The news yesterday coming out of darkest Mississippi is that people are going to get to vote on when personhood begins. Whether they are going to be allowed to go right through the dictionary to determine the meaning of other words is not clear, but it certainly is an original way of doing lexicography will take hold in the American Republic, but it is certainly an imaginative way of establishing the meaning of words.
More seriously, however, in doing lexicography by majority vote, and by starting with so fundamental a piece of terminology as the idea of the person, a lot of people, the next day, are going to be under severe strain regarding the consequences for the security of their own persons. For women are clearly right in the centre of the crossfire (no pun intended, though crosses seem to be liberally sprinkled around in this particular contest of words). Both Jerry Coyne and Ophelia Benson have taken centre stage in the atheist blogosphere (mea culpa, Jerry, I’m afraid!), and have gone in distinctively different directions. Ophelia speaks of instant personhood, by definition, and then follows that up with a post about the girl who was forced to confess her sin publicly to her Baptist church, even though she had been raped the a Baptist deacon. She got off light, though, because her pastor told her that she would have been stoned to death in biblical times. Only now, after 13 years, is her story out, and the man who abused her has been sentenced to prison for 20 to 30 years. Jerry wants to have people’s reflections on the issue, the issue rasied by the Mississippi decision, that is, but in particular, what women – who stand to lose most by this bit of electioneering grandstanding – have to say. And he speaks of the proposed referendum as a bizarre event — which is certainly is.
Even if we allow that there are moral issues involved here, why is it so widely thought that these issues concern people other than the woman who is pregnant? Why do people think that intruding in the life of another person is justified? Well, stupid, because they are protecting the persons who are developing inside those other persons? Isn’t that obvious? No, it’s not. Perhaps it’s time that people began taking lessons in freedom and human rights. There is no sense in which a developing zygote or embryo of foetus inside a woman is a human person. Personhood does not begin before birth. Any concept of personhood which confers personhood on something not capable of exercising freedom is meaningless, and by conferring this character on zygotes or embryos or foetuses (z-e-fs), which are not capable of exercising freedom, the freedom of the woman in whom z-e-fs are present is immediately to violate the rights of that woman to her freedom to choose. The point is well made in the latest Jesus and Mo cartoon.
Yes, it’s about controlling women, and, as the cartoon indicates, it’s hard to explain how abortion got to be such an enormous Christian concern, since the Bible does not address the issue directly. Even Aquinas did not oppose the abortion of male foetuses up to 40 days and female foetuses up to 80 days into pregnancy. So the issue is not solely about religious convictions. I think that it is about intruding religious convictions into the lives of people who do not share them. It is a deliberate play for imposing religious values on everyone, whether they accept religious belief or not.
Ophelia has been doing a series of posts on the ideal of the Christian family as a male dominant household in which women are merely adjuncts of men. It’s a scary Christian trend in America. It has to be admitted, though, that there is so much basis for this view in the Christian New Testament that it is hard to believe that Christianity survived feminism; and yet, amongst female clergy that I know most could fairly be described, I think, if not as literalist in their understanding of Christian faith, at least as conservative orthodox. Liberal Christianity was a reinterpretation of Christian beliefs which got along primarily by ignoring or reinterpreting texts that simply didn’t fit with a liberal reading of the faith. It is in one sense silly to think that there is a liberal Christian faith at all, since it would be defeated as soon as people began reading the Bible and taking the words they were reading seriously. As a divorced and remarried priest, when readings containing Jesus’ strictures about divorce came up in the regular Sunday lectionary, I simply replaced them with other texts. Of course, this has got to be done to a certain extent, even by fairly literal Christians, because the Christian scriptures are simply crammed to the gills with anti-Jewish texts, and even the pope has apologised to the Jews for taking those texts seriously. Of course, he didn’t put it in those terms. Had he done so, the question would immediately arise as to what to do with those texts, which are, in themselves, an offence to the Jews and their rights, just as many verses in the Qu’ran are an offence to both Christians and Jews.
I don’t have a lot more to say. I don’t think that abortion, especially in early pregnancy, raises any interesting moral issues. It may raise important emotional issues for women who are pregnant and contemplating abortion. I don’t know; I’m not a woman, and not in a position to say. I do think that there are serious moral issues to be raised around bringing children into the world. All told, I suspect it is more morally wrong to bring children into the world than not to do so, as David Benetar suggests in his book Better Never to Have Been. If that is true, then it is probably morally better to have an abortion than not to have one, but that is a complex argument that I would not want to make here. It is my belief that, whatever the moral status of a z-e-f, it can never defeat the freedom of the woman in whom they are growing, and can never have a claim to life superior to the woman’s claim to life.
In addition to this, however, there is a vital consideration, that none of the religiously mad anti-abortionists seem to consider, and that is the massive injustice to women that would be created by a society in which abortion would be equivalent in law to murder, or even to manslaughter. I often refer people to the New York Times article “Pro-Life Nation” in this connexion, which shows what happened in El Salvador when abortion was criminalised there. It is a horrifying tale of what happens when a country accepts the Vatican’s definition that life begins at conception. Clearly, this is what the religious right in the United States is aiming for. They want to see women criminalised for abortion, no matter what the reason — and the reason should not matter since it is a matter of decision, and should be a matter of decision, for the woman alone – so children raped by boyfriends, priests, fathers or step-fathers will have no option but to carry a child to term, no matter what the consequences for their young lives, and the story of the little nine year old in Brazil will not be an exception, but will become the rule. Women will be forced to go through their pregnancies, no matter what effect it will have on their lives, their careers, their marriages, their other children, they psychological health, or their physical health. This is religious madness at its most strident and bold. These are people who are not only fanatics, but are trampling over the private lives of other people, and they think they have a right to do so. Why isn’t there an outcry just as vociferous, just as emotional, against these mad religious fanatics? And why, why, does anything think that the new atheism is too strident? It is clear that it is not nearly strident enough.