Archive for the ‘abortion’ Category

Bodily rights


Just a little addendum to yesterday’s post about abortion in Canadian politics: I thought I’d give a very brief summary of why I think abortion should be allowed.

I realize that this is an important discussion to have, and that there are gray areas regarding appropriate term limits to abortion. But for me, the decisive argument for maintaining a basic right to abortion is the bodily rights argument, which I first heard presented by Tracey Harris on The Atheist Experience TV show. In a nutshell, the argument goes like this:

  1. You cannot be compelled to offer your body as life support for anyone who has already been born (such as another adult – even a dependent relative).
  2. Prohibiting abortion effectively compels a woman to offer her body as life support (for a conceptus that, depending on your personal beliefs, may or may not be “fully human”).
  3. Therefore, prohibiting abortion gives the conceptus more rights, and the woman fewer rights, than any other person.
  4. This is morally indefensible. Therefore, women should have the right to choose whether to continue a pregnancy or not.

I understand the depth of feeling that many people have about this issue. If you think that the conceptus is “fully human” in a morally-relevant way, then of course every pregnancy that does not carry to term is a tragedy. I feel fortunate that my wife and I were never in a position where we felt abortion was the best option – at the least, it is a medical procedure that carries some low level of risk.

Remember that allowing abortion is not the same as requiring abortion. A country with legal abortion could, in principle, have a 0% abortion rate. Wouldn’t that be a more meaningful triumph for the pro-lifers than persuading legislators to force people into the desired behaviour?

What we have, and what we need, is a legal system that permits abortion puts the decision in the hands of those people best suited to make that decision. The people best informed about the particulars of each case. The people with the greatest stake in the outcome, of any who can voice an opinion. The women who are pregnant.

To those who oppose abortion, please don’t use the law to force all women into your particular picture of the “good life”. Instead, use your inalienable right to free speech to make your case. Invite people to consider your arguments, and decide for themselves using the facts and values on offer.


Kudos to the Trudeaus


There are times when I despair about Canadian politics, but at the moment I’m holding my head high.

Here is the passage from the article in the Metro that first brought this item to my attention:

“I had an extraordinary example in a father who had deeply, deeply held personal views that were informed by the fact that he went to church every Sunday, read the Bible regularly to us, and raised us very religiously, as Catholics,” Trudeau wrote.

“But at the same time my father had no problem legalizing divorce, decriminalizing homosexuality and moving in ways that recognized the basic rights of the people.

“He too held fast to his beliefs. But he also understood that as leaders, as political figures, and as representatives of a larger community, our utmost responsibility is to stand up for people’s rights.”

Trudeau says he shares his father’s view of leadership in that regard.

“Canadians of all views are welcome within the Liberal Party of Canada. But under my leadership, incoming Liberal MPs will always vote in favour of a woman’s fundamental rights,” he wrote.

What a sensible approach to deciding how to partition one’s personal beliefs and choices from one’s exercise of political power!

Justin Trudeau is the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and son of former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. He recently revealed that future Liberal candidates will be vetted to ensure they are willing to support the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Specifically, they must support marriage equality and women’s bodily rights (for example, the right to have an abortion).

One might expect that this puts him ahead of the pack. There are a certainly people making noise about how this will help the Conservatives in the next election (for example, here and here). But the National Democratic Party (NDP) has had a similar policy for a while now, and even the ruling Conservative Party, while nominally open to members “voting their conscience”, has declined to reopen the abortion debate during its recent term in office.

I don’t think Trudeau’s position, on its own, would win the Liberals my vote. On the other hand, the euphemistic platform “Members can vote their conscience” will certainly lose the Conservatives my vote. It is an abdication from taking a stand. It amounts to saying “Members can try to take away people’s rights if they feel strongly about it.” Not okay, Conservatives. Not okay at all.

(I was pleased to note, in researching this post, that Trudeau’s Twitter feed includes items about transphobia and about scientific freedom. Those are issues that may draw me toward voting Liberal in the next election.)

(Also, the acoustics geek in me was delighted to notice that the hashtag for the Liberal Party of Canada is #LPC. Haha!)

What is religious freedom?


Religious groups and Republican presidential hopefuls Rick Santorum, Mitt RomneyNewt Gingrich, and even Ron Paul, are claiming that the recent health care reforms in the US amount to an attack on religious freedom.

It seems that employers who offer health benefits cannot choose to omit “objectionable” services on the basis of religious dogma. Specifically, they cannot exclude coverage for contraceptives. Opponents of the reforms assert that, by being forced to contribute to health plans that cover these services, their religious freedom is being tossed aside.

First of all, let me say that I understand their objection. While I don’t share it, I understand that if you believe contraceptives are evil, it must be galling to be in a position where you may be financially supporting their use.

On the other hand, does this policy really net out as an attack on religious freedom?

Let me share a couple of reasons I think it is not.*

First, let’s look at parallel cases. What about a church that takes literally the old testament injunction about punishment for disobedient children? Is it religiously intolerant for the civil authorities to prohibit stoning them? No.

What about people who come from a culture where an man’s honour is more important than his wife’s or daughter’s life? Is it religiously intolerant to treat him as a murderer for satisfying his (often religiously-motivated) sense of honour? No.

Why are these not cases of religious intolerance? Because the rights of the victims not to be beaten or killed trump the rights of their attackers to satisfy whatever code of ethics they are following.

And, whether you agree with it or not, modern developed societies have decided that individuals have rights to reproductive freedom – to decide whether to separate acts of sex from acts of reproduction, through the use of contraception, and to not allow an embryo to develop into a full human being, through abortion. So far, it seems to me that the current issue is parallel with these other, less controversial issues.

Also, remember that individuals, not organizations, have rights. They are human rights, not corporate rights. So, when two “rights” appear to be in conflict – on the one hand the individual’s right to reproductive choice; on the other hand the employing organization’s right to express religious prohibitions – it is always going to be the individual’s right that triumphs.

Note that, in most cases, these will not conflict. Employees of Catholic hospitals will tend to be observant Catholics, for example. But there are plenty of Catholics who disagree with the Catholic Church’s stance on contraception. (Just as there are Jews who eat non-Kosher. I think this observation refutes William Lori’s very clever “ham sandwich defense“.)

Nothing in the law requires anyone to use contraception (contrary to the shrieks of some self-perceived victims of this law). So the question in my mind is this: should a person be free to choose contraception, as they would other (covered) medical services? Or should the employer be given veto right? If the relevant human rights laws assert a right to reproductive health services (such as contraception and sterilization), then that’s that. Rights are rights. If you disagree, try to get the rights legislation rescinded.

It is more complicated than this, of course. If health care in the US were a universal, socialized operation – as it is in most of the developed world – then these conservative religious employers would have no reason to worry. It would not be their money, but general tax money, paying for the services. (Yes, there would of course be taxpayers who would object to supporting these procedures – but that’s a different kettle of worms.)

The point is that, yes, as things stand, it looks like employers – even those affiliated with particular religious beliefs – are required to offer comprehensive health insurance. They don’t get to opt out, any more than religious educational institutions would get to opt out of child abuse laws just because they “sincerely believe” that lashes are the only appropriate, god-sanctioned way to enforce discipline.

Religious freedom doesn’t mean that you can use sincere religious belief as a loophole to ignore laws you don’t like. It means that laws cannot be created solely to discriminate against particular religious groups. It means that laws must be applied equally to all people, regardless of religious sentiment.

Is the current solution imperfect? Sure. Even more enlightened, socialized health care systems are imperfect.

Is the “Obamacare” solution eroding religious liberty? Of course not.

I’ll close with a quote from a very well-written editorial on the issue. I encourage you to read the whole thing, but this is the core:

The courts have consistently held that freedom of religion is not absolute. Religious actions have been regulated throughout American history to preserve or promote the public good. Providing health care, including contraceptives, is a public good. Religious practices have been banned when they are contrary to the public good. Freedom of belief is absolute; freedom to act on the basis of belief is regulated and must not injure others.


* Of course, it may be that these attacks over-state what the law demands of employers. See here for another perspective.

The flock is not the flocker


Humanitie is out again, so here’s my latest column.  Here is the Not-Quite-So-Friendly Humanist’s take on the issue we decided to tackle this time around.  We decided to blog on the Pope’s visit to the UK.

The pope will be is visiting as a head of state and as a moral authority.  Both of these roles are highly dubious in our modern democratic context.  Ignoring a mountain of other things, the fact alone that this man seems to have been involved in an institutional cover-up for dozens of child rapists should prevent any decent head of state from inviting him to visit.

It’s important to remember, however, that the Catholic Church is composed not only of pedophile priests and those who cover up for them, but also of non-pedophile priests and non-corrupt administrators.  Even more, it is composed of hundreds of millions of people trying to live as well as they can in a confusing world.

And before anyone retorts that passive acceptance of repressive and harmful dogmas is hardly respectable, let me introduce a couple of Catholic organisations that specifically combat the church’s problems – both doctrinal and institutional:  “Catholics for Choice” and “Catholics for a Changing Church“.

Here is what Catholics for Choice say about themselves:  “We are part of the great majority who believes that Catholic teachings on conscience mean that every individual must follow his or her own conscience – and respect others’ right to do the same.”  That sounds a lot like the humanist principle of free-thinking.  The group “helps people and organizations confidently challenge the power of the Catholic hierarchy which uses every means at its disposal to punish and publicly shame Catholics who don’t unquestioningly follow its edicts. The hierarchy also seeks to impose its narrow view of morality – and dangerous positions on public health issues – on Catholics and non-Catholics around the world.”  This is a firm condemnation of the same institutional abuse of power that humanists find so repugnant in the Catholic hierarchy.

In a similar vein, Catholics for a Changing Church declare that “Justice in the Church should be manifest and subject to public scrutiny and aim at least to equal the spirit of justice in the civil community. It should be based on the love, understanding and trust that ought to exist between Christians. Canon Law should be radically reformed in accord with these principles.”  Humanists may disagree about the beliefs that undergird these values, but we cannot disagree with the values themselves:  public accountability of those in power, and being motivated by love and understanding.  Note that they are holding up the “civil community” – what many religionists (for example, this guy!) decry as the secularised public arena – as a standard for the church to live *up* to.

We could ask why these obviously open-minded and ethical people don’t just leave the church.  Isn’t that a much easier way to win free of its oppressive dogmas and policies?  But when a community is being oppressed, it can be better to remain and work to improve it than to simply leave.  Remember that these people have family in the church, personal history, and of course, retain many of the beliefs of Catholicism.  Is it really rational to expect them to leave?  And is it really a bad thing to know that there is a movement within the church campaigning for change?

So where does that leave us as humanists?  I’m not about to suggest we shut up and hope that the church reforms from within.  But, when we point out the evils of the dogmas and the hierarchy, I think it is worth sparing a word or two of encouragement and praise for those brave Catholics who remain in the church and challenge its outdated and harmful aspects, just as we praise the thinkers of the Enlightenment who forged modern humanist principles amid a sea of fearful dogma.

Here are some other thoughts on the pope and his visit:

Followup on abortion


Regarding my last post on abortion, I would like to point out one response and two posts on a related current event in the UK.

As linked from the comments in my post, Christian blogger Ken Brown takes me to task for some incautious use of figures from the internet. (I stand by most of my post, but he is right that the 75% figure doesn’t seem to have a firm empirical justification.) I have submitted a detailed response to his criticism on his blog , but it has not (yet) appeared in the comments section.

Second, the recent vote on the Human Embryo and Fertilization Bill in the House of Commons (UK) has attracted the attention of two friends of mine.

Clare points out the dangers lurking behind the proposal to reduce the legal limit for abortions from 24 weeks gestation to 20 weeks. This action would serve to undermine important abortion rights. I should have linked her post before the vote to help get the word out, but in the end the proposed reduction was voted down anyway.

On the other side, Cath has given her perspective on why this decision, and the approval for ‘saviour siblings’, are inhumane. Her perspective, like that of Ken Brown, is religious, but of course that does not invalidate it. Please note: in Cath’s post, when she uses the term lawful, I think she is referring to an absolute moral law rather than human law. Otherwise saying that “their [legislators'] decision is not lawful” would be self-contradictory.

I think that Cath is assuming full human rights for any embryo – presumably from the moment of conception – an assumption that (as I pointed out in my last post) is neither necessary nor universal. Interestingly, Clare’s non-religious arguments for abortion rights do not depend on a rejection of that assumption.

Like Clare and Cath, I do not have time to get into a full-blown debate on this issue right now. Also, I hope to focus a little more on the positive and inspiring. Some of my recent posts have perhaps tended toward the combative, and I would like to redress the balance. My blogging notebook has several dozen ideas gestating in it – I look forward to nurturing them into fully-grown posts. Just as soon as the PhD is out of the way. Stay tuned.


On dialogue, genocide, and plague


I would like to apologize for the long gap in posts. I am currently near the end of writing up my PhD dissertation, and almost all of my time and energy is going into that. Below is a post I composed almost a month ago, but didn’t get around to tidying up until today. When the PhD is finished, I hope to get back to semi-regular, semi-frequent posting. See you then.

Early last month, the University of Calgary tried (not for the first time) to prevent a student group from holding a display about abortion. Fortunately, they failed – the group held their display, unmolested by campus security. The attempt to thwart them got the group more attention and more sympathy than they would otherwise have received.

Why all the fuss? Why not just let them do their thing? Well, it wasn’t simply an anti-abortion display. The group, Campus Pro-Life, was presenting the Genocide Awareness Project, a sensationalist affair, based on the claim that abortion rates in the developed world (25% in Canada) amount to a genocide. Vivid photographs of both aborted fetuses and genocide victims feature prominently. Despite its unsavory tone, and despite the way this analogy ignores the many glaring and important differences between abortion and the intentional extermination of an entire culture (reductio ad hitlerum, anyone?), it is clear to me that trying to ban them from campus is contrary to the spirit of open discussion of ideas that universities are founded on.

I felt drawn to this incident as one where I could support a group’s right to put out there message, while disagreeing with the content of that message on almost every level. (I’ve done so before.) So I contacted them and spent a pleasant hour over lunch chatting with member Matthew Wilson, a very thoughtful and friendly guy. I am grateful to him for helping me refine (and, in some spots, correct) the following contemplations.

At the root of the abortion debate seems to be a fundamental disagreement over the basis of human rights.

To me, human rights derive from those properties of human existence that we most value: consciousness, sentience, free will. It is because we share these properties to some extent with other animals that I recently became and remain a vegetarian. It is because the early stages of a human embryo do not share these properties that I do not see abortion as a kind of murder.

To anti-abortionists, the start of the new human organism at conception is the point where human rights are imbued, by definition. Although many people hold this position for religious reasons, it is neither the case that all religious people are anti-abortion nor that all anti-abortionists rely on religious arguments. (Whatever his feelings, Matthew did not give me one religious argument in the hour we dug through this issue.)

After an hour’s careful and enthusiastic discussion with Matthew, I have to conclude that these two positions are simply irreconcilable – each is based on axioms that are fairly impervious to persuasion.

But just because I disagree doesn’t mean I can’t try to put myself in their shoes, see what it’s like. If I accept their axioms rather than mine, then abortion would indeed amount to murder. Let’s even accept, for argument’s sake, that this justifies calling an abortion rate of 25% “genocide”.

What else follows from the belief that every fertilized human egg is ethically equivalent to a human baby? Well, just as not all deaths outside the womb are due to murder – the vast majority are natural, accidental, or from disease – so not all prenatal deaths are due to abortion. In fact, the vast majority of these are also from “natural” causes – called either miscarriage and stillbirth, depending on whether the fetus dies before or after 20 weeks gestation.

The stillbirth rate is very low (around 0.6% in Canada), but miscarriage is another matter. About 10-20% of pregnancies that the mother knows about miscarry. In studies that use detailed detection techniques, about 30% of clinically-recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage. (In this case, “clinically-recognized” means “exhibiting the hormone produced on uterine implantation of the embryo”.) Extrapolating to those fertilized eggs that never get implanted and so are currently impossible to medically detect, 75% of conceptions may fail to carry to term.

So three quarters of conceived (and thus fully-human, by the anti-abortionists’ lights) embryos miscarry – die without anyone setting out to kill them. And of those that survive this natural winnowing, 25% are then aborted intentionally (about 6% of total conceptions).

The vast majority of pre-birth deaths are miscarriages – twelve times as many as are aborted. If abortion is genocide, miscarriage is a plague unparalleled in human history, claiming 75% of all human lives.

So if Matthew and his colleagues are indeed pro-life, and not simply anti-abortion, what obligation does this knowledge place on them? Isn’t miscarriage a more immediate and profound problem than the relatively minuscule one of abortion?

Thanks to Matthew, I have firsthand examples of the responses that anti-abortionists might make to this challenge.

Acknowledgment. To his credit, Matthew acknowledged that the miscarriage statistics, which were new to him, did represent a grave human tragedy from his perspective. (To my discredit, I had originally expected any anti-abortionist to try to wiggle out of such an acknowledgment. Thankyou, Matthew, for proving me wrong.)

Ignorance. I can’t deny that the statistics on miscarriage are colossally under-reported. Perhaps people fail to protest this epidemic of miscarriage simply because they’re not aware of it. But ignorance is always a shaky excuse. It is particularly so in this case, where a significant minority of women in the anti-abortion movement are bound to have had miscarriages themselves, and so come face-to-face with this reality. I understand that one way in which doctors seek to console parents who suffer a miscarriage is to let them know how common it is – there is nothing wrong with them in particular. Do those who become aware of the problem have no obligation to share it with others whose worldview would motivate them to help fix it?

Intentionality. The strongest reason why anti-abortionists might not choose to act on the miscarriage crisis, despite its scope and import, is the fundamental ethical difference between abortion and miscarriage. One is a conscious act on the part of humans; the other is not. Abortion would be ended if doctors and women simply chose en masse not to do it; miscarriage will not be solved so easily (if a solution is even possible). And given the limited resources of the anti-abortion movement, it is clear where they should focus their efforts first.

(It is interesting to consider, however, that no conception occurs entirely without the participation of human choice. If you know that the consequences of unprotected sex are 3 times as likely to lead to a death as to a life, what responsibility do you bear for the deaths of any embryos your actions generate?)

On balance, I don’t feel that these responses are quite adequate to justify the deafening silence from anti-abortionists (particularly those who use terms like “genocide”) on the problem of miscarriage. It is simply too big a problem, when I try to look from their perspective, to simply ignore. Action may be expensive, but words are not. It would cost little to mention this problem, and it may serve to spur more people to act for the millions of unborn humans who (from the perspective of the anti-abortionists) die unnecessarily every year.

It is for this reason that I avoid calling their movement “pro-life”. Such a positive label would require at least consistency of approach. Until that is exhibited, I can only recognise that they are anti-abortion.

But, like I mentioned above, our positions seem to boil down to a simply irreconcilable conflict of basic assumptions. So I hope Matthew and other anti-abortionists will correct any mistakes in my assumptions and reasoning. But this gulf makes me pose an even deeper and (for me) more troubling question – one that Matthew and I tried but failed to answer in a satisfactory manner. When people in a liberal democracy disagree so much that any state of affairs will be intolerably unethical to someone, how can we come to a decision about a direction to take as a society?

Alberta Votes (3 of 3): Religious interference


Okay, this isn’t strictly an Alberta news item. But, at about the time I began this series on the Alberta election (see here and here for previous installments), I heard that a Catholic bishop in Ottawa is refusing communion to politicians who support abortion rights.

It’s not the first time or place this has happened: it has come up recently in Scotland, Wales, the US, and probably many other places as well. Sanctions don’t stop at refusing communion – excommunication is also on the table according to some bishops. (Note that not all Catholics think this is an appropriate action for the church to take.)

I am not here to discuss arguments for or against abortion rights (not today anyway). What I would like to explore is the implications of such pressure for democratic government.

On a personal level, first of all, let me say that if I have reason to believe that a candidate will let any particular interest group dictate their actions when in power (rather than, say, the will of us voters), then they have already lost my vote. I hate the idea of voting against someone because of their religion, but if a candidate declares a firm devotion to the Catholic church, and the church orders all its members to toe the doctrinal line or else, then I have no hesitation in deciding against voting for that candidate.

So much for the personal side of things. What about the public interest?

There are regular scandals over money changing hands for political motives. Why are such actions a bad thing? Because they represent an individual, company, or group trying to coerce a politician to act in a way that may not reflect the democratic will of their constituents. It undermines democracy.

As I recently wrote, I think the appropriate status of religious groups in secular government is essentially that of interest groups. And what we have here is prominent members of the Catholic interest group putting as much pressure as they possibly can on elected officials to follow the church over the constituents.

So, are these bishops any better than business men trying to bribe (or blackmail) politicians to vote a particular way? If so, how? What is so special about religious interest groups that they don’t have to live up to the same ethical standards as we hold corporate businesspeople to?

At the least, I think these bishops’ declarations should make people think very carefully before electing Catholics to public office. At best, I think the Catholic church should be severely chastised for trying to thwart the democratic process in this way.

Disclaimer (in case someone in the audience is inclined to misinterpret me):

I assert the right of elected officials to hold whatever religious beliefs they choose. I assert the right of religious officials to express their beliefs – including the real-world implications of their beliefs – as freely as anyone else. I assert the right of everyone to take a position on abortion rights and to act on that position, whether it is in the form of personal choice, protest, or an elected official voting as they choose on legislation.

The only problem I see here for democracy is that an interest group – the Catholic church – is putting inappropriate, excessive pressure on elected officials to govern in a particular way.

Am I over-reacting? Do you think my statements amount to religious discrimination? Please let me know.


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