I can’t write about every story that crosses my radar, as much as I’d like to. But so much that’s noteworthy has been happening in the world lately, I’m overdue for a catch-up post.
First, there’s a glimmer of good news: the Dáil, the lower house of Ireland’s Parliament, easily passed a bill that (slightly) relaxes the draconian, no-exceptions abortion ban that killed Savita Halappanavar. The upper house, the Seanad, still has to approve it, but since the government controls both houses by a significant majority, this is expected to be a mere formality.
Granted, this bill isn’t even a full step forward; it’s more like a tiny, hesitant foot-shuffle. It allows abortion only in cases of grave risk to the mother’s life, but not in cases of rape, incest or fatal fetal abnormality. It’s so restrictive that the vast majority of Irish women seeking a termination will still have to travel to the U.K. Even so, it’s encountered ferocious resistance from the Catholic church: bishops and cardinals condemned the law as “morally unacceptable”, and Prime Minister Enda Kenny has spoken out about getting a flood of threatening letters, including some written in blood. (Kenny is the same brave PM who delivered a blistering speech about the church’s cover-up of child abuse in 2011.)
Let me reiterate this: A bill which legalizes abortion in no case other than to save the life of the woman is being fought tooth and nail by the Catholic hierarchy. What conclusion can we possibly draw from this, other than that Ireland’s bishops are indifferent to more women dying like Savita did?
And on that note: Chile, like Ireland and other Catholic-influenced countries, bans abortion under all circumstances, no exceptions. And we’re seeing another example of the horrible fallout of those laws: a pregnant 11-year-old girl who was raped by her mother’s boyfriend will be forced to bring that pregnancy to term. Even more stomach-turning, President Sebastian Pinera publicly spoke in support of the ban.
Granted, the girl herself has said she’s willing to keep the pregnancy. But it’s just not possible to realistically argue that an 11-year-old girl has either the physical maturity to safely carry the pregnancy to term, or the emotional and psychological maturity to be a mother. (I certainly wouldn’t say an 11-year-old Jehovah’s Witness with leukemia should decide for herself whether or not she wants blood transfusions; the same is true here.) Again, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that supporters of no-exception don’t care about either of those things, so long as they see women fulfill their God-given duty of child-birthing.
Next up, Myanmar. The junta-ruled Southeast Asian nation that imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi for decades was, until recently, undergoing a remarkably peaceful transition from military dictatorship to democracy. But that social change has hit a serious bump in the road: a faction of radical Buddhists (yes, Buddhists) preaching hate and violence against the country’s Muslim minority. Chief among them is a monk named Wirathu who’s been called “the Burmese Bin Laden” for his vituperative sermons, which are heavy with racist and nationalist rhetoric and praise mob violence against Muslims. As Christopher Hitchens said, religion poisons everything.
And though Islam is an oppressed minority religion in places like Myanmar, it continues to inspire its own share of violence and bloodshed where it has the power. In the tribal regions of Pakistan, for example, girls’ schools are under a state of siege from continuing Taliban violence. The brutal attack on Malala Yousafzai was just the most internationally visible instance of a campaign of violent intimidation, in the name of religion, to keep girls from getting an education:
Hira Gul, a 14-year-old pupil, was awakened by an explosion at midnight. The next morning she found a pile of rubble where her school had stood. The attack came as no surprise. “This has become very common in our area,” she said.
Her teacher, however, was profoundly affected. For days after the attack, the teacher, Fazeelat Bibi, visited the destroyed school every morning “to cry my heart out,” she said.
These stories are far from inspiring, I know. So, in the name of ending with some better news: I wrote a few years ago about the Kiva atheist lending team reaching the $1 million milestone. I’m happy to say the secular charity Foundation Beyond Belief has now joined that prestigious seven-digit club. As all these other stories show, it’s a drop in an ocean of need. But it’s also a reminder that atheists aren’t lacking in conscience or ethical concern, and that we want to see the world become a better place.