This year in Britain we’ve seen Christian fundamentalism asserting itself.
In London, Brighton and Manchester we have seen pro-life pickets outside abortion clinics, where women are harassed and told lies about the effects of abortion. Fourtunately those pickets have not gone unchallenged by pro-choice campaigners.
But increasingly, on our streets and university campuses, pro-life organisations hold stalls and workshops distributing anti-abortion propaganda.
Now Catholic (“pro-life”) charity Care Confidential is seeking to bring all its affiliated centres up to “commissioning status” standard; under the Health and Social Care Bill they will provide NHS services paid for with public money.
In parliament, a section of the Conservative Party, most famously Nadine Dorries MP, has put forward bills promising to make abortion provision more “impartial” by allowing religiously-motivated charities to provide abortion counselling. In August a cross-party coalition considered allowing anti-abortion groups to run publically-funded abortion services; it has also attempted to push a bill making “abstinence” lessons compulsory in secondary schools.
The threat against women’s bodily integrity is real, even if a court case is won against harassment outside clinics.
The Conservative “big society” ideal, even for those Tories who are pro-choice, leaves room for religious groups, who have gained charity status by clearing explicit references to religion out of their literature, to receive public funding “in competition” with Marie Stopes and other medically-vetted clinics.
Taking the religion out of the literature is particularly problematic, as it diverts public attention away from the ideological motivation behind pro-life groups’ activity; it means pro-life groups assert their arguments by telling lies to women, frightening or guilt-tripping them out of seeking a termination, and yet can call themselves “impartial”.
We can battle the picketers, and have done so successfully, but that won’t solve the underlying problem.
Feminists should be working against the implementation of legislation that allows pro-choice groups anywhere near reproductive rights. We need to fight to keep abortion provision publicly funded, and this is part of the wider battle against NHS privatisation, academy schools and austerity.
We should also host debates and hold demonstrations to expose the arguments that pro-life groups are using: shock-tactics and lies.
The “Helpers of God’s Precious Infants”, who regulary picket the Marie Stopes Clinic in Woodford [and were challenged by Feminist Fightback and others in a counter-protest in April], hand out flyers which claim that abortion will “damage your maternal instinct and… bonding process with any other children you have” and can lead to “alcohol, drug abuse and eating disorders”.
Groups such as SPUC and Abort67 are very vocal minority groups who have adapted tactics similar to those used in the USA including: isolating abortion providers and undermining their credibility, putting obstacles in the way of access to abortion, and presenting their views as impartial.
This ability for groups to call their tactics “impartial” is most concerning for feminists; government regulations only require a superficial change in an organisation’s presentation of ideas — which is in their best interests — to allow them access to public money.
However, public money is not the only source of funding available to pro-lifers. Abort67, for example, which compares abortion to the slave trade and the Holocaust, receives money from a variety of churches and individuals who “outsource” their anti-abortion campaigning. It received money from the Jubilee Community Church (an evangelical congregation in Worthing) to hold pickets outside clinics in Brighton. This is not secularism, this is religious and political ideology disguised as secularism.
Abort67, for example, has this article title on its website:
“White racists in 60s America and the Civil Rights movement; Pro-slavery MPs in the 18th-19th Centuries and the Trade in humans; Socialists, humanists, Green Party members, and anarchists in the 21st century and abortion.”
The Jubilee church argued in an open letter to the Abortion Rights campaign:
“It seems to us that there are a lot of people looking to care for the vulnerable ladies who are pregnant…However, there is no-one who is championing the cause of the unborn child. They are the most vulnerable people in our society, wholly dependent on those outside the womb, with no voice of their own to argue their case.”
Religion is the only arena under capitalism where bigotry and prejudice can be championed in mainstream public media (such as BBC Radio 4) and is still considered respectable.
This is the point at which secular and “liberal” politics fall short. A complete conflict of interest such as we’ve seen on the “pro-gay”/”ex-gay” London bus adverts ending in the censorship of the religious poster, was justified by Boris Johnson in the Evening Standard with the phrase “we will not tolerate intolerance”.
Without a clear-cut ethical basis upon which to build a society, the liberal concept of “equality” and the series of abstract “rights” on which it depends will come into conflict. The society socialist feminists want to build should not just be secular, it should operate on the basis of atheism; that all religious beliefs are not founded on reality. However, in order for this to be realised, we have to change people’s minds about the current reality of life under capitalism.
Secularism is an important starting point for working towards this basis. Secularism is a definition of the shared political life of society, governed in a way that does not privilege or disadvantage people on the basis of their religion or belief.
Religious people would have the freedom to worship, believe and dissent as they wish. This freedom does not exist in non-secular states.
Free debate, criticism and education about and between different faiths and atheism are important to maintain a situation of free expression of ideas. Pro-life groups should be encouraged, and in some cases required, to have the religious debates about where their opposition to abortion really comes from.
In order to achieve real secularism not enforced by an authoritarian state, we need to have a dominant political dialogue that strives for social cohesion based on society as a whole, not separatism. “Christian community” should not be a way to classify people. The British Humanist Association describes the best way to define people as “equal citizens of a single community”.
As socialists, we strive to raise the class consciousness of the working class in order to overthrow capitalism, but not to divide that class on the basis of religion. Children should be able to think independently from their families. A child’s identity should not be defined by their parent’s religion any more than it should be defined by their parent’s politics.
As Richard Dawkins has asserted, we should not operate on the basis that human morality comes only from the basis of sacred religious texts and belief systems.
As atheists, we should consider religious sentiments, progressive or fundamentalist, as motivated by already existing political and moral belief systems — including patriarchy.
The Christian doctrine behind pro-life is this: God creates all life, and imbues all life with immortal souls.
In the Protestant Church, the opposition to abortion originates from Psalms 139:
Thou hast beset me behind and before,
and laid thine hand upon me.
For thou hast possessed my reins:
thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb.
I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are thy works;
and that my soul knoweth right well.
My substance was not hid from thee
when I was made in secret,
and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
Ironically, God is also responsible for the burden of childbirth: in the Book of Genesis God punishes Eve for eating from the Tree of Knowledge:
Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception. In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children: and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.
The Catholic Church extends the sanctity of life towards God’s “seed” as well as his unborn “children”; at the extreme end of this practice sex is tightly controlled to ensure the potential for life is realised and God’s gifts are not wasted.
Human beings cannot create life or souls, and to take control of the reproductive process is to usurp God’s gifts or “waste” them. Sex experienced for pleasure in and of itself is wasteful; it can only be practised for the higher purpose of bringing new human souls under God’s subjection.
Why is religion patriarchal? Because it carries with it the patriarchy of ancient societies, their attitudes and values long-preceding contraception, capitalism or modern day “science” as we understand it. Dawkins reiterates: “I believe it because I believe it because I believe it”.
The moral guidelines of religion are not drawn from evidence and experience but from texts written, re-written, translated and interpreted over thousands of years.
Ancient dogma and tradition have meaning and history, but they carry with them attitudes and principles that by definition must operate outside the values and ideas of modern society — they must resist change, or they cease to be faith-based.
Pro-life groups continue to protect “God’s gifts” as they have done for centuries, only in the modern day this means encouraging mistrust in science, and using modern concepts of pain and suffering to threaten transgressors.
Only an atheistic criticism of religion can effectively counter these ideas.
* More on Care Confidential and NHS commissioning here
* This is the text of a lead-off at one of the regular Women’s Fightback London meetings. For more details email firstname.lastname@example.org.