As a neutral observer of religion, one of the most striking characteristics I find is the rampant misogyny in nearly every religion in the world. Worldwide, women are denigrated as lesser beings, barred from positions of leadership, commanded to be subservient, and told that they’re weaker or more sinful than men. Even in the relatively few religions where women play a significant role, it tends to be a late-arising development brought about by modern moral progress. By comparison, just consider how many major world religions clearly state in their founding documents that women and men are equal (can you think of any?). Why is the hatred and oppression of women such a common thread, even in faiths that otherwise have nothing in common?
In the wake of some recent discussions about feminism, I had an inspiration, and I’d like to share it: it’s rooted in how religion propagates itself.
Despite the evangelistic efforts of some faiths, it’s clear that the primary vector of religious memes is vertical, from parents to children. And conservative religious leaders know very well that women hold the key to that effort. Given the choice, most women limit the size of their families, but it’s not in the best interests of religious authorities to allow that. Hence, all their misogynist rhetoric, demands for female subservience, opposition to sex education and contraception, and alloting sole authority over sex to men (who, it has to be said, have far less at stake): all part of a strategy to ensure that women don’t exercise control over when or whether to have children.
This suggests a counterstrategy: to advance the atheist cause and stop the spread of religions that seek to grow by proliferation, we have to work to ensure that women have access to contraception, abortion and other reproductive health services. And for that reason, I was very pleased to read this article about a massive charitable gift by Warren Buffett:
Last year, The Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, named for Buffett’s first wife, who died in 2005, gave more than $2 million each to Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Abortion Access Project Inc. and Washington-based Catholics for Choice and more than $40 million to Ipas, which works to expand the availability of safe abortions and provides reproductive health care.
There’s also this encouraging article, “The New Abortion Providers“. It details how doctors’ groups are making a greater effort to train abortion providers and bring them into the medical mainstream, while anti-choice activists’ attempts to intimidate and harass doctors are meeting with less success than they used to. There’s an important point in it that clinics which only offer family planning services are easy for zealots to target, whereas if abortion care is brought into hospitals and performed like any other procedure, it makes it much more difficult for them.
And besides charitable gifts and support from the medical profession, there’s one more very effective way we can give women control over their own reproductive destinies: make it possible for women to abort a pregnancy themselves, without having to travel or find a cooperative doctor or clinic. That’s why I was greatly encouraged to read this column by Nicholas Kristof about the increasing use of misopristol, a cheap, common drug used to treat ulcers and hemorrhaging. It’s one component of the RU-486 pill, but it’s almost as effective at terminating pregnancy if taken on its own. It also causes a miscarriage indistinguishable from a natural one, which is crucial in countries whose theocratic laws punish women who are found to have exerted control over their own biology.
Unfortunately, there are still such countries. One of them is the Philippines, whose laws are largely dictated by the Catholic church. Abortion is outlawed there without exception, with the following result:
According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, more than half a million Filipino women undergo illegal abortions every year. Of this number, 90,000 suffer complications, and a thousand eventually die, the center said. Abortion-related complications, it said, are one of the top 10 causes of hospitalization among women in the Philippines. According to the World Health Organization, 20 percent of maternal deaths in the country are a result of unsafe abortions.
It’s often observed, but still indisputably true: outlawing abortion doesn’t prevent abortion, it just makes women more likely to die or be maimed in the bargain. As in many other countries around the world, Filipino women’s lives are being sacrificed on the altar of Catholic dogma, their bodies treated as breeding stock to produce more children for the church. Atheists and freethinkers have every reason to stand against this – to reduce the power of a tyrannical religion, to promote human happiness by ensuring that every child is wanted, and to defend human liberty. But if we’re ever going to succeed, we need to build alliances with all women and treat them as full and equal partners in the effort, capable of exercising autonomy over their bodies and minds alike.