Abortion: Collision

CH: You see the woman thrown to the ground in the street by a man or two men, and kicked hard in the stomach. To get to the interest: What is your instant reaction? Is it one of revulsion? Or not? Who’s going to say they’re indifferent? You’re probably welcome to do so if you like. Do you need divine permission for this? I would say not. And another question: The woman is visibly pregnant. Does that make it seem more revolting to you? Is your revulsion thereby increased? Who would not say yes to that?
DW: Planned Parenthood. (With bemused self-satisfied smirk on his face.)
CH: Who would not say yes to that?
DW: Planned Parenthood.
CH: Don’t be flippant –
DW: I’m not being –
CH: Don’t be flippant –
(Possible editing break here…)
DW: If it’s a common moral property then why, when you see a woman being kicked in that fashion, to be more consistent – and this is why I was emphatically not being flippant – people will run up and say to the kicker, “Do you have a license? Don’t you know the place for that is down the street? And you have to advertise in the Yellow Pages? And you have to get funded from Congress?” What do you mean flippant?
(Possibly another editing break here…)
CH: Where do you think you got that knowledge? Did you get it from Sunday school? I believe this is our common moral proxy. Without it, we’re lost. If we say we only owe it to the munificence of a dictator, we have volunteered to become serfs. You can be an atheist and you can be a sadomasochist, you can be an atheist and a psychopath, you can be an atheist and a fascist, to be a communist you practically have to be an atheist – it doesn’t commit you to anything. But it certainly does not commit you to the absurd belief, that if you don’t have a supernatural belief, you have no morals.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) and Douglas Wilson (1953-), debating at Martin’s Tavern, Washington, D.C., Collision: Christopher Hitchens vs Douglas Wilson: Is Christianity Good for the World?, movie, 2009

Collision was a very enjoyable documentary up to this exchange. The debates were civilized, respectful, and more intelligent than most debates between atheists and theists. And then this asinine interjection. Why does rationality fly out the window when abortion raises its ugly head?

This is yet another example of the wrong way to debate abortion. This is also one of the rare instances when Hitchens dropped the ball – he should have excoriated Wilson for interrupting an important discussion with a cheap shot at Planned Parenthood. (Unfortunately, we don’t know what may have been edited out of this exchange.)

Is Wilson saying that employees of Planned Parenthood would not feel revulsion at the woman being kicked, and they would not also feel more revulsion at a pregnant woman being kicked? Of course they would. Depicting them as inhuman monsters that would approve of a pregnant woman being savagely beaten does no one, no argument, and no cause any good. Wilson should be ashamed. Apparently his religion has not taught him to act like a decent human being. Apparently his religion does not prevent him from acting like a royal asshole.

Planned Parenthood does not advise all women who come through their doors to get abortions; they make sure that women who do get abortions do it legally and safely, as a last option after parenting and adoption. The goal of their organization is to help families and children. Demonizing them and their organization is petty, mean, and immature, not to mention unlikely to result in any kind of constructive debate.

Wilson is being a pious bully, much like the god he apparently believes in. He should have stayed off his anti-abortion soapbox and followed through on the original point Hitchens was valiantly trying to make in spite of Wilson’s childish rudeness. That would have been the right thing to do, but instead he just couldn’t help himself, displaying the classic phenomena of the thoughtless, autonomic knee-jerk reaction, dragging the discussion down to his own base level of dogmatic mediocrity. Wilson seemed like a reasonably pleasant and relatively semi-rational theist up until this point in the movie, but here he showed his true, intolerant, hate-soaked colors.

The conclusion from this sad episode? As Hitchens was trying to say, religion isn’t the source of morality and it isn’t needed in order to figure out what is moral. This incident is a perfect example of why Christianity is not good for a person or for the world.

Can there ever be a rational debate about abortion, without hysterical pro-lifers sniping at militant pro-choicers? There’s part of the problem right there. Do you see it? My university bioethics professor advised us that any debate should not use slogans, as they cloud the issues and impede useful discussion. However, the professor constantly referred to the anti-abortion position as “pro-life” and the pro-abortion position as “pro-abortion”. (I think he wanted to use the term “pro-death”, but perhaps he thought that would too obviously expose his “anti-choice” position.) So I raised my hand and asked him if the labels “pro-life” and “pro-choice” are conducive to a useful, constructive debate, since they are also slogans. To my shock, he claimed he had no idea what I was talking about. It turns out he wasn’t a very good bioethics professor.

On the other end of the spectrum, the subject of abortion came up when I was talking to a friend who is a nurse. It was a long time ago, but it sticks in my craw to this day. I said that abortion should be avoided whenever possible, and should be a last resort after an extremely difficult and heartrending decision. Then I said “I can’t imagine anyone making the choice to kill their unborn child.” She angrily replied, “Would you rather have the kid unwanted or abused?” End of discussion. Keep ’em or kill ’em – those were the only solutions, in her mind.

Even then, my spouse and I were dealing with years of infertility, which were followed by more years of fertility treatments, miscarriages, stillbirths, and finally adoption. Yes, adoption is an option! It’s the best thing we’ve ever done. (I just wish it was easier to do, or at least would take a determinate time to complete.) Given this history, when I hear of people who get abortions or wish they had a girl instead of a boy or vice versa or complain about ever having kids, it makes me very angry. And when I hear about another case of FAS or other forms of parental child abuse it pisses me off. Really. Pisses. Me. Off.

But I digress. Back to the contribution of religion to this eternal, insolvable debate. Religious fundamentalists are pro-abstinence, which would be a mildly laudable position if they were not anti-sex education, anti-sex, anti-condom, anti-contraception, anti-HPV vaccine, anti-morning-after pill, anti-public schools, anti-disestablishmentarian, and totally, absolutely, rigidly, dogmatically, narrow-mindedly, heartlessly, unsympathetically, fanatically anti-abortion. And those who rail against contraceptives on the ridiculous principle that they encourage rampant promiscuity or because they believe that sexual intercourse should only be for procreation are idiots, frankly. Dangerous and destructive idiots at that. And if you are against both abortion and contraception, then you are part of the problem – your irrational ideology is in direct opposition to any reasonable solution. If this insanity is dictated by your religion, then what good is your religion?

A more reasonable position is that abortion should be legal, safe, and rare. The main alternative to abortion is not abstinence. It’s adoption. It’s education. It’s support for families. It’s compassion for couples who have made a mistake that will affect the rest of their lives. It’s funding. It’s more organizations like Planned Parenthood, not fewer.

Yes it’s a woman’s choice. Yes it’s her body. Yes it’s legal. But it’s wrong to kill a fetus. Does someone actually think it’s right to rip a human fetus out of its mother’s womb? Can anyone sincerely, unreservedly, and uncompromisingly be “pro-abortion”? Only merciless psychofanatics, I suspect. Forget about when human life starts or when the soul magically enters a human being – these are all red herrings. You might as well argue how many fetuses can dance on the head of a pin. On the other hand, support for later term abortions is repulsive – thoughtless, pitiless, ruthless, callous, cruel, inhuman and inhumane, hard-hearted and cold-blooded as hell. The only exception should be when the mother’s life is in danger. But making abortion illegal helps no one, including fetuses. Unwanted children add misery and suffering to society. No woman should have to die because she’s desperate enough to kill her fetus. Two tragedies are not better than one. Making every effort to make abortion rare helps everyone. It’s simple human decency.

If only all the funding and effort that is continually wasted on anti-abortion hysterics and religious campaigns and photoshopped fetal carnage could be spent on effective education about contraception, pregnancy, parenting, adoption, and responsible sexual behavior. Provide free contraceptives to poor people. Support pregnant women. Give them options. Give them child care and parental leave. Provide enough food, clothing, shelter, financial assistance, education, and medical treatment for poor families. Think about how to improve living standards and the quality of life for families. Promote and facilitate adoption, including adoption by gay parents. Put your money where your mouth is, maybe even (gasp) tax money and tax incentives. Unwanted children, FAS children, and other children mentally and physically damaged by their parents are a tragedy and a detriment to society. They are victims and we all share the blame. What are you doing about it? Are you adding to the misery in this world, or are you trying to make this world a better place?

So stop calling yourselves pro-life and pro-choice, and stop calling each other evil and extremists and murderers and misogynists and fascists. Stop being rude. Stop thinking only in absolutes. Summon up a little empathy, not just for partially developed human beings, but for victims of rape and incest too. Have a little sympathy for families that have to deal with horrific fetal deformities, terminal infant diseases, and pregnancies that endanger the health of the mother. Stop quoting the Bible – it has nothing to say about abortion specifically and it includes divinely approved infanticide and feticide. And for God’s sake, stop bombing clinics and shooting people. You’re making your religion into a tragic joke. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t be the first time.

Instead of attacking each other, let’s get together and cooperate to minimize abortion the compassionate way, where mothers and fetuses and fathers and children are all important, where we reluctantly recognize that sometimes horrible compromises might have to be made, but we do everything humanly and humanely possible to prevent tragedies. Religion shouldn’t even enter into it.

And stop being flippant.


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