Lazy pseudo-criticism of abortion

In an op-ed for the New York Times, former news anchor Campbell Brown has some advice for Planned Parenthood:

Once again, Planned Parenthood is potentially making an enemy of someone who has failed to pass its purity test. It’s gotten to the point where, in this election cycle, the group’s political arm (while proudly claiming to be nonpartisan) has not endorsed or directly given money to a single Republican. As a person who believes abortions should be safe, legal and rare, I support many of Planned Parenthood’s goals. But the militancy must go. Demanding a perfect record from candidates it supports has already left Planned Parenthood marginalized. So does an attitude that doesn’t ever seem to take into account that abortion is a morally complicated matter or that those on the anti-abortion side are often decent and well-intentioned people.

Putting aside Brown’s ideas about what would be the most pragmatic way for Planned Parenthood to build political support, the claim that they need to “take into account that abortion is a morally complicated matter” is puzzling, to say the least. Descriptively speaking, yes, it’s “morally complicated” – lots of people have different and conflicting views on abortion. What else is new? Normatively speaking, “abortion” as a whole is certainly morally complicated, but only because it encompasses a wide variety of acts.

Among these, some appear to be morally questionable, such as late-term abortion of viable fetuses when no one’s health is at risk. But others, such as earlier-term abortions for any reason, are generally considered acceptable by almost everyone – even the most vocal opponents of elective abortion. While many of them will say that the tiniest embryo is no different from a newborn, they definitely don’t act like they believe millions of children are being slaughtered at abortion clinics every year. At most, their church’s youth group will go on a road trip to the capital once a year and put duct tape on their mouths to protest what they purportedly believe is tantamount to another Holocaust. Doesn’t that just scream sincerity?

Those who do act on this belief, and kill or injure real people in the process, are universally condemned by the wider anti-abortion movement. Paul Jennings Hill fell on the wrong side of this question when he killed a doctor and his bodyguard, but he had quite a bit to say to those who call abortion murder while doing very little to stop it. Consider that if Dr. George Tiller had instead been a serial murderer of children and was shot by an ordinary citizen to prevent him from killing his next victim, people who oppose abortion likely wouldn’t see anything objectionable about this. They would not protest that he should only have been stopped through “peaceful, legal means”. Many of them characterize the actions of abortion doctors as murder, but are unwilling to follow this principle to its uncomfortable conclusion. The belief that abortion is a kind of murder does not accord with or explain their behavior. (The desire to control women does.)

So let’s not be fooled by the idea that abortion is “morally complicated”. Almost all of the time, it’s really not, and just because people may disagree about it, that doesn’t mean their arguments are equally compelling or that the ethical acceptability of abortion is actually unclear. Merely having lengthy and intricate debates about it does not make it complicated. Casting aspersions on abortion by simply making reference to its supposed moral complexity, while failing to explore, explain or endorse any specific arguments about it, is just a way of dodging accountability for your insinuation that abortion is unethical.

But regardless of the moral status of abortion, what does Brown expect Planned Parenthood to do about this? They aren’t in the philosophy business. Patients don’t go there for a crash course in applied ethics or a sermon on moral theology. They provide medical services, and that’s why people come to them. To whose advantage is it for Planned Parenthood themselves to state openly that the abortion services they provide may be immoral? Certainly not Planned Parenthood. But for the country’s largest abortion provider to describe its own work as morally ambiguous is exactly what the anti-abortion movement wants.

The purpose of Planned Parenthood is to offer reproductive health services, and to maintain its viability as an organization so it can continue to fulfill that mission. If a certain strategy helps or hinders them, then it should be examined, but Brown has given no explanation of how recognizing the alleged moral complications of abortion would advance Planned Parenthood’s goals. And however decent they may be, how have the “good intentions” of abortion opponents ever assisted Planned Parenthood in any meaningful way?

Lazy pseudo-criticism of abortion

Egypt's crafty language on gay rights

Check out the excuse the Egyptian delegation at the UN came up with to dismiss gay rights:

“Finally, concerning the highly controversial notion of sexual orientation, we can only reiterate that it is not part of the universally recognized human rights,” said the Egyptian delegation at the UN Human Rights Council.

We’re going to deny the legitimacy of gay rights, so that means it’s not universally recognized. And since it’s not universally recognized, we’re going to deny its legitimacy. See how that works?

Egypt's crafty language on gay rights

Egypt’s crafty language on gay rights

Check out the excuse the Egyptian delegation at the UN came up with to dismiss gay rights:

“Finally, concerning the highly controversial notion of sexual orientation, we can only reiterate that it is not part of the universally recognized human rights,” said the Egyptian delegation at the UN Human Rights Council.

We’re going to deny the legitimacy of gay rights, so that means it’s not universally recognized. And since it’s not universally recognized, we’re going to deny its legitimacy. See how that works?

Egypt’s crafty language on gay rights

One question for Leah Libresco

(Skip to here for the question.)

My initial reaction to former atheist Leah Libresco (Unequally Yoked) converting to Roman Catholicism was one of anger and hurt. I was confused and dismayed that an atheist could in good conscience choose to join an institution with such deeply disrespectful views on women’s rights and LGBT equality, especially while offering little explanation of why they would select that religion in particular.

While that was all I wished to express at the time, I recognize that this does not necessarily constitute an argument against Catholicism’s basic tenets. If the existence of a god, the divinity and resurrection of the historical Jesus, and the Catholic Church’s unique status as the one legitimate earthly representative of Christ were actually true, then any institutional misconduct or moral error on the part of the Church would not negate these facts. The question of whether it’s ethical to affiliate oneself with the Church in its present form, which I chose to focus on, is largely separate from the question of whether these fundamental beliefs are accurate. It does not necessarily follow that believing these things are true means that one must therefore participate in the Catholic Church. It should be entirely possible to hold these tenets to be true, while finding the Church in practice to be undeserving of one’s membership.

Conversely, being an adherent of Catholicism does not require that one must agree with every detail of the various Catholic doctrines, and many Catholics don’t. A significant portion of the Church’s lay members support marriage equality, abortion rights, the use of birth control, and hold other views that are contrary to the Church’s official stances. In practice, it is wholly possible to be a part of the Catholic Church while dissenting from its more retrograde positions (though some atheists and devout Catholics often contend that one’s Catholic faith must be all-or-nothing). Libresco herself seems to acknowledge this to some extent, saying:

I think the Catholic Church has, at it’s heart, the right axioms, but that its small-c conservative structure means it takes a really long time to update the applications of those principles as new data emerges.

Of course, the tendency toward selectivity once again raises the question of why someone would join the Church, and how much they would have to agree or disagree with it before joining or leaving. The answer most likely depends on the individual (former) Catholic, and their reasons may not even be rooted in any (dis)agreement with its doctrines. As Chris Hallquist points out, conversion tends to be highly influenced by personal relationships, and not necessarily an explicit reasoning process. Consequently, any justifications offered by converts may simply be after-the-fact rationalizations, which would help explain why their stated reasons for converting often seem so flimsy.

But regardless of whether this is the case, such Bulverizing doesn’t address a position itself, only the possible reasons why someone may hold that position. Many people’s beliefs, both religious and secular, may be motivated by non-rational considerations, but we subject them to critical scrutiny anyway. As Libresco has often said, more or less, challenging someone’s views is actually quite respectful toward them and shows that you believe they care about the truth. Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism has already posed most of the questions I would have asked, chiefly pertaining to how the vague articulation of morality as a personified being leads to accepting the specific tenets of Catholicism, so I won’t repeat those here. I really only have one question.  

Leah, in your recent interview with The Blaze, you addressed any potential conflict between your bisexuality and the Church’s teachings by stating that despite your uncertainty about its stance on homosexuality, you were “willing to not date women in the meantime”. To what extent are you willing to abide by the doctrines of the church even when you disagree or don’t fully understand their rationale?

You described bisexuality, for you personally, as “gender feels about as salient to me as hair color when it comes to looking for dates”, concluding that “I don’t find it much more of a privation to not date women than to not date redheads”. While I’m not privy to your inner thoughts and inclinations, and other bisexuals may define their sexuality differently, I believe your depiction of bisexuality minimizes and disguises the actual significance of the restriction you’ve accepted for yourself here.

While you acknowledge that other gay and bisexual people may “care more about gender” than you do and you don’t intend to advise them on how they live their lives, the constraint that you’ve placed upon yourself could be much more substantial than you make it out to be, even under your personal model of what bisexuality means for you. If you regard gender as almost completely irrelevant when considering potential partners, then it’s entirely possible that you’ll find someone who you have an intense personal connection with, someone who seems to be a nearly perfect fit for you and is also interested in being your partner. But if that person is of the same sex, then the moral code you’ve provisionally accepted will prohibit you from pursuing a relationship with them, for no reason other than because they are of the same sex as you. This makes their sex relevant, just as hair color would become relevant if you were interested in a redhead but your religion forbade you from dating them. The only way that this would not constitute a privation is if you actually consider individuals to be completely fungible, and the exclusion of one person who might otherwise make an excellent partner means nothing to you. I suspect most people do not approach personal relationships in such a way.

You explained that “I’m keeping my behavior inside Church teaching, but my voice and arguments are unrestrained.” In this area, you’ve shown that you’re prepared to live in accordance with dictates that you don’t actually agree with – even when they may impose a significant hardship upon you – simply because the Church says so. Again, how far are you prepared to go? If you are willing to place your own moral judgment above that of the Church in some cases, such as your support for civil marriage equality, then why would you agree to refrain from same-sex relationships unless you personally believe that there may be a valid moral argument against them? And if you are not willing to place your own moral judgment above that of the Church, as demonstrated by your choice to forgo same-sex relationships, then why wouldn’t you join in on a campaign against civil gay marriage in spite of your personal disagreement if your local diocese deems it necessary?

It seems that no matter how vocal your arguments may be, you’ve ultimately chosen to subjugate your actions to Church teaching. Where does your obedience to the Church end, if anywhere?

One question for Leah Libresco

Here's hoping for greater diligence from CFI Ontario on trans issues

Yesterday, multiple people alerted me to an event announcement by the Centre for Inquiry’s Ontario branch about their participation in Toronto’s Annual Pride Parade. The announcement originally read:

This year we’re going to have a bit of fun- and show our support for the trans community BY DRESSING IN DRAG. Transphobia is an insidious and often overlooked problem which effects thousands of Canadians. Step out of your comfort zone for a few hours and into a pair of pumps- or sport a handsome handlebar mustache!

Note: You don’t HAVE to dress in drag or be gay to march in the parade- you just need to be awesome 🙂

Some hours later, it was revised to remove all mention of trans people or transphobia, reading:

This year we’re going to have a bit of fun BY DRESSING IN DRAG. Step out of your comfort zone for a few hours and into a pair of pumps- or sport a handsome handlebar mustache!

CFI Ontario executive director Jaimy Warner later issued a semi-apology/explanation on Facebook, reading in part:

I’d like to note that the intention of this event theme was never to mock. CFI has been working tirelessly with the LGBT community and the Ontario GSA Coalition over the past several months to get Bill 13 passed, we have a long track record of supporting LGBT rights and we’re very sensitive to in supporting issues of sexual/gender orientation. I admit that I could have worded the content better-it was not my intention to suggest drag and trans are the same (although ‘trans’ as in the transgender community does include drag performers and cross dressers) but to express that we don’t feel there is anything shameful or abnormal about cross dressing or playing with cultural gender norms. I can see how the juxtaposition of ‘drag’ and ‘trans’ could have easily been interpreted as offensive, and I have since removed that particular content from this event, the website and our newsletter.

That being said: we’ve marched in the parade for many years and I felt that it was time for CFI to really get into the spirit of things. Pride is fun, playful and expressive. We’re not donning a ‘gay costume’ we’re adopting a beloved aspect of LGBT culture as a visible sign of appreciation and acceptance (I completely agree that drag is an art). In another environment I can certainly see how ‘dressing in drag’ could quickly degrade into mockery- but this is not a frat house kegger nor are we a collection of close minded bigots. We’re a science educational charity marching in a Gay Pride Parade (with a professional drag queen helping us prepare, I should add) demonstrating we’re open minded and accepting.

A more substantial apology from Warner followed:

Please let me being by apologizing.

You’re right. My initial response was not an apology but a selfish attempt to explain the stance of my organization and our perspective. At the start of the planning phase for this event I spoke to a number of people in the LGBT community who thought this was a good idea-I thought it was a good idea- so it was easy for me to disregard the first negative responses I received here today. I fell victim to confirmation bias and ignored evidence that this may be a bad idea- this behaviour goes against the grain of what I stand for and I regret this truly. This event and my response to genuine concern has hurt, enraged and polarized people. This was a bad idea and I’m sorry so many people were hurt and made to feel excluded before I realized this.

CFI will not dress in drag.

I get the impression that CFI Ontario and its leadership still don’t quite understand what was wrong with this particular approach to showing solidarity with trans people. Really, I’m confused and taken aback that this could even happen in the first place without anyone at CFI Ontario or their contacts explaining why this is, to put it mildly, a bad idea. It seems some clarification may be in order.

Drag performers and trans people have a complex and sometimes openly hostile relationship, arising from their similarities, differences, and how mainstream society has (mis)categorized and regarded them. The definitions themselves are still unclear at times, and not always agreed upon. Warner states that the “transgender community” also includes drag performers and cross-dressers, but this is just one definition that many people don’t share or endorse. Yes, some people have advanced a “transgender umbrella” model that encompasses drag performers, cross-dressers, transvestites, genderqueer and non-binary people, transsexual people, and anyone whose identity or expression diverges from conventional gender roles. Others have pointed out that such a concept potentially includes any man or woman who doesn’t adhere to strictly masculine or feminine roles, presentations and behaviors, making the definition of “transgender” much broader than what was originally intended.

But regardless of how one defines what it means to be transgender, the mere fact that both drag performers and transsexual people have at times been considered “transgender” does not mean that performing drag is a meaningful, appropriate, or sensitive way to express solidarity with trans people. They may have been grouped together due to certain (extremely broad) similarities, but there are still a great many differences – including differences that are substantial enough to preclude the use of drag as a viable means of fighting transphobia.

Many people don’t constrain their understanding of “drag” to a certain established style of exaggerated performance, and instead use it to refer to any instance of what they perceive as cross-dressing – no matter how the person doing it identifies, whether they intended it as any sort of performance or recreational practice, or whether they even consider themselves to be cross-dressing. This last point is crucial: it’s extremely easy for people with little understanding of trans issues or gender identity to conflate trans people with cis (non-trans) drag performers or cross-dressers. In reality, they’re almost nothing alike.

Again, drag is a performance – a costume, an event, a temporary engagement for the purposes of entertainment. Being trans is none of these things. A trans person who dresses in accordance with their gender identity is simply wearing clothes that their culture has coded as representing the gender that they are, much like any cis person who does the same. A cis woman who wears clothing conventionally associated with women isn’t cross-dressing or doing drag. And neither is a trans woman. Trans people are not dressing “cross” to their gender, they are dressing as their gender. They are not wearing their clothes as some kind of costume, or to entertain anyone, or to put on a show. They are wearing the clothes they wear for the same mundane reasons that cis people wear the clothes they wear. Dressing in a way that reflects their gender is just as much of an everyday, non-noteworthy thing for trans people as it is for cis people.

Most trans people look nothing whatsoever like drag performers, a fact that’s rarely noticed and taken into account because trans people simply don’t stand out. Since people generally don’t have the opportunity to take note of all the trans people they don’t see as trans, those who have no (known) experience with trans people tend to derive their perception of us from people they do see and mistakenly identify as trans – like drag performers. Many trans people have come to resent drag itself for being a major source of harmful misconceptions about who we are and what we’re like. Some drag performers have only exacerbated this by frequently and unapologetically using anti-trans slurs despite not being transsexual themselves, or participating in advertisements with blatantly transphobic overtones and refusing to acknowledge that there’s anything wrong with this.

Whether drag in general is inherently problematic is a separate issue to be resolved, but there’s one thing I want to make very clear: Dressing in drag to “support” trans people is not acceptable, ever. It is perhaps one of the most unacceptable things I can imagine. It is so unacceptable that I struggle to find a suitably analogous situation to compare it to. If a cis man decided to don women’s clothing for the stated purpose of showing that he supports me as a trans woman, I would be deeply insulted by the near-total lack of comprehension and the implication that there is anything remotely similar about myself and that.

Drag queens are men in women’s clothes. Trans women are women in whatever they may be wearing. Linking drag to being trans, as CFI Ontario did, implies that we are somehow comparable to drag performers. By any relevant metric, we are not, but thoughtless ideas like this only reinforce what is perhaps the most common articulation of transphobia: that trans women, too, are just men in women’s clothes. While CFI Ontario probably didn’t mean to say that, they’ve certainly encouraged it. Such a denial of our identities is just as insulting as it would be to presume that a cis person’s gender is inauthentic and that you know their gender better than they do. It’s even more deeply wounding because of the price we pay for living in a way that’s consistent with who we are, a price measured in violence, discrimination, open ridicule, and the risk and indignity of being seen as less than human in our daily interactions with the rest of the world.

This is not something that happens because we’re in costume. It’s because we refuse to go through life wearing a costume that hides our true selves. Someone who performs in drag at a club or dresses up for Pride will have no understanding whatsoever of the unbearable pressure of ceaseless marginalization and constant fear, and for them to parallel themselves with us, even implicitly, only trivializes that brutal reality. It cannot possibly be a show of support, because all it shows is that they know nothing of our lives.

That’s what makes it so shocking for a CFI branch to propose something like this. I expect that as a skeptical and freethought group, they would comprehend what drag actually is before suggesting that their members dress in drag. I expect that they would understand who trans people really are before deciding how best to support us. I expect that they would do their research and recognize why the interaction of drag and trans issues in this context makes their idea utterly, shamefully inappropriate. Basically, I expect them to know what they’re talking about, before they talk about it. In this case, that did not happen. Given their claims of extensive collaboration with LGBT groups, it becomes even more incomprehensible that something like this could slip through the cracks.

While I’m glad to see that they eventually acknowledged that this was a mistake and eliminated the drag aspect of their event, it would have been better if this had never happened in the first place, and I’d like to know what CFI Ontario plans to do in order to prevent any similar errors in the future. Their desire to support us is admirable, but its implementation was badly mishandled here. If you really want to show your support, please do what we strive to do every day: Simply be yourself.

Here's hoping for greater diligence from CFI Ontario on trans issues