A Secular Argument for Transphobia

trinity-150Guest post by Trinity Pixie

Trigger warnings: Abuse, isolation, transphobia, homophobia, racism.

My previous post, Green, which I presented without comment, was actually a piece of creative nonfiction. It was about my family’s response to my transition: taking advantage of my disability to isolate me.

I lived in a place somewhere between rural and suburban. Many houses, few businesses, no public transit. There was a convenience store about a mile and a half away, a grocery store about ten, and in between were a number of people who would likely recognize me from pre-transition – many of whom were happy to attack me previous to transition, without the excuse of queerness thrown in.

I was explicitly not invited to family functions, and forbidden from telling anyone, even my siblings, of my trans status. I had access to medication and health care used as a bargaining chip, was told that I was faking the severity of my disability. I had my own father threaten me with physical harm and make me fear for my life, all the while being told I was the one harming the family.

My parents are atheists. They have used labels like secular humanist to define themselves. They don’t believe in a god, a savior, or a holy book. The reasons, the arguments they would use to defend what they did, how they treated me, are secular. They are also just as valid as any secular arguments against abortion, so why is it that a leader of the secular movement will acknowledge those arguments, but not acknowledge my parents? Aren’t these the type of people you’re trying to attract to the movement?

Why are you comfortable with violations of the rights of cis women, but not with people like my parents? My parents, who vote Republican, choose to give their money to companies like Chick-fil-A, and likely (I’ve admittedly never discussed it with them) are anti-abortion. Who believe slavery should have been a state-by-state issue, and have a secular argument for that. You need to ask yourself: why are you comfortable drawing the line there?


Trinity Pixie is a member of the Secular Woman advisory board.

There Is Also a Secular Argument For Infanticide

1522095_10152076191576077_222205893_n (1)American Atheists president David Silverman recently attended this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) with the intention of reaching out to non-religious conservatives. CPAC, if you aren’t familiar with it, has featured such illustrious moments as:

All of that, by the way, happened within the past week alone. So, how did Silverman go about sharing the word of atheism at this most respectable of political conferences? Roy Edroso of Raw Story reports on his strategy:

“I came with the message that Christianity and conservatism are not inextricably linked,” he told me, “and that social conservatives are holding down the real conservatives — social conservatism isn’t real conservatism, it’s actually big government, it’s theocracy. I’m talking about gay rights, right to die, abortion rights –”

A simple enough idea: conservatives can continue to uphold (some of) their political values without any need for religious faith. Silverman, understandably, didn’t seem very interested in legitimizing homophobia or the deprivation of terminal patients’ medical autonomy. Anyway, where was he going with that last part?

Hold on, I said, I think the Right to Life guys who have a booth here, and have had every year since CPAC started, would disagree that they’re not real conservatives.

“I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion,” said Silverman. “You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage.”

Oh. Okay.

Taken literally, the statement that secular arguments against abortion do exist isn’t a very controversial one. Yes, there are anti-abortion arguments that do not rely on supernatural or theological claims. These arguments can instead rely on concepts like “rights”, “human life”, “personhood”, and so on, without introducing any explicitly religious elements.

Of course, the mere existence of such arguments says nothing about their soundness. Silverman himself stated that he was simply recognizing these arguments even as he disagrees with them:

and please understand this is not support. I’m vehemently pro choice. Just acknowledging they exist. They do.

But whether such arguments exist, and whether they have any merit, is beside the point. What really stands out as notable here is Silverman’s more open-minded approach to this particular issue, even as he dismisses other issues outright.

Silverman is not interested in reaching out to conservative CPAC attendees who oppose marriage equality, oppose end-of-life decisionmaking, or support prayer in schools. However, when it comes to conservatives who oppose the right to abortion, he takes a rather more tolerant stance. While he sees homophobic conservatives as having no place in organized atheism, he’s more willing to recruit anti-abortion conservatives to the secularist cause.

Whether he would actually agree with this or not, that’s how his special exception for abortion opposition comes across. To him, homophobes don’t have a place in our movement – but abortion opponents do?

Is this necessarily a demographic worth reaching out to? JT Eberhard argues:

We must be willing to work with people with whom we disagree on some subjects. …So if you acknowledge that someone need not be right on all subjects for them to be right on the one you’re working on together, this can’t be a reason for you to be upset with Dave Silverman.

But this does nothing to explain why abortion rights should be a subject on which disagreement is acceptable, while LGBT rights, for example, should not. Drawing a line at that particular point seems arbitrary. JT continues:

I don’t think it’s fair to expect someone to avoid telling the truth (that a secular argument exists for being anti-choice, lousy though it is) in order to not give a hat tip to the people Silverman has said multiple times he opposes on that subject. That seems a bit like getting exacerbated at scientists whenever they acknowledge the existence of complexity in the universe because they’ve given a “tip of the hat” to creationists. … If you acknowledge as atheists we shouldn’t shy away from stating facts even though we know there are people out there who will twist them toward an inaccurate or unethical position, then you can’t really be upset with Dave Silverman.

Here is another truth that we, as atheists, need not shy away from stating: there is a secular argument for the elective infanticide of healthy newborn humans. It is not even a very complicated argument, and it is one that is perhaps especially well-suited to atheistic naturalism, scientific empiricism, and the rejection of mainstream Christianity.

Suppose that we abandon the idea that the human species occupies a uniquely privileged or “sacred” place among all organisms. Our ethical considerations in how we treat human life – from blastocyst to infant to elder – should not lean on an assumption that humans are special simply for the mere fact that they are humans. Ethical questions should take into account actual substance rather than just a name: the features that actually constitute an individual human. These features can include the extent to which they can experience pain and pleasure, their level of awareness of the world around them, their ability to possess distinct desires and goals, and their level of awareness of themselves as a sentient being.

When we recognize that questions of ethical treatment should consider such features, two conclusions emerge: First, humans are not the only organisms that merit our ethical concern – various animals are also capable of suffering pain, having desires, and possessing different degrees of awareness and self-awareness. And second, not all humans are identical by these metrics; depending on their degree of development, some may be more or less aware, more or less capable of experiencing pain, and so on.

Therefore, instead of a model wherein all humans occupy a special ethical category meriting unique concern, we can conceive of a spectrum of ethical concern along which all organisms fall – humans and other animals alike. One potentially uncomfortable fact is that some animals may be more well-developed than some humans in their capacity for self-awareness, desires, and so on. As Kate Wong notes in Scientific American:

Human babies enter the world utterly dependent on caregivers to tend to their every need. Although newborns of other primate species rely on caregivers, too, human infants are especially helpless because their brains are comparatively underdeveloped. Indeed, by one estimation a human fetus would have to undergo a gestation period of 18 to 21 months instead of the usual nine to be born at a neurological and cognitive development stage comparable to that of a chimpanzee newborn.

Similarly, MRI scans of dogs suggest that they are capable of experiencing emotions on a level similar to human children:

Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite. But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.

The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child.

Dogs may also possess mental capabilities on par with those of 2-year-old humans:

According to several behavioral measures, Coren says dogs’ mental abilities are close to a human child age 2 to 2.5 years. … As for language, the average dog can learn 165 words, including signals, and the “super dogs” (those in the top 20 percent of dog intelligence) can learn 250 words, Coren says. “The upper limit of dogs’ ability to learn language is partly based on a study of a border collie named Rico who showed knowledge of 200 spoken words and demonstrated ‘fast-track learning,’ which scientists believed to be found only in humans and language learning apes,” Coren said. … Dogs can also count up to four or five, said Coren. And they have a basic understanding of arithmetic and will notice errors in simple computations, such as 1+1=1 or 1+1=3. …

Through observation, Coren said, dogs can learn the location of valued items (treats), better routes in the environment (the fastest way to a favorite chair), how to operate mechanisms (such as latches and simple machines) and the meaning of words and symbolic concepts (sometimes by simply listening to people speak and watching their actions). … During play, dogs are capable of deliberately trying to deceive other dogs and people in order to get rewards, said Coren.

So: Humans are not the only organisms capable of emotion or developing accurate mental models of the world, and we’re certainly not the only organisms capable of experiencing pain or a desire to continue to live. Indeed, some animals possess these capabilities to a greater degree than newborn humans.

And yet, despite their possession of these capabilities, there exists a widespread disinterest in recognizing a “right to life” of animals. Instead, people commonly consider it acceptable to kill animals if we simply decide it is necessary. Cows “exhibit behavioral expressions of excitement when they solve a problem”, but all that’s needed to justify killing a cow is our mere preference that it should become several delicious steaks rather than continue existing as a feeling, thinking organism. Dogs exhibit intelligence and emotions similar to toddlers, but people leave healthy dogs to be euthanized at shelters every day.

In a society that accepts such treatment of animals as a norm – and accepts even the most trivial of human desires as a justification for such treatment – it should be similarly acceptable for the custodians of any newborn human to have that infant killed, for no reason other than their simple desire that this baby no longer be alive. Newborns have lesser abilities of thinking, modeling, perceiving, feeling and wanting than animals, and probably an equal capacity to experience pain. Yet the presence of even greater capacities in many of these areas has largely failed to convince us to recognize a “right to life” of animals. So why should the life of a human embryo, fetus, or infant be seen as always worth preserving and protecting?

Scientific findings support the facts underlying this argument for infanticide rights. This argument also has strengths which other common pro-choice arguments lack. For instance, one such argument contends that whatever right to life an unborn fetus may have, it is always outweighed by a person’s right to bodily autonomy – their right not to be compelled to provide sustenance, in the form of their own bodily resources, to another organism.

However, this “competing rights” argument opens the door to debate over just how important these respective rights are, and whether a fetus’s right to life really is small enough to be overridden. It implicitly agrees with abortion opponents in recognizing that a fetus actually does have, to some degree, a right to exist. And it requires proponents of a pro-choice position to maintain that a person’s right to bodily autonomy is, in all circumstances, the more important right in this situation. Abortion opponents, like Kristine Kruszelnicki of Pro-Life Humanists, may in turn contend that the fetus’s rights carry overriding weight.

In contrast, the pro-infanticide argument presented here does not have this vulnerability. It does not recognize an embryo, fetus, or even a newborn human as possessing a “right to life” to any degree whatsoever. And so it is not even necessary to argue that a person has a right to bodily autonomy which overrides a fetus’s supposed rights.

Clearly, there is a secular argument for infanticide. One does not have to support it or agree with it, and one may feel that it is far from decisive or clear-cut, but it does indeed exist. Others might twist this argument to make atheists look bad, but that doesn’t mean we should avoid recognizing this truth.

I’ve met David Silverman before, and he was a really nice guy – I hope we get to meet again. I don’t have any problem with believing that he certainly meant well with his outreach efforts at CPAC, as idiosyncratic as his views on acceptable political differences may be. And a few isolated quotes expressing a nuanced position – albeit a potentially disagreeable one – aren’t necessarily cause to dismiss and ignore a person entirely.

What I would ask is this: What is American Atheists doing to reach out to pro-infanticide atheists and bring them into the cause of organized secularism? Is our conception of the parameters of a “right to life” any less worthy of being courted than that of abortion opponents? If we’re really seeking to expand the tent of atheist activism, why extend it only in their direction, and not ours? I’d contend that if anything, those of us who are pro-infanticide can bring much more of value to the atheist movement than anti-choice conservatives would, such as our evidence-based approach to secular ethics. And if you think it would be distasteful to reach out to us, ask yourself: is it really more distasteful than inviting people who would legally force a person to give birth against their will?

Looking Gosnell in the Eye

In early 2011, Dr. Kermit Gosnell was arrested on charges of murder related to his abortion services: one charge for the death of a woman who had sought an abortion at his Philadelphia clinic, and seven additional charges for the killings of infants that had been born alive. The grand jury report on Gosnell’s clinic contained a variety of emotional appeals that were largely irrelevant to the actual charges, and at the time, the sensationalized report received wide coverage and was frequently used to attack abortion generally. My partner Heather analyzed the report and its subsequent coverage, and found many arguments by the grand jury and the media to be lacking. Many magazines and publications refused to print her analysis, and now that the trial of Gosnell has begun and these same arguments have flared up once more, we’ve chosen to republish her piece here. -Zinnia

 


 

Looking Gosnell in the Eye
by Heather McNamara

In the wake of the release of the grisly grand jury report and the media firestorm surrounding the atrocities at Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s abortion clinic, we, as pro-choice feminists, have been posed a difficult question. Basted in gruesome quotes, the emotional appeals from the pro-lifers (and more reserved pro-choicers) who read the report are everywhere and seem to ask, “Did you know it was this gruesome?” The responses from pro-choice advocates have been reserved – usually articles featuring calming, tranquil images of very pregnant women in silhouette standing by windows, presumably contemplating all the trials and joys ahead of her, and certainly not crying on the bathroom floor with a positive pregnancy test. “Think of the women!”, we say, “think of the babies”, they say, and nobody seems to be answering the question: well, did you know it was that gruesome?

The difference between flashing the grand jury report and flashing large poster images of aborted fetuses in front of clinics is subtle but effective. Gosnell broke the law. He kept an unsanitary facility; he performed abortions that were so late term that they should have been done, assuming they were legal, in hospitals where better monitoring was available; he did not properly care for his patients; and he was arguably negligent with the way he prescribed drugs. These things are absolutely wrong, and no doctor, no matter how much good they intend, should be recklessly endangering lives. Each and every woman who sought the help of Dr. Gosnell deserved a safe, clean, well-staffed clinic. It’s difficult to argue that the abortions Gosnell performed were not wrong, because there were clearly so many things he did that were wrong.

However, there is no connection between the lives Gosnell endangered and the ethicality of abortion, and some of the things in the grand jury report that disgust us – jokes about the fetuses being “so big they could walk me to the bus stop”, for example – are things that could happen in clean, professionally staffed clinics. There is no law against bad taste. So why were they even mentioned in the grand jury report? Among the shocking and frankly manipulative language contained within, we find outright misleading quotes such as “these women were giving birth” to refer to the induced contractions to dilate cervices, “he played with the baby” to refer to his touching the fetus’s hands, and “he stuck the scissors into the back of their necks” to refer to a method of terminating a fetus that has long been widely recognized as entirely valid and comparatively humane. The proper vernacular is “intact dilation and extraction”. Quotes like these, considered rationally, should not compel us to question abortion, but instead should make us question the state of mind and competency of the grand jury. In legal contexts, emotional appeals are out of place.

The reality is: medical procedures can be violent, visceral events. Every day in hospitals everywhere, people are bruised, broken, and cut open. Ribcages are cracked open, skin sliced open, veins burned and yanked out, sensitive areas cut, and burns scraped. These things are done to help and save people. The inner workings, procedures, ethics, and yes, tasteless jokes in any clinic could be detailed in such a way as to turn you off the idea of healthcare forever, but that does not make anyone’s need for it any less valid.

Dr. Gosnell ended the lives of some fetuses, which, left alone, would have become cute little bouncing pink babies in adorable little outfits. He cut into the backs of their necks and severed their spinal cords. Legitimate abortion providers also do this. They dilate women’s cervices, which can be painful, they terminate fetuses, and they cut flesh. And so what? Does the weakness or strength of your constitution, or anyone else’s, comprise a valid basis for granting or removing a woman’s control over her most precious domain – her body?

These arguments exist for one purpose: to desensitize us to the plight of the presumably healthy, if scared and distraught pregnant women we imagine, and turn our attention instead to the horror we can observe. They’ve caught us at a vulnerable time when several states are introducing bills to limit and outright deny access to abortion. Now is not the time to be squeamish. Now is the time when we, as feminists, can show we’re not afraid to confront the difficult and unpleasant realities of abortion – the disturbing bloody images, the fact that sometimes women don’t actually have a Very Good Reason to be seeking one, and even the unfortunate physical and emotional consequences that sometimes follow. Once we acknowledge that these things are there and real and unpleasant, we can continue to assert our right to do it anyway, and in doing this, remove their power over us.

 


Heather McNamara writes about indie literature, politics, and civil rights at HeatherMcNamara.net.

Lazy pseudo-criticism of abortion

In an op-ed for the New York Times, former news anchor Campbell Brown has some advice for Planned Parenthood:

Once again, Planned Parenthood is potentially making an enemy of someone who has failed to pass its purity test. It’s gotten to the point where, in this election cycle, the group’s political arm (while proudly claiming to be nonpartisan) has not endorsed or directly given money to a single Republican. As a person who believes abortions should be safe, legal and rare, I support many of Planned Parenthood’s goals. But the militancy must go. Demanding a perfect record from candidates it supports has already left Planned Parenthood marginalized. So does an attitude that doesn’t ever seem to take into account that abortion is a morally complicated matter or that those on the anti-abortion side are often decent and well-intentioned people.

Putting aside Brown’s ideas about what would be the most pragmatic way for Planned Parenthood to build political support, the claim that they need to “take into account that abortion is a morally complicated matter” is puzzling, to say the least. Descriptively speaking, yes, it’s “morally complicated” – lots of people have different and conflicting views on abortion. What else is new? Normatively speaking, “abortion” as a whole is certainly morally complicated, but only because it encompasses a wide variety of acts.

Among these, some appear to be morally questionable, such as late-term abortion of viable fetuses when no one’s health is at risk. But others, such as earlier-term abortions for any reason, are generally considered acceptable by almost everyone – even the most vocal opponents of elective abortion. While many of them will say that the tiniest embryo is no different from a newborn, they definitely don’t act like they believe millions of children are being slaughtered at abortion clinics every year. At most, their church’s youth group will go on a road trip to the capital once a year and put duct tape on their mouths to protest what they purportedly believe is tantamount to another Holocaust. Doesn’t that just scream sincerity?

Those who do act on this belief, and kill or injure real people in the process, are universally condemned by the wider anti-abortion movement. Paul Jennings Hill fell on the wrong side of this question when he killed a doctor and his bodyguard, but he had quite a bit to say to those who call abortion murder while doing very little to stop it. Consider that if Dr. George Tiller had instead been a serial murderer of children and was shot by an ordinary citizen to prevent him from killing his next victim, people who oppose abortion likely wouldn’t see anything objectionable about this. They would not protest that he should only have been stopped through “peaceful, legal means”. Many of them characterize the actions of abortion doctors as murder, but are unwilling to follow this principle to its uncomfortable conclusion. The belief that abortion is a kind of murder does not accord with or explain their behavior. (The desire to control women does.)

So let’s not be fooled by the idea that abortion is “morally complicated”. Almost all of the time, it’s really not, and just because people may disagree about it, that doesn’t mean their arguments are equally compelling or that the ethical acceptability of abortion is actually unclear. Merely having lengthy and intricate debates about it does not make it complicated. Casting aspersions on abortion by simply making reference to its supposed moral complexity, while failing to explore, explain or endorse any specific arguments about it, is just a way of dodging accountability for your insinuation that abortion is unethical.

But regardless of the moral status of abortion, what does Brown expect Planned Parenthood to do about this? They aren’t in the philosophy business. Patients don’t go there for a crash course in applied ethics or a sermon on moral theology. They provide medical services, and that’s why people come to them. To whose advantage is it for Planned Parenthood themselves to state openly that the abortion services they provide may be immoral? Certainly not Planned Parenthood. But for the country’s largest abortion provider to describe its own work as morally ambiguous is exactly what the anti-abortion movement wants.

The purpose of Planned Parenthood is to offer reproductive health services, and to maintain its viability as an organization so it can continue to fulfill that mission. If a certain strategy helps or hinders them, then it should be examined, but Brown has given no explanation of how recognizing the alleged moral complications of abortion would advance Planned Parenthood’s goals. And however decent they may be, how have the “good intentions” of abortion opponents ever assisted Planned Parenthood in any meaningful way?