Lord preserve us from death-worshiping cults

This article was published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website on 27 October 2006.

Christian fundamentalism in central and middle America threatens women’s hard-won rights. Who will they go after next?

Abortion is back in the news, with a vengeance. The Central American state of Nicaragua is about to pass into law a complete ban on abortion, and will do so with the support of erstwhile marxist revolutionaries such as front-running presidential candidate Daniel Ortega. The Sandinista leader has apparently made peace with his god.

The parliamentary bill banning abortion was passed unanimously, and the ban is total, denying abortion even to women whose lives are at risk should they carry their pregnancies to term. Despite the overwhelming parliamentary majority, opposition to abortion is not total. Nicaragua’s medical association came out strongly against the proposed ban, and there have been vocal demonstrations outside the National Assembly building in Managua. Opponents of the law point out that it will amount to a death sentence against the 400 or so women who each year suffer ectopic pregnancies. One protester, Xiomara Luna, said:

“They are forcing women and girls to die. They are not pro-life, they are pro-death.”

One women’s rights group is planning a legal challenge to the law, but with such a strong consensus in favour, the challenge is unlikely to get very far.

It’s not only in Nicaragua that anti-abortion hysteria has taken hold. In the US state of South Dakota, voters will on 7 November vote in a referendum on whether to ban abortion. The vote will take place simultaneously with the mid-term congressional election, so a relatively high turnout is assured. Whether this will work for or against the anti-abortionists is uncertain, but the fact that the vote is taking place at all is worrying. The South Dakota referendum follows the passing of a state law banning abortions in all cases other than those where the life of the woman is in danger, and which was calculated to lead to a legal challenge from abortion rights activists.

The aim of the South Dakotan anti-abortionists and their allies nationwide is to overturn the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court ruling that set a constitutional precedent in the US, and effectively forbids individual states from imposing complete bans on abortion. The anti-camp are attempting to broaden their appeal, and are not this time employing the gruesome imagery and religious iconography we tend to associate with anti-abortion campaigns. The focus now is on the fundamental “right to life”, which, of course, doesn’t extend to the convicted felons that the majority of religious and secular conservatives are quite happy to see put to death by order of the state.

In a passionate article focusing on the situation in Britain, Zoe Williams writes of a cultural silence surrounding abortion. That is, we seem unwilling or unable to discuss the subject except in terms of its supposed psychological toll on women who terminate their pregnancies. But where is the evidence that abortion is having a significant effect on the mental health of women? It certainly isn’t provided in the 1% take-up rate for post-abortion counselling.

And where is the public discussion on how to lessen the already tiny numbers of late-term abortions, and improve the provision of pre-12 week terminations? Apart from Zoe Williams’ article, you will struggle to find any. Debate in the UK on abortion seems reserved these days to conservative politicians who exploit the issue as they do race and immigration, and a small number of religious extremists. How have we allowed ourselves to become so complacent?

We should stop pussyfooting around, return to the fundamentals and expose opposition to women’s rights for what it is: moral theology, otherwise known as the intellectualisation of superstition. Religious believers may, like everyone else, have a role to play in ethical debates, but the rest of us cannot allow their normative statements on matters of morality to go unchallenged.

In a recent Comment is Free article I wrote of the demise of religion in Britain. The piece was criticised by some for not acknowledging that outside Europe religion is gaining in strength. One cannot deny that superstition is in some places on the rise, and it’s not inconceivable that such irrationality could take hold here, even if restricted to a minority of the population. Religious revivals are a notable feature in British history, and they have occurred not only during times of hardship and uncertainty.

Common to all such revivals is religious zeal translating into political passion, with the minority communities in question punching well above their numerical weight. I offer no profound insights into the continued existence of religion in the modern world, but simply warn that “jihad” is not an exclusively Muslim concept, and that we cannot afford to take for granted gains made in the long struggle against political and religious despotism.