Background: the president of American Atheists, who claims to be personally pro-choice, went to a conservative political convention to engage in some outreach and tried to mollify social conservatives into considering dialogue with atheists by saying that there were “secular arguments” against abortion. There was a huge “What the Hell!?!” reaction, there was an angry snarky hashtag enumerating all the other human rights that might be #UpForDebate, and then there was the pushback from the TrueSkeptic™ crowd:
What a joke #UpForDebate is. Skeptics should be willing to revise any and all of their beliefs given sufficient reason, argument, evidence.
Debate is not inquiry. Argument is not skepticism. Fetishizing debate makes us less knowledgeable as a culture and even as a movement, not more.
This shouldn’t be a difficult idea. We spend a lot of time talking about debates: debates on evolution, debates on the existence of god, debates on “alternative medicine”, presidential debates. We talk about whether they’re wise. We talk about who gets tickets to these events. We analyze debaters tactics and strong and weak points. We talk about their “hits” and “misses” whether they “won”.
What do we not talk about in all that? We don’t talk about whether the people debating educated each other. That’s not what “schooled” means in this context.
We also don’t talk about debates as a tool for critical thinking, and with good reason. Debate is not about sorting through the evidence and coming up with the best conclusion. Take a debate class, and you’ll be taught the opposite–how to find the evidence that best suits any pre-existing conclusion. That’s why a standard practice in teaching debate is to give students a topic but not tell them which side they’ll need to argue until they get to the debate.
[The classical toolkit of debating tactics] make for very effective rhetoric. They make for terrible skepticism.
Yes. By all means. Let’s have a calm, reasonable debate about abortion.
Let’s have a calm, reasonable discussion about my basic humanity, and my basic human right to physical autonomy. Let’s have a calm, reasonable discussion about whether I should be forced, by law, and at significant risk to my own health and safety and life, to donate my organs for nine months to an embryo/ fetus.*
Let’s have that discussion again. And again. And again and again and again and again and again. And again. Okay, sure, we’ve been having these debates for decades now. But let’s dredge it up again. Let’s treat the basic bodily autonomy of people with uteruses** as a subject that’s up for discussion, a subject that reasonable people can disagree about. And let’s be calm and reasonable about it.
And then, perhaps, we can have another panel at another atheist conference about why there aren’t more women in the atheist movement.
Greta’s basic question is that since atheist “leaders” and high-profile bloggers are (quite rightly) not up for debate on the question of “whether black people and gay people are fully human with the basic right to bodily autonomy”, then “why is abortion a special case”?
The conversation about abortion treats women’s bodily autonomy as a legitimate topic of debate. And that bloody well does affect me. If the right to abortion is up for debate, then my right to have consensual sex with whoever I choose, my right to masturbate, my right to dress as I please, my right to not be raped, are all up for debate as well.
I am enraged about this. And it is incredibly distressing to learn that some of my colleagues, my allies, even my friends, think that my rage is unreasonable. Yes, I understand that these people are themselves pro-choice. That’s not the point. The point is that they are treating women’s right to basic physical autonomy as just another interesting political topic for discussion and debate. The point is that they are showing little to no understanding about why people are so enraged about this, and little to no concern about that rage. The point is that they are showing a whole lot more concern about their hurt feelings over being the target of that rage, or about the hurt feelings of other targets, than they are about the hurt feelings of women getting our basic humanity called into question for the 874,905,836,513th time.
As Greta also notes, most arguments based on fetal personhood fail to engage with the unconscious violinist analogy: since one cannot be compelled to donate the use of one’s tissues/organs to a born person who will die without them, not even if their survival is dependent upon oneself and oneself alone, not even if one caused their fatal condition, then (again) what is the justification for making abortion a special case?
N.B. I want to host a meta-discussion on this latest iteration of the pattern whereby people with uteruses are asked to respond to anti-choice arguments “as if they were just another interesting political topic for discussion and debate — as opposed to the grotesque violation of the right to bodily autonomy that they are”. I will not host a debate about abortion that ignores a woman’s right to bodily autonomy to center the foetus/embryo as if we were a society that refuses to unhook non-consenting people from dying violinists, because there are plenty of other venues willing to host that insultingly counter-factual “debate” – if that’s your schtick then you are cordially advised to take your rhetorical flourishes over to be admired in those sandpits instead.