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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 12/2/21

Abortion Rights: Once More into the Breach, Dear Friends

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"Either this nation shall kill racism, or racism shall kill this nation." (S. Jonas, August, 2018)

Keep Abortion Safe, Legal, Accessible.  The chances of doing this are fading fast.
Keep Abortion Safe, Legal, Accessible. The chances of doing this are fading fast.
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For quite some time, I have been writing on the matter of abortion rights, and most especially on the consideration of them in the context of the very real threat of the imposition of religious authoritarianism on the nation by the Republo-fascist Party. On the side of the pro-abortion rights forces a consideration of that approach to the conflict has received little if any attention. In the context of what happened in the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 1, 2021, which brings that conflict ever-closer to the surface, I am re-running one of my more recent columns on the subject, with a few additional observations.

Introductory Comment:

At that Supreme Court hearing Justice Brett Kavanaugh (who, Sen. Susan Collins from Maine assured us, would view Roe v. Wade with an open mind) among other things had this to say, in response to a question from a lawyer from Mississippi: " 'You're arguing that the Constitution is silent and, therefore, neutral on the question of abortion?' Kavanaugh asked a lawyer for Mississippi, with seeming approval. 'In other words, that the Constitution is neither pro-life nor pro-choice on the question of abortion but leaves the issue for the people of the states or perhaps Congress to resolve in the democratic process?'"

Actually, Mr. Justice, the Constitution is NOT silent on that question, but I guess that whatever law school you went to didn't cover that subject. Every destroyer-of-abortion-rights whom I have ever come across in support of their position has taken one version or another of the life-beings-at-the-moment-of-conception concept, because any new fertilized egg is a "gift from God," or some equivalent thereof.

Actually, to adopt a Constitutional position that the criminalization of abortion is justified, regardless of the religious views of the woman desirous of having one, is to place religion at the center of the Constitutional law. Which is, in case the Justice doesn't know, a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which begins with the words: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or pro hibiting the free exercise thereof;" "Life begins at the moment of conception" is a religious concept, which its promoters make clear over-and-over again. Thus, once again, any imposition, by law, on any person, Mr. Justice, is a violation of the Establishment Clause. Clearly, the Constitution is NOT silent on this matter.


Now, on to one of my previous columns on this matter, with some editing here and there

(from: "The Destruction of Abortion Rights and the Rise of Religious Authoritarianism," 9/30/2020: Click Here)

As many observers have noted, with the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg our nation is heading into what could be an enormously retrograde period in regard of individual rights and liberties. In the immediate future Trump is going to get his far-Rightist woman (whichever one) confirmed to the Supreme Court. Even if John Roberts, a Rightist himself, but not that far a Rightist, continues to maintain something of an institutionalist approach to the Constitution and the role of the Court, again as is well-known, in the immediate future the Court will at least be a consistent 5-4 Right. And Trump, actually celebrating the Justice's death (while at the same time revealing what he thinks of his chances of re-election with fair vote-counting), gleefully said words to the effect of "Now I can win a second term, 6-3."

Now, IF Biden can win the Presidency, and IF the Democrats can take the Senate with more than one seat to spare (one does not want to be in the position of having to count on Joe Manchin [ah yes{!}]), as is well-known, the Democrats could a) end the filibuster, b) admit the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico as reliably Democratic states, and c) pack the Court. Of course, even with the requisite number of Senate seats, that master of the Senate Rules Moscow Mitch could possibly figure out a way to gum up the works. But before we would need to start worrying about that, we would have to get to that position first.

In the meantime, Trump could remain in the Presidency. Notice that I did not say "win," because I don't think that he can. But the Trumpublicans probably have cheating systems in place (including the mass theft and destruction of paper ballots before counting) that even Greg Palast (How Trump Stole 2020) hasn't thought of. So, especially with the Court suddenly tilted sharply his way, Trump could still be there. And then, in terms of civil liberties, everything would be under attack. Especially Roe v. Wade and ab ortion rights (and oh how I wish that the pro-abortion rights movement would use that term instead of the more common "we favor abortion." For actually, no one favors abortion --- a medical procedure that does carry some risk no matter how it is performed ---- if it can be avoided. But that's another story.) The battle will be joined.

The essence of Roe v. Wade was that, until the generally accepted time of fetal viability outside the womb, 24 weeks, women were to have freedom of choice in the outcome of pregnancy. The anti-abortion-rights movement lay fairly low during the 1970s. It began ramping up with the advent of the Reagan Administration. In the 1980 campaign, Candidate Reagan and the leadership of the Republican Party decided to use the issue as one means of bringing the then-developing Political Religious Right further into their Party. (Reagan, of course, came from Hollywood. He was very familiar with abortion, then illegal, but certain done frequently, and with those who were taking care of such matters, perfectly safe. But what did that matter to him when religio-politics was involved?)

It was at about that time (early 1980s) that the anti-abortion-rights forces began using the term "pro-life" to characterize their movement. ("Pro-life" is a term that was actually invented after the end of the Second World War by Hitler's Pope, that great pro-lifer who kept his own counsel about the Holocaust during the War, Pius XII.) And since that time, even some elements of the pro-choice movement have used the term "pro-life" to describe the anti-choicers. Thus at least some focus has been lost over what was in fact at the center of Roe v. Wade, which was decided on a "right to privacy" interpretation of the 14th Amendment. But there is a very big additional support-for-individual liberties issue out there, just waiting to be mobilized. And that is the issue of religious authoritarianism.

As it happens, the position of the anti-abortion-rights forces is based exclusively on the religious concept of "when life begins." They make no bones about this. As is well-known, they equate abortion with murder, because according to them "life begins at the moment of conception." But that is an entirely religious concept. Let's repeat that, for many people, even on the abortion-rights side, miss it. "Pro-life" is an entirely religious concept. For the Protestant side of the anti-abortion-rights movement the authority for their position is the "inerrant word of God" as found in one particular version of the Bible. That the version most often cited by the anti-choicers is the King James version, an English translation created in the early 17th century by a 52-member committee of scholars and theologians, is a point often missed by the "inerrantists" (and their critics as well). (If the King James version were to be regarded as "inerrant," one would have to assume that "God" spoke through every member of that committee. And, of course, what does that say about the myriad other versions of the Bible, appearing in numerous translations from the original Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin? Why, it must be asked, did God wait so long to have an inerrant version produced?)

As for the anti-choice Catholics, they rely on an 1869 dictum from Pope Pius IX that life begins at the moment of conception. (This Pope was also the one who established the dictum of Papal Infallibility.) That dictum happens to have reversed Catholic doctrine, going back at least as far as St. Thomas Aquinas, that life begins at the "time of quickening." But since the self-designated "infallible Pope" --- the first one who claimed Infallibility --- what is it about Popes named "Pius" ---said it, it is (as the current U.S. President would say) what it is.

What the Republican Religious Right wants to do is right out of the 16th century: put the power of the State and the criminal law behind one particular set of religious doctrines. To say nothing of forcing a fundamental violation of the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment that they totally ignore: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or pro hibiting the free exercise thereof."

The position of the Religious Right is nothing more or less than the drive to establish religious authoritarianism to govern the country. And of course, it's not just the organized Religious Right. We now have an Attorney General who claims that a major enemy for our nation is "militant secularism." As a militant secularist myself, I take this particular charge most personally. And of course, one must then ask, if they succeed on this matter --- of specifying approved religions as well as non-approved non-religious belief --- what's next? The total violation of the Establishment Clause (in reverse) to go after folk who are non-religious? Or having battles over whose justification for the "life begins at the moment of conception" doctrine is the correct one, Catholic or Protestant (and if the latter, which Bible of the myriad Protestant ones?).

What I am suggesting here is that in addition to defending the "woman's right to choose," the pro-choice/abortion-rights side needs to address this fundamental question: are religious fundamentalists going to be allowed to set social policy on one of the oh-so-many matters of personal being and belief, based solely on the religious dogmas that they personally adhere to. They so desperately want their religious beliefs to set social policy, as church-going steadily declines in the United States, that they advocate the employment of the criminal law to do so. Not only that, but the anti-abortion-rights doctrine, religion-based as it is, ignores the fact that many women who seek abortions, and their male partners, are themselves religious. They simply have a different set of religious beliefs than do the Fundamentalists and the Dominionists.

Unfortunately, there has been little uptake or recognition for this argument and its potential strength. As it happens, I have been actually have been talking about it for some years now [see my book "The 15% Solution"]). And so, what we have here, well beyond "the woman's right to choose" (in which, to repeat, I firmly believe), is a fundamental struggle over religious liberty. And if Trump remains in the Presidency [remember, dear reader, this was originally written in September, 2020], given a Trumpian Supreme Court [which of course is what we've got], the battle will be fully joined.

For, to repeat, the anti-choice forces always base their position on religious doctrine of one sort or another. The anti-choice forces, again, want to criminalize any belief that life does not begin at the moment of conception, whether religious --- and again, there are many religious people who believe in the right to choose --- or, as in my case as an atheist, non-religious who do too. A prime example is Gov. Kay Ivey of Alabama, who has said that in her opinion "every life is a sacred gift from God." That obviously religious position is fine --- for her. But she wants that belief to be ensconced in the law. And the AL law, based on that religious concept, if allowed to go into effect, would imprison physicians or women-having-an-abortion or both, and the death penalty was considered. Cannot get any more religiously authoritarian than that.

This is a position and a policy that can take us straight back to the religious wars in Europe and Great Britain of the 16th and 17th centuries. Perhaps if imprisonment doesn't work to stop women from having abortions and physicians from providing them, burning at the stake will be next. If the drive to establish religious authoritarianism on the matter of abortion as the governing doctrine for the nation is not stopped, right now, what will be next? And in my view if the pro-choice forces do not begin to fight on this issue, if we as a nation do get back to the time of Bloody Mary (the English Queen, not the drink), they will be as responsible for that state of affairs as would be the Republican Religious Right.

As the great British atheist, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) said:

" No power of government ought to be employed in the endeavor to establish any system or article of belief on the subject of religion."

And then, as Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal Priest, Professor, Theologian, said:

"Jesus was not killed by atheism and anarchy. He was brought down by law and order allied with religion [emphasis added], which is always a deadly mix. Beware those who claim to know the mind of God and who are prepared to use force, if necessary, to make others conform. Beware those who cannot tell God's will from their own. Temple police are always a bad sign. When chaplains start wearing guns and hanging out at the sheriff's office, watch out. Someone is about to have no king but Caesar."

Postscript I:

The New York Time resident right-wing Catholic opinion columnist, Ross Douthat, had this to say on the matter of "when life begins:"

"There is no way to seriously deny that abortion is a form of killing. At a less advanced stage of scientific understanding, it was possible to believe that the embryo or fetus was somehow inert or vegetative until so-called quickening, months into pregnancy. But we now know the embryo is not merely a cell with potential, like a sperm or ovum, or a constituent part of human tissue, like a skin cell. Rather, a distinct human organism comes into existence at conception, and every stage of your biological life, from infancy and childhood to middle age and beyond, is part of a single continuous process that began when you were just a zygote.

"We know from embryology, in other words, not Scripture or philosophy, that abortion kills a unique member of the species Homo sapiens, an act that in almost every other context is forbidden by the law."

Oh dear, Ross. There IS a way to deny that abortion is a form of killing. WE don't know from embryology "that abortion kills." You think that you do. But many of us, and it happens that I am a physician who studied embryology in medical school --- Harvard, as it happens --- (which study you have apparently not undertaken), do not agree in any way with your conclusion. Our concept is that a human being is a born baby (who indeed started out as an embryo, but wasn't human yet) who has a beating heart and working lungs (as well as all of the other organs), living outside of the womb, with the umbilical cord cut. You can claim all you want that yours is a "scientific" position . . . which of course it isn't because, among other reasons, you cannot resist using the term "comes into existence at conception" which is what the anti-abortion folk tell us all the time. . . But even if it were, that's your interpretation of science. Mine, as well as that of countless others both in this country and many others (including Catholic Ireland[!!!]) is just as I stated it above.

Postscript II:

It does look as if we are going to lose this battle in the Supreme Court. Should the Republo-fascists take the House and the Senate in 2022, or 2024, the first thing that McConnell, or a successor, will do is end the Filibuster. Then with "Roe" (before which each state could set its own abortion policy) gone, the Republo-fascist Congress can pass a national law banning abortion everywhere. How about them apples?

(Article changed on Dec 02, 2021 at 7:55 PM EST)

(Article changed on Dec 03, 2021 at 7:11 AM EST)

(Article changed on Dec 03, 2021 at 11:10 AM EST)

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Steven Jonas, MD, MPH, MS is a Professor Emeritus of Preventive Medicine at StonyBrookMedicine (NY) and author/co-author/editor/co-editor of over 35 books. In addition to his position on OpEdNews as a "Trusted Author, he is a Senior (more...)
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