• Secular nations and abortion law

    Apparently there is an ongoing kerfuffle involving whether there is any secular argument to be made against any form of abortion. It seems worth pointing out here that the most thoroughly secular societies on the face of the planet have all enacted at least some legal constraints on when abortion may be performed upon request without specific medical justification:
    silverman

    Sweden – 18 weeks
    Denmark – 12 weeks
    Norway – 12 weeks
    Estonia – 11 weeks
    France – 12 weeks
    UK – 24 weeks

    In the United States we have a crazy quilt of state laws, many of which are designed push back against Roe v. Wade, subtly or unsubtly, and the public debate here is heavily faith-based on at least one side. Let us not assume, however, that as the U.S. becomes more secular that this particular line-drawing problem is just going to go away. There are humanistic concerns driving the squickiness that most people have towards third-trimester terminations; even after we manage to eradicate faith-based policymaking, we are still going to have these arguments.

    Category: EthicsPhilosophy

    Article by: Damion Reinhardt

    Former fundie finds freethought fairly fab.

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    • Beaker

      I’m not sure the argument you are making here is correct. You seem to be saying that since nations more secular than the US have laws against abortion, these laws must have been driven by secular, rather than religious, ideas. However, this is not necessarily correct.

      I don’t know about the countries you list, but in the Netherlands it has taken a long time to legalize abortion (as well as other measures like euthanasia and gay marriage) due to religious reasons, even though the Netherlands as a nation is strongly secular. The reason for this lies in the set-up of parliament, where there is a multi-party political system and political parties need to form coalitions with each other to be able to gain a political majority in parliament. Historically, the secular parties have been strongly left or right of center, while the Christian parties have been more centrist. To gain a majority, what most often happens is that the left or right of center parties will form a coalition with the Christian parties in the middle. This often gives the Christian parties a lot of leeway to block legislation that they think goes against their ideas (abortion rights, euthanasia, gay marriage), even though on their own they form a minority. So while the Netherlands is a secular country, the successful push back against these ideas has been decidedly Christian. Gay marriage, euthanasia and abortion have generally been pushed through in the very few times that the Christian parties were not a part of the majority government.

      There can also be issues with the laws themselves that you quote. According to wikipedia for example, the British law states that abortion after the 24th week may be aborted if

      “the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk to the
      life of the pregnant woman, greater than if the pregnancy were
      terminated”.
      But one can make the case (and doctors apparently do make the case) that this holds for each and every pregnancy. Abortion is a less risky procedure than continuing pregnancy is, so the law as it is written makes abortion of every pregnancy after 24 weeks an option

      It seems to me that what is also strongly missing in this discussion is context. If David Silverman says that there are secular arguments in favor of abortion in relation to CPAC, he is saying that there are secular arguments in favor of abortion at the convention of a political party that not just wants to ban third trimester abortions, but that wants to ban abortion entirely. He is saying that there are secular arguments in favor of abortion at a convention of a political party, members of which have proposed to even ban abortions when the life of the woman is in danger, or have proposed legislation that requires criminal investigation after miscarriages. He is saying that there are secular arguments in favor of abortions at the convention of a political party that has been so active in reducing the availability of abortions in certain states that women have trouble finding an approved medical center that can carry out abortions if they need one for medical reasons. I am not at all surprised that in that context, people react strongly to a statement that there are secular arguments in favor of abortions.

      • Greetings once again! I’ve been away for a while, back at it now.

        Gay marriage, euthanasia and abortion have generally been pushed through in the very few times that the Christian parties were not a part of the majority government.

        Was abortion reform discussed during those times, when Christian parties were on the outs? If not, perhaps the overwhelmingly secular citizenry is content with the law as written. If so, how did it play out?

        It seems rather unlikely to me that all the most secular nations on the planet can be explained away so easily. More likely, secular voters are entertaining the idea that fetuses gradually take on a number of morally salient characteristics prior to their gestational due dates.

        Abortion is a less risky procedure than continuing pregnancy is, so the law as it is written makes abortion of every pregnancy after 24 weeks an option…

        Is that really how the NHS actually operates? If so, then I’m quite impressed. It does not seem to be the intent of the law on its face, but then legislators are generally neither epidemiologists nor risk analysts. It surely would be a persuasive secular argument in favor of abortion on demand that the procedure invariably lowers the personal risk to the woman in question, at any point throughout pregnancy, though I’m uncertain if you’re the sort of person who feels that this topic is really #UpForDebate as they say on the Twitter machine.

        I am not at all surprised that in that context, people react strongly to a statement that there are secular arguments [against] abortions.

        (Added the brackets to indicate what I think you meant to say here.)

        Do you deny that secular arguments exist for moving the needle both forward and backward in time relative to where it is now? You’ve given at least one good one for moving it further forward in time. Would you deny that countervailing arguments exist?

        As long as we’re adding relevant political context, recall that the GOP is operating (quite reluctantly) under the legal framework of Roe, which draws a line on elective abortion at the third trimester based on wholly secular arguments. These arguments are worth reading, incidentally, if you want to see what a relatively dispassionate secular discussion of this issue looks like.

        The folks at secular pro-life want to push the policy needle back towards conception, supporters of Secular Woman apparently want to push the needle the other way, based on the idea that adult bodily autonomy trumps any rights we might hope to invest in the preborn. At least I think that is what they want; it is difficult to say because they are quite vociferously insisting that the issue cannot be debated in polite secular society.

      • Beaker

        “Greetings once again! I’ve been away for a while, back at it now.”
        Well met again!

        “Was abortion reform discussed during those times, when Christian
        parties were on the outs? If not, perhaps the overwhelmingly secular
        citizenry is content with the law as written. If so, how did it play
        out?

        It seems rather unlikely to me that all the most secular nations on
        the planet can be explained away so easily. More likely, secular voters
        are entertaining the idea that fetuses gradually take on a number of
        morally salient characteristics prior to their gestational due dates.”

        I’ve looked a bit further and it does seem I was wrong, in that abortion was already legalized in the 80s, when the Christian democrats were part of the government. In the Netherlands, abortions is legal for all intents and purposes up to viability (24th week of pregnancy). After that, risk to life of the mother becomes the basis for legality of abortion. I don’t think this is really challenged in the Netherlands anymore, but this may just be a practical matter. All the research I have seen so far, shows that third trimester abortions are generally only requested for medical reasons. So the debate on whether third trimester abortions should be available “on demand” seems to be a merely academic matter, not one which would be on anyone’s radar.

        While I do not think that the restrictions of abortion in secular nations can be explained in the same way, I also do not think that these restrictions are necessarily indicative of the existence of secular arguments. Look at same-sex marriage, an issue which is much more clear-cut, according to Dave Silverman. Of the countries you list, same-sex unions are illegal in Lithuania, and have only been legalized in Denmark, the UK, France and Denmark in the past two years. Do you think there are valid secular arguments against same-sex marriage? I certainly haven’t seen any. Yet had this issue played out 2 years ago, 4 of the 6 countries you list above would not have legalized same-sex marriage yet.

        I do not deny that there may be secular reasons against third trimester, perhaps even second trimester abortions. I do question whether the existence of secular arguments against abortion can be determined on the basis of their legality in secular nations. I think that the vestiges of Christianity still hold too much clout in many secular countries and politics is often too messy, to reliably make that argument.

        “Is that really how the NHS actually operates?”

        NHS maybe not, but individual doctors may. In the end, doctors are often creative in advocating for their patient.

        “Do you deny that secular arguments exist for moving the needle both
        forward and backward in time relative to where it is now? You’ve given
        at least one good one for moving it further forward in time. Would you
        deny that countervailing arguments exist?”
        That does depend on what you count as “arguments” I do not think valid arguments exist to ban abortion before 12 weeks. The arguments that I have seen so far, strike me as being about as valid as the intelligent design movement’s arguments against evolution. Yes, the arguments exist, but they do not rest on a practical knowledge of biology or are basically religious arguments in disguise.

        So I would need to know what you mean with the word “arguments” first.

      • So the debate on whether third trimester abortions should be available “on demand” seems to be a merely academic matter, not one which would be on anyone’s radar.

        I’m probably okay with it staying that way, but I get the strong sense that Secular Woman is not. They insist that adult bodily autonomy trumps all other legal or moral or practical considerations, no other factors (such as gestational age) need be considered, and that even having this argument in public is an affront to women’s humanity.

        Do you think there are valid secular arguments against same-sex marriage?

        I’m going to assume you mean both valid and sound. It depends on what we think marriage, as a social institution, is supposed to accomplish. In ancient Rome, marriage was a vehicle for consolidating familial power and producing legitimate heirs. I’d like to think we’ve moved on somewhat since then, despite having retained quite a few of the Roman ceremonial trappings. That said, I would say that the secular arguments against SSM are clearly overmatched by the secular arguments in favor of it. At any rate, I’m very glad to see people having the argument in public, I am fairly sanguine about the prospect for progress.

        Yet had this issue played out 2 years ago, 4 of the 6 countries you list above would not have legalized same-sex marriage yet.

        I would have said then, as I do now, that they needed to have the argument to see if their existing laws can stand the test of reason.

        I should also note that legalizing SSM is a simple binary ON/OFF switch, and we would be rather naive to treat abortion policy like that.

        I do question whether the existence of secular arguments against abortion can be determined on the basis of their legality in secular nations.

        We cannot strongly infer the existence of secular arguments for or against anything based entirely on existing policies without diving into the history of how individual laws were passed, and you’ve already done more research into that than I have. That said, it has been forty years since the first wave of abortion law reform in the west. I would be surprised to discover that all of these nations are being held back from further liberalization solely by the vestiges of their faith-based cultural roots.

        The point of the original post, however, was not to say there must exist strong secular arguments on both sides, but rather that we are inevitably going to engage in ongoing secular arguments about where to set the policy needles going forward. Not only do highly secular European nations set the bar surprisingly low (by U.S. standards) but as the U.S. moves slowly and painfully towards universal health, this issue will become more urgent rather than less so. That means we need well-crafted arguments to guide us, rather than empty rhetoric that denies even the possibility of engaging in debate.

      • Beaker

        “The point of the original post, however, was not to say there must
        exist strong secular arguments on both sides, but rather that we are
        inevitably going to engage in ongoing secular arguments about where to
        set the policy needles going forward. Not only do highly secular
        European nations set the bar surprisingly low (by U.S. standards) but as
        the U.S. moves slowly and painfully towards universal health, this
        issue will become more urgent rather than less so. That means we need
        well-crafted arguments to guide us, rather than empty rhetoric that
        denies even the possibility of engaging in debate.”

        The problem for me is in the way we are going to engage in this debate. I agree with you that we need to be aware of the issues, and that we need to be aware of the various arguments. However, I think the way we look at these arguments is important.

        From what I have seen so far, the arguments in favor of pre-viability abortion (before 20 / 22 weeks) is completely similar to the anti-vaxers and creationists, namely arguments made from an ignorance of biology, with lots of emotional manipulation including the obligatory Nazi / holocaust comparisons. Just as we do not give the impression that creationist or anti-vax arguments have any merit, I fail to see why we should do so for so-called secular pro-life arguments. Suppose a skeptic would put up a guest-post written by an anti-vaxer or creationist. In all cases where I have seen this happen, the skeptic would make it clear that he did not support this argument but that he put this up to learn / give the creationist the chance to make his case / etc. The audience would generally know that this was not an argument the skeptic in question takes seriously. This is not how the argument is presented currently in the skeptic / atheist blogosphere.

        Similarly, if a skeptic / atheist would, without qualification, make the statement that she thinks there are (secular) arguments against evolution / vaccination, she would be roundly criticized in the blogosphere, even if she would later clarify that she did not think those arguments were valid, or that she meant that there was still an academic debate about some of the details. Because we know that in the public eye, this is read as “evolution is false” or “vaccination is dangerous” and we know what the harmful consequences of these statements is. It seems to me that in the current environment of increasing attacks on abortion rights in the US, including more and more proposed legislation on the criminalization of women who miscarry, we should be aware that the unqualified statement “there are secular arguments against abortion” or similar, is not going to be read as “in a vanishingly small amount of real-life cases, late-term abortions should not be allowed”. Context matters, and in the current political context in the US we should be aware of the way our statements may be construed and take responsibility in accurately phrasing our argument.

        The political situation currently in the US is driving in a direction that is actively harmful for women. When discussing this issue we should take this into account, just as people already take this context into account when discussing anti-vaxers and creationists. And from my perspective at least, the people who are arguing that there is a secular argument in favor of abortion are not taking this context into account in any way, shape or form, the way they would do when discussing other issues.

      • Greetings!

        From what I have seen so far, the arguments in favor of pre-viability abortion (before 20 / 22 weeks) is completely similar to the anti-vaxers and creationists, namely arguments made from an ignorance of biology, with lots of emotional manipulation including the obligatory Nazi / holocaust comparisons

        Agreed. When you find yourself going Godwin, you should pause and ask whether you have any good arguments left.

        Just as we do not give the impression that creationist or anti-vax arguments have any merit, I fail to see why we should do so for so-called secular pro-life arguments.

        I would not say they have any merit, but I would be perfectly happy to debate them anyway. There are so many people who believe pro-life and anti-vax nonsense that we probably have a moral duty to put the best facts and valid arguments out there. I also see a significant difference between questions of fact and value.

        Suppose a skeptic would put up a guest-post written by an anti-vaxer or creationist.

        I’ve seen it happen before.

        …the skeptic would make it clear that he did not support this argument but that he put this up to learn / give the creationist the chance to make his case / etc.

        If the person is a known skeptic, this can be pretty much taken as given. For example, I posted a clip of John Edward reading Anderson Cooper, without comment, on my FB wall. My FB friends assumed (correctly) that I had not converted to the idea of talking to the dead, and proceeded to take the piss out of the video. With any luck at all, the good points they made were witnessed by my friends and family who DO take that particular sort of hokum seriously.

        The audience would generally know that this was not an argument the skeptic in question takes seriously. This is not how the argument is presented currently in the skeptic / atheist blogosphere.

        Presented by whom? It sounds as if you might well be calling out someone in particular.

      • Similarly, if a skeptic / atheist would, without qualification, make the statement that she thinks there are (secular) arguments against evolution / vaccination, she would be roundly criticized in the blogosphere, even if she would later clarify that she did not think those arguments were valid, or that she meant that there was still an academic debate about some of the details.

        There is indeed an academic debate about the details, as I’m sure you are aware, but I would note that there is a qualitative difference between questions of fact (e.g. how life evolved, whether vaccines do more good than harm) and questions of value (e.g. at what point do we choose to value fetal life). It is unfair to fault someone for raising questions of value as if they had raised questions of well-settled fact.

        Context matters, and in the current political
        context in the US we should be aware of the way our statements may be construed and take responsibility in accurately phrasing our argument.

        I profoundly doubt whether atheist blogs, even the most popular ones, are likely to make the GOP any more or less rabid in their concerted attacks on women’s reproductive rights. I also doubt that stimulating an abortion argument rooted on wholly secular grounds can possibly turn out well for those on the pro-life side of the ledger. In my experience as a former pro-lifer, we tended to focus on the more emotional and faith-based appeals rather than the sort of secular arguments one might see in an amicus brief.

        The political situation currently in the US is driving in a direction that is actively harmful for women.

        Agreed. Does promoting debate on secular premises help them drive faster or might it slow them down?

        When discussing this issue we should take this into account, just as people already take this context into account when discussing anti-vaxers and creationists.

        This is wrong in two ways. Firstly, you are conflating questions of fact and value. Secondly, public policy on vaccinations is such, right at this very moment, that convincing even one parent not to vaccinate their children could cost innocent lives. Since this is true, one should feel obligated to present counterarguments in some form, at some point. As to whether comment-based rebuttals are enough, I have no firm opinion.

      • Beaker

        “Agreed. Does promoting debate on secular premises help them drive faster or might it slow them down?”

        I would think this depends on the way the debate is held. I think the way Hemant Mehta and (especially) Dave Silverman handled this issue, it might give a legitimacy to the “secular arguments against abortion” that they don’t actually have. In other words, the context in which they have presented secular arguments against abortion gave them a legitimacy that they do not deserve. Similarly, I think the way Massimo Pigliucci presented the debate was ill-informed and hence more likely to do harm than good.

        I think the decision of Hemant Mehta to later publish some responses to the original guest-post by the prolifers was a good move. However, from my viewpoint it seemed like this was not a preconceived plan, but rather a response to negative feedback. I may of course be wrong about that, but it seems that he only commissioned responses from other guest posters after he already published the original pro-life piece and the resulting criticism.

        “This is wrong in two ways. Firstly, you are conflating questions of fact and value. Secondly, public policy on vaccinations is such, right at this very moment, that convincing even one parent not to vaccinate their children could cost innocent lives. Since this is true, one should feel obligated to present counterarguments in some form, at some point. As to whether comment-based rebuttals are enough, I have no firm opinion.”
        I am not sure how I am conflating questions of fact and value. I think it is a demonstrable fact that at the current time in the US, women’s reproductive rights, including abortion, are strongly under attack. I think it is a demonstrable fact that currently, the Christian right is succeeding in reducing the possibility to perform abortions in states such as Texas to such a degree that this leads to situations were it is almost impossible for women in certain locations to get an abortion if needed. I think that looking at the history of abortion rights in the US, we can predict with a high degree of certainty that this will increase the number of unwanted pregnancies and subsequently the number of unsafe abortions and deaths due to these unsafe abortions (and possibly deaths due to complications of pregnancy). If I’m not mistaken, it seems to me that we both agree that the secular pro-life get their facts wrong. Given this situation, I would hold that currently, in the US, you are at a point where the way you present the arguments can do harm. I don’t think that these conclusions are value based.

      • Whether vaccinations are effective at generating herd immunity is question of fact. Whether we value herd immunity as a society is a question of value. Whether we value it enough, personally, to incrementally contribute to it rather than becoming free riders is also a question of value. You were comparing the fact side of the vaccination issue to the values side of the abortion issue, as best as I could tell.

        When we start to value fetal life, as a society, is a question of values, hopefully informed by scientific facts. The OP was intended to show that this question isn’t going anywhere, even if we were to ensure that single-payer first-trimester elective abortions are readily available to anyone who wants them (which I would personally favor) there will remain the question of how late federal funding will be made available.

        As to what is happening right now in Texas, we can readily agree that it is a horrible trend, running counter to the best interests of both individuals and society. We cannot, apparently, agree on whether the secular arguments against abortion have driven that process it in any way. I continue to maintain that moving the argument from faith-based grounds to secular grounds would prove utterly disastrous for the pro-life movement, just as it did in the courts in the original line of cases following Roe.

      • I think the way Massimo Pigliucci presented the debate was ill-informed and hence more likely to do harm than good.

        Massimo is a pretty well-informed and level-headed guy, pretty much of the time. What did you find objectionable?