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Last month’s post on the morality of abortion generated – as one might have expected – a wide variety of impassioned responses. Happily, the debate remained mostly civil, which is a rarity when it comes to this issue and one that’s entirely due to the thoughtful, rational commenters here at Daylight Atheism.

There were several issues I didn’t get into in that post, since I wanted to focus on the core issue of whether and under what circumstances obtaining an abortion can be judged a moral or immoral act. Some of those other issues were explored in the comments in that thread. But there are a few others that didn’t come up, and in this post I want to write some more about them.

One of the most remarkable facts about the abortion debate is that the groups which say they want to stop abortion are overlooking one of the most effective ways to achieve this. Namely, most groups which oppose abortion also oppose comprehensive sex education and the distribution of contraception, two measures which have proven to be highly effective at reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies, and therefore the number of abortions. If the conservatives’ goal was to prevent abortion to the greatest extent possible, why wouldn’t they be all in favor of these measures? Why wouldn’t they be eager participants in the effort to make contraception as widely available as possible?

If anything, we find the opposite. Most religious groups which oppose abortion are also against contraception. They oppose the teaching of responsible sexual practice in schools, favoring abstinence-only programs which have been repeatedly shown to be ineffective. They favor putting as many obstacles and roadblocks as possible in the way of men and women who want to use contraception; some of them want to ban it altogether. In short, they favor the policies that are certain to lead to a greater number of unwanted pregnancies – which means a greater number of abortions – not to mention a greater number of STDs, unmarried mothers, and all the other ills that come with that.

A related, astonishing phenomenon is the surprising number of self-avowed pro-lifers who come in for abortions themselves. In some cases, women who go in to a clinic for an abortion one day are back the next day to picket that same clinic. Many of them insist that they are “different” from the other women in the waiting room with them, that their case is somehow special and justifies an exception.

One morning, a woman who had been a regular “sidewalk counselor” went into the clinic with a young woman who looked like she was 16-17, and obviously her daughter. When the mother came out about an hour later, I had to go up and ask her if her daughter’s situation had caused her to change her mind. “I don’t expect you to understand my daughter’s situation!” she angrily replied. The following Saturday, she was back, pleading with women entering the clinic not to “murder their babies.”

And a similar story from Dan Barker’s Losing Faith in Faith, in which Barker relates a conversation with a Catholic attorney:

“Well, I was raised to respect the sanctity of life,” he said, “and I will always vote with my church.”

…He looked at me for a moment, and in hushed tones said, “But you know what? I don’t know what I would do if my fourteen-year-old-daughter got pregnant.”

“You would get her a quick, quiet abortion and worry about the morality later,” I offered. With a guilty grin, he nodded his head in agreement. “You have the money and you have the contacts,” I continued, “but if you keep voting wrong you may not have the option.” He didn’t know what to say, the big hypocrite.

These bizarre-seeming actions, I believe, fall cleanly into place when one understands the mission of the anti-choice movement through the correct lens. Any large political movement will have a diversity of opinion among its members, and I have no doubt that some people oppose abortion because they genuinely (though mistakenly, in my view) believe that a human life exists from the moment of conception. But among the politically organized wing of the religious anti-choice movement, I believe there is one primary, overriding motive – and it is not concern for the fetus’ life, but desire to control and oversee the woman’s.

Subjugating women’s bodies to the state has always been part and parcel of every theocratic movement. It’s an outgrowth of the misogynistic belief common to nearly every major world religion that women are inferior to men and must be controlled by them. This spirit of bigotry is why the Catholic church does not permit women to be clergy and why the Southern Baptist Convention expects wives to pledge to obey their husbands. It’s why Islamic mullahs forbid the education of women and allow men to marry multiple wives, but never wives to marry multiple husbands. It’s why Orthodox Jews pray to God every day to express their gratitude for not being born female, and why Mormon women are taught that they can only reach Heaven if they’re married so that their husbands can pull them through.

Naturally, the members of this movement tend to grant exemptions to the principle of female inferiority on a case-by-case basis – for themselves and for their loved ones, as necessary – which explains why they don’t oppose abortion for themselves or for their daughters. It’s only those other women, those untrustworthy outsiders, who need to be controlled for their own good. In these people’s minds, enforced pregnancy is an appropriate punishment for women who choose to have sex in unapproved ways. This neatly explains opposition to contraception and abortion alike: in their minds, both these are things are ways for sinful women to avoid the natural and deserved consequences of immoral sex.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...