Sometimes people discuss the case for or against God, hoping to prove or disprove His existence.
That’s not my goal. Deities – and magic of all kinds – are often defined as being beyond the realm of evidence or proof. You either believe or you don’t.
As far as our scientific discoveries are concerned, there’s no reason to believe in God. We’ve never encountered data that would require the presence of a deity to be explained.
But then again, as far as our scientific discoveries are concerned, there’s no reason to believe in free will. We’ve never encountered data that would suggest that the workings of our brains are caused by anything other than the predictable movement of salt atoms inside of us. And, personally? I’m totally willing to believe in free will, based solely on how my existence feels.
So I can’t fault anyone for believing in God. Or gods. Witchcraft, ghosts, or aliens – sure, I do think some of these beliefs are a bit more outlandish than my belief in free will, but it’s all a matter of degree.
Instead, I’d like to discuss the legal case against God.
That’s why I’m vegan – I don’t believe animals should be killed or caged just for me to have a tastier meal. As a heterotroph, I obviously have to hurt somebody every time I eat, but I’d rather hurt a carrot than a cow.
And it’s why I’m an environmentalist. Although climate change would open up a variety of new ecological niches, presumably benefiting many lifeforms (including some that don’t even exist yet!), many of our world’s current denizens would suffer. Many current species would go extinct.
And, because I’m pro-life, I’m also pro-choice. I believe that parents can do best when they’re allowed to choose when & with whom they’ll have children. I believe that fooling around with people is often fun, and can be deeply emotionally fulfilling, and that people should be able to partake in consensual pleasure without the fear of lifelong repercussions. I believe that human women are living creatures and should have autonomy over their bodies.
I vastly prefer contraception to abortion. It would be marvelous to live in a world where safe, effective contraception was freely available to everyone who wanted it!
When my spouse and I were hoping to have children, we declined genetic testing during each pregnancy. Given our immense privilege, we could afford to love and raise whomever arrived in our family. But not everyone believes that they can. Some people feel that they’ll be unable to care for children with dramatic healthcare needs. (Inevitably, when we allow people choice, some people will base their choices on rationales that I don’t agree with.)
Following the Supreme Court’s misguided decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, many states have criminalized abortion. In Washington state, legislation provides “to unborn children the equal protection of the laws of this state,” and in Iowa, legal personhood begins “from the moment of conception.” Under such laws, abortion constitutes murder.
And worse. As Madeleine Schwartz documents in her excellent 2020 essay “Criminalizing a Constitutional Right,” even before the Dobbs decision, many women were already being charged with murder or neglect if they happened to have a miscarriage or stillbirth.
In the vast majority of cases, though, a miscarriage is not the mother’s fault.
Most often, the culprit is God.
Under these laws, state prosecutors ought to bring their murder charges against God.
After conception, each embryo passes through several developmental checkpoints. A wide range of genetic or chromosomal abnormalities could cause a fetus or embryo to fail to pass these checkpoints. At that point, the pregnancy is terminated. The unborn child is aborted by – or, if you agree with the sort of legal language that the Dobbs decision unleashed, murdered by – God.
A miscarriage is often an emotionally wrenching experience for aspiring mothers. The emotional aftermath of miscarriage is typically much worse than that of abortion. The outcome is the same – the pregnancy is terminated – but when God aborts a pregnancy with miscarriage, a perhaps desperately wanted unborn child is lost.
Miscarriage is frequent, too.
It’s hard to know the exact frequencies, because in addition to the general culture of shame and disparagement with which the medical community has long regarded women’s bodies, miscarriage is particularly hidden. Miscarriage is so common that women are advised not to announce their pregnancies until their second or third trimesters, but this means that their support networks of friends, family, and colleagues might not even know why a person feels devastated.
But a good estimate is that about fifty percent of conceptions will fail to pass all the necessary genetic and chromosomal checkpoints.
Which means that – insofar as we believe that legal personhood begins at conception – about fifty percent of all people are murdered by God before they are born. God is a ruthless eugenicist, dispassionately evaluating the DNA of each unborn child and quelling the development of half.
From Schwartz’s essay, you’ll learn of numerous women who were imprisoned – and lost their jobs, their homes, their families – because they were suspected of harming their own unborn children. (And this was all before the Dobbs decision.)
For the cases that Schwartz chooses to discuss, most of the women were very poor. If we as a nation had chosen to spend money to give all women access to high-quality nutrition and prenatal medical care, some of these fetuses may have survived their pregnancies and had the opportunity to become living, breathing, impoverished babies. In which case I’d argue that the people who intentionally withhold free access to nutrition and prenatal care – the Republican governors and legislators – are accessories to murder.
But before we punish any of them, we should start with God.
The Supreme Court is considering whether to overturn the standing decisions from Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992). The majority opinions in those cases guaranteed … um, actually, quite little?
Soon, those opinions might guarantee even less!
Justice Sonia Sotomayor is worried that the Supreme Court might lose its aura of legitimacy.
Justice Sotomayor said, “Will this institution survive the stench that [overturning Roe v. Wade would create] in the public perception that the Constitution and its readings are just political acts? I don’t see how it is possible.”
This is actually a major reason why Roe v. Wade wasn’t overturned previously. In a recent essay on Planned Parenthood v. Casey, ACLU legal director David Cole writes that “As the three then-recently Republican-appointed justices … warned in 1992, overruling Roe would do ‘profound and unnecessary damage to the Court’s legitimacy and to the Nation’s commitment to the rule of law.’ That is only more true today.”
And, look: I’m pro-choice. I would prefer for anti-abortion laws like those recently enacted in Texas and Mississippi to be revoked.
But also: the idea that our Supreme Court might lose some of its power makes me quite pleased!
In our country, there are ostensibly three equal branches of government to balance each other.
Which sounds like a nifty design! Barstools often have three legs because any three points define a plane (unless they’re all on the same line), so three-legged stools are rarely tippy. Quite helpful when the sitter might be tipsy!
But something’s gone wrong with our government.
The recently-ritualized filibusterer system of our legislative branch that allows any proposal to be passively smothered, often by senators who represent fewer people than live in single neighborhoods of major cities. The post-9/11 domestic spying and drone strike assassinations from our executive branch. These are strange aberrations!
The worst offender, though, is probably our judiciary. Over many years, our Supreme Court justices have steadily commandeered more power, and the system is untenable.
Unfortunately, our Supreme Court justices are incompetent.
This isn’t really their fault!
And I happen to think that several of them are clever, kind-hearted people. I really liked when Justice Sotomayor’s minority opinion for Utah v. Strieff included a reading list to help people who hadn’t noticed the lingering ramifications of institutional racism in our country.
That was grand!
But for our Supreme Court justices to form meaningful opinions about the whole range of cases that come before them, they should understand computers, artificial intelligence, psychology, sociology, economics, biology, medicine … and, they don’t.
To be nominated for a seat on the Supreme Court, a person instead needs to have specialized in our country’s adversarial system of law. Which means, due to time constraints, that they probably won’t have an adequate understanding of many vital subjects.
Worse, the one subject that they did specialize in – adversarial law – isn’t even helpful! Immersion in this style of thought probably makes people less suited to serve on the Supreme Court. As law professor Sarah A. Seo wrote in a recent essay on public defenders, “Adversarialism is not inherent to justice – it’s simply one way of administering it.”
Even if the adversarial arguments mattered – if, for instance, we lived in an alternate universe where the judges were such flexibly-minded people that they allowed themselves to be persuaded in court, that we couldn’t predict how they were going to vote well before any arguments had been presented – the idea of “justice” arising from competition instead of justice by collaboration is a foolish way to run a country.
Often, people refer to Roe v. Wade in shorthand, suggesting that the decision guarantees a right to privacy, perhaps, or more specifically a right to abortion.
Instead, the majority opinion for Roe v. Wade says that “Though the State cannot override [the right to privacy, including a woman’s qualified right to terminate her pregnancy], it has legitimate interests in protecting both the pregnant woman’s health and the potentiality of human life, each of which interests grows and reaches a ‘compelling’ point at various stages of the woman’s approach to term.”
There are two conflicting rights, and the majority opinion is proposing a guideline for their balance. This is quite common. We balance people’s privacy against the state’s interest in preventing crime. We balance manufacturers’ desire to pollute with other people’s desire to breathe clean air or drink clean water.
In Roe v. Wade, the justices were balancing women’s bodily autonomy against the state’s interest in protecting the health of possible future citizens.
The justices concluded that: “For the stage subsequent to [fetal] viability the State, in promoting its interest in the potentiality of human life, may, if it chooses, regulate, and even proscribe, abortion except where necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for the preservation of the life or health of the mother.”
When conservative commentators describe Roe v. Wade as a terrible ruling, I’m inclined to agree with them.
Yes, the three new Supreme Court justices – the stolen seat, the attempted rapist, & the hypocritical election’s-eve appointment – would like to overturn Roe v. Wade. But they hardly even need to! The existing opinion already does so little to protect women’s rights!
A large section of the ruling for Roe v. Wade discusses ancient attitudes toward abortion.
This discussion is markedly incomplete. Supreme Court justices simply don’t know enough to make their rulings! And there’s not a great solution to this, since very few possible groupings of nine people would include enough expertise to handle all the cases on a year’s Supreme Court docket.
Abortion has long been a common practice – healers and midwives in many cultures knew which local plants were arbotifacients. And any discussion of ancient attitudes toward abortion should also discuss infanticide.
Infanticide was common during recorded history. Based on studies of surviving hunter-gatherer cultures, we also have reason to suspect that infanticide was even more common in our species’s prehistory. In relatively recent times, if a baby was carried to term and then given up for adoption – perhaps left upon the doorstep or a church or monastery – there was significant risk of death. Amid high childhood mortality, a baby separated from the mother would face especially grim odds.
Compared to other primates, human mothers form emotional bonds to a child relatively late in development. Among our evolutionary cousins, it’s rare for a mother to allow any individual (not the baby’s father, not her own mother, not her other children) to even touch her baby. A full year might pass before the mother could bear the sight of her baby in another caregiver’s arms.
There are huge benefits that human mothers are less protective – shared child-rearing cements trust between adults, allows for our babies to be born earlier in biological development (essential given the size of our brains!), and leads to more attentive lifetime care.
Plus, this evolutionary history has made human babies so cute! Our offspring wouldn’t giggle and coo – behaviors that delight a potential caregiver – if they relied only upon irrevocable maternal love in order to survive. Chimpanzees are born cute – in their first few moments, they need to delight their mothers – but their tendency to giggle or mirror facial expressions fades within the first week or so. Unlike human babies, they aren’t constantly prepared to woo a new adult.
But human delay in attachment also made abortion and infanticide more acceptable to our species. In many hunter-gatherer societies, any child who could not be cared for would be abandoned. Other great apes are actually far more likely to care for a developmentally-disabled child than are human hunter gatherers.
In many societies, personhood wasn’t attained until age five or six, at which time a naming ceremony would be held. It was considered bad luck to name a child sooner, or to feel too attached before that date.
Of course, most families probably still did feel attached. There can be a stark difference between private affection and public nonchalance, a play act to ward off bad luck.
In terms of the rights at stake in Roe v. Wade, though, all these historical considerations are mostly irrelevant. Yes, that’s the science – findings from nature. But nature isn’t good or bad. Nature isn’t ethical. The natural world simply is, whereas ethics demands that we think about how the world should be. Reading the majority opinion for Roe v. Wade, it seems like these topics were introduced only to make the conclusion seem scientific or better reasoned.
In the end, the majority opinion is based solely on medical technology: the State can ban abortion at the age when a baby could survive outside a woman’s body.
Not would. And certainly not will.
“For the stage subsequent to viability the State … may proscribe abortion … “
In an age when being a good parent means being as attentive as possible even before birth, we want better access to the babies growing inside pregnant women, better ways of measuring them and putting them under surveillance, so we can do the best for them even before they enter the world. Women’s bodies are almost getting in the way.
Ultrasound images show how much female bodies are already seen as vestigial in reproductive medicine.
“I’ve been arguing for years, don’t show pictures of fucking developing fetuses unless you show the entire woman’s body,” [says Soraya Chemaly.]
“I understand people getting pregnant and being excited, but I’m the terrible feminist killjoy; I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s nice, why don’t we just make it bigger?’ Ultrasound was very deliberately developed to show the fetus as though it were a planet in a void, in a vacuum, in a container, in a jar. A wallpaper of blackness around it. It completely erases the woman whose body is generative.”
For a human baby to be born, a parent must make an enormous gift. Feeding and protecting and creating the gestating fetus over many months.
Currently, there’s no other way.
Currently, it’s impossible to combine a sperm cell and an egg cell in the laboratory, create an embryo, then provide the necessary nutrients and environment for that embryo to develop into a fetus, a baby, a child.
This would be a challenging project!
But not impossible.
Researchers will eventually be able to create a viable human child this way.
An act that would, per Roe v. Wade, instantly erase women’s rights.
Maybe this experiment would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. So what? For Supreme Court rulings, cost is irrelevant. They’ve made this clear in their decisions for many recent cases.
Our Supreme Court decided that anonymously-chartered corporations have as much right to free speech as individuals – as though they weren’t already privileged with more speech, since wealth can be used to purchase expensive advertisements, think tanks, unscrupulous academics.
Our Supreme Court decided that the police can legitimately spy on you with any technologies that are publicly available, even if these technologies – like infrared cameras to visualize your body through the walls of your home, or telescoping lenses to peer into your windows from a distance, or a steady helicopter to linger overhead and watch you from unexpected angles – are far outside the budgets (and therefore expectations) of most private citizens.
It’s quite convenient that the justices so often fail to notice people’s wealth! (Or lack thereof.) Abortion laws were never really intended to target wealthy people, anyway. Wealthy people could either travel out of state or pay off a doctor to certify that an abortion met “appropriate medical judgment for the preservation of the life or health of the mother.”
If researchers spent hundreds of millions of dollars to nurture one embryo into a viable human baby – in a laboratory anywhere around the world – then the principle of fetal viability cited in Roe v. Wade would allow states to outlaw all abortion. Even though the material facts of women’s lives would be unchanged.
This is, after all, the problem with trying to slap scientific justifications onto a philosophical argument. Whether or not women should have bodily autonomy is a philosophical question. I think that they should. Our steadily increasing technological prowess shouldn’t change that.
I was named after the doctor who delivered me, a friend of my father’s from medical school.
Dr. Curtis is a gynecologist who has written several popular books about pregnancy. When a woman asked for a tubal ligation after her tenth delivery (two of her children had died in infancy, but by then she was raising eight, ranging in age from a high school sophomore to her newborn), he performed the surgery.
This woman’s husband had given his grudging permission before she came in, but he later decided that irreversible sterilization must be against the will of God. He began to harass Dr. Curtis. He convinced his wife that she had done an evil thing. The couple became so distraught that the hospital forgave their medical bills, hoping to stave off litigation.
This angry man never did bring a lawsuit against Dr. Curtis or the hospital. Instead, he convinced his wife to give him back his guns – she’d hidden them as his rants became increasingly vitriolic. But she caved.
Fully armed, he drove to the hospital, planted enough dynamite to level half a block, and stormed inside to find the doctor. Dr. Curtis noticed him, called the police, and left. The angry man took hostages – nurses, mothers with infants, pregnant women – whom he threatened at gunpoint as he searched the hospital.
One of these hostages – a recently-hired nurse – saw an opportunity to wrest his gun away. She pulled the shotgun from his hands and ran. He pulled out another gun and shot her in the back, killing her.
Three hours into the crisis, one woman delivered her baby – the newborn began life as a hostage. Fifteen hours into the crisis, the police had found the dynamite and began to negotiate. The angry man wanted the police to escort his wife and Dr. Curtis into the hospital, so that he could murder Dr. Curtis in front of her.
The police declined this offer.
Eighteen hours into the crisis, the angry man surrendered. He was taken to jail and charged with murder – the nurse he’d shot in the back – amidst other crimes. He took a plea for thirty-five years because the prosecutors said they’d seek the death penalty.
In jail, he extolled the other inmates with his virtues. He was better than them, he said. His plan was righteous.
The other inmates beat the shit out of him. Repeatedly. It seems they had a difference of opinion as to who was better than whom.
The angry man tried repeatedly to escape. He was transferred from state to state – he’d be transferred after altercations with fellow inmates, botched escapes, and suicide attempts. During one of the botched escapes, he fell from a fence and broke both his legs.
His lawyers recommended an appeal – he was not in his right mind when he pled guilty, they said. That much I agree with, I suppose. I’m not sure he was ever in his right mind. But I think it’s likely he would have attempted murder again if he was released.
Shortly before his appeal hearing, he succeeded in breaking his own neck with a sheet tied to the wall with shoelaces. (Inmates at Bloomington’s jail wear lace-less orange crocks. Less risk of suicide that way … although there have still been several in the past few years. Jail is a miserable place to be.)
It’s not clear to me how a tubal ligation could be against God’s will but suicide was fine. Maybe the angry man knew that his logic was faulty. His defense attorney said that “One of his biggest regrets is that they didn’t kill him at Alta View Hospital.” Just like the members of ISIS, Christian terrorists would rather lose their lives in action.
This country has a long history of Christian terrorism. Numerous seemingly respectable people support the murder of doctors who enable women’s right to choose when to have children. In Danny Davis’s The Phinehas Priesthood: violent vanguard of the Christian Identity movement, he writes that:
Many Christians will be surprised to discover that similar beliefs and moral values are present in the Identity worldview. In some denominations, the only initial difference will appear when the idea of a biological Israelite heritage to present day European Anglo-Saxons is seen.
These terrorists believe that human life begins when a sperm cell fuses with an egg to form a zygote with a full compliment of chromosomes. Given this belief, they think that abortion is murder – especially later in a pregnancy, when the developing fetus begins to look like a miniature human. Because a gynecologist might perform several abortions each day, they believe that God would want them to murder the doctor.
(Human life does not begin at conception. A large number of zygotes – probably between fifteen and twenty percent, but possibly higher since women do not always realize that they ever were pregnant – will self-abort due to chromosomal abnormalities. Also, although most miscarriages are caused by blameless genetic problems, the rate of miscarriage is higher in women who are overweight. Why do Christian terrorists not target McDonald’s? Their food probably terminates more pregnancies than any gynecologist.)
Davis also writes that:
In his book, Mix My Blood with the Blood of the Unborn, Paul Hill details his public defense of anti-abortion shooters Michael Griffin and Shelley Shannon. Shortly after Griffin’s attack Hill penned a very articulate letter “describing such murders as ‘justifiable homicide.’ ” In the same letter he gave his Biblical reasons against abortion and explained the need for “Phineas actions” to protect the unborn.
Christian theology has a long tradition of defending awful behavior that supposedly fulfills the will of God. In Fear and Trembling, nineteenth century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard writes (translated by Walter Lowrie):
It is now my intention to draw out from the story of Abraham the dialectical consequences inherent in it, expressing them in the form of problemata, in order to see what a tremendous paradox faith is, a paradox which is capable of transforming a murder into a holy act well-pleasing to God, a paradox which gives Isaac back to Abraham, which no thought can master, because faith begins precisely there where thinking leaves off.
Fear and Trembling has the beginnings of a lovely work of philosophy. I have always enjoyed Kierkegaard’s description of the sort of person he considers second best in the world, the knight of infinite resignation. This sort of person, according to Kierkegaard, accepts that our efforts are guaranteed to be fruitless – Camus would later argue that this is true of all of us, since we are all guaranteed to die, and eventually humans will go extinct, the universe will become a frozen void, and all trace of our existence will have dissolved into an entropic nothing – but doesn’t stop striving even when though failure is inevitable.
[The knight of infinite resignation] does not give up his [doomed] love, not for all the glory of the world. He is no fool. First he makes sure that this really is the content of his life, and his soul is too healthy and too proud to squander the least thing upon an inebriation. He is not cowardly, he is not afraid of letting love creep into his most secret, his most hidden thoughts, to let it twine in innumerable coils about every ligament of his consciousness – if the love becomes an unhappy love, he will never be able to tear himself loose from it.
That’s great, Kierkegaard! But then why would you also write that “The paradox of faith is this, that the individual is higher than the universal”? Abraham does not need your defense. Whatever he believed God to have said, stabbing your son is wrong.
According to the King James translation of the Bible,
Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.
And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.
Because Abraham believed it was God’s will, he was ready to murder. And so set Kierkegaard off on his convoluted reasonings, arguing that when the faithful believe themselves to be fulfilling the will of God, their vile actions should be seen as righteous.
At least the story of Abraham ends with the man refraining from murder. Not so the story of Phinehas, patron saint of violent white supremacists. In this story, God was angry because the Israelites were marrying foreigners, which might lead them to eventually abandon their religious traditions. Rather than let them drift away, God figured he should smite his chosen people. But Phinehas patched things up with God by murdering.
Again from the King James translation:
And, behold, one of the children of Israel came and brought unto his brethren a Midianitish woman in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, who were weeping before the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.
And when Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose up from among the congregation, and took a javelin in his hand;
And he went after the man of Israel into the tent, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly. So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel.
And those that died in the plague were twenty and four thousand.
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, hath turned my wrath away from the children of Israel, while he was zealous for my sake among them, that I consumed not the children of Israel in my jealousy.
Wherefore say, Behold, I give unto him my covenant of peace:
And he shall have it, and his seed after him, even the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was zealous for his God, and made an atonement for the children of Israel.
In the United States, Christian terrorists have referenced the story of Phinehas to justify murder. In Matthias Gardell’s Gods of the Blood: The Pagan Revival and White Separatism, he writes that:
In 1990, hardcore Identity ideologue Richard Kelly Hoskins suggested that individual zealots could atone for Israel’s transgressions by assassinating homosexuals, interracial couples, and prostitutes. Hoskins believed such zealots belonged to an underground tradition of racial purists, the Phineas Priesthood, and traced its history into antiquity.
After all, most of the Bible does depict Yahweh as a bloodthirsty god. Yahweh himself murders a lot of people. He was initially worshiped with animal sacrifice. And he has a chilling disregard for the lives of women and children – in the story of Job, for instance, his wife and children are killed, but all is made right again when Job receives a new, better wife and new, better children. These people are simply possessions, and only Job’s suffering has moral weight.