On the Privilege of Discussing Abortion

In April 2012 I was asked by a Secular Student Alliance affiliate to represent the pro-choice side in a debate on the morality of abortion at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. I was wary to accept. As a gay man, I reasoned I was less likely than most to be intimately affected by a pregnancy, and therefore I was not particularly comfortable speaking on the topic, and thought it would be better if a person with a uterus could be found to debate it. Furthermore, the debate took place shortly after an all-male panel had held a hearing on the mandate that health insurers provide contraception as part of their healthcare packages. And it was initially planned that I would be debating the issue against a Catholic Priest. The image of two men – one a gay man, the other a celibate Priest – debating a woman’s right to choose struck me as unsavory, perhaps even obscene.

I was assured, however, that no one with a uterus could be found to engage in the debate. No professor on campus, no SSA speaker, was willing to discuss the issue.  Reasoning that someone should stand up for a woman’s right to choose, I decided to accept the invitation to debate. I was aware at the time of some evidence that the US is becoming less supportive of the right to choose, with increasing numbers of younger people taking a stance opposed to reproductive rights. I had witnessed numerous attempts to restrict reproductive rights during my time in the USA – many of them successful – and found that trend abhorrent. I was aware of some early moves to restrict abortion rights in Ohio (moves which have had the effect of closing down many abortion clinics), and felt those needed to be opposed. I felt I had an opportunity to engage a community of students with a topic which is intellectually and ethically challenging, and I thought it might be a valuable educational experience to hear cogent arguments expressed on each side.

I spent weeks preparing for the debate. I wanted to do as good a job as I possibly could. I read countless philosophical papers on the ethics of abortion, watched more than ten full debates on the topic (including many featuring my opponent, Scott Klusendorf), and listened to many, many podcasts discussing the issue. I spent hours on websites of major organizations on each side of the debate. More importantly, I spoke to women. As sensitively as I could, I reached out to women I knew and who I felt would offer a perspective I might not have considered. I spoke to friends and colleagues, and to people in the secular movement, and tried to really understand what they were telling me. In order to get as full a picture of the topic I could I spoke both to women who were pro-choice and those who were not – and some of my most valuable discussions were with the women who found abortion to be a deeply problematic issue.

During my research I began to see how extraordinarily shallow and politically-motivated most of the arguments against abortion rights really are. Most of those arguments are not at all ethical investigations into the character of a particular choice, but thinly-veiled attempts to control women’s bodies, made most often by men. They are rooted in patriarchy, and seek to reinforce the illegitimate claim many men think they have to control what a woman does with her body. Digging beneath the surface of most “pro-life” arguments, I found that they are not “pro-life” at all, because they deeply disrespect and demean women and their right to live their life. It was impossible to escape the conclusion that many of the arguments came from a place in which a person with a uterus is just less of a person.

At the same time, I began to become uncomfortable with some of the ways the topic of abortion was discussed by the pro-choice side. While the anti-choice crowd had marshaled all their arguments and presented them in an easily-digestible, emotionally compelling form, I found less assistance was available making the pro-choice case. I also felt that in some of the discussions of abortion I read and watched, there was a dangerous lack of engagement of the question of fetal personhood among those who championed choice – not because the fetus is a person, but because the other side is capable of making such an emotionally compelling argument that it is a person that to entirely avoid that issue in the discussion is to run the risk of seeming deeply disingenuous. When one’s opponent is resting their entire case on one emotionally compelling point – you cannot exercise your bodily autonomy to kill a person – to not address the question of personhood was, I thought, a failing rhetorical strategy. I had watched with some unease a particular debate in which a prominent pro-choice advocate was eviscerated by the audience for simply refusing to address the question of whether, in the abortion procedure, a person was being killed – I say unease because, ultimately, I shared some of the audience’s frustration. It seemed to me that the question of personhood was, if not determinative, at least relevant, and that to avoid it was a sort of dodge which signaled, to the audience, a weakness in the pro-choice case. I did not wish to be seen to concede that weakness by avoiding that point, as I felt there is such a strong case that a fetus is not a person that it would make my argument stronger, and the rights of women more secure, to make that case openly and well.

I decided, therefore, to rest my argument on two points: 1) a fetus is not a person, and 2) a pregnant woman is a person. To the first point, I said that a developing fetus simply does not have the characteristics required of an organism to which we should give moral regard, and therefore we should not feel bad about killing it. To the second, I wanted to paint the anti-abortion position as an immoral, wicked, oppressive imposition on women which was itself morally abominable. This was particularly important to me: in a debate against people who end up showing endless videos and pictures of fetuses-which-look-like-babies and say that you are essentially pro-murder by supporting a woman’s right to choose, I wanted to put the shoe on the other foot and demonstrate just how vile the anti-abortion position really is, when cashed-out into practical consequences. I wanted to bring home the fact that anti-choice may mean forced-pregnancy. I wanted to hammer into the audience the idea that the anti-choice position is effectively pro-rapists’ rights. I wanted to ask to force my opponent to spell out what he would do with women who chose to have abortions after he successfully made them illegal: prison? Execution? I wanted to make it as morally uncomfortable to sustain the anti-choice position as possible by making the personhood of women vivid and compelling. I thought if I could do both of these things, it would be worth my participating in the debate, and that I might change some people’s minds.

I was, in other words, quite naive.

When I arrived at the location of the debate I was surprised by a number of things. First, there was a large anti-choice demonstration occurring on campus at the same time – one of those ones with thousands of little crosses all over the place. Then, the debate was held not in a university lecture hall filled with students, as I had imagined, but a huge warehouse-like space filled with hundreds of people who mostly seemed to be locals, rather than University students. The back of the room was crowded with people tabling, all of them (as I recall) anti-choice, with displays of pictures of babies and an old CRT television showing video of a baby-looking-fetus growing in the womb. One of the tables promised to offer pregnancy counselling and advice – but was handing out exactly the same literature as the explicitly anti-choice protest group across the hall (I have since learnt this is a common underhand tactic by anti-choice groups). It became immediately apparent to me that while I was imagining myself to be engaging in an interesting intellectual discussion on a very important ethical topic, I had in fact wandered right into the center of  an enormous political debate about the rights of women which I was almost certain, given the location and the audience, to lose - and that I had facilitated this roadshow by agreeing to turn up. I am a little embarrassed to admit that once the nature of the situation set in I had to leave the hall and take a few moments to compose myself.

What I had failed to realize, despite my weeks of preparation, is that my ability and willingness to enter into a space of “debate” around the issue of abortion is a manifestation of privilege. What you are wiling to debate – what is effectively “up for discussion” – is frequently a reflection of what you think, in principle, you might be willing to give up. What you are able to put on the table of public discourse are the things you don’t feel too threatened to let go of. During all my discussions on the topic before the debate it had never occurred to me that my ability to conduct the research and weigh the arguments in a reasonably dispassionate way was due to the fact that I simply will never have to face the decision to abort. I was discussing, and discoursing, and debating rights which are not mine to put up for discussion. By opening that debate, even taking the pro-choice side, I was essentially putting women’s right to autonomy on the table in a way I have no business doing. Engaging in abstract philosophical discussion about other people’s rights in a public forum, when those rights are constantly under threat in the current political and social climate, and when the answer to the questions you raise will never affect you directly, is a callous and thoughtless thing to do.

I know how this feels to some degree, because I feel a certain sense of outrage when straight people debate the rights of queer people. I have many times found infuriating the way that straight folks can casually discuss my right to get married the same way they might discuss where to go to lunch that day. When it is my fundamental rights being debated, it is very easy to see when the issues are being discussed with too much intellectual remove, and too little righteous anger. I have, more than once, tried angrily to impress upon those arguing against equal marriage (say) that it is my life they are talking about, not some topic for a class paper. My life. It is sadly less easy to see this happening when you are on the other side of the equation. The fact is that as much as I try to be an ally to women, I do not feel the sense of threat and personal affront when confronted with an argument against abortion which I feel when confronted with an argument against gay rights. It doesn’t hit me where I live – which makes me a very bad person to judge when and to what extent such discussions are appropriate.

I should have known better, then, than to have reposted on Facebook, without any critical commentary, an article by Kristine Kruszelnicki recently hosted on Hemant Mehta’s Friendly Atheist blog presenting a secular case against abortion. The case presented is shoddy and unconvincing, and it would have been far better, were I to post it at all, to have done so being explicit that I disagreed strongly with it and was posting it for the purpose of attempting to improve the arguments in favor of a woman’s right to choose. I should have been particularly mindful of posting that piece in such a way given the fact that the secular community still seems incapable of agreeing that women are indeed full people, and that it is not OK to proposition them endlessly at conferences, invade their personal space, grope them, make demeaning comments about their appearance all the time etc. Furthermore, I should have recognized that the posting of that article came closely on the heels of what seems to be a signal from Dave Silverman that American Atheists, Inc. might be willing to make common ground with conservatives on the question of abortion in order to further other “more clear-cut” secular aims (it is particularly stupid that I didn’t think of this given the fact I criticized Silverman myself for his statements at CPAC). When the bodily autonomy – and therefore fundamental dignity – of women is not firmly established, it is simply inappropriate to treat as an academic exercise questions of abortion rights – especially without framing those questions in any way.

Since posting that article I have given a lot of thought to the many comments I have received from members of the secular movement, from people with uteri, from philosophers and people whose ideas and thoughts I respect. I have reached out privately to talk to many women. I have reached out to my colleagues at the American Ethical Union and benefited from their views. I have noted the fact that my Facebook comment threads regarding this issue are overwhelmingly filled with men, and that women often seem to not wish to comment. I have noted, too, that people who do not have a certain set of privileges associated with being a man are telling me I am being privilege-blind at this moment, and I have come to the conclusion they are correct. Although it is not pleasant to be criticized by people you respect greatly, and with whom you share important values, I would like those who have offered criticism to know that, ultimately, I value the chance to discover where I was wrong, as in this instance.

I do still believe that the philosophical and ethical question as to what constitutes a person is an important one: the way I view ethics, this question is central to pretty much everything. I do feel the need to find spaces to discuss that question – and the implications an answer to that question might have for reproductive rights – in some setting. I am genuinely struck by the fact that there are some women (including some who have contacted me while I have been considering this issue) who do articulate a secular case against abortion (in some very limited circumstances) which, to my mind, does not rely on denying or abridging the autonomy of women. As someone who intends to spend much of my life exploring ethical questions in the public sphere, I think I have a duty to try to explore those arguments in as fair-minded a way as I can, with people willing to explore them with me. I also believe that engaging in such an exploration might well lead to an argument for reproductive rights which is stronger than those which we currently use, and which asserts women’s right to bodily autonomy even more effectively than we can do so currently. But I need not necessarily do this on my Facebook wall, and I should never begin such a discussion with the uncritical reposting of a bad argument against women’s rights.*

That was wrong, and I apologize.

*I made a small edit to make it clear that I do think these questions might, if properly framed and targeted, be viable for discussion on Facebook – and some good might come of it. I don’t want to take that venue for these discussions entirely off the table. I do wish to use that venue much more consciously in the future, however.

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About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.


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