Calling all readers: the September Fundraiser!

I’m back… and I’m joining with my fellow FTB-ers to ask you, kind and lovely readers, for your help. Many (most? all?) of you have probably already seen this on the other blogs here, but just in case any of my readers haven’t…

As many of you might know, a few years back we had a rather unpleasant experience on FTB, when a blogger who didn’t like some of the things people were writing about him retaliated by suing everyone involved, which included FTB. You can find further details here, if you’re interested. The short version is that he eventually recognised his lack of any sort of a leg to stand on and gave up, but not before the lawsuit had done what lawsuits generally do; run up enormous legal bills for everyone concerned.

Since then, FTB and the others concerned have been raising money to pay off our debts. Many of you have already been good enough to donate, and we are massively grateful to you all; thanks to you, a significant part of the debt has already been paid off. But we still have a way to go.

Fortunately, the bloggers of FTB have many talents beyond those of simply writing blog posts. And thus, we have come up with the September FreeThoughtBlogs Carnival of Curiosity.

Next weekend, for your viewing pleasure and our debt repayment, assorted FTB-ers will be putting on a series of events designed to thrill and entertain. There will be QI, Chuck Tingle readings, noob attempts at Minecraft, torturing of PZ… check it out.

On top of that, several of the bloggers are holding auctions:

Marcus Ranum of stderr has some gorgeous art objects available! Ant log, anarchy bowl, oak bowl, and flawed knife.

William Brinkman from the Bolingbrook Babbler has a collection of his old posts, no longer online.

Crip Dyke from Pervert Justice will write personalised porn. Or, if that isn’t what floats your boat, then a personalised romance or friendship story.

Iris Vander Pluym from Death to Squirrels is auctioning off an interview with her on absolutely any subject you like. Squirrel-related or not… nothing is off limits.

And T. D. Walker from Freethinking Ahead will provide a creativity coaching session to help you move towards your goals.

If none of that is for you but you want to help us anyway, here is the link for donations. And thank you for all your help, small or large, whatever you can offer.

Silver

Today was pretty much a typical working day for me as a GP. I overran majorly (I have many good points; speed and efficiency appear nowhere on that list) but finished in a contented fuzz of satisfaction mixed in with the exhaustion. I’d spoken with patients I knew well and patients I didn’t, listened to a colleague who wanted advice on whether a patient needed visiting or not, reviewed blood tests, answered questions, explained things. I’d spent my day solving problems, none of which would make a massive difference to the world but many of which would make a difference to the people I spoke to. A good day, a good job.

The end of that working day, for me, marked twenty-five full years in this career. My first house officer job began on Wednesday 1st August, 1995.

Twenty-five years down the line from that terrifying first day, I’m living my best life in a job I love.Like anyone else, I’ve regretted some things in my life, and had my share of decisions I facepalm to look back on. But I’m glad for every choice in my life that brought me to this career, this specialty, and this practice. I’m glad that I’m lucky enough to love what I do.

A cis child gives her opinion on anti-trans myths

Some of you might remember my daughter Katie, who collaborated with me on a book review a few years ago. She’s now twelve, she’s still opinionated, and, when the subject of the anti-trans-mythbusting I was doing on the blog came up in conversation with her, I had a spur-of-the-moment idea; what if I interviewed Katie on the subject of anti-trans myths? I wanted to see what her reaction would be to some of the ideas that were getting put forth.

I hadn’t expected Katie to be keen on the idea, but, in fact, she was; I went ahead without further ado before she could lose interest. I’ve posted the full recording here (it was too large for WordPress to handle easily), but, as it’s just about as polished as you’d expect from an unprepared interview of one untrained person by another untrained person recorded with only the equipment available on a mid-range laptop, I’ve written up a redacted version for this blog.

The interview

I started with the oft-raised concern that the increasing numbers of people choosing to transition are an indicator that people are getting pushed into transitioning.

“Well, that isn’t how that works,” Katie stated. “How it works is because transgenderism wasn’t accepted in the past; so it’s like, well, people wouldn’t be transitioning in the past because they weren’t allowed to. Now they’re allowed to, so they’re going to.

Can I just clarify that you are only trans if you yourself know that you are actually one gender instead of the other?” she went on. (I’ll explain to her about non-binary genders another day; at this point I didn’t want to break the flow.) “If someone says ‘oh, you’re trans because you like boy stuff more than girl stuff’… it’s the 21st century! There is no ‘oh, girls play with dolls and boys play with – I don’t know – sports and stuff’; that isn’t a thing any more! Boys can play with whatever they want… and trans people are the people who are physically one gender but mentally, actually, and truly another, and they get referred to as their true gender rather than their physical gender because that’s just simply how things work.”

“One of the fears,” I told her, “is that somehow doctors who specialise in transition medicine wouldn’t know all this.” I explained the concern that children with interests typically associated with the opposite gender might be misdiagnosed as trans and advised to transition.

“I’m pretty sure that a professional doctor would get taught not to do that,” Katie said, practically rolling her eyes. “You yourself are a doctor; you’ve been through… how many years of medical school?

“Five.”

“And I presume that a transition doctor would go through the same amount, right?”

I confirmed that this was the case, adding that doctors had years of specialty training after graduation as well.

Katie was not impressed by the concern that someone with that many years of training would be trying to talk unwilling people into transitioning. “Their job is to take people who want to transition and transition them, not to pick someone off the street and say ‘You’re trans now! Go be trans!’ even if they do like stuff that’s like ‘boy stuff’, not ‘girl stuff’… you’ll have to imagine the air quotes,” she added to the microphone. “Isn’t it just that someone who’s already trans but just hasn’t had the transition yet… isn’t it only they that go up and say ‘Can you transition me?’ You don’t just go in there and say ‘Hey, I’m a girl and I kind of like wearing trousers’ and get told ‘You’re a trans boy!’ That’s not how it works.”

I brought up the Littman study, an infamously badly-done study supposedly showing that young people are now subject to a new disorder called Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria. Littman’s evidence for this was that, when she interviewed parents via anti-transitioning websites, they reported that their children only came out as trans after spending time with groups of new friends who often came out as trans at approximately the same time; Littman felt the likely explanation for this was that non-trans adolescents were being convinced they were trans by peer pressure. The flaws in that methodology seem glaringly obvious to me, but I do have some professional training in the basics of critiquing and interpreting studies, so I don’t know how obvious they are to the average person without training. I was curious to see what Katie would make of it.

“I think,” Katie told me, “rather than it being that a bunch of them had come out as trans and they’re like ‘Oh, well, you be trans too’… I think it’s less of that and more that they might not mentally think to themselves that they were allowed to be trans, but after their friend’s transition they might start realising ‘People do this, I myself personally allow myself to get transitioned’.

I mentioned Littman’s finding that the parents in the study reported that their children spent a lot more time on the internet prior to coming out, which, again, is supposed to be evidence of… something nefarious going on. What, I asked Katie, did this sequence of events suggest to her?

“They went on the internet,” she replied, “and, being the internet, it would probably have mentioned something to do with transness, they might have looked into that more, done a bit more research, ended up on some online group for people who think they might be transgender, and they would have properly discussed things there and then thought to themselves “You know what, I think I might be transgender.”

So, there you are, that is how obvious the flaws in Littman’s study are: some of them can literally be spotted by a bright twelve-year-old. (If you’re interested in a more detailed analysis, check out the multi-post analysis by Zinnia Jones on the Gender Analysis blog, starting here.)

The final topic I raised was the ‘Which Bathroom?’ debate. Katie gave this some thought, saying it was ‘a bit difficult’; she felt that, because ‘a bunch of the other people there might be uncomfortable with seeing other genitals’, it was better to have ‘the trans person shower or whatever in a private room separate from other people’ for anything involving nudity. However, she went on to make her overall opinion on the question clear:

“[T]hey should go with their proper true gender, not their physical gender,” she told me, “because, if you’re really going to stare at someone doing toilet stuff, you’re either a) a parent helping out a young child, which is reasonable, or b) why are you doing that that’s really creepy please stop.” I liked her framing; her response to people bothered by the prospect of possibly seeing trans people’s genitals was to place the issue not with trans people but with whoever was paying so much attention to other people’s genitals in the first place.

I brought up the fear that’s always brought up in these cases; the ‘what if a sex abuser pretended to be trans to get into a women’s public toilet and abuse someone?’

Katie’s immediate response was to object to the implicit idea that sexual abuse only affects women. “Let’s be honest here, this can go either way,” she told me. “That’s another discussion that isn’t right now, but I do feel like there’s a whole thing about how only women can be sexually abused… that’s not true.”

She turned her attention back to the question, which she thought was an interesting problem. “Since things like that [toilet cubicles] are closed off anyway… hmmm…. since the majority of those people [just to be clear, she meant people trying to use toilets of a gender opposite to their birth genitals, not trans people] would be actually trans, we should just go with what will help the majority and put in whatever current measures we have to stop things like that. Surely instead of stopping people faking trans to sexually abuse people, we should stop sexual abuse? That’s the point we need to stop. We shouldn’t worry about all the separate categories.”

I brought up the point that I discussed in my previous post. “If a man wanted to walk into a women’s toilet for purposes of sexually abusing someone, why would he have to pretend he’s trans when right now no-one is actually stopping you to check what sort of genitals you have anyway before you go into the toilet, and it would be incredibly rude if they did?”

Katie thought that was a good point. “Say they’re not trans; that’s just an inconvenience because no-one wants to have their genitals seen. And if you are trans, it’s like that would just feel so personal; it’s like they’re questioning your right to go into those toilets because of your transgenderism.” She agreed that a man who was determined to get into a women’s toilet to abuse someone would do so regardless of rules.

“Once again,” she summed up, “the problem isn’t anything to do with transgender. I’m really not sure how to tackle [abuse], but that’s a separate discussion.”

 

Some further thoughts

I did this interview partly because I love hearing my daughter’s thoughts on issues. But there’s another reason that I only fully articulated to myself as I wrote this up, and it relates to something I’ve realised about the anti-trans movement.

For many people, the attraction of the anti-trans movement is that it frames itself around the idea of protecting others. Transphobics claim that trans rights put cis [the term for non-trans] women and girls at risk of assault and put cis children and adolescents at risk of being somehow convinced to have transitions they’ll regret. While these claims don’t stand up to examination of the evidence, they’re powerful because they sound superficially plausible. And that allows transphobics to paint their views as necessary protection for others, rather than as prejudice or ignorance.

Now… my daughter, as a female adolescent, is at the intersection of the two groups anti-trans-rights lobbyists convince themselves they’re protecting. It doesn’t stop there, either. She’s thought for years that she’s probably gay, though at only twelve she’s still working out her sexuality. She’s almost certainly autistic (she’s on the waiting list for an official diagnosis). She’s struggled with physical aspects of female puberty. She’s struggled with discomfort with her body for reasons unrelated to being trans. She has mental health issues that make her potentially vulnerable. Apart from not being butch, she is pretty much the poster child for someone who, according to anti-trans rhetoric, would be at risk of dire consequences if trans rights are increased. Anti-trans lobbyists are using the existence and problems of thousands of young women as an excuse to deny thousands of other people their rights, and one of the young women they think they’re protecting is my daughter.

Well, I wanted to give my daughter a voice in that. And, as it turned out, that voice is firmly in favour of trans rights. My strong, funny, smart, complicated, wonderful daughter isn’t afraid of trans rights. She isn’t fazed by the existence of trans people. She doesn’t feel that making life more difficult for trans people will somehow solve her problems, because she understands that her problems are nothing to do with trans people or their rights.

When I finally did articulate this in my mind, I put it to Katie. How, I asked, did she feel about the thought that people opposing trans rights were doing so in an attempt to protect people like her? She cocked her head to one side and addressed a firm message to anyone holding those views.

“I appreciate your concern,” she stated, “but shut the frick up.”

To J.K. Rowling: A reply to your letter on transgender issues.

(A very brief message to anyone who doesn’t know the background: The letter to which I’m replying is here, and was posted by JKR after numerous concerns about her views on transgender issues. The backstory about the concerns is… pretty much everywhere on the internet, so if you haven’t already seen it just search.)

 

Dear J.K. Rowling,

OK, this feels… seriously strange. I’m writing this to you but also to others reading or following the current discussion (I do plan to post this publicly on my blog) so it seems strange addressing it to you when I know that, realistically, out of all the people who might read it, you’re one person who almost certainly won’t. But I’m doing so because thinking of this as something you could potentially read keeps me focused on the fact that what I write here isn’t just addressing a collection of views and statements I disagree with, but a human being with real feelings about this.

So. I’m writing this because, having followed the story so far about things you’ve said on transgender-related subjects, I’ve now read the letter you posted on your website. And, whatever else I’ve thought about your views on this topic and how you’ve expressed them, I think that letter was an incredibly brave attempt to open up about something that’s really hard for you and about which you have genuine concerns, and I also know you speak for a lot of people who feel the same way.

And I also disagree with almost every point you made.

So what I want to do… well, I struggled to put this into words, but then realised you’d already done it for me. You wrote:

All I’m asking – all I want – is for similar empathy, similar understanding, to be extended to the many millions of women whose sole crime is wanting their concerns to be heard without receiving threats and abuse.

That’s it. That nails it. I want to be able to hear your concerns and extend sympathy and understanding and also extend that same empathy and understanding to the many, many trans people out there who also desperately need their concerns to be heard and understood without being met with threats or abuse. I want to keep that sympathy and understanding for all concerned at the forefront of my mind as I talk about the points you raised and explain why I disagree. And I hope that, even though you yourself will almost certainly never see this letter, at least some of the people who feel the same way as you will be willing to read what I write in that same spirit and to try for a greater overall understanding.

There’s so much in your letter I want to talk about, and it’s going to take me more than one post to do so. But in this post I’m going to skip straight to your last point, because it’s the nub of the whole thing. What you’ve voiced, here, is a fear that a lot of people hold. And I think that fact gets obscured sometimes by the way these same concerns are so often used as excuses by bigots to justify anti-trans agendas held for much darker reasons; in the midst of the damage those people cause, it’s easy to forget that many people quite genuinely are scared of the scenario you’ve just voiced here:

At the same time, I do not want to make natal girls and women less safe. When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman – and, as I’ve said, gender confirmation certificates may now be granted without any need for surgery or hormones – then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside. That is the simple truth.

Firstly, before doing anything else, I want to correct one point, which is your claim that ‘gender confirmation certificates may now be granted without any need for surgery or hormones’. I think this might be technically correct, in that the current law in the UK doesn’t specify that a transgender person needs to have done anything physically about transitioning before applying for a GRC. It does, however, specify that a person can only apply if (among other restrictions) they have lived as the gender in question for two years and are over 18, and that sounds as though it would in practice be virtually impossible to do without physically transitioning. Also, from what I’ve read, getting a GRC is incredibly difficult under the current system; it certainly doesn’t sound as though, in practice, one would be issued to anyone who hadn’t already transitioned.

People are certainly campaigning to have GRCs issued much more easily (with good reason, from what I’ve read in the previous link), but, as far as I’ve been able to find out, the law hasn’t yet been changed. So, the law you have concerns about is actually a proposed law rather than one that’s currently in place. I know that doesn’t in itself affect your concerns, but thought it important to get the facts straight before starting to discuss them.

Anyway. The fear I assume you’re alluding to here – the one shared by many other people who have concerns about trans rights – is that making it easier to gain a gender recognition certificate will lead to male abusers fraudulently gaining gender confirmation certificates naming them to be female in order to enter bathrooms or changing rooms to… oh, well, you know the rest. And I get that that’s a prospect that many people find really concerning (especially, as you said, people with a history of abuse who can find it quite viscerally terrifying).

Here is what does not make sense and has never made sense to me about this scenario, though. Please tell me if you think I’m missing something, but…

Nobody has to show proof of gender to get into public toilets or changing rooms anyway.

(Warning: this discussion has the potential to be triggering to people who fear the thought of male abusers getting into women’s spaces.)

There is no-one standing outside women’s toilets making sure only people who are legally female get in. There usually is someone standing outside changing rooms, but that’s only to make sure people don’t steal the stock; I’ve never heard of anyone checking documentation on the people who go in. So, how does having or not having a gender recognition certificate make any practical difference to these things at all?

As far as I can find, it isn’t even illegal for men to enter women’s toilets. I mean, stop me if I’m wrong about that; I’m not a lawyer, I’m someone who spent five minutes doing an internet search. But I can’t see how it could, in practice, be made illegal for men to enter women’s toilets without causing masses of problems. There are cleaners who are male, there are severely disabled people who need help in toilets and have carers of the opposite gender, there are times when one set of toilets is out of order and the only option is to let people into the other set, there are people with medical conditions that mean they sometimes need a toilet so urgently they can’t take even a few seconds to run round a building looking for the one they’re supposed to be in. There are also thousands of transgender people who don’t have a gender confirmation certificate and thus, even if they’ve transitioned, are still legally recorded as whatever gender was assigned to them at birth. A blanket law stating that men can’t go into women’s toilets would affect people from all those groups… without actually doing much about the very group that we’re worried about here, since a sexual abuser is pretty much by definition not put off by the prospect of breaking the law.

Why is there all this worry that an abuser might go to the work of filling out a form and paying a fee (currently £140) to get access to a public toilet, when he can just walk straight in anyway?

I get that, for the people who are scared about this, that probably doesn’t help much. I get that fears aren’t logical and don’t just vanish as a result of being told that the thing in question isn’t actually harmful. I get that trying to put legal barriers in the way of people with male anatomy or male chromosomes getting into female spaces makes some women feel safer even if it isn’t doing one darned thing in practice to make them safer. I get that fears of things that don’t in practice actually increase your danger level are still fears and still horrible and still real and important emotions. I feel deep sympathy for any woman or girl who’s frightened by the thought of a person with a penis possibly being in a public toilet next to the one she’s in. I hope that anyone who does feel that way has help and support to deal with her fears, and if you have any ideas that might help you or other people affected by this fear feel safer without harming or risking another group of people, I would love to hear about them and see them implemented.

But ‘keep gender confirmation certificates difficult to obtain’ isn’t such an answer. The reason people are campaigning to make GRCs easier to obtain is because the current process is horrendous. (See also this article which I linked to above.) So, when you advocate keeping GRCs difficult to obtain, you are in fact supporting a system that causes massive problems for transgender people without having any actual benefit.

It’s even worse than that, though. In the USA, this myth about trans rights increasing the risk of sexual abuse is one that is being deliberately and actively weaponised by powerful hate groups with anti-trans ideologies. Warning here for descriptions of very serious assaults at some of the following links… because this climate of whipped-up fears drastically increases the risk of assault on trans people generally, and it also increases the risk of public bathroom use for any woman who can potentially be mistaken for a man, whether this is because she actually is trans, because she’s gender non-conforming, or because she just happens to look androgynous. Trans people have to live in fear of something as simple and everyday as using public bathrooms, because for them it is actually dangerous to do so.

I don’t think the UK is as bad from that point of view – we don’t have the Religious Right to the same degree as they have on that side of the Atlantic – but trans people here still suffer transphobia and anti-trans bigotry and even violent assaults, and the fears you’ve described here are a big part of what drives this. I believe you completely when you say that this is not what you want, that you want everyone including trans people to be safe and protected and free from harm. But good intentions don’t mitigate the effects of supporting harmful policies; the policy you’ve just supported above (not to mention the transphobic activists whose pages you read) are, in practice, contributing to the climate that causes these assaults.

So, when I disagree with you, when I stand up against the beliefs you’re supporting, it is not because I dismiss your fears. It is not because I don’t sympathise or want to help. It is because your fears and my sympathy should not be used to support actions that, while doing nothing to change the risk of the abuse you fear, will increase the abuse risk for transgender people and the level of other problems they face. It’s not OK for them to be the collateral damage of your attempts to ease your fears.

J. K. Rowling, if you do ever read this, thank you for all the joy your books have given to me and to my daughter over the years.

Be well,

Sarah

 

(I will hereby stress once again that all comments – from whichever side of the issue – should be polite and respectful. Yes, this means you. Think of how you would wish someone to talk about an issue that’s extremely sensitive to you, and use that same level of respect. Thank you.)

A reply to Lenny Esposito of Come Reason

Lenny Esposito, author of the Christian apologetics site Come Reason, regularly posts ‘in case you missed it’ tweets with links to his past posts; a recent one was to a post from three years ago titled Progressives, Please Help Me Understand International Women’s Day. Since I seem to fit the definition of ‘progressive’, I’ll give it a shot, for what my opinion is worth. As always, please keep comments polite and respectful.

These are the four main questions in the post:

1. How Do We Mark Achievements Today?

You can find examples on the International Women’s Day site under the top menu ‘Missions’.

2. How Do We Accelerate Economic Gender Parity?/3. How Do We Accelerate Cultural Gender Parity?

Huge and important questions; I’ve aimed to give a quick overview rather than an exclusive list. Feel free to chime in with suggestions in the comments.

This article and this article have general suggestions.

This article, this article, and this article have advice on promoting gender parity in the workplace.

This article has advice on promoting gender parity in the home/the family.

Some other thoughts from me: Take relationship abuse and sexual abuse/harassment seriously, and be aware of the many ways in which they can look different from the stereotypes. Make birth control freely and easily accessible to everyone who needs it. And be willing to listen to people’s stories of their lived experience and take them seriously.

4. What do You Mean by Woman?

Short(ish) answer: Any adult whose gender identity is female. For purposes of anti-misogyny endeavours such as International Women’s Day, I would also include a) girls (children whose gender identity is female), and b) anyone who is affected by misogyny as a result of having been determined on the basis of genital configuration to be female, even if their actual gender identity isn’t female. There was going to be a long answer, but it was getting really long and taking forever to write and in the end I decided I just wanted to get this post published already, so I’ve cut that bit and saved it so that if I have more time later I can put it in a future post.

 

As well as those main questions, the post also contained several subsidiary questions, so here are answers to some of those:

[regarding the ‘A Day Without A Woman‘ strike] How does this celebrate achievement?

The strike wasn’t for celebrating achievement, but for protesting the ways in which women (or trans men who still present as women, as per question 4 above) are still disadvantaged or oppressed in society, and for highlighting the extent of invisible work done in society by women or by trans people thought to be female.

[regarding schools with all-female staff on the ‘A Day Without A Woman’ strike] What happens to the female students who are supposed to be taught today?

Same as what happens to the male or transgender students in those schools; they miss one day’s worth of school and catch up over the rest of the year.

Does losing one day’s instruction give them an advantage?

If you’re honest about wanting to understand these issues better, skip the sarcasm; it’s counter-productive.

In educational terms, of course it doesn’t give these children an advantage, but I can’t imagine it’s going to give them a disadvantage compared to other schools; if having your school very occasionally closed for a day puts you at an educational disadvantage, then surely students from the parts of a country with higher snowfall would do worse educationally than students from the warmer areas due to having more snow days during their childhood. In terms of issues other than education, I think it can be an advantage; they see their teachers willing to get involved in protests for what they believe, and I think that’s a positive thing for children to see.

Perhaps we can recognize that women as women offer unique and worthwhile contributions to our society that cannot be measured (or are undervalued) economically. But this seems to get sticky pretty fast.

It can, but not for the reason you’re giving. The trouble with talking about ‘unique contributions of women’ is that it’s an approach which lumps women together as some sort of composite group who supposedly can collectively make contributions men can’t, with the inevitable vice-versa. The trouble with that is that it pigeonholes people. So, for example, a focus on the idea that women have unique gifts for childcare and home-making is frequently used to give women the message that they have to have children/be the primary carer for those children/eschew other careers, while at the same time giving men the message that they don’t get to be stay-at-home carers for their children because that’s a ‘women’s job’. And that sort of pigeonholing limits everyone and harms a lot of people. So I’d rather focus on the fact that each individual can offer unique contributions, and that gender – however you measure it – isn’t the best way to determine what those contributions are going to be.

Progressives have been telling me for a long time that children don’t need women as mothers, they simply need loving individuals. Gender doesn’t matter at all.

The second sentence there might have been meant to echo the first sentence, but it’s actually saying something rather different. There is a difference between ‘don’t need’ and ‘doesn’t matter at all’. I don’t think that gender ‘doesn’t matter at all’, and, in this specific context, I don’t think it makes zero difference to a child’s experience of being parented. But what children need is loving parents who can provide them with a secure and stable home. Your next comment is about how this relates to adoption, and, yes, I believe that adults who can provide this should be allowed to raise children even if their home doesn’t contain two parents of conventionally opposite genders; I’d far, far rather see children in a happy secure home with a parent or parents who love them than stuck in foster care limbo waiting for some mythical perfect home that doesn’t exist.

All that is required to be a woman is to identify as a woman. Is that right? But that means I can be celebrated if I choose to identify as a woman today.

Transgenderism (and cisgenderism, for that matter) isn’t about ‘choosing’ to identify as a particular gender. It’s about the inescapable fact that nearly all of us do identify as particular genders – not because we choose to, but because it’s a key part of us – and that sometimes a person’s gender identity doesn’t match the gender of their body.

Your choice of words here makes me fairly sure that you don’t actually identify as a woman. I mean, if I’m wrong about that and you are secretly a trans woman in the closet, then, yes, I would absolutely consider it worth celebrating if you felt able to come out. If not, then, no, you shouldn’t just be choosing to say you identify as a woman if you actually don’t.

The big question in all this is how do we celebrate the achievements of women and rally to gain parity for women when the concept of what a woman is isn’t defined? This is probably where I need the most help, as I can’t make sense of it at all.

Of the suggestions above about ways to work for gender parity, which do you feel you can’t implement due to the existence of transgenderism? Why?

I mean, there are those who deeply identify as football fans or basketball fans. I’m in the minority as a hockey fan. Should I seek a day for celebration of achievement and a call to parity since hockey fans are so underrepresented in society?

Lenny… celebrate what you want to celebrate, but cut out the attempts at point-scoring. I don’t think that being a hockey fan has a negative impact on your pay scale, or your risk of experiencing sexual assault or domestic violence, or on any major aspects of your life. I don’t know whether you meant any of your other questions more seriously than this one, but, because I prefer to assume the best of people where possible, I’ve taken them as meant in good faith and answered them in that spirit. If you’re being honest about wanting to learn and understand, then I hope it helped with that. But, whether the rest of the post was meant honestly or not, please don’t post trivialising comparisons for issues that so many people don’t have the luxury of dismissing as trivial.

The Proselytising Thread

The question has come up of how to react to proselytisation attempts on my blog. Yannoupoika, one of the contributors to the recent discussions on here about abortion, has been making a number of statements and claims about the religious belief that he follows (Christianity, if you were wondering). Another commenter objected to the discussion of this subject in a non-religious discussion on an atheist blog.

My thoughts on this are:

  1. I’m happy with people trying to convert me. This is not because I have the least desire to be converted, but because I enjoy the ensuing discussions.
  2. Most people, from what I can see, do not feel this way. Therefore, if a thread about something else starts filling up with debate over apologetics/religion, probably most or all of the other people who wanted to read the thread won’t want to read the religious debate. I know you can’t please all of the people all of the time, but it seems a shame to spoil a thread for a high percentage of the people who want to read it.

And thus, to reconcile 1 and 2, I’m creating this post; a comment thread specifically for such discussions. You can join in with an existing discussion, or bring a discussion here if it’s broken out in another thread as happened this time, or jump right on in and start one. Or, if you prefer, ignore it completely and read other bits of my blog instead.

So… if you want to have a shot at convincing me that your god is real/that I should convert to your religion, or if you want to respond to someone who’s raised the subject in another thread, go right ahead! Just take a few minutes to read over the rules and guidelines, which are thus:

Rules

  1. Show respect for the religious beliefs of others, including agnosticism/atheism. No rudeness, no dissing, no sneering, no insults or name-calling. You might have excellent reasons for having a low opinion of someone else’s belief system and, if so, I hope you find a good place to vent about them, but this ain’t it. Be polite or take it elsewhere.
  2. No assumptions about why anyone believes/disbelieves what they do. If you’re wondering whether someone’s belief is due to an ulterior motive, ask them, don’t tell them.
  3. Be careful about accusations of lying. A lie is a deliberately false statement made with the intent to deceive. An unintentional inaccuracy is not a lie. A difference in opinion is not a lie. This happens to be something I feel quite strongly about, so… if you don’t have reasonably good evidence that someone meant a false statement to be deliberately deceptive, don’t throw out accusations of lying. By all means call them out on the inaccuracy, but do it without throwing out unfounded accusations.
  4. I reserve the right to delete comments in whole or in part if they break these rules. If I do so, I will indicate in the thread that I’ve done so. I would prefer not to do so and will try where possible to keep to warnings instead, but don’t abuse that slack.

Guidelines

These, as you can deduce from the fact that they’re in a separate section, are not rules; you won’t be deleted or barred for not following them. They’re my thoughts on how any discussions can be more interesting/productive/coherent.

  1. There really isn’t much point just making statements about your beliefs and expecting that to have an effect. For example, if your argument consists solely of statements such as “We’re all sinners but Jesus died to save you!”, then there is not going to be much I can say other than “I get that you believe that. I don’t. Have a nice day.” Which is going to be rather dull as discussions go, so you’ll be better off thinking of some actual arguments, questions, or both.
  2. Massive long infodumps about your faith will, in practice, be a bit hard for me to answer, so, for example, C&Ping chapters from your apologetics book or asking for my opinion on an entire website are probably not going to get very far as discussion goes; I’m not going to have time to write lengthy essays. (Admittedly this will not necessarily stop me, given my long history of getting sucked into answering things I really didn’t have time to answer. However, you’ll have a better chance of having your comments answered if they stick to a reasonably short number of points.)
  3. I’m not that interested in abstruse philosophical arguments. That’s just my personal preference. If you still want to make them… whatever, go ahead, I’ll try to answer if I can.
  4. If you try to convert me to your religion, the resulting discussion is likely to end up including reasons why I disagree with you. If you don’t want to hear those, think twice about whether you want to start the discussion.
  5. If you post here as a way of bringing a debate from another thread here, it’ll help if you say that that’s what you’re doing, put a link back to the original debate in your comment, and then put a link to your comment in the original thread. That way, anyone reading the discussion here knows the context of what you’re replying to, and whomever you replied to in the original thread will know where you’ve taken it.

I think that’s it, although I’ll amend the rules or guidelines if anything comes up that I haven’t thought of. Play nicely, everyone… and have fun!

Answers to ‘Ten Questions For Pro-Choice People’: Part 4

This is the fourth, and I hope the final, part of a multi-part answer to Andrew Haslam’s post Ten Questions For Pro-Choice People. Part 1 is here and will link to the other parts (they’re also written sequentially so you can just click ‘Next Post’ each time to read them in order). Without wishing to be hidebound by convention, I would recommend starting with Part 1 as it explains some key points about why I hold my beliefs.

The questions are in reverse order; I hope to cover 3, 2 and 1 in this post.

One other issue. I’ve spent a lot of time in these posts so far referring to pregnant women, or to women affected by these laws. Which might seem obvious to you… except that transgender people exist, and some of these are trans men or genderqueer people who have uteruses and ovaries and hence can get pregnant, which means that, when I talk about pregnant people as ‘women’, I’m ignoring groups of people who are also part of the debate. I was aware that this is a problem, but was ignoring it for the not very good reason that I didn’t want to deal with a lot of argument about it in the comments. Given that I literally still have a post up on my ‘recent posts’ sidebar about the importance of transgender visibility, this was hypocritical of me. I apologise.

So, for this post, I have tried to use gender-neutral terms to describe people who are pregnant. And I still don’t want to deal with a lot of argument about it in the comments. So: transphobia will be deleted, whinging about political-correctness-gone-mad or anything along that line will be deleted, and what does or doesn’t fall into those categories will be at my discretion. Genuine questions (that is, not questions that are thinly-disguised point-scoring/JAQing-off attempts) on the subject should be OK, but I’d prefer it if we didn’t get too far off the original topic.

 

3. Why are abortion laws based on viability outside the womb?

As ‘background history of time limits in UK abortion law’ is one of the rather small list of Obscure Subjects About Which I Actually Know Something, I seized on this question with glee and wrote a whole essay on how it was that our abortion time limits came to be based on viability. As interesting as I found this, it was rather lengthy for something that isn’t really addressing what you meant by your question, so eventually I saved it elsewhere in case I wanted to use it in the future and cut it out of this post. You’re welcome.

What you’re actually asking here, of course, isn’t what the backstory is of how the limit was chosen, but why we have a limit that is, as you put it, ‘blurry and arbitrary’. This is something I covered in the last part of my answer to question 9; time limits typically are based on reasons that are blurry and arbitrary because development rarely presents us with clear-cut and obvious points, but that doesn’t mean that we throw time limits out of the window altogether.

You’re not objecting to the viability time limit because you want to propose one that you think is better. You’re not objecting because you want to do away with time limits altogether and declare abortion legal at any stage of the pregnancy. You’re objecting because you’re against abortion at any stage of the pregnancy. I’ve already explained why that belief is one with which I can’t agree.

 

2. Why do we fight to save the lives of disabled and premature babies?

While I do not like to put words in people’s mouths, I’m going to go out on a limb here and deduce that this is not actually your question. You’re not questioning why we fight to save the lives of babies. You’re questioning why we don’t apply that same reason to fetuses of similar gestation.

Again, this goes back to my reply to question 10 (same link as above). When we fight to save the lives of babies – or people of any age – we don’t do so by expecting one particular person to make prolonged use of their own internal organs to do so regardless of the impact that that’s going to have on their health and circumstances. Most of us don’t believe that doing so would be OK. (When someone volunteers to be an organ donor, that’s wonderful; but it’s not something we think it right to force unwilling people to do, even to save lives.)

While on the subject of abortions taking place this close to the viability limit, it’s always worth remembering how serious some of the reasons for these abortions can be. Andreas Avester, on this site, has just written a lengthy post about the impacts that hardline ‘pro-life’ stances can have on people in terrible situations, and, while it does not make easy reading – the stories described are truly distressing – it is well worth reading for anyone who wants to understand more about why pro-choicers have a problem with the aims of the pro-life movement.

 

1. Why is there a double standard at work here, in which we stay quiet about abortion while mourning miscarriage?

Because of the impact of pro-life reactions to abortion discussions. Firstly, abortion is heavily stigmatised; it’s hard to talk about having had an abortion when you never know (or know all too well) who’s going to consider you a child murderer. Secondly, there’s the problem I described in my reply to question 5; pro-lifers have a long history of using people’s reactions to their abortions, whether positive or negative, as fuel for anti-abortion arguments, and many people do not want their experiences used in this way.

I would love a situation where this was different, where people who had had abortions could talk freely about their experiences without stigma or shame or fear, where people who were devastated by the experience yet still felt it to have been the right choice could talk openly about their pain and receive sympathy for it without receiving criticism or seeing their experience warped to fit an anti-abortion narrative, where people who were pleased or relieved to have been able to abort an unwanted pregnancy could speak openly about this without being branded as selfish or unfeeling or cold-hearted. Sadly, that isn’t the world we live in.

Last year we had the tragic experience of losing a little boy at 15 weeks. […] Anyone who has felt sadness about a miscarriage feels that way precisely because it is the loss of life.

I’m very sorry for your loss, and understand that this is likely to be a difficult topic for you. Please understand that, when I disagree with you, it is in no way because I wish to dismiss your or your wife’s feelings about your own loss or your own grief.

I do, however, think that this is about more than just ‘a loss of life’. Miscarriage of a wanted pregnancy typically means the loss of the parents’ dream of having this baby, and that is also a powerful reason for grief. When an infertile person who has never been pregnant/fathered a pregnancy grieves the loss of their dream of parenthood, is their grief any less because no loss of life was involved?

I’ll never forget the woman who attended our emergency clinic during my gynaecology attachment with suspected miscarriage; she’d started bleeding after thinking she had a positive pregnancy test after a long period of trying unsuccessfully to conceive. But the ultrasound scan showed no sign of the uterine thickening that would be typical after even an early miscarriage, and we had to gently break it to her that there was no sign of her having been pregnant in the first place. To this day I can remember her face crumpling, the way she struggled to say something but then turned and fled. I don’t think that that woman went home that night feeling that her shattered dream wasn’t a problem because no actual loss of life was involved.

Finally, of course, there is the question of people who don’t feel sadness about a miscarriage. Many people feel deeply relieved by miscarriage of an unwanted pregnancy. It seems problematic to me to treat reactions to miscarriage as some sort of barometer of objective fetal worth.

 

Anyway… that’s it. Ten questions, ten answers, for what they’re worth. I’ll add the links of the later posts to the first post I made, and e-mail Andrew Haslam to let him know the discussion exists. Thank you to all those of you who read and who joined in.

Answers to ‘Ten Questions For Pro-Choice People’: Part 3

This is the third part of a multi-part answer to Andrew Haslam’s post Ten Questions For Pro-Choice People. Part 1 is here and will link to the other parts (although I’m doing them sequentially, so, unless that changes due to anything unforeseen, you could also just click along the ‘Previous Post/Next Post’ links). I’d recommend starting with Part 1, not because I feel any great need to stick with convention but simply because it covers some key points about why I believe what I do.

I’m answering the questions in reverse order; this post covers 5 and 4.

 

5. Why don’t we talk about the fact that many women suffer unbelievable guilt after having an abortion?

Because of the frequency with which pro-lifers will do exactly what you’re just about to do; claim that this is evidence that abortion is wrong.

(By the way, years of reading pro-life writings have convinced me that this is a no-win conundrum. If women talk about their experiences of having an abortion and feeling guilty or regretful or sad about it, the pro-life response is that, since abortion is such an awful experience, women must clearly be prevented from choosing it for their own protection. If women talk about their experiences of having an abortion and not feeling anything negative about it, the pro-life response is that they’re clearly conscienceless sociopaths who can’t be trusted to have a say in making the laws. So it’s a case of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’.)

[footnote] The most comprehensive review of the evidence in 2013, incidentally by a pro-choice psychologist, found that there is no mental health benefit to abortion and there is an increased risk of psychological problems following abortion including anxiety, substance abuse and suicidality: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23553240

That isn’t particularly related to guilt, but I thought it worth saying a few words about this as it’s an example of how research findings can get misrepresented. In that review, the author looked at how the mental state of women who’d had abortions compared to the mental state of women who’d had initially unwanted pregnancies but had chosen to continue with them. (He also looked at comparisons between women having abortions and women having unplanned pregnancies that they were pleased about, but did separate out the results in discussion.)

The problem, of course, is that the two groups aren’t properly comparable. While there are many reasons why someone might go ahead with an initially unwanted pregnancy, and sadly those reasons do in some cases include being forced into doing so (as per the article you linked to in question 4 about reproductive coercion), in most cases the woman’s decision to continue the pregnancy is going to be because, having weighed up the situation, she felt that she would rather do so than have an abortion. It’s also probable that the women facing more difficult or insurmountable problems would be less likely to feel this way and more likely to choose abortion (this wouldn’t be an invariable thing by any means, just more likely overall).

This means that the comparison here isn’t just between a group of women who had abortions and a group of women who didn’t, but between two groups of women of which one probably had a higher level of background problems than the other group. And that, of course, means that we can’t assume that the higher rates of mental health problems seen in the group who had abortions were due to the abortions rather than to the other problems.

Anyway… back to the topic of guilt.

So why do we ignore the fact of guilt after abortions? Is it because the admission of guilt is the admission of wrongdoing?

No. As I said, it’s because pro-lifers will claim it’s the admission of wrongdoing. But there’s also an important flaw in your premise; guilt frequently isn’t ‘the admission of wrongdoing’. Yes, sometimes it certainly is… but what about abuse victims who feel guilty because their abuser has browbeaten them into believing it’s their fault? Rape victims who feel guilty because society’s biases have left them thinking they somehow invited the rape? There are people who feel guilty about wanting to convert to Christianity because the religious tradition they grew up with teaches them that converting to Christianity is wrong; do you believe their guilt means that they’re doing something wrong in converting to Christianity, or just that they’ve been taught that they’re doing something wrong?

Then there are the people who feel guilty over not being able to live up to their own high standards, or to the high expectations others have for them. If your parents set their hearts on you going to university but instead you choose to become a plumber in the face of their visible disappointment, you’re probably going to feel guilty; but is that because you did something wrong, or because others have inappropriate expectations of you? I’ve grappled with guilt over not being able to solve the problems in my children’s lives. Or, in the past month, over not being able to do more to help with the COVID crisis. Does that mean I have something to feel guilty about… or does it mean that my expectations of myself are unrealistically high?

If we’re going to talk about guilt after abortions, then let’s also talk about the fact that it typically occurs in the contexts of groups or societies who transmit powerful messages that abortion is wrong/sex is wrong/women should be superbeings who can manage any and all responsibilities, however many and however heavy, without batting a (perfectly-mascaraed) eyelash. When women in these contexts feel guilty about abortion, is ‘admission of wrongdoing’ really the most likely reason? And what about the converse; when women who’ve chosen abortion don’t feel guilty about that choice, is that a sign that it was the right choice for them and they’ve done nothing wrong? Or is the guilt=wrongdoing equation applied only selectively when it can be used against abortion?

 

4. Why is a woman’s body pitted against her baby’s?

While I really don’t want to get snarky here, all I could think of when I read this question was “Shouldn’t you ask your god that? After all, you believe that he’s the one who designed pregnancy.”

When a woman is pregnant, the only way for that fetus to survive is for her to allow it to stay within her body for months, wreaking what are typically considerable and sometimes medically serious effects upon her, then forcibly exit with, again, considerable impact and sometimes serious complications. In other words, biology has set up a system where a fetus is in conflict with the body of the person who must gestate it. There isn’t a way round that. If the pregnant person is happy with that – as, again, I was with both of my pregnancies – then that’s fine. If not, then that’s a very big problem for the person who’s pregnant.

The pro-life movement views both bodies as beautifully valuable. That’s why we fight for babies and for women.

Oooookaaaaay, I did already have my say in the last post about these sorts of general statements about the ‘pro-life movement’ as a whole that, in fact, are clearly not true of a sizeable proportion of pro-lifers, so… must… not… get…. back…. into…. rant.

I’m going to read this as your way of trying to say “I, as a pro-lifer, view both bodies as beautifully valuable. That’s why I, and many other pro-lifers, fight for babies and for women.” As such; well, that’s nice, I guess, but I do just want to point out that talking about how beautifully valuable you see our bodies as being doesn’t do much for the whole want-you-to-be-valued-and-empowered attempt. Er… thanks for trying, I guess?

We want women to be genuinely valued and empowered, but abortion doesn’t do that.

Being made to go through an unwanted pregnancy because any rights you have to bodily autonomy are considered to come in a poor second to an obligation to gestate really doesn’t do that. Speaking for myself, I support abortion rights not because I think abortion is inherently a wonderfully empowering experience that all women should have (although do note that for some women that’s precisely what it ends up being), but because I think that forcing women to go through unwanted pregnancies is vastly worse.

Why is it that seven percent of women have been forced into having an abortion and it’s used as a tool of coercive abuse?

The simple answer to this complex question is that it’s because there are a heck of a lot of abusers and control freaks out there, and recognition of the red flags in relationships, although improving, still isn’t widespread enough.

The thing is, banning abortion wouldn’t actually solve those problems. I’m not even sure that, overall, it would reduce the number of women who are forced into having abortions; I think it’s a reasonable assumption that someone who is willing to coerce someone into having an abortion against their wishes is, in most cases, also going to be willing to break the law to do so. So, if abortion were made illegal, then most of the people experiencing this sort of coercion would instead be bullied into going to a backstreet abortionist rather than a legal clinic, or whisked away to a country with different laws and forced to have an abortion there instead (or, in particularly horrific cases, subjected to the abuser’s version of a DIY abortion; content warning for abuse and grooming discussed at that link).

While there would be some cases in which this didn’t happen,because the abuser either didn’t want to do something outright illegal or didn’t know how to go about it, that would be counterbalanced by the number of women in this situation who would lose the chance to get help and support from an abortion clinic that might have prevented them from being forced into abortion. The article you linked to talked about how careful abortion clinics are to be on the lookout for this sort of coercion and about the help and support that they can offer when they find out that this is the problem. In some cases – such as that of the woman referred to as Leila in the article – this has led to women being able to avoid the coercion and exercise their choice to continue the pregnancy. Since backstreet abortion services in a climate of illegal abortion would be completely unregulated, it’s considerably less likely they would offer such counselling and support. They also wouldn’t be able to offer methods of tamper-proof contraception, which clinics currently offer and which can protect women who can’t yet leave an abusive situation against further unwanted pregnancies.

So, although banning abortion would prevent some cases of coerced abortion, it would also prevent the very mechanisms that are currently helping to prevent many cases of coerced abortion. It’s quite possible that that factor would actually outweigh any reduction in coerced abortions that a law against abortion would bring about, and that there would be an overall increase in coerced abortions as a result. It’s impossible to know whether that would be the way it went, but it’s a possibility that at least needs to be considered.

Even if the overall effect on coerced abortion of anti-abortion laws did turn out to be a slight decrease in the number, there would be a terrible price to pay for that even if we think only about reproductive coercion and not about other pregnancies. That article also discussed the other side of the coin; women who are coerced into becoming pregnant or continuing their pregnancies, often as a ploy by abusive partners to make it harder for them to leave. That form of reproductive coercion would, of course, be far worse for women in a country where seeking abortion wasn’t a legal option; a woman forced into her pregnancy would either have to go the backstreet route, or go ahead with her pregnancy whether she wanted to or not. The loss of regulated abortion clinics would also mean that the situations discussed in the article where clinic counselling identifies domestic abuse as an issue and supports the woman in leaving her abuser would no longer happen, so one possible route to identifying and supporting victims of domestic abuse would be lost. And, finally, it would potentially be harder for anyone who had been coerced into abortion to seek counselling or support afterwards, because of the fears over admitting to having done something illegal. (In fact, blackmail over this might be yet one more possible route by which an abuser might terrorise a partner out of leaving.)

In short… while the problem of reproductive coercion so vividly described in that article is, indeed, a significant issue, it’s one that would overall be made substantially worse rather than better by making abortion illegal.

Why is it that women feel they have to choose between pursuing a career or education and having a baby? Why can’t they do both?

In that particular case, because the figures on that point that you linked to come from a study done in the USA, which is notoriously atrocious for its stance on maternity leave and on state-funded childcare (which, by the way, are yet more examples of laws that could substantially decrease the number of abortions but are largely opposed by supposedly pro-life politicians in that country). Progressive laws on these policies do indeed help a great deal; that’s one point on which I hope we can agree.

Why do we see an abortion as a central tenet of women’s rights when it seems to cause women so much grief and pain?

Because forcing women to go through with pregnancies against their wishes causes considerably more grief and pain. I’m very sorry for the woman in that clip, and really wish for her sake that she could have got much better counselling about her options, but making abortion illegal altogether does not strike me as a good answer to the fact that some women get inadequate counselling beforehand.

Furthermore, more than 50% of aborted babies are female when you factor in widespread sex-selection on the global scene, so it’s not at all clear that abortion is pro-women on any level.

Sex-selection abortion strikes me as being primarily a symptom rather than a root problem. The root problem here is that some societies place a markedly lower value on the lives of women and girls than they do on the lives of men and boys. The solution to that isn’t making all abortions illegal; it’s working actively to increase the social status of women.

Answers to ‘Ten Questions For Pro-Choice People’: Part 2

This is the second part of a multi-part answer to Andrew Haslam’s post Ten Questions For Pro-Choice People. Part 1 is here; it covers some key points about my own beliefs, so I’d recommend reading that one first.

I’d intended to cover three more of the questions in this post, but found I had far more to say for each answer than I’d anticipated, so I’ve broken it down further. This post answers question 6. I’m hoping to cover two in the next post and then the last three in a fourth post, though I’ll see how it goes.

 

6. Why is the pro-life movement vilified and bullied as though it was somehow backward to campaign for human rights at this fundamental level?

Because of the behaviour of so many pro-lifers.

Please note that absolutely none of what I say here is intended as a generalisation about every pro-lifer everywhere. As I told you in my last post, I used to be pro-life myself, and I don’t believe any of this would have been true of me at the time; I fully recognise that there are many pro-lifers out there of which these things are also not true. If you’re one of them, great. Feel free to mentally insert the words ‘some’ or ‘many’ or ‘a proportion of’ or ‘a heck of a lot of’, or ‘#notallprolifers’ or anything similar at any point here where you feel I’ve left those words or phrases out and should have included them.

However…

1. There is a rather strong correlation between pro-life views and the following behaviours/beliefs:

  • slut-shaming/policing the sex lives of women
  • holding strong and limiting ideas about women’s role in life
  • anti-contraceptive views
  • homophobia
  • transphobia
  • the sorts of anti-immigration views that we’ve all become a little too familiar with during the whole Brexit fiasco, with versions of racism/jingoism lurking not too far below the surface.

I do realise that there are not only many pro-lifers out there who hold none of these beliefs (I was one such) and, for that matter, many pro-choicers who hold at least some of them. But there’s a strong enough pattern of association there that, while the stereotype of the backwards and misogynistic pro-lifer isn’t by any means correct for all pro-lifers, it also did not come out of nowhere.

2. Pro-life movements have a rather unattractive history of dishonesty in the name of their cause. I do realise that there can’t be many movements out there that haven’t included someone, sometime,  who’s stretched a point to make a point. However, I can personally vouch for the fact that the levels of misrepresentation of the evidence that I’ve come across in reading pro-life literature have been… notable. (At one point, one of my hobbies was debunking this sort of misinformation on a discussion newsgroup.) And then, of course, there are the ‘crisis pregnancy centres‘ who have become known for disingenuously advertising themselves in deliberately vague terms in order to hide the fact that they will be very actively trying to talk their clients out of abortion, then giving out alarming amounts of misinformation to the people who visit them for help.

3. There are quite a lot of pro-lifers out there whose commitment to saving fetal lives does, in practice, seem to be very secondary to their desire to police the sex lives of women. I don’t know whether you’ve ever read How I Lost Faith In The Pro-Life Movement, by blogger and former pro-lifer Libby Anne, or the several follow-up posts she wrote in reply to various objections (linked at the end of the initial post), but they’re well worth reading for anyone interested in the issue.

The short version of those essays is that, having grown up as a very active, committed member of the pro-life movement who certainly was sincere about wanting to prevent abortions and who believed other members of the movement were in full agreement about that priority, Libby Anne found out that the best ways to reduce the numbers of abortions happening were not laws against it, but better social welfare policies, better sex education and more readily available contraception. However, the pro-life movement that she’d grown up with and thought she knew, despite supposedly wanting to prevent abortions, was against all these measures. And the reasons for this typically seemed to boil down to some version of ‘We don’t want women to be having unauthorised sex’. That was more important to these supposed pro-lifers than actually saving fetal lives. Or, for that matter, making conditions better for children or their families.

When people consider it so important to police the sex lives of anyone with female genitalia that they will treat ‘make women suffer for having unauthorised sex’ as a higher priority than ‘prevent abortions/improve health and conditions for children’ then, yes, that is misogynistic and backward. When these beliefs are seen this frequently among people calling themselves pro-life, then that is going to lead a lot of people to the assumption that it’s normal for pro-lifers to be misogynistic and backward.

Yes, that is not true for all pro-lifers. Yes, it is very possible that your reaction right now is something along the lines of “But… but… the group of pro-lifers I belong to are lovely! We do go out and help women in dire straits! We do want better social safety nets for children and families so that no-one is in the position of having to get an abortion because of their practical circumstances!” If so, then that’s wonderful. But, unfortunately, people like that are not a very representative sample of all pro-lifers everywhere.

The pro-life movement is often portrayed as led by white men and as fundamentally backwards and misogynistic, despite the fact that women of all races are involved and are more opposed to abortion than men)

You do realise that the last part of that sentence doesn’t actually contradict the first part? Yes, many women are against abortion, and many of those get involved in pro-life movements; that doesn’t say anything about who’s leading the movement. What organised religious or political groups have the strongest associations with the pro-life movement? In no particular order, the three most obvious ones are Catholicism, fundamentalist Protestantism, and the political right wing. Well, the first two of those are explicitly led by men, and the third has a history of being predominantly male (not just a history, for that matter). So, while it’s certainly more complex than ‘the movement is led by men’, it’s also not as though that portrayal came out of nowhere.

But talk to a pro-lifer. Generally, they believe a basic ethic: All human life has sanctity. Which part of this is backwards and misogynistic?

Hoo boy. Look… I’m about to go into a rant. So, just before doing that, I will not only repeat ‘Not all pro-lifers’, but will also give you this link, which is to a lengthy and beautiful essay by an American blogger who’s clearly pro-life in the truest sense of the term, explaining why the very pro-life beliefs that make her against abortion also prevented her from joining in with the rush to vote for Trump as the candidate promising he’d be tougher on abortion. So, yes, definitely not all pro-lifers.

However…

As you know, Trump did get voted in as US president. As you might or might not have known, a significant part of the reason for this was the reaction to his vs. Clinton’s respective platforms on abortion rights; Trump promised tougher and more punitive laws on abortion, and got a big slice of the anti-abortion vote that way. That means that a heck of a lot of people who were calling themselves pro-life on the grounds that they were against abortion were quite willing to vote in a racist sex abuser who mocked the disabled and bragged about his plan to barricade the USA against refugees who were, in many cases, fleeing for their lives.

Less than a year later, the overwhelmingly anti-abortion Republican party (the term ‘pro-life’, in this context, is seeming more and more hideously inappropriate) were making the latest of their many attempts to drastically cut the health care funding that is keeping tens of thousands of Americans alive. They did not seem particularly bothered about the sanctity of those lives, or at least not in comparison to the sanctity of their own millions of dollars.

While you were writing this post, the news was full of that same Republican party’s callousness and dismissal of the appalling conditions in migrant camps. Three days before you posted it, Mike Pence was photographed on his visit to one such camp, turning away indifferently from desperate migrants crowding against the wire. I remember one person on Twitter commenting wryly ‘Someone should tell him those men were fetuses once’.

Now, of course, we have right-wing anti-abortion site The Federalist campaigning to lift the current quarantine restrictions that are so vital to minimise the horrendous death toll from COVID-19. Apparently their belief in the sanctity of human life isn’t important enough to them to put up with restrictions on their freedom to act how they want.

I know all of those stories concerned America’s right wing, and, yes, they are particularly egregious offenders, but it’s not just them. Mother Teresa ignored or diverted millions of pounds’ worth of donations that, if used for the purpose for which they were surely intended by the donors, could have provided life-saving medical care for thousands of people in need. Instead, she deliberately kept the clinics she ran in terrible condition, letting people who could have been saved (and people who could have at least been palliated) suffer and die with minimal medical help.

In Ireland, less than a decade ago, Savita Hallappanavar died at the age of 31 after the medical staff caring for her concluded that, under the anti-abortion law of the time, it would be illegal to shorten her doomed pregnancy by a few hours even to reduce the growing and ultimately overwhelming risk to her own life.

Further back, there were the infamous Magdalene Laundries, whose founders and staff were, of course, from a religion very well known for their staunchly anti-abortion stance. Their horrific history of abuse and of burials in mass graves demonstrates all too clearly just how those particular ‘pro-lifers’ felt about the sanctity of the lives of the people under their care.

You want to know what part of ‘All human life has sanctity’ is backwards and misogynistic? The part where that principle is selectively applied only when any resulting difficulties will fall exclusively on people with uteruses.

Pro-lifers are merely consistent in applying this fundamental ethic to every single human being, including people in the womb.

You know… when I first read this question and started composing my answer, my read of it was that you genuinely are motivated by a belief in the sanctity of human life and, as such, you’re frustrated by people who make negative stereotypical assumptions about you. I still think this might have been what you meant to get across when you wrote this paragraph. Unfortunately, however, it is not what you actually wrote. What you did write is a kind of wide-eyed bewildered ignorance about the problems within pro-life or pro-life-associated movements. You are talking here as though pro-lifers generally, not just a subset of them, are consistent about applying the sanctity-of-life ethic to every human being. You’re talking as though you have no idea why anyone would think otherwise.

No matter how charitably I look at this, this does boil down to one of two possibilities:

1. You genuinely are that ignorant about the many problems associated with the pro-life cause. You genuinely have no clue about any of the stuff I wrote above. If that’s the case… well, I know you couldn’t have known all the stuff I wrote up there. I mean, you literally couldn’t have known it, because the whole business with people who are supposedly pro-life wanting to break the quarantine hadn’t yet happened at the time you wrote your post, but there are also a lot of other things I mentioned that you might quite plausibly and reasonably not have known about; I’m not going to condemn someone just because they spend less time reading left-wing feminist blogs than I do. However, if you had no idea about any of those things… well, that is a level of ignorance about the world about you that means you probably shouldn’t be out alone on the streets.

Look. When I was pro-life, it was because I genuinely cared about fetal life. But I was at least aware that there were a lot of pro-lifers out there whose beliefs actually stemmed from the view that women should be eschewing careers in favour of bearing and raising children, and/or were associated with other objectionable views such as homophobia, the hellfire-and-brimstone type of religion, and/or strong anti-contraceptive views. I certainly wasn’t among the number of pro-lifers who felt that way, but I did recognise that such people not only existed, but existed in fairly significant numbers. If blogs had existed back then and I’d had one, maybe I would have objected to the stereotyping of pro-lifers generally… but I’m pretty sure that I would not have expressed this sort of bewilderment about why such stereotypes would possibly exist. Even as a very naive and uninformed teenager, living in the pre-Internet era and almost entirely ignoring current affairs, I was still more aware of the world around me than that.

You, however, are talking as though you really are that unaware of all these issues. If that’s true, and not just an act you’re putting on, then that is a truly stunning level of obliviousness. I would have thought it quite hard to be more oblivious about the world out there than I was at seventeen or eighteen, but if you really do know this little about this subject, then, congratulations, you’ve managed it. I personally suspect that in fact that is not the case and the actual reason for what you wrote is the second one, below; but if I’m wrong and you really are that unaware, then, good grey grief, you need to get a clue, fast.

2. The other possibility here is, of course, that you are aware (to whatever degree) that there are a lot of objectionable views/actions associated with pro-lifers and the pro-life movement, but decided to act as though you don’t know any of that. If that’s the case, then not only is that disingenuous, but it’s also backfiring badly as regards your desired goal of convincing people you are not, yourself, misogynistic or backward.

I’d have happily accepted it if you’d acknowledged that some pro-lifers are misogynistic and backward but disavowed yourself from such beliefs. I’d have happily accepted it if you’d stayed off that particular subject altogether; I like to assume the best of people, so that’s what I’d have done. But, instead, you chose to claim that pro-lifers are just people who believe in the sanctity of all human life, that’s it, nothing else to see here. If you did know something about the problems within the pro-life movement and/or the movements commonly associated with it, then your choice to ignore all that and claim that it’s all really just about the sanctity of life is a choice to defend the indefensible. If you don’t want to be misogynistic or backward, then do not excuse or overlook views that are misogynistic or backward.

Answers to ‘Ten Questions For Pro-Choice People’: Part 1

I love it when people who disagree with me have questions (actual questions, not just point-scoring attempts) about my beliefs. So I was delighted to come across London preacher Andrew Haslam’s post ‘Ten Questions for Pro-Choice People‘.

Let me state my purpose up front: I’m a pro-lifer with ten genuine questions aimed at pro-choice people, and I’m hoping that you (dear reader) will keep on reading to the end.

I’m in!

But I’m also realistic. The chance of keeping your attention on such a matter of deep division is not going to be easy, not least because you may well imagine me to be misogynistic and backward.

I was passionately pro-life for a year and a half in my late teens after being recruited to that viewpoint by two schoolmates; I was too disorganised to join a group, but it was still a belief I held 100%. So, no, I don’t assume people are misogynistic or backward just because they’re pro-life. (Readers will probably wonder how I came to change sides so thoroughly on this; the short answer is that all the reading and thinking about the subject that I was doing in order to mutter righteously to myself about how much I disagreed with pro-choicers eventually had the opposite effect and brought me round the full 180o on the topic. I’ll write the full version someday.)

And so, I urge you to read and even respond.

You betcha. You had me at ‘ten genuine questions aimed at pro-choice people’.

A few quick notes:

1. I plan to answer the questions over the course of multiple posts, as I think there’ll be too much material here to cover in one go.

2. I originally planned to work through them in order (dull and conventional person that I am), but, as I mentally drafted my answers, I realised that some of the most fundamental points come up in the last couple of questions and that it’ll work better if I answer those first. So I’m going to answer the questions in reverse order. (The first two have ended up being particularly long, by the way, but this won’t be the case for all of them ooookaaaay, forget that bit, I think most of them are ending up a lot longer than I’d anticipated.)

3. Like Andrew, I want this discussion to stay rational and civil, so I’m going to stipulate now that any commenters have to stick to that rule as well. If you want to disagree (with me, with Andrew, or with both of us) go right ahead; but either keep it polite and respectful, or take it elsewhere. I will enforce this if need be.

That covers the background, so on to the questions!

10. When does a person become a person? This is really the question to rule them all. Everything depends on this.

No, it doesn’t. Here’s why:

No-one has the right to make use of an unwilling person’s organs. Yet that’s what happens when a woman is made to continue a pregnancy she doesn’t want; a decision that that fetus should live cannot be separated from the decision that she has to keep it within her body with all that that entails. And ‘all that that entails’ is not trivial by any means. Even a normal, uncomplicated pregnancy is typically going to involve significant amounts of nausea or fatigue or both, with intense pain at the end in giving birth. There’s a high chance of either genital tearing or major abdominal surgery at the end. That’s in a normal pregnancy. There’s also a non-negligible chance of developing more significant medical complications, which can in some cases be long-term. While it’s rare for medical complications actually to reach the point of proving fatal, it still happens and it’s less rare in women with continued pregnancies than in women who have early abortions.

On top of this, the rest of a woman’s life is not going to stay on hold while she deals with all this. So pregnancy can have severe impacts on her ability to manage her day-to-day responsibilities, and that, again, can have far-reaching consequences. And on top of that, she’s faced with a dilemma that will have consequences for her lifelong: due to the way hormones prime the bodies of the pregnant to bond to the children they give birth to, it’s going to be difficult, often impossible, for her to face giving up even a child that was unwanted in the first place… but the alternative is to take on the massive, life-changing job of raising that child.

There isn’t an exact analogy to all this, but the closest we have is organ donation, which saves the life of one person at the cost of significant physical impact and bodily invasion for another. Well… we don’t legally compel people to donate their kidneys, even though that saves lives. We don’t even compel people to donate bone marrow or blood, which are considerably less invasive procedures. The law recognises that even the saving of lives doesn’t override the basic right to have veto power over what gets done to our bodies.

It’s possible that you, or another pro-life reader, is shocked or offended that I describe pregnancy and birth in such negative terms. In case anyone reading it did react that way, to them I say this: Ask yourself what part of the description above you believe to be inaccurate. My guess is that what bothers you is not that you felt any part of it was actually inaccurate, but that it’s incomplete; that you’re bothered that I would list only negatives about pregnancy and childbirth without mentioning the positives. Then think about how often our society in general holds precisely that expectation; that women should be willing to overlook or tolerate all of the risks and difficulties I mentioned, all in the name of a sort of awe and reverence at the wonder of creating new life. If it makes anyone feel any better, I can assure you that, on a personal level, I certainly do feel the ‘wonder of new life’ aspect to be the overreaching one; that’s why I have two loved and very much wanted children and was more than happy to go through all of the downsides to pregnancy and birth. But doing so only made me much more aware of how difficult it can be (and, in fact, my experience was a relatively easy one in all sorts of ways) and of how horrible an idea it is to decide that we should force this experience on pregnant people collectively, regardless of their feelings on the matter.

So, to get back to your question above… no, the question of when a person becomes a person doesn’t do a thing to decide the abortion debate. I don’t, as it happens, agree with the idea that the answer is ‘As soon as the chromosomes are all together in the same cell’, but that’s still irrelevant. To answer your follow-up question of ‘When did you become you?’, my personal answer to that is probably that I started becoming me when I was sixteen and that I’m still making tweaks here and there (and probably always will be). Which, of course, is irrelevant to the question of when I first had a right to life; neither of us believe that my right to life started only at the point that I retrospectively feel, based on changes and developments in my personality at the time, to be the start of what I’d consider as my essential me-ness, so ‘When did you become you?’ isn’t that useful a question here. But, far more importantly, it’s also entirely irrelevant to the question of ‘When did you first develop the right to make prolonged and intimate use of someone else’s body against their wishes to keep yourself alive?’ The answer to that question is that I never had that right and never will have. I’m delighted that my mother did choose to have me – I love being alive – but my happiness that things turned out the way they did in terms of my existence doesn’t give me any sort of retrospective right to claim that they should have turned out that way.

 

9. What do you think our descendants will think of us?

I doubt that either side of the debate will ever win out significantly enough for our descendants to look back on the other side as some horrifying archaism (although I certainly hope we reach the point where use of reliable long-acting reversible contraception is so routine and widespread that our descendants look back in astonishment on the times when unwanted pregnancy was ever as common a problem as it is now), so I don’t think this question itself particularly gets the debate any further. However, I want to look at some of your follow-up questions in this section, as they’re worth discussing.

Western society has been shown to be wrong on some key human rights issues in the past – most notably slavery and racial prejudice. […] But do you not suppose that we have equally glaring blind spots in our seemingly advanced age?

I’m sure we do; I just don’t believe that ‘people should not be compelled to remain pregnant against their wishes’ is one of them.

I am confident that some future generation will look back on us with disgust for two reasons: (1) The logical inconsistencies of the pro-choice movement will become clearer over time, just as the pro-slavery movement eventually lost the argument

I think there are a couple of problems with that analogy.

The pro-slavery movement were initially able to hold sway because so many of the general public believed that black people were fundamentally different from/inferior to white people, but this view was gradually changed by, in large part, black people themselves; the writings and speeches of former or current slaves made it very clear that they were people and that it was a monstrous injustice to enslave them or treat them in ways that wouldn’t be acceptable to white people. That wasn’t by any means the only factor that eventually led to abolitionists winning the day, but it was a significant part of what changed the minds of the public as a whole.

Now, of course, the first problem you have with applying that strategy to the pro-life message is that fetuses don’t write or make speeches. While that doesn’t in itself make your arguments invalid, it does mean that you’re missing one of the major factors that changed people’s mind over abolitionism. The other big problem with your analogy is that we don’t really have the same situation here; ignorance over facts isn’t that significant a reason why people disagree with you. Most people already know about fetal development. They already know that development starts from conception. They already know what fetuses look like. The problem is not that we don’t know these things; the problem is that we disagree with you about what conclusions to draw about the morality of abortion. Most people (even among the nominally pro-life) don’t really see ‘This cell now has the full genetic makeup of a human being’ or ‘This cell has the full potential to develop into a baby’ as good enough reasons for a zygote to be regarded as equivalent to a child.

(2) Advances in medicine and science will make it more difficult to sustain a hard boundary between ‘blob of cells’ and ‘human being’, and with no such boundary there is no longer any conscionable reason for allowing abortion at any point after conception.

There’s an assumption here that’s a key argument among pro-lifers, and certainly one I initially found compelling in my pro-life days; the idea that we have to have some sort of clearly definable reason for drawing this boundary at one point rather than another. I remember thinking of this as the ‘Sherlock Holmes argument’; when you have eliminated the impossible then what remains, however improbable, must be your answer. It’s impossible to point to any other reasonably clearcut point on the continuum of development, so therefore, however improbable it is that a single cell should be considered a person and granted full human rights, that has to be the point at which we do these things. And I was utterly convinced of the necessity of this; after all, without that kind of clearly definable boundary, obviously we would be on a slippery slope in which allowing abortion up to any given time limit would inevitably, due to the lack of clear reasons for that particular limit, lead to us allowing it after that time limit, and then to allowing infanticide, and then inexorably on to allowing us to kill off anyone of any age.

And then one day, apropos of nothing much, it hit me that… this was not actually happening. This was in the late ’80s, so abortion had been legal in the UK for over twenty years by then. During that time, the legal limit on abortion had remained exactly the same. It hadn’t been pushed out further. We hadn’t legalised infanticide. There didn’t seem to be any howling mobs calling for those things to happen. I remember being quite confused by this – after all, the pro-life argument in this area seemed unassailably logical – but I couldn’t deny that, however logically pro-lifers argued that this would happen, it clearly wasn’t happening.

It was only years later that I realised where the flaw had lain in my initial logic: people are, in fact, completely capable of drawing an arbitrary boundary across a continuum, and do so all the time. We do that with deciding the age at which people are old enough to consent to sex, to drive, to vote, to marry. We draw legal boundaries for the ages of all those things and we keep to them; not because there is any sort of fundamental identifiable difference between a person on their sixteenth or seventeenth or eighteenth birthday and the same person the day before, but because we recognise that’s the best, albeit imperfect, way to deal with the fact that people gradually develop from a stage in which they can’t safely handle those situations to a stage in which they have the mental development to be at least allowed to try. We disagree on where exactly those legal boundaries should be, and sometimes those disagreements result in us changing them… but we don’t, as a society, reach the conclusion that because there is no biological or developmental reason for drawing a hard boundary between a teenager of fifteen years plus 364 days and a sixteen-year-old then that means it’s fine to have sex with young children.

And we do the same thing with abortion laws. Most people don’t want a situation where abortion is banned from conception on. Most people don’t want a situation where a person can legally decide to abort at any time up until birth. (That ‘most people’, by the way, includes people giving birth, which is why the apocryphal ‘but what if a woman chose to have an abortion five minutes before birth??’ scenario that crops up so often in pro-life arguments has never, to my knowledge, been known to show up in real life.) People do, for the most part, acknowledge that fetal development is a continuum and believe that this continuum should be reflected in abortion law.

So, no; the lack of a hard boundary after conception does not mean that we need to ban abortion from conception on.

 

8. Why is it more acceptable to fight for the rights of animals than of unborn humans?

Overall, I’m not sure it is. (Granted, that collection of links is pretty anecdotal evidence, but it does indicate that there are a lot of people out there getting stick for their beliefs in animal rights.) Of course, there are certainly some people who are more sympathetic to the animal rights cause than to the pro-life cause; without wanting to generalise about anyone else’s views, I think the factors there are a) the view I described when answering question 10 in the last post, namely that enforced continued pregnancy isn’t morally acceptable regardless of how we regard fetuses, and b) a belief that ‘presence of sentient awareness’ is a more defensible deciding factor than ‘species membership’ when regarding what protections a being should have.

As a rule, vegans are not considered to be among the lunatic fringe. Unlike pro-lifers, they usually get respect for their beliefs.

Apart from the points I made above, I think you’re talking apples and oranges there. Veganism is typically a decision that someone makes about their own personal diet; the pro-life equivalent would be a person whose beliefs about abortion lead her to decide to continue her own unwanted pregnancy, but who doesn’t believe she should make that decision for others. Vegans who go round actively campaigning for meat-eating to be made illegal and chanting that meat is murder are likely to receive rather less respect for their beliefs.

 

7. Why not prefer adoption over abortion?

Because it still means a) going through with the pregnancy with all that that involves and b) having to relinquish the child at the end, both of which are extremely hard to do (even with a pregnancy that wasn’t wanted).

Of course, this is still the choice that some women prefer, and I entirely agree that anyone for whom this is the choice should be allowed and supported to go through with it. However, if you’re asking why it’s usually not the preferred choice for an unwanted pregnancy… well, that’s why.

Wouldn’t it be a heroic thing to carry a baby to term and let that child live and be raised in a loving home?

It would, yes, just as it’s heroic for a surrogate mother to make the decision to become pregnant for that same purpose. Heroic acts, by definition, are over and beyond; they should never become things that people are legally compelled to do.

I don’t want to minimise the pain involved in giving away a child, but it seems to me quite obviously preferable to ending that child’s life altogether.

It’s certainly preferable for the adoptive parents who receive the child, and in most cases it’s going to be preferable for the child. In most cases it is not going to be preferable for the person who’s actually pregnant, for the reasons I gave above.

 

That’s four questions covered and a lengthy post so far, so this seems a good point to finish Part 1. I’ll aim to cover questions 6, 5 and 4 in Part 2 and questions 3, 2 and 1 in Part 1, and link them back to this post when I’m done.

Amended: I found vastly more to say about question 6 than I’d anticipated, so that now has a post on its own, which is here.

Answers to questions 5 and 4.

Answers to questions 3, 2 and 1.