As I mentioned in an earlier post, David Silverman of American Atheists incited a firestorm when he said at CPAC this year that there was a secular argument against abortion rights. He’s not the only one: Disappointingly, my Patheos colleague Friendly Atheist gave a platform to an anti-choice atheist earlier this month and then declined to post a rebuttal by the group Secular Woman. In response, SW started a hashtag, #UpForDebate, sarcastically asking what else we should consider negotiable among atheists. (Correction: As noted in comments, the #UpForDebate hashtag was started by Elsa Roberts.)
The secular community has always been defined by debate and persuasion, and it’s right that it should be. We wouldn’t have the right to call ourselves freethinkers if we decreed a set of Approved Opinions for all members to adhere to; only religions do that sort of thing. There are legitimate debates to be had: about, say, the moral case for vegetarianism, or the wisdom of gun ownership, or the advisability of human cloning, or the diplomats vs. firebrands question of how to do political activism. And yes, there’s even room for debate about what there should be debate about.
But at the same time, there are some questions that are clearly outside the bounds of legitimate discussion. No one would tolerate a presentation on whether we should have separate, segregated conventions for black and white secularists. No one would countenance a “secular” argument for outlawing same-sex marriage, or ask whether women’s suffrage should be revoked. If anyone in our community advocated anything like this, there’d be a furious outcry, and no one would accept the disingenuous “but I was just playing devil’s advocate” defense.
What determines which is which? There’s a common thread that runs between all the intolerable arguments, and it’s that they disparage or deny the fundamental equality of some group of human beings. In the secular community, it ought to be an uncontroversial moral principle that all people possess the same rights and freedoms. We don’t tolerate exceptions to this rule, nor should we.And abortion should be recognized as belonging to that same category of fundamental equality. The right to reproductive choice stems from the principle of bodily autonomy, the idea that we own our own bodies and can do with them as we wish. I can’t force you to give a kidney or a lung to me, even if you’re the only compatible donor and I’ll die without one. The idea of coerced organ harvesting from unwilling people shocks the conscience, as it should. Why should a uterus be treated any differently? Why should this otherwise uncontroversial idea be suddenly open to debate when a woman becomes pregnant?
What makes this especially infuriating to women and other uterus-havers is when issues of justice that affect their lives every day are treated like an idle thought experiment of no real-world consequence. This is more true than ever of abortion, which is under attack as never before. In just the past few years, religious-right-dominated legislatures have introduced hundreds of anti-choice bills across the country, from TRAP laws designed to shut down clinics with intentionally impossible regulation, to fetal-heartbeat laws that outlaw abortion even for pregnancies that are killing the woman. To pretend that the pros and cons of abortion can be dispassionately debated in this climate lends credibility to these vicious and extremist ideas.
That’s not to say that we should ban all mention of these ideas. We can and should argue against them. But you can refute a view without debating those who hold it; you can debunk their fallacies without giving them a platform to spread more. No less a secular personage than Richard Dawkins has said this, explaining that he doesn’t debate creationists because it only gives them publicity they don’t deserve. We in the secular community ought to treat anti-choicers the same way. That shouldn’t be a difficult call, since the nonreligious are overwhelmingly pro-choice – and yet there are far too many prominent atheists who keep making these entirely avoidable, alienating blunders.