Support Abortion Access

We’re bringing back Abort Theocracy t-shirts!

Show that you are #shameless about supporting abortion and bodily autonomy! Proceeds will help those who need it to access this vital medical care.

In honor of our organization’s recent move to Ohio and in protest of Ohio’s adoption of a six week abortion bill, we’re raising funds for Women Have Options.

This campaign lonly lasts for a few more days. So hurry and make a bold statement!

Living Our Secular Values

The following was originally delivered by Stephanie Zvan for the Day of Reason event organized by the Minnesota Atheists in the capitol rotunda in Saint Paul.

Hello, everyone! You may know I’m the associate president of Minnesota Atheists, but I’m here today as a member of the board of Secular Woman. Secular Woman is an organization of women and men dedicated to amplifying the voices and concerns of secular women within the movement and outside it.

Last month was the 100th anniversary of the birth of American Atheists founder Madalyn Murray O’Hair. O’Hair had something of a reputation for being a difficult person. Yes, really. She would have that reputation even correcting for the smaller leeway we give to difficult women, but part of her reputation was almost certainly due to her militant feminism. Among the many fights she took up was her fight against the idea that women were created for men’s pleasure.

As atheists, we understand that women weren’t created at all. We evolved. And I hope that after so many years of fighting for good education on evolution, we understand that evolution is not directed. It has no end goal. So any discussion of our secular values must be informed by the knowledge that women, like men, exist for themselves, not in service to others.

This means we value bodily autonomy. I’m referring to the current assaults on abortion and birth control, of course, but it goes further than that. We want women to make their own decisions about when or even whether to have sex and with whom.

It also means we want women to decide for themselves when to put their bodies at risk. You can’t see the current administration rolling back the ability of trans people to serve in the military and not know restrictions on women’s roles are coming. And the same is true for so many jobs and industries we’ve had to fight our way into because they were considered too dangerous for us.

It means we understand that women don’t exist to be pleasant to talk to or look at. When we see Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Ilhan Omar, who has championed secularism in these halls, or other women in the freshman class in the House subject to the same harassment so many of us have faced for speaking up, we see it for what it is and say it’s wrong. And we do the same when people try to cast “women’s issues” as a distraction or “special interest”.

These aren’t things the secular movement has always been good at. Too often, we’ve been content to benefit from the work of women without recognizing that work should also benefit the women who do it. You can see this when you look at our organizations and compare the people who do the work on the ground to those in leadership positions and on boards.

I’d like to stop here for a moment to recognize August Berkshire. Over the last several years, he’s worked to recruit just about every woman volunteering for Minnesota Atheists to take on the additional thankless task of serving on the board, including me. He’s made sure that those of us doing the work at least have the opportunity to make decisions that direct our organization.

This is one of the main projects of Secular Woman as well. With our Secular Women Work conferences here and workshops at Skepticon in Missouri, we’ve highlighedt the skills of women and genderqueer activists in the movement and helped them help each other to grow. And yes, we do also train men—at least those men who are able to learn from women—because this is going to take all of us.

With everyone’s help, we can put our secular values into action. Thank you.

Funny times with Forced Birthers.

Jill Filipovic has a good piece up in Cosmopolitan (yes, that Cosmopolitan) entitled Abortion Clinic Protesters: “Sidewalk Counselors” or “Sidewalk Terrorists”? It covers the usual rabid theocrats and misogynist circus clowns, and it documents (as we already know) that these assholes are not driven by “baby killing” per se, they are really railing against women (and others) having non-church sanctioned, non-procreative sex. I have never understood this motivation personally because that is, quite obviously I would think, the best kind of sex to have. Nevertheless, this particular attitude, incomprehensible as it may be, explains why Forced Birthers are also dead set against birth control—which would, you know, actually reduce abortions.

Now maybe this is because I have a terrible fucking head cold, a hacking cough and a fever (OMG! EBOLA!) but for whatever reason I found the clinic protesters interviewed for this article hilarious. Don’t get me wrong—they are as rage-inducing as ever, and I still loathe each and every one of them with the burning fire of ten thousand suns. But this, my friends, is comic gold:

“[Women] had equality,” [demonstrator Fred] Delouis says about the 1950s, before Supreme Court cases legalized contraception and abortion. “But they had to be obedient to their husbands. That’s where equality comes: where the mother stayed home and raised the children in God’s light, and the husband worked, and everything was great. When I grew up, there were no problems.”

Equality, y’all! EVERYTHING was GREAT! And there were NO PROBLEMS…for Fred! LOL!

And Fred just keeps the hits right on coming:

“Society was great before they had abortions,” he says. “Because there wasn’t as much evil in the world.”

Did you know World War II happened after Roe v. Wade? HAHAHA!

“They weren’t murdering God’s babies, which is the most important thing.”

Silly Fred! Abortions are actually helping God murder his babies, because if there’s one thing we all know God loves, it’s murdering his babies! If 50% of pregnancies spontaneously abort, obviously clinics are just doing some of God’s baby murderin’ work for him! You would think Fred would show a little more enthusiasm and gratitude. He can be pretty funny, but I think he’s a little confused.

Then there’s the Death D00d:

Inside the clinic, Deb Fenton, regional director of Central and Western Massachusetts Planned Parenthood, peers out the window, looking for one of the regular protesters who shows up in an Angel of Death costume. “Is the Grim Reaper out there today?” she asks.

Excellent! I want to hang around Grim Reaper d00d while wearing my trademark bloody coat hanger dress—always a big hit at parties. I had been thinking of festooning it with bloody doll parts around the coat hanger anyway, and I feel this would nicely complement the whole “bloody dismembered fetus” theme they’ve got going on their posters and signage. I’ll fit right in! It’ll be a hoot!

Then there’s Ruth:

“I consider my profession having been a mother and a grandmother,” Ruth says, adding that her children agree with her values: two of her daughters got pregnant out of wedlock, one in high school, and both placed their children for adoption.

Oh, Ruth. Priceless!

And the lovely Nancy Clark:

“Abstinence,” Clark says. “It’s possible. I taught my daughters abstinence. It doesn’t mean I’ve been successful with my first two, but I have three more to go.”

Third time’s the charm? Bwahahahaha!

 

Clark says that after marriage, “natural family planning” is the only way to go. And she’s mystified by its lack of popularity:

“You can’t even get Catholics to use it,” she says. “It does work though. Of course, I have nine kids.”

Stop it Nancy! You’re killin’ me!

 

Clark testified in the Supreme Court’s recent clinic buffer zone case—presumably under penalty of perjury—that:

“close personal communication” in a “kind, gentle voice” was her preferred method of approaching women, and that “speaking in a raised voice, shouting or yelling is counterproductive.”

Once the shitheads on the high court struck down the clinic buffer zone law (a unanimous decision, by the way, issued from the safety and comfort of the court’s own 200 foot buffer zone), Clark now enjoys having more options of where she can approach women in a “kind, gentle voice.”

“Instead of yelling from here,” she says, gesturing across the street to the clinic, “I get to yell from over there.”

What a scream! (<—Hahaha. Sometimes I crack myself up.)

Next, meet Father Andrew Beauregard, a Franciscan monk—i.e. a celibate d00d (at least we hope…). He’s here to helpfully ‘splain everything you need to know about wimmenz lives:

“The fullness of being a woman is being a mother.”

And here I thought the fullness of being a woman was me eating too much of Frankie’s pizza. Huh. So I guess the fullness of being a man is being a daddy? Then why the fuck are you here yellin’ at pregnant people instead of making the babies? Dust that thing off and get to work, Father. God needs more babies to murder!

“For a woman to say that she has to have control over her body or over herself in such a way that she can’t be a mother really speaks to a degradation towards women.”

Conversely, compulsory childbirth is in no way degrading to women! I can’t stand it! This guy is a fucking pisser!

Protesters also told Filipovic they had a “save” the week before: that is, they convinced a man (*ahem*) to convince his girlfriend to leave the clinic:

Recounting their “save,” Meija and Pablo say the woman was going to terminate because her boyfriend had another girlfriend and had also fathered children with other women. But, they say, the boyfriend didn’t want the abortion from the beginning and after he promised he would support the baby, she came out of the clinic crying, and they walked away together.

Well that sure sounds like a win for everyone!

“We saw them together,” Pablo says. “That’s the most great thing — to see them together as a family.”

Remember, people, this is all about traditional family values: one d00d, his two girlfriends, plus a bunch of kids he’s had with other women. The MOST GREAT THING. Probably ever! Tee-hee-hee!

There is one thing I don’t get, though: if you’re so content with the choices you’ve made in your own life, what the hell are you doing spending your days harassing and yelling at other people for making choices of their own? I thought this would go without saying, but nine kids just isn’t for everybody. Hell, marriage isn’t for everyone, either. Just ask Father Beauregard about that!

It never occurred to me before, but I’m starting to think maybe they do it for the lulz.

[cross-posted at perry street palace]

 

About Thought Experiments

[content note: non-graphic mention of rape in second-to-last paragraph]

Thought experiments are useful.

Not all thought experiments, not in every form, not on every topic, i.e. not everything someone might call a “thought experiment” is inherently useful, valuable, or worth entertaining. A well-designed thought experiment however can increase understanding of a concept, explore new questions and perspectives, clarify otherwise murky aspects of various issues, and uncover flaws and contradictions in ideas[1].

Probably most important for a useful thought experiment is that something new can be learned through it. A thought experiment needs to present us with a new idea or a new perspective on an idea that lacks the biases of familiar perspectives. For example, there would be little value in re-inventing Maxwell’s demon, because this perspective on the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics is now well-explored, with much critical as well as supportive work already in existence[2]. A thought experiment on this topic would have to introduce something genuinely novel to be worthwhile.

Thought experiments are also very susceptible to the garbage-in-garbage-out problem: a thought experiment is only as useful as the experimenter’s understanding of a topic. Premises that reflect a misunderstanding or lack of knowledge will lead to faulty conclusions, and so do badly structured experiments. And sometimes, the flawed results can become highly influential, especially when they reaffirm already held erroneous beliefs. Descartes’ rationalist (in the counter-empirical, all-knowledge-comes-from-reason sense[3]) thought experiments stuck the world with Cartesian dualism[4], an incorrect worldview that infests many everyday concepts and many ideas about humans as individuals and as social actors. However, even when thought experiments have no connection to reality by design rather than through ignorance, the output is often garbage, because they are useless. Even though thought experiments are hypothetical and often quite unrealistic scenarios, the specific aspect that is to be evaluated in the experiment needs to be reflective of a real-world issue if it is to be of any use other than to entertain the experimenter.

A last essential feature of a well-designed thought experiment is clarity. Since the value of a thought experiment lies largely in providing new insights, making them inaccessible or muddled is counterproductive. This is especially so in situations where the thought experiment is already addressing a difficult issue that is e.g. very complex, or subject to strong cultural/emotional/intellectual/etc biases. A useful thought experiment reduces a problem to only the salient parts; takes principles, structures, or ideas out of their fraught or biased context and sets them into a new, neutral (because uncontroversial or else completely fictional) context; and/or creates scenarios in which empirically impossible separations of variables might be attempted. One of my favorite examples of a well-designed thought experiment is the Famous Violinist.

The Famous Violinist is a thought experiment at the core of Judith Jarvis Thomson’s essay exploring the ethics of abortion from a perspective that, in 1971, was novel to the debate over the ethics and legal status of pregnancy termination. The beauty of that particular experiment is the way in which it tosses out the cultural and religious ballast attached to reproduction, sex, and the control of female-assigned bodies that makes abortion such an intractable issue. It does so by creating a completely new context for the issue of whether or not a “right to life” supersedes the right to autonomy over one’s body: instead of “woman”, the person is “you”; instead of reproduction, the issue is a fatal illness; and sex is not anywhere in the picture at all. Similarly, it removes needlessly complicating variables from the discussion: by making the dependent dying person an adult with full human rights, the experiment shows the irrelevance of personhood to the issue. The essay also addresses many real-world scenarios and contingencies that follow both from the anti-abortionist conclusion (that right-to-life outweighs right-to-bodily-autonomy), and from the reverse[5]. The Famous Violinist thought experiment brought a new perspective to an ancient argument, it simplified it and removed it from emotionally and culturally loaded contexts, and showed its real-world applications and relevance, making it an incredibly useful thought experiment in moral philosophy.

Incidentally, it also answers the question “Do we discuss the hypothetical intra-uterine poet, or does emotion simply close down the discussion, in either direction?”[6]. We have discussed it already, 43 years ago. The career change from violinist to poet adds nothing to the conversation, so let’s stop beating a very dead horse, especially when doing so hurts those whose rights and bodies are being pontificated upon.

All of this is to say that when e.g. a Richard Dawkins creates a “thought experiment” that is structurally and substantively trivial but for which he purposefully uses emotionally charged examples (which are also factually inaccurate and promote harmful ideas about rape[7]), people will criticize him and his “experiment”. And they will do so not to create taboos, or because they don’t understand its logic, or because they’re emotional. It will be because that specific experiment is worse than useless; it is so trivial it produces nothing of value, while the examples are so toxic they produce harm; it is sensible to reject that.

And doing so is not rejection of thought experiments. Rejecting useless or harmful forms of thought experiment is not rejecting thought experiments in general, not even on sensitive topics. Rejection and criticism of false premises, especially those that are already perpetuated as “common knowledge” despite their inaccuracy; of provocation for the sake of provocation, especially when the target is vulnerable to harm as a result of the provocation; and of endless rehashing of the same point over and over again is not a witch-hunt. It is not censorship, is not creating no-go zones, is not rejection of thought experiments in general. It’s the rejection of a shoddily structured and harmful attempt at edginess that contributes nothing new or valuable to public discourse on any of the topics touched upon.

– – –

[1] Brown, J.R. & Fehige, Y. (2011). “Thought Experiments”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. [web]. Retrieved from here.

[2] Cohen, M. (2005). Wittgenstein’s Beetle and Other Classic Thought Experiments. [book]. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd. pp. 25-27

[3] Blanshard, B. (2014). “Rationalism”, Encyclopædia Britannica. [web]. Retrieved from here.

[4] Descartes, R. (1641). Meditations on the First Philosophy in which the Existence of God and the Distinction between Mind and Body are Demonstrated. Translation by Haldane, E.S. (1911).

[5] Thomson, J.J. (Fall 1971). “A Defense of Abortion”, originally published in Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 1(1). [web]. Retrieved from here.

[6] Dawkins, R. (Jul 30, 2014). “Are there emotional no-go areas where logic dare not show its face?”, Richard Dawkins Foundation. [web]. Retrieved from here.

[7] Miller, A.F. (Jul 29, 2014). “Richard Dawkins on Date Rape vs Stranger Rape”, Ashley F Miller. [blog] Retrieved from here.

SCOTUS Hobby Lobby Decision

Earlier this year, Secular Woman signed an amicus brief filed by the National Women's Law Center in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius. These cases involve for-profit companies challenging the Affordable Care Act's requirement that all new health insurance plans cover the full range of FDA-approved contraceptives and related education and counseling, without cost sharing.

Then, this week, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court decided in favor of Hobby Lobby. Hobby Lobby sought to impose religious beliefs upon employees by denying comprehensive health care coverage, while still reaping the tax benefits for providing that coverage. The majority opinion, written by Justice Alito raises more questions than it answers.

Perhaps the most obvious result of the Court’s decision is that it extends religious rights, citing Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, to any closely held “corporate persons.” In doing so, however, they negate both the religious and reproductive rights of employees, who are actual persons. How does that correlate with the Act, which codified religious rights for people and religious entities? Also, does ascribing the personal beliefs of owners to their business pierce the corporate veil?

How can the Justices rationalize overlooking both science and law?

In their case, Hobby Lobby objects to four of the twenty birth control methods currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Coincidentally, these are four of the most effective methods, and are included the vast majority of insurance formularies. The objection to these is based on religious belief, not science, with the claim that these methods cause abortion instead of prevent pregnancy. However, by both scientific and legal definitions pregnancy occurs when a fertilized egg is implanted in a hospitable uterine lining. How can the Justices rationalize overlooking both science and law?

People purchase insurance, or it is provided either in whole or in part as part of employee compensation, and should expect to be covered. That a corporation was given the right to dictate to an insurer which services they can and cannot provide is unconscionable! With Justice Alito’s reasoning, it would follow that any employer could dictate to employees whether they can purchase other objectionable things like intoxicants, pork products, or even beverages containing caffeine. Will the intrusion stop at birth control or can we expect more?

Hobby Lobby may find fault with either of these solutions and sue again.

What this decision forces our government to do now is to provide that coverage, either by funding it or, more likely, by allowing the insurance company to provide it separately. Hobby Lobby may find fault with either of these solutions and sue again. So, if birth control is purchased with tax dollars, or provided to employees without cost, will their objections hold? They pay taxes after all… so, where is the line drawn?

Justice Ginsberg wrote a scathing dissenting opinion which addressed some of these gaping issues – recognizing the magnitude of this ruling, its likely impact, and that it was a “decision of startling breadth.” In what seems to be an attempt to mitigate that, there were several clarifications in the court’s majority opinion, each more disturbing than the last.  

Justice Alito intends to set the high court up as arbiter of what is and is not a valid religious belief.

It would seem that with the statement, "[t]his decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate and should not be understood to mean that all insurance mandates, that is for blood transfusions or vaccinations, necessarily fail if they conflict with an employer's religious beliefs," Justice Alito intends to set the high court up as arbiter of what is and is not a valid religious belief.  This sets a dangerous precedent whereby courts may determine the validity of religious belief, leaving the door open to discrimination against minority religious practices and making it more likely that religious beliefs which harm minorities and women will be legally sanctioned. One may find it necessary to question the wisdom of that.

The clarification that, “It does not provide a shield for employers who might cloak illegal discrimination as a religious practice,” adds to, rather than subtracts from, the worrisome precedent set here. Under the previous administration, the HHS ruling was that if any medications were covered, a specific class could not be excluded. To exclude a class of medications which are primarily used by women is discrimination on its face. There was no objection to providing coverage for birth control before ACA. Why the change, and why now? Is discrimination no longer discrimination?

Finally, there lies a question in the financial implications for the insurance companies. Insurers are incentivising preventative care because it saves them money. In addition to prevention of pregnancy, which is a huge part of preventative health care, these medications are used to treat all sorts of things, from acne to endometriosis. Hobby Lobby now gets to prevent insurance companies from saving money, while also getting a tax break for making insurance available that doesn’t even have to meet the ACA’s minimum standards!

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Rending the Tent: The Expansion Continues

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rending the Tent: A Statement from the Secular Woman Community

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**UPDATED 2014-03-18 8:25 AM**

The Secular Woman Board of Directors and larger community hold a woman’s bodily autonomy to be out of bounds for debate, negotiation, or compromise. We therefore vehemently oppose any action which legitimizes, accommodates, invites, or welcomes anti-choice elements into the secular movement. We reject the argument that free inquiry demands consideration of anti-choice viewpoints. We reject the argument that the quest for diversity and growth in the secular movement means including those who question, deny, or advocate against the reproductive rights of women. We reject these arguments as forcefully as we reject the idea that the humanity of racial, ethnic, gender, or sexual minorities deserves closer examination by the secular movement.

Entertaining anti-choice arguments delegitimizes women’s humanity and bodily autonomy; which is why we have been disturbed and appalled to witness the President of American Atheists, David Silverman, commenting on the existence of secular anti-choice arguments during an interview at CPAC without providing any context as to the validity of said arguments. After acknowledging the arguments exists he stated that “You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage.” This statement served to position anti-abortion arguments as legitimate contenders alongside social justice arguments for marriage equality, etc.

Vision Statement: Secular Woman envisions a future in which women without supernatural beliefs have the opportunities and resources they need to participate openly and confidently as respected voices of leadership in the secular community and every aspect of society.

This resulted in reasonable and justifiable disagreement, backlash, and explanations by other atheists of why this statement dehumanizes women. Almost immediately after Silverman’s comment and the resulting push-back, JT Eberhard published a defense of Silverman and then Hemant Mehta* of the Friendly Atheist published a piece by Kristine Kruszelnicki of Pro-Life Humanists without any redress from Mehta.

At this point, the President of Secular Woman, Kim Rippere, reached out to Mehta to see if he would interview her to give his readers the viewpoint that secular pro-choice is pro-life.  We were stunned at his response. While he supports abortion rights, Hemant said, he is not interested in doing an interview or providing a balanced viewpoint to his readers. He condescendingly suggested that he could put us in touch with his guest blogger directly, and that she would be “eager to have the debate.” Our assertion remains that basic human rights of women are not up for debate!

Value: We support every person’s right to bodily and sexual autonomy. Gender expression, sexual orientation, and matters of intimacy are for individuals to determine.

We at Secular Woman have no interest in debating and arguing about a woman’s right to make her own medical decisions. Our stance is clear: abortions should be safe, legal, accessible, and shame free. Spending our energy debating with 13 people about women’s bodily sovereignty is wasteful; instead we will put our energies toward education, advocacy, and breaking down barriers to care.

In light of our recent exchange, it bears remembering that Mehta was also unenthusiastic about the launch of our reproductive rights project, @AbortTheocracy. When the project launched, he wrote that the image was too strong, worrying that our critics would see it as a baby-killing party.

Value: We oppose all attempts to criminalize or limit access to comprehensive reproductive services such as contraception and abortion.

While it is not our contention that either Mehta or Silverman are personally anti-choice (indeed Silverman announced clearly his pro-choice position in a blog comment), this exchange between Mehta and Silverman’s comments on abortion makes obvious that at least some atheists are unclear on why entertaining women’s rights as an issue that can be up for debate alienates and harms women while simultaneously giving fodder to those who advocate denying women basic human rights.

We are left incredulous at the failure to understand, at the complete lack of repudiation of the oppressive stance their comments and actions validate, and the disconnect between these men’s personal pro-choice stance and their words and resulting behaviors. What seems to be lost on Silverman, Mehta and others is that debating women’s humanity is not an academic exercise because our right to bodily autonomy is far from settled, legally or socially.

Overall, we are exceedingly disappointed with the recent talk surrounding women’s rights in the atheist and secular communities.  Atheism is already struggling with anti-feminism and atheist leaders and writers uncritically giving voice to anti-choice views will serve to further push women to the fringes of the movement – if they even bother to join at all.

During a time when women’s rights are being viciously attacked by conservatives (especially religious conservatives) at the state and federal level, it is appalling to see that leaders of atheists organizations are reaching out to those who reject women’s right to bodily autonomy and appear willing to use women as a bargaining chip to advance the atheist movement’s growth and support the so-called big tent. Big tents have their limits! A tent that includes people who reject basic bodily autonomy for over half the population is not big enough to include anyone else who values human rights. We agree that the atheist movement should be big enough to embrace different viewpoints but we draw the line at viewpoints that reject the humanity of women.

 


*On March18, 2014 Kim Rippere received this from Hemant:

Hi, Kim — I just saw your post on Secular Woman (http://www.secularwoman.org/rending-the-te…oman-community/) and I realized there was a complete miscommunication on my end regarding your email.

When I read your initial email to me, I understood it to mean that Secular Woman wanted to interview *me* about *my* views on the pro-choice side and the right to choose. I said no because I didn’t feel like my positions on those issues needed any clarification (I’m strongly pro-choice) — and that’s why I suggested you interview Kristine instead.

Reading your post and re-reading your emails, I realize you were requesting that I interview YOU about those issues, to provide the opposing perspective to Kristine’s piece. (That also makes your subsequent email to me make a little more sense.)

1) My apologies for misunderstanding what you were requesting. Had I understood correctly, my answers would’ve been different.

2) I would be happy to provide you (or a member of your group) a forum on my site if you were up for writing a response. But what I’d be interested in posting is A) a rebuttal to the specific things Kristine wrote about and B) the facts/data behind why being pro-choice makes sense. As with all posts on my site, I’ll work with the writer with edits.

3) Given this misunderstanding, I hope you can clarify your post to reflect that — and not state that I rejected a pro-choice perspective on my site. That was never my intention.

Please let me know that you got this? Thanks.

Pizza and Pregnancy Tests

Pizza and Pregnancy Tests
by J.M. Bates

My friend confided in me that she might be pregnant. She was absolutely terrified. At first, I was surprised that she came to me with her serious issue. She wasn't my best friend; in fact, far from it. She often seemed to really dislike me, often calling me "boring" and like "an old lady" in front of our other friends. However, she said I was the only one she could trust not to tell anyone else about her possible pregnancy.

I tried my best to comfort her. I took her out for pizza in an attempt to cheer her up a little, but she could hardly talk or eat due to her high stress. She looked like she was on the verge of tears the entire time. I had no idea what to say to her; she was occupied by her thoughts anyway. We later went to a store together and I told her that I'd buy her anything she needed. She picked out a box of at-home pregnancy tests, the kind where you pee on a stick. That box of multiple tests was expensive to purchase. I thought to myself that her boyfriend should be the one buying it instead of me. Where was that deadbeat, anyway? My friend was going through hell and her boyfriend probably had no idea what was going on. I bought the tests for her from an elderly cashier who looked at me disapprovingly.

Back at my friend's house, I remember watching her face as she waited for her test results, the plastic urine-dotted strips all lined up alongside each other by the bathroom sink. Her wild anxiety merged with disappointment and dread as each test yielded a positive result.  

This event happened sixteen years ago. My friend and I were both twelve years old at the time.

I didn't have sexual health education at my school until I was seventeen years old. By that time, multiple girls in my class (including my friend) had already become pregnant and dropped out of school. A few boys in my class were teased for impregnating girls who attended other schools.

The sexual health education we did eventually receive at our school was dismal. Outdated textbooks depicted cross-section diagrams of human genitalia and stock photographs of wholesome teenagers with 80's haircuts. The texts heavily involved hygiene and diseases, with recurrent life advice focusing on abstinence. We were never taught about condoms or other contraceptives, nor about consent or safe sex. Our teachers seemed clueless and embarrassed to be there, with a different teacher each week. I was given the impression that this class was dumped on unwilling teachers to perform, possibly determined by choosing out of a hat or by a spreadsheet on the principal's computer. I recall one flustered football coach give our class this vague advice: "If you don't want it [sex], just cross your arms and… yeah." On another occasion, an entire class period was wasted on a discussion about the conspiracy theory of the government inventing AIDS.

The girls in my class that had already become pregnant and dropped out of school most likely would not have benefited from this particular sexual health education class if it had been provided earlier to them. I would say the same about the male classmates who got their female partners pregnant. These individuals most likely would have learned nothing from this class, just like the rest of us. If the class had instead been medically-accurate, current, and included information about contraceptives and safe sex, then maybe fewer students would have become pregnant or impregnated others.

The entire time I was in this terrible sexual education class, I kept thinking to myself, "This is bullshit!" I was getting a lot of sexual health information from the internet at the time, and it was a lot more current and sex-positive than what I was being taught in school. I didn't watch porn, a popular source of disinformation about sex, because pornography in general scared me. Instead, I found myself migrating to feminist and sex-positive online communities, blogs, and websites. Even feminist sex shops with websites online gave useful information. I learned important things from these multiple sources, such as only using water-based lubricant with latex contraceptives, and that HPV could be transmitted between partners even while using condoms and dental dams. I also learned what a dental dam was.

All in all, it was nice to educate myself in privacy from sources that were medically accurate and sex-positive. It changed my life for the better. My overall attitude towards life was improved, because I became more aware and also less plagued by guilt and shame about my needs. I had many other friends confide in me about their pregnancies, abortions, and diseases. I always did my best to provide sources of medically-accurate information as well as a non-judgemental and understanding shoulder to lean on. I look forward to the day when medically-accurate, age-appropriate sexual health education becomes mainstream in the United States. Until then, I'm going to keep e-mailing politicians to put comprehensive sex ed bills through. I will also continue to buy pizza and pregnancy tests for my friends in need.

About the Author
J.M. Bates is an atheist feminist living in the Chicago area. Race, gender, sexuality, income, and youth issues are part of her main focus. She has written for Fuck Yeah Feminists, Examiner, MOOT, Elevate Difference, and Starpulse.

A Catholic Girl’s Calling to Sex Ed

A Catholic Girl's "Calling" to Sex Ed
By Jennifer Hart, MPH
Having been raised in a suburban, lower-middle class Irish Catholic family in New England has certainly impacted my worldview, particularly as it relates to issues of religion and sexual and reproductive health issues.  In fact, my experiences related to religion are what ultimately “called” me to study and work in sexual health specifically, and not reproductive health.  I was raised in a family that never questioned the Faith, nor talked about it in relation to other faith beliefs.  There were certain expectations that went along with being Catholic, having to do with sex, gender, and relationships. Although I knew these silent yet steadfast expectations, I questioned my acceptance of these tenets even as a teenager.

I’m the first to admit my privilege, and to be completely transparent: I’m a white, upper middle class, cisgender, heterosexual female with undergraduate and Ivy League graduate school degrees. I am also cynical, jaded, hardened, pragmatic, and sarcastic.  I’m a divorced, 35 year old recovering Catholic from the Northeast, now living in a large urban city, and identify as a Secular Humanist.  I am in a loving relationship with an amazing man, 19 years my senior. Other than being a woman (which is a challenge unto itself), I’ve got a lot of privilege. My struggles are my own, but I know others have endured far more than I.

When I was about 13, my mom gave me a stack of readers and pamphlets about my body and puberty, told me to look through them, and to come back to her if I had any questions. I only had one question, which came after watching a cartoon video on puberty. It was about how girls masturbate. I was too embarrassed to ask her in person, so I wrote a note. I never got a reply.  Really, the only other question I asked was a personal one, to my mom. I said, “Can I ask you a personal question? Did you and Dad have sex before you were married?” Her answer: “That is a personal question.”

Everything else I learned about sex came from school and from friends. The internet wasn’t really something you surfed for answers in those days. I remember as a middle-schooler, seeing one 8th grade couple making out in the hall way – all the time. When they broke up, it was the talk of the century. I had major, heart-wrenchingly intense, unrequited crushes on boys.  I remember having only one sex-ed class in high school – 9th grade, I think, and it was about reproduction and abstinence. I was in a class with all girls, and the boys were getting educated in the room next door.  I was a good girl. I called myself “Halo Head.” I was a good Catholic girl and my plan was to wait until I got married to have sex. (Ok, so I didn’t wait until I was married, but I did wait until I was engaged).

My parlay into sexual discourse and awareness grew from the socially acceptable expectation that all girls will eventually experience pregnancy, and the socially vilified reality of sexual assault.  I remember feeling “those feelings down there” when I’d read books or watch shows involving childbirth or rape.  Childbirth. Rape.  Even writing this, I think, how creepy is that?!? But, these passages and scenes were not stigmatized as “dirty” or porn, only natural and horrible, respectively. The common thread between child birth and rape is sex.  Later, as an adult, in thinking about how my interest in sexuality began, I felt angry and ashamed that it was linked prominently to pain and violence, and not pleasure.  My interest was steeped in stigma and shame. My access to positive messages of sex and relationships was censored and oppressed by my religious upbringing. Don’t even get me started on my love affair with the Thorn Birds.

I moved away from my family and childhood home in suburban Connecticut when I was 18 to rural North Carolina, where I lived for 13 years. I chose to attend Lenoir-Rhyne College, a small, private, Lutheran school, because of their unique and renowned program for Deaf Education. Those choices led me through the formative years of my life; I was out on my own, making decisions, and determining and defining my values.  Immediately, I noticed that religion was undeniably prevalent. Signs and billboards touted Jesus and Bible verses, abiding worshipers stood on highway medians preaching into the open windows of passing cars, and business meetings began with prayer.  I was approached on numerous occasions by people asking me where I attended church – then either shunned or considered a potential convert when I told them I was Catholic. “So you’re not Christian,” they’d say. I could be “born again”, a concept foreign to me.

Such confrontations about religion and vocation forced me to reckon with my own faith, in particular those tenets that had social and political implications.  The Catholic faith clearly defines its views on issues related to sexuality, including premarital sex, homosexuality, contraception, abortion, masturbation, and gender roles in relationships, just as clearly as it defines the guilt associated with the abandonment of these definitions. My foundation was firm until I began to see the gender inequities and discrepancies between my faith and my career path.

I broke away from the confines of Catholicism, and organized religion in general, and have dealt with the repercussions ever since. I was challenged by religion’s pervasiveness within professional and social outlets within the “Bible Belt.” My reactions to religion became defensive and negative. My work in teen pregnancy prevention, HIV/AIDS, and sexual and reproductive health advocacy made my time in the rural southeast an eye-opening and challenging experience.

In the area of sexuality education, often local and regional legislation determines what you can and cannot say in the classroom. Teaching “abstinence-only-until-marriage” sex education classes and condom failure rates is a denial of the facts and reality of teen sexual initiation. This type of education works against itself when youth choose not to use condoms upon their sexual debut because they believe what they’ve been taught, ultimately increasing infection rates and unintended pregnancies.  In addition, an entire population of students is made invisible and silenced by the abstinence only until marriage message.  Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQQ) youth have very few (although ever-increasing) options for considering the notion of marriage in their lives, and are hardly ever included in educational conversations and settings about sexuality. The idea that students need only be taught about abstinence and nothing else further perpetuates the stigma of sex and sexuality, of sex as solely procreative, silences LGBTQQ students, and erases women’s sexual pleasure from the conversation.

In 2002, the World Health organization organized a meeting in Geneva to discuss and further define Sexual Health. The attendees came up with the following guide (emphasis is my own):

Sexual health is a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence.

Despite this positive and open-minded approach to sexual health, the United States’ proclivity to limit and oppress access to sexuality information and education, through the promulgation of religious and cultural expectations has significant emotional, mental, and physical consequences. Sexuality and health are the foundation of our being and yet in the South and in many other areas of our country, parents, teachers, clergy, doctors, clinicians, and even pharmacists refuse to accept that sex is natural and normal, putting their morality onto the lives of their children, students, congregants, patients, and clients. The effect of inhibiting discussions of sex, identity, and health is detrimental to the overall health, well-being, and stability of a person and society as a whole. My liberal values for social, sexual and reproductive justice and gender equality were tested daily in this conservative Christian part of the country.  There, and even now in my urban city, I continue to see the increasing influence of religion on politics and funding streams regarding the sexual and reproductive issues I support.

 

Now, I work in the abortion field, implementing training and education opportunities for abortion care providers.  Part of my job is to provide values clarification and pregnancy options counseling training to those working with women who seek abortion care or support. Inevitably, the recurring challenge that counselors face is working with religious patients. The skill of the counselor is to meet the patient where they are in their belief system. Helping the patient create a space in their faith where their god provides them with comfort and acceptance rather than shame and guilt can be transformative for the patient. Although abortion is couched within the reproductive health and justice movements, I see abortion as the bridge from reproductive health to sexual health. Abortion enables women to maintain their autonomy as sexual beings, undoing the expectation that they will, or should, parent.  Coming from my upbringing, I never really thought that I would be working in abortion.  But here I am, and I believe in its morality.

Despite my personal struggles with religion and faith, I very firmly recognize the intrigue that religion holds for me, especially with regard to issues of sexual and reproductive health, and its influence on the choices people make.  I am also painfully aware of my knee-jerk emotional reactions to religion and its pervasiveness in the social constructs of our society. Still, we need to fight as a society to answer these questions:  What does an individual need to be a healthy, well-rounded, confident sexual being?  How can society overcome religious stigma and understand the complexities of sexuality with compassion and acceptance?  How can we educate and empower women and men to love themselves without the detrimental comparison to unrealistic ideals set forth by society, the media, and religion?  How do we do all of this while still maintaining the integrity of a culture and community of people and their unique and diverse beliefs?

My work in teen sex-ed and pregnancy prevention, HIV/AIDS, and abortion has focused my passion on the sexual being of humans, by way of stigma. My experiences showed me that I was advocating for a person who happened to have an STI, who happened to be pregnant, who happened to have HIV, or who happened to be gay.  My passion was in supporting this person, who, because they are a sexual human being, was now being treated with hatred, discrimination, and condemnation.  I studied sexuality and health because a person is first a sexual being (from birth!), before they are a reproductive person (if at all!).  Sexuality encompasses the continuums of one’s sex, gender, orientation, sexual behavior, sexual health, and sexual rights. The binaries of sex, gender, and orientation that our society so loves and finds so comforting reduces us to the moral panics that devolve into ideological rhetoric at religious and political bully pulpits.

Comprehensive sexuality education, sexual positivity, sexual rights, and reproductive justice are foundations of morality, rooted in compassion and humanism. I have made choices, strongly influenced by my Catholic upbringing, and I’ve made choices as an autonomous, sexual woman. It has been these choices, the ones I’ve made based on my gut desire and intuition that have been the most satisfying and fulfilling. My hope is for people across all walks of life and ages to have control over and take pleasure in their sexual health.


About the Author
Jennifer A. Hart, MPH, is the Director of Training & Education at the National Abortion Federation. In 2011, Jennifer earned her Master of Public Health from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York City, where she studied Sexuality and Health and religion’s influence on policy and access to care. Jennifer’s career and education have focused on the stigmatized issues of abortion, HIV/AIDS, sexual and gender-based violence, and sexual identity and rights. She has worked with Global Doctors for Choice, a global initiative of Physicians for Reproductive Health; the Access Team at International Planned Parenthood Federation/Western Hemisphere Region (IPPF/WHR); and Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Jennifer studied and worked abroad in the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and Nigeria with organizations such as Profamilia, Instituto de Sexualidad Humana, and Rotary International. Prior to graduate school, Jennifer was the executive director of ALFA, the only HIV/AIDS service organization in rural northwestern NC, where she worked for eight years. Jennifer earned a BA in Spanish and Human and Community Service from Lenoir-Rhyne College (now known as Lenoir-Rhyne University) and a Certificate in Nonprofit Management from Duke University. She volunteers as co-administrator of Repro Health Happy Hour DC, and is a blog contributor for Planned Parenthood of Central and Greater Northern New Jersey’s Center for Family Life Education. Most weekends, Jennifer can be found with a mug of French press coffee, ranting and raving about politics, religion, and social justice issues with her partner and their kitty kids.  Jennifer can be reached at [email protected]