Flat Earth Follies: The Religious Right's Egg Crusade

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Taking its "life begins at conception" charade from State Legislature to State Legislature, one of the most dangerous political forces in the U.S. is stepping up its crusade for the "rights" of the unborn. Backed by an organization called Personhood USA, the latest offensive from the Religious Right involves a renewed movement to amend state constitutions to establish human rights and personhood status for fertilized eggs. Ever immune to morality, reason, church-state separation precedents and an understanding of the basic laws of biology, the most flat earth reactionary segment of the so-called pro-life movement wants to circumvent constitutional protections for abortion by conferring personhood on fertilized eggs. This would eviscerate the premise that women have a sovereign and singular right to control their bodies by designating rights even before implantation and a clinically viable pregnancy has been determined. For those who have any elementary grasp of the human reproductive process, conception does not automatically result in pregnancy and the majority of fertilized eggs never implant in the uterus. Yet if the egg crusade zealots had their way, these new edicts would potentially criminalize any woman attempting to use birth control pills or IUDs, and jeopardize in vitro fertilization procedures and stem cell research.

Though the egg crusade has failed to gain the imprimatur of the National Right to Life Committee, those who would dismiss such a campaign as too extreme to gain traction do so at their peril. According to the L.A. Times, earlier this year the egg crusaders were able to convince the North Dakota House of Representatives to pass a constitutional amendment on personhood, although it was later vetoed by the State Senate. Colorado voters also rejected a similar ballot initiative 73% to 27%. Yet in California the egg crusaders are collecting signatures and whipping up support for an amendment insidiously dubbed the California Human Rights Amendment.

One of the most reprehensible arguments that the egg crusaders make to bolster their cause is a comparison between their movement and the movement to abolish slavery. Their website cites Joshua Giddings, a 19th century American anti-slavery legislator who held that "God" as "author" of all life grants the inalienable right to life to every being. Following this argument it is unclear who is exactly "enslaving" pre-implanted fertilized eggs. Is it potential mothers who arrogantly lay claim to their own bodies? Is it the state for failing to protect the right of pre-implanted fertilized eggs to implantation? By cloaking its propaganda in the rhetoric of civil and human rights, the egg crusaders avoid delineation of the real life consequences for women, once again reducing them to vessels with no agency, right to privacy or control over their own bodies.

The website does not specify what rights un-implanted eggs would be conferred with other than, presumably, the right to progress to the implantation stage, fetal development and then birth. There are no details about who or what could act on the behalf of the un-implanted egg as person if the host carrier (formerly known as mother) of the egg were to determine that she should receive medical treatment. There was no information on who would legally be empowered to intervene or act on behalf of the un-implanted egg as person (the state perhaps?) to object to any stance that the mother might take. It stands to reason that if contraception were used to prevent the inalienable right of the egg as "person" to implant, then host carriers who did so would be criminalized and prosecuted for murder. As a preventive measure, potentially offending host carriers could perhaps be fitted with special ankle bracelets or encoded with state monitored electronic microchips to preclude violations.

The Catholic and fundamentalist Christian activists at the forefront of the egg crusade are curiously silent on these small details. In true schizoid fashion they push for special faith-based government entitlements and yet scream about government interference, rallying big government to run roughshod over women's fundamental right to privacy through a new regime of policing. And indeed, their own "family planning" policies have proven an abysmal failure, as evidenced by the exploding teen birth rates in Bible Belt states like Alabama and Mississippi in comparison to lower rates in the relatively godless Northeast and Northwest (abstinence-only sex education programs and fundamentalist Christian propaganda against fornication outside marriage would seem to be a source of cognitive dissonance for Southern teens).

The decidedly anti-human rights egg crusade would take this national obscenity one step further by deepening the region's poverty and straining its already overburdened, single parent-averse social welfare net. The fervor of this "new" brand of anti-abortion activism only underscores the need for a vigorous secular defense against the continued incursions of the Religious Right. It's either that or get ready for the ankle bracelets.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org and a commentator for Some of Us Are Brave KPFK 90.7 FM. This is an excerpt from her book Scarlet Letters on race/gender politics, atheism and secular belief in America.

November 19, 2009, 6:56 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink79 comments
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Prayer Cult Nation: Faith Healing Scams & Healthcare Reform

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Recently on a popular Black Entertainment Network talk show, R&B singer Monica pitched her new reality show and extolled the virtues of prayer. Suited up in hip-high boots like an emissary from God's army, she credited God with guiding her through life and imbuing her with purpose. His word was her marching order, she proclaimed, as the rapt studio audience nodded in approval, giving credence to surveys that indicate African Americans are more religious, more likely to subscribe to Creationism and more apt to break out the Bible for guidance and counsel than any other group in the U.S.

Yet not since the Great Awakening of the 18th Century has "God" spoken through so many American public figures so unequivocally. The medievalist Sarah Palin has risen to cult status touting her personal speed dial to the Lord. The Old Testament God has become the kamikaze co-pilot of the Republican Party. And President Barack Obama frequently invokes both God as an adjudicating figure and prayer as an antidote to tragedy.

Prayer has become the national bromide for generalized suffering. If it can't be sanitized, domesticated and defanged by prayer then it isn't worth experiencing. Now, in the midst of the healthcare reform morass, prayer healing "therapy" may become a legitimate form of government subsidized medical treatment. According to the Los Angeles Times, a "little known" provision in the healthcare overhaul bill would authorize coverage for Christian Science prayer as a medical expense. The provision is sponsored by the ultra-conservative Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah and the liberal Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. This strange bedfellow pairing is part ideology and part political expedience. Hatch is a notorious Mormon ideologue and Kerry's state is the Christian Science Church's base. Despite several high profile cases in which religious fanatic parents have been convicted for using prayer healing to "treat" their terminally ill children rather than seek medical treatment, the Senate healthcare provision would sanction this practice.

In a nation in which millions go bankrupt and/or die from not having health care insurance the decision to include prayer healing into the insidiously partisan healthcare deliberations is an outrage. Increasingly, prayer has wormed its way into the most mundane of American moments. Moments of prayer or "silence" have become more commonplace during local government meetings, schools, social functions and games. A recent AOL poll surveying site users about a Southern school's decision to post a message to God received overwhelming support. A majority of users agreed that reverence for God is part of "our" nation's heritage. As more and more Americans shrug in apathy at the leaky wall separating church and state, those who abstain from or question these mass spiritual entreaties are viewed as curmudgeon naysayers at best and un-American public enemies at worst. The explosion of public prayer—exemplified by the near manic drive to enshrine the most simple of pursuits with Godly sanction—seems to bespeak some deep-seated crisis of American selfhood which afflicts all classes and ethnicities.

According to the Christian Science Church, a faith healing internship takes the form of an "'intensive' two-week class instruction in Christian Science healing" after which practitioners "may take patients." Treatment "may rely on passages of the Bible...or may simply be a period of silent communion. There is no formula and 'treatment' can be given in absentia by telephone or email." Since Christian Science practitioners can hang up their virtual shingles after a two-week crash course why can't apostles of Frodo or oracles of Pan be similarly credentialed? Ethnocentric bias has apparently banished Pentecostal snakes, Santeria chants, Wiccan spells and animist rituals from consideration as insurable faith treatments. However, the Senate provision would ultimately provide protection for so-called religious and spiritual healthcare, opening the gate to all manner of medically dangerous, clinically unproven treatments.

Few on the Left have raised concerns about the contradiction between conservatives' draconian attempts to eliminate coverage for abortion (a medically established and lifesaving practice) in the healthcare overhaul and this obscure provision for government subsidized Christian Science hocus pocus. The House of Representatives' deliberations on its version of the healthcare bill are being stalled by endless wrangling over toughening restrictions on abortion coverage from private healthcare companies that participate in a government public option insurance "exchange." Under the current language these private plans could be purchased by poor subscribers with the aid of government subsidies. Yet anti-abortion legislators are jockeying to prevent private insurers that offer abortion coverage from even being included in the public option.

Perhaps poor women seeking reproductive healthcare would be advised to submit an email request for God's intervention to their nearest Christian Science provider, courtesy of the federal government. In the only democratic nation in the postindustrial world that doesn't have equitable government healthcare the watchwords will be "let them have prayer."

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org and a commentator for KPFK 90.7 FM.

November 12, 2009, 8:27 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink13 comments
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Clinic Escorting Journal: Day One

"Ignorance, poverty and vice must stop populating the world. This cannot be done by moral suasion. This cannot be done by talk or example. This cannot be done by religion or by law, by priest or by hangman. This cannot be done by force, physical or moral.

To accomplish this there is but one way. Science must make woman the owner, the mistress of herself. Science, the only possible savior of mankind, must put it in the power of woman to decide for herself whether she will or will not become a mother.

This is the solution of the whole question. This frees woman. The babes that are then born will be welcome. They will be clasped with glad hands to happy breasts. They will fill homes with light and joy."

—Robert Green Ingersoll, "What Is Religion?" (1899)

For several months now, my fiancee has been volunteering as a clinic escort at a local Planned Parenthood. The escorts' job is to keep an eye on the protesters (because there are always protesters) and make sure they don't violate the law by trespassing on clinic property or blocking other people from entering.

I'd been wanting to join her, but it took me a while to work up the willpower. (I wasn't afraid; to be brutally honest, it was more about having to get up early on weekends - as well as the difficulty of scheduling the required training sessions with a full-time job.) But the murder of Dr. George Tiller gave me the spark of motivation I needed, and today was the first day I accompanied her.

When we got to the clinic this morning, there was only one protestor on the sidewalk outside, a man waving a sign that read "Personhood Now". But three more soon showed up, all waving or carrying similar signs: "Abortion Kills Children," "Planned Parenthood - The Killing Place", "They Kill Babies Here", and so on. Other than a few pictures of sonograms, there wasn't much variety or creativity in evidence.

None of the protestors tried to block the clinic entrance or seriously harassed any patients that morning. The most they did was approach arriving cars to offer literature (most people ignored them, a few accepted it). On one or two occasions, they yelled at arriving women who were visibly pregnant: "Save your baby! We can help you!" Perhaps they don't realize that Planned Parenthood also offers prenatal care and checkups for pregnant women, since that is, of course, what pro-choice means. They did shout at one arriving car which apparently was one of the doctors: "It's blood money! It's all blood money!"

Mostly their signs were pointed at the road, although they'd occasionally turn and face the clinic. About one in every fifty or a hundred cars honked at them, whether in support or opposition it's impossible to tell, although I did see several drivers give the protesters a thumbs-up. At one point, the driver of a passing car made an obscene gesture at them, while another slowed down to yell out the passenger-side window: "Get a life!" (I burst out laughing at that, I have to admit.)

My fiancee had warned me that the protesters often tried to test new escorts, and that I could expect to be harassed if they realized this was my first time there. Nothing like that happened, although one of them did try to engage with me at one point. I was standing near the street entrance, about ten feet away from one of the protesters standing on the other side of the chain-link fence. He appeared to notice me, turned so his sign was facing me, and held out a pamphlet: "Hey, young fella! Come and read this!"

I made no move toward him, more than half suspecting he would grab me or try to spit on me. I shook my head slowly, giving him a flat stare.

He persisted. "Aren't you pro-choice? Don't you want to read it so you can make a choice? Come on, I'm not trying to insult you. I'm trying to help you!" When I continued ignoring him, he tried one last time - "I guess you're not pro-choice!" - and then turned away.

More protesters trickled in over the course of the morning, and by the time our two-hour shift was almost up, there was a crowd of about fifteen people. Almost without exception, they were all elderly, male, and white. (There were two elderly white women, and one other exception, which I'll come to in a moment.) As far as I could tell, they were also all Catholic. Many of them held crucifixes or rosary beads, and one, showing some rare creativity, brought a poster showing the Virgin Mary wrapped in an American flag and looking sorrowful.

That exception I mentioned came near the end of our shift. I was watching the protesters in a desultory way, not expecting them to make much trouble after two hours of relative quiet, when - wait: that new one there, dressed all in black. Wait a minute: he's not dressed in just any black. Yes, that's a priest's collar he's wearing, all right. Is he really a priest showing up to protest the clinic?

I didn't have reason to doubt that for much longer. A young woman, probably about my age or a little older, whom I had thought was an ordinary passerby, stopped and embraced him, and I was close enough to hear her call him "Father". But it wasn't the woman that disturbed me so much; it was that she had brought her daughter, a little blonde girl who couldn't have been older than six or seven.

The protester with the Virgin Mary poster had also brought several squares of carpet, and the priest, several other protesters, the young woman - and, to my shock and disgust, her daughter - knelt on the sidewalk and started to pray the Rosary out loud. These prayers went on for a good forty-five minutes without a break. Near the end, the little girl was obviously getting bored, if she even knew what was going on. She fidgeted, squirmed around, but didn't leave her mother's side.

Of all the things I saw that morning, this was the one that most appalled me. For adults to exercise their right of free speech and protest is one thing; I wouldn't seek to deny them that freedom, however repugnant and medieval I may find their opinions. (I don't think it was a coincidence that by far the majority of protesters were male.) But using your young daughter as a political prop, brainwashing her with religious rhetoric from the earliest possible age, and forcing her to participate in a protest whose nature she can't possibly grasp - this is child abuse, in a moral if not a legal sense. Parents have a right to raise their children as they see fit, but we as a society should react with outrage when parents seek to mold their children into copies of themselves, rather than giving them the freedom to make up their own minds.

There was one impression I got from clinic escorting that heartened me, which was this: Despite the numbers and noise of the protesters, they were far outnumbered by the people who came to the clinic simply to use its services. The parking lot had room for around forty or fifty cars, and it was almost full by the time my fiancee and I left. An incautious observer, seeing just the two of us (and one hired security guard) standing guard duty in the parking lot and facing down a noisy crowd of fifteen or sixteen chanting Catholics, might mistakenly conclude that pro-lifers far outnumber pro-choicers. In fact, if today's traffic was any estimation, there are hundreds of people from throughout the community who come to Planned Parenthood for medical assistance each week, while the same relative handful of believers show up every weekend to picket. As always, the way religious fanatics concentrate their numbers and act out in highly visible ways makes them seem more numerous than they really are. The majority of Americans already accept the idea that people have a right to control their own bodies, to have sex safely, and to have children only when wanted - and they seem more than happy to let this rest as a settled matter and get on with their lives.

I have one final observation, which is that Planned Parenthood is a clinic. It's a place where people come for medical procedures, no different than any other outpatient clinic or hospital. It's not here to advance a political agenda, but to care for women, for couples and for children. Its patients often come under desperate or trying circumstances, people who've already had enough shame and misery heaped on them. (One of the other escorts who arrived after us told us a story about a woman who was harassed and yelled at by the protesters until she left in tears, without ever getting into the clinic.) These people need our understanding and compassion, not the hateful shouting or the false front of sympathy put on by these spiteful bigots and their misogynist religion. They affect loving concern, but what they are really seeking is for other people's bodies to be put under their church's control. That is something we can never permit to happen again.

July 11, 2009, 2:11 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink29 comments
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The Murder of Dr. George Tiller

If you've been following the news, you already know that Dr. George Tiller, one of only a handful of doctors left in the United States who perform late-term abortions, was murdered this week. A suspect, Scott Roeder, is already in custody.

Since the election of Barack Obama, there's been a noticeable upsurge in right-wing terrorism. This frightening trend tracks the evolution of the American right in general, which is becoming smaller, more insular, and more ideologically rigid, and its language more violent and more extreme. I don't think it's a stretch to say that their recent string of political defeats have caused some among the fringes to believe that the only way to achieve their goals is through violence.

Late-term abortion is never performed on a whim. The only time such abortions are performed is when the fetus has severe abnormalities incompatible with life, or when the woman develops a life-threatening complication, such as preeclampsia, and terminating the pregnancy is the only way to save her. But even these limited exceptions are too much for anti-choice Christian terrorists. It was for these acts - for his compassion in saving the lives of women - that Dr. Tiller was murdered.

Although there's no evidence that the alleged killer wasn't acting alone, there's abundant evidence that the crime was inspired by the hateful, poisonous, and inflammatory language that pours in a steady stream from the anti-choice religious right. Exhibit A is Bill O'Reilly, who repeatedly denounced Dr. Tiller on his show as "Tiller the Baby Killer" and said he "destroys fetuses for just about any reason right up until the birth date for $5,000" (source). If this were true, Dr. Tiller would have been breaking the law in Kansas, which, like other states, bans abortion past the point of viability except in the case of severe fetal deformity or to save the life of the mother. In other words, O'Reilly was accusing Tiller of committing a crime, which meets the legal definition of defamation if he cannot prove his claim to be true.

Even if Dr. Tiller's murderer acted alone, he isn't the only one who's been inspired to do so by right-wing rhetoric. In addition to those in the link on Christian terrorism cited earlier, there's also Paul Evans, who was sentenced to forty years in prison for leaving a nail bomb in the parking lot of the Austin Women's Health Center, and Cheryl Sullenger, who served two years in prison in the 1980s for planning to bomb a California clinic. Significantly, Sullenger is now Operation Rescue's senior policy advisor, and her phone number was found in Roeder's car - suggesting that the mainstream anti-choice movement, even if it does not openly call for violence, is quite willing to associate with and embrace those who have committed violent acts in the past.

This isn't the first time we've seen this pattern, and it won't be the last: right-wing pundits continually spew hate rhetoric against their political adversaries, and then piously wash their hands of blood when the inevitable occurs and some violent lunatic decides to take those words to their logical conclusion. It's vital for atheists and progressives to realize that we are all potential targets of this bloodthirsty madness. If the murder of Dr. Tiller has any lesson, it's that we must stand up to defend the human rights that are still under siege from fanatics. One way to begin is to make a donation to Planned Parenthood today in Dr. Tiller's memory.

June 2, 2009, 1:36 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink70 comments
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Rick Warren? Shame On You, Obama!

Via multiple sources (Greta Christina, Pam Spaulding, Glenn Greenwald, Americans United, as well as others), this unpleasant news: President-elect Barack Obama has apparently chosen megachurch pastor Rick Warren to give a speech at his inauguration day.

If you're not familiar with Rick Warren, or if you only know him as the author of The Purpose-Driven Life, here's a few of his greatest hits:

• Warren has been a dedicated enemy of marriage equality, equating gay rights to incest and pedophilia (source), and was a fervent supporter of the pro-bigotry Proposition 8. He is against civil unions for gay couples (source). He has even, arguably, given his support to African Christians who want homosexuality to be illegal (source).

• He's also rabidly anti-choice, comparing abortion to the Holocaust (source).

• Just for good measure, he's said that atheists are not qualified for the presidency:

"I could not vote for an atheist because an atheist says, 'I don't need God,'... They're saying, 'I'm totally self-sufficient by [myself].' And nobody is self-sufficient to be president by themselves. It's too big a job."

• And, oh yes, he's a creationist.

If Warren seems more approachable or more reasonable than the hate-spewing religious right leaders we all know, it's only because he presents his bigotry in a kinder, gentler facade. His church does occasionally discuss other issues, such as AIDS in Africa or global warming, but it takes more than that to earn my respect when he still spends so much time and energy pounding the religious right's standard causes.

In fact, Warren has said that only five issues are "non-negotiable" - his opposition to abortion, stem-cell research, cloning, gay rights and euthanasia - which puts him firmly in the camp of the other religious hatemongers. Apparently, if push came to shove, he would discard efforts to help the suffering of AIDS orphans, prevent the genocide in Darfur, or avert the looming threat of climate change in order to prevent gay couples from having civil unions. For all the high-minded media talk about the "new evangelicals", Warren is not substantially different from the old guard, and his beliefs are grounded in the same bigoted and ignorant worldview that motivates his predecessors. He's said himself that the difference between himself and Jerry Falwell is mainly "a matter of tone" (source).

Inviting him to speak at the inauguration is a terrible decision. The fact is, I understand why Obama made it - I think I grasp the political considerations that went into it - and I still think it's a bad decision.

I suspect Obama thought that, by inviting Warren, he would seem sensible and centrist in the eyes of the public, and might peel off some evangelical voters from the Republican coalition. And since Warren's speech is a symbolic gesture only, he probably thinks that his policies once in office will make up any lost goodwill among progressive voters.

As I said, I assume that was the Obama team's political calculus, but I think the real effects will be different. I think this invitation will be viewed as a slap in the face by liberal and progressive Americans - the very people who supported Obama's bid for the presidency and worked to put him into office. And while it may generate some fleeting goodwill among evangelical voters, I have no doubt that the vast majority of them will vote Republican in the next election anyway. Meanwhile, the lost goodwill among Obama's supporters may not be as easy to win back as he apparently thinks. It's very likely that he'll need us again to pressure Congress to support his proposals. Will we be willing to work again for him, having been denigrated in this way?

Insulting your allies for the sake of a futile gesture to your sworn enemies is a bad idea and bad politics. And I suspect the blowback has been far more intense and sustained than Obama's team anticipated, causing controversy and embarrassment where they had hoped to avoid both. Although I still consider Obama's election a tremendous net positive for America, this shameful pick may be a sign of how much work we'll have to do in the next eight years to prod our leaders toward implementing a truly progressive agenda.

December 18, 2008, 11:26 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink89 comments
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Further Thoughts on Abortion

Last month's post on the morality of abortion generated - as one might have expected - a wide variety of impassioned responses. Happily, the debate remained mostly civil, which is a rarity when it comes to this issue and one that's entirely due to the thoughtful, rational commenters here at Daylight Atheism.

There were several issues I didn't get into in that post, since I wanted to focus on the core issue of whether and under what circumstances obtaining an abortion can be judged a moral or immoral act. Some of those other issues were explored in the comments in that thread. But there are a few others that didn't come up, and in this post I want to write some more about them.

One of the most remarkable facts about the abortion debate is that the groups which say they want to stop abortion are overlooking one of the most effective ways to achieve this. Namely, most groups which oppose abortion also oppose comprehensive sex education and the distribution of contraception, two measures which have proven to be highly effective at reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies, and therefore the number of abortions. If the conservatives' goal was to prevent abortion to the greatest extent possible, why wouldn't they be all in favor of these measures? Why wouldn't they be eager participants in the effort to make contraception as widely available as possible?

If anything, we find the opposite. Most religious groups which oppose abortion are also against contraception. They oppose the teaching of responsible sexual practice in schools, favoring abstinence-only programs which have been repeatedly shown to be ineffective. They favor putting as many obstacles and roadblocks as possible in the way of men and women who want to use contraception; some of them want to ban it altogether. In short, they favor the policies that are certain to lead to a greater number of unwanted pregnancies - which means a greater number of abortions - not to mention a greater number of STDs, unmarried mothers, and all the other ills that come with that.

A related, astonishing phenomenon is the surprising number of self-avowed pro-lifers who come in for abortions themselves. In some cases, women who go in to a clinic for an abortion one day are back the next day to picket that same clinic. Many of them insist that they are "different" from the other women in the waiting room with them, that their case is somehow special and justifies an exception.

One morning, a woman who had been a regular "sidewalk counselor" went into the clinic with a young woman who looked like she was 16-17, and obviously her daughter. When the mother came out about an hour later, I had to go up and ask her if her daughter's situation had caused her to change her mind. "I don't expect you to understand my daughter's situation!" she angrily replied. The following Saturday, she was back, pleading with women entering the clinic not to "murder their babies."

And a similar story from Dan Barker's Losing Faith in Faith, in which Barker relates a conversation with a Catholic attorney:

"Well, I was raised to respect the sanctity of life," he said, "and I will always vote with my church."

...He looked at me for a moment, and in hushed tones said, "But you know what? I don't know what I would do if my fourteen-year-old-daughter got pregnant."

"You would get her a quick, quiet abortion and worry about the morality later," I offered. With a guilty grin, he nodded his head in agreement. "You have the money and you have the contacts," I continued, "but if you keep voting wrong you may not have the option." He didn't know what to say, the big hypocrite.

These bizarre-seeming actions, I believe, fall cleanly into place when one understands the mission of the anti-choice movement through the correct lens. Any large political movement will have a diversity of opinion among its members, and I have no doubt that some people oppose abortion because they genuinely (though mistakenly, in my view) believe that a human life exists from the moment of conception. But among the politically organized wing of the religious anti-choice movement, I believe there is one primary, overriding motive - and it is not concern for the fetus' life, but desire to control and oversee the woman's.

Subjugating women's bodies to the state has always been part and parcel of every theocratic movement. It's an outgrowth of the misogynistic belief common to nearly every major world religion that women are inferior to men and must be controlled by them. This spirit of bigotry is why the Catholic church does not permit women to be clergy and why the Southern Baptist Convention expects wives to pledge to obey their husbands. It's why Islamic mullahs forbid the education of women and allow men to marry multiple wives, but never wives to marry multiple husbands. It's why Orthodox Jews pray to God every day to express their gratitude for not being born female, and why Mormon women are taught that they can only reach Heaven if they're married so that their husbands can pull them through.

Naturally, the members of this movement tend to grant exemptions to the principle of female inferiority on a case-by-case basis - for themselves and for their loved ones, as necessary - which explains why they don't oppose abortion for themselves or for their daughters. It's only those other women, those untrustworthy outsiders, who need to be controlled for their own good. In these people's minds, enforced pregnancy is an appropriate punishment for women who choose to have sex in unapproved ways. This neatly explains opposition to contraception and abortion alike: in their minds, both these are things are ways for sinful women to avoid the natural and deserved consequences of immoral sex.

May 15, 2008, 8:25 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink146 comments
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On the Morality of: Abortion

Although abortion is stereotyped as the most controversial and divisive social issue there is, I think the moral issues at stake are actually fairly unambiguous. This installment of "On the Morality Of" will explain why.

Pared down to its essence, the moral question posed by abortion is a simple one: is an unborn fetus a human being, with all the moral rights and protections that pertain thereunto; or is it a non-human, an assemblage of cells, the existence of which may be terminated without wrongdoing?

The answer to this question, of course, depends critically on how you define a human being. Is a fetus a human being if it has a face, or arms and legs, or a beating heart? None of these criteria seem to me to be definitive. Being a human is far more than a matter of superficial physical appearance - we do not grant humanity to department-store mannequins, after all. Nor is humanity the mere arrangement of internal organs. If a person's heart or lungs are failing and they need to be kept alive by machinery, does that deprive them of their moral personhood? Obviously not.

What if we were to define a human being as a living organism which possesses a certain, characteristic set of genes? This definition seems somewhat closer, but again, I think it misses the mark. If humanity consists of being a living organism which possesses human DNA, then we would also have to grant personhood rights to HeLa cell colonies, or to fetuses with anencephaly (warning: disturbing image). More to the point, if a living thing with human DNA is human, then every single one of our cells should be considered to be a human in its own right, and the millions of them that are naturally sloughed off our bodies each day would constitute a holocaust of unthinkable proportions. Obviously, this is absurd.

I submit that there is one and only one defining characteristic of a person, one thing which sets us apart and gives us our unique moral worth. That thing is consciousness - the facility for self-aware thought. That is what most clearly differentiates us from all other species on this planet, and it is also what gives us the uniqueness and individuality that is rightly viewed as a key component of moral worth.

Taking consciousness to be the defining characteristic of humanity gives us a clear dividing line to use in deciding whether abortion is immoral. Ending the existence of something which does not possess the ability for conscious thought - whatever else it may be - is not the destruction of a human being. Ending the existence of something which does possess that ability is the destruction of a person. This is a solid, rational standard. It's a good sign that this position also neatly mirrors the common position on end-of-life care and euthanasia: once a human being has suffered brain death, or any other injury that results in the irreversible cessation of consciousness, they no longer possess moral personhood and we are under no obligation to ensure their physical continuance.

So, when does consciousness begin? This is a question which has an empirical answer. As Carl Sagan wrote on the topic:

Different kinds of mental activity show different kinds of brain waves. But brain waves with regular patterns typical of adult human brains do not appear in the fetus until about the 30th week of pregnancy—near the beginning of the third trimester. Fetuses younger than this—however alive and active they may be—lack the necessary brain architecture. They cannot yet think.

This boundary line - which is the same boundary line the U.S. Supreme Court drew in Roe v. Wade, although for different reasons - is a feasible and defensible standard. It safeguards the autonomy of the woman, and her moral right to exercise control over her own body and not be forcibly subjected to the risks and burdens of pregnancy, without compromising the important principle that every human life should be protected. If a woman wishes to obtain an abortion, it seems to me that half a year is more than adequate time for her to become aware of her pregnancy, make the decision to abort, and obtain access to medical services.

As Sagan points out, six months is actually a conservative boundary, since regular brain waves are often absent in fetuses. Also, it's conceivable that a fetus could possess them and still lack the ability for conscious thought. Nevertheless, it's still a good standard and not one we should seek to push. When we know, based on our physiological understanding of how the brain functions, that consciousness cannot exist, then no person is present and we are under no corresponding ethical obligation. However, if there's a rational possibility that consciousness may exist, then we should err on the side of caution and defend that life, just as it would be immoral to shoot into a closed box without knowing if there's a person inside. Of course, if continued pregnancy would pose a threat to the life or health of the mother, then terminating the pregnancy is an unambiguous matter of self-defense.

Until the capability for conscious thought exists, a fetus cannot have the same moral status as a person. Doubtless, the fetus is a potential person. But potentiality is not the same as actuality, and a person who only potentially exists cannot claim moral rights which match or supercede the rights of an actual, living, conscious person. (The language is imprecise here; in truth, a person who only potentially exists does not exist, and a non-existent person cannot claim anything. There is no one to make the claim.) Therefore, no harm is done when a woman aborts a pregnancy before this point. There is no person for harm to be done to.

Other posts in this series:

April 28, 2008, 8:36 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink202 comments
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The Catholic Church: An Immoral Organization

The Roman Catholic church is the oldest and largest Christian denomination on the planet. Although its influence in the Western world is declining, it still exercises great power over the lives of millions of people every day. All too often, that power is used in the service of superstition, of perpetuating irrational and dogmatic beliefs about how human liberty should be restricted in order to please God. Whatever charitable and humanitarian work the Catholic church performs must be balanced against the vast harm it has done and continues to do because of its obsession with controlling the sex lives and reproductive systems of all human beings. This post will detail some of the more notable harms.

Denying equal rights to gays and lesbians. The Catholic church's support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage is well-known, and shows by itself how this church has placed itself on the wrong side of history by supporting irrational and superstitious prejudice against people who don't conform to its narrow and restrictive model of human sexual relations.

But a slightly lesser-known fact is that the Catholic church's adoption agencies flatly refuse to place children with gay parents - even if this means they will have no parents and will grow up in an orphanage. Evidently, the Catholic church considers this option preferable to a child growing up in a stable home with loving, caring parents who happen to be of the same gender. For example, in 2006, Catholic Charities announced its adoption services were shutting down in Massachusetts, rather than place children with gay families. This is but another example of how the church considers adherence to its own dogma more important than the lives and welfare of human beings.

Opposing vaccination for sexually transmitted diseases. Since the development of Gardasil, a highly effective vaccine against the common sexually transmitted disease HPV - which can cause lethal cervical cancer - numerous branches of the Catholic church have announced their opposition to giving this vaccine to children before they reach sexual maturity. The Catholic school board in Halton, Ontario has announced plans to ban school health units from giving the vaccine to students or even discussing it with them. The church in Scotland has also announced opposition to the vaccine, as did the California Catholic Conference (which said the vaccine "takes away the parental perogative for children to be chaste").

Regardless of a person's religious beliefs, there is no rational reason for them not to receive this vaccine. The only purpose a person could have for opposing it for their children would be to make them afraid of getting cervical cancer if they have unprotected sex - which has the logical inference that cervical cancer would be an appropriate punishment for such sex.

Opposing emergency contraceptive use, even for rape victims. If taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, emergency contraception (the "morning-after pill") is highly effective at preventing fertilization. This is a tremendous boon to rape victims, who've already suffered enough without being forced to go through the further trauma of bearing their rapist's child. Yet many church ethicists, as well as the Pontifical Academy for Life, argue that Catholic physicians and Catholic hospitals should not administer EC to rape victims under any circumstance. This is a cruel and evil position that would inflict severe emotional and physical trauma on women and deny them the right to control their own bodies in the name of obedience to unprovable religious dogma. Dr. Marty Klein has more information in the appropriately titled Catholic Hospitals Should Stop Playing God.

Opposing abortion even when it is necessary to prevent death or grave harm to the woman. The most prominent example of this deadly dogma is in El Salvador, an officially Catholic country that bans abortion under all circumstances and jails women who obtain them illegally. The church intensely lobbied the government into passing this law, bussing in Catholic schoolchildren to stage demonstrations and using churches as political organizing centers. Pope John Paul II also issued statements in support of the law.

The result is a theocratic nation where the state exerts dictatorial control over women's bodies. Women who suffer miscarriages are forced to submit to invasive vaginal exams to ensure they did not obtain illegal abortions. Even in ectopic pregnancies, which have no possibility of producing a living child, abortion is forbidden until the mother's Fallopian tube has ruptured and the fetus is dead - a critical, life-threatening medical emergency for the woman.

Opposing condom use, even for married couples where one member has HIV. This particularly horrible example of the church's irrational opposition to condom use is most often seen in Africa, where the culture often does not permit women to turn down their husband's demands for sex. Yet even if they remain monogamous, that does not protect them if the husband cheats and acquires a deadly disease such as HIV. Since the Catholic church teaches that condom use is forbidden under all circumstances, this rules out the last remaining option and results in devastating tragedies like this one:

The typical patient is a young woman between eighteen and thirty years of age. She is wheeled into the examining room in a hospital chair or dragged in, supported by her sister, aunt, or brother. She is frequently delirious; her face is gaunt; her limbs look like desiccated twigs. Surprisingly, the young woman is already a mother many times over, yet she will not live to see her children grow up. More shocking still, she is married; her husband infected her with the deadly virus.

...To preach fidelity and abstinence assumes that a woman can determine with whom she sleeps and when — a grave misunderstanding of the relations between the sexes in places where women are sometimes betrothed at birth or sold for cattle. How can the Vatican continue to prohibit the use of a life-saving intervention amid a pandemic of unprecedented proportions?

Attempting to stifle stem cell research. The most notable example of this came in June 2006, when an influential Catholic cardinal, Alfonso López Trujillo, said that stem-cell researchers should be excommunicated. Although this threat is meaningless to non-Catholics, the important point is that it is a threat - as well as a symptom of the church's obvious desire to block this life-saving research by coercion and spiritual blackmail.

This story, like the others discussed here, shows why we should be glad that this irrational and medieval institution has lost the power it once had to force all people to obey its will. Now we need to diminish its influence still further, so that it can no longer stand in the way of wise and rational policies that improve people's well-being and happiness.

February 8, 2008, 7:42 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink167 comments
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Pro-Life and Pro-Family

Inspired by an interview on a recent episode of Freethought Radio, I want to talk about a term that greatly annoys me: "values voters". This term is used by American religious conservatives to describe themselves, and all too often, we see the media playing along and using it to describe this voting bloc as well.

"Values voters" is widely understood to refer to the heavily religious Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, who reliably vote Republican. This group generally supports the war in Iraq, opposes social welfare programs, advocates government support of religion and abstinence-only education in public schools, and favors outlawing abortion, gay adoption, and gay marriage. It's a term invented by conservative religious strategists to frame the issue in a way favorable to their side, similar to the way Republican politicians speak of the "death tax" rather than the "estate tax" (the latter term is far more accurate, since this is not a tax levied on all people at death, but only on multimillion-dollar estates).

I find this term to be incredibly arrogant, insofar as it implies that the religious right is the only group that has values which guide its decisions in the voting booth. This is not just false, it's absurd. Does the religious right have a monopoly on "values"? Of course not. Every political faction has a set of values which guide its decisions and policy stances. I value equality under the law for all people, sustainable use of the environment, showing compassion for the needy, defending science and reason, and keeping church and state separate. I choose candidates to vote for based on these values. Why am I not a "values voter"?

Even more common among religious conservatives, and even more arrogant and offensive, are the terms "pro-life" and "pro-family". These terms signify opposition to legal abortion and opposition to gay marriage, respectively. But here, too, the religious right has taken positive terms of general applicability and tried to claim exclusive ownership of them by associating them solely with their political positions.

Of course, the progressive side does this too, such as with "pro-choice". Arguably, however, in this case the term is more accurate, because it does delineate a clear difference between the two sides. When it comes to abortion, some people are pro-choice; they believe that whether to have an abortion or not should be the choice of the woman. Other people are not pro-choice; they believe that the woman should not be permitted to choose.

When it comes to "pro-life", however, the distinction is less clear. Obviously, we who support abortion rights are not opposed to life. Life is a wonderful thing! When a child is wanted, and the parents are capable and prepared, a birth is a joyous event that brings love and hope into a household. No one is disagreeing with that point. The only point of difference is whether a woman who sought to avoid pregnancy, but became pregnant anyway through accident or rape, should be forced to carry that pregnancy to term against her will. It's in that sad circumstance that we believe the bodily autonomy of the woman must be the overriding concern. Some countries, such as El Salvador, ban abortion even if the fetus has no chance of survival and the mother's life is gravely endangered by continued pregnancy (such as in an ectopic pregnancy). In that horrible scenario, we might wonder, who is really "pro-life"?

An even worse term is "pro-family". This term is a total inversion of the truth. When it comes to gay marriage and adoption, the people who usually style themselves "pro-family" are actually enemies of these families and are working their hardest to discriminate against them, outlaw them and tear them apart.

Consider the many U.S. states that have unconditionally banned gay people from acting as foster parents or adoptive parents, regardless of their qualifications or their ability to provide a stable, loving home environment. Evidently these anti-family crusaders would rather children have no home at all than that they have a home with a gay parent. Some religious conservatives, even more flagrant in their hateful prejudice, have proposed laws that would prevent gay people even from adopting children that were related to them. In one instance, the religious right proposed a law that would break up preexisting adoptions by gay parents that were performed legally in another state if the parents traveled through the state in question with their child.

The situation is the same with gay marriage. Members of the religious right want to deny gay people one of the most basic rights of all: the right of two people in love to have that relationship recognized and spend their lives together, with the same benefits we grant to heterosexual couples. The many state constitutional amendments banning gay marriage are bad enough, but this trend of bigotry goes beyond that. In many states, the religious right has worked to pass laws that forbid even private employers from offering domestic partner benefits to gay couples. It is truly evil for them to attempt to force all members of society to perpetuate their loathsome bigotry, even those who otherwise would not.

It's a vile lie for people who support such policies as this to call themselves "pro-family". The real pro-family groups are those who support all families, even those that do not fit the traditional model. People who try to wield the power of the state to break up and discriminate against certain kinds of families have no right to make such a claim.

As for me, I am both pro-life and pro-family. I think both life and families are good things that society should commit to supporting and encouraging. What I do not believe is that I have a license to force others to conform to my opinions or take away their autonomy so they don't do anything I disapprove of. This dictatorial attitude, more than anything else, is what guides the religious right, and the terms we use to describe them should reflect that truth.

December 14, 2007, 8:33 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink56 comments
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Christian Terrorism

On July 29, 1994, a religious fundamentalist named Paul Hill attacked a Pensacola, Florida family planning center, murdering abortion provider Dr. John Britton and his bodyguard James Barrett with a single blast from a pump-action shotgun. With numerous eyewitnesses, Hill surrendered peacefully and confessed to his crime at the scene. Hill was charged with two counts of first-degree murder, convicted by a jury, and given the death sentence. On September 3, 2003, he was executed by lethal injection. He never once expressed any regret for his crimes, and urged others to do the same in his last statement before his death.

I'm against the death penalty in almost all cases, but this is one of the extraordinary few where I believe it was completely appropriate. The two crucial conditions for this sentence were satisfied: first, there was absolutely no rational doubt as to Hill's guilt, and second, he had shown such a remorseless and cold-blooded indifference to human life that it was highly unlikely any prison term, no matter how long, would ever reform him. In such a case, I believe society is justified in putting the offender to death - not as a method of vengeance, but for the same reason we destroy rabid animals, as a means of self-defense.

But Hill's legacy lives on in the radical fringes of the anti-abortion movement, where he is seen as a hero and a martyr. Appallingly, three Christian groups in Milwaukee are planning to stage "Paul Hill Days" (via), a celebration of this bloodthirsty fanatic's killing spree that will include a re-enactment of the murders. The website, which other than its sincere praise of a convicted murderer is indistinguishable from standard evangelical right-wing rhetoric, speaks of its creators' "admiration for Paul Hill and his act of love and mercy", and wants to "recognize [him] as a hero".

In my opinion, this is going too far. Anti-abortion activists should be free to claim that Hill was innocent of the charges against him, or that he should have been convicted of a lesser offense, or that the punishment he received was too harsh, or that the law he violated should be changed. What they should not be free to do, in my opinion, is to call an act of murder a heroic and praiseworthy deed and celebrate its occurrence. Free speech does not include the right to make threats or to encourage people to commit criminal offenses, and if this is not leaping over that line, it is at the very least straddling it.

If past experience is any guide, the mainstream media will maintain a deafening silence on this issue. Normally, the media is eager to promote sensational stories likely to produce fear and outrage. But when that story could reflect badly on Christians, or any other large, influential group which the powers that be are afraid to offend, it is obligingly swept under the rug and ignored. Politicians, likewise, will ignore it: Republicans because they count on the support of people like the ones who planned Paul Hill Days, Democrats because they are afraid to advocate any position that might be judged as anti-faith. Leaders of the religious right will keep silent, not wanting to damage their public standing by seeming to endorse violence, but also not wanting to alienate their fanatical pro-life followers for whom no anti-abortion action is too extreme. And this conspiracy of silence, this gentleman's agreement to keep quiet, is exactly what emboldens Christian terrorists and makes it more likely that they will strike again.

This is not the first time such a thing has happened. On September 11, 2006, a Christian fundamentalist named David McMenemy crashed his gasoline-soaked car into a women's health clinic in Davenport, Iowa which he thought provided abortions (it did not), intending to blow the clinic up and die in the fire. McMenemy's attempted suicide bombing failed to destroy the clinic and he was convicted of arson, but it was striking how little media attention the story received. Had the perpetrator been a Muslim, there can be no doubt this story would have been in the headlines for weeks. Instead, it vanished with scarcely a ripple.

People like Paul Hill, McMenemy and other convicted fundamentalists (Clayton Waagner, Eric Rudolph, and others) are, in every sense of the word, religious terrorists. Exactly like Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, they use random violence against civilians to terrify and demoralize their enemies, hoping to impose their will on the populace and prevail in a battle they cannot win by open shows of force. Our society's acceptance of the reckless, extremist anti-woman rhetoric of religious anti-abortion crusaders has created an atmosphere in which these fanatics can breathe, and until we cease to pay heed to these people and firmly avow our support for the right of all women to control their own bodies, we can expect Christian terrorism to continue.

June 19, 2007, 7:23 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink63 comments
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