Answers to ‘Ten Questions For Pro-Choice People’: Part 4

This is the fourth, and I hope the final, part of a multi-part answer to Andrew Haslam’s post Ten Questions For Pro-Choice People. Part 1 is here and will link to the other parts (they’re also written sequentially so you can just click ‘Next Post’ each time to read them in order). Without wishing to be hidebound by convention, I would recommend starting with Part 1 as it explains some key points about why I hold my beliefs.

The questions are in reverse order; I hope to cover 3, 2 and 1 in this post.

One other issue. I’ve spent a lot of time in these posts so far referring to pregnant women, or to women affected by these laws. Which might seem obvious to you… except that transgender people exist, and some of these are trans men or genderqueer people who have uteruses and ovaries and hence can get pregnant, which means that, when I talk about pregnant people as ‘women’, I’m ignoring groups of people who are also part of the debate. I was aware that this is a problem, but was ignoring it for the not very good reason that I didn’t want to deal with a lot of argument about it in the comments. Given that I literally still have a post up on my ‘recent posts’ sidebar about the importance of transgender visibility, this was hypocritical of me. I apologise.

So, for this post, I have tried to use gender-neutral terms to describe people who are pregnant. And I still don’t want to deal with a lot of argument about it in the comments. So: transphobia will be deleted, whinging about political-correctness-gone-mad or anything along that line will be deleted, and what does or doesn’t fall into those categories will be at my discretion. Genuine questions (that is, not questions that are thinly-disguised point-scoring/JAQing-off attempts) on the subject should be OK, but I’d prefer it if we didn’t get too far off the original topic.

 

3. Why are abortion laws based on viability outside the womb?

As ‘background history of time limits in UK abortion law’ is one of the rather small list of Obscure Subjects About Which I Actually Know Something, I seized on this question with glee and wrote a whole essay on how it was that our abortion time limits came to be based on viability. As interesting as I found this, it was rather lengthy for something that isn’t really addressing what you meant by your question, so eventually I saved it elsewhere in case I wanted to use it in the future and cut it out of this post. You’re welcome.

What you’re actually asking here, of course, isn’t what the backstory is of how the limit was chosen, but why we have a limit that is, as you put it, ‘blurry and arbitrary’. This is something I covered in the last part of my answer to question 9; time limits typically are based on reasons that are blurry and arbitrary because development rarely presents us with clear-cut and obvious points, but that doesn’t mean that we throw time limits out of the window altogether.

You’re not objecting to the viability time limit because you want to propose one that you think is better. You’re not objecting because you want to do away with time limits altogether and declare abortion legal at any stage of the pregnancy. You’re objecting because you’re against abortion at any stage of the pregnancy. I’ve already explained why that belief is one with which I can’t agree.

 

2. Why do we fight to save the lives of disabled and premature babies?

While I do not like to put words in people’s mouths, I’m going to go out on a limb here and deduce that this is not actually your question. You’re not questioning why we fight to save the lives of babies. You’re questioning why we don’t apply that same reason to fetuses of similar gestation.

Again, this goes back to my reply to question 10 (same link as above). When we fight to save the lives of babies – or people of any age – we don’t do so by expecting one particular person to make prolonged use of their own internal organs to do so regardless of the impact that that’s going to have on their health and circumstances. Most of us don’t believe that doing so would be OK. (When someone volunteers to be an organ donor, that’s wonderful; but it’s not something we think it right to force unwilling people to do, even to save lives.)

While on the subject of abortions taking place this close to the viability limit, it’s always worth remembering how serious some of the reasons for these abortions can be. Andreas Avester, on this site, has just written a lengthy post about the impacts that hardline ‘pro-life’ stances can have on people in terrible situations, and, while it does not make easy reading – the stories described are truly distressing – it is well worth reading for anyone who wants to understand more about why pro-choicers have a problem with the aims of the pro-life movement.

 

1. Why is there a double standard at work here, in which we stay quiet about abortion while mourning miscarriage?

Because of the impact of pro-life reactions to abortion discussions. Firstly, abortion is heavily stigmatised; it’s hard to talk about having had an abortion when you never know (or know all too well) who’s going to consider you a child murderer. Secondly, there’s the problem I described in my reply to question 5; pro-lifers have a long history of using people’s reactions to their abortions, whether positive or negative, as fuel for anti-abortion arguments, and many people do not want their experiences used in this way.

I would love a situation where this was different, where people who had had abortions could talk freely about their experiences without stigma or shame or fear, where people who were devastated by the experience yet still felt it to have been the right choice could talk openly about their pain and receive sympathy for it without receiving criticism or seeing their experience warped to fit an anti-abortion narrative, where people who were pleased or relieved to have been able to abort an unwanted pregnancy could speak openly about this without being branded as selfish or unfeeling or cold-hearted. Sadly, that isn’t the world we live in.

Last year we had the tragic experience of losing a little boy at 15 weeks. […] Anyone who has felt sadness about a miscarriage feels that way precisely because it is the loss of life.

I’m very sorry for your loss, and understand that this is likely to be a difficult topic for you. Please understand that, when I disagree with you, it is in no way because I wish to dismiss your or your wife’s feelings about your own loss or your own grief.

I do, however, think that this is about more than just ‘a loss of life’. Miscarriage of a wanted pregnancy typically means the loss of the parents’ dream of having this baby, and that is also a powerful reason for grief. When an infertile person who has never been pregnant/fathered a pregnancy grieves the loss of their dream of parenthood, is their grief any less because no loss of life was involved?

I’ll never forget the woman who attended our emergency clinic during my gynaecology attachment with suspected miscarriage; she’d started bleeding after thinking she had a positive pregnancy test after a long period of trying unsuccessfully to conceive. But the ultrasound scan showed no sign of the uterine thickening that would be typical after even an early miscarriage, and we had to gently break it to her that there was no sign of her having been pregnant in the first place. To this day I can remember her face crumpling, the way she struggled to say something but then turned and fled. I don’t think that that woman went home that night feeling that her shattered dream wasn’t a problem because no actual loss of life was involved.

Finally, of course, there is the question of people who don’t feel sadness about a miscarriage. Many people feel deeply relieved by miscarriage of an unwanted pregnancy. It seems problematic to me to treat reactions to miscarriage as some sort of barometer of objective fetal worth.

 

Anyway… that’s it. Ten questions, ten answers, for what they’re worth. I’ll add the links of the later posts to the first post I made, and e-mail Andrew Haslam to let him know the discussion exists. Thank you to all those of you who read and who joined in.

Answers to ‘Ten Questions For Pro-Choice People’: Part 3

This is the third part of a multi-part answer to Andrew Haslam’s post Ten Questions For Pro-Choice People. Part 1 is here and will link to the other parts (although I’m doing them sequentially, so, unless that changes due to anything unforeseen, you could also just click along the ‘Previous Post/Next Post’ links). I’d recommend starting with Part 1, not because I feel any great need to stick with convention but simply because it covers some key points about why I believe what I do.

I’m answering the questions in reverse order; this post covers 5 and 4.

 

5. Why don’t we talk about the fact that many women suffer unbelievable guilt after having an abortion?

Because of the frequency with which pro-lifers will do exactly what you’re just about to do; claim that this is evidence that abortion is wrong.

(By the way, years of reading pro-life writings have convinced me that this is a no-win conundrum. If women talk about their experiences of having an abortion and feeling guilty or regretful or sad about it, the pro-life response is that, since abortion is such an awful experience, women must clearly be prevented from choosing it for their own protection. If women talk about their experiences of having an abortion and not feeling anything negative about it, the pro-life response is that they’re clearly conscienceless sociopaths who can’t be trusted to have a say in making the laws. So it’s a case of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’.)

[footnote] The most comprehensive review of the evidence in 2013, incidentally by a pro-choice psychologist, found that there is no mental health benefit to abortion and there is an increased risk of psychological problems following abortion including anxiety, substance abuse and suicidality: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23553240

That isn’t particularly related to guilt, but I thought it worth saying a few words about this as it’s an example of how research findings can get misrepresented. In that review, the author looked at how the mental state of women who’d had abortions compared to the mental state of women who’d had initially unwanted pregnancies but had chosen to continue with them. (He also looked at comparisons between women having abortions and women having unplanned pregnancies that they were pleased about, but did separate out the results in discussion.)

The problem, of course, is that the two groups aren’t properly comparable. While there are many reasons why someone might go ahead with an initially unwanted pregnancy, and sadly those reasons do in some cases include being forced into doing so (as per the article you linked to in question 4 about reproductive coercion), in most cases the woman’s decision to continue the pregnancy is going to be because, having weighed up the situation, she felt that she would rather do so than have an abortion. It’s also probable that the women facing more difficult or insurmountable problems would be less likely to feel this way and more likely to choose abortion (this wouldn’t be an invariable thing by any means, just more likely overall).

This means that the comparison here isn’t just between a group of women who had abortions and a group of women who didn’t, but between two groups of women of which one probably had a higher level of background problems than the other group. And that, of course, means that we can’t assume that the higher rates of mental health problems seen in the group who had abortions were due to the abortions rather than to the other problems.

Anyway… back to the topic of guilt.

So why do we ignore the fact of guilt after abortions? Is it because the admission of guilt is the admission of wrongdoing?

No. As I said, it’s because pro-lifers will claim it’s the admission of wrongdoing. But there’s also an important flaw in your premise; guilt frequently isn’t ‘the admission of wrongdoing’. Yes, sometimes it certainly is… but what about abuse victims who feel guilty because their abuser has browbeaten them into believing it’s their fault? Rape victims who feel guilty because society’s biases have left them thinking they somehow invited the rape? There are people who feel guilty about wanting to convert to Christianity because the religious tradition they grew up with teaches them that converting to Christianity is wrong; do you believe their guilt means that they’re doing something wrong in converting to Christianity, or just that they’ve been taught that they’re doing something wrong?

Then there are the people who feel guilty over not being able to live up to their own high standards, or to the high expectations others have for them. If your parents set their hearts on you going to university but instead you choose to become a plumber in the face of their visible disappointment, you’re probably going to feel guilty; but is that because you did something wrong, or because others have inappropriate expectations of you? I’ve grappled with guilt over not being able to solve the problems in my children’s lives. Or, in the past month, over not being able to do more to help with the COVID crisis. Does that mean I have something to feel guilty about… or does it mean that my expectations of myself are unrealistically high?

If we’re going to talk about guilt after abortions, then let’s also talk about the fact that it typically occurs in the contexts of groups or societies who transmit powerful messages that abortion is wrong/sex is wrong/women should be superbeings who can manage any and all responsibilities, however many and however heavy, without batting a (perfectly-mascaraed) eyelash. When women in these contexts feel guilty about abortion, is ‘admission of wrongdoing’ really the most likely reason? And what about the converse; when women who’ve chosen abortion don’t feel guilty about that choice, is that a sign that it was the right choice for them and they’ve done nothing wrong? Or is the guilt=wrongdoing equation applied only selectively when it can be used against abortion?

 

4. Why is a woman’s body pitted against her baby’s?

While I really don’t want to get snarky here, all I could think of when I read this question was “Shouldn’t you ask your god that? After all, you believe that he’s the one who designed pregnancy.”

When a woman is pregnant, the only way for that fetus to survive is for her to allow it to stay within her body for months, wreaking what are typically considerable and sometimes medically serious effects upon her, then forcibly exit with, again, considerable impact and sometimes serious complications. In other words, biology has set up a system where a fetus is in conflict with the body of the person who must gestate it. There isn’t a way round that. If the pregnant person is happy with that – as, again, I was with both of my pregnancies – then that’s fine. If not, then that’s a very big problem for the person who’s pregnant.

The pro-life movement views both bodies as beautifully valuable. That’s why we fight for babies and for women.

Oooookaaaaay, I did already have my say in the last post about these sorts of general statements about the ‘pro-life movement’ as a whole that, in fact, are clearly not true of a sizeable proportion of pro-lifers, so… must… not… get…. back…. into…. rant.

I’m going to read this as your way of trying to say “I, as a pro-lifer, view both bodies as beautifully valuable. That’s why I, and many other pro-lifers, fight for babies and for women.” As such; well, that’s nice, I guess, but I do just want to point out that talking about how beautifully valuable you see our bodies as being doesn’t do much for the whole want-you-to-be-valued-and-empowered attempt. Er… thanks for trying, I guess?

We want women to be genuinely valued and empowered, but abortion doesn’t do that.

Being made to go through an unwanted pregnancy because any rights you have to bodily autonomy are considered to come in a poor second to an obligation to gestate really doesn’t do that. Speaking for myself, I support abortion rights not because I think abortion is inherently a wonderfully empowering experience that all women should have (although do note that for some women that’s precisely what it ends up being), but because I think that forcing women to go through unwanted pregnancies is vastly worse.

Why is it that seven percent of women have been forced into having an abortion and it’s used as a tool of coercive abuse?

The simple answer to this complex question is that it’s because there are a heck of a lot of abusers and control freaks out there, and recognition of the red flags in relationships, although improving, still isn’t widespread enough.

The thing is, banning abortion wouldn’t actually solve those problems. I’m not even sure that, overall, it would reduce the number of women who are forced into having abortions; I think it’s a reasonable assumption that someone who is willing to coerce someone into having an abortion against their wishes is, in most cases, also going to be willing to break the law to do so. So, if abortion were made illegal, then most of the people experiencing this sort of coercion would instead be bullied into going to a backstreet abortionist rather than a legal clinic, or whisked away to a country with different laws and forced to have an abortion there instead (or, in particularly horrific cases, subjected to the abuser’s version of a DIY abortion; content warning for abuse and grooming discussed at that link).

While there would be some cases in which this didn’t happen,because the abuser either didn’t want to do something outright illegal or didn’t know how to go about it, that would be counterbalanced by the number of women in this situation who would lose the chance to get help and support from an abortion clinic that might have prevented them from being forced into abortion. The article you linked to talked about how careful abortion clinics are to be on the lookout for this sort of coercion and about the help and support that they can offer when they find out that this is the problem. In some cases – such as that of the woman referred to as Leila in the article – this has led to women being able to avoid the coercion and exercise their choice to continue the pregnancy. Since backstreet abortion services in a climate of illegal abortion would be completely unregulated, it’s considerably less likely they would offer such counselling and support. They also wouldn’t be able to offer methods of tamper-proof contraception, which clinics currently offer and which can protect women who can’t yet leave an abusive situation against further unwanted pregnancies.

So, although banning abortion would prevent some cases of coerced abortion, it would also prevent the very mechanisms that are currently helping to prevent many cases of coerced abortion. It’s quite possible that that factor would actually outweigh any reduction in coerced abortions that a law against abortion would bring about, and that there would be an overall increase in coerced abortions as a result. It’s impossible to know whether that would be the way it went, but it’s a possibility that at least needs to be considered.

Even if the overall effect on coerced abortion of anti-abortion laws did turn out to be a slight decrease in the number, there would be a terrible price to pay for that even if we think only about reproductive coercion and not about other pregnancies. That article also discussed the other side of the coin; women who are coerced into becoming pregnant or continuing their pregnancies, often as a ploy by abusive partners to make it harder for them to leave. That form of reproductive coercion would, of course, be far worse for women in a country where seeking abortion wasn’t a legal option; a woman forced into her pregnancy would either have to go the backstreet route, or go ahead with her pregnancy whether she wanted to or not. The loss of regulated abortion clinics would also mean that the situations discussed in the article where clinic counselling identifies domestic abuse as an issue and supports the woman in leaving her abuser would no longer happen, so one possible route to identifying and supporting victims of domestic abuse would be lost. And, finally, it would potentially be harder for anyone who had been coerced into abortion to seek counselling or support afterwards, because of the fears over admitting to having done something illegal. (In fact, blackmail over this might be yet one more possible route by which an abuser might terrorise a partner out of leaving.)

In short… while the problem of reproductive coercion so vividly described in that article is, indeed, a significant issue, it’s one that would overall be made substantially worse rather than better by making abortion illegal.

Why is it that women feel they have to choose between pursuing a career or education and having a baby? Why can’t they do both?

In that particular case, because the figures on that point that you linked to come from a study done in the USA, which is notoriously atrocious for its stance on maternity leave and on state-funded childcare (which, by the way, are yet more examples of laws that could substantially decrease the number of abortions but are largely opposed by supposedly pro-life politicians in that country). Progressive laws on these policies do indeed help a great deal; that’s one point on which I hope we can agree.

Why do we see an abortion as a central tenet of women’s rights when it seems to cause women so much grief and pain?

Because forcing women to go through with pregnancies against their wishes causes considerably more grief and pain. I’m very sorry for the woman in that clip, and really wish for her sake that she could have got much better counselling about her options, but making abortion illegal altogether does not strike me as a good answer to the fact that some women get inadequate counselling beforehand.

Furthermore, more than 50% of aborted babies are female when you factor in widespread sex-selection on the global scene, so it’s not at all clear that abortion is pro-women on any level.

Sex-selection abortion strikes me as being primarily a symptom rather than a root problem. The root problem here is that some societies place a markedly lower value on the lives of women and girls than they do on the lives of men and boys. The solution to that isn’t making all abortions illegal; it’s working actively to increase the social status of women.

Answers to ‘Ten Questions For Pro-Choice People’: Part 2

This is the second part of a multi-part answer to Andrew Haslam’s post Ten Questions For Pro-Choice People. Part 1 is here; it covers some key points about my own beliefs, so I’d recommend reading that one first.

I’d intended to cover three more of the questions in this post, but found I had far more to say for each answer than I’d anticipated, so I’ve broken it down further. This post answers question 6. I’m hoping to cover two in the next post and then the last three in a fourth post, though I’ll see how it goes.

 

6. Why is the pro-life movement vilified and bullied as though it was somehow backward to campaign for human rights at this fundamental level?

Because of the behaviour of so many pro-lifers.

Please note that absolutely none of what I say here is intended as a generalisation about every pro-lifer everywhere. As I told you in my last post, I used to be pro-life myself, and I don’t believe any of this would have been true of me at the time; I fully recognise that there are many pro-lifers out there of which these things are also not true. If you’re one of them, great. Feel free to mentally insert the words ‘some’ or ‘many’ or ‘a proportion of’ or ‘a heck of a lot of’, or ‘#notallprolifers’ or anything similar at any point here where you feel I’ve left those words or phrases out and should have included them.

However…

1. There is a rather strong correlation between pro-life views and the following behaviours/beliefs:

  • slut-shaming/policing the sex lives of women
  • holding strong and limiting ideas about women’s role in life
  • anti-contraceptive views
  • homophobia
  • transphobia
  • the sorts of anti-immigration views that we’ve all become a little too familiar with during the whole Brexit fiasco, with versions of racism/jingoism lurking not too far below the surface.

I do realise that there are not only many pro-lifers out there who hold none of these beliefs (I was one such) and, for that matter, many pro-choicers who hold at least some of them. But there’s a strong enough pattern of association there that, while the stereotype of the backwards and misogynistic pro-lifer isn’t by any means correct for all pro-lifers, it also did not come out of nowhere.

2. Pro-life movements have a rather unattractive history of dishonesty in the name of their cause. I do realise that there can’t be many movements out there that haven’t included someone, sometime,  who’s stretched a point to make a point. However, I can personally vouch for the fact that the levels of misrepresentation of the evidence that I’ve come across in reading pro-life literature have been… notable. (At one point, one of my hobbies was debunking this sort of misinformation on a discussion newsgroup.) And then, of course, there are the ‘crisis pregnancy centres‘ who have become known for disingenuously advertising themselves in deliberately vague terms in order to hide the fact that they will be very actively trying to talk their clients out of abortion, then giving out alarming amounts of misinformation to the people who visit them for help.

3. There are quite a lot of pro-lifers out there whose commitment to saving fetal lives does, in practice, seem to be very secondary to their desire to police the sex lives of women. I don’t know whether you’ve ever read How I Lost Faith In The Pro-Life Movement, by blogger and former pro-lifer Libby Anne, or the several follow-up posts she wrote in reply to various objections (linked at the end of the initial post), but they’re well worth reading for anyone interested in the issue.

The short version of those essays is that, having grown up as a very active, committed member of the pro-life movement who certainly was sincere about wanting to prevent abortions and who believed other members of the movement were in full agreement about that priority, Libby Anne found out that the best ways to reduce the numbers of abortions happening were not laws against it, but better social welfare policies, better sex education and more readily available contraception. However, the pro-life movement that she’d grown up with and thought she knew, despite supposedly wanting to prevent abortions, was against all these measures. And the reasons for this typically seemed to boil down to some version of ‘We don’t want women to be having unauthorised sex’. That was more important to these supposed pro-lifers than actually saving fetal lives. Or, for that matter, making conditions better for children or their families.

When people consider it so important to police the sex lives of anyone with female genitalia that they will treat ‘make women suffer for having unauthorised sex’ as a higher priority than ‘prevent abortions/improve health and conditions for children’ then, yes, that is misogynistic and backward. When these beliefs are seen this frequently among people calling themselves pro-life, then that is going to lead a lot of people to the assumption that it’s normal for pro-lifers to be misogynistic and backward.

Yes, that is not true for all pro-lifers. Yes, it is very possible that your reaction right now is something along the lines of “But… but… the group of pro-lifers I belong to are lovely! We do go out and help women in dire straits! We do want better social safety nets for children and families so that no-one is in the position of having to get an abortion because of their practical circumstances!” If so, then that’s wonderful. But, unfortunately, people like that are not a very representative sample of all pro-lifers everywhere.

The pro-life movement is often portrayed as led by white men and as fundamentally backwards and misogynistic, despite the fact that women of all races are involved and are more opposed to abortion than men)

You do realise that the last part of that sentence doesn’t actually contradict the first part? Yes, many women are against abortion, and many of those get involved in pro-life movements; that doesn’t say anything about who’s leading the movement. What organised religious or political groups have the strongest associations with the pro-life movement? In no particular order, the three most obvious ones are Catholicism, fundamentalist Protestantism, and the political right wing. Well, the first two of those are explicitly led by men, and the third has a history of being predominantly male (not just a history, for that matter). So, while it’s certainly more complex than ‘the movement is led by men’, it’s also not as though that portrayal came out of nowhere.

But talk to a pro-lifer. Generally, they believe a basic ethic: All human life has sanctity. Which part of this is backwards and misogynistic?

Hoo boy. Look… I’m about to go into a rant. So, just before doing that, I will not only repeat ‘Not all pro-lifers’, but will also give you this link, which is to a lengthy and beautiful essay by an American blogger who’s clearly pro-life in the truest sense of the term, explaining why the very pro-life beliefs that make her against abortion also prevented her from joining in with the rush to vote for Trump as the candidate promising he’d be tougher on abortion. So, yes, definitely not all pro-lifers.

However…

As you know, Trump did get voted in as US president. As you might or might not have known, a significant part of the reason for this was the reaction to his vs. Clinton’s respective platforms on abortion rights; Trump promised tougher and more punitive laws on abortion, and got a big slice of the anti-abortion vote that way. That means that a heck of a lot of people who were calling themselves pro-life on the grounds that they were against abortion were quite willing to vote in a racist sex abuser who mocked the disabled and bragged about his plan to barricade the USA against refugees who were, in many cases, fleeing for their lives.

Less than a year later, the overwhelmingly anti-abortion Republican party (the term ‘pro-life’, in this context, is seeming more and more hideously inappropriate) were making the latest of their many attempts to drastically cut the health care funding that is keeping tens of thousands of Americans alive. They did not seem particularly bothered about the sanctity of those lives, or at least not in comparison to the sanctity of their own millions of dollars.

While you were writing this post, the news was full of that same Republican party’s callousness and dismissal of the appalling conditions in migrant camps. Three days before you posted it, Mike Pence was photographed on his visit to one such camp, turning away indifferently from desperate migrants crowding against the wire. I remember one person on Twitter commenting wryly ‘Someone should tell him those men were fetuses once’.

Now, of course, we have right-wing anti-abortion site The Federalist campaigning to lift the current quarantine restrictions that are so vital to minimise the horrendous death toll from COVID-19. Apparently their belief in the sanctity of human life isn’t important enough to them to put up with restrictions on their freedom to act how they want.

I know all of those stories concerned America’s right wing, and, yes, they are particularly egregious offenders, but it’s not just them. Mother Teresa ignored or diverted millions of pounds’ worth of donations that, if used for the purpose for which they were surely intended by the donors, could have provided life-saving medical care for thousands of people in need. Instead, she deliberately kept the clinics she ran in terrible condition, letting people who could have been saved (and people who could have at least been palliated) suffer and die with minimal medical help.

In Ireland, less than a decade ago, Savita Hallappanavar died at the age of 31 after the medical staff caring for her concluded that, under the anti-abortion law of the time, it would be illegal to shorten her doomed pregnancy by a few hours even to reduce the growing and ultimately overwhelming risk to her own life.

Further back, there were the infamous Magdalene Laundries, whose founders and staff were, of course, from a religion very well known for their staunchly anti-abortion stance. Their horrific history of abuse and of burials in mass graves demonstrates all too clearly just how those particular ‘pro-lifers’ felt about the sanctity of the lives of the people under their care.

You want to know what part of ‘All human life has sanctity’ is backwards and misogynistic? The part where that principle is selectively applied only when any resulting difficulties will fall exclusively on people with uteruses.

Pro-lifers are merely consistent in applying this fundamental ethic to every single human being, including people in the womb.

You know… when I first read this question and started composing my answer, my read of it was that you genuinely are motivated by a belief in the sanctity of human life and, as such, you’re frustrated by people who make negative stereotypical assumptions about you. I still think this might have been what you meant to get across when you wrote this paragraph. Unfortunately, however, it is not what you actually wrote. What you did write is a kind of wide-eyed bewildered ignorance about the problems within pro-life or pro-life-associated movements. You are talking here as though pro-lifers generally, not just a subset of them, are consistent about applying the sanctity-of-life ethic to every human being. You’re talking as though you have no idea why anyone would think otherwise.

No matter how charitably I look at this, this does boil down to one of two possibilities:

1. You genuinely are that ignorant about the many problems associated with the pro-life cause. You genuinely have no clue about any of the stuff I wrote above. If that’s the case… well, I know you couldn’t have known all the stuff I wrote up there. I mean, you literally couldn’t have known it, because the whole business with people who are supposedly pro-life wanting to break the quarantine hadn’t yet happened at the time you wrote your post, but there are also a lot of other things I mentioned that you might quite plausibly and reasonably not have known about; I’m not going to condemn someone just because they spend less time reading left-wing feminist blogs than I do. However, if you had no idea about any of those things… well, that is a level of ignorance about the world about you that means you probably shouldn’t be out alone on the streets.

Look. When I was pro-life, it was because I genuinely cared about fetal life. But I was at least aware that there were a lot of pro-lifers out there whose beliefs actually stemmed from the view that women should be eschewing careers in favour of bearing and raising children, and/or were associated with other objectionable views such as homophobia, the hellfire-and-brimstone type of religion, and/or strong anti-contraceptive views. I certainly wasn’t among the number of pro-lifers who felt that way, but I did recognise that such people not only existed, but existed in fairly significant numbers. If blogs had existed back then and I’d had one, maybe I would have objected to the stereotyping of pro-lifers generally… but I’m pretty sure that I would not have expressed this sort of bewilderment about why such stereotypes would possibly exist. Even as a very naive and uninformed teenager, living in the pre-Internet era and almost entirely ignoring current affairs, I was still more aware of the world around me than that.

You, however, are talking as though you really are that unaware of all these issues. If that’s true, and not just an act you’re putting on, then that is a truly stunning level of obliviousness. I would have thought it quite hard to be more oblivious about the world out there than I was at seventeen or eighteen, but if you really do know this little about this subject, then, congratulations, you’ve managed it. I personally suspect that in fact that is not the case and the actual reason for what you wrote is the second one, below; but if I’m wrong and you really are that unaware, then, good grey grief, you need to get a clue, fast.

2. The other possibility here is, of course, that you are aware (to whatever degree) that there are a lot of objectionable views/actions associated with pro-lifers and the pro-life movement, but decided to act as though you don’t know any of that. If that’s the case, then not only is that disingenuous, but it’s also backfiring badly as regards your desired goal of convincing people you are not, yourself, misogynistic or backward.

I’d have happily accepted it if you’d acknowledged that some pro-lifers are misogynistic and backward but disavowed yourself from such beliefs. I’d have happily accepted it if you’d stayed off that particular subject altogether; I like to assume the best of people, so that’s what I’d have done. But, instead, you chose to claim that pro-lifers are just people who believe in the sanctity of all human life, that’s it, nothing else to see here. If you did know something about the problems within the pro-life movement and/or the movements commonly associated with it, then your choice to ignore all that and claim that it’s all really just about the sanctity of life is a choice to defend the indefensible. If you don’t want to be misogynistic or backward, then do not excuse or overlook views that are misogynistic or backward.

Answers to ‘Ten Questions For Pro-Choice People’: Part 1

I love it when people who disagree with me have questions (actual questions, not just point-scoring attempts) about my beliefs. So I was delighted to come across London preacher Andrew Haslam’s post ‘Ten Questions for Pro-Choice People‘.

Let me state my purpose up front: I’m a pro-lifer with ten genuine questions aimed at pro-choice people, and I’m hoping that you (dear reader) will keep on reading to the end.

I’m in!

But I’m also realistic. The chance of keeping your attention on such a matter of deep division is not going to be easy, not least because you may well imagine me to be misogynistic and backward.

I was passionately pro-life for a year and a half in my late teens after being recruited to that viewpoint by two schoolmates; I was too disorganised to join a group, but it was still a belief I held 100%. So, no, I don’t assume people are misogynistic or backward just because they’re pro-life. (Readers will probably wonder how I came to change sides so thoroughly on this; the short answer is that all the reading and thinking about the subject that I was doing in order to mutter righteously to myself about how much I disagreed with pro-choicers eventually had the opposite effect and brought me round the full 180o on the topic. I’ll write the full version someday.)

And so, I urge you to read and even respond.

You betcha. You had me at ‘ten genuine questions aimed at pro-choice people’.

A few quick notes:

1. I plan to answer the questions over the course of multiple posts, as I think there’ll be too much material here to cover in one go.

2. I originally planned to work through them in order (dull and conventional person that I am), but, as I mentally drafted my answers, I realised that some of the most fundamental points come up in the last couple of questions and that it’ll work better if I answer those first. So I’m going to answer the questions in reverse order. (The first two have ended up being particularly long, by the way, but this won’t be the case for all of them ooookaaaay, forget that bit, I think most of them are ending up a lot longer than I’d anticipated.)

3. Like Andrew, I want this discussion to stay rational and civil, so I’m going to stipulate now that any commenters have to stick to that rule as well. If you want to disagree (with me, with Andrew, or with both of us) go right ahead; but either keep it polite and respectful, or take it elsewhere. I will enforce this if need be.

That covers the background, so on to the questions!

10. When does a person become a person? This is really the question to rule them all. Everything depends on this.

No, it doesn’t. Here’s why:

No-one has the right to make use of an unwilling person’s organs. Yet that’s what happens when a woman is made to continue a pregnancy she doesn’t want; a decision that that fetus should live cannot be separated from the decision that she has to keep it within her body with all that that entails. And ‘all that that entails’ is not trivial by any means. Even a normal, uncomplicated pregnancy is typically going to involve significant amounts of nausea or fatigue or both, with intense pain at the end in giving birth. There’s a high chance of either genital tearing or major abdominal surgery at the end. That’s in a normal pregnancy. There’s also a non-negligible chance of developing more significant medical complications, which can in some cases be long-term. While it’s rare for medical complications actually to reach the point of proving fatal, it still happens and it’s less rare in women with continued pregnancies than in women who have early abortions.

On top of this, the rest of a woman’s life is not going to stay on hold while she deals with all this. So pregnancy can have severe impacts on her ability to manage her day-to-day responsibilities, and that, again, can have far-reaching consequences. And on top of that, she’s faced with a dilemma that will have consequences for her lifelong: due to the way hormones prime the bodies of the pregnant to bond to the children they give birth to, it’s going to be difficult, often impossible, for her to face giving up even a child that was unwanted in the first place… but the alternative is to take on the massive, life-changing job of raising that child.

There isn’t an exact analogy to all this, but the closest we have is organ donation, which saves the life of one person at the cost of significant physical impact and bodily invasion for another. Well… we don’t legally compel people to donate their kidneys, even though that saves lives. We don’t even compel people to donate bone marrow or blood, which are considerably less invasive procedures. The law recognises that even the saving of lives doesn’t override the basic right to have veto power over what gets done to our bodies.

It’s possible that you, or another pro-life reader, is shocked or offended that I describe pregnancy and birth in such negative terms. In case anyone reading it did react that way, to them I say this: Ask yourself what part of the description above you believe to be inaccurate. My guess is that what bothers you is not that you felt any part of it was actually inaccurate, but that it’s incomplete; that you’re bothered that I would list only negatives about pregnancy and childbirth without mentioning the positives. Then think about how often our society in general holds precisely that expectation; that women should be willing to overlook or tolerate all of the risks and difficulties I mentioned, all in the name of a sort of awe and reverence at the wonder of creating new life. If it makes anyone feel any better, I can assure you that, on a personal level, I certainly do feel the ‘wonder of new life’ aspect to be the overreaching one; that’s why I have two loved and very much wanted children and was more than happy to go through all of the downsides to pregnancy and birth. But doing so only made me much more aware of how difficult it can be (and, in fact, my experience was a relatively easy one in all sorts of ways) and of how horrible an idea it is to decide that we should force this experience on pregnant people collectively, regardless of their feelings on the matter.

So, to get back to your question above… no, the question of when a person becomes a person doesn’t do a thing to decide the abortion debate. I don’t, as it happens, agree with the idea that the answer is ‘As soon as the chromosomes are all together in the same cell’, but that’s still irrelevant. To answer your follow-up question of ‘When did you become you?’, my personal answer to that is probably that I started becoming me when I was sixteen and that I’m still making tweaks here and there (and probably always will be). Which, of course, is irrelevant to the question of when I first had a right to life; neither of us believe that my right to life started only at the point that I retrospectively feel, based on changes and developments in my personality at the time, to be the start of what I’d consider as my essential me-ness, so ‘When did you become you?’ isn’t that useful a question here. But, far more importantly, it’s also entirely irrelevant to the question of ‘When did you first develop the right to make prolonged and intimate use of someone else’s body against their wishes to keep yourself alive?’ The answer to that question is that I never had that right and never will have. I’m delighted that my mother did choose to have me – I love being alive – but my happiness that things turned out the way they did in terms of my existence doesn’t give me any sort of retrospective right to claim that they should have turned out that way.

 

9. What do you think our descendants will think of us?

I doubt that either side of the debate will ever win out significantly enough for our descendants to look back on the other side as some horrifying archaism (although I certainly hope we reach the point where use of reliable long-acting reversible contraception is so routine and widespread that our descendants look back in astonishment on the times when unwanted pregnancy was ever as common a problem as it is now), so I don’t think this question itself particularly gets the debate any further. However, I want to look at some of your follow-up questions in this section, as they’re worth discussing.

Western society has been shown to be wrong on some key human rights issues in the past – most notably slavery and racial prejudice. […] But do you not suppose that we have equally glaring blind spots in our seemingly advanced age?

I’m sure we do; I just don’t believe that ‘people should not be compelled to remain pregnant against their wishes’ is one of them.

I am confident that some future generation will look back on us with disgust for two reasons: (1) The logical inconsistencies of the pro-choice movement will become clearer over time, just as the pro-slavery movement eventually lost the argument

I think there are a couple of problems with that analogy.

The pro-slavery movement were initially able to hold sway because so many of the general public believed that black people were fundamentally different from/inferior to white people, but this view was gradually changed by, in large part, black people themselves; the writings and speeches of former or current slaves made it very clear that they were people and that it was a monstrous injustice to enslave them or treat them in ways that wouldn’t be acceptable to white people. That wasn’t by any means the only factor that eventually led to abolitionists winning the day, but it was a significant part of what changed the minds of the public as a whole.

Now, of course, the first problem you have with applying that strategy to the pro-life message is that fetuses don’t write or make speeches. While that doesn’t in itself make your arguments invalid, it does mean that you’re missing one of the major factors that changed people’s mind over abolitionism. The other big problem with your analogy is that we don’t really have the same situation here; ignorance over facts isn’t that significant a reason why people disagree with you. Most people already know about fetal development. They already know that development starts from conception. They already know what fetuses look like. The problem is not that we don’t know these things; the problem is that we disagree with you about what conclusions to draw about the morality of abortion. Most people (even among the nominally pro-life) don’t really see ‘This cell now has the full genetic makeup of a human being’ or ‘This cell has the full potential to develop into a baby’ as good enough reasons for a zygote to be regarded as equivalent to a child.

(2) Advances in medicine and science will make it more difficult to sustain a hard boundary between ‘blob of cells’ and ‘human being’, and with no such boundary there is no longer any conscionable reason for allowing abortion at any point after conception.

There’s an assumption here that’s a key argument among pro-lifers, and certainly one I initially found compelling in my pro-life days; the idea that we have to have some sort of clearly definable reason for drawing this boundary at one point rather than another. I remember thinking of this as the ‘Sherlock Holmes argument’; when you have eliminated the impossible then what remains, however improbable, must be your answer. It’s impossible to point to any other reasonably clearcut point on the continuum of development, so therefore, however improbable it is that a single cell should be considered a person and granted full human rights, that has to be the point at which we do these things. And I was utterly convinced of the necessity of this; after all, without that kind of clearly definable boundary, obviously we would be on a slippery slope in which allowing abortion up to any given time limit would inevitably, due to the lack of clear reasons for that particular limit, lead to us allowing it after that time limit, and then to allowing infanticide, and then inexorably on to allowing us to kill off anyone of any age.

And then one day, apropos of nothing much, it hit me that… this was not actually happening. This was in the late ’80s, so abortion had been legal in the UK for over twenty years by then. During that time, the legal limit on abortion had remained exactly the same. It hadn’t been pushed out further. We hadn’t legalised infanticide. There didn’t seem to be any howling mobs calling for those things to happen. I remember being quite confused by this – after all, the pro-life argument in this area seemed unassailably logical – but I couldn’t deny that, however logically pro-lifers argued that this would happen, it clearly wasn’t happening.

It was only years later that I realised where the flaw had lain in my initial logic: people are, in fact, completely capable of drawing an arbitrary boundary across a continuum, and do so all the time. We do that with deciding the age at which people are old enough to consent to sex, to drive, to vote, to marry. We draw legal boundaries for the ages of all those things and we keep to them; not because there is any sort of fundamental identifiable difference between a person on their sixteenth or seventeenth or eighteenth birthday and the same person the day before, but because we recognise that’s the best, albeit imperfect, way to deal with the fact that people gradually develop from a stage in which they can’t safely handle those situations to a stage in which they have the mental development to be at least allowed to try. We disagree on where exactly those legal boundaries should be, and sometimes those disagreements result in us changing them… but we don’t, as a society, reach the conclusion that because there is no biological or developmental reason for drawing a hard boundary between a teenager of fifteen years plus 364 days and a sixteen-year-old then that means it’s fine to have sex with young children.

And we do the same thing with abortion laws. Most people don’t want a situation where abortion is banned from conception on. Most people don’t want a situation where a person can legally decide to abort at any time up until birth. (That ‘most people’, by the way, includes people giving birth, which is why the apocryphal ‘but what if a woman chose to have an abortion five minutes before birth??’ scenario that crops up so often in pro-life arguments has never, to my knowledge, been known to show up in real life.) People do, for the most part, acknowledge that fetal development is a continuum and believe that this continuum should be reflected in abortion law.

So, no; the lack of a hard boundary after conception does not mean that we need to ban abortion from conception on.

 

8. Why is it more acceptable to fight for the rights of animals than of unborn humans?

Overall, I’m not sure it is. (Granted, that collection of links is pretty anecdotal evidence, but it does indicate that there are a lot of people out there getting stick for their beliefs in animal rights.) Of course, there are certainly some people who are more sympathetic to the animal rights cause than to the pro-life cause; without wanting to generalise about anyone else’s views, I think the factors there are a) the view I described when answering question 10 in the last post, namely that enforced continued pregnancy isn’t morally acceptable regardless of how we regard fetuses, and b) a belief that ‘presence of sentient awareness’ is a more defensible deciding factor than ‘species membership’ when regarding what protections a being should have.

As a rule, vegans are not considered to be among the lunatic fringe. Unlike pro-lifers, they usually get respect for their beliefs.

Apart from the points I made above, I think you’re talking apples and oranges there. Veganism is typically a decision that someone makes about their own personal diet; the pro-life equivalent would be a person whose beliefs about abortion lead her to decide to continue her own unwanted pregnancy, but who doesn’t believe she should make that decision for others. Vegans who go round actively campaigning for meat-eating to be made illegal and chanting that meat is murder are likely to receive rather less respect for their beliefs.

 

7. Why not prefer adoption over abortion?

Because it still means a) going through with the pregnancy with all that that involves and b) having to relinquish the child at the end, both of which are extremely hard to do (even with a pregnancy that wasn’t wanted).

Of course, this is still the choice that some women prefer, and I entirely agree that anyone for whom this is the choice should be allowed and supported to go through with it. However, if you’re asking why it’s usually not the preferred choice for an unwanted pregnancy… well, that’s why.

Wouldn’t it be a heroic thing to carry a baby to term and let that child live and be raised in a loving home?

It would, yes, just as it’s heroic for a surrogate mother to make the decision to become pregnant for that same purpose. Heroic acts, by definition, are over and beyond; they should never become things that people are legally compelled to do.

I don’t want to minimise the pain involved in giving away a child, but it seems to me quite obviously preferable to ending that child’s life altogether.

It’s certainly preferable for the adoptive parents who receive the child, and in most cases it’s going to be preferable for the child. In most cases it is not going to be preferable for the person who’s actually pregnant, for the reasons I gave above.

 

That’s four questions covered and a lengthy post so far, so this seems a good point to finish Part 1. I’ll aim to cover questions 6, 5 and 4 in Part 2 and questions 3, 2 and 1 in Part 1, and link them back to this post when I’m done.

Amended: I found vastly more to say about question 6 than I’d anticipated, so that now has a post on its own, which is here.

Answers to questions 5 and 4.

Answers to questions 3, 2 and 1.

Questions from Joel Settecase – Part Three

On to the final ten of Joel Settecase’s 30 Questions for Non-Christians. (Supposedly for non-Christians, anyway; as I commented in my last post, they actually seem to be aimed specifically at atheists in particular.) I notice Joel Settecase has actually put up a follow-up post letting his readers know about my answers and asking them to come over here and have polite respectful discussions, which I thought was very nice of him. (Well, all right, I’m not naive – I know he’s hoping that the result will be that I convert to Christianity – but I still felt it was a nice thought.)

On with the questions:

 

21. If no God, why is there so much good in the world?

Same reason there’s so much bad in the world; things happen for hugely varied and complex reasons that have nothing to do with any gods, and we as humans have perceptions of these things as good, bad, or indifferent according to how they affect us or other beings with whom we emphasise. I’ll add here that I’ve never seen the ‘Why is there so much evil in the world?’ argument as being a valid argument against the existence of a god, but I do think in fairness that the flip side of that is that this hypothetical god shouldn’t automatically get credit for the good things either.

22. If no God, how did our DNA get programmed with such incredibly complex language and instructions?

‘Get programmed’, in this context, seems rather question-begging; after all, the point is that we don’t believe it ‘got programmed’ by anyone.

As to how it happened; well, bear in mind that, according to colossal amounts of evidence from radioactive dating, this planet has been around for well over four billion years. Obviously even the simplest DNA molecule took some time to develop and wasn’t there from the start, but that still leaves billions of years of evolution. Copying errors happen now and again; some of those are actively damaging and thus die out, but some of them lead to benefits for an organism that in turn lead to it producing more offspring and to more copies of that improved gene being passed on. On top of that, every so often an entire stretch of DNA gets erroneously duplicated in the copying, meaning that there’s some ‘spare DNA’ there which has greater scope for undergoing mutations without killing off the organism. All of this, remember, is going on over billions of years – that is a lot of time, and a lot of copying of DNA, and a lot of chance for change and development, during which the unhelpful mutations die out while the useful ones get copied more and more. A few billion years of this is enough to give us vast amounts of complexity and detail in the DNA.

23. Is everything in the universe really just matter and energy?

As a couple of your follow-up questions partly demonstrate, there are also concepts that could be described as the results of matter and energy, or as descriptions of how matter and/or energy work and interact, or as categorisations. Might be others I’m not thinking of.

24. If you just thought, “Yes,” was that thought made of matter and energy?

Technically N/A, but in terms of answering the more general question of what thoughts are made of, I think it makes more sense to say they’re produced by matter (brain cells, neurotransmitters) and energy (passage of electrical impulses along nerve axons triggering neurotransmitter release).

25. The Bible says every good and perfect gift is from the Father above (i.e. God). To whom are you grateful for the good things in your life?

First and foremost, my parents. (Goodness – this is going to end up sounding like one of these Academy Award speeches. Oh, well, you did ask.) They did an amazing job of giving me a happy, secure childhood and paying for me to have an excellent education that has been invaluable in me getting where I am in life. And, although my father sadly died many years back, my mother is still in there giving me help and support. When I need it, she has absolutely got my back. That is a gift beyond price.

On top of that… let’s see. There’s my sister, who stepped up when I needed support, who introduced me to the wonderful world of Kindle ownership, and who fulfilled my lifelong dream of being thanked in an author’s acknowledgements (not to mention being an all-around pretty cool and awesome sister). There are the practice managers and work colleagues I deal with, who have been incredibly helpful and supportive with the various changes (sometimes at very short notice) I’ve needed to my work pattern over the years of juggling work with parenthood, especially given some of my son’s difficulties. There’s Aneurin Bevan and colleagues, for setting up the system that means that I’ve always had confidence that if I needed health care, I’d be able to get it with no worries about how I would pay for it (and that when I treat sick people, I don’t have to worry about how they’re going to pay for it). There’s the lady at the local council who’s been dealing with the difficult problem of helping us find appropriate education for my son, who’s been exceedingly helpful with this fairly thorny task. There are the people on the medical forum to which I post who have offered helpful advice on issues medical and non-medical over the years, one of them recently saving me several weeks and over a hundred pounds by recommending a decorator when the one I’d originally booked with had a very long waiting list. There’s the taxi driver who, over half a century ago, said “Aren’t you even going to ask for her phone number?” to the young man in his taxi who’d spent a long journey chatting animatedly with the young woman who’d shared the taxi with him, and thus inadvertently ensured that my parents’ relationship didn’t end with one interesting conversation but moved on to what would ultimately be an incredibly happy thirty-four year marriage.

I’ve probably forgotten people, for which I apologise, but those are the main ones I can think of. On top of that, of course, there’s a lot of stuff that’s just plain good luck; I’ve had excellent health, fertility when I wanted it, I was born into a comfortably-off middle-class family, I’m not a member of various minority groups who face a lot of disadvantages that I don’t. I’m very happy about all this, but that’s not the same as gratitude.

26. Where do you think the laws of logic come from?

I think they’re descriptions, by human beings, of how some things in reality/thought processes work.

27. Are the laws of logic made of matter and energy?

No.

28. What evidence would actually convince you that Jesus Christ is God, the Lord, and the only Savior?

Good question. First of all, ‘only Savior’ is kind of meaningless unless you know what he’s supposed to be a saviour from, and, as I understand it, the answer to that is ‘From the afterlife of eternal torment that was originally designed by the very God of which Jesus is meant to be a part’. Even if I believed that theology, proclaiming anyone as Saviour in that context feels kind of… Stockholm-syndromish.

Secondly, when I was investigating Christianity to make my decision about it, I ended up reading the OT prophets in their entirety to see what they actually said when they weren’t being cherry-picked, and I’d already read a good part of the other bits of the OT… and, to cut a long story short, established that the teachings of the Jewish scriptures were flat-out not compatible with Christian teachings. I could believe that the Jewish scriptures were a message from God (this was in my agnostic days) in which case Christianity wasn’t true, or I could believe that the Jewish scriptures were a bunch of legends and wishful thinking on the part of the Jewish leaders of a few millennia ago and not a divine message at all, in which case Christianity also wasn’t true, or I could believe that the Jewish scriptures were a deliberate attempt by a psychopathic God to trick the Jews into doing completely the wrong thing and ending up in hell, in which case Christianity might technically be true but this was a moot point as a God who would try to trick you like that clearly couldn’t be trusted anyway. But, given what I was reading in the OT, there wasn’t a logical way for Christianity to be a genuine teaching from a consistent, sane, and loving God.

So I suppose the answer to what evidence would convince me, would be that either Christianity would have to teach something completely and utterly different from what it in fact teaches, or Judaism would have to teach something completely and utterly different from what it in fact teaches. Which isn’t exactly helpful.

29. How much do you know about the heart of the Christian message, AKA the “Gospel” or good news?

Quite a lot, having spent years reading about it on and off.

30. Are you ready to learn more about Jesus?

If it’s actually something new and interesting – say, if something new comes to light about the culture of the time that sheds new light on something taught about Jesus – then sure. For example, I’ve loved Hyam Maccoby’s books because, despite their flaws, Maccoby looks at the Christian teachings from the viewpoint of a Jewish scholar who can pick up a lot of points that get missed by people without that background. If it’s just more Christian interpretations, then it isn’t anything I’d particularly trust, so no.

Questions from Joel Settecase – Part Two

As per my previous post, I’m writing a three-part reply to pastor and blogger Joel Settecase’s 30 Questions for Non-Christians.

I should really have noticed this when I wrote the last post, but that post title has just hit me; it specifies non-Christians, rather than atheists. Yet, from many of the questions, it’s clear that the list itself was directed at atheists (or possibly agnostics) rather than at non-Christians in general. The two groups are not the same by any means; atheists are only one minority subgroup of non-Christians. Joel, while I’m an atheist myself, I suspect that Jews, Muslims, theists unspecified, and polytheists probably don’t appreciate having their existence overlooked like this, so, out of courtesy, would you consider changing the title?

On with the next ten questions. (By the way, I’m just checking the preview for this post, and the ad currently coming up immediately below that line is giving a numbered list of items, which is giving a rather weird effect in context. No, the questions are not in fact ‘1. Quote Of The Day. 2. Social Work Internships’ and so forth. Sorry about that.)

11. The Bible says that objective moral values are based in God’s morally perfect nature.

…..in between telling us about how God commanded such morally perfect activities as wholesale massacre, forced marriages, and killing men for having had gay sex…

Without God, what do you think they are based in?

This is one I recently discussed. Short answer: At bottom, our understanding that the feelings of others matter. Four useful general principles that arise from this are:

  • Beneficience (it’s good to help others)
  • Non-maleficience (we should avoid harming others)
  • Autonomy, including bodily autonomy (which is the answer to why we can’t, say, simply harvest one person’s organs against their will even for the purpose of helping another person)
  • Justice (people should be treated fairly and with equal rights)

Moral codes consist of figuring out how, in the complex situations of day-to-day life, these four principles can best be balanced and applied.

12. Jesus’ disciples went from being terrified of death, to being willing to die for their belief that Jesus rose from the dead. If Jesus didn’t rise, what do you think changed their mind?

We’ll never know for sure; personally, I think the most plausible chain of events is that one of Jesus’s followers had some form of grief hallucination of the friend and leader he’d deeply loved (which is known to be a surprisingly common phenomenon among the bereaved), became convinced that Jesus had risen, and successfully fired up the other disciples to the point where they were also having religious experiences that seemed to them to be Jesus communicating with them in some way (or, if they weren’t, managed to convince themselves they were as they so badly wanted it to be true). I’ve no doubt they believed in the resurrection, but that doesn’t mean they were right.

But I do think, while we’re on the subject, that there’s an important point to be made about this whole ‘went from being terrified of death to being willing to die for their belief’ framing of the story; the disciples seem to have been already willing, at least in theory, to die for their beliefs. They were, after all, publicly following a Messianic claimant. If you got too loud about that sort of thing in Roman-occupied Judaea, it was seen as insurrection and you could be executed for it – as, of course, Jesus was. The disciples would have known there was a strong risk they’d end up dead… and they followed Jesus anyway.

If the stories about their reactions after Jesus’s execution are true, then, yes, it does seem they initially panicked when shit got real (if you’ll excuse the expression). But that doesn’t mean those moments of panic and denial were all there were to the disciples’ characters before they started preaching the resurrection. There were also those years of following a rebel who was setting himself up for a lot of trouble with the Roman authorities at a time when ‘trouble’ could get you horrendously executed. I think it’s a lot more accurate to say that the disciples went from being prepared at least in theory to die for their beliefs, to temporary panic when faced with the reality, to an ultimately stronger commitment to the thought of dying for their beliefs.

13. There are hundreds of varieties of unbelief. How do you know yours is the right one?

I’m not sure which ‘hundreds of varieties’ you’re thinking of here; I suspect this one is meant as a dig at atheists who ask believers how they know which of the hundreds of varieties of belief is the correct one. I don’t think there are hundreds of varieties of atheism, although there are some shades of agnosticism in there.

Of course, there are vast numbers of varieties of belief on all of the other subjects on which we could potentially have beliefs, so it’s fair to say that I’m bound to be wrong about many of the things I believe. (This just reminded me of Raymond Smullyan’s logical proof that people are either inconsistent or conceited; unless we’re conceited, we know that at least some of the stuff we believe is wrong, yet we believe it anyway.) In terms of how I know any individual thing I believe is true, I try to think carefully and analytically about why I believe it, and try to keep an open mind to the possibility that I’m wrong about it. That’s really as much as any of us can do.

14. Archaeology is constantly confirming the details of the accounts in the Bible. Why do you think that is, if the Bible isn’t true?

As I understand it, archaeology is also refuting some of the key accounts in the Bible, so that’s kind of a problem for Biblical inerrantists. But as for the details it confirms; I’ve never believed anything as simplistic as that ‘the Bible isn’t true’. I believe that plenty of the stories in it actually are reports of things that happened, or at least based on reports of things that happened, even though we can’t know whether the stories changed or varied before being written down. I don’t see it as in any way surprising that archaeological discoveries would confirm at least some of what we read there.

15. There is more evidence that Jesus Christ lived, died and came back to life than for just about any other event in ancient history.

Er… no, excuse me, but there isn’t. I’m not even a Jesus Myther – I’m happy that we have enough evidence to say that there was a real-life itinerant preacher by the name of Yeshu or Yeshua touring the regions of Galilee or thereabouts almost two thousand years ago and gaining a following – but that is not even remotely close to the best-evidenced event in ancient history. I’m not a historian – far from it – but even I know that we have events that are reported by named eyewitnesses rather than anonymous accounts, events that are reported by historians who show clear signs of impartiality and weighing up the evidence for the available facts, and events that are backed up by archaeological evidence. This makes very interesting reading. Or this. I’ll answer the actual question now, but I wasn’t going to let that blatant inaccuracy go by.

If God did not exist, or Jesus’ claims to be God were not true, then how would you explain his resurrection?

Isn’t that question-begging? Surely that should be “How would you explain the number of people who came to believe he had been resurrected?” As I touched on above, I think the most likely explanation is that one or more of his disciples started having grief hallucinations, formed a belief that these represented a miraculously resurrected Jesus who would come back to lead the Messianic movement they so desperately wanted, and were full enough of religious fervour and charisma that they managed to convince first the other disciples and then growing numbers of other people.

It’s possible, of course, that the actual explanation is different; barring time travel, we’ll never know. The thing is, the unknowns here don’t mean that ‘Jesus actually was miraculously raised from the dead’ is the only possible explanation for how, in a deeply religious and superstitious society in which very many people desperately wanted a Messiah, people ended up believing that the man they hoped and believed to be the Messiah had been miraculously raised from the dead.

16. What do you think makes so many Christians able to live radically different lives from the way they used to live prior to becoming Christians–even to the point of forgiving their abusers for terrible crimes?

For one thing, it’s very powerful to be able to believe that a divine being loves you, will take care of you, and forgives all your wrongs – and that’s what a converted Christian believes, regardless of whether or not it’s true. For another, many conversion experiences also involve trust and positive attention from others and acceptance into a social group, and that’s enormously important for human beings.

17. One of the most basic principles of science is ex nihilo nihil fit (“out of nothing, nothing comes”).

I’m a bit doubtful about that (the claim that it’s ‘one of the most basic principles of science’, that is, not the actual claim). Not that I’m a scientist, but I’ve done and/or read enough science over the course of my life that, if that really was considered one of the most basic principles of science, I’d expect to have come across it at some point. From what I can see, it’s actually a much more basic principle of science not to assume things like that but instead to investigate them. (By the way, I looked up the quote; apparently it actually comes from an Ancient Greek philosopher who was using it to argue that things had always existed.)

 Without God, how do you think everything came into being?

As I understand it, the main current theory is that the universe originated from something called the quantum vacuum. You’d find out more by asking a physicist, though.

18. The Bible says that we were created to live forever, and that death is an unnatural enemy, brought about by sin. If you are a naturalist who believes death is simply part of life, how do you explain why we feel like we ought to live forever, and why pain and death feel so unnatural and wrong to just about everyone?

As far as death is concerned, I think the main answer to that one is that, in the Western world, we’ve become very insulated from death and so it feels alien to most people when they encounter it. Most people in this society go through a large chunk of their lives before encountering death. For most of human history, that’s been very different. People have never liked the idea of death, but in most other societies throughout human history and geography they’ve been a lot more used to it than most people in our society.

As far as pain is concerned, bear in mind that the whole purpose of pain is to be an urgent warning signal; a ‘Get away from that possibly harmful stimulus NOW AS A PRIORITY!’ shriek from our nervous system. Pain feels wrong because it’s the signal our body gives us that something is wrong. (Unfortunately, it’s also a signal our body can give us even when nothing’s wrong, and also when things are wrong that aren’t particularly fixable, which sucks majorly for sufferers from chronic pain. But that’s a whole other story.)

19. If your brain is merely the unplanned result of evolution by natural selection, aimed at survival and nothing else, what makes you think you can trust your reasoning to discover the truth, rather than just whichever belief is best for survival?

To be pedantic, it’s not so much ‘whichever belief is best for survival’ as ‘whichever belief is produced by mental processes that actually evolved to optimise survival in a hunter-gatherer setting’, which is not necessarily the same thing. Either way, though, it’s a fair question. Humans aren’t naturally all that good at logical reasoning overall, and it’s important to be aware of this and to take into account the ways in which biases and logical flaws are likely to skew us. I try to consider my arguments from the point of view of ‘What would someone who disagreed with me say about this?’ and ‘If I had the opposite point of view, would I find this to be good evidence?’ (or, alternatively, ‘If this piece of evidence showed the opposite of what it does, would I feel the same about the quality of the evidence? If not, does this affect my argument?’) I think that’s important for everyone to do.

I’m curious, by the way, as to why you’re bringing this up in a list of questions meant for non-Christians’ Were you thinking that an approach of ‘whichever belief is best for survival’ would be likely to skew me inaccurately towards being a non-Christian/an atheist? If so, why? I would have thought that, if anything, the opposite would be true.

20. If no God, why would anything objectively matter?

I don’t think things objectively matter, in the sense of having some kind of quality of ‘matteringness’ that somehow exists independently of there being anyone for things to matter to. (If a tree falls in an unknown forest with no-one for it to matter to, does it still matter….) Things matter subjectively, a very great deal, to each of us. In addition, because we as humans care about the feelings of others, it also matters to each of us that things matter to other people.

Questions from Joel Settecase – Part One

I love these ‘question lists for atheists‘ thingys (within reason; not the particularly stupid or insulting ones) so I was thrilled to see a new list posted; 30 Questions for Non-Christians, by blogger Joel Settecase. Given the length I’ll split it into either two or three parts, depending on how I go.

1. Are you certain that God does not exist, or that you can’t know whether He exists?

I’m as certain that God does not exist as I am that, say, fairies or werewolves do not exist – in other words, I recognise it’s theoretically possible for me to be wrong about this, but none of the supposed evidence for the existence of God/fairies/werewolves stands up to examination and so for practical purposes I think it’s fair to say that God/fairies/werewolves do not exist.

I’m not quite sure whether the second half of the question is meant to be read as ‘Are you certain that you can’t know whether God exists?’, which would fit with what it actually says, or as ‘Do you believe that you can’t know whether God exists?’, which seems to make a bit more sense contextually. Either way, I suppose that technically the answer is ‘Yes’, as we can’t absolutely know whether or not some sort of god exists, but it’s still the case that I feel sure enough that no gods exist that I count myself as an atheist rather than an agnostic.

2. How do you know that?

Again, I’m not quite sure how to read this; it seems to be asking how I know that I’m certain that God doesn’t exist, in which case the answer is because my certainty is part of my mind and thoughts and hence is something I know about. However, I think it’s meant to be ‘How do you know that God doesn’t exist?’ in which case the answer is that I:

  • Spent a lot of time and effort reading the reasons of people who believed in God vs. those who didn’t, and found that the former (unexplained questions about the universe, religious experiences, our moral sense) all seemed to have fairly straightforward alternative explanations
  • Spent a lot of time and effort reading the Bible to see how Christianity held up (haven’t yet blogged about that, must do so some day, but the short version is that the OT isn’t consistent with the NT without a lot of cherry picking)
  • Also realised that the particular type of divine being you’re probably talking about when you refer to ‘God’ is normally described as having a) a deep interest in the belief state of each individual human and b) the capacity to communicate directly and unambiguously with each of us, and hence it seems reasonable to deduce that if that particular type of God existed then He would be communicating directly and unambiguously with, at the very least, anyone who showed an interest; and that, since this is clearly not happening, we can logically conclude that, at the very least, no divine being combining those particular attributes exists, meaning the particular God you refer to does not appear to exist.

3. Did you use your five senses to come to that decision?

Just my sight, as I use that to read and hence to absorb the arguments of others.

4. Given that God is by definition a Spirit, how much sense does it make to decide whether He exists using your five physical senses?

I don’t think there’s any logical reason why a god should necessarily be expected to be experienced via the five physical senses. However, as I said above, a god who combines overwhelming power and ability with a genuine desire to communicate with each individual human (both of which are attributes which the Christian god is meant to possess) would surely be expected to communicate with us in some way that’s at least as clearcut as the information we receive through our five existing senses, even if that means designing humans with an extra sense for receiving God-messages. While enormous numbers of people do believe themselves to have received messages from one god or another, these messages are (aside from being pretty contradictory) typically received in a way that’s much less clear-cut, and much harder to distinguish from our own internal experiences, than the messages we receive from our senses about the world all around us. This doesn’t make sense if we’re hypothesising a very powerful god who has both the ability and the desire to communicate with us, but makes perfect sense if we hypothesise that humans are very good at imagining that that particular type of god exists when in fact He doesn’t.

5. Did you use your reasoning to determine God does not exist?

Yes, as above.

6. How do you know your reasoning is working correctly?

While I can’t ever know for sure that it’s correct, the ways in which I’ve tried to check it are 1. by focusing on asking myself “Could there be any other explanations for this/ways to look at this?” and 2. by reading the arguments of many people who disagree with me, as well as those who agree with me, to see how those hold up (and by looking for flaws in the arguments of those who agree with me as well).

7. Did you use your reasoning to determine your reasoning was working?

Yes, in the ways described for the previous point.

8. Do you see the problem with that?

Sure. But as far as I can see, it’s still the best we can do. If you can think of a better method, I’m all ears.

9. The Bible says that skepticism about God is the result of a mind suppressing what it knows to be true.

Then the Bible, on that point at least, is wrong.

Have you ever tried doubting your doubts about God?

Sure. It didn’t get me very far, since my doubts were there for good reasons that weren’t addressed just by doubting them.

10. The Bible contains hundreds prophecies fulfilled hundreds of years after they were written. How would that be possible without God?

See, I disagree with you about this. When I started checking out Christianity, one of the things I did was to look up the OT verses that were, according to my Bible copies, supposed to be prophecies of things that happened in the NT. I also, as time went on, learned more about Jewish scriptures and the context and translation of many of the verses that Christians have interpreted as prophecies.  And I found, over and over, that the verses that were supposed to be a prophecy that such-and-such would happen had actually been taken completely out of context, and occasionally even poorly translated in ways that made them look as though they said something they probably in fact didn’t.. A couple of the prophecies I was directed to actually did seem to be intended as prophecies of future events (the Messiah coming from Bethlehem, the Messiah being descended from King David) but, in both of those cases, the NT accounts were so contradictory it seemed more likely that someone had simply made up those details in Jesus’s life to fit with the prophecies. I didn’t find anything (and I eventually reached the point of reading the Biblical prophets in their entirety to check this) that appeared to be a miraculously fulfilled prophecy that could only be explained by magic or divine intervention.

I haven’t made nearly as detailed a study of OT prophecies not related to Christian claims, but, from what I have read, I understand there’s a lot of doubt about those; apparently many just flat-out haven’t come true at all, and, although at least one in Isaiah does appear to have been fulfilled, there’s enough doubt about when the original was written that it’s easily possible that it was in fact written after the events.

There just don’t seem to be any cases in the Bible (or out of it, as far as I know, but that’s another story) where a prophecy was demonstrably written before the event it prophecied, with detailed enough description that it doesn’t appear to be just a coincidence that later seemed to match it, predicting events that couldn’t be predicted through sheer common sense or good luck, and was then shown to have come true in ways that couldn’t be people following the instructions of the prophecy in order to make it come true. Since that’s what would be needed to say that a prophecy’s fulfilment actually was miraculous, I can’t agree that the Bible contains hundreds of fulfilled prophecies.

Addendum to the ‘Yay! Questions!’ post

You remember a couple of weeks back I wrote a post answering that TodayChristian ’10 Questions For Every Atheist’ meme that had been going round?

Well… I didn’t recognise the question list out of context, but turns out that (with the exception of the ‘And there is a HELL!’ line at the end of question 3) it didn’t originate with the TodayChristian page. It actually originated with this post, by a blogger called Robert Neilsen, who writes a blog called Whistling in the Wind. You may notice a few things here:

  • Neilsen is, in fact, an atheist.
  • He wrote this list as a collection of some of the main questions-for-atheists going around the Internet, so that he could provide answers.
  • The TodayChristian page does not credit or attribute him.

So, this means that

a) The TodayChristian authors are happy with using plagiarised work. Kind of adds a poignant note to the questions on morality in the list, doesn’t it?

b) Someone has actually looked at a post in which all these questions were answered by an atheist, and quoted them without the answers in order to claim that these are questions atheists cannot answer. Which… does have to net them some points for sheer chutzpah, but that unfortunately has to be set against the large number of points deducted in the ‘basic honesty’ section.

Anyway, I have updated the post to make sure the meme is now correctly attributed, but I thought it was worth writing this post as well. The TodayChristian page want to try taking work that isn’t theirs; let’s shout it out so that people see what they’re up to.

Yay! Questions!

OK… I know I promised you guys a post on Benedict Jacka’s Alex Verus series, but then Trav found this list of questions for atheists (which Great American Satan has also answered, if you’re interested) and, as I like these question list thingies, I couldn’t resist. Here are my answers to Today Christian’s list of 10 Questions For Atheists.

(Edited to add: Oh, look. Apparently it isn’t their list at all. Apart from the ‘And there is a HELL!’ line in question 3, which the Today Christian author seems to have added, this list comes verbatim from a post by an atheist. The actual author is Robert Neilsen at the Whistling in the Wind blog, who wrote it as a summary of some of the main questions he runs across. And wrote answers. Which Today Christian did not include. Which tells you quite a bit about their morality. Maybe because God didn’t actually tell ’em not to republish other people’s work as their own, they think it’s quite OK? Although even then, surely that ‘shalt not lie’ thing becomes a bit of a problem when you’re claiming that these are questions that atheists cannot answer despite having got them from a post in which an atheist was answering them??)

 

1.       How Did You Become an Atheist?

I assume this one wasn’t meant to be one of the ‘Some Questions Atheist Cannot Truly and Honestly REALLY Answer!’. Unless the author thinks atheists somehow suffer from amnesia, or something.

Anyway, I’ve already written about this, in a four-part series on my previous blog. Part 1 is about my background in terms of religion, and my early interest in the question. Part 2, which is not that important a part of the series but might be interesting, is about my childhood/adolescent impressions of different religions and why I ended up not joining any. Part 3 tells how I came to consider myself an agnostic, and Part 4 tells how, in response to a key question from the man who would become my husband, I took the step to atheism.

 

2.       What happens when we die?

If it’s in this society, someone has quite a bit of paperwork to do. Especially if you’re being cremated.

 

3.       What if you’re wrong? And there is a Heaven? And there is a HELL!

If they’re the versions traditionally preached by Christianity, then a very great many good, decent people will be suffering eternal torture due to not being the officially approved-of religion.

 

4.       Without God, where do you get your morality from?

Same place you do, I hope – from my understanding that other people have feelings like mine, that they are distressed by pain or harm and have far greater chance for happiness when life’s necessities are available, and that it is therefore far better to aim to help others, or as a minimum to avoid hurting them where feasible. Then there are virtues such as justice, and honesty (which promotes trust), and respect for the rights of others to make decisions about that which affects their own lives and bodies.

 

5.       If there is no God, can we do what we want? Are we free to murder and rape? While good deeds are unrewarded?

Obviously not; if you try committing murder, you’re likely to find yourself arrested, tried, and imprisoned. The same may apply if you commit rape, although, horribly, we still live in a society where you’re a lot more likely to get away with that if you play your cards right. However, there do seem to be several important further questions that arise from this for the author of this meme:

  • Do you feel that the only thing holding you back from rape or murder is your fear of being sent to hell? If you have other reasons for feeling that rape and murder are wrong (such as, say, the horrendous distress and heartbreak that these actions cause to other people), why should you believe that an atheist wouldn’t also have such reasons?
  • Given that this meme was on a Christian site, there seems to be a high likelihood that you hold the traditional Christian belief that God forgives sins in Jesus’s name, yet sends non-believers to hell. If not, then disregard this question as irrelevant to you; but wouldn’t these beliefs also imply a belief that any murderer or rapist who sincerely asks Jesus for forgiveness would go unpunished in the hereafter, whereas the good deeds of a non-believer would go unrewarded?
  • What about the times when God allegedly commands murder, or explicitly or implicity permits rape? In fact, what is there in the entire Bible to tell us that rape has any moral impact beyond that of using a vagina that was supposed to be reserved for another man’s use?

 

6.       If there is no god, how does your life have any meaning?

My life has meaning because it’s wonderful. I live in a world filled with good things, and I’m lucky enough to have the health and working senses to be able to enjoy them – music, beautiful sights, delicious food, walks, fascinating books. I do a job I love, which carries the satisfaction of helping others. I have two lovely children. This world is full of people I can get to know and joyful experiences I can have. I’m genuinely baffled by the claim that life is somehow meaningless without a god in it.

 

7.       Where did the universe come from?

No-one knows for sure at this point, although scientists have many theories. If you’re honestly interested in finding out more about this, you can probably find out quite a lot by googling. Of course, if you’re just asking this as a ‘gotcha’ then that doesn’t apply.

 

8.       What about miracles? What all the people who claim to have a connection with Jesus? What about those who claim to have seen saints or angels?

Since these stories come from and appear to bolster many different religious traditions, either multiple gods exist, or natural non-god-related explanations exist for such phenomena. I believe in the latter (obviously, or I’d be a polytheist and not an atheist), but neither looks that good for the Christian god.

 

9.       What’s your view of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris?

My view of Dawkins would require the kind of language I try to avoid using on a blog that’s read by my mother. Hmmm…. let’s go for ‘toerag’.

I don’t know much about the other two. I found Hitchens’ exposé of Mother Theresa useful, and Sam Harris apparently said some dubious stuff about racial profiling, but that’s as far as my knowledge goes.

 

10.   If there is no God, then why does every society have a religion?

That’s not actually quite true; the Piraha people don’t (unless you count a belief in animal spirits, but that seems to be more akin to a belief in fairies than to religion as we’d understand it). As for the reason most societies have religions, I think it’s because it’s a natural human trait to try to come up with explanations for the world around us, and, when you don’t know anything about cosmology or how evolution or the laws of physics work, it’s natural to start attributing the world’s existence and current form to some kind of nonhuman power or powers. A much better question, I think, is ‘If there is a God who really wants to communicate personally with every single human being and who wants every single human to believe in him and have a relationship from him, why has such a huge proportion of humanity throughout history had no apparent knowledge at all of such a God, instead holding irreconcilably different beliefs such as pantheons or animism?’

There you go. Hope that helped and enjoy your day!