Serious topics are often first encountered in the context of a joke. How does this frame our later attitudes?

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My college folklore professor Alan Dundes, a scholar often credited with creating the modern field of folkloristics, was an energetic teacher and learner with both a love and an encyclopedic knowledge of the field. When he gave a lecture on “sick” jokes to a hall filled with hundreds of students, I was fascinated. Even though I went on to get a Ph.D. in folklore, I also had a personal connection to the topic: at my tiny private elementary school growing up, I recalled hearing a lot of “sick” jokes. Looking back, they not only intrigued me but shaped the values I have today.

One joke that a fellow grade-school classmate loved to tell was about the hapless fool (a stock character in jokes and other folktales) who walked into an abortion clinic, waited a while, and ended up eating some shriveled cherry tomatoes—which happened to be aborted fetuses.

When my friend told this joke, we alternated between grossed-out silence and laughter. Then the conversation would move on to another joke, and I wouldn’t give it much more thought.

I would later learn that some people invested a lot of time and energy into protesting abortion and calling it immoral—something that had never occurred to me growing up in a secular Jewish family.

As I reflect on the experience today, I wonder what abortion means to secular people who didn’t learn about it in a religious context, but either in a comprehensive sex education classroom or as I did, through folklore, in the form of “sick” jokes.

So does abortion hold any inherent meaning for those of us who are nonreligious? I have not met many anti-abortion activists who are nonreligious. There seems to be something about Christian religious affiliation specifically that pairs with strong feelings about abortion. In many readings of Judaism and Islam, abortion is permitted and even condoned under a variety of circumstances.  

Contrary to the Christian position, the nonreligious lead the pro-choice charge. According to the Pew Research Center, 87% of atheists believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, with another 11% opposing abortion in all or most cases. The next three groups documented fall behind: 83% of Jewish people, 82% of Buddhist people, and 73% of nonreligious people generally (including atheists) believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. 

We secular folk pride ourselves on being more data-driven, evidence-hungry, and science-supportive than our religious counterparts, and this shows up in our beliefs about abortion. According to the current research, most fetuses are not viable until at least 22-24 weeks, long after the bulk of abortions are performed in the US. While questions of fetal pain remain unresolved, according to Livescience’s research roundup, those numbers largely correlate with the viability window. 

These questions of when we become human and when we become measurably alive are fascinating, and we nonreligious people don’t have a central authority handing us the answers. We wait for more scientific studies, and we measure those against our internal compasses. When more evidence emerges, we once again rebalance what we know with what we believe.

These questions of when we become human and when we become measurably alive are fascinating, and we nonreligious people don’t have a central authority handing us the answers.

Being nonreligious means engaging in a constant balancing act, with what we know of the world on one side of the scale and what we choose to believe on the other. There is no deity or holy text prescribing our faith; we weigh our worldview ourselves and (ideally) change it when we find it lacking. When we’re at our best, we assimilate new information by weighing its authority against what we already know and value. When we’re at our worst, we fall prey to the kinds of fear-mongering and control mechanisms that can also be found in religious culture.

So do nonreligious people view abortion as nothing more serious than a sick joke, like it was to me as a kid?

First, let’s talk about seriousness. As a professional folklorist, I take umbrage at the implication that jokes are not to be taken seriously. Humor often points subtly—or not so subtly—to our attitudes about real social issues, to the fissures in a society that we so often imagine as cohesive and caring.

What I’ve come to understand through a deep dive on the social context and meaning of a related genre, the “dead baby” joke, is that dead babies and aborted fetuses show up in secular folklore in part because they exist at the border of the US death taboo. As Dundes noted in “The Dead Baby Joke Cycle,” it’s in precisely that border territory that the sick joke lives.

If the jokes involved living babies, a different threshold would be crossed. But the secular perspective that values life also recognizes that a lifeless form—e.g. both the aborted fetuses and the dead babies of the joke genres—is “just matter.” But it’s also more than that, fraught with all of the complex feelings of humanness and disgust and ambiguity and fear—which makes it rich fodder for the sick joke.

Unlike Christians who fixate on sin, the nonreligious don’t assign more value to “innocent” lives, like newborns, children, or fetuses. All life is equally sacred. We shouldn’t go out of our way to cause harm, but we also shouldn’t mourn not-quite-viable lives. At that point, we’d also have to publicly mourn discarded fertilized eggs at IVF clinics, something we don’t see Christian anti-abortion protesters doing. Abortion is only a serious issue for them when it’s a choice being made by the pregnant people, not within an institutional process that flushes away however many potentially-viable embryos, eggs, and sperm.

It seems to be the choice they oppose.

The existence of jokes around abortion—and not around other medical, health-preserving operations like gallbladder or wisdom teeth removals—indicates to me that this is a fraught area of culture, a place where anxieties reside and multiply. But there are other genres of folklore surrounding abortion, such as the personal narrative, where people tell their life experiences in ways that are traditional, that are informed by the culture they inhabit. Personal stories of abortions survived, wanted, and mourned are a key piece of the puzzle as well, a repository of beliefs and lived experience around a controversial topic.

The existence of jokes around abortion—and not around other medical, health-preserving operations like gallbladder or wisdom teeth removals—indicates to me that this is a fraught area of culture, a place where anxieties reside and multiply.

I wonder if the jokes around abortion would evaporate if the shame and taboo did as well. I also wonder if the personal narratives around abortion would proliferate, and publicly at that, if the shame and taboo decreased. Like most of my secular counterparts, I do not believe there is anything shameful about wanting or needing an abortion—so why do we continue to let the believers of predominantly one religion dominate the discourse? 

If it’s just us inhabiting this planet, with no gods in sight, why does abortion matter? 

The human condition is inherently absurd. In one moment, we’re holding forth intellectually with dignity, and in the next, an accident swipes us back into our bodies, facing inconvenience, disability, or death. For those of us who reject the idea of a grand plan set forth by a disembodied deity, what reason is there not to laugh about it occasionally?

What if the only real disgust around abortion comes from an especially gross punchline to a joke? To me, the most disgusting thing about abortion is the ways in which “pro-life” people protest it, to the extreme of killing abortion providers and piling shame onto people seeking abortion for a variety of valid reasons.

From my secular viewpoint, abortion can have a variety of meanings. Abortion can be the subject of a joke, as it was when I was growing up. It can be a very sad or serious experience, or a nonchalant one. And it can be a lifesaving experience. But whatever it is, abortion needs to be an embodied choice available in many different circumstances. Our populations are healthiest and safest when it stays available.

And the real sick joke here? Those trying to exert reproductive control over others. That’s never funny.

FOXY FOLKORIST Studied folklore under Alan Dundes at the University of California, Berkeley, and went on to earn her PhD in folklore from Indiana University. She researches gender and sexuality in fairy...