Guest post by Secular Woman: Rending the Tent: The Expansion Continues

Originally published at Secular Woman.

March 23, 2014

As mentioned in Rending the Tent: A Statement from The Secular Woman Community, Hemant Mehta of the Friendly Atheist published a piece by Kristine Kruszelnicki of Pro-Life Humanists without comment. Secular Woman offered to be interviewed by Mehta to allow his readers a different perspective on the human rights of women. Mehta initially refused to include a rebuttal or balance to his guest blog due to an admitted misunderstanding on his part. 

Mehta then invited a rebuttal of the previous post. Our submission was rejected by Mehta, since, apparently, it didn’t fulfill his requirement that we engage in debate.

Mehta set the table with anti-choice, anti-woman rhetoric, then dictated the exact terms under which responses were allowed. We respect Mehta’s absolute right to determine the content of his blog. We just question his decisions and what it means for the inclusion of women, feminists, and progressives in the atheist community. We have to wonder why Mehta gives greater voice to those he “disagrees” with than to those he states he fundamentally agrees with as he has repeatedly purported to be pro-choice.

Without an opportunity for explanation, the ProChoiceisProLife voice is diminished in comparison to the pseudoscientific, long-debunked falsehoods, and emotional arguments presented as reasoned and reasonable positions on Mehta’s blog.

Mehta chose to share an anti-abortion post with his audience. He chose not to share this one.


We at Secular Woman appreciate Hemant reaching out and clearing up the miscommunication over whether he was willing to host a pro-choice position on his blog. His apparent refusal was all the more alarming because it was unexpected, and we’re happy to see that part of this matter be resolved so easily.

Hemant asked for “A) a rebuttal to the specific things Kristine wrote about and B) the facts/data behind why being pro-choice makes sense”. While we understand why either of these might be considered the appropriate response to publishing a poorly reasoned, “pro-life” argument without comment, we feel those are not what the atheist community most needs right now. PZ Myers and Brianne Bilyeu have ably addressed the pseudoscience and non sequiturs of the original post. Avicenna has dealt with the humanitarian cost of “pro-life” stances. Commenters on the original post and across the atheist internet have made the argument that the bodily autonomy of people with a uterus does not disappear when that uterus is filled, the argument on which current legal rights are based, and they’ve done it repeatedly and well.

There is no need for Secular Woman to repeat the work of others. Instead, we would add our voices to those saying that playing at debate for the sake of debate on this matter is disrespectful to those nonbelievers (and believers) who face the possibility of unwanted pregnancy. Moreover, it adds to the voluminous threats to health and liberty they already face.

There is nothing that becomes new and fresh about the pseudoscience used to place unnecessary restrictions on abortion when the person using that pseudoscience is not religious. Nor is there anything suddenly newsworthy about the philosophical and emotional sleights of hand that confuse “person” with “human”, “fetus” with “baby”, or ending life with “murder” because they don’t come from a religious conservative. Using straw third-trimester “recreational” abortions to limit abortions well prior to fetal viability is a tactic decades old. Talking about the purported rights of a zygote, embryo, or fetus while treating the person gestating it as a uterus without rights is far older, as is the suggestion that women are not capable of understanding the ethical implications of their reproductive decisions.

These flaws in anti-abortion arguments have been documented and countered for as long as the arguments have been used. Tacking “secular” onto their description does nothing to make the arguments more valid or more worthy of being treated uncritically. We see no trend toward giving global warming denialists space to uncritically present their pseudoscience and poor argumentation simply because they aren’t all motivated by religion. We see no reason to do so with abortion.

In fact, we see compelling and immediate reasons not to. When we say we refuse to have a debate on the issue of abortion, this is only partly because the arguments of one side are so poor. We also refuse to dignify with the word “debate” those that are waging an assault on those who may become pregnant.

What do we mean when we say they’re waging an assault? We mean:

This is not a comprehensive list. Access to ethical medical care, bodily autonomy, and basic security are under a broad and constant assault. In this environment, we find it irresponsible and unethical to provide a platform for anything but the best available information and reasoning on the realities and ethics of abortion. Whatever one’s intended purpose, doing anything less puts people’s health, happiness, and their very lives on the line.

This is true wherever debates on abortion are hosted, but there are additional reasons to be clear and careful in one’s treatment of the topic of abortion in atheist, activist spaces. Despite some recent claims to the contrary, abortion rights have long been an area of atheist activism. Atheist groups have recognized the theocratic nature of the anti-choice movement, whether anti-choice organizations have explicitly called upon gods in their reasoning or attempted to hide their unconstitutional interest behind the pseudoscience and bad arguments adopted by the secular “pro-life” organizations. These groups, when crafting public policy positions, have rightly opposed the theocratic interference in our lawmaking.

This tradition has been one of the ways in which the U.S. atheist movement has made a clear break with the Christian culture in which it exists. As such, it has also been one of the few ways in which the atheist movement has staunchly stood by the interests of the women in this movement. Despite a history of erasing our past contributions and questioning our current worth, atheist women have not needed to worry that the movement to which they contribute was working against their interest in this regard. They have not had to take time out of their atheist activism to fight a threat to their rights in their own back yard.

Changing this now, either through planned action or reckless inattention, would be a serious setback for a movement that has gone through so much pain over the last few years in an attempt to become more welcoming to women. It would lead to additional turmoil, generate more bad press, and alienate the overwhelming majority of U.S. atheists who support legal abortion. For what? To provide a boost to pseudoscience and poor reasoning?

We at Secular Woman consider this a clear and easy choice. It is already the mission of most atheist activists to help others live lives based in the world’s realities. There is no reason to abandon that mission when the topic is abortion.

Stephanie Zvan

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  1. Wylann says

    Mehta set the table with anti-choice, anti-woman rhetoric, then dictated the exact terms under which responses were allowed.

    That says all we really need to know.

    Mehta is either completely blind to his privilege, or he is still trying so hard to play ‘can’t both sides get along’, that he doesn’t recognize when one side isn’t even trying to get along….

  2. Katherine Woo says

    This screed unintentionally reveals part of why abortion rights are in danger. Unless you sincerely understand the opposition, pro-choice people will never successfully target the swing vote on abortion rights: those who find it morally wrong, but support it as a personal choice. Hillary Clinton comes to mind as a woman who has voiced that position.

    Svan’s letter is immature and almost frightening in the way it puts “debate” and “protests” in scare quotes like some red-faced Republican Senator denouncing “art”. The later is just attacking oen artists, Svan is attacking broad, sincerely held views.

    And yet again we see that duplicitous Secular Census poll trotted out like holy writ. I really thought you had more integrity than that, Ophelia. It only harms the pro-choice movement to keep pushing as valid such a biased, unrepresentative poll. It looks dishonest and desperate. And frankly it is.

    Once again I link to
    a broad, trustworthy survey
    from a disinterested party, Pew. But I guess a super-majority 72% support really not good enough for ‘atheist activists’ to defend the pro-choice position…there must be no legitimate opposition. To think otherwise is to be guilty of counter-revolutionary tendencies, I mean “pseudoscience and poor reasoning”.

    This is a debate and those are Constitutionally-protected protests. The issue of when human life after conception is highly subjective. In Korea, you were traditionally not considered ‘alive’ until you were one-year old, yet almost every pro-choice person would consider it infanticide to end the child’s life in that year window (which Koreans also did).

  3. Seth says

    Refusing to publish this is definitely a faux pas on Hemant’s part. At a certain point, neutrality is itself a conscious decision to support the oppressive status quo…and when that neutrality is claimed in order to avoid the rebuttal of a position one has already published, that ‘certain point’ starts looking like beginning.

    The fact that we’re expected to stand calmly by while so-called ‘secular’ actors attempt to roll back women’s rights even in secular and atheist spaces is galling. All I can say is that I hope people like Ophelia and Stephanie and Rebecca Watson keep fighting.

  4. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    Katherine, you’re part of the problem. Hillary Clinton’s “safe, legal, and rare,” and by extension, the complete cultural capitulation of “left” and Democratic politicians to that narrative has prepared, smoothed, and created a perfectly comfy bed for anti-choicers to shit into. And we’re reaping the benefits of that spineless idiocy. It’s obscene. Stop propping it up.

  5. screechymonkey says


    Speaking of things that are “dishonest and desperate,” are you really ignorant of the difference between criticizing someone else’s speech and denying them “Constitutionally-protected protests”? Or are you just pretending to be?

    Won’t somebody think of the PEACHES!!!!!

  6. says

    Part of the reason abortion rights are in danger is because of people like Hillary Clinton, Hemant Mehta, and Katherine Woo. When loud voices on one side say “NO ABORTION EVER, IT IS EVIL!” and loud voices on the other side say “Yeah, the anti-abortion people have a lot of valid points. Abortion isn’t really that good I guess”, then the “debate” as already been surrendered to the anti-abortion side. Fuck all of you mealy-mouthed unethical cowards.

  7. Stacy says

    Unless you sincerely understand the opposition, pro-choice people will never successfully target the swing vote on abortion rights

    Katherine? Yeah, no. We’ve gone the “sincerely understand the opposition” route. It’s been done. The result is the status quo we have now. A status quo that kills women.

    The issue of when human life after conception is highly subjective.

    Oh, fuck you. And fuck talking about zygotes, embryos and fetuses (zefs). We know they aren’t sentient. We know women are. And we know that forcing women to be ambulatory incubators, forcing them to donate their bodies for the survival of others, is slavery.

    The issue is not that some people sincerely think zefs are “human life” (they are) or “babies (they aren’t.) The issue is bodily autonomy.

    This screed…

    You dismissed it right off the bat, but other than your (possibly valid) beef with the Secular Census, you didn’t manage to offer a coherent counterargument.

  8. Shari says

    To every brilliant responder who considers bodily autonomy debatable:

    Please provide remedies for the consequences of succeeding with your anti-choice stance:

    Please demonstrate a functional support web for women suffering from Postpartum depression. PPD is a significant cause of child murder.

    Please provide funeral insurance for all women who should not carry a child to term because of high risk of gestational diabetes, pre-eclampsia, stroke, or are otherwise immune compromised. Also, please inform their spouses and partners that if they don’t want children, they should divorce or break up with their female partner, since she has to keep her legs together if she doesn’t consent to pregnancy.

    Please provide online forums for men who complain that their partner won’t have sex because they don’t consent to pregnancy. There’s not enough forums right now, god help us all in being free of those ‘screeds’ (useful word, that) spilling over into the wrong blogs.

    Please provide evidence of a social system that can absorb the welfare costs for low income women who cannot afford to bring a pregnancy to term. Our government spending is already way overbudget, but I’m sure you can convince the Republican and Libertarian parties to cough up the money.

    Please provide us with one reason why your anti-choice stance should still be applied to anyone who isn’t you. I am POSITIVE there are good reasons in abundance.

  9. ewanmacdonald says

    Katherine, why should “sincerely held views” be exempt from attack?

    Who, specifically, is trying to deny Hemant the right to his right to free speech?

    Do you ever get tired of so piously destroying your own straw men, or do you really love your own writing that much?

  10. ewanmacdonald says

    (That said, the secular census is really not indicative of terribly much – and even if it was, there are much better reasons not to entertain these persistent, chin-stroking denials of autonomy, namely that in our culture the devil has more than enough advocates already. Hemant is quite free to associate with these people, just as I am to disregard him going forward.)

  11. ema says

    We sincerely understand that opposing a safe and effective medical procedure, one that significantly reduces a patient’s morbidity/mortality is not, in fact, reality-based.

  12. Mimmoth says

    You know, as clear-eyed skeptics, it is time to realize that we have been asking, over and over and over, the wrong question.

    There is an obvious and simple alternative, an alternative that does less harm, and more good–because it actually benefits men while not harming women.

    Ladies and gentlemen, the question we should be asking, everywhere, is “should we sterilize men to save wonderful wonderful fetuses from death?”

    Here is my Modest Proposal: Every man over the age of puberty makes a few sperm donations, to be carefully frozen away for when he and his partner both agree they want to have a child and go together to the doctor for that purpose. Then every man is vasectomized, period, no exceptions; by force if necessary. As this becomes the general custom it could become a rite of passage for boys–not into manhood, but into sexual maturity.

    Never again will a man be tapped for child support for a baby he didn’t consent to. Never again will a woman stagger through pregnancy and groan through labor for a child she didn’t want in the first place. And–wonderful wonderful fetuses are saved by the thousands as abortions drop to near zero. Never quite zero of course, there will always be that rare but tragic case where a wanted pregnancy goes awry and becomes a threat to the woman or a case where abortion is kindest for the baby—-but easily 99% of abortions will be eliminated right there; cause for rejoicing, surely, if eliminating abortion was actually the point?

    While we will be breeching the bodily autonomy of three times as many people–all men as opposed to one third of women–it will be a much *much* smaller breech. Compared to vomiting your way through nine months of pregnancy and screaming your way through eighteen hours of labor a vasectomy is nothing–20 minutes in the doctor’s office, with the shaving being the most time-consuming part of the procedure. It’s nothing to be a baby about.

    And really–once it is *men* making the sacrifice–maybe abortion won’t seem so bad after all. But I for one am perfectly prepared to go either way on this.

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