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.

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.

  • Steersman

    Quite a well argued position, if tending to bending over backwards a little too far, but one I have more than a little sympathy for.

    However, as you sort of suggested, I think it reasonable to argue that “women’s right to autonomy” is not an absolute – something which many seem to be framing it as. Seems we already abrogate many men’s “right to bodily autonomy” by obliging them to put themselves in harm’s way – of substantially greater impact – by sending them off to war, so it only seems fair that women could, hypothetically and analogously speaking again, be obliged to do likewise.

    Curious that we talk of the “greatest good for the greatest number” – frequently when it’s other people who have to pay the freight as in dying on various battlefields of war – yet fail to see its relevance in other moral conundra – maybe a bit of “female privilege” speaking? Particularly since, at least Stateside and if I’m not mistaken, they aren’t obliged to register for the draft as a precondition for
    being able to vote, or to access any number of other benefits – something which
    noticeably “sticks in the craw” of many “MRAs”, and even those who are less
    doctrinaire or dogmatic.

    While that perspective or situation might be more academic than not, I would suggest that “bodily autonomy” is a little bit of a weak reed to be putting all that much faith in.

    • Heina Dadabhoy

      Most feminists are for women getting to participate equally in the military, so what you’re saying hardly points out any hypocrisies against men on our part.

      • Ibis3

        Also, I would suspect most feminists disagree with mandatory military service for persons of any sex.

        • http://freethoughtblogs.com/brutereason Miri

          And even if they didn’t, who has traditionally been in charge of the military and keeping women out of it? …men, not female feminists.

          Doesn’t make it right, or “not our problem,” but this isn’t one I’d blame on the feminists.

          • Steersman

            Not really a question of “blaming it on the feminists” – although I would happily argue that there is much that could be laid at their doorsteps, not least of which is that
            many of them are apparently driven by a “virulent anti-science, anti-intellectual sentiment” which they seem to have picked up, or been “brainwashed” to believe, in various “Women Studies” programs.

            No, it seems the question is more one of how much weight can justifiably be put on that “bodily autonomy” “principle”. While I certainly wouldn’t argue for a serious curtailment of access to abortion services as I think it analogous to triage and the least expensive solution, at least in the short term, I don’t think it helps the cause of “feminism” to be over-relying on a questionable premise, on trying to insist that it is some kind of absolute. I thought y’all abandoned that when you parted company with religion.

          • Thrumugnyr

            Oh look, someone puts Women Studies in quotation marks. What a rebel against evil feminist indoctrination!

          • Steersman

            The authors of the book Professing Feminism: Education and Indoctrination in Women’s Studies seemed to have some sympathy with that idea. Something echoed by this review – apparently by some feminists – of the book which notes:

            The book is a critique on Women Studies departments in the United States. The authors interviewed dozens of women, from staff to professors to students, all quite supportive of feminism, but all still sharing the same criticism of infighting, indoctrination, political correctness and a near total lack of objective discussion.
            The authors, however, demonstrate that these problems have existed since their ideology’s inception, and were particularly common within Women Studies programs. The authors wrote of the isolationist attitude that dominates many of the programs, along with a virulent anti-science, anti-intellectual sentiment driving many of the professors, staff and students. [my emphasis]

            It seems, fortunately, that not all “feminists” are so dogmatic or “brainwashed” as to insist, as did Ophelia Benson, that “connecting ‘virulent’ with ‘feminism’ is misogny”.

          • Michelle

            Straight up appeal to authority. What would be important is whether there are valid reasons for such a stance. I doubt it, using language like “virulent” and claiming “political incorrectness” suggests they lack objectivity themselves.

          • Steersman

            You might actually want to try wrapping your head around the idea that there is frequently some justification for granting some people some authority, for thinking that they might actually know whereof they speak. In the case of Daphne Patai, one of the authors of that book, consider this selected list of her published works:

            1) Myth and Ideology in Contemporary Brazilian
            Literature (Associated University Presses, 1983)

            2) The Orwell Mystique: A Study in Male Ideology
            (University of Massachusetts Press, 1984)

            3) Brazilian Women Speak: Contemporary Life Stories
            (Rutgers University Press, 1988; 1993)

            4) Women’s Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral
            History (co-edited with Sherna Berger Gluck; Routledge, 1991)

            5) Rediscovering Forgotten Radicals: British Women
            Writers 1889-1939 (co-edited with Angela Ingram; University of North Carolina
            Press, 1993)

            6) Professing Feminism: Cautionary Tales from the
            Strange World of Women’s Studies (written with Noretta Koertge; Basic Books,

            7) Professing Feminism: Education and Indoctrination
            in Women’s Studies (with N. Koertge; new and expanded edition; Lexington Books,

            8) Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of
            Feminism (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1998)

            9) Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent (co-edited
            with Will H. Corral; Columbia University Press, 2005)

            10) What Price Utopia? Essays on Ideological Policing,
            Feminism, and Academic Affairs (Rowman and Littlefield, 2008)

            11) Historia Oral, Feminismo e Politica (São Paulo:
            Letra e Voz, 2010).

            You have anything remotely like that to justify your claims?

          • Michelle

            Except it’s not an analogous situation. We are talking about *bodily*
            integrity and autonomy which is elided in making this argument. There is
            no abrogation of men’s rights in medical decision making in this situation at all, in fact irrespective of whether they are compelled or otherwise to sign a piece of paper or may be called up. They still retain those rights in all cases.

            I’ll also mention that you are also stating this as if this applies to all men at all times, when that is not the case – as you are talking pretty much one country that has this policy whereas in the case of contraception, abortion and sterilisation there are a raft of laws and regulations worldwide which mean that women in this particular case cannot simply make a medical decision in consultation with a health professional as they can if say for instance, they had appendicitis. There is no comparable situation for men where one or more rights are abridged in medical decision making.

          • Steersman

            Except it’s not an analogous situation. We are talking about *bodily* integrity and autonomy which is elided in making this argument. There is no abrogation of men’s rights in medical decision making in this situation at all ….

            You really should – if I can use that word without being dog-piled – take a close look at that Wikipedia article on analogies that I quoted and discussed earlier. To repeat, consider the following paradigmatic example mentioned there as well as its subsequent discussion:

            “Hand is to palm as foot is to sole”

            It’s important to note that the above analogy is not comparing all the properties between a hand and a foot, but rather comparing the relationship between a hand and its palm to a foot and its sole. While a hand and a foot have many dissimilarities, the analogy is focusing on their similarity in having an inner surface.

            I’ll readily agree that there are dissimilarities between abortions for women, and men being sent off to war. And one of the biggies is that abortion is legal which absolves women of the pain and trauma of childbirth, not to mention the long-term costs, whereas men, if the Selective Service System were to mandate the draft, would be forcibly exposed to the threat of death and dismemberment. However, the significant similarity is that IF women were denied access to abortion services through force of law THEN both females and males would be in the same boat: both put in harm’s way through legal actions by society that, in effect, abrogate their “right” to “bodily autonomy”. And if society already implements that system, even if it hasn’t used it in the last 30 years, then why shouldn’t it do so in the case of abortion?

            While I’ll readily agree that the situations are not exactly the same since there are a number of hypotheticals in play, you might want to play closer attention to the similarities and to the underlying implications.

      • Steersman

        Really don’t see the question as one of “participating equally in the military”, but one of society, in general, abrogating some men’s rights to “bodily autonomy” while significant segments of that same society – who, one might argue, derive significant benefits from that abrogation – insist on upholding that “principle” when it comes to their own circumstances. Looks rather inequitable to me.

        • Lilandra

          I am so tired of nearly every conversation about women’s rights in our community being derailed by talking about an unrelated men’s rights issue. It sucks all of the oxygen out of the room. Is it possible if that is your concern to discuss men’s rights in a forum where that is the topic of discussion?

          • Steersman

            And I am so tired of the inability, or unwillingness, of a great many “feminists” to wrap their heads around the concept and uses of analogies. Which, not to put too fine a point on it, was what that reference to the Selective Service System was all about.

            But, to elaborate somewhat, consider the following paradigmatic example discussed in the Wikipedia article on the topic as well as its subsequent discussion therein:

            “Hand is to palm as foot is to sole”

            It’s important to note that the above analogy is not comparing all the properties between a hand and a foot, but rather comparing the relationship between a hand and its palm to a foot and its sole. While a hand and a foot have many dissimilarities, the analogy is focusing on their similarity in having an inner surface.

            And in the analogy that I proffered we have:

            Abortion is to the abrogation of women’s bodily autonomy as the Selective Service System is to the abrogation of men’s bodily autonomy.

            And the relationship, the similarity, is that it is well within the scope and “right” of societies to limit or abrogate the bodily autonomy of its citizens should it so decide –
            even if from a “god’s-eye” point of view it is not particularly ethical or wise. And if many “feminists”, as part of that society, give tacit approval to one application of that “principle” then it seems no more than cricket that it could be applied to them: sauce for the goose is indeed sauce for the gander.

            Not that I particularly think that it would be wise to do so, to make it illegal to have an abortion as that seems a cure worse than the disease, only that, as I’ve mentioned only some dozen times, “bodily autonomy” hardly seems the absolute that many wish to make it out as.

            But I’m also rather tired of the efforts of people such as Sarah Moglia to dismiss criticisms of “feminism” and “feminists” with “the m-word” [misogyny] as if it were some “ultimate trump card to which one cannot possibly dare to reply”. And, similarly, of the efforts of those such as yourself to deny that “men’s rights issues” frequently have some bearing on those for women.

        • Armanatar

          The point being argued, though, is that the people arguing in favor of bodily autonomy on the subject of abortion would also support that same principle being used with respect to the draft. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anyone argue in favor of abortion rights and also in favor of a gender-based draft.

          • Steersman

            You’ve done a survey and have some statistical evidence to support that claim? But, assuming that that is more or less the case, one might still wonder why there are so few people clamoring for either the disbanding of the Selective Service System or its broadening to include women. While there is maybe some justification for questioning the motives or comprehension of those MRAs who focus on that issue, particularly as a criticism of feminism, one might suggest that the most effective way of dealing with those criticisms, of taking the wind out of their sails, is to address the root cause.

            In any case, my point is still that society frequently has some justifications for abrogating the “bodily autonomy” of various individuals and groups within it. Which might well include those seeking abortion services. While I am a very long way from arguing that abortion should be made illegal as I expect that that would be a cure very much worse than the disease, I tend to think that it doesn’t take a lot of thought or effort to argue that it is still in fact a disease. And that the first step in finding a workable cure is to recognize that fact.

      • Thrumugnyr

        I’d say most feminists should rather be for /no one/ having to participate in the military if they don’t want to. So of course bodily autonomy counts for men as well. But people who are against that are more or less the same people as those who are against abortion anyway…

    • TychaBrahe

      Considering that we do not currently have mandatory conscription, and haven’t for several decades, and considering that many feminists either disagree with the notion of military service entirely or believe that women should be as eligible for service as men are, this comment smacks of “what about the men”-ism.

      We aren’t talking about military service. We are talking about abortion. When we talk about abortion as an issue of bodily autonomy, we bring up examples of things like organ donation or blood donation. No one can be forced to donate a kidney to save someone else’s life. No one can even be forced to donate blood, which is a relatively painless procedure many people undergo up to seven times per year. And yet some people think that women should be forced to turn their bodies over to a zygote/embryo/fetus.

      • Steersman

        Really? Cheese still looks just as binding:

        The Selective Service System is an independent agency of the United States government that maintains information on those potentially subject to military conscription. Most male U.S. citizens and male immigrant non-citizens between the ages of 18 and 25 are required by law to have registered within 30 days of their 18th birthdays[2][3] and must notify Selective Service within ten days of any changes to any of the information they provided on their registration cards, like a change of address.

        I don’t see anything there about a repeal, or being applicable now to women. But maybe you’re closer to ground-zero and can set us all clear on the point.

        We aren’t talking about military service. We are talking about abortion.

        And I’m not talking about military service either. It was an analogy – sort of like the one Ophelia Benson created to (quite credibly) compare Nazi Germany to TAM. With the same basic purpose of “transferring information or meaning from a particular subject (the analogue or source) to another particular subject (the target), or a linguistic expression corresponding to such a process” with the objective of problem solving and elucidation of similar structures. As Crommunist put it some time ago:

        Analogy is an excellent method of exposing inconsistencies in logic, which is an important component of refuting bad arguments.

        In this case, that it is “inconsistent” – being charitable – to insist on the “principle” of “bodily autonomy” while turning a deaf ear to the quite credible complaints of many men that they are selectively being discriminated against through the abrogation of that same principle in their circumstances. “Female privilege” perchance?

        • Robert Baden

          As someone who’s parents were planning to send me to Canada (don’t know if I would have gone or accepted being taken by the draft.), there is no comparison between having to register and having an actual draft. I would say a good comparison would be between the selective service now and the potential threat to abortion services ten or twenty years ago by anti-abortion activists.. And if you are that concerned about the selective service you should concentrate on that, not on offending potential allies.

    • Michael Neville

      Trust an MRA to whine “what about the menz” in a discussion about a women’s topic.

    • Steve Caldwell

      Seems we already abrogate many men’s “right to bodily autonomy” by obliging them to put themselves in harm’s way – of substantially greater impact – by sending them off to war, so it only seems fair that women could, hypothetically and analogously speaking again, be obliged to do likewise.

      Sir, you are aware that women are serving in combat today in the United States and in other nations’ military services.

      • Steersman

        Methinks that you’re kind of missing my point. It is not that some women voluntarily put themselves in harm’s way through military service but that many men are involuntarily forced to do so – which is an abrogation of their “right” to “bodily autonomy”. And if that is applied to many men then why shouldn’t that apply equally to many women? As in being obliged to carry their fetuses to term. Sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander.

        • Pattrsn

          Did the US government bring back the draft?

          • Steersman

            I’ll concede that the US government hasn’t actually called up the draft, and that, apparently at least, no men have been involuntarily forced to put themselves in harm’s way, at least in the last 30-odd years. But the law and system still exist and are still biased against men, and are entirely capable of doing precisely that, i.e., abrogating their bodily autonomy and putting them in the way of some serious harm. And something one might argue is still the case, at least in attenuated form, through the obligation to register.

          • Pattrsn

            Not very relevant then is it

          • san_ban

            Sometimes, it’s not about the menz!

        • Brian

          “It is not that some women voluntarily put themselves in harm’s way through military service but that many men are involuntarily forced to do so ”

          Zero. There are zero men involuntarily forced to be in the army right now. Your argument is 40 years out of date.

          • Steersman

            The Selective Service System still exists and it continues to register young men and penalizes them if they don’t. As I’ve noted and conceded several times.

            But in that very fact is potential for forcibly being put in harm’s way. In addition it still seems, in some degree, an abrogation of their autonomy.

          • Brian

            “The Selective Service System still exists and it continues to register young men and penalizes them if they don’t.”

            That is not forcing someone to put their body in harm’s way through military service.

            “But in that very fact is potential for forcibly being put in harm’s way.”

            Not really, as there is not currently a draft nor is there likely to be one anytime soon. And even so, “potential” doesn’t mean it’s happening now, which was your first claim.

            “In addition it still seems, in some degree, an abrogation of their autonomy.”

            I suppose the autonomy of their arm is removed for the quarter of a second it takes to tick off a box on a form. Hardly equivalent.

    • TheTrue Pooka

      Bringing up the topic of war is a non sequitur. It’s also a dead argument as the DOD has made it clear they will not make use of the draft and have not done so in the over 30 past years we have constantly been at war.

      Add to that the fact that the political winds are blowing in a direction that means the selective service registration will be gone soon and women are now able to serve in combat infantry units (a right they were denied by men that they had to fight for).

      In fact, considering women got the right to body autonomy right around the time Nixon did away with selective service (he did, it was brought back a few years later unfortunately) clearly shows that your argument actually supports the ethical case for body autonomy.
      I discuss this topic in this video here.


      • Msironen

        So seeing as in Finland we have mandatory military service for men, we’re A-OK to ban abortion?

        In other words, it’s your US-centric argument that is a non sequitur.

        • TheTrue Pooka

          “So seeing as in Finland we have mandatory military service for men,…”

          Cherry picking. Finland has mandatory military service AND civilian service plus exemptions for certain populations based on geogrpahy.

          “we’re A-OK to ban abortion?”

          Strawman in the form of a question.

          “In other words, it’s your US-centric argument that is a non sequitur.”

          Clearly you don’t know how to properly apply the label of “non sequitur”.

          • Msironen

            “Strawman in the form of a question.”

            It’s an honest question. Is bodily autonomy a universal principle or are some animals a little bit more equal than others?

            “Clearly you don’t know how to properly apply the label of “non sequitur”.”

            Clearly you’d rather quibble about semantics than defend your argument.

          • TheTrue Pooka

            “It’s an honest question.”


            “Is bodily autonomy a universal principle or are some animals a little bit more equal than others?”

            Could be considered an honest question (especially as a stand alone question) however it is not what you said. You said this;

            “So seeing as in Finland we have mandatory military service for men, we’re A-OK to ban abortion?”

            In response to my words which is a strawman in the form of the question.

            “Clearly you’d rather quibble about semantics than defend your argument.”

            Thanks for making it clear that your initial question was in fact, a strawman since your phrasing was not at all what I said or intimated.

            And what you call; “quibbling” I call; “Using proper reasoning and logic to prevent a further slide into the idiocy that our society suffers and is causing its inevitable disintegration.”

            Now do you want to discuss the topic of animals and equality or would you prefer to continue to discuss debate tactics, fallacies and reasoning?

  • Heina Dadabhoy

    It’s no easy thing to admit that you were wrong about something. I admire you for admitting it in a way that is sincere. Thank you.

  • InDogITrust

    “I was discussing, and discoursing, and debating rights which are not mine to put up for discussion.”
    EXACTLY! Thank you for being one of the few and the brave to see and admit this.

  • diannebrown

    Thanks, James.

    This is now on my “Stuff I think everyone should read” list.


  • Chas Stewart

    You’re an insightful, introspective philosopher and your opinions on all subjects edify me so I think losing your voice on these ethical dilemmas is a bad thing.

    Also, can it not be good, conversation wise, to not know what the original poster thinks when sharing these arguments so that we can reason for ourselves?

    • jflcroft

      I want to make it clear I have not said I will not keep exploring this issue – quite the opposite. I have said I will be more conscious of how I do so in the future.

  • Michael Neville

    I’ve seen you in action at FTB. Sorry about catching you out as a liar.

    • Chas Stewart

      Steersman’s cool.

    • Steersman

      You have some evidence to support your insinuation? Or are you just going to rely on inuendo?

  • http://skepticink.com/notung Notung

    What about women without uteri?

    • onamission5

      Their bodily autonomy is also important.

      In terms of abortion, it is trans men and cis women who bear the full brunt of having our bodily autonomy put up for public debate. It is therefore accurate and fair to focus on people with uteri when it comes to abortion rights, because women and men without uteri are not at risk of violation of their bodily autonomy via other people politicking/moralizing over their unwanted or dangerous pregnancy.

    • jflcroft

      I thank you for this question. I struggled while writing the piece to use the most appropriate terminology throughout. I used the term “people with uteri” in the start, then moved to using “women” later because, in all honesty, when I talked to people about this issue I did only talk to people who identify as women. I’m still thinking about the use of these different terms as they relate to this discussion.

      • http://skepticink.com/notung Notung

        My point is less to do with identity and more to do with hysterectomies. Are women who have had hysterectomies in the same boat as men regarding abortion?

        • Ann

          Interesting question. As a woman who is closing in on menopause I suppose I may be technically in that camp as well in a few years. I can tell you that while this has not changed my pro-choice stance one iota, I do have an evolving emotional state when considering the issue since I know my likelihood of encountering the choice is decreasing.

          I do think it’s fair to say that anyone who will have, has, or has had the potential for making the choice for herself most likely does have a very different emotional investment in the issue than those who won’t, haven’t, and never will.

          That being said, I do think it’s entirely possible for humans incapable of pregnancy to be able to empathize with the idea of bodily autonomy. I have never resented male allies who support and advocate for a woman’s right to make decisions regarding her own body.

          Honestly, I’m frequently unable to “debate” the issue as I feel there is nothing to debate. My body. My decision. Done. Which may be why other women are not inclined to discuss it when it comes up. Since it is a politically charged issue, I’m grateful there are people of all types willing to argue the point.

  • jjramsey

    It occurs to me that there’s debate and there’s “debate”.

    There’s “debate” in the sense of a show where two people with opposing views get on stage and each attempt to woo an audience into believing his/her own views, and often the “winner” of such a “debate” is taken to be the one who has put on the best show rather than the most solid arguments. Furthermore, in that sort of “debate,” the choice of “winner” is often rigged, as our blog host rather painfully discovered from his own experience. There is certainly no shame in not wanting to discuss abortion in such a circus.

    On the other hand, there’s also debate in the more general sense of arguments over ideas, and in that case, there’s no real question about whether anyone should engage in that kind of debate about abortion. That ship has long since sailed; the debate has already been happening for quite some time. In that sense, I see a problem with saying,

    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.

    Women’s autonomy was already “on the table” at that point, like it or not. It’s been on the table as long as there’s been a debate about abortion, and it will be as long as that debate continues. The question, then, is what to do now that it is on the table.

    • jflcroft

      I hope I was clear in the post that I do not oppose, nor will not abscond myself, from debates about the ethical implications of abortion in appropriate contexts. I would not even say I would automatically refuse an invitation to formally debate the topic if one were offered in the future. But I would certainly go into these debates (of both kinds) with a different sort of awareness about the issue. That is what I was trying to convey in the post above.

  • Pattrsn

    Well then why are you using an idiotic MRA argument?

  • Little_Magpie

    James, thanks for a thoughtful and sincere post, and for graciously, sincerely, apologizing when you’ve messed up. Sadly, few people can do that.

    Also, don’t forget that, while you are coming from a position of privilege, and of not being personally affected, that doesn’t invalidate your arguments and opinions on the matter. You are a thoughtful guy and may well have something valuable to contribute to the debate, as long as you’re more careful about how you do it.

    tl;dr: thanks for a genuine, heartfelt apology, and keep being an ally. You rock.

    • jflcroft

      I hope I will have something to contribute to the discussion! I also hope I will make my contribution in a thoughtful way, mindful of the cultural context in which I am working. I am not stepping back from exploration of these issues, as I say in the post – just being more mindful about how I conduct them.

  • Paul Loebe
  • http://secularwoman.org Elsa Roberts

    Thank you for this. A bright spot amid a morass of refusal to recognize why so many atheist women are angry about having our rights cavalierly debated.

  • jflcroft

    Hi everybody! I’m sorry I’ve been absent from the comments: there were some settings issues which prevented me from seeing them. I want to reiterate that although I support robust debate on my blog, I do not allow personal insults of any kind. I am editing some comments to reflect that policy. Thank you!

  • jflcroft

    Please note personal attacks are not allowed in the comments of my blog for any reason.

  • Jesse Markus

    Good on ya, Croft.

  • Pattrsn

    Don’t be ridiculous, unlike your absurd hypothetical situation, abortion is a real issue, that’s affecting real women right now. Your analogy is just crap, it has no bearing, that’s why it’s irrelevant.

  • Robert Baden

    Are you actively opposing draft registration?

    Also, there was quite a bit of resistance to both the Vietnam War and the draft when I was coming up on draft age. I participated, even as young as I was.

    • Steersman

      Actually no, I’m not. What I’m saying is that if society finds what are, arguably, “good” reasons to abrogate the “bodily autonomy” of males then it might well find other equally “good” reasons to do that for females – i.e., restricting or
      limiting access to abortion services.

  • Hibernia86

    I think it should be pointed out that just because someone has a uterus does not mean that they are the best person to discuss abortion. They might not have studied the issue or they might themselves be pro-life (as 46% of American women are). Debates should be based on knowledge, not on gender.

  • Brian

    I suppose if someone is unable or unwilling to comprehend the nature of analogies then I can see how they might think “but the draft” is a sensible analogy to make.

  • http://rationaloutlook.wordpress.com/ rationaloutlook

    I disagree with you. You say you are considering both sides but make it sound as if only one life (the mother’s) is relevant and the other isn’t. In a world where people think it’s okay to kill and eat animals, to abort late-term fetuses (US is one of the few countries where it’s legal to abort them), I think we need more people who value life, not the opposite.

    This article by Matthew Scully, former presidential speechwriter is a compelling read. “Pro-Life, Pro-Animal.” http://www.nationalreview.com/article/359761/pro-life-pro-animal-matthew-scully

  • Ann

    Thank you.

  • Betsy Kolmus

    Hi James – I’m slated to argue the pro-life side of an abortion debate in an ethics class this semester. (I signed up for it because I’m loudly and angrily pro-choice outside the classroom.) I would love to know where I can find these secular, pro-life arguments that don’t hinge on denying bodily autonomy and are made by women…