115. doyenne


My plan for February is to write a post each day, the topic taken from/inspired by Dictionary.com’s Word of the Day. I’m trying to venture outside of the usual subjects I write about (i.e., religion), and this seems like a good exercise to get new ideas going.

Doyenne. noun, a woman who is the senior member, as in age or rank, of a group, class, profession, etc.

It’s always interesting to see which Facebook posts of mine go relatively unnoticed, and which ones cause an uproar. The other day I posted this YouTube video from Second City:

In case you hadn’t heard, last month Rick Santorum gave an interview with Piers Morgan where he attempted to “clarify” his position on abortion (especially in the case of rape and incest) in which he said the following:

As horrible as the way that that son or daughter was created, it still is her child. And whether she has that child or doesn’t, it will always be her child. . . And so to embrace her and to love her and to support her and get her through this very difficult time I think [is] the right approach [;] to accept this horribly created — in the sense of rape — but nevertheless a gift in a very broken way, the gift of human life, and accept what God has given to you. . . I can’t think of anything more horrible. But, nevertheless, we have to make the best out of a bad situation.

In short: Rape sucks. Give her a hug and tell her to buck up and push. Then ask what she’s planning to name the baby. Does it have its father’s eyes/nose/chin?

The gist of the flurry of comments that followed was that while the sentiment may sound harsh, it’s a complex issue, but abortion is never right, and children are a gift from god. If there’s one topic Evangelicals will never fail to speak up about, it’s abortion.

Even a year ago my own position on this was evolving. Up until last year, or maybe a bit before, I’ve always been solidly pro-life. Life was a gift from god and humans have no right to make those kinds of decisions concerning it. This is ironic, considering how many Christians are pro-death penalty and how many people their god has commanded other people to kill in horrific ways over the centuries.

It’s one of the many areas of ethics that has undergone significant revision since my coming out as an atheist. And right now, it’s this: while life is a rare thing in the universe, we seem to be the only species on earth that is able to manage its own sexual reproduction. Unlike animals, we can choose how, when and if to reproduce. We are under no divine mandate to bring each and every fertilized ovum to full-term.

Now let me stop a moment and point out that I currently have a four-year old roommate (the son of my two married, adult roommates). My younger sister has a one-and-a-half year-old son. Most of my friends have multiple kids. Hell, I have friends who have kids going into kindergarten and first grade. This isn’t a neutral, academic issue for me. My views have palpable, real-life ramifications.

Basically, I don’t believe human life has any purpose other than that which we as humans define it with. A shorthand way of saying this might be: Humans are made, not born.

What I think is happening here is that we’ve confused ‘potential’ for life with the ‘right’ to life. By the Christian definition, every miscarriage should be prosecuted as manslaughter, but functionally, a fetus is neither innocent or guilty. At the moment of conception it’s a conglomeration of mutating cells, and by the time that a pregnancy is detectable, it’s still largely animal—pre-human, void of consciousness. We anthropomorphise that grouping of cells and project intentions and feelings on to it that likely aren’t there. It’s all Instinct.

This may sound like rationalization for abortion, and perhaps it is. But from a logical standpoint, the simplest solution is to terminate a “rape/incest pregnancy” before the situation becomes more complicated than it already is. By any definition, the fetus is not yet “human.” There is no god to bestow automatic personhood, and no one’s rights are being violated. The zygote does not have opinions, and the fact is that we can’t ask it if it would like to live or not. We are under no divine obligation to protect it, especially in cases where the pregnancy was induced by force rather than by the woman’s choice.

The only person whose rights are being violated is the woman who is being forced to carry the fetus (a parasite by any definition)  that she never asked for to full term. And, to be sure, this is a huge decision for the woman. Santorum claims that a rape victim just needs the support and care of her community. But no one can take on the radical physiological changes that take place during pregnancy—not to speak of the wild hormonal changes—or the agonies of labor and childbirth for her. She must face these alone. To be realistic, women have faced this reality since the beginning of time, when there was no rape. Males “took” women without impunity, and getting pregnant was just a hazard of being female.

And we know better now.

However sympathetically they couch it, Santorum and those who share his views on this issue fundamentally view women in this barbaric way. Ironically, it’s godless atheists and humanists who have women’s best interests in mind—not theists. The only person who should have a say over what happens to a woman’s body is the woman herself.

It’s funny how different this issue looks outside of the Christian bubble. It’s much more nuanced and shaded out here.

And that’s the point. We can’t just decide these issues for each other. Each case is unequivocally unique. We have to decide together.


5 thoughts on “115. doyenne

  1. another former anti-choicer here…who also started thinking after becoming an atheist/skeptic. I was more ‘spiritual, but not religious’ though, so I think it was skepticism and examining the evidence that did it, rather than losing a belief in a god.

  2. I try to stay away, then you compel me back in.

    For the record, I never said all abortion should be forbidden. I struggle with the scenario where a woman’s life is in legitimate danger as I do hold a self-defense justification view within my generally (not universally) pacifist worldview. I am also not pro-death penalty or war. Just so we clear that up.

    But you’re leaving a few points unresolved.

    -“What I think is happening here is that we’ve confused ‘potential’ for life with the ‘right’ to life.” I don’t see how this follows as an embryo is definitely alive. We’re arguing personhood, not life, even though the language is one of life. I also am not confused on the matter as I don’t think the “potential for personhood” concept is rational.

    -“By the Christian definition, every miscarriage should be prosecuted as manslaughter” I think you have an incorret premise in your argument. No Christian I know, at least of those with whom I’ve discussed the topic, believes that miscarriages should be prosecuteable (is that a word?), although for some acting violently toward a woman to the point her unborn child dies is an act of manslaughter/homicide. This is not a universal premise. Against whom would you prosecute a miscarriage that is “natural”?

    -“At the moment of conception it’s a conglomeration of mutating cells, and by the time that a pregnancy is detectable, it’s still largely animal—pre-human, void of consciousness” If consciousness is the standard, we can kill those in comas or under sedation. And since I am, by one perspective, a conglomeration of cells (merely larger than a fetus) your definition here also would permit homicide of the born. I am sure this is not what you mean, but your argument leaves this open.

    -“By any definition, the fetus is not yet “human.”” What qualifies as “human” if a living organism with human DNA does not qualify? I think you mean “person” in the legal sense; biologically it is clear that an embryo or fetus is human (okay, assume human embryo or fetus) as embryo and fetus are labels for developmental stages of an organism, just as child, adolescent, newborn, etc…would be. Same organism, different stages of life. If the organism is a human at one stage, he or she is a human at every other unless there’s some miracle chimera I’ve not yet met.

    -“The zygote does not have opinions, and the fact is that we can’t ask it if it would like to live or not.” So we get to choose for those who don’t have opinions? We get to judge whether their life would be “worth living” or valuable? What gives us this right to play god?

    -“However sympathetically they couch it, Santorum and those who share his views on this issue fundamentally view women in this barbaric way.” Including the myriad women who share his views? It’s barbaric to care for not just the rape victim, but also the person we believe she is carrying? Caring for two is barbaric, caring for one isn’t? You used to be pro-life…were you a barbarian, or did you see two people (mother and child) and therefore feel a moral obligation to defend & care for both?

    -“Ironically, it’s godless atheists and humanists who have women’s best interests in mind—not theists.” I think the pro-choice faction doesn’t even have the woman’s best interest in mind, let alone the millions of aborted “potential women” (to use your phrase). I also haven’t offered a single faith-based argument for the pro-life position (I’ve only offered a rebuttal to your perspective on how some Christians think on miscarriages, which is not relevant to the abortion debate), so it’s quite possible to build a “godless” case for the pro-life position.

    -“The only person who should have a say over what happens to a woman’s body is the woman herself” Only if you accept that abortion does not negatively affect another person’s body. Which you do, and which I don’t. I will continue to speak for the voiceless.

    -“It’s funny how different this issue looks outside of the Christian bubble. It’s much more nuanced and shaded out here.” There’s nothing nuanced about the pro-choice position; it is, in essence, “the woman can do what she wants regardless.” That’s a rather brute-force position leaving no room for debate or nuance. The reasons a woman may choose abortion are myriad, and there are nuances that can go into her thinking. But the pro-choice position itself is rarely nuanced. It’s very clear, and doesn’t take an ivory tower ethicist to think through.

    Blessings (seriously)

    • David


      Ha, I wasn’t trying to bait you! You and Elizabeth made me think, is all. And writing is how I sort it all out. Okay, point-by-point:

      1) I was referring to Elizabeth, and not you, when she said, “I’m just declaring, and not for the sake of being pendantic, that I fall into the absolute-100%-always abortion is wrong camp, even for rape.” I have a big problem with people who make sweeping declarations of that sort about other people. Yes, I’m making a sweeping declaration as well (of sorts), but I firmly believe that it should always be the woman’s choice. If it were possible to remove the fetus and let it grow in a test tube, that’d be one thing – but we’re talking about subjecting a woman to a 9-month pregnancy for a child that isn’t hers, and that she probably won’t even keep. And I didn’t even bring up population control arguments!

      2) You’re correct in the sense that an embryo is “alive.” But it is not sentient. This is why I advocate taking immediate action once a woman learns that she is pregnant like that. At that stage, aside from genetic resemblance, there is little about it to differentiate it from an animal embryo. Perhaps it might have been more accurate to say ‘potential to be born’ and ‘right to be born,’ because that’s what we’re really talking about. But here we have another inconsistency in the argument—for those who concede that an abortion is sometimes necessary to preserve the life of the mother, they’re already placing a higher priority on the life of the mother over that of the fetus.

      3) With the Miscarriage as Manslaughter argument, I’m going to the most extreme conclusions of the Christian argument. If Christians really place that high of a value on human life, and if we’re going to force women to carry their rapist’s baby to full-term, then they should be lobbying to bring back the custom still enforced in some parts of the world to compel a man to care for, if not marry, his victim. And if women are little more than living incubators for babies, then they should be penalized sharia-style for miscarrying because obviously they did something to cause the abortion.

      4) Call me calloused, but yes, I do advocate euthanizing those without brain function and those for whom the only thing keeping them alive is artificial life support. It’s a drain on our resources and (in my opinion) often cruel in the case of those being kept artificially alive. We’re at the point technologically where we can tell if someone is “home” or if the body is just a shell. Consciousness appears to be a function of the brain, and tied up in our neurons and glial cells, and when that function is gone, “you” and “I” simply cease to exist. As to whether I should be permitted to kill you (since you’re basically a large fetus), again, consciousness is the standard by which to judge humanness. You are conscious, and therefore an independent being, and murder is a violation of that autonomy.

      5) Same arguments apply here. You need more than mere human DNA to qualify as “human.” I think that there are some people alive who have more in common with their primate cousins than they do with you or I. Consciousness is the standard. However, I think the point when the cerebrum finishes developing (during the 3rd trimester, I think) is the point at which we can say that a fetus becomes “human,” as that is the most sophisticated part of the brain.

      6) A zygote only has the potential to become human. Millions are spontaneously aborted every day, and we never know. As to what gives us the right to “play god,” I say our intelligence and the fact that we are even capable of understanding and managing sexual reproduction gives us the right. We are not mere animals at the whim of our biology. If we were to take that attitude, we best stop practicing modern medicine because we’re interfering with the Natural Order of Things. If a pregnancy must be allowed to take its natural course, then so should viruses and physical injuries, lest we interfere with the Will of God.

      7) I believe that the woman who share Santorum’s and other patriarchal views are victims of their fundamentalist upbringing. They have bought all of the dogma, and all of the teachings about women and their place in a male-dominated world. It is barbaric, and yes, I was a barbarian for being pro-life. It sounds antithetical, although I was always more in favor of pro-choice arguments than I let on.

      8) I will say this—as far as my sympathies are concerned, I am solidly pro-choice where it concerns rape and incest victims, and even then I advocate for early-term abortions only. There is no purpose to late-term abortions, at which point the fetus has nearly completed development and to abort it at that stage is merely wasteful. As for women who become “accidentally” pregnant, I am against abortion in those instances, because the woman wasn’t forced to have sex against her will, which is why I’m strongly for women taking more ownership and control of their sexual health and choices. Let’s face it: Males have no stock in female reproductive management. Their job is done upon ejaculation.

      9) By all means, continue to speak for the voiceless. That won’t grant them a voice, nor will it grant them consciousness and personhood. Again, you’re anthropomorphizing.

      10) Pro-choice is the only nuanced position. It puts the decision in the hands of the woman, who is the only one who should be able to decide what happens to her body. Pro-life is by definition black-and-white, leaving no room for any other decision to be made. As I don’t believe that a zygote is definitively “human,” I see no problem in allowing a woman to decide not to endure nine months of pregnancy against her will. Again, I don’t believe that there is any divine mandate holding her to that, as if in becoming pregnant she signed some kind of contract.

  3. Rachel

    i agree that abortion is a woman’s choice, and that when legal women can only get them long before they remotely resemble a baby and cannot think or feel anything. it is only when illegal that women are forced to get ones later on, which are dangerous to them too. but i thought u might like to know that there were very many cultures/societies in existence in the old days where rape was never heard of. no man or woman was raped in that society- it was just something that had never happened and was never really thought possible. there were even ones where women were the fierce warriors, and men were viewed as the weak ones because of things like their groin creating a massive weak spot 🙂

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