Tag Archives: pro choice

Jewish History, Reproductive Justice, and the Two of Us

Laurie and Debbie say:

Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) ended tonight at sundown. The Jewish High Holy Days continue for another week, culminating in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when religious Jews make themselves right with G-d and are written into the Book of Life for another year.

We don’t usually write about Judaism, and we often leave the topic of reproductive justice to others, but the timing of Leanne Gale’s “Jewish History Demands Solidarity with Reproductive Justice Movement” in The Sisterhood section of the Forward got us both to thinking about our own relationships to these issues. (The Forward has been the leading Yiddish newspaper in the United States for well over 100 years, and didn’t even have an English-language edition until 1990, let alone a blog.)

Laurie grew up in a culturally Jewish atheist politically radical family. Debbie grew up with a religious Jewish mother and grandparents, and an atheist father, in a liberal community. Laurie’s passion for justice stems from the values and expectations of the people around her, most of whom were Jews; Debbie’s is somewhat more centered in the actual religious practice and expectations. Both of us were drawn early to the Jewish understanding that you work to make the world a better place not for any reward in this life or the next one, but because it’s right.

Leanne Gale invokes the Jewish obligation to behave justly:

On Yom Kippur, many congregations will read the Leviticus passage that commands, lo ta’amod al dam re’echa, do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. The blood of my history cries out to me; am I to remain silent?

She focuses, in her short article, on the reproductive justice framework:

Developed by women of color in the mid 1990s, the reproductive justice framework expands beyond the “right to choose” and insists on combating the racial, economic, and cultural systems of oppression that intersect to limit reproductive freedom. It is rooted in basic human rights, including the right to full autonomy over our bodies, the right to have or not have children, the right to birth and parent our children with dignity, and the right to live and raise a family in a safe, healthy environment.

She acknowledges, as we both do, our own privilege in this context. What she chooses not to discuss is the ways in which the Jewish passion for justice has in many contexts failed the religion’s own women. (Other failures of the Jewish passion for justice are well known and well reported, and not the subject of this particular blog post.) While all branches of Judaism believe that abortion should be performed if the life of the mother is at stake, Orthodox Judaism stops there, and conservative Judaism while somewhat more lenient, does not acknowledge a woman’s right to choose. Reform Judaism supports women’s choice. And, of course, the more traditional Orthodox and Conservative congregations have many sexist practices. Orthodoz Judaism is well known for making women and men worship in separate spaces, and treating menstruating women as unclean.

Nonetheless, the religion has never made a distinction between men’s and women’s obligations to improve the world. We both find it extremely satisfying to see Gale discussing reproductive justice and structural racism in The Forward; may her article open some eyes and change some minds.

Absolutist vs. Consequentialist Bullshit

Laurie and Debbie say:

Melissa McEwen at Shakesville recently delivered a very satisfactory smackdown to Richard Dawkins when he decided to discuss his opinions of abortion on Twitter. In this series of tweets, Dawkins said, “My criterion for “relevant to morality of abortion” is standard consequentialist morality. Opponents follow absolutist morality. Simple.”

First, to quote McEwen: “Not only women have uteri, get pregnant, and/or have need of access to abortion.”

McEwen makes (for the hundred thousandth time, because she’s such a wonderful warrior in battlefield of women’s bodily autonomy) numerous important points about why no useful abortion discussion can even take place if the experience of the women carrying the babies is not included. But she goes on to challenge the “absolutist vs. consequentialist” language.

First of all, I want to get these terms out of the way, because I don’t want any bullshit rules-lawyering clouding up this post. Dawkins is claiming to parse a difference between Absolutism (which believes that certain actions are right or wrong, regardless of consequence or intent) and Consequentialism (which holds that it is the consequence of an action that makes it ultimately right or wrong). So the built-in troll defense for all of the above is that Dawkins didn’t call pro-choice activists like myself “absolutists” as in extreme left-wingers but rather “absolutists” in the sense that we think women have a right to bodily autonomy because it is a basic human right instead of a contributing factor to the greater good. And that Dawkins’ point of view is the consequentialist view of morality and therefore naturally disposed to come up with a different answer than the absolutists.

She’s not wrong at all, but she missed an important point. Simply by bringing up this “absolutist vs. consequentialist” language, Dawkins is engaging in more than one shoddy arguing technique, and responding to him on his own terms only gives this crap some standing. This particular Twitter argument has already scrolled off the bottom of everyone’s screen, but the underlying style of argument deserves a lot more attention than the people who use it. What he’s doing is called “intellectual fingerfucking” and the only good thing about intellectual fingerfucking is that no one actually gets pregnant; otherwise, the practice varies from wasteful to destructive and this is a destructive version.

First of all, if a woman decides to (or decides not to) have an abortion, she is not sitting down and thinking “Am I being an absolutist or a consequentialist?” She’s thinking (and feeling) some version of “I have this very complicated thing going on in my body, my head, and my heart, and I need to do something about it, because it’s going to affect my whole life.” In other words, she’s having a major life experience (which, by the way, is both absolutely happening to her and fraught with consequences, and she knows both those things, though usually not in that language).

Using technical derailing ethical jargon builds a false context for real issues. By setting things up in this on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand framework and labeling that framework with big intellectual-sounding words, a “pundit” can redefine a very human problem as if it was taking place in some sterile academic atmosphere, rather than being a problem of blood, bone and tissue, heart and mind, real human life and real human risk.

At the same time as this kind of argument falsifies and dehumanizes, it also bullies all kinds of people out of the conversation.

In a recent post on the concept of “stance,” as commonly used in the litmus tests of many evangelical Christian positions, Fred Clark at Slactivist approaches this problem from another perspective:

Doing the right thing — i.e., doing good, loving — is almost always a matter of where we’re choosing to stand and of who we choose to stand beside much more than it is an abstract matter of the rectitude of our stance. This is why the Bible is so belabored and repetitive in its discussion of the weakest, the oppressed, the downtrodden, the least of these — those Nicholas Wolterstorff calls “the quartet of the vulnerable,” meaning “the widows, the orphans, the resident aliens, and the impoverished.”

Who does have time for this garbage? Well, let’s start with people (men) who run their own foundations. People (men) in “think tanks.” (Doesn’t that phrase always make you want to drop them into “feeling tanks” and see if they can swim?) Professors. And (here’s the big one), people who advise the lawmakers all over this country (and all over the world) on how they can continue to remove women’s rights, how they can justify their own “convictions” (which were created within the last hundred years and flourish in an ongoing context of absolutism, consequentialism, and stance) and create the kinds of increasingly horrifying anti-abortion laws which are popping up all over–and ruining lives.