{Mon 13 August 2007}   Abortion—at last, a victory for common sense!
On Monday, 13 August 2007, in an article titled “Amnesty to defy Catholic church over rape victims’ abortion rights”, The Independent newspaper reported some very good news. Amnesty International had declared that the human rights of women should include access to abortion if they have been raped or if their lives are in danger.

Inevitably, many in the anti-abortion lobby were unable to appreciate the careful consideration given to supporting the rights of women without taking a moral position on abortion. Some asserted that Amnesty had now abandoned its support for human rights, apparently implying that the unborn are human, while women are not.

This assumption also underlies the selective inference of the “Pro-life” label that the unborn have a right to life no matter how much this compromises the life of the mother. The unborn, of course, might be male, whereas the mother’s femaleness is incontrovertible, so there is a further implication that men are human, while women are not. This illogical thinking is similar in nature to the theological assumptions underlying anti-abortion positions.

Amnesty’s deputy general secretary, Kate Gilmore, denied the organisation had become “pro-abortion”, insisting the organisation took as its guide legal, not theological, imperatives. “Amnesty International’s position is not for abortion as a right but for women’s human rights to be free of fear, threat and coercion as they manage all consequences of rape and other grave human rights violations,” she said.

“Amnesty International stands alongside the victims and survivors of human rights violations. Our policy reflects our obligation of solidarity as a human rights movement with, for example, the rape survivor in Darfur who, because she is left pregnant as a result of the enemy, is further ostracised by her community. Ours is a movement dedicated to upholding human rights, not specific theologies. Our purpose invokes the law and the state, not God.”

The organisation is to be applauded for distancing itself from theology and focusing on human rights. However, the theological position that, because the child has been conceived, God intends for it to live at all costs, is illogical. It suggests that God intended the rape. This position allows people to continue to downplay society’s responsibility to protect women, because if God sanctions violence against them, there is no reason for society to do any better.

The woman must then “live” (for many it is a living death) with the physical, psychological and emotional trauma of having been raped, with the physical discomfort and risks of a pregnancy when she is in this weakened state, with the rejection of her partner and the ostracism of her society both of whom illogically blame her for the dishonour she had no power to prevent, with the burden of responsibility for a child she does not want and whose presence reminds her every day of the violation she experienced, with the need to find alternative sources of income and sustenance for herself and the child now that her normal sources are denied her and the likely worsening of her health and material circumstances as a result, and with the further punishments of an unforgiving society if she is not a good enough mother to this unwanted child. Her human rights, her right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” or to “liberty, fraternity and equality” are effectively annihilated, in an instant, at the whim of a man. The child of such a mother is also similarly disadvantaged.

The conception of a child is no longer a “mystery”. We know that it occurs when a suitable sperm meets a suitable egg in a conducive physical environment. We also know that this meeting occurs after intercourse, i.e. after a man penetrates a woman. While this action does not always result in a child, we know that without it a child cannot be conceived. When it is conceived, it is not a “miracle”. It is a function of calculable odds. Our feeling that each new life is a miracle proceeds from either our ignorance of, or our inability to hold in mind, all the factors involved, due to their complexity, but they are in fact identifiable and quantifiable. A child is a possible consequence of man exercising his free will, and, as the mainstream interpretation of the Eden story suggests, these consequences are not always desirable.

Quite frankly, God has nothing to do with it. Whether one defines God as a personal being who created the universe or simply as the force that holds the universe together, God’s provision of the materials does not constitute a sanction for every use that humans make of those materials. Otherwise, one is left with the logical conclusion that God intends and approves every evil action as much as every good action that occurs in the universe. This mocks any conception of free will and therefore any concept of wrong action, effectively making it impossible for anyone to do wrong (or, in theological terms, to sin).

Until the world sanctions the compulsory sterilisation of men (which it is already possible to do, and which is not an illogical option as it is simple, inexpensive, and reversible), there is a strong argument for allowing abortion when men force themselves on women. This would not yet put women on an equal footing with men, because the rape and the abortion would still be traumatic in ways that men can never begin to imagine or experience, but it would prevent much of the consequential abuse that women and their unwanted children suffer.

The issue of abortion is complex, emotive and strikes at the heart of what it is to be human. I support Amnesty International decision if it means that women who are raped have the choice of having an abortion and are given the appropriate impartial help to make this difficult decision. It is possible that they may not make this choice and for whatever reason decide to have the child (it is partly their creation afterall). What I support are measures that maximise each person’s freedom to choose, whilst respecting whatever choice an individual makes and in this arena, there is none more personal.

Tia says:

So wisely put, Sarah. I really do agree with you. Rape involves the removal of choice for the woman and the reduction of her being to nothing more than a sex object and semen receptacle. Restoring some measure of the freedom to choose is essential to re-empowering her, and recognising that each woman may make a different choice due to circumstances, convictions or capacity that differ from the next woman’s is essential to rehabilitating her as an individual, unique human being.

nic paton says:

I see you have entered where few dare to go.

I think you have been careful, as has Amnesty, to define your position clearly, as it is so emotive. The ignorent and simple approach whereby the dire consequences of an unwanted pregnancy are ignored in favour of religeous or superstitious moralities, needs to be challenged. The suffering of all concerned, mother, child and family, need to be taken into account.

So while I agree with most of what you are saying, I do find that you overstep some mark when you say “The conception of a child is no longer a “mystery””.

Fine, we know about the physical and mechanical aspects of conception. But to de-sacrelise conception is to de-sacrelise life itsself. As a poet you understand that mystery is what drives you on. Surely the source of this mystery is birth, despite the fact that life, as Sarah points our, is very complex and will not be reduced to cultural and religious mores.

I would hate to think that you are embarking on a Dawkins-like Scientistic reductionism which sees the point of life as eradicating mystery.

Hold onto your hats if this post gains momentum …

Tia says:

Thanks for commenting. I disagree that to “desacralise conception is to desacralise life itself”. Why on earth should that be? A baby is no less marvellous (worthy of marvelling) because you know how it was made. It depends on your definition of the sacred, I suppose, but if I choose to consider all of life, including those things that I understand very well, sacred, then there’s no sense in declaring one aspect of it to be more sacred than any other, and also no point in fearing that an increase in understanding will cause any part of it to be less so. That type of fear is the kind that persecuted Galileo and Copernicus.

Another thought: why do we often say “sacred” when we mean “inviolable”? There is no connection between these concepts. In fact, devout believers of all religions have believed in “sacrifice”, which involves killing, for “sacred” purposes.

Different people also regard different things as sacred, i.e. something is sacred when I consecrate it, i.e. I choose to regard it as so, not because of any intrinsic quality it possesses.

Food for thought from google – define: sacred –

# concerned with religion or religious purposes; “sacred texts”; “sacred rites”; “sacred music”
# worthy of respect or dedication; “saw motherhood as woman’s sacred calling”
# consecrated: made or declared or believed to be holy; devoted to a deity or some religious ceremony or use; “a consecrated chursh”; “the sacred mosque”; “sacred elephants”; “sacred bread and wine”; “sanctified wine”
# hallowed: worthy of religious veneration; “the sacred name of Jesus”; “Jerusalem’s hallowed soil”
# (often followed by `to’) devoted exclusively to a single use or purpose or person; “a fund sacred to charity”; “a morning hour sacred to study”; “a private office sacred to the President”

I also found this definition of “desacralize” interesting: “transfer from ecclesiastical to civil possession, use, or control”. I see this as a positive, rather than a negative step! The democratization of conception and birth is a very good thing, I think!

Is your hat still on?

nic paton says:

My hat is hard, and sits firmly atop my head, sister.

I don’t know how a human is made, and thats not because I am not interested in science. There’s a mystery inherent in origins that physical or mechanical knowledge does no justice. We (think we) understand what happened as far back as .0001 of a second after the Big Bang, but still don’t fully grasp the actual act of creation-beginning, (as far as I read it).

Your sense of the marvellous (which I know you to have) did not come over in your statement about “mystery”. You still haven’t answered my charge that you are moving towards a Dawkonion point of view.

However, your rather enthused etyomological venture is fascinating. All praise be to princeton.edu! I totally agree that something is sacred that we consecrate. In fact I am writing on this very topic at the moment. But aren’t there also places which are sacred without this conscious willing? Uluru comes to mind.

Regarding desacrelisation, I am not really interested in either the ecclesiatical nor the civic. They generally have not very much to do with spiritualty, being as they are, institutions. The de/sacrelisation of anything is a highly individual matter.

Now, where ARE those fundamentalists?

Tia says:

Nic, I have no idea whether my point of view is anything like that of Dawkins, although I certainly don’t see the “point of life as eradicating mystery”. I don’t know whether he does either, as I’ve never read anything he’s written. Have you?

On the other hand, although I love mystery which reminds me that my perspective is limited and there is much yet to discover, mystery is not for me the “point” of anything. It’s just a term describing those qualities or components of a thing or state that I am unable to name or understand (and may never be capable of understanding).

I see the point of (my) life as growth into an ever more loving and responsible being who approaches life with curiosity and appreciation and acts consistently from a place of authenticity and integrity. That goal is challenging enough. How I’ll ever achieve it is a mystery! ;)

I haven’t been to Uluru, but I imagine that it seems sacred to those who visit it partly because of its unusual beauty, and partly because of the mythology around it – they expect it to give them gooseflesh and it does. But I tend to feel like that when I see any unusual, large or beautiful natural formation. It has something to do with realising my smallness in relation to mountains, rivers, seas, etc. It’s more a matter of perspective than of mystery, but this doesn’t lessen my appreciation.

Bonime says:

You are totally correct: Appreciation does not require mystery. That which is mysterious is simply that which we do not yet understand. The trajectory of our knowledge shows that what we didn’t understand yesterday we may understand today. And this will continue. Theists insist on keeping mysteries mysterious. Science seeks to understand them and thus demystify them. Just because things are mysterious doesn’t make them sacred or god-like. There is no god. God is manufactured by humans to explain that which we cannot yet explain. But ask anyone who accepts god to explain how god came into existence and they sputter and fumble about how god always was or is timeless – thus superimposing the very reason for god’s necessity on god himself and throwing the whole argument into utter nonsense. To explain anything in terms of god requires that you explain god first. This is circular and totally useless as a mental exercise.

But to the point, this is another example of why I said in my essay that belief is evil: It justifies the subjugation of humans by other humans. Women are humans and have every right humans have and there is no argument that they should ever be subjected to laws to which men are not. The difference in physiology is not a difference in human rights. Women have the same requirements that they have complete control of their bodies as men do. Because women can get pregnant and men cannot has been the only reason women have been subject to this irrationally arrived at legal status. Women are human beings. It begins there and ends there. Human rights apply to all humans.

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