When Neutrality Is Really Just The Status Quo

[Content note: sexual assault]

Someone who declares neutrality on a particular question, issue, or debate seems to automatically gain an intellectual (and, sometimes, moral) upper hand.

While there are often social consequences for picking one side or another, declaring neutrality has a very low barrier to entry. Outside of radical circles, nobody will criticize you for not taking sides. In fact, they may admire you because, after all, “the truth lies between two extremes.”

I saw this happen recently after Dylan Farrow published her piece in the New York Times about being abused by Woody Allen as a little girl. Almost immediately there was a collective chorus of dudes being like “Well we don’t really know what happened here I mean innocent until proven guilty right I mean that’s awful if he really did do that but I’m just not gonna take sides on this one and I mean like his films are just so brilliant.”

And this was, of course, presented as the righteous and proper response.

(Ashley Miller wrote an excellent post about why taking a neutral stance on the Woody Allen allegations doesn’t make sense, and Lisa Bloom, who has represented victims of child sexual abuse in court, offers a defense of Dylan Farrow’s credibility here. So, that’s not what I’ll be addressing in this post. Please don’t argue about it in the comments either.)

Another example that may at first seem unrelated: Jessica Valenti found out that TEDWOMEN, a series of TED Talks featuring women and promoting women’s issues, specifically avoided covering abortion in any of its talks. She writes:

When I asked around, the consensus was that the omission was simply an oversight. But it turns out TED is deliberately keeping abortion off the agenda. When asked for comment, TED content director and TEDWomen co-host Kelly Stoetzel said that abortion did not fit into their focus on “wider issues of justice, inequality and human rights.” “Abortion is more of a topical issue we wouldn’t take a position on, any more than we’d take a position on a state tax bill,” Stoetzel explained. She pointed me to a few talks on women’s health and birth control, but this made the refusal to discuss abortion only more glaring. In the last three years, the United States has seen more abortion restrictions enacted than in the entire previous decade; the United Nations has classified the lack of access to abortion as torture; and Savita Halappanavar died in Ireland because a Catholic hospital refused to end her doomed pregnancy. Just how is abortion not an issue of “justice, inequality and human rights”?

The comparison of abortion access to state tax issues is glaring, as is the presumption that refusing to “take a position” on this issue is in any way superior to taking a position on it. As this piece at ThinkProgress points out, there are plenty of reasons TEDWOMEN might make this choice besides a desire to appear neutral on the topic; however, I see this as part of a larger trend in which “hot-button” issues are seen as somehow beneath an esteemed organization or individual, and taking a position on such issues is seen as being petty or pedestrian.

And so TEDWOMEN carefully avoids taking a stance on a major women’s rights issue, and prefers instead to discuss how rich white women may better distinguish themselves in the corporate world, or whatever.

(Apparently the conference itself claims that Valenti took their words “out of context” and that they “welcome” talks on abortion. However, Valenti provided the full text of the email she received, and the fact remains that TEDWOMEN has never hosted a talk on abortion, which is one of the most well-known issues affecting women in the United States right now. If this controversy makes them host a talk on abortion, though, that’ll be great.)

In many cases, neutrality is extremely sensible. That is obvious. I would never deny that.

For example, if a well-designed, peer-reviewed study supports a conclusion you agree with but another well-designed, peer-reviewed study fails to replicate those results or suggests the opposite conclusion, you should probably try to remain neutral until more data is available rather than cherry-picking the results you agree with. If a couple you’re friends with breaks up and Alex blames Sam for cheating and Sam blames Alex for never wanting to have sex anymore, it’s fair to say that you’re not sure whose fault it was and to remain neutral by not taking sides.

But if 98% of the published research supports the conclusion you agree with and only 2% does not, it’s no longer very reasonable to declare neutrality as though both sides have the same amount of evidence backing them. And if Alex and Sam break up because Alex claims that Sam raped them and Sam says that Alex was “totally into it,” remaining neutral makes little sense. Alex doesn’t have much of a motive for lying, and, statistically, false rape accusations that name an attacker are very rare. Saying, “Well, I don’t know what really happened, I’ll remain neutral” means saying, “Well, I don’t know, Alex might be lying about getting raped.”

There is nothing courageous, original, or unpopular about being neutral. While that doesn’t mean being neutral is wrong, obviously, it does mean that you should be wary of people who paint themselves and their neutrality as morally heroic. It’s a cheap tactic, a way to puff up your credibility without having to actually demonstrate any knowledge or understanding of the situation. In that way, it has a lot in common with the related tactic of declaring oneself the True Skeptic/Rationalist, unlike one’s opponent, who is clearly incapable of rational thought, bless their heart.

Neutrality becomes a problem when it becomes an excuse for doing nothing–as it often does. We are neutral on the subject of climate change; therefore, we will not commit to researching ways to slow, stop, or cope with it. We are neutral on the subject of abortion; therefore, we will not invite speakers who advocate for reproductive rights. We are neutral on the subject of whether or not our friend raped you as you say they did; therefore, we will not stop inviting our friend to parties, because that would be rude. In fact, we’ll stop inviting you, because your outlandish claims are making us uncomfortable.

When someone claims neutrality, assess the situation. Whose interests are being served by refusing to take a stance? Is the evidence disproportionately on one side of the debate rather than another? What’s the worst that would happen if you took a side? What’s the worst that would happen if you did not take any sides?

(“Innocent until proven guilty!” is a lovely battle cry until you’re far from a court room and the question is whether or not to believe a woman who says very convincingly that your hero sexually abused her.)

Sometimes neutrality is a reasonable response to a situation with lots of conflicting bits of evidence, none of which is significantly more compelling than any other.

Other times, neutrality is a lazy excuse to avoid engaging with a difficult subject and to do nothing.

~~~

P.S. My favorite commentary on the Woody Allen situation is a comment from this post by Amanda Marcotte:

Occam’s Razor:

Thesis 1: A mother who otherwise loves and cares for her children chooses to deliberately implant a memory of painful molestation to get back at her partner, and was so good at memory implantation, better even than Korean War interrogators, that the memory persisted into adulthood and was powerful enough that the daughter felt the need to be dragged through the mud and called a liar just for expressing it.

Thesis 2: A guy who has admitted to having sex with another minor, and who makes movies about how fun it is to fuck minors, actually abused a minor.

Wow. Such leap of logic. Much unlikely. So irrationality.

Herbal Abortions and Editorial Responsibility

Content note: graphic descriptions of abortions and miscarriages

Being both a feminist and a skeptic means walking the fine line of critiquing the way science and medicine are practiced without denying their importance and validity, of empowering individuals who have faced abuse by these institutions without promoting at-best useless and at-worst dangerous pseudoscience to these individuals instead.

I was reminded of this ever-present tension when I read a book of essays called Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generationedited by Barbara Findlen. One of the essays was titled “Abortion, Vacuum Cleaners and the Power Within,” and the subject was the author’s negative experiences with what she called “clinical” abortions–that is, abortions performed by someone licensed to perform abortions.

The author, Inga Muscio, describes the several clinical abortions she had: they were painful and terrifying:

Have you any idea how it feels to willingly and voluntarily submit to excruciating torture because you dumbly forgot to insert your diaphragm, which gives you ugly yeast infections and hurts you to fuck unless you lie flat on your back? I had to withstand this torture because I was a bad girl. I didn’t do good, I fucked up. So I had the same choice as before, that glowing, outstanding choice we ladies fight tooth and nail for: the choice to get my insides ruthlessly sucked by some inhuman shit pile, invented not by my foremothers, but by someone who would never, ever in a million years have that tube jammed up his dickhole and turned on full blast, slurping everything in its path.

Muscio, who is very clear about her opinions on “Western medicine” (she at one point refers to it as “that smelly dog who farts across the house and we just don’t have the heart to put out of its misery”), eventually gets pregnant again, and this time she tries something else:

I started talking to my girlfriends. Looking to my immediate community for help led me to Judy, the masseuse, who rubbed me in places you aren’t supposed to rub pregnant ladies. She also did some reflexology in the same vein. Panacea told me where to find detailed recipes for herbal abortifacients and emmenagogues. Esther supported me and stayed with me every day. Bridget brought me flowers. Possibly most important was the fact that I possessed not one single filament of self-doubt. With that core of supportive women surrounding me and with my mind made up, I was pretty much invincible.

So, one morning, after a week of nonstop praying, massaging, tea drinking, talking and thinking, I was brushing my teeth at the sink and felt a very peculiar mmmmbloommmp-like feeling. I looked at the bathroom floor, and there, between my feet, was some blood and a little round thing. It was clear but felt like one of them unshiny Super Balls. It was the neatest thing I ever did see. An orb of life and energy, in my hand.

But lest you think Muscio intends this as a solution just for herself, she concludes, disturbingly:

Concentrating on the power within our own circle of women was once a major focus of the women’s health movement. I think we would benefit from once again creating informal health collectives where we discuss things like our bodies and our selves. If we believed in our own power and the power of our immediate communities, then abortion clinics, in their present incarnation, would be completely unnecessary. Let the fundamentalist dickheads burn all those vacuum cleaners to the ground. if alternative organic abortions were explored and taken more seriously, there wouldn’t be much of an abortion debate. Abortion would be a personal, intimate thing among friends.

Can you say Amen.

I finished the essay feeling confused. Although Muscio explained that “clinical” abortions were painful and felt wrong to her, she did not even attempt to explain her fury at abortion providers (whom she seems to think are all men). She did not explain why (or even whether) a painful and scary medical procedure that aborts a fetus is any different from a painful and scary medical procedure that stops a tooth infection or removes a tumor. Would she advocate “alternative organic” methods for those problems, too?

Her graphic imagery of vacuum cleaners, blood, and gore is never explained or justified in any way. She just doesn’t like the idea of abortions, and this, apparently, is reason enough to let abortion clinics go extinct.

Muscio further erases the fact that women, too, can and do perform abortions, and her implication that only women can understand the female reproductive system is extremely cisnormative (and also simply wrong; any doctor who has spent years studying those organs and operating on them and helping to keep them healthy surely knows more about them than I, a cis woman, do).

But I think I’m most disturbed not by Muscio’s ideas, but by the editor’s decision to publish them in this anthology.

How would a young person, perhaps not very knowledgeable about abortions, perhaps who has grown up being told they are awful and immoral, perhaps in need of (or at risk of needing) an abortion themselves, react to reading this piece? What decisions would they make about their health? I’m wondering if the editor thought about this before choosing to publish the essay.

On one hand, I see the value of publishing and reading all kinds of narratives about reproductive health, including this one. In our rush to portray abortion as a standard, no-big-deal sort of medical procedure, advocates for reproductive rights sometimes lose sight of the fact that, like any other medical procedure, abortion can be terrifying and traumatic completely independently of the fact that it’s so stigmatized.

Fear of medical procedures (and fear of pain) is something that people are expected to magically “outgrow” when they stop being children. Some do, but some don’t. Doctors don’t always know how to respond to adult patients with extreme fear, and often respond without empathy or compassion. This is only one of many reasons some people turn to practitioners of alternative medicine for help.

Understanding this is essential if we are to help people find healthcare that works (both by actually getting them physically better and by treating them with dignity and care). But the essay was presented in the book without any sort of commentary. While the book’s editor isn’t necessarily condoning or supporting the ideas in the essay, she is nevertheless promoting them by giving them wider circulation than they would otherwise have.

People may read the essay and become convinced that prayer and herbal tea can actually abort a fetus, and that getting an abortion performed by a medical professional is always a horrible experience to be avoided at all costs. That someone would end up with an unwanted child is probably the best case scenario of taking Muscio’s advice, as alt-med remedies can be actively harmful and dangerous.

(In fact, in the essay, Muscio elaborates on the specific “herbal remedies” she used. One of them was pennyroyal, which was implicated in the death of a woman who used it to try to induce an abortion. She didn’t know that she had an ectopic pregnancy. In general, the history of herbal abortifacients is, as i09 puts it, terrifying.)

Giving people medically accurate information about reproductive health is a crucial part of progressive activism. While one might argue that left-wing distortions of science and medicine are more well-intentioned than their right-wing counterparts, the end result is absolutely identical: people don’t understand how their bodies really work, how medicine works, which medical interventions are supported by the evidence and which are not. People feel ashamed of seeking out medical care that works.

I know that there are compelling reasons to publish this essay as is. I can understand why the author of this book might’ve done it. But I wouldn’t. It seems irresponsible.

~~~

P.S. Many of the other essays in the book were actually pretty cool. Here are my favorite quotes.

“I regret my abortion.”

[Content note: abortion, partner abuse]

The use of “I regret my abortion” as an argument against legalized abortion is nothing new, but I’ve been seeing it a lot lately in pro-life protests, such as this one at the Texas Capitol. (Yes, that is a man you see there with the sign.)

There are many things that are infuriating about this tactic, such as its implication that your own emotions can be used to legislate everyone else’s reproductive rights and its blatant appeal to emotion rather than reason (“But I regret my abortion! Look how sad I am! Wouldn’t you want to keep others from being so sad?”).

An argument like this also makes it really easy for pro-choicers to look like insensitive assholes, because our position is, simplistically, that your feelings about your own abortion don’t really matter in this debate. They don’t.

Of course, I care about people’s emotions. If having an abortion is going to be something you regret deeply for the rest of your life, I agree that you, personally, should not have an abortion. If you have already had an abortion and you regret it as painfully as these protesters do, then I think you should see a counselor who can help you.

But I don’t think your regret has any relevance whatsoever in public policy, and I think the argument from regret is completely baseless. Here’s why.

1. Humans do plenty of utterly regrettable things that we nevertheless don’t legislate.

This is, of course, the really obvious point. People regret plenty of their sexual experiences, but we don’t make those illegal (well…some try). People put dumb things on the internet that they shouldn’t and that follow them around forever, but it’s not illegal to put dumb things that follow you around forever on the internet. I’m no Libertarian, but I do essentially believe that people should be free (within reason) to make this own dumb shitty choices and learn from them on their own.

There are plenty of regrettable things that we legally regulate, but not because people feel bad about them later–because they have negative consequences that extend beyond an individual person’s regret (see below).

There are also regulations that prevent businesses from keeping people from amending their poor decisions after the fact, but that’s also not the same thing.

2. In fact, conservatives make fun of liberals for this shit.

Well, for what they perceive to be this shit. Conservatives and Libertarians are always attacking things like soda bans and cigarette taxes by claiming that the Nanny State is trying to save us from ourselves. Of course, the rationale for policies like these isn’t “Yeah but but you’ll regret it later!!”; it’s the fact that soda and cigarettes and trans fats have tremendous public health consequences. I don’t know how I feel about these policies yet, but the point is that the pro-lifers are doing the exact same thing they perceive liberals to be doing (whether or not that is actually what liberals are doing).

3. The majority of women who have abortions do not regret them.

A study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry reported this:

Two years postabortion, 301 (72%) of 418 women were satisfied with their decision; 306 (69%) of 441 said they would have the abortion again; 315 (72%) of 440 reported more benefit than harm from their abortion; and 308 (80%) of 386 were not depressed.

The researchers noted, “Most women do not experience psychological problems or regret their abortion 2 years postabortion, but some do. Those who do tend to be women with a prior history of depression.”

On the contrary, people who get abortions tend to report feeling happy or relieved. If pro-lifers could only develop some theory of mind and imagine how another person might feel, they would realize that ending a pregnancy that you didn’t want, that has health risks for you, or that is going to produce a child that you don’t have the resources of willingness to raise would be a relief.

Of course, the fact that most people who get abortions don’t regret them doesn’t mean that nobody does. (Indeed, that’s…how the word “most” works.) At that point, you get into the dicey question of what exactly the proportion of abortion patients who later regret it must be to justify banning abortion. Clearly it doesn’t need to be a majority by their reasoning. Or I’m being overly charitable and they don’t realize that the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.”

4. When people do regret abortions, what actually causes that regret?

I don’t have data on this so I’m just speculating, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the stigma of abortion and of accidental pregnancy and of being a woman who does not want children (right now or ever) plays a role. The actual cost of abortion probably plays a role, too.

It could also be that you really want the baby, but realize that you’re not in a good place to raise a child right now. Someone in this situation could certainly regret their abortion a lot, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was the wrong decision.

Tragically, people are sometimes pressured or coerced into getting abortions. This is more of an issue in places like China than it is in the United States, but it happens. I personally know of a few cases like this.

Forcing a partner to get an abortion is abuse. The problem here is not with the abortion itself; it’s with the fact that someone’s partner is abusing them. Abuse can, of course, go in many directions. Sometimes people’s partners prevent them from using birth control and thus force them to get pregnant; likewise, the problem here isn’t with pregnancy itself, but with the abuse that caused it.

Pro-lifers are aware of coerced abortions and use them as a pro-life argument. For instance, abortion restrictions often require having the patient sign a waiver stating that they were not coerced into getting the abortion. While this seems like a positive step to help ensure that abuse isn’t playing a part, it’s important to remember that the point of these laws is to restrict access to abortion and reduce the number of abortions, not to protect victims of abuse.

The fact that some people regret abortions and that some people are coerced into getting abortions is not an argument against abortion; it’s an argument against the factors that contribute to that regret, such as stigma, financial consequences, and abuse.

Here’s the thing. For some people, getting an abortion is a difficult, painful decision that will lead to regret and doubt no matter what they choose. It’s a big decision! Sometimes people get pregnant accidentally and find themselves sort of wanting to have the baby but they just can’t support a child and they need to finish school and there’s just no way.

But for other people–possibly the majority of people, it seems–an abortion is just a medical procedure like any other. It’s unpleasant and unavoidable and they’re just glad to get it over with, but it’s necessary, just like the vast majority of medical procedures you’re going to have in your life.

You can’t use the emotions of a minority of people to legislate the rights of everyone else, no matter how legitimate, strong, and real those emotions are.

Help Stop Ohio’s Terrible New Anti-Abortion Bill

[Content note: abortion]

Note: If you already know all about Ohio’s terrible new anti-abortion bill, scroll all the way to the end to find out how to try to stop it. If not, read on.

Last Tuesday night, I and–at times–150,000 other people stayed up to watch the livestream of the 12-hour filibuster in the Texas state legislature. State senator Wendy Davis and her fellow Democrats helped prevent (temporarily) the passage of what would’ve been one of the most restrictive anti-abortion bills in the country. Davis overcame exhaustion, hunger, and her Republican opponents’ bad-faith attempts to get her to go off-topic (in Texas, filibusters must remain “germane” to the bill at hand), to claim that she was breaking rules, and, when the going got tough, to cheat and try to pass the bill after the midnight deadline.

Unfortunately, Davis’ victory was only temporary, and Texas is only one of the the states where reproductive rights are constantly under assault.

My home state of Ohio (I use the word “home” loosely here) just passed House Bill 200, a bill similar to the one that got filibustered in Texas, except worse. Some of its provisions include:

  • Doctors must explain to patients seeking abortion how their fetus’ nerves develop, and to tell them that, even in the first trimester, a fetus can feel pain. There is no scientific evidence of this.
  • Doctors must also tell patients that abortions are linked to breast cancer. There is no scientific evidence of this either.
  • As in the Texas bill, abortion providers in Ohio must be within 30 miles of a hospital, but here’s the new catch–it cannot be a public hospital. So if there are no non-public hospitals within 30 miles of an abortion clinic, then the clinic must shut down.
  • Doctors must inform patients seeking abortions exactly how much money the clinic made from abortions within the past year, and how much money the clinic stands to lose if the patient chooses not to get an abortion. In case it’s unclear, the point of this is to warn patients that there is a “conflict of interest” involved in providing abortions because clinics can make money from them. This is ridiculous because any medical procedure can make money for doctors and hospitals.
  • Before this bill, patients seeking abortions in Ohio were already required to view an ultrasound of the fetus. Now, the doctor must describe the fetus visually and explain the current development of its features. Although the bill doesn’t stipulate what type of ultrasound it has to be, it does require for it to produce a clear image of the entire body of the fetus, and for first-trimester patients, that probably requires an invasive transvaginal ultrasound. Victims of sexual assault are not exempt, and the patients must pay extra for the ultrasound.
  • The mandatory wait period for an abortion in Ohio used to be 24 hours; now it will be 48 unless there is a dire medical need to terminate the pregnancy. Again, victims of sexual assault are not exempt. While some people may claim that it shouldn’t be a big deal to have a wait a day or two, remember: restrictions like these disproportionately impact teenagers, the poor, and those who live in rural areas. For a teenager to miss school and get a ride to an abortion clinic without their parents’ knowledge is difficult enough already; doing it twice is even harder. Same for a poor person who has to skip work, and for a person living in a rural area who has to drive a long way to get to an abortion clinic (and it’ll be even longer thanks to the closures that will occur as a result of this bill). In any case, having to wait, especially having to wait a longer period of time, causes stress and anxiety. These politicians seem to be hoping that that stress and anxiety somehow dissuades the person from getting the abortion.
  • Before, a doctor could get a medical waiver to bypass these restrictions if the pregnancy was causing health problems. But now, doctors will only be able to get those waivers if the potential health risks are so great that the pregnant person could die. Anything less than death, apparently, is no big deal.

These abortion restrictions are like the proverbial frog in boiling water. They do it gradually–a 24-hour waiting period here, a mandatory ultrasound there. So what if doctors must have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals? Doesn’t that make abortion safer? (No.)

But before you know it, abortion is nearly or completely unavailable in a given state, and the degree to which it is unavailable varies according to how much money, status, and support you have. Those people who will be most harmed by an unplanned-for and unwanted child will also be the ones for whom abortions are hardest to access. This is unconscionable and it must stop.

Furthermore, most of these restrictions are predicated on the belief that pregnant individuals cannot be trusted to make decisions about their own bodies on their own. They need waiting periods. They need to be shown ultrasounds. They need their fetus’ development described to them. They need to be informed, as though they are completely clueless and ignorant, that doctors make money when they perform medical procedures.

Of course, the point of the bills is not to make abortion safer. This must be stressed over and over again. The point of the bills is to make abortion difficult or impossible to access. Do not fall for the Republicans’ paternalistic claptrap about how they’re just trying to keep women (they think everyone who gets an abortion is a woman) safer. They’re trying to outlaw abortion, slowly and surely.

How do I know? Many reasons, and I’ll use the very similar Texas bill as an example. Texas Republican legislator referred to opponents of the filibustered bill as “terrorists.” Texas Governor Rick Perry, defending the bill, said that “the louder the opposition screams, the more we know we’re doing something right.” (Yes, that is as rapey as it sounds.) Texas Lieutanant Governor David Dewhurst said that the protesters who prevented the bill’s passage “disrupted the Senate from protecting unborn babies.” Where’s the compassion and the concern for safeguarding women’s health now?

As I mentioned, the Ohio bill has already passed. It was included last-minute in a state budget bill, leaving reproductive rights advocates no time to organize any resistance like they did in Texas.

However, Ohio Governor John Kasich has until midnight tomorrow (Sunday) to veto any or all of the bill’s provisions. Kasich, a Republican, has said that he opposes abortion, but maybe even he will realize that this is just too much.

Here’s what you can do: call Gov. Kasich at (614) 466-3555 or email him here and let him know you oppose House Bill 200. I just did. Remember what I wrote about online activism? We can make a difference.

If Your God Condones Forced Pregnancy, Get a New God

[Content note: sexual assault]

I mean, I realize it’s not that simple, but could you at least consider it?

Richard Mourdock, a Republican senate candidate from Indiana, thinks we should be praising the Lord if we get pregnant from rape:

The only exception I have to have an abortion is in the case of the life of the mother. I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize life is that gift from God. I think that even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.

Then of course the outcry began and Mourdock tried to apologize:

I said life is precious. I believe life is precious. I believe rape is a brutal act. It is something that I abhor. That anyone could come away with any meaning other than what I just said is regrettable, and for that I apologize.

What he seems to be saying is that rape itself is abhorrent, but the pregnancy that may result from it is not. This is puzzling. The two processes are not completely disjointed from each other. Pregnancy is a response that most female-bodied people are capable of having to sexual intercourse. If rape is awful, how can pregnancy resulting from rape be a gift?

And on that note, Dictionary.com defines gift as such: “something given voluntarily without payment in return, as to show favor toward someone, honor an occasion, or make a gesture of assistance.”

If the way your god honors, shows favor, or gives assistance to women who have survived a traumatic and possibly violent crime is by forcing them to carry an unwanted baby and then raise that child for 18 years, you need to find yourself a new god.

Oh, and if your politician supports forcing these religious beliefs on all Americans, you need to find yourself a new politician.

But incidentally, Mourdock has not only failed at being a decent human being and at understanding the U.S. Constitution. He has also, according to at least one writer, failed at interpreting his own religion. A Chicago Theological Seminary professor writes:

Rape is sin by the perpetrator and God does not cause sin. Conception following rape is a tragedy, not part of “God’s will.” The capacity for tragedy to occur in human life, and indeed in what we call “natural evil” like earthquakes, is a result of what Christians call “the fall” from perfection as described in Genesis.

When you make God the author of conception following rape, you make God the author of sin. This is a huge theological error, and one that Christian theologians have rejected since the first centuries of the faith.

Not being a Christian (much less a theologian) myself, I can’t necessarily vouch for this interpretation, but it certainly makes more sense to me than Mourdock’s.

What this suggests to me is that Mourdock, and others like him, aren’t actually interpreting their religious beliefs objectively and then coming to the conclusion that abortion is still wrong even after rape. Rather, they are reinterpreting the religion post hoc so that it supports their desired conclusion–that abortion is wrong no matter what.

Of course, religious beliefs should have exactly nothing to do with public policy, and I don’t understand how this is still up for debate. However, the fact that these politicians aren’t even expressing genuine religious ideas, but rather manipulating religion to make it seem like it supports their twisted morality, somehow pisses me off even more. Surely (whines the atheist) this is not what religion is about?

The thing about gifts is, they can be politely declined or flat-out refused or returned to the store or given to someone else. If god has so kindly offered you the “gift” of a pregnancy following a rape, you should be within your rights not to accept the gift.

A gift that is forced on someone without their consent is, by definition, not a gift at all.

[In Brief] Romney's Abortion Flip-flop

In 1994, one of our current presidential candidates said the following:

I have my own beliefs, and those beliefs are very dear to me. One of them is that I do not impose my beliefs on other people. Many, many years ago, I had a dear, close family relative that was very close to me who passed away from an illegal abortion. It is since that time that my mother and my family have been committed to the belief that we can believe as we want, but we will not force our beliefs on others on that matter. And you will not see me wavering on that.

One guess which candidate this was. And here’s a hint: it wasn’t Obama.

That same year, according to the Daily Kos post I linked to, Romney and his wife Ann attended a Planned Parenthood event, and Ann donated $150 to the organization. But in 2007, Romney claimed to have “no recollection” of that, and said that “[Ann’s] positions are not terribly relevant for my campaign.”

This last statement is in itself a lie. Romney claims that Ann “reports to me regularly” about women’s issues.

It doesn’t surprise me that politicians flip-flop on hot-button issues. Of course they do. And not only that, but people can and do genuinely change their minds about things (take it from me; I used to believe that abortion should be illegal in almost all cases).

But this isn’t just a change in politics; it’s a change in values. Romney did not say, “I believe that the government has no authority to ban abortion.” He did not say, “I believe that in a just society, women should have the right to choose.” He said that “we can believe as we want, but we will not force our beliefs on others on that matter.”

What changed in 18 years that forcing one’s beliefs on others suddenly became acceptable to Romney?

This is yet more evidence that the Republican Party we have today is nothing like the Republican Party of two decades ago. Not that I would’ve been a huge fan of that one, either.

"Legitimate" Rape Does Cause Pregnancy

Credit: RHRealityCheck.org

…and so do all those other kinds of rape.

It amazes me what lengths pro-lifers will go to when trying to justify imposing their version of morality upon the rest of the country.

Senate nominee Todd Akin (R-AR) thinks that, even in the case of rape, abortion shouldn’t be necessary. Why?

“First of all, from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare,” Akin told KTVI-TV in an interview posted Sunday. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

And if the female body fails to do its job?

“Let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work, or something,” Akin said. “I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.”

So…a couple things here.

What is “legitimate rape”? Akin didn’t explain, but based on what I hear from those on his side of the aisle, I can assume that a “legitimate rape” goes something like this: a young woman is walking alone down a dark street, wearing jeans and a baggy sweatshirt. It’s not a dangerous neighborhood, because no woman would go to a dangerous neighborhood alone unless she wants to get raped. She is out because she has important things to take care of, not because she was out having fun or anything like that. She is attractive–but not too attractive–and thin, straight, and white, because fat women, queer women, and women of color can’t possibly be raped and/or should be happy if they are. She is a virgin, or at least has only had sex with her husband or with a serious boyfriend. She’s not that type of girl who sleeps around, that is.

Then a man literally jumps out of the bushes and rapes her without warning, even though she screams for help and tries to fight back.

That is a legitimate rape, and in this situation, her body would “shut down” her fertility, or something like that.

As for whether or not this epic pregnancy-avoidance mechanism actually exists, I haven’t seen any evidence for it in the scientific literature (which, by the way, is the only kind that matters here). And since Akin’s the one who brought it up, the burden of proof is on him. I’m not sure which “doctors” he’s been speaking with, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they happen to be barred from practicing medicine in several states.

To me, this points to a need for more and better sex education in schools–before kids grow up, get a degree in divinity, and make a career out of spouting this kind of rubbish and ruining people’s lives with it. Akin is far from the only pro-lifer to think that rape (excuse me, “legitimate” rape) can’t cause pregnancy, as this anti-abortion website proves. (I don’t want to bog down this post with lengthy quotes, but search that page for “sophisticated mix of hormones” and try not to laugh.)

So, moving on to Akin’s statement about what happens if “that didn’t work, or something.” Akin seems to view abortion as a punishment or an “attack” on the child for having the chutzpah to get conceived. It’s not. First of all, you can’t punish something that isn’t alive. Second, it’s interesting that Akin would apparently not consider forcing a living, conscious woman to continue a pregnancy that resulted from rape to be “punishment.” Sure seems like it to me! And, unfortunately, research shows that about 32,000 pregnancies result from rape each year.

Obviously, Akin has “apologized” for his statement. In his apology, he said that abortion “is a very emotionally charged issue” and that his statement “does not reflect the deep empathy I hold for the thousands of women who are raped and abused every year.” He then reconfirmed his pro-life stance, dissed on the Democrats for trying to expand the government in these trying economic times, and notably, said nothing about whether or not the female body can “shut down” pregnancy in the case of “legitimate rape.”

Akin’s comments about rape and pregnancy are laughable, but they should not merely be laughed at. For one thing, he is far from alone in holding this ludicrous belief, and his advocacy against reproductive rights does not end  here. Akin has also supported a complete ban on emergency contraception, and he cosponsored a bill that would’ve restricted funding for abortions to pregnancies that occurred as a result of “forcible” rape (you know, as opposed to the kind where she was asking for it).

Furthermore, as Ilyse Hogue points out at The Nation, comments like Akin’s can have significant political consequences. She notes that for the past few years, the Republicans have employed a strategy in which a politician voices an extreme far-right opinion and gets media coverage for it, allowing the opinion to percolate. Then, less extreme Republicans gradually adapt that stance and it becomes part of the Republican platform.

I would imagine that statements like these can also shift the goalposts in a slightly different way. When a far-right Republican makes such a statement, he/she often receives deserved opprobrium from both liberals and conservatives, and thus allows the more “reasonable” conservatives to reframe their own opinions as valid and acceptable. In this case, for instance, the more “reasonable” conservatives may denounce Akin’s statement and say something like, “Akin’s ridiculous; of course abortion should be legal in all cases of rape.” Key words: in all cases of rape. Not if the woman just doesn’t want to be pregnant. To moderates who lean conservative, then, this viewpoint now starts to seem much more reasonable, because it’s being compared with Akin’s.

Over at The AtlanticTa-Nehisi Coates has a great analysis of Akin’s comments using the concept of privilege:

I think what’s interesting here is the assumed power. I have the right to objectively define pregnancy from rape as rare. I have the right to determine separate legitimate rape from all those instances when you were in need of encouragement, wearing a red dress or otherwise asking for it. I have the right to manufacture scientific theories about your body — theories which reinforce my power. If the body doesn’t “shut that whole thing down” then clearly you weren’t raped, and there’s no need to talk about an abortion. And even if I am wrong on every count, I still have the right to dictate the terms of your body and the remaining days of your life.

In other words, Akin can literally tell you whether or not a woman was “legitimately” raped based on whether or not she gets pregnant. Not because of any scientific evidence, not because of anything the woman herself claimed or testified, but simply because that’s how he would like it to be.

He can do this despite the fact that he currently sits on the House Science and Technology Committee.

That, right there, is the punchline, which actually isn’t funny at all.

P.S. Sign the petition to have Akin removed from the science committee, and to stop lying about rape.

More responses:

Abortion and Suicide: A Spurious Link

In South Dakota, it is now legal to require doctors to tell women seeking abortions that they are putting themselves at risk for suicide.

This move is brilliant from a PR standpoint. Unlike banning certain types of abortions entirely or, say, forcing women to undergo invasive screenings that are medically unnecessary, this seems completely apolitical when you first look at it. Don’t people deserve to be informed if they may be increasing their risk for suicide? Don’t we all agree that suicide is a Bad Thing?

However, something tells me that this is actually another attempt to scare women out of (what should be) a normal, socially acceptable medical procedure.

First of all, the inconvenient truth here is that credible research consistently shows little or no link between abortion and poor mental health. One 2008 study reviewed the literature and found that the only studies that seemed to show such a link had very flawed methodology, whereas the studies that were well-designed showed no links. (Damn liberal academics!) And here’s another study that showed no such links. And here’s a thorough debunking of a study that did claim such links:

Most egregiously, the study, by Priscilla Coleman and colleagues, did not distinguish between mental health outcomes that occurred before abortions and those that occurred afterward, but still claimed to show a causal link between abortion and mental disorders.

In other words, that study actually tried to use mental health pre-abortion to confirm a hypothesis about mental health post-abortion. This is simply not how you do science. And it’s especially bad here, because according to the American Psychological Association, guess what the best predictor of mental health post-abortion is?

Across studies, prior mental health emerged as the strongest predictor of postabortion mental health. Many of these same factors also predict negative psychological reactions to other types of stressful life events, including childbirth, and, hence, are not uniquely predictive of psychological responses following abortion.

That’s right. Shockingly enough, the best predictor of mental health is, well, past mental health. And poor mental health predicts poor response to all sorts of stressful events, of which abortion is only one example. Another one being, for instance, childbirth!

Compounding the bad science here is that, unlike physical side effects,suicide isn’t something that just happens to you suddenly and without warning. People don’t just suddenly wake up one morning and decide to kill themselves. Suicidality is a complex process that involves factors like genetics, family history, environment, social support, mental illness, and life circumstances. For instance, here are some things that, according to research, actually increase one’s statistical risk for suicide:

As you can probably surmise, not all of these correlations are also causations. While mental illness and drug addiction can actually cause suicidal behavior, being intelligent and being LGBT probably cannot. In the latter case, the causative culprit seems to be (surprise surprise) institutionalized discrimination and homophobia. Before I get too off-topic, let me point out the irony in the fact that, despite this well-known risk faced by LGBT youth, I don’t see any of these pro-lifers advocating for an end to homophobia.

That’s why something tells me that nothing about this court ruling actually has anything to do with suicide prevention.

Although the court’s ruling does at least acknowledge that abortion probably doesn’t cause suicide, it nevertheless states that “conclusive proof of causation is not required in order for the identification of a medical risk.” This is probably true, but it only makes sense from a physical health standpoint. If studies show that people who get a certain elective medical procedure are much more likely to, say, experience headaches or nausea or numbness, you don’t necessarily need a causative study to conclude that there’s a reasonable chance that these symptoms were caused by the procedure (assuming, of course, that there was no illness present that might be causing them). Furthermore, there’s a difference between saying “This procedure may cause you to experience cramps and headaches” and saying “This procedure may cause you to kill yourself.”

The truth is, mental health doesn’t work that way. A person who gets an abortion might experience mental side effects because of the stress of having gotten pregnant accidentally and been forced to decide what to do, perhaps without the support of a partner or family. Furthermore, any invasive medical procedure can be stressful and worrying for many people–especially one like abortion, which is consistently portrayed as more painful and dangerous than it really is.

And this is all made even more complicated by the fact that the faulty studies in question were actually studying mental health before the abortion. Perhaps a person with poor mental health is more likely to seek an abortion in the first place–say, if they feel that they aren’t mentally capable of raising a child at the moment.

Ultimately, decisions about what to tell a patient should be left up to the people who know most: doctors (with, of course, a reasonable amount of regulation to prevent malpractice). If a doctor can tell that a person seeking an abortion is going through a lot of mental distress, then that doctor may want to gently recommend counseling and perhaps give out some hotline numbers–and training doctors to recognize signs of mental health troubles is always a good thing.

But doctors should not be mandated to fearmonger to their patients. They should especially not be mandated to serve a pro-life agenda.

"Vagina" is Not a Four-letter Word

You would be forgiven for assuming that our elected politicians are mature adults who can handle using words that designate genitalia. You would especially be forgiven for assuming that given that many of these politicians are very eager to legislate what can and cannot be done with genitalia.

However, you’d be wrong.

This is old news now for anyone who follows these things, but in case you don’t, here’s a recap. On June 14, the Michigan House of Representatives was debating a new bill that would severely limit a woman’s ability to get an abortion by placing new restrictions on abortion providers. The bill passed the House and will go to the Senate most likely in September. (They were also debating a separate bill, which did not pass, that would’ve restricted all abortions after 20 weeks, with no exception for rape or incest).

In response to this, Representative Lisa Brown (three guesses which party) gave a speech in opposition and said, “I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina, but ‘no’ means ‘no.'” You can see her speech in its entirety here.

The shock! The horror! Brown was quickly forbidden from speaking on the House floor by Republican leadership of the House. A spokesman for Republican Speaker of the House Jase Bolger said, “House Republicans often go beyond simply allowing debate by welcoming open and passionate discussion of the issues before this chamber…The only way we can continue doing so, however, is to ensure that the proper level of maturity and civility are maintained on the House floor.”

To that end, Republican Representative Mike Callton said that Brown’s remark “was so offensive, I don’t even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company.”

What Bolger, Callton, and the rest of these concern trolls apparently do not realize is that language is malleable and entirely based on context. In general, words might be inappropriate to say for three different reasons:

  1. They are derogatory and hurtful slurs (i.e. the n-word, fag, retard)
  2. They have been designated as “profane” by our society (i.e. fuck, piss, shit, cunt)
  3. They refer to things or functions that are generally considered inappropriate for polite conversation (i.e. penis, vagina, feces)
These three categories of Bad Words operate in different ways. The first category is inappropriate to say basically always, unless, in some cases, you belong to the group targeted by the slur, or you are using the word in a conversation about the word (but even that is controversial).

The second category are words that are usually used to make a statement. They are much more frequently okay to use than the words in the first category. That’s why when people curse, they use these words. That’s why many writers, such as myself, use them for effect. They’re generally okay to say around your friends, but many people avoid using them in front of people they don’t know well.

The third category comprises words for things that we usually avoid discussing in polite company without a good reason. You wouldn’t exclaim, “That looks like a penis!” in front of your grandma, and you wouldn’t say, “My vagina feels funny” in front of your boss (I mean…unless you have a very open-minded boss/grandma). It’s not the words themselves that are “bad,” it’s the fact that you usually shouldn’t talk about the things those words refer to if you want to be polite.

But all of this falls apart when the context demands discussion of such topics. If you’re at a doctor’s appointment and the doctor needs to tell you something about your penis or vagina, it would be laughable for him or her to avoid using those words. If you’re negotiating sex with a partner, you shouldn’t have to worry that he or she will be offended if you use those words. And if you’re attempting to legislate what women can and cannot do with their private parts, you’re going to have to face the fact that those parts have names.

The most ironic thing here, though, is Callton’s remark about the word “vagina”: “I don’t even want to say it in front of women.” First of all, that’s patriarchal as hell; women can handle naughty words just as well as men can. Second, it’s not just a naughty word; it’s a word for a thing that (most) women experience on a constant basis.

Some conservatives have apparently made a slightly more legitimate criticism of Brown in that she connects restricting abortion with rape (via her “no means no” allusion). I say “slightly more legitimate” only because, having once been a pro-lifer, I understand how they would take offense.

After all, pro-life politicians do not wake up in the morning thinking, “Yo, I’m gonna take away some rights from women and tell them what to do with their own vaginas today.” They think, “Abortion is murder and I have a duty to stop it just like I would stop the murder of a child or adult.” To them, drawing any parallels whatsoever between restricting abortion and committing sexual assault would naturally seem preposterous. It is only those of us who couch the debate in the language of personal liberty who see the similarities.

That’s why this whole incident really highlighted for me the divisions between liberals and conservatives on the matter of reproductive rights. It’s not even just that they can’t agree on whether or not abortion should be legal; it’s that they can’t agree on what abortion is, and on the terms with which the debate should be framed. Liberals say abortion is a woman’s right over her own body; conservatives say it’s the murder of an unborn human being. How can we ever reach a consensus if we define our terms differently?

I don’t know how to solve this problem–and if I did I would probably be the savior of American politics–but at least this story has a partially-happy ending. Brown and several of her colleagues performed the play The Vagina Monologues with its playwright Eve Ensler on the steps of the statehouse last Monday night as a tribute to our right to speak the names of our own body parts. About 2,500 spectators came to watch.

But as for the bill that the House passed, that’ll go on to marinade in the state Senate, which currently has 26 Republicans and 12 Democrats. I’m not getting my hopes up.

How Not to Argue Against Abortion

Our campus magazine, North by Northwestern, recently did a cool feature called “Dormroom Debate” in which it pitted a conservative and a liberal against each other to discuss the recent Arizona abortion laws.

I think that it’s great to expose yourself to dissenting viewpoints, not just for the sake of understanding and kumbaya (though that too) but so that you can learn how to better counter them.

However, just from glancing over the article, you’ll see a problem–both of the writers are men.

Now, as a disclaimer, I don’t see anything wrong with men discussing issues like abortion and contraception. I don’t think that having a penis and/or lacking a vagina makes you unqualified to even talk about these things. I do think, however, that it’s more difficult to have a well-informed opinion on these things if you’re a man. Why?  Because it means you have to take extra efforts to learn about things that women already know by default, such as how hormonal birth control actually works.

What I do think is downright wrong is the fact that women are continually being left out of conversations about their own bodies. It happens in congressional hearings, and it’s happening–albeit to a much less drastic and harmful degree–in our own campus magazine.

I’ll grant that this particular “panel” only involved two student writers, so it’s almost certain that women were left out of it entirely by accident. However, considering that Northwestern has slightly more women than men, and the school of journalism is even more skewed towards women, I find it very unlikely that the editors of NBN could not have produced at least one woman to participate in this debate.

What bothers me much more than the fact that NBN chose two men to discuss what women should and should not be able to do with their bodies, however, was the content of the conservative writer’s piece. Now, obviously, I knew from the get-go that I was going to disagree. However, I expected an entirely different line of argument.

For instance, as a conservative, you can make the argument that abortion laws should be left up to the states. You can make the argument that these laws make restrictions on abortion without actually taking away the right to get one. You can make the argument that these restrictions are necessary because they actually make abortion safer. You can even make the argument that abortion is morally wrong because you believe that life begins at conception.

You can make all those arguments, and I’d disagree with all of them, but they would at least be legitimate, logical arguments. Up until the end, the arguments that the conservative writer was making were mostly these. But then:

Opponents of this law do not really prioritize women’s health and their right to choose. Instead of wanting women to make smart decisions for themselves, they become “pro-abortion.” Their ultimate goal is the slaughter of innocent babies, so women can maintain their more comfortable lifestyles rather than live with the results of their choices — both the trials and the blessings.

Reread this: “Their ultimate goal is the slaughter of innocent babies.”

I’m going to go line by line now:

“Opponents of this law do not really prioritize women’s health and their right to choose.”

There is absolutely no evidence for this claim. None whatsoever.

“Instead of wanting women to make smart decisions for themselves, they become ‘pro-abortion.'”

Classic strawman fallacy. If indeed there are any pro-choice advocates who think that abortion is a “good” thing, or even that it is a decision to be made lightly, they can only be a tiny minority. In fact, the liberal writer in this piece explicitly states, “I believe every abortion is a tragedy.” Why not take him at his word?

“Their ultimate goal is the slaughter of innocent babies…”

Do I even need to say anything about this?

Just in case, I will anyway. Because there is no scientific or legal consensus regarding when life begins, individuals are free to define it for themselves as they choose. Those who believe life begins at conception probably would not choose to get an abortion. But those who believe that life begins at birth (or at the third trimester) do not believe that abortion is murder. Therefore, accusing them of promoting “the slaughter of innocent babies” is unfair. In other words, because there is considerable ambiguity in the definition of life’s beginning, it’s quite intellectually disingenuous to accuse those who disagree with your personal definition of advocating murder. Also, hello appeal to emotion.

“…so women can maintain their more comfortable lifestyles rather than live with the results of their choices — both the trials and the blessings.”

This statement shows a stunning lack of understanding of why women might choose to get abortions. First of all, statistically, most women who find themselves in that situation never had “comfortable lifestyles” to begin with. They tend to be young, single, and working-class. A woman who winds up accidentally pregnant is likely to be someone who didn’t have sufficient access to contraception–or, more tragically, a victim of sexual assault.

Second, the wording of this sentence clearly shows that the writer considers pregnancy, childbirth, and child rearing to be an acceptable consequence for a woman’s “choice”–meaning, obviously, the choice to have sex. Since I’m guessing this writer is someone who believes that sex should be for procreation only, there’s little I can really say in response except that, guess what, that’s not how the vast majority of people see it anymore.

I’m neglecting something here, of course. This writer made it clear from the very beginning of his piece that he’s not basing his arguments on logic or on conservative political ideology at all. At the very beginning, he writes:

My dad is a confessional Lutheran pastor, my mom a parochial school teacher, and I went to a Lutheran High School. Because of this upbringing, I have a strong belief in my innate sinfulness and need for my Savior, Jesus Christ. My faith is the primary foundation for my political ideology and is why I would say I’m a pretty staunch conservative all around. I believe that we should be good stewards of the blessings God has given us and we should live in a way that is pleasing to Him.

That’s right. He comes right out and says that the basis for his political beliefs is his religion–a religion that is legitimate and meaningful to him, but a religion that not all of us share.

Political arguments must not be based on religion. We have separation of church and state for a reason.