threatened traditional notions of the patriarchal family and the subservient wife. This reactionary movement, which began mostly in America, has been exported abroad in recent decades. The effects can be seen in Latin American countries like El Salvador, where pro-life groups have triumphed. In these countries, women who come to the hospital hemorrhaging from a miscarriage are handcuffed to their hospital beds until they can be examined by forensic vagina inspectors, to ensure they didn't obtain an illegal abortion; other women die horribly from ruptured Fallopian tubes because their country's laws don't permit abortion even in the case of an ectopic pregnancy.

However, not all anti-woman practices come from religion. In Africa, we learn of a few incredibly brave activists fighting the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation, a tribal custom which predates Islam but has been perpetuated by many Islamic societies. In even the mildest versions of FGM, the woman's clitoris is sliced off with crude instruments like scissors or razors, without anesthetic. (This is the practice that Ayaan Hirsi Ali was subjected to as a child.) But there are even more extreme versions, such as infibulation, in which the woman's clitoris is cut off and her vagina is sewn shut, leaving only a tiny hole to urinate - on her wedding night, her husband must literally rip her open. Bizarrely, this practice is still defended by some women - even well-educated, cosmopolitan women - who argue that it's an ineradicable part of their culture and a necessary step of womanhood.

As the FGM controversy shows, feminist issues don't always play out along familiar ideological lines. In India, Goldberg discusses the rampant practice of sex-selective abortion, which has led to dramatically skewed sex ratios - in some areas, as imbalanced as 700 women to every 1000 men. The resulting demand for wives not only encourages human trafficking and sexual slavery, but poses a threat to societal stability from the millions of angry, frustrated, unmarriageable young men.

Yet India is a clear example of the principle Goldberg repeatedly returns to: the root problem isn't the availability of birth control, but the need for female emancipation. She describes how India's growing wealth has encouraged an explosion of ever-more exorbitant demands for dowry, making daughters more and more of a financial drain on their families and increasing the pressure to have sons. Shockingly, in some places, dowry has become not just a one-time payment but a steady stream of demands from the groom's family - and if the woman's parents refuse to pay, their daughter may be beaten or murdered by her own husband and in-laws. The depth of the problem is summed up in a local saying she quotes: "Having a daughter is like watering your neighbor's garden."

But despite all the horrible sexism that Goldberg chronicles, all the discrimination and oppression she details, her conclusions are not wholly pessimistic. The cause of women's rights is advancing, albeit frustratingly slowly and haltingly, but advancing nevertheless.

One of her arguments that came as a revelation to me is that the United Nations does a lot more good than most people are aware of. Its treaties and resolutions on the rights of women, so often disparaged as powerless symbolism, have had major, concrete effects in reforming the legal systems of many countries and establishing reproductive choice as a human right before national and international judicial bodies.

Second, as I mentioned earlier, Goldberg argues convincingly that the greatest effects of American politics are felt abroad rather than at home. Abortion politics in the U.S. have settled into an uneasy but stable equilibrium, one that changes little regardless of which party is in power. But in the developing world, it makes a huge difference whether and to whom the U.S. provides aid. The most infamous example is the "global gag rule", which forbids family planning groups that receive any federal aid from providing, or even acknowledging the existence of, abortion. This rule, which has been repeatedly canceled by Democratic presidents and reinstated by Republican presidents, makes all the difference in developing countries whose only source of family planning aid is the U.S. When in effect, it's forced the closure of countless clinics that provide not just contraception or abortion, but also prenatal care, checkups, vaccinations, and other help for new mothers and families.

There's even more in this book that I haven't mentioned, but I've written enough to support the conclusions from my opening words. Goldberg makes a clear and compelling case that all the evils she mentions, all the battles that feminist groups are fighting, all of this stems from the same source: the refusal to recognize women as full human beings with equal rights, including autonomy over their own bodies and the right to decide for themselves when and whether to have children. This pervasive sexism is still entrenched throughout the world, and although religion isn't solely to blame for this, it has always been the strongest and most enduring friend to patriarchy. Only when its malignant influence is defeated will women truly be free. And conversely, by freeing women, we take one of the most effective steps to roll back religion's power and influence.

January 18, 2010, 7:19 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink98 comments

Blood Transfusion Foe Defies Party on Health Care Bill

By Sarah Braasch

The following is a parody of a recent New York Times interview with Representative Bart Stupak of Michigan, which may be read here:


This parody constitutes a 'fair use' of this copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law, 17 U.S.C. § 107

Representative Sarah Braasch often endures things others find unbearable. She crisscrosses a Congressional district so vast that some constituents live eight hours apart and so cold that the beer at her beloved football games sometimes freezes. Years ago, as a state trooper, she blew out her knee chasing a suspect, and she has since had so many operations that she now returns to work the same day, toting crutches and ice.

After her younger son committed suicide in 2000, using the congresswoman's gun, Ms. Braasch soon resumed her predawn commute to Washington and her solid voting record with the National Rifle Association.

Now she is enduring more hatred than perhaps any other member of Congress, much of it from fellow Democrats. Her name has become a slogan: "Stop Braasch!"

Ebonmuse, her chief of staff, said wearily, "I can't tell you how many New Yorkers have called me up and yelled at me about this Braasch woman."

With final negotiations on a health care overhaul beginning this week, complaints about "the evil Braasch amendment," as the congresswoman dryly called it over dinner here recently, are likely to grow even louder. The amendment prevents anyone who receives federal insurance subsidies from buying blood transfusion coverage – but critics assert it could cause those who buy their own insurance difficulty in obtaining coverage.

Ms. Braasch insists that the final bill include her terms, which she says merely reflect current law. If she prevails, she will have won an audacious, counterintuitive victory, forcing a Democratic-controlled Congress to pass a measure that will be hailed as an anti-blood transfusion triumph. If party members do not accept her terms – and many vow they will not – Ms. Braasch is prepared to block passage of the health care overhaul.

"It's not the end of the world if it goes down," she said over dinner. She did not sound downbeat about the prospect of being blamed for blocking the long-sought goal of President Obama and a chain of presidents and legislators before her. "Then you get the message," she continued. "Fix the blood transfusion language and bring the bill back."

Ms. Braasch says her stand is a straightforward matter of Jehovah's Witness faith, but it also seems like the result of a long, slow burn. As dinner progressed, the congresswoman described years of feeling ignored, slighted or marginalized by her party for her anti-blood transfusion views.

"We're members without a party," she said. "Democrats are mad at you, and Republicans don't trust you."

Ms. Braasch, 57, with a mane of thick auburn hair and the stare of a law school professor, is a Yooper, a resident of this state's Upper Peninsula – snowy and hushed in winter, lush and tourist-filled in summer.

Her father attended the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead before marrying and later also sent his 10 children to the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead until the money ran out. As a state trooper, Ms. Braasch worked the highways but also trailed Ku Klux Klan members and drove home drunken state legislators. She attended law school at night, spent a term in the State Legislature, and then ran for Congress in 1992.

In the primary, she beat a candidate who supported blood transfusion rights. But when she tried to hire Democratic political consultants for the general election, they refused – with expletives, she says – to work for a candidate with her views.

Ms. Braasch won anyway, and her freshman year in Washington, she requested but did not receive a seat on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee. "I had one or two members tell me I'd never get on because I'm right-to-blood," she said.

She cannot run for governor, she continued, because no one with her stands on guns and blood transfusions can win in Michigan.

When Republicans ruled Washington, her fellow Democrats had to listen to anti-blood transfusion views, she said. But, with Democratic victories, blood transfusion rights supporters felt their time had come.

"You're never getting a right-to-blood amendment," Ms. Braasch said Representative D, Democrat of New York and chairwoman of the Rules Committee, told her during health care negotiations. "We have pro-choice Democrats in the White House. We have majorities in the House and the Senate. You're done."

In a phone interview, D said she did not recall the conversation.

But Democratic control of the House carries a paradox: because the party expanded by winning what had been Republican districts, it has more members who oppose federal financing for blood transfusions and restrictions on guns. Ms. Braasch's measure on blood transfusions passed the House with the support of 64 Democrats.

"Before, when we talked about pro-blood Democrats, you'd get a snicker and a laugh," she said. "We were just always overlooked. We're not overlooked anymore."

Now the disagreement over blood transfusion financing has become a game of chicken, with Ms. Braasch saying she and 10 or 11 others, whom she would not name, will vote against a final bill that does not meet her standards, and some backers of blood transfusion rights threatening to do the same in what is expected to be a close vote.

Last fall, Ms. Braasch told constituents that even if her amendment failed, she would still vote yes on the overall health care legislation – she merely wanted to vote her conscience first. Now she says that statement applied only to the bill's early version.

"You fight for a principle you've believed in your whole life, then you fold up the tent?" she said.

Some of Ms. Braasch's colleagues on the other side of the blood transfusion issue offer a different version of her lonely-woman-of-principle story. She has hardly been an outcast within her own party, they say; two years after being elected, she joined the Energy and Commerce Committee, and now serves as chairwoman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee. Like Ms. Braasch, they say they have worked for months to avert precisely this sort of standoff. And they accuse her of being less of a brave holdout than an instrument of conservative Jehovah's Witness and anti-blood transfusion organizations.

"The National Right to Blood Committee and the Governing Body of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society saw this as a way to vastly increase restrictions on choice," said Representative Slater, Democrat of Colorado, who is a chief deputy House whip and co-chairman, with D, of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus.

Ms. Braasch was "not given very much negotiating room" by those organizations, Slater said. Now "she's gotten herself into a corner where she says it's my amendment or it's nothing."

(Ms. Braasch says she urged the Governing Body of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society to toughen its stance on the legislation; representatives from the Society and the National Right to Blood Committee did not return calls.)

For now, as she mulls her return to Washington, Ms. Braasch is canvassing her district, adding to the 180,000 miles on her Oldsmobile, and grilling – in the snow, without a jacket – at her lakeside log-cabin home for her wife, Ophelia.

She is trying to pass the health care overhaul, she insists, not sabotage it, and predicts that the legislation will ultimately collapse for reasons apart from blood transfusions. But she will be blamed anyway, she is sure.

"I get the distinct impression that I'm the last woman the president wants to see," she said.

January 16, 2010, 10:00 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink61 comments

Representative Theocracy

By Sarah Braasch

Representative Bart Stupak from Michigan was paraphrased in a recent New York Times interview as saying that his resolve to defeat the healthcare reform bill, unless the bill includes his anti-abortion amendment language, is a straightforward matter of Roman Catholic faith. The article states that Representative Stupak said that he actually urged the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to toughen its stance on the legislation. Representative Stupak is also quoted as saying: "It's not the end of the world if it goes down."

What?!?! Let me say that again. WTF?!?!

I don't understand how something like this goes unnoticed and unmentioned.

How does he get a free pass on saying something like that in his capacity as a US Representative? How does he not get called out on that?

He just proclaimed to the press that he holds religious law in higher esteem than the US Constitution. He just stated, unequivocally, that he intends to impose religious law upon the American citizenry. He just asserted that he intends to defeat healthcare reform unless religious law is deemed the supreme law of the land, usurping the position of the US Constitution.

I am trying to imagine the reaction if Representative Keith Ellison from Minnesota were to say something similar. Keith Ellison is the first Muslim member of the US Congress. I am trying to imagine the resulting tumult and uproar if he were to defy his Democratic Party and vote in opposition to its platform, all the while maintaining that he was doing so as a straightforward matter of his Islamic faith, because he holds the tenets of Islam in higher esteem than the US Constitution, because the Quran and the Hadith demand that he impose Sharia (Islamic Law) upon American citizens, as a matter of principle and conscience. Does anyone honestly believe that a comment like that would go unnoticed in a New York Times interview?

Representative Stupak took an oath to support and defend the US Constitution. He is openly admitting to violating the Establishment Clause of the Constitution by attempting to establish religious law as US Federal Law. He may not seek recourse under the Free Exercise or Free Speech Clauses, because federal congressional legislation is textbook government speech. He is not acting as a private individual citizen when he acts in his capacity as a US Representative in Congress.

Is there something about the Establishment Clause of the US Constitution, which Representative Stupak fails to understand? I find it fairly straightforward myself. In case you had forgotten, I am including our glorious First Amendment to the United States Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

There is no religious test for public office, but there should be a competency test for public office, to determine if one is capable of maintaining the separation between church and state, if one is capable of NOT violating the Establishment Clause of the US Constitution, if one is capable of comprehending the difference between government speech and the private speech of an individual citizen.

If immigrants desiring citizenship must take a test that demonstrates their knowledge of the United States Constitution, then maybe we should require the same of our Representatives and Senators, since they are also being asked to take an oath or affirmation to support and defend the Constitution and all.

For the record, I am not Catholic. I reject Roman Catholicism. And, I am deeply and personally offended that Mr. Stupak would abuse his position as a US Congressman by attempting to force me to kneel to Roman Catholic doctrine as a matter of US Federal Law in direct violation of our Constitution.

And, even if I were Catholic, what entitles Representative Stupak to interpret the tenets of Roman Catholicism on my behalf? I didn't realize we had a Theologian Laureate in the United States of America. Thank God for Representative Stupak from Michigan. Thank God we have Representative Stupak to interpret Catholic doctrine and then legislate accordingly on our behalf.

I can sleep easy now. Congress is looking after my spiritual wellbeing. Congress is looking after my soul.

Of course Representative Stupak doesn't care if healthcare reform passes or no. Of course he doesn't care how many American citizens continue to die unnecessarily. He isn't interested in saving our lives. He's interested in saving our souls. For Jesus. Nothing unconstitutional about that.

January 12, 2010, 6:51 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink52 comments

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