Monday, October 19, 2009

Oklahoma and abortion - some fittingly harsh reflections

Russell Blackford is a guest blogger for Sentient Developments.

The Oklahoma legislature has passed a draconian statute that provides for personal details about women who obtain abortions to be placed online at a public website. To be fair, the information does not include actual names; nonetheless, it is in such detail that many women could be identified and harassed. What's more, even if no harassment eventuates, a woman's privacy is violated cruelly if she is required to provide such details as these:

answers to 34 questions including their age, marital status and education levels, as well as the number of previous pregnancies and abortions. Women are required to reveal their relationship with the father, the reason for the abortion and the area where the abortion was performed.

Much can be said about this despicable and cruel law, all of it in tones of fitting outrage. Over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, I concentrated on an important technical aspect. This is that outright criminalisation of a practice is not the only means that the state can use in its efforts to suppress the practice. There are many ways that political power can be used to attack our liberties.

In current social circumstances prevailing in Western societies, the criminal law uses punishments that can include the infliction of a range of harms, such as loss of liberty or property, while also expressing public resentment, indignation, reprobation, and disapproval (Joel Feinberg has written well on this). But much the same infliction of harm and officially-sanctioned stigma could be accomplished by means that do not involve criminalisation of an activity or even the criminal justice system as we know it.

Although civil laws do not categorise those who breach them as criminals, they, too, can be used to attach a stigma to actions and to individuals, and even to destroy reputations and careers. In fact, the state can select many hostile and repressive means to achieve its aims. These include propaganda campaigns that stigmatise certain categories of people and officially-tolerated discrimination against people of whom it disapproves, such as by denying certain categories of people access to government employment. The state requires good justification before it calls upon its power to suppress any form of conduct by any of these means.

The Oklahoma law is clearly intended to intimidate and stigmatise women who have abortions, in an attempt to deter the practice. This is no more acceptable than outright criminalisation of abortion. The legislature's action merits our contempt, and the law concerned should be struck down as unconstitutional for exactly the same reason as apply to an outright ban on abortions - it intrudes into an area of life that should be governed by personal privacy and individual choice.

Beyond this point, however, lies a further issue about the motivation for such laws ... and how are they best fought in the long term. It's not coincidental that laws such as this, which presuppose that pregnant women should have little control over their own bodies, tend to be enacted in jurisdictions where theistic religion is strong. We can insist that religious reasoning should have no authority in matters of law, but in societies where deference to religion is taken for granted that claim is likely to fall on deaf ears. It can be difficult convincing a hard-line Catholic bishop or a Protestant fundamentalist that political force should be used only in ways that are neutral between peaceful worldviews. Why accept that idea if you see your own worldview as representing the comprehensive truth about the world, morality, and the organisation of society? In societies where religion goes unchallenged, secular principles such as separation of church have no traction.

For that reason, I've increasingly, over the past few years, come to the view that there's now some urgency in challenging the truth claims, epistemic authority, and moral wisdom of theistic religion - meeting its pretensions head-on. This urgency wouldn't exist if the various leaders, churches, and sects agreed, without equivocation, to a wall of separation between themselves and the state. But that's not so likely, since many of them can find reasons, by their own lights, to resist any sort of strict secularism.

John Rawls imagined that adherents to most religions and other comprehensive worldviews could find reasons - from within their own teachings and traditions - to reach an overlapping political consensus. In Rawlsian theory, they can all find their own reasons to support a kind of secularism in which the state would not impose any comprehensive worldview; rather, it would provide a regulatory and economic framework within which people with many views of the world or "theories of the good" could live in harmony. But many of the comprehensive religious worldviews do not lend themselves to this. It's not natural for them to find reasons in their traditional teachings to embrace Rawlsian political liberalism. The more apocalyptic churches and sects do not seek social harmony with adherents of other views of the good; instead, they imagine a future time when their own viewpoint will prevail, perhaps with divine assistance.

Even the more mainstream religious groups may be sceptical about any sharp distinction between individual salvation and the exercise of political power. They may be suspicious about social pluralism, if this includes, as it must, views deeply opposed to their own - such as the view that abortion is morally acceptable, or the more radical view that it is not even (morally speaking) a big deal.

In short, I continue to advocate secular principles, including a strong separation of church (or mosque) and state. But it is not enough to stop with advocating these principles when so many people do not accept the premises on which they are based, such as the right to freedom of belief, the unvoidable permanence of social pluralism, or the need to obtain public peace by some reticence in struggling to impose private views of morality. We should go further than arguing for secularism, I think, and openly criticise worldviews that lead to travesties such as the Oklahoma abortion laws.

This may involve asking pointed questions such as whether the God who hates abortion even exists. That's okay. In a free society, we have every right to question views that we disagree with, so long as we don't attempt to suppress them by state power. In the case of abortion, you can believe it's a sin, and you can subscribe to a religion that supports your belief. But the cure for abortions is not to suppress them by the cruel use of state power. If you're against abortions, don't have one. Don't try to stop those who disagree.

If you do, don't be surprised if you are challenged on where you got your beliefs from, and whether they are well-evidenced. Maybe your religious tradition is riddled with error, and maybe your God doesn't exist. We're entitled to ask for the evidence and draw our own conclusions if it's not forthcoming.

Russell Blackford's home blog is Metamagician and the Hellfire Club. He is editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology and co-editor, with Udo Schuklenk, of 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).

No comments:

Post a Comment