Pro-lifers find me, and they find me irritating.
After the recent Republican push to restrict women’s reproductive rights, I reposted my 2018 column Pro-Life Is About Oppressing Women. That’s All. This was a post that described the way pro-life propaganda erases women by focusing on the fetus; in it, I cited a post from the Patheos blog Catholic Working Mother, which discussed the matter of abortion and never once mentioned the mother. (Incidentally, I was just using Catholic Working Mother’s post as an example of a phenomenon I’ve noticed for years. Whether discussions originate from the pro-life or pro-choice side, I find it disturbing how comfortable we are engaging in debate over women’s reproductive rights without talking about women.)
A Poor Excuse for a Debate
Trent Horn, a Catholic apologist, public speaker and podcast host, appeared in the comments section of my repost and invited me to discuss the matter on his podcast. We figured out a time for me to talk to Trent in his studio via phone, and the resulting podcast is on his website here:
I’m reluctant to listen to the podcast myself, the same way you’d feel reluctant to watch a video of yourself being mugged. Trent is a seasoned debater and has quite the bag of tricks, and the only thing I wanted to do was explain my point about the erasure of women from the matter of abortion. After Trent recited passages from my article with all the brio of a ten-year-old reading aloud from a schoolbook, I started out by trying to establish that there’s a significant difference between a fetus and an infant: the woman herself. Trent responded that he didn’t consider the woman “a morally relevant difference.”
There’s nowhere a discussion about women’s rights can really go from there, except downhill. And that’s exactly where it went. On the bright side, my loyal detractors will no doubt enjoy hearing me drown in a deluge of leading questions.
Enter The Mom
The fun continued when JoAnna Wahlund from Catholic Working Mother, after hearing Trent’s podcast, responded to my post with a rebuttal entitled—you guessed it—Pro-Life Isn’t About Oppressing Women. JoAnna claimed that I was wrong to criticize her for not mentioning the woman in her original article. After all, she was dealing with the science of the matter, which in the pro-lifer’s unique reformulation appears to exclude the woman:
Trent mentioned this excerpt and then said, correctly, that the purpose of my article was to discuss the science of human development and the scientific proof that an unborn child is a human being. He said, “She’s not even talking about abortion, she’s making a scientific point.”
Well, science fans, at least give me credit for consistency. I don’t buy when you guys use science words to validate your prejudices, and I don’t buy it when pro-lifers do it either. I mentioned to Trent during our discussion that the idea that “science says” that human life begins at conception is just the sort of arbitrary distinction that pro-choicers feel uncomfortable making. Questions about when someone acquires humanity, and where life begins, are philosophical questions, not scientific matters.
JoAnna claims that pro-lifers are all about helping women. Just look at the slew of services that pro-lifers offer to women in need:
The solution to crisis pregnancies are to fix the crisis, not kill the unborn human being. Are there financial concerns? We want to provide help and resources, free prenatal care, etc. Is she in an abusive relationship? We want to help her get out the of the abusive relationship, get counseling, get employment, etc. Does she not feel capable of being a parent? We want to help with classes or counseling or forming an adoption plan.
It’s just that easy! It makes you wonder what color the sky is in JoAnna’s world, where typing words on a screen creates a robust social safety net and motivates the entire community to roll out the red carpet for millions of desperate women in need.
Demonization Without Justification
Predictably, the conclusion of JoAnna’s post is just more of the baby-killer rhetoric that’s the first, middle and last resort of the pro-lifer:
We love the woman and we want to HELP her improve her circumstances, not oppress her. We don’t want to perpetuate the lie that the ONLY solution to her problems is the end the life of another human being. If we thought that violence was a solution to problems, we’d be pro-choice. And if preventing one human being from killing another human being is oppression, all laws prohibiting murder are unjust.
Here JoAnna is just paying more lip service to the idea of helping a woman. Forcing her to endure pregnancy and childbirth against her will, even if it’s the result of a rape or assault, is the dictionary definition of oppression. Furthermore, the idea that anything is the ONLY solution to her problems is one that only pro-lifers assert: they want the woman to have no other option but to continue with the pregnancy and give birth whether she likes it or not. The references to violence and killing are just stock devices of a pro-lifer with no qualms about spewing moralistic invective against sexually active women.
Escape from Responsibility
I happen to agree with JoAnna and Trent that the matter of abortion is all about responsibility. However, they consider the responsibility to be on the part of a woman who (whether she got pregnant through consensual sex or after being raped) has a responsibility to bear the man’s child without complaint just like in the old days. I think it’s more about our responsibility to justify our opinions about public policy and take ownership of them rather than pass the buck to science or religious dogma. It could very well be that the entire matter of abortion boils down to a choice between dehumanizing a fetus or dehumanizing an adult woman; I’ll admit I’m more comfortable with denying the rights of a human who hasn’t even been born yet rather than reducing a living, breathing woman to a mere housing for a fetus.
If you want to talk about responsibility, I think it’s obvious that pro-lifers cling to the baby-killer trope merely because it absolves them of any responsibility for the consequences of forcing women to give birth. Joanna says as much in her rebuttal:
You kept claiming we “erased the woman” by ignoring the reasons women seek abortion — financial circumstances, involvement in abusive relationships, not feeling capable of parenthood, and so on. We pro-lifers aren’t ignoring anything. We know there are myriad reasons women seek abortion. The thing is, we believe that those reasons are not sufficient reason to violate the human rights of another human being.
If a woman claims that she doesn’t have the emotional or material resources to care for a child, and chooses to prevent a child from being born, I see that as taking responsibility. However, the pro-lifer doesn’t seem to feel the need to accept responsibility for forcing a woman in such a situation to undergo pregnancy and give birth. Trent even conceded that the maternal mortality rate in the USA is the highest in the developed world, but the prospect of a woman dying giving birth to an unwanted child still didn’t complicate the issue for him. If the child is born into a situation where it’s subject to deprivation, neglect, or abuse, that doesn’t seem to concern the pro-lifer either. To me, that amount of indifference to suffering—the real suffering of conscious women and children—is irresponsible to the point of psychopathy. And it entirely negates the pro-lifer’s appeals to her boundless, noble compassion.
Politics and Pro-Life
It behooves us to keep in mind that pro-life Catholics like JoAnna and Trent are politically conservative. So it’s safe to assume that they’re not so staunchly opposed to the suffering of children that they’d support gun control measures that would protect them from mass shooters. The suffering of children in the aftermath of the USA’s wars of empire abroad, or in detention centers along the Mexican border evidently doesn’t motivate them to write blog posts. And it goes without saying that neither has gone on record as condemning the Catholic Church for the reprehensible child abuse it enabled and covered up.
I don’t see this as some weird aberration or oversight on the part of pro-lifers. It’s exactly what we’d expect to see from people who claim to care about the plight of children only insofar as they can exploit their suffering to demonize and oppress women. I know I’ve said some nasty things about the New Atheists, but listening to these people vent their twisted piety makes me want to kiss Hitch’s feet.