Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Religious Far Right and Their Sexual Agenda

Originally posted to Tim DeLaney on Sun Feb 05, 2012

The recent controversy over the political decisions of the Susan G Komen foundation has inspired this diary. I cannot for the life of me understand why politics ought to play a role in this arena. However, this diary is not about that particular story; others have commented more cogently than I could about those details. Rather, it is more general in scope. Let's explore this topic below the Satanic orange graphic.

A frequently repeated mantra of the religious far right is that "Life begins at conception."

This is just wrong, both in fact and in biology. The sperm and the egg were both fully alive before conception. Life actually began about four billion years ago. Since that time, there is an unbroken line of living cells that leads to the sperm and the egg. Life doesn't begin anew simply because an egg is fertilized; life simply continues. Maybe you don't believe in common descent or evolution. Even though I think that's a foolish belief, you are entitled to it, but common descent is nonetheless true. The scientific evidence for it is just overwhelming, and it would be perverse to reject it.

The invention of sex was, in evolutionary terms, a (figurative) stroke of genius. Among other advantages, sex enables a species to preserve traits that might otherwise be lethal until a time when they might be useful. A prime example of this is sickle cell anemia. (Google is your friend.) Without the invention of sex, evolution would be much slower, much different, and perhaps impossible. It is not a coincidence that sex is also a great deal of fun.

Human conception is not a supernatural event, any more than is turtle conception. It is wondrous to be sure, but it's not supernatural. If you believe that something supernatural happens when a sperm penetrates and fertilizes an egg, then that belief is a private religious belief. Science cannot disprove this belief; it is theological in nature. But in reality (as opposed to theology) there is nothing that happens in a cell that cannot be explained by chemistry. This is a fact; scientists call it biochemistry.

If human conception is a supernatural event, then what about the conception of a chimpanzee, a dog, or a turtle? These are events that have a great deal in common with human conception. Their chemistry is extraordinarily similar. Why would these events not be considered supernatural? Why is human conception alone regarded as a supernatural event?

You might argue that the specific arrangement of the genetic material of the fertilized egg makes it unique, something that will never again be duplicated exactly. True enough, but unique is not a synonym for supernatural. You can say the same for a deal at bridge, but nobody talks of a bridge deal as supernatural. It is just 52 cards arranged in a particular way. The human genome is far more complex than a deck of cards. But still, it is not supernatural, at least not in any scientific sense.

You can choose to believe that at the moment of conception, a deity creates a soul, and embeds that soul into the fertilized egg. There is no physical evidence for such a belief, but I support your right to believe it, even though I myself do not. This is the meaning of the first amendment. You have the absolute and unfettered right to any religious belief you choose. I am strictly forbidden to try to impose my private beliefs upon you.

In like manner, you do not have the right to impose your beliefs upon me. For example, you might believe that God doesn't want us to play golf on Sunday. That's fine with me--just don't play golf on Sunday. But don't pass a law against Sunday golf; that would be imposing your religious beliefs upon me. Do you see the analogy between Sunday golf and abortion?

In the USA, civil rights are recognized only at birth. Various milestones, such as the age of majority, are recognized as occurring at a specified time interval after birth. Citizenship itself is defined in terms of birthplace. By custom, we do not even receive a name until we are born. Indeed, the single most meaningful document in our lives is our birth certificate. As far as the nation is concerned, the singular event of birth is what defines each us as a person and as a citizen.

The alternative proposed by the religious right--to define a fertilized egg as a person--raises some annoying practical questions. In what country was the person conceived? Exactly how old is the person? Is the fetus, even if miscarried at two months, a dependent for tax purposes? What about a baby born on September 29? Would that enable me to amend my tax return?

Defining a person as starting from birth is unambiguous and precise. It simplifies things and it is practical. More importantly, it is the criterion we have chosen as a nation. We must live with that criterion, even though we might have theological beliefs to the contrary.

Having said all this, I think there is room for compromise. For example, I would be willing to accept a law that requires a doctor to preserve the life of a viable fetus after it is aborted whenever possible. So, please don't drag in the red herring of partial birth abortion. The overwhelming majority of abortions are performed during the first six months, more than 99.96% according to this study. In fact, roughly 89% are performed during the first 12 weeks. 

Nowhere in this essay do I mean to suggest that an unwanted pregnancy ought to be terminated without a care in the world, as one might dispose of a Kleenex. If I were a woman I would take such a decision very seriously, and I would expect others to do so as well. This belief on my part is well founded. I trust women to understand that an abortion has far reaching consequences, as does a pregnancy carried to term. However, I do mean to suggest that government must not intrude itself in that decision.

It would be natural to expect that the religious far right, being opposed as they are to abortion, would be avid supporters of contraceptive information for young people. After all, preventing unwanted pregnancies would do away with most abortions. Strangely, they are generally unfriendly towards this idea. They may or may not be opposed to contraception in principle, but only very rarely do they advocate making such information freely available to young unmarried people.

The religious far right know--or at least they should know--that the urge to procreate is so strong that nature / God / evolution (take your pick) has instilled in the young of our species a very strong urge to copulate. (Think back to your teen years. Did you ever wish to copulate?) We are not unique in that respect; we share that urge with all other animals. Without that urge, we would die out as a species.

The religious far right objects to abortion and in large part to contraception. They are not big fans of unmarried women having children either. The only way these three notions can exist in the same brain is to entertain the notion that society somehow ought to regulate the private sexual behavior of young people women. (Does this ironic use of HTML suggest to you the origin of the double standard?)

One would think that the religious far right would approve of homosexual behavior, because this arguably advances all of their principles referred to above. Gay and lesbian behavior by its very nature does away with any worries about abortion, contraception, and unwed mothers. If I were offered a solution to my top three worries I would eagerly embrace it. Oddly enough, the religious far right rejects this notion. Go figure.

What is the vision of the religious far right, and should we consider accepting it or should we reject it? Let's put it all together. The only consistent position I can imagine is that they wish to somehow prevent young people from having sex of any kind unless they are married to a member of the opposite sex. They not only believe this, but they want the government to enforce these theological beliefs with legislation.

On the other hand, I believe that sexual or reproductive behavior of any kind, whether solitary or between consenting adults, is beyond the bounds of government to permit, regulate, or forbid.

Which of these two views makes sense in a free society?