On Human Rights Day: An abortion epiphany

This is the week I changed my views on abortion.

I’ve always been a feminist –  for me it is an intensely personal, bred-in-the-bone position, not an ideology.  My life has made me a feminist; there is no other ethical choice.

It is inextricably linked to a concern for rights in general –  human, animal and ecological – as well as with environmental and climate change concerns.  Philosophically, nature has long been regarded as both feminine and inferior; the patriarchal forces which devalue women as human beings, and try to reduce them to reproductive machines without rights are exactly the same forces which rape natural resources and spread science disinformation about our impact on our ecosystems.

I’ve always believed in women’s right to make their own sexual, relationship and reproductive choices.  I’ve always been appalled by people who assume that there is only one norm, and it’s theirs.  I don’t understand how it can be acceptable for other people to control who a women has sex with, how often, and when, or worse, how they can control how and when she chooses to reproduce. I’m a big fan of the Slutwalk campaign, which says that how a women dresses and what her sexual history is have no impact on her right to go where she wants, when she wants without getting raped.  Slutwalk are fighting to push blame for rape back where it belongs: it is 100% the rapist’s responsibility and he needs to be caught and punished without reference to “mitigating” circumstances like the short skirt the victim was wearing.

But (and I suspect I’m like quite a lot of feminists in this) I’ve never been particularly passionate about abortion rights.  Oh, I think women should have access to abortion without having their choices interfered with, but I suppose I have always had some sort of lingering sense that it’s not really morally ok to abort a human fetus.  I wouldn’t stand in anyone else’s way if they were seeking an abortion, but I probably wouldn’t do it myself. Perhaps this is just a basic respect for life, perhaps it’s just a hangover from a rather conservative upbringing.  I don’t know and it doesn’t really matter anyway.  I never quite understood abortion campaigners, and I certainly never saw myself becoming one.

But I’ve had an epiphany.

I tend to follow US politics on the grounds that they are a sort of canary in the coal mine for the rest of the world.  (I think George Bush taught a lot of us to keep a wary eye on the US.)  In the last week or so I’ve started seeing (and following up on) news reports about what the US Democrats are calling the Republicans’ War on Women.

What initially drew my attention was a Slutwalk post sharing a video about Ohio Senator Nina Turner’s new bill which, if passed, will compel men to have a cardiac stress test, an affidavit from their sexual partner, and a session with a sex therapist before being allowed to obtain a Viagra prescription; US women are fighting back with vigour and humour, and good for them.

I posted it to Facebook; I thought it was hilarious and a great piece of activism.  And I started following up on the laws, some passed and others not, that she was talking about.

The reality is frightful, to the point of feeling surreal; can laws which would be appropriate in the most violent Sha’ria regimes really be being proposed in the United States of America, never mind passed?

The sonogram laws, which in some states force women to have (and view) a transvaginal ultrasound, listen to  a description of the fetus, and wait twenty-four hours before they can have an abortion procedure.  This is a description of the pain and heartbreak caused when a woman who knew her fetus was not viable was forced to go through this procedure in Texas.  (Note –  the link breaks in some versions of Internet Explorer.  Firefox seems to be fine.)  Supporters of the law claim that this is merely to ensure that the woman is fully informed.  This is specious rubbish, as many commenters on this article pointed out.  The relevant medical information is all provided before the woman signs a consent form, the bulk of the information provided in terms of the new law is a description of the fetus, and some of the “risks of abortion” read out are flat-out wrong, such as the statement that abortion increases the chance of getting breast cancer.  (It doesn’t, but pregnancy may diminish it.)

For more on this particular implementation, see about.com ’s article about the Doonesbury cartoon strip lampooning the law :

Kristof quotes Dr. Curtis Boyd, a Texas abortion provider who describes the law as “state sanctioned abuse.” Dr. Boyd says:

It borders on a definition of rape. Many states describe rape as putting any object into an orifice against a person’s will. Well, that’s what this is. A woman is coerced to do this, just as I’m coerced….The new law is demeaning and disrespectful to the women of Texas, and insulting to the doctors and nurses who care for them.

Dr Boyd is right.  This law is government-sanctioned rape.

It’s nothing to do with women’s reproductive health or the avoidance of unwanted pregnancies either.  The same party is increasingly trying to roll back access to contraceptionThe Blunt Amendment, which has been defeated as it stands, would allow employers to refuse on religious grounds to pay for employee health insurance which included contraceptives –  unless the (female) employee could prove that she was taking the contraceptive medication for health and not for contraceptive reasons (yes, really!).  Supporters of the bill predictably claim that they are in a fight for religious liberty.  Again, this is a straw man.  Constitutional democracies protect freedom of religion but do not allow individual civil rights to be compromised for religious reasons, and quite rightly so, as there are so many competing religious viewpoints.  Employers have to comply with basic conditions of employment, and may not violate the civil rights of their employees.  That is a condition of running a business.  Suppose the business owner belonged to a religious sect which forbade blood transfusions.  Would that entitle him to refuse to pay for emergency medical coverage for his employees?  Of course not.  As far as I could find out, there is already an exception in place for contraception insurance in the case of bona fide religious organisations, such as the Catholic Church, but there is no democratic justification for extending this to business owners.

But it gets uglier still.

Rape Accusers, Murderous Miscarriers: In 2010, Georgia Senator Bobby Franklin introduced a bill into the Georgia State Legislature which attempted to change the way someone who had been raped was referred to during the legal process.  Rape victims were now to be called rape accusers, because the rapist was innocent until proved guilty and using the word victim violated his rights.  Burglars, apparently, did not rate the same consideration.

When that bill failed, Franklin came up with a new one: the death penalty for mothers who miscarried if there was any suggestion of “human” intervention.  And if that sounds impossible in the Land of the Free, well, think again.  Laws against fetal homicide enacted in conservative states to protect the fetus against third-party assaults on the mother are being bent by conservative prosecutors and used against the mother, with Mississipi teenager Rennie Gibbs being the first to be charged on the grounds that her cocaine habit caused the miscarriage.  There is no medical evidence that it did, but she nevertheless faces life imprisonment.

The case of Alabama woman Amanda Kimbrough is even more cruel and bizarre.  Alabama has a chemical endangerment law intended to protect the children of people who cook crack (methamphetamine) at home.  Kimbrough fell pregnant, early tests showed that her fetus had Down’s Syndrome, and she was advised by her doctor to have an abortion.  She declined as she did not believe in abortion, and chose to carry the baby to term.  Her child was delivered prematurely by Caesarean section and died shortly afterwards; medical opinion was that the death was due to Down’s Syndrome.

Kimbrough was charged with chemical endangerment, because a social worker testified that she had smoked crack 3 days before the premature birth.  She denies this, and there is no evidence that crack increases the risk of stillbirth, although it can have other negative effects on a fetus.   The case is on appeal; if she loses, she faces ten years in prison.  Had she accepted earlier advice to terminate the pregnancy, the abortion would have been legal.

And the GOP’s attack on women goes further than reproductive rights.  It attempts to criminalise women for their marriage choices (or lack of choices) too: Wisconsin Senator Glenn Grothman has introduced a bill which tries to portray single mothers as more likely to be child abusers, in the absence of any evidence (let’s not get into the GOP’s war on science).

Meanwhile, the same party is protesting the re-authorisation of the Violence Against Women Act, on the grounds that it helps too many people.  God forbid that US tax dollars should be used to protect a lesbian or an illegal Mexican immigrant from violent assault.

This is a small sample; the list goes on.  Women’s reproductive and civil rights are under attack on all sides, and women are increasingly being criminalised in the US for any sexual and reproductive choices which deviate from a strict and narrow patriarchal norm.  And young, poor and marginalised women will, as always, suffer the most.

This video poem expresses the cruel, invasive violation of women’s rights more eloquently than I possibly could:

Whatever sorry excuses the GOP may advance for this barrage of legislation, however they may protest that they have women’s interests at heart, this is nothing but vicious and unadulterated sexism –  the terror and fury of men who have seen their religion-mandated power to control and dominate women eroded by feminism, and who want that power back.  They have no interest in women as people; they want only to control them as reproductive machines.   The difference between the GOP legislation and something like Sha’ria law is purely one of degree, and that difference exists because the US still has constitutional protections which apply to women.  The GOP will change that if they can.

Diane Roberts, writing in the Guardian, has a humorous but blunt analysis :

“And that’s pretty much how Republicans see women – as a place to park a kid till he’s ready to pop out and go to Sunday School and learn that sex is filthy. Republican-controlled legislatures across the US are hell-bent on stopping women from exercising control over their own bodies.”

I think she’s right.  However much we would like to, however much we may be in favour of religious tolerance, it is impossible to divorce the Republican position from that of the Religious Right in America.

There have always been Christian fundamentalists in the US –  people who take the Bible absolutely literally and believe that the anachronistic and violently sexist rules encapsulated in the Pentateuch, and the supremacy of the male which is taught in the New Testament, are God’s Will.  (It is hard to see the gentle and compassionate founder of their religion, the guy who hung out with and cared for the dregs of society, who refused to judge an adulteress, and who taught that the entire body of religious law could be replaced by a principle of love, buying into this view of the world.)  To their credit, many of them form communities in which they attempt to live by these precepts, but do not force them on others.  Many of them, while holding very conservative views, nevertheless endeavour to live by a doctrine of love.  Websites like aboverubies.org and patriarchy.org give a flavour of how people like this view the world and how they choose to live.

The far more toxic (and more powerful) elements in the Religious Right seek overt political and secular power with the goal of creating –  or perhaps reconstituting –  a society governed by religious law rather than democratic principles: a theocracy, and one driven by hatred and intolerance rather than love and compassion.  And it is this view which inspires much of the Republican attack on women’s rights.  One of the best analyses of this phenomenon must be New York Times journalist Chris Hedge’s 2007 book American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.

Hedges, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and someone whose respect for religion shines through his writing, is clear that the aim here is political power, the dismantling of the secular state and a return to totalitarian theocratic rule.  He correctly identifies this as fascism.  And he makes the valid and challenging point that liberals, people with a passion for democratic rights, are well on their way to losing the battle for their country because they value tolerance too highly, and thus tolerate everything, including intolerance itself.

It brings to mind the words of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison: “With reasonable men I will reason; with humane men I will plead; but to tyrants I will give no quarter.”  Garrison was right.  There are people who are not open to argument, who will overpower you if they can in one way or another, and when you encounter people like this, you have only one option, and that is to fight.

Now, I’m not American, and you could argue that the whole US debate is irrelevant to my life.  But it’s not.  It’s symptomatic of a world-wide, religion-driven backlash against human rights, against feminism, against the rights of minorities.  Here in South Africa, we have a Chief Justice whose views on women’s rights are antediluvian to say the least, and who is a pastor in a church which condemns homosexuality as something needing to be cured while holding that any woman who questions the headship of the man in the household is infested with demons.  (At least now I know what my problem is!)

Throughout Africa, similar churches are springing up, homophobic violence is growing, and attempts to criminalise homosexuality are on the increase.  At the same time, and for the same reasons, women’s rights are under assault.

The extremist parts of the Islamic world need no introduction; adulteresses are stoned, rape victims are murdered because of the shame to their family or forced to marry the rapist, homosexuality is an abomination.  Both extremist Christianity and extremist Islam derive their religious laws from various legal codes written from 4000 to 5000 years ago in the Near East, such as the Codex Hammurabi, and they are far more similar than different.  (Stoning adulteresses and forcing rape victims to marry their rapists are sound Biblical principles –  just read Deuteronomy.)  The common factors –  patriarchy and misogyny –  are far stronger than the doctrinal differences.

In archaic states, population growth might have been, and almost certainly was, an important consideration, so women were valued as sexual property for their reproductive capabilities.  Paternity –  male involvement in reproduction –  seems to have been discovered at around this time as well, and the violent control of women’s sexual behaviour undoubtedly had much more to do with ensuring that men could identify their offspring, and thus that money and property could be passed down along male lines of inheritance rather than being inherited via the mother.  However repellent we might find these legal codes, we have to try to see them through ancient eyes and understand that they made some sort of sense –  back then.

In today’s world, though, a world of over-population, climate change, rapidly diminishing resources and rapidly increasing poverty, we need a different ethic, one that meets the needs of today.  In this world, having children at all must be considered ethically questionable (apart from the dreadful future it seems clear they will face, it is the single most un-green thing you can do).  Trying to roll back women’s rights to contraception and abortion and return them to the status of Bronze Age sex slaves, apart from being criminally violent and ethically insupportable, is also just plain mad, and the men who are trying to do this can only be regarded as sociopaths: mentally ill individuals, whether they are Islamic extremists or Republican politicians.  (The psychology of misogyny is beyond the scope of this post, but I hope to do another one on this topic.)

But what does all this have to do with my personal change of stance on abortion?

Well, back at the Facebook corral, a friend had commented on my link to the Viagra law.  She thought it was ludicrous, I thought it was a brilliant piece of law as activism, and we got into a lengthy and thoroughly enjoyable debate.  While her position is essentially that she wouldn’t intervene with someone else’s choices and is opposed to any form of persecution,

  • she’s a Christian
  • she’s opposed to abortion on the grounds that it involves killing another individual, which may be a bit of a sentimental knee-jerk position but isn’t morally obnoxious at first glance
  • she couldn’t see anything terribly wrong with the sonogram laws, and agreed with critics of the Viagra law that the two weren’t comparable

In other words, she had a fairly tepid attitude to abortion rights which wasn’t that dissimilar to mine.  Yet I was appalled by it, because I was so outraged by the wider context of what the Republican legislation was seeking to achieve.  What was it, I was forced to ask myself, that I thought was so terribly wrong with her viewpoint?

In other words, she forced me to think my position through.  And it comes down to this.  There are so many differing religious and philosophical takes on when life starts and whether a fetus is a human life or not that the question will never be settled on ethical grounds alone.  But whatever your moral perspective on the value of a fetus, whether you believe it to be a full human being or not, whether you think it has a soul or not, whether you think it is a living human being or an unremarkable cluster of cells, whether you think it is a valuable person or just another mouth to feed, one thing is incontrovertible: you cannot give rights to the fetus without taking away rights from the mother.  And all constitutionally protected rights include the principle of limitation of rights.

And that is the crux.  A fetus may well have the potential to be an individual, but to give it the same rights as, or more rights than, the woman without whom it cannot exist, is to violate that woman’s basic human rights to life, health, self-determination and privacy.  Without full reproductive rights, women’s human rights are just so much tinsel; effectively they don’t exist.  A woman who cannot control her body’s reproductive capabilities cannot control her life.

And this, of course, is what makes the argument that abortion is the destruction of another human life so obscene (and on reflection I do believe that morally it is an obscenity); it is in fact a complete devaluation of the woman, her history, her future, her relationships, her inner world, her work, her value to other people who love her and may depend on her, including other children she may have.  All this is tossed aside as irrelevant and unimportant in comparison to her unchosen female status and her biological ability to reproduce.  If this is what we reduce women to – a function she has in common with every female mammal - then why bother to be human at all?  Animals are far more graceful and less destructive than humans; let’s just abandon the entire experiment of culture,go back to the cave and attempt to do a halfway reasonable job of being primates.

Although I’m not normally an Ayn Rand fan, in this case I can’t put it any better than she did:

“One method of destroying a concept is by diluting its meaning. Observe that by ascribing rights to the unborn, i.e., the nonliving, the anti-abortionists obliterate the rights of the living.”

And in fact this is exactly the position of international law, international treaties that protect human rights, and the constitutions of most states.  An excellent and informative resource is the Center for Reproductive Rights, who campaign for reproductive rights as being a necessary condition for women to have human rights.

And so my epiphany is this: I am not going to sit on the fence any more.  Whatever my personal views about abortion, whatever I might do under the same circumstances, whatever I think about whether a fetus is a human or not, I am going to put my money where my mouth is and do some active campaigning and fundraising for abortion rights.  One of the Burning Blue beneficiaries will be the Marie Stopes clinic movement, and I’m going to add the Center for Reproductive Rights to the charities I support financially.  (I don’t give nearly enough, but I do give a bit).

That’s right.  I am going to start helping to pay for other women to have abortions, regardless of why they want them.  It’s not because I want to murder babies.  It’s not because I want more women to have more abortions.  It’s not because I think abortions are desirable; we know that they are emotionally traumatic and difficult.

It’s because women’s human rights are indivisible from their reproductive rights.  It’s because there’s a war against women, and abortion rights are the battleground.  And it’s a battle we women have to win for one another, or die trying; the battle to be autonomous, to be ourselves, to be fully human, it’s the battle just to be.




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