Respect

I saw this tweet at some point during the weekend, and Beatidude and I had a polite exchange of tweets over it.

My question to him – which he could not answer – was how can prolifers convince the rest of us that they themselves “respect life”, when they campaign to make abortion illegal, and in the US (Beatidude is an American) campaign to shut down life-saving healthcare services.

There are ethical arguments to be made about abortion. I am no longer willing to debate those issues with people who do not share the basic human rights view that it is the pregnant woman’s responsibility and right to make her own decision for or against abortion, because I do not trust those people to argue honestly.

And this is why.

I once admired and respected Bruce Kent, formerly Monsignor in the Catholic Church, because he seemed to me to be a man of moral courage and principle. In 1987, convinced that nuclear weapons are a moral hazard, he refused to comply with the orders of the Church hierarchy and left the church and his priesthood rather than cease to campaign against nuclear weapons.

The Second Congo War, also known as the Great War of Africa, began in 1998 and officially ended in 2003: but hostilities still continue nine years later. By 2008, it’s estimated the war and the aftermath had killed 5.4 million people. At least 70,000 women and girls were raped.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, abortion is illegal. Doctors Without Borders, caring for victims of the conflict, began to perform abortions on women made pregnant by rape who begged for a termination, and to provide care for women who had had an illegal abortion by an unqualified practitioner and were suffering from the aftereffects.

They did this because they heard the stories from women like this one:

“I will give you an example: One night, robbers came to a house and demanded that the man hand over his wife and daughters or die. He refused. So they began to cut him. They cut off his fingers and blinded his eyes. His wife couldn’t stand it anymore. ‘Take me and let him go,’ she screamed. And they did. Then after they had gang-raped her and each daughter, they robbed the house and left.”

She waited again — for what felt like eternity — before she went on, tight-voiced and loud. “Then the husband began to scream. He threw the wife and daughters out of the house. Those women had no place to go,” she said. “No one, no one,” she paused, “would take them in.”

There was an audible gasp in the tent.

No one would take them in? I felt my arms get a little weak. No one? Where did they go?

The questions came from everywhere at once: “Why not? What are you talking about? Why, in God’s name, did the husband put them out? Do you mean that the husband got angry at the wife?” The disbelief and incredulity in the group was palpable.

“Wait a minute,” I called from the other side of the tent out of my own growing sense of agony. “What in that culture could possibly justify that kind of behavior — from either the rapists or certainly of the husband?”

The woman raised herself up in the old plastic chair. “Men,” she said, “must begin to believe that women are human beings. They must stop saying that women ‘want it.’ Because he believes that women want it; he threw them out. They all do. And the families that will accept the woman back refused to take the child that comes from the rape.”

I am a long-time supporter of Amnesty International. Amnesty International worked with Doctors Without Borders in the Congo, helping these women and other victims of the conflict. AI published this report on Surviving Rape in 2004:

I wish for them to be helped, because I’ve known so many women who were raped but who have had no help. No help at all. In any case, when I see them I feel uncomfortable because, well, you see, I had the fortune to have someone who could help me, but when I go to the hospital and meet all those women who are going through such pain, it makes me sad. For these, I can only wish that the women of Congo be helped because they have suffered so much. Yes. Help especially with medical care.

In 2007, after years of debate, in direct response to the rapes in the Congo, Amnesty International changed their previously-neutral position on abortion.

Violence against women violates women’s rights to life, physical and mental integrity, to the highest attainable standard of health, to freedom from torture and it violates their sexual and reproductive rights.

Upholding women’s human rights, including their sexual and reproductive rights, is essential to preventing and ending gender-based violence.

The lived experience of girls and women shows how central are sexual and reproductive rights to their freedoms and dignity including their right to be free from gender-based violence and as a remedy where they have been subjected to such violence.

What this meant is:

Amnesty International’s position is not for abortion as a right but for women’s human rights to be free of fear, threat and coercion as they manage all consequences of rape and other grave human rights violations.”

The Vatican’s reaction was, immediately, to urge Catholics worldwide to stop donating to Amnesty International.

And on Tuesday 25th September 2007, Bruce Kent wrote a short article in opposition to Amnesty International (and reacting to a column by Zoe Williams) that destroyed my respect for him.

The reality of Amnesty International’s decision to support a raped woman’s right to choose abortion, and to receive healthcare after an illegal abortion, was this, from an Amnesty International report published in 2004:

In the course of the armed conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), tens of thousands of women and girls have been victims of systematic rape and sexual assault committed by combatant forces. Women and girls have been attacked in their homes, in the fields or as they go about their daily activities. Many have been raped more than once or have suffered gang rapes. In many cases, women and young girls have been taken as sex slaves by combatants. Rape of men and boys has also taken place. Rape has often been preceded or followed by the deliberate wounding, torture (including torture of sexual nature) or killing of the victim. Rapes have been committed in public and in front of family members, including children. Some women have been raped next to the corpses of family members.

The civilian population of eastern DRC has been the victim of war crimes and grave human rights violations on a daily basis. They have seen combatants from around 20 armed factions fighting for control of the land and its resources. In a context of the collapse of state authority in the east, national and international laws are no longer observed and all the armed factions have perpetrated and continue to perpetrate sexual violence with impunity. Rape has been used deliberately and strategically to attack the fundamental values of the community, to terrorize and humiliate those suspected of supporting an enemy group and to impose the supremacy of one group over another.

In addition to the trauma of rape, survivors’ rights are further violated in the aftermath of the rape, deepening their suffering immeasurably. Most women suffering injuries or illnesses caused by the rape – some of them life-threatening – are denied the medical care they need. Because of prejudice, many women are abandoned by their husbands and excluded by their communities, condemning them and their children to extreme poverty. Because of an incapacitated judicial system, there is no justice or redress for the crimes they have endured. Continuing insecurity means that women live in fear of further attacks or reprisals if they speak out against the perpetrators.

What did Bruce Kent have to say about the Catholic Church’s belief that girls and women who had undergone the trauma of rape should have the Congolese law against abortion enforced on their bodies, and this care provided by Doctors Without Borders go unrecognised as a human right?:

Then, within five days, we offer the morning-after pill to avoid unwanted pregnancy. Medical treatment also involves prophylactic antibiotics against the most common sexually transmitted infections (syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia), and tetanus and hepatitis-B vaccinations. The treatment of physical trauma such as lesions, wounds, or other injuries is also recommended. Follow-up is extensive and the total duration of medical treatment is at least six months. For every such treatment for these women, from the very outset it’s essential to identify how abortion can take place. Abortion is illegal in DRC, so we have negotiated the possibility of carrying it out at a local level, with the head doctors in the health zone, but also with our practitioners.

Additionally, on a legal level and for reasons of protection, a medical certificate attesting rape is systematically produced and offered to the patient. During 2005, in our North Kivu projects, 17 percent of women accepted the medical certificate and 21 percent filed a complaint with the local authorities. Finally, we strive to guarantee our two main principles — confidentiality and free health care.

Well, you can read the whole thing at the Guardian website still. But this is all Bruce Kent had to say about the girls and women raped and suffering in the Congo and in other war zones:

  • “It is outrageous for Williams to suggest that the church wants to punish those teenage girls in the developing world who are dying because of unsafe abortions.”
  • “Unborn children also have human rights.”
  • “Those women who have suffered the horror and indignity of rape will not be short of pastoral care from a range of humanitarian groups.”

That’s it. That’s all. Bruce Kent, like myself, had been an Amnesty International supporter: like myself, he doubtless knew more about the reality of the Congo conflict than the average reader of a newspaper. If he had honestly looked at the situation of those rape victims in a war zone, and been prepared to write down that yes, those women, those girls, raped and pregnant and alone, ought to be forced against their will to bear a child though neither their husband nor their father would support them – though no one would take them in – though the “pastoral care” that Bruce Kent bragged of was insufficient to provide homes and and farms for seventy thousand women and their children whose men would not accept them – if he had still been prepared to say, better have those women starve than allow them to have an abortion: well, I would not agree with him – but at least I could have respected his honesty, his willingness to have the debate that he pretended to want.

To write such an article – to openly and plainly say that the Catholic Church would not support either Doctors Without Borders nor Amnesty International in their determination to treat the rape victims of the Congo and other conflicts as human beings, entitled to decide for themselves to have or to terminate a forced pregnancy – might well have made some Catholics think twice about their facile “Abortion is bad” response. I think Bruce Kent is an intelligent, empathic man and he knew that if he was honest about the position of the Catholic Church versus Doctors Without Borders/Amnesty International, most people would disagree with the Church hierarchy’s position. And so he intentionally withheld the facts, and asked with plaintive dishonesty:

Why should Amnesty now leave its traditional focus and take up a position supporting abortion? It is not a hands-on welfare body dealing with cases on the ground.

You cannot have a debate with someone who will not be honest about their position. And I have not found that prolifers are willing to be honest about theirs. They will not talk about the women whom their policies condemn.

Joan Chittister
wrote, in National Catholic Reporter, after hearing the story quoted above:

A dark silence hung heavily in a tent full of monks and ministers, catechists and keepers of ancient faiths for a long, long time.

The pain now had another dimension to it. These countries have been “converted” for centuries. You have to wonder, don’t you? What have they been told about women by the religious men who catechized them? What snide jokes and demeaning theology are still being taught about women by patriarchal religions? By the actions of exclusion and control and invisibility and domination and subordination of women by church men and holy elders everywhere? Even here. Even now.

From where I stand, it seems to me that male “protection,” paternalism and patriarchal theology are not to be trusted anymore because the actions it spawns in both men and women have limited the full humanity of women everywhere, and on purpose.

The prolife movement are not the only ones who deny the full humanity of women. And some at least are genuinely ignorant or youthfully innocent: holding a blithe belief that really bad things don’t happen except to women who deserve them. But no long-term supporter of Amnesty International could believe we live in a world where all goes well: no one who believes in the humanity of women could believe a woman raped because she could not bear to see her husband tortured, then deserves to be treated as less than human by those who are supposed to be providing, as Kent put it, “pastoral care”.

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22 Comments

Filed under Human Rights, War, Women

22 responses to “Respect

  1. Frank

    You say you want to debate here (and not on twitter) and yet you say this:
    I am no longer willing to debate those issues with people who do not share the basic human rights view that it is the pregnant woman’s responsibility and right to make her own decision for or against abortion, because I do not trust those people to argue honestly”.

    So basically you want to debate abortion but you wont debate with people who are against abortion. That seems a bit close minded?

    I feel you oversimplify the debate by intently focusing on abortion and rape.
    Abortion accounts for very limited amount of abortions (1% of all abortions?).

    Do you argue that abortion should only be allowed in the case of rape?
    If its the former we can discuss it (and ive already sent you on twitter, Rebecca Kiesslings response to abortion and rape).

    Rape is a horrible traumatic experience which no one should have to go through. Everyone accepts this. Not one pro lifer that I know would be a “rapist apologist”, and do anything other than condem rape as a horrible crime against women and humanity. (although ive known of feminist groups to send threats and insults to women who get pregnant from a rape and decide to keep the child).

    Or is it that abortion should be legal on demand for all reasons and that
    rape is just one of the reasons for this?

    if this is the case can we not discuss abortion in a more general sense instead of focusing so intently on rape. Abortion is used for many reasons. Do you think a woman can be allowed to abort for any or all reasons (including if the fetus she is carrying is female?)?
    Do you consider it important at all that the fetus we are talking about is a human being? If its not then you win, if it is then generally society asks for a strong justification for ending the life of a human being…? Does this matter at all or is it just “bodily autonomy, outweighs all other considerations”?

    Speaking about abortion and rape is disingenuous to your whole argument which is based on bodily autonomy (which is actually quite strong), because it emotionalises the debate. you stifle debate by painting those you disagree with as rape apologists and then we cant discuss or debate our arguments because you have already dismissed us as beneath you.
    I suppose you wont debate with me because im a man and sure men cant have an opinion on this issue either…?

    • Frank

      edit: *abortion because of rape accounts for a very small percentage of abortions..

    • “Do you argue that abortion should only be allowed in the case of rape?”

      To quote from something I wrote for World Holocaust Day:

      I speak for choice: all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. We are endowed with reason and conscience and we should act towards one another in a spirit of sisterhood. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, no matter who they are or where they live. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person. No one shall be held in slavery or servitude. No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law. All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with her privacy or her family, nor to attacks upon her honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks. Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including her own, and to return to her own country. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas. For all of these reasons, and because recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, I am pro-choice.

      For every woman who finds herself pregnant, the responsibility, and the right, is hers. She gets to decide.

      I just note that the prolife lack of compassion and willingness to abuse and destroy girls and women is seen in extreme form when prolifers demand that rape victims shall be forced through pregnancy against their will.

      • frank

        Do you consider the unborn child, the fetus a human being and part of the human family entitled to rights?

        I accept your point and if pro lifers *were* to make the compromise of allowing abortion in the case of rape would you accept it and fight to keep abortion illegal in other circumstances?
        If not why do you focus on the 1% of the abortion issue?
        most of the prolifers I know are the most compassionate people i know…
        On a principaled level when we discuss the issues maybe we come across as cold and heartless but when you see how the majority of pro lifers actually deal with women in a crisis pregnancy, I see lots of compassion.

        I have yet to see any compassion from pro choicers for women who feel let down by abortion and abandoned by the pro choice side… Ive heard from women who call abortion clinics after an abortion asking for counselling and being told “get over it”. Ive heard from women who have received threats from radical feminists for choosing to keep a child after being raped. Ive heard from women being told they were selfish for choosing not to abort their child. these women are shut out by pro choice feminists as traitrors. Ive heard from women who were raped and then forced to have an abortion and nobody cared or helped them.
        For me the hardest thing is that many women who “choose” abortion often feel there is no other choice, this is because of societies lack of compassion for women in crisis pregnancy and abortion merely perpetuates this lack of compassion.
        That doesnt mean that I think all pro choicers lack compassion any more than it means being pro lifers means we lack compassion it just means we need to try harder to understand each other and our approaches.

        pro lifers may have a lot to learn but so do pro choicers.

        Pro lifers simplify the debate by saying it kills a human being therefore its wrong. full stop. pro choicers simplify the debate by saying its always a womans choice and therefore its wrong to keep it illegal. full stop.
        it is however much more nuanced than that.

        • “Do you consider the unborn child, the fetus a human being and part of the human family entitled to rights?”

          Yes. Of course the rights a fetus can have are necessarily limited.

          Do you agree that women are human beings and part of the human family, entitled to rights?

          Iaccept your point and if pro lifers *were* to make the compromise of allowing abortion in the case of rape would you accept it and fight to keep abortion illegal in other circumstances?,

          Of course not. This is not a matter for compromise. It’s up to you as prolifer to find your lost humanity: you can begin with the small step of agreeing you will not endorse forced pregnancy from rape: that you agree every rape victim must have the choice to terminate the pregnancy.

          I will not enter one step into the prolife moral abyss to make you feel better about dwelling there. It’s up to you to make your way out of it.

        • Moving on: Ive heard from women who call abortion clinics after an abortion asking for counselling and being told “get over it”.

          This is a standard prolife lie. I have no idea if you’ve actually been told by women that they have had abortions and then called the clinic for counselling and been denied – that is, whether they were lying to you and you wanted to believe them because it suited you to suppose that the staff of a nonprofit healthcare charity that performs abortions must be evil and heartless. Or you could be lying to me directly. But this kind of dishonesty and smearing is precisely why most people find it not worth while trying to have a sensible conversation with a prolifer – it’s rare for a prolifer to get very far without telling one or other of these lies. As indeed you follow with rapid-fire three more – the lie about radical feminists “threatening” rape vics, the lie about pro-choice feminists calling women who choose to have a baby “traitors”, and …

          Well, no, it’s not a lie that women in countries where abortion is illegal, as in Ireland, are left with no one to help them when they have the abortion. An Irish rape victim must somehow find the plane fare and get to the mainland-UK and find the money for the abortion. There is a charity run by pro-choice feminists that will help her, but they can’t afford to support any woman beyond the night or two necessary for the abortion. They simply don’t have the money. So the rape vic has to go back to Ireland, and of course she may find she cannot talk to anyone about her feelings about having been raped and having had an abortion, because what she did was illegal in Ireland. The solution, if prolifers actually had any compassion at all, would be to rule that all women in Ireland can have abortions on demand in Ireland…. and thus also be able to be supported, if they need it, afterwards.

          But the compassionate, obvious solution is just beyond the moral abyss in which prolifers dwell.

          For me the hardest thing is that many women who “choose” abortion often feel there is no other choice,

          Yes. And then you support making it harder for them by forcing them to pay for plane fare. Irish women tend to have abortions later because they have all the difficulties of getting out of Ireland to a country which wil support them. You see why I just don’t believe Irish prolifers in particular have any compassion in them at all – they’re peculiarly, smugly, heartless.

          That doesnt mean that I think all pro choicers lack compassion

          It would not surprise me at all if you did. Given your own inability to feel compassion, I would be surprised if you were capable of perceiving compassion for others.

          but when you see how the majority of pro lifers actually deal with women in a crisis pregnancy, I see lots of compassion.

          When prolifers talk about how they deal with women having an unwanted pregnancy, they talk with utter lack of compassion. They make clear they do not care how she feels or what she wants. They want only to force her through pregnancy, and appear to feel it’s okay to tell her whatever lies they think will put her off having an abortion.

  2. Actually it is not more nuanced than anything. A woman has the right to choose what to do with her body.

    And yes, I did read all the comment. Unborn foetuses are not children.

  3. Mary (Voso=Victims of sex offenders)

    Of course unborn babies are children !

  4. Susan Schwartz

    So question. No a fetus is not a child. Is it human and is it life? And do I always have the right to do with my body what I wish? Can I use my body to hurt others? Can I use my body to assault? Can I use my body to break into someone else’s house?

    • Is it human

      If it’s a human fetus. Did you know that it takes till well after 8 weeks (and the vast majority of abortions worldwide are performed before 8 weeks) before anything but genetic testing could let you know whether a fetus was human, elephant, or dolphin?

      and is it life?

      Yes, a living cell or group of cells is “life”.

      and do I always have the right to do with my body what I wish?

      You can’t ethically be made against your will to give blood or bone marrow, to provide someone else with a kidney, a lobe of your liver, part of your skin, or the use of your uterus. Your body is yours: it is in your gift to decide what you will do with any part of it.

      Can I use my body to hurt others? Can I use my body to assault? Can I use my body to break into someone else’s house?

      I hope not. Prolifers do all of these things to prevent people from having the right to decide for themselves.

      • Susan Schwartz

        So here is the thing. If the fetus is a separate being, with separate genetic makeup, then is not an abortion hurting another? Is that not using one’s body as one chooses to the detriment of another being? It is OK to choose for onesself, of course, but what if it is a choice that affects another?

        • If the fetus is a separate being, with separate genetic makeup, then is not an abortion hurting another?

          Prior to about 15 weeks development, it is not biologically possible for a fetus to suffer pain. So, fairly obviously, abortion at that stage doesn’t hurt the fetus.

          As discussed above very extensively, late-term abortions are almost invariably either the termination of a wanted pregnancy for health reasons – which I would hope no one but the most inhuman would argue against – or for a raped girl, who had not realised she was pregnant till too late. There is strong doubt as to whether the fetus is ever really conscious, but regardless: in those circumstances, there are usually no good choices. The person most involved has to make the choice that seems best. That is the pregnant woman.

          but what if it is a choice that affects another?

          It would be profoundly wrong to think you could make that choice for another. Which is why the prolife movement is profoundly wrong to oppose women’s choice and legal abortion.

          • Susan C Schwartz

            When I use the term “pain” I am not referring to a physical experience, but rather to negatively impact the life experience of another. Yes, I understand there may be a lack of feeling, but whether or not there is feeling may not be a reason to argue for or against abortion. So that still begs the question, if this is a genetically separate human being, at what point can we justify a termination?

  5. Susan C Schwartz: When I use the term “pain” I am not referring to a physical experience, but rather to negatively impact the life experience of another.

    Still less can that ever apply to a fetus, even after cerebral cortex develops and it’s possible that a fetus can experience pain. A fetus gestating does not breathe. Fetal blood is oxygenated by gas exchange through the placenta. The consequent low levels of oxygen in the brain means it is probable that a fetus is never conscious. There can be no negative impact on life experience where there is no life experience.

    Whereas the prolife movement seeks to “negatively impact” the life experience of girls and women who are pregnant and don’t want to be.

    So that still begs the question, if this is a genetically separate human being, at what point can we justify a termination?

    We? We can’t, if you’re sincere. The only person who can justify a termination, who can justify staying pregnant, is the pregnant woman herself. Anyone else trying to “justify” that for her is trying to “negatively impact the life experience of another”. Which would be wrong. Or so you appear to say you believe.

    • Susan C Schwartz

      So let me try to be more clear yet. If there is life, then there is life experience. It may not be conscious as for adults. We may not have documented it, but there is rudimentary experience. And since it is life, it is progressive, developing, growing. It is not stagnant.

      In terms of justifying termination. The question is whether anyone can terminate. If it is genetically human life is it moral and ethical for anyone terminate? If we take seriously that this is a real human life, precious, and vulnerable, then under what circumstances can we say that termination is an appropriate action. I think that there are circumstances, but since it is life then its protection needs to be of high priority.

      • So let me try to be more clear yet. If there is life, then there is life experience.

        You’re obfusticating. If you claim that a fetus has “life experience”, then the word “experience” is meaningless. This isn’t clarity, this is confusion.

        In terms of justifying termination. The question is whether anyone can terminate.

        Any pregnant woman can terminate her pregnancy.
        If we take seriously that this is a real human life, precious, and vulnerable, then under what circumstances can we say that termination is an appropriate action.

        If we take seriously that a pregnant woman is a real human life, precious, and vulnerable, then how can anyone stand with the prolifers and try to deny her a safe, legal abortion if that’s what she wants?

        I think that there are circumstances, but since it is life then its protection needs to be of high priority.

        If you care about protecting human life, how can you possibly want women to die in illegal abortions?

        • Susan Schwartz

          Talk about obfusticating! Well, we won’t go there. But we should be more clear about the words we use here. The term “abortion” and “termination” is in itself probably not definitive enough. One could, from a fetal developmental perspective, draw a clear distinction between first trimester terminations, either medically or surgically, and second or third. Given the degree of fetal development by week 24, I find that week 24, although some could argue earlier, is a pretty clear line of distinction. I appreciate those who would say that a fetus at all stages should be honored and respected, I really respect that. It is way too easy, since the fetus cannot be seen and cannot be heard, to just disregard it, BUT, and this is an important but, there is enough leeway in the first trimester for sure, and maybe into the second, maybe, to suggest that termination can be an appropriate decision. So, now back to you. Is there a time in a woman’s pregnancy at which termination is not an appropriate decision? Or is the determining factor for you whether or not the woman wants it?

          • Is there a time in a woman’s pregnancy at which termination is not an appropriate decision?

            Is there any time in a woman’s life, ever, where it would be appropriate to force her to risk her wellbeing, her health, her life, against her will?

            No.

            So, over to you. Read the stories at Patient First. Consider the reality of late-term abortions. Ask yourself, really, are you prepared to make a blanket decision for all those suffering women who came to the painful conclusion that the best thing was to terminate their pregnancy, and tell them – with what arrogance I cannot imagine – that you’re going to override that decision and force them to continue, no matter what?

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