Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity
As a humanist chaplain, much of my ministry is specifically focused on reproductive justice. Feminism and supporting reproductive rights are, to me, humanist values. Ignoring women’s human rights, in this case, the right to bodily autonomy, is to ignore the plight of half the population of the earth. There is nothing humanist about that. And yet mainstream humanism and especially atheism seem to be confused on the issue. While groups like the American Humanist Association unequivocally call themselves feminist, other groups, usually regional and local, not only don’t engage in social justice work around women’s rights but positively run women out of their groups with their anti-woman language and actions. This leaves secular women in limbo, without a supportive community. At the moment, the only haven for the atheist/humanist woman is in groups such as Secular Woman or perhaps in the Feminist Caucus within the American Humanist Association. However, both of these groups are small and no one is funding either. The money and attention all go to larger, male-discourse dominated groups.
I find it especially telling that very few atheist/humanist groups are working with women in the United States to secure their quickly disappearing right to bodily autonomy. This is a serious problem, one with moral, medical, social, and global implications. Women and doctors are killed over it. It touches everything from church/state separation to medical ethics, medical privacy, basic science education, and how we determine the worth of an already living, breathing human being who happens to be female.
I argue that many people, religious and secular, simply do not see this as a pressing problem because to them women are not fully human. To the religious right, in fact, a woman does not even have the rights of a corpse. This is not meant to be inflammatory. One cannot harvest the organs of a corpse without the consent of that corpse while it was still living. In contrast, women are expected to donate their body and all of its organs, against their will, if necessary, to support the growth of a fetus. There are even cases in which dead pregnant women are kept on ventilators in order to keep the corpse pregnant for as long as possible. Tellingly, women and girls who are still alive are denied personhood, as evidenced by the United States’ failure to ratify the ERA, even while proposed legislation to accept fertilized eggs as deserving of full human rights circulate through state legislatures.
The fight against women’s bodily autonomy is largely a religious one. Churches and church-affiliated political groups are at the forefront of the battle against abortion and contraception. While they claim that they are simply fighting for the “rights” of the fetus, the truth is that they are fighting the very idea that women should be active participants in their own lives. (How else does one explain the fight against contraception?) In my work as founder of a clinic defense group in the United States, I saw this first hand. The most vocal group of protesters were from a prosperity gospel church called Mt. Gilead Full Gospel Ministries, a church that believed not just that the faithful would be rewarded with cash but also that rigid gender roles were god’s law. The protesters gave themselves away at every opportunity. Along with shouting things like, “You’ll have blood on your hands,” and, “You’ll be the mother of a dead baby,” at female patients, male companions were often targeted with phrases such as, “Be a man and make your woman leave this place,” clearly showing that what they want is for a woman to conform to biblical versions of womanhood or otherwise be shamed.
In this world, women’s human rights to bodily autonomy are overshadowed by the much more important religious rights of mostly men. Conscience laws whereby a doctor can refuse to perform lifesaving care for a woman quite clearly demonstrate this principle at work. Have you ever heard of a doctor refusing to perform a blood transfusion? The religious right fears that women who can exercise their full human rights will remove themselves from the confinement of family and marriage. In short, they worry that giving women the rights enjoyed by other humans would, “give women’s individual rights priority over women’s communal, family, and religious duties” (Bayes and Tohidi, 2001, p4). When a woman is not subject to these influences she can freely exercise her reproductive rights, which is regarded as the biggest threat of all by white men in a racist society obsessed with the birthrates of people of color.
So why aren’t we seeing large scale humanist/atheist action on an issue that so clearly touches on church/state separation and personhood? It’s because the religious right is not alone. There are many secularists, as well as atheists and “humanists”, who believe that a woman’s right to self-ownership is controversial or at least something to be debated in the name of “rationality”. They make no bones about their negative opinions of women and their belief that women just aren’t as good at critical thinking as men. It’s an easy jump from, “You ladies are all irrational,” to, “Allow us men to make decisions regarding your health and future.” The “men’s rights” movement, its ranks swollen with the secular, even advocates, outright, that men have the right to veto abortions. Basically, secular men feel just as strongly as their religious counterparts that they have a right to have a say in women’s reproductive choices. For many, this is explained not as, “my religious rights trump your human rights,” but rather as an argument that their economic and emotional happiness is more important than a woman’s human rights. This can be seen in cases where men argue that if they can impregnate a woman then they should have a say in the outcome (emotional happiness). Men who argue that they shouldn’t have to pay their taxes to support a single mother on welfare or that their insurance premiums shouldn’t be going toward providing birth control for women are using the economic happiness argument.
If we, as humanists, are truly living our values, then we should be concerned about this state of affairs, both within our own ranks and in the larger world. We should be worried that such an egregious example of state and religious commingling has been allowed to grow right in front of us and that religious terrorism against women, doctors, and clinic workers has been happening for decades. We, as humanists, should be ashamed that we have not more ardently taken up the banner of women’s legal personhood and reproductive rights, instead preferring to quietly sit by and allow them to be discussed as though they are political matters subject to debate by a nearly all-male governing body.
Autumn Reinhardt-Simpson is the author of the upcoming book Women Are Human: The Humanist Case For Abortion Rights, (Fall 2016)
Bayes, Jane and Tohidi, Nayereh (2001) Globalization, Gender and Religion: The Politics of Women’s Rights in Catholic and Muslim Contexts. New York: Palgrave.