Saturday, 23 August 2014

My Response to Noel Plum (Or Why Religious & Pro-Choice does not Equal Super-Pro-Choice).

As most of us are probably aware by now Richard Dawkins has been involved in (yet) another twitterstorm. This time it involves a tweet he made on the issue of the immorality of a woman choosing not to abort a pregnancy if she knows that the foetus has tested positive for Trisomy 21, more commonly known as Down Syndrome.

This blog, however deals less with that particular twitterstorm, there will be plenty of other blogs by other bloggers written on that topic, but is more in response to a video posted on Youtube by Noel Plum (noelplum99).

To start I would like to thank Noel for posting his video and for allowing me the opportunity to respond. There are a number of points in which Noel and I are in agreement. I also have a certain amount of sympathy for Richard Dawkins. I am a fan, and it would not be an understatement to say that the ‘God Delusion’ was one of the books that changed my life. Many of Richard's commentators and critics resort to name-calling and character assassination, in my view an unacceptable way to conduct any debate. 

However in this particular instance, along with Noel, I am not in agreement with Richard. That disagreement is more or less is in keeping with the views expressed by Noel (1.40-3.25). And yes Noel, Ireland has the most “fucked up views on abortion” and as an Irish woman who is pro-choice and an atheist I most definitely will have an interest in what Richard Dawkins has to say on abortion.

It is here that I would like to begin my explanation for my response tweet to Richard, but to do this let’s go back to Richard’s original tweet which kicked off the whole debate:

If you are unaware of this story please take the time to read the article Richard tweeted. Ireland has the most prohibitive anti-abortion legislation of any European country and clearly the RCC has not yet lost its influence. In fact, at the behest of the RCC, the right to life of the unborn is written into our constitution. In a referendum held in 1983 (which means that no one in Ireland under the age of 49 has had a say on this issue), 67% voted for the following wording to be included in our constitution (the 8th Amendment):

"The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right."

This effectively means that the unborn foetus, at any stage of gestation, has rights equal to that of the woman who is carrying the pregnancy. (For further information on the situation around reproductive/abortion rights in Ireland I can recommend Kitty Holland's book 'Savita: The Tragedy That Shook A Nation'). 

This is a very real issue for Irish women, our lives are being put at risk and just that same evening I had sent that tweet I had attended a protest in Dublin seeking the repeal of the 8th Amendment from our constitution so that Ireland can finally begin to introduce legislation that offers  protection to women and vindicates their human rights. Furthermore, the fact remains that 12 women every day leave Ireland to access abortion service mainly in the UK and many, many more purchase abortifacient pills online which they self-administer. Recently the Chair of the UN Human Rights Committee told Ireland that its current laws treat woman "as a vessel and nothing more"  (1.07-3.10).

I have included this background information so as to put my tweet into context. 

As Noel says one of the tweets Richard sent out during the 'storm' read:

To which I replied: 

The following exchange then happened between myself and Noel:

In his video Noel argues two issues; the first is in regard to judging women and what that means and the second is in relation to what constitutes a pro-choice position. I will address each point separately.

To be clear, the context in which I say 'judging women' in the tweet is in relation to their choices around reproduction and abortion. Of course we will judge each other for the things we do, we have evolved to do so, it is how we detect and punish the cheaters  and correctly identify the cooperators amongst us. As such we might say 'it is human nature' to judge. Again, when I refer to 'judging women' in this tweet I am referring to (not) judging women for exercising their human right to bodily autonomy and deciding when they feel an abortion is the right choice for them. While I thought that in a discussion about abortion that point would have been clear in retrospect 140 characters may not have been sufficient to get this across.

Noel goes on to ask can we not judge anyone any more and gives examples such as judging the killing of whales for scientific reasons, or the Palestine-Israel situation. I would draw an important distinction here; when we are talking about these types of examples we are referring to situations, yes these situations are made up of individual people (and animals), but they differ from any discussion on the abortion issue insofar as abortion is about the personal and medical decision that an individual woman must make for herself. She is the only one who knows her own circumstances, her own mental health, her finances, her worries and concerns. I know people will respond that there may be a partner involved in the decision, and yes that is true, but the final decision will have to lie with the woman who is deciding whether or not to continue to carry the pregnancy. This differs from the situations Noel outlines as they involve the complex inter-play of many different parties often with competing (political) agendas and while the abortion issue is often politicised this only serves to detract from the woman and her decision. In an ideal world, perhaps abortion would not be discussed at all, it would just be taken for granted that what a woman chooses to do with her body is of no concern to anyone else?

Noel also gives an ethical dilemma to suggest that there are cases when we can/may judge a pregnant woman:
"And what about the mother of the unborn child who is on heroin, who has a baby, the baby is born addicted to heroin. Can we even say that that is immoral? Do we still have to remain neutral on that one Ashling?" (5.26-5.40)

Can I ask a question in return? What good will judging her do, apart maybe from making us feel morally superior? In what way will it change the situation for either her, a possibly vulnerable addict, or her child? What are we judging her on? Are we going to judge her for being an addict,? For getting pregnant? For not terminating the pregnancy? (remember, if she's living in Ireland she doesn't have that option open to her). In the UK and other countries where she can access abortion she may be judged immoral for choosing not to have an abortion. In Catholic Ireland where she cannot access abortion she is judged immoral for looking for one and indeed procuring an abortion is an act that is punishable by up to 14 years in prison. So yes, of course we can judge, but will it really achieve anything constructive? Condemning women for the choices they make about their bodies is ultimately an exercise in futility. Another option might be to not judge, but consider assisting and supporting her and seeking to improve her welfare (and that of her child) instead. This is what I mean when I say 'remain neutral'. Furthermore, the word 'immoral' is heavily loaded. There is a stigma attached to it and those who are deemed to be immoral, or deemed to be acting in an immoral manner, are shunned by society. History has shown us that those who are considered immoral by society often suffer at the hands of that society.

This leads us to the second of Noel's points and the first part of the my tweet, the issue of what it means to be pro-choice. To return to Richard's tweet he said that it would be immoral not to abort a foetus that tested positive for Down Syndrome if a woman had the choice to do so. Now consider this statement against the argument I have presented above. The woman addicted to heroin is judged immoral in one jurisdiction for choosing not to have an abortion, the same woman is judged immoral in another jurisdiction for seeking an abortion. I would argue that neither is a pro-choice approach because neither has the welfare of the woman at it heart. Similarly, Richard has judged women immoral for not choosing to abort a certain type of pregnancy (if the foetus has Down Syndrome), others will just as quickly judge the same women immoral for choosing to abort that very same pregnancy. She really can't win, can she? Richard says he is pro-choice but judges women immoral if they fail to choose the choice that he thinks is best (for them, for the baby once it is born, for the family, for society?).

Noel asks us to imagine if he was religious and he believed that a foetus had a soul and was a person from the moment of conception and to consider how difficult it would be to be pro-choice under these circumstances. This is an interesting point and on the face of it a religious person who holds these believes appears to be, as Noel puts it 'super pro-choice' (a term which I may end up hijacking and putting on a t-shirt :-) ). But there is a flaw in this thinking. What a religious person believes is based on faith, as such they have no evidence for holding this belief. My experience is that when reality clashes with beliefs that are based on faith religious people can (and do) alter these beliefs. For example, the RCC's teachings on contraception, which was banned in Ireland until 1980 and then only made available under very tight restrictions, is now regularly ignored by practising Catholics as the reality of being able to plan their families clashed with their faith-based beliefs around the immorality of using contraception and accepting every pregnancy as a gift from God. The same goes for pre-marital sex, a great many who self-identify as Catholic do not follow this particular teaching either. Ireland will hold a referendum next year on marriage equality, in the country where in the last census 82.2% of the population identified as Catholic, polls are currently running at a 67% 'yes' vote. This is completely against the teachings of their church, but the reality of knowing LGBTQ people and applying the evidence that they are not immoral (there's that word again) has overruled any faith-based beliefs. This is what I think is happening when religious people come to the decision to be pro-choice, it is not, as Noel argues, that they decide that even though they believe abortion is immoral they will support women's choice to access one, but rather reality is coming into play and they are applying evidence to the situation and over-ruling their faith-based beliefs, while still managing to identify with their religion. 160,000 Irish women  have had abortions abroad since 1980, it stands to reason that a large percent of these (and their partners and families) are Catholic, and that they have not all abandoned their religion since making the decision to have an abortion, rather reality over-ruled their faith-based beliefs around the notion of a soul being somehow delivered at the moment of conception. Would I judge them for this? Not at all, we need all the rational thinkers we can get in Ireland at the moment.

Finally, Noel may be pro-choice for affairs but there is no way I'm going on record saying that I am :-)

Thanks again to Noel for making his video and getting people talking about this very important issue. Please continue to support Irish woman in their fight for their reproductive rights.

#IAmNotAVessal #repealthe8th


  1. Hi Ashling,
    Thank you very much for your response, read it over my Saturday morning marmite on toast and a cuppa!
    I have just sat and considered how to go about responding. In some ways I don't like to head back to video as it always feels slightly odd to split an exchange over media like that but on this occasion I will probably do just that. It is (as i point out to PZ Myers when he seemed astonished I would ask him a question via a video rather than in a written blog) my established outlet and, as much as anything I'd like to point people back to this response of yours because (although I still contend a few points) I think it is a damned good read. I certainly wasn't aware that foetal rights were enshrined in the Irish constitution, that presents quite some hurdle for you guys.
    Will let you know when I respond (summer holidays + teacher wife = busy)

  2. Thanks Jim (apologies for calling you Noel in the blog, wasn't sure what your actual name was, I can edit if you'd like).

  3. That is absolutely fine Ashling, I tend to get called Noel online at least as much as I do by my real name.
    Let's be honest, the only person I can blame for any confusion is myself :)

  4. This was published in today's Irish Times, will be of interest to anyone who is interested in how Ireland historically came to be the only democratic country in the world to have a ban on abortion written into its constitution

  5. I'm not sure how I feel about Dawkins comment. I'd like him to expand on his position. I think you have to listen to him in the context of his published positions that give some insight into his position on the idea of the "sanctity of human life". In one of his essays he takes issue with the idea of killing an Orangutan to save a human baby's life. (Orangutans are endangered species after all while a single baby has very little value). If one perceives having an abortion as entirely moral then bringing a baby into the world that might suffer or cause anyone unnecessary hardship is at least more immoral than abortion.

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    2. I wanted to add that when I suggested I would like to have Dawkins expand on his position I meant I would like to know by what standard he meant immoral. Did he mean immoral period, or immoral compared with choosing between having a baby with Downs, or one without. Wouldn't it be immoral to choose to have a baby with an IQ of 70 if you had the option of having one with average, or above average intelligence? Assuming you consider having an abortion to be morally equivalent with taking an aspirin to alleviate a headache.