James Croft has a new entrant in the #UpForDebate who gets to talk about abortion rights how many decades do we have to keep discussing whether women get to have bodily autonomy wars.

A couple of years ago he took part in such a debate, and realized while it was in process that it was basically a sham and he shouldn’t have agreed to do it. It was not a pleasant moment.

What I had failed to realize, despite my weeks of preparation, is that my ability and willingness to enter into a space of “debate” around the issue of abortion is a manifestation of privilege. What you are wiling to debate – what is effectively “up for discussion” – is frequently a reflection of what you think, in principle, you might be willing to give up. What you are able to put on the table of public discourse are the things you don’t feel too threatened to let go of. During all my discussions on the topic before the debate it had never occurred to me that my ability to conduct the research and weigh the arguments in a reasonably dispassionate way was due to the fact that I simply will never have to face the decision to abort. I was discussing, and discoursing, and debating rights which are not mine to put up for discussion. By opening that debate, even taking the pro-choice side, I was essentially putting women’s right to autonomy on the table in a way I have no business doing. Engaging in abstract philosophical discussion about other people’s rights in a public forum, when those rights are constantly under threat in the current political and social climate, and when the answer to the questions you raise will never effect you directly, is a callous and thoughtless thing to do.

I know how this feels to some degree, because I feel a certain sense of outrage when straight people debate the rights of queer people. I have many times found infuriating the way that straight folks can casually discuss my right to get married the same way they might discuss where to go to lunch that day. When it is my fundamental rights being debated, it is very easy to see when the issues are being discussed with too much intellectual remove, and too little righteous anger. I have, more than once, tried angrily to impress upon those arguing against equal marriage (say) that it is my life they are talking about, not some topic for a class paper. My life. It is sadly less easy to see this happening when you are on the other side of the equation. The fact is that as much as I try to be an ally to women, I do not feel the sense of threat and personal affront when confronted with an argument against abortion which I feel when confronted with an argument against gay rights. It doesn’t hit me where I live – which makes me a very bad person to judge when and to what extent such discussions are appropriate.

I think that’s right. It’s a hard thing for people to hear, because it seems inimical to open free discussion…but I think it’s right anyway.

I should have known better, then, than to have reposted on Facebook, without any critical commentary, an article by Kristine Kruszelnicki recently hosted on Hemant Mehta’s Friendly Atheist blog presenting a secular case against abortion. The case presented is shoddy and unconvincing, and it would have been far better, were I to post it at all, to have done so being explicit that I disagreed strongly with it and was posting it for the purpose of attempting to improve the arguments in favor of a woman’s right to choose. I should have been particularly mindful of posting that piece in such a way given the fact that the secular community still seems incapable of agreeing that women are indeed full people, and that it is not OK to proposition them endlessly at conferences, invade their personal space, grope them, make demeaning comments about their appearance all the time etc. Furthermore, I should have recognized that the posting of that article came closely on the heels of what seems to be a signal from Dave Silverman that American Atheists, Inc. might be willing to make common ground with conservatives on the question of abortion in order to further other “more clear-cut” secular aims (it is particularly stupid that I didn’t think of this given the fact I criticized Silverman myself for his statements at CPAC). When the bodily autonomy – and therefore fundamental dignity – of women is not firmly established, it is simply inappropriate to treat as an academic exercise questions of abortion rights – especially without framing those questions in any way.

And the bodily autonomy – and therefore fundamental dignity – of women is not firmly established. We keep seeing that.


  1. deepak shetty says

    And the bodily autonomy – and therefore fundamental dignity – of women is not firmly established. We keep seeing that.
    The problem is how can you convince someone unless you are willing to talk to them (in whatever forum). If you don’t then you have to rely on legislation and/or majorities and that doesn’t always work.

  2. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    And the bodily autonomy – and therefore fundamental dignity – of women is not firmly established. We keep seeing that.

    This is at the heart of my argument that transsexual should never be used as a noun.

    Transgender is, when used as a noun, rightfully seen as inappropriately reductive. But transsexual people were too few and too powerless when that word was first popularized as a noun.

    I encourage people to cut it the hell out, despite how many times they’ve heard it used as a noun, because “a transsexual” isn’t granted fundamental dignity, but “an electrician” or “a professor” or “a jaywalker” is. Thus using the word only in the context of “a transsexual electrician” or “a transsexual professor” or “a transsexual jaywalker” resists the reduction to a rights-less thing the way that in the US the republican committee invitees to testify on women’s health reduced women to rights-less things.

  3. Steve LaBonne says

    I’ll repost a comment I made earlier today on Greta Christina’s blog. It’s not possible to have a reasonable or even honest debate about abortion- and therefore it’s not worth trying- because the so-called “pro-life” side is not what it portrays itself to be. It’s not actually about embryos and fetuses- those are used as convenient emotional triggers. It’s about patriarchal control of women’s reproductive tracts.

  4. Maureen Brian says

    It is not a question, deepak shetty @ 2, of not letting people speak. Dave Silverman is free to speak to whoever the hell he wants.

    What no-one is entitled to do, as James Croft is realising here, is to put my rights, my claim to humanity on the table as a bargaining chip or a philosophical point for discussion. Same applies to anyone who claims to speak on behalf of anyone else or to include any sub-goup of people he reckons he can deliver – without consulting them – to cement a meaningful relationship with whom? With right-wing conservatives, fergawdsak!

    Can you imagine the glee among Tea Party types? “Great news! The women have been trying to tell us there will be no compromise. But this kike*, this Silverspoon guy, he says it’s negotiable.”

    On a more subtle but still important level it is foolish to step up and speak on any subject if you have not checked in with that group, found out exactly what they’ve been fighting about and who they’ve been fighting against, which arguments work and which have been too easily misunderstood and thus back-fired. The people you just forgot to consult have a century of more of experience while for you this is a paper exercise. Basic common sense: not rocket science!

    Where’s SpokesGay? He’s good on this one.


    * This word used quite deliberately and after some thought.

  5. deepak shetty says

    It is not a question, deepak shetty @ 2, of not letting people speak. Dave Silverman is free to speak to whoever the hell he wants.
    That isnt what I was trying to say. Unless you talk to Dave Silverman (debate , blog post, comment whatever) you have very little chance of convincing them – That may mean you give them a platform too. Im not saying that you or james croft are trying to shut people up – I mostly responding to comments I have seen that go along the lines of Why is Hemant Mehta giving a platform to pseudo religious nuts.
    my claim to humanity on the table as a bargaining chip or a philosophical point for discussion.
    In an ideal world it shouldnt. But in the world we live in – you have to see whether Dave Silverman or Hemant Mehta are allies who make mistakes and who have wrong views that can be changed , perhaps gradually or fundamentalists who cant be convinced.

    Im going to express some sympathy to what Silverman said , but hear me out , before you link me to his views. When I was younger I felt abortion was wrong but that the focus should be education, prevention etc etc. A few years later I read Sagans article on it where they argued that the difference was in formation of brain and I believe came up with something like 20 weeks – I changed some of my views then after some thought. As I read more over the years I see some of the problems associated with focusing the topic of abortion narrowly on when is the fetus deserving of rights – based on what other people have commented so I am mostly where you are now – the autonomy of a woman cannot be an afterthought, it is primary, it is not a negotiable item .

    If I look at myself , I can say , I have never been religious – but my views on abortion have changed over time gradually- So when someone makes the statement that yes there are secular reasons – I understand that , because I used to have those myself. My views were wrong but it is silly to say I didnt have them – I dont remember ever thinking that abortion should be illegal , merely morally wrong – But if you had met a 10 year younger version of me and used the same words you use for Silverman – would it have kickstarted my change or would it have made me more stubborn – I dont know.

  6. Chaos Engineer says

    The problem is how can you convince someone unless you are willing to talk to them (in whatever forum).

    It depends on what’s being talked about, doesn’t it?

    I mean, everybody agrees that it would be better if there were fewer abortions. We can debate possible solutions. One person might say, “We should research safer and more reliable methods of contraception.” And another person might say, “Existing contraception methods are already pretty good. It would be more cost-effective to make sure that everyone has easy access to contraceptives”. And a third person might say, “Contraceptives are no good if people don’t know how to use them. We need to make sure that everyone gets a comprehensive sex-education course, with none of this ‘abstinence-only’ nonsense”. This would be a useful discussion, and people might change their minds.

    But suppose a fourth person barges in and says, “I think we should try to reduce the number of abortions by violating basic human rights!” I don’t think there’s any value in adding that topic to the debate. It would be better if the group says, “Sensible solutions only, please!” and then asks him what he thinks of the other options under discussion.

    If he responds, “I don’t wanna do anything that would reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies! I just wanna violate basic human rights!” then there’s clearly no point in engaging further. It’s better if the group just glares at him until he slithers off in disgrace.

  7. Maureen Brian says

    Sorry, deepak shetty,

    Your right to freedom of religious belief, including lack of religious belief, is protected by a Constitution which everyone keeps going on about and your right to make medical decisions privately is confirmed by a Supreme Court ruling.

    You have, though, been feeling threatened by multiple laws and draft laws in almost every state which seriously curtail your ability to live according to the Constitution or to do your own decision making. In fact, the situation has become so dire in some states that people are dying because no-one dare offer them a routine medical procedure.

    Then along comes someone – doesn’t matter who he is – who claims to be an ally and then goes on purpose to a meeting of the authors of all these laws, the daft ones and the deadly, and offers them your head on a silver salver and/or an encouragement to go on writing as many such laws as they can come up with.

    Do you not think you might be a little pissed off? Even if you can’t ever imagine being a woman?

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    Steve LaBonne @ # 4: It’s about patriarchal control of women’s reproductive tracts.

    I think there’s another issue concealed under that.

    The zygote/embryo/fetus (aka zef) represents the ultimate symbol of both innocence and helplessness. Many of the antichoice rank & file feel themselves and their world threatened by vast forces beyond their grasp (and rightfully so, in many cases). They identify with the zef on that level – as shown by the bumper sticker reading “Your choice/My life”.

    Yet they don’t dare, and/or have no idea how to, confront the forces of capitalism, technology, demographic transitions, etc, actually forcing unwelcome changes on them. So, they become easily manipulated by the tides and organizations of misogyny and the status quo, acting out their fears and resentments as pawns in the classic divide-&-control game used by both church and political elites for uncounted centuries.

  9. ema says

    The zygote/embryo/fetus (aka zef) represents the ultimate symbol of both innocence and helplessness.

    Heh, there’ nothing innocent/helpless about the burrowing blastocyst:

    These functions of cytotrophoblasts [a layer of cells in blastocysts] invading the endometrium [the lining of the uterus] are indistinguishable from those of metastasizing malignant [cancer] cells*.

    *Williams Obstetrics, 21 ed., p 89

  10. Forbidden Snowflake says

    Chaos Engineer

    I mean, everybody agrees that it would be better if there were fewer abortions.

    I disagree with this.
    Currently in the world there are women who need abortions who can’t get them, so obviously the world would be better if there were more abortions.
    If you’re talking about fantasy worlds in which universal access to abortion is established and simply mean to say that it would be better if less abortions were needed… Well, I still disagree. Abortion is not inherently evil. If, in this fantasy wold, abortion could be more reliable and convenient than contraception, I couldn’t really fault anyone for using it as birth control.

  11. says

    That’s a fantastic post. I’m going to start off topic, but it will eventually get back on target, I promise. I am a bike commuter. I’ve biked to multiple jobs from multiple apartments in two different states over the past 10 years. I choose an apartment based on how safe and comfortable it will be to bike to work and whether there’s a convenient place to store my bike and maintenance tools so I can access them several times a week. What I’m trying to say is, it’s a big deal to me.

    Every now and a gain some driver who thinks the 30 extra seconds I add to their commute by taking a lane for my own safety wants to have a calm, reasoned discussion with me about how I should ride on the sidewalk. Usually they do this by laying into their horn and screaming out their window. There is literally a rule book that the state of Ohio quizzed them on before issuing their drivers license that clearly spells out that bikes are equally entitled to the road as cars and are required to keep as far to the right as safely possible. Also, it’s illegal to ride on the sidewalk.

    It makes me incredibly angry when this happens. My therapist tells me that this is a normal, healthy situation to feel this way. So if I extrapolate from this situation where I could reluctantly hang up my bike and buy a bus pass to a situation where my right to autonomy regarding something that is inextricably linked to my body an appropriate level of anger to feel would be the burning, fiery rage of 1,000 suns. I’m baffled that people can’t grasp that questioning the legitimacy of something so fundamental as a person’s right to bodily autonomy is upsetting. Or that treating it like a new and interesting conversation is upsetting when it’s all there in the DMV guide book thousands of years of human history.

  12. John Horstman says

    @Forbidden Snowflake #11 re: Chaos Engineer #7: Ditto. In actual, existing contexts, that assertion is untrue – I think there should be many more abortions, and so do plenty of other people, for various reasons (some good, some bad – there are, for example, proponents of coercing/forcing termination of pregnancies in various cases, which is not okay). And in various hypothetical contexts, it may or may not be untrue, depending again on the particulars of the context.

    Get this through your heads, people: universal(ized) statements/assertions are almost always both incorrect and a bad idea.


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