Important note: This post has a different comment policy than the standard one on this blog. Comment policy is at the end of this post.
UPDATE: Clarification added at the end, for some people who seem to have some problems with reading for comprehension.
SECOND, VERY IMPORTANT UPDATE: James Croft has changed his mind on this, and has apologized and offered a retraction. Good for him.
I did not want to get into this. I’m in the very last stages of production on the new book, and I’m exhausted, and I was planning to take a break from controversies and firestorms for a little while. And this one is deeply distressing: it involves people I respect, people I think are doing good work, people I think of as allies and in some cases even consider friends.
But I can’t not talk about this.
Yes. By all means. Let’s have a calm, reasonable debate about abortion.
Let’s have a calm, reasonable discussion about my basic humanity, and my basic human right to physical autonomy. Let’s have a calm, reasonable discussion about whether I should be forced, by law, and at significant risk to my own health and safety and life, to donate my organs for nine months to an embryo/ fetus.*
Let’s have that discussion again. And again. And again and again and again and again and again. And again. Okay, sure, we’ve been having these debates for decades now. But let’s dredge it up again. Let’s treat the basic bodily autonomy of people with uteruses** as a subject that’s up for discussion, a subject that reasonable people can disagree about. And let’s be calm and reasonable about it.
Let’s discuss the secular arguments against abortion, and talk about how the issue isn’t as clear-cut as issues like school prayer or same-sex marriage — David Silverman. Let’s give space in our blogs to the secular arguments against abortion, with no comment on their complete and utter lack of merit — Hemant Mehta. Let’s talk about how anti-abortion arguments are so provocative, and how although it may be an unpopular view, it’s very important that we try to discuss questions like abortion in an open way, because these debates are essential for the spirit of inquiry — James Croft. (UPDATE: James Croft has changed his mind on this, and has apologized and offered a retraction.) Let’s talk about how the people in these debates are engaging in freethinking, and how the anger being expressed about the debates is a sign of intellectual timidity — Ed Beck (in comments). Let’s get defensive and pissy about how people who expressing fury about this issue are being reckless, and treat people who supposedly misunderstood our statements as irresponsible, rather than apologizing for our poor communication and the damage caused by it — David Silverman again.
And then, perhaps, we can have another panel at another atheist conference about why there aren’t more women in the atheist movement.
Yes, I understand that the people quoted above, and most of the other people involved in this firestorm, are themselves pro-choice — at least, in the most basic sense that they personally support abortion being legal. That’s not the point.
See, here’s the thing. I don’t see a lot of atheist leaders and bloggers suggesting that we have a calm, reasonable debate about whether homosexuality is a mental illness and gay people should be locked in mental institutions. I don’t see them suggesting that we have a calm, reasonable debate about whether or not black people are human beings or are some other sub-human species who should serve white people. I don’t see them talking with reporters about those arguments, or giving them space in their blogs without comment. I don’t see them saying that because we’re freethinkers, because we support free inquiry and the free exchange of ideas, that therefore we should freely inquire into the issue of whether black people and gay people are fully human with the basic right to bodily autonomy. I don’t see them saying that the “be willing to question anything and everything” spirit of skepticism applies to questions that have dehumanization built into their very core. I see them recognizing these arguments as morally reprehensible on the face of it.
So why is abortion a special case?
I said above that we were having yet another debate about my basic human right to physical autonomy. Technically, that’s not true: I had a hysterectomy in 2012, and I literally cannot get pregnant now. But this is still about me. The conversation about abortion treats women’s bodily autonomy as a legitimate topic of debate. And that bloody well does affect me. If the right to abortion is up for debate, then my right to have consensual sex with whoever I choose, my right to masturbate, my right to dress as I please, my right to not be raped, are all up for debate as well.
I am enraged about this. And it is incredibly distressing to learn that some of my colleagues, my allies, even my friends, think that my rage is unreasonable. Yes, I understand that these people are themselves pro-choice. That’s not the point. The point is that they are treating women’s right to basic physical autonomy as just another interesting political topic for discussion and debate. The point is that they are showing little to no understanding about why people are so enraged about this, and little to no concern about that rage. The point is that they are showing a whole lot more concern about their hurt feelings over being the target of that rage, or about the hurt feelings of other targets, than they are about the hurt feelings of women getting our basic humanity called into question for the 874,905,836,513th time.
There’s an interesting thing about David Silverman’s comment, the one that sparked this firestorm in the first place. You know the place where he said that there was a secular argument against abortion, and the issue wasn’t as clear-cut as same-sex marriage? That’s just flatly not true. There are secular arguments against same-sex marriage. There are secular arguments against same-sex marriage made by gay people. And these aren’t just pathetic retreads of the Religious Right’s arguments, either, the way that secular arguments against abortion are. There are gay people who oppose the entire institution of marriage, or who think that issues other than marriage equality should be a greater priority for the LGBT movement, or both. I don’t agree with those arguments — but they deserve to be taken a lot more seriously than the craptastic secular arguments against abortion.
So why is abortion different?
Why are arguments against same-sex marriage being dismissed by almost all atheists as preposterous and insulting, while arguments against choice are being treated as issues worthy of sober consideration? Despite the overwhelming support among non-believers for the right to abortion — over 98%, roughly the same as the support among non-believers for same-sex marriage, and in fact slightly higher — why are the spectacularly bad secular arguments for abortion being treated as a special case?
As a queer person, I have come to expect full-throated support from the atheist movement for my right to have sex with whoever I choose — and either an outraged rant or a passionate horse-laugh aimed at any arguments against that right. I had assumed — despite the demoralizing debates about sexism and feminism that have been raging in the movement — that I could expect equally full-throated support, and equal rage and ridicule, for my right to not be forced to give birth.
It is incredibly distressing to learn otherwise.
Oh, and finally: If you ever cheered me on when I ranted righteously about the power of atheist anger, and are now saying that pro-choice advocates need to calm down and not get so worked up about abortion? Please go fuck yourself. Thank you.
Comment policy for this post: I am not willing to host a debate about abortion in this blog. I am willing to host a meta-debate about the controversy this issue has stirred in the atheist community, and the things various people in the community have said about it. But I am not going to host a debate about the basic right to abortion — any more than I would host a debate about whether gay people should be locked up in prisons or mental institutions for being gay. There are plenty of places on the Internet where you can debate the question of whether people with working uteruses have the basic right of bodily autonomy. This is not one of them. Violators will be put into comment moderation (or banned, if their comments are sufficiently vile), and their comments will be disemvoweled. Thank you.
*(Go read Judith Jarvis Thomson on this, if you haven’t already. Even if you concede, purely for the sake of argument, that an embryo or a fetus is a complete human being, people are still under no moral obligation to donate our organs to these purported people for close to a year, at considerable risk of our safety. The question of abortion is, at its core, a question of our fundamental right to bodily autonomy.)
**Abortion is an interesting and tricky issue when it comes to gender — it obviously affects women disproportionately, and the arguments against it are deeply rooted in sexism and misogyny. But the right to abortion also affects trans men who have not had bottom surgery; and it doesn’t have the same affect on trans women or other women without uteruses (except in that it affects all issues of bodily autonomy, as noted above). I’m trying to use “people with uteruses” when I’m talking about the specific right to abortion, and “women” when I’m talking about how sexism and misogyny play into it. My apologies if I’m getting that wrong.
CLARIFICATION: I thought this was pretty clear in the original post, and most people seem to have gotten it. But I’m going to spell it out more blatantly for those who seem to be having trouble with reading for comprehension.
I did not say anywhere in this post that no pro-choice advocates should ever debate abortion anywhere. What I am saying is this:
1) I want pro-choice advocates to respond to anti-choice arguments (when they choose to do so) with the same level of outrage, ridicule, and moral revulsion they would treat arguments for imprisoning gay people, enslaving black people, marital rape, and other violations of bodily autonomy. We debate and discuss morally repulsive positions that violate people’s bodily autonomy differently than we do positions we disagree with but can see the value of (or just don’t see as morally repulsive). When it comes to arguing against anti-choice arguments, I want us to do the latter.
1a) Related to this. I do not want pro-choice advocates (in this case, Hemant Mehta) to give a platform to anti-choice arguments, with no comment whatsoever, as if they were just another interesting political topic for discussion and debate — as opposed to the grotesque violation of the right to bodily autonomy that they are.
2) I want pro-choice advocates to quit telling women and people with uteruses to be more polite, kinder, and less angry when their basic right to bodily autonomy is debated, or when people handle the issue in a piss-poor way.
3) I do not want to host that debate in my own blog. In this post, I am willing to have a meta-debate about the controversy in the community, and in fact created a space for it — but I am not willing to host a debate about my right to not be forced to be an organ donor for nine months.
Any problems with any of that?