Identity politics insults us all

Identity politics insults us all

“This is who I am”

I recently read an article about what it’s like being deaf in New Zealand.  One woman interviewed recalled a camp she attended when she was young.  The experience made a big impression on her, so much so that she came to realise that being deaf was “who I am”.

This got me thinking about other times I’ve heard someone say that such-and-such is “who I am”.  One hears of people saying it about their race, their gender, their sexual orientation, or some other characteristic they consider to be vital to the point of being definitive.

I expect many who say this are very deeply affected by the significance of the characteristic they are describing and this is articulated, with some poetic licence, as “This is who I am”.  In some cases (perhaps many), this poetic licence may be energised by the fact that the person has been made to feel like a social outlier because of the characteristic.  In these cases, the “poetry” becomes quite poignant and very powerful.

However, some proclaim “who I am” with a polemical purpose which, if spelled out, goes something like this: “This characteristic is who I am.  For that reason, your disapproval of it, or disagreement with it, is a rejection of me as a person, a denial of my humanity”.  What seems to follow, in the mind of the speaker, is that the disapproval or disagreement must therefore not be permitted and may even be reasonably described as hate speech and condemned as such.  We see this happening all around us.

This characteristic is who I am.  For that reason, your disapproval of it, or disagreement with it, is a rejection of me as a person, a denial of my humanity.

No matter how the declaration “This is who I am” is used, I suggest that it isn’t actually true.  I cannot interfere with a person’s view of themselves – I’m just an onlooker with no authority – but I can have an opinion about this kind of thought process.  When the woman declared that her deafness is “who I am”, it occurred to me to ask, “What about your ethnicity and gender, are they just peripheral?”

When a person identifies a characteristic and says, “This is who I am”, they are doing themselves a great injustice and selling themselves way short.

Each person consists of an enormous number of characteristics, some innate and others formed by experience and context.  I’ll call each of these a “what” as distinct from the “who”.  There are all sorts of whats – sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender presentation, age, height,  body shape and weight, strength, IQ, EQ, disposition, beauty, physical prowess, physical health, mental health, attitude to heights, enclosed spaces and spiders, place on various spectrums (eg introvert/extrovert, optimist/pessimist, sweetness of tooth, sensitivity to heat and cold), opinions and world-view, life experience, experience of oppression (from one side or another), skills, self-esteem, memory, facility with languages…  I’m not sure the list has an end.

I suggest that “who” a person is must be, at the very least, the aggregate of the enormous number of whats that characterise the person.  To be honest, I would go further and suggest that this aggregate is simply “what” the person is, while the “who” of that person is something even more profound and utterly unique.

Who we really are

We Christians believe each human being is made “in the image and likeness” of the creator God.  This is rather grand and gives each person fabulous significance and value, which is the other reason I find limited self-identification so irksome.

But even if the imago Dei is notionally set aside, it is apparent that an individual human being is an unfathomably deep and complex unit.  So, when a person focuses on a single characteristic and says “This is who I am”, they are saying something that is wildly inaccurate.

We should be prepared to go to some trouble to understand why a person identifies themselves in this way, especially if there is real hurt underlying what they say.  However, it doesn’t follow that a poetic understatement, no matter how poignant or tragic, should be taken literally – because then it’s false.

Identity politics

I don’t intend this to be of merely passing interest:  it’s relevant to identity politics.

I’m not quite sure just who is “in charge” of identity politics – I only know they’ve been operating behind the scenes and that no-one voted for them.  They seem to have decided that each person has only a handful of characteristics – or, at least, only a handful of characteristics that matter.

I cannot interfere when a person entertains a false and limiting belief about themselves.  I must feel a little sad and leave them be.  However, I object to being told that I must treat their paltry self-identification as a fact.

It is even more objectionable when someone applies this shabby branding to someone else.

This happens, for example, when I am identified as “just” a pale, stale male or “just” a phobia-laden Christian bigot or “just” a beneficiary of racist colonialism etc.  Once one of these damning labels is attached to me, no interest is taken in my other characteristics, much less in my actual opinions, decisions and actions.

It also happens when a person is encouraged to self-identify in this paltry manner – to see themselves as a person of very few parts.  The perverse thing is, this encouragement comes from people who claim to advocate for that person!

“This is who I am” is bad enough.  “This is who you are” is worse.

This has been going on for a while, but I continue to be astonished by the new elite (academics, media, educators, much of government) who arrogantly presume to define everyone, especially when that definition is insultingly incomplete.  This displays utter contempt for every member of the community – not only those the elite intends to punish for past sins but also those it claims to champion.

Identity politics insults everyone by underestimating them.  That’s just the start, of course:  after rebranding us and dividing us into herds, the elite –

  • decides which herds are good and bad (regardless of what people actually say and do);
  • stage-manages a war between them (women against men, Pakehā against Māori, and so on).

The complexity and uniqueness of every human being is not the only vital truth ignored – also ignored is a person’s accountability for what they do, not for what they are – but that’s where it starts.

Atheism is not all it’s cracked up to be – part 4

Atheism is not all it’s cracked up to be – part 4

“Who are these atheists, anyway?” is the fourth and final part in the Atheism is not all it’s cracked up to be series by Gavan O’ Farrell, who works as a public sector lawyer.

Part one can be read here: Reason and Evidence
Part two can be read here: Morality and the Human Being
Part three can be read here: I don’t want it, so it isn’t there!

Who are these atheists, anyway?

This final Part on the series on atheism is less concerned with argument and more focused on who we’re talking about (and to).

“Non-theists” vary

I’ve decided now to refer to “non-theists”, as non-belief in God ranges from frank atheism (“There is no God”) to agnosticism (“I don’t know”) with each position having its own spectrum and labels not being applied consistently.  Non-theists sometimes describe themselves as “rationalists”, “realists”, “sceptics”, “humanists” or “secularists”.  However, they all reside in the “empiricist box” (see Part 1).

Needless to say, non-theists vary because they are human beings with myriad characteristics and experiences.  I can mention some.

The most serious non-theists are those atheists who are intellectually attached to the evidence argument: if there were a God, it would have been proved by now.  Their demeanour varies: some triumphalist and rude, some civil.

Ordinarily, atheists are a smallish subset of non-theists but, in this era of maximum self-expression, the number is probably artificially inflated.

The most visible non-theists are those who have a strong dislike of religion, especially Christianity.

This dislike may arise from their understanding of the general and historical conduct of the Church – sometimes a genuine misunderstanding that can be treated with information.

Illumination is not effective when the misunderstanding is deliberate – due to prejudice or even organised enmity.  Socialists, for example, oppose Christianity as a matter of ideology, will contradict and abuse it at every opportunity and intend to bring it down.  This stance can be found in many places, people and discussions:  it doesn’t always call itself Socialism but, on the other hand, the Socialism brand is being laundered and relaunched despite its appallingly murderous history.

Or the dislike may be the result of bad experiences within the Church – a story which needs to be seriously listened to before mentioning “babies and bathwater”.  Many are angry: mere indignation for some, while for others it is real hurt.

This anger is sometimes directed at God, not at religion.  If a believer is angry with God, and doesn’t address the situation properly, the anger can take them far away – eg I might “punish God” by proclaiming that I don’t believe in Him.

Determined personal sovereignty and autonomy is another path to non-theism: “I don’t need a God to feel significant or secure”.  Or, “I’m very clever and educated, I’ll take it from here”.  Or simply, “No-one’s the boss of me!”  More attitude than rationale.

Others were raised as non-theists and, like some Christians, think habitually and speak by rote.

Some non-theists call themselves “sceptics”, but I have found that they are typically half-sceptics – sceptical about God and the supernatural but not about their own claims about rationality and evidence (or the social and moral positions put forward by the Left).

Most non-theists are agnostics.  This position is more understandable than a dogmatic “Ain’t no God”.

On the other hand, “I don’t know” is often a cover for “I don’t care”.  It seems strange not to care that there might be Someone who made the cosmos and is in touch with humanity, but we continue to hear “I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it”.

For some, “I’ll cross that bridge” is another pretext for avoiding a difficult issue.  We should recognise that delaying consideration (and the “risk” of believing) is understandable, just like not wanting God to exist.

Some people prefer agnosticism because they believe it can accommodate spirituality.  (Oddly, even some atheists are into this.)  Of course, this “spirituality” falls short of belief in a God who is a Person – especially, a Person with, shall we say, “strong opinions” (who needs that?!).  I think they’re trying to have their cake and eat it:

  • A yearning for “the spiritual” is extremely common and entirely natural (a hint at the real yearning for God).
  • However, with no connection with God or the supernatural, “spirituality” is just a species of strong emotion.
  • True atheism – “truth is about reason and evidence” – is hard to market. No-one wants to think of themselves as a left hemisphere on a stick, so no wonder non-theist advocates use hard-sell.  Enhancing non-theism with “spirituality” is smart marketing, but that’s all it is.

At risk of stating the obvious, a conversation with a non-theist is not a conversation with the embodiment of some ideas but with a fabulously complex and unique human being who is in God’s image and likeness, is loved by God, is in humanity’s shared predicament and has an irrefutable claim on everyone’s love.

Atheism and politics

Visiting an atheist site, I once asked “Are there any conservative atheists or are you all Lefties?”.  I was told, “If you’re smart enough to be an atheist, you’re probably smart enough to be progressive”.

Like much of academia, the media, the education system,much of government and parts of the Church, popular non-theism seems to have been infiltrated and largely taken over by “progressives” – to be politically allied with third-wave feminism, the LGBTIQ lobby and other “diversity” lobbies, and united with these in protecting Islam from criticism.

It is strange that such independent thinkers (a claim which non-theists often make to distinguish themselves from Christians) should all of a sudden be of one mind about such difficult and complex issues, especially when you consider that –

  • trans activists ignore and often oppose the “factuality” of science, which serious non-theists ordinarily value; and
  • in an Islamic theocracy, non-theists would fare as badly as feminists and LGBTIQ folk.

As far as I can tell, all these groups have in common is a, shall we say, “warm dislike” of Christianity.  I don’t know how else to make sense of this outlandish alliance.

Some non-theists are seriously dedicated to reality and reason and have avoided being ensnared by these movements.  It is possible to have positive ethical and political conversations with these more independent non-theists.  There is likely to be mutual acceptance of the starting proposition that human beings are highly, and equally, valuable – if the non-theists don’t deride our “deluded” reasons for believing this and we don’t berate them for having no reason at all to believe it (see Part 2).  From that starting-point, a lot of positive discussion and common action are possible.

Some very good books

Before closing, I must bring to your attention four excellent myth-busting books that together respond to most charges laid at the door of Christianity:

Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (2014)
– a history of religion and war – wars, past and present, are usually complex

In these times of rising geopolitical chaos, the need for mutual understanding between cultures has never been more urgent. Religious differences are seen as fuel for violence and warfare. In these pages, one of our greatest writers on religion, Karen Armstrong, amasses a sweeping history of humankind to explore the perceived connection between war and the world’s great creeds—and to issue a passionate defense of the peaceful nature of faith.

With unprecedented scope, Armstrong looks at the whole history of each tradition—not only Christianity and Islam, but also Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Daoism, and Judaism. Religions, in their earliest days, endowed every aspect of life with meaning, and warfare became bound up with observances of the sacred. Modernity has ushered in an epoch of spectacular violence, although, as Armstrong shows, little of it can be ascribed directly to religion. Nevertheless, she shows us how and in what measure religions came to absorb modern belligerence—and what hope there might be for peace among believers of different faiths in our time.

Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (2011)
– a very insightful look at the Old Testament generally, but especially those passages that our critics like to highlight

A recent string of popular-level books written by the New Atheists have leveled the accusation that the God of the Old Testament is nothing but a bully, a murderer, and a cosmic child abuser. This viewpoint is even making inroads into the church. How are Christians to respond to such accusations? And how are we to reconcile the seemingly disconnected natures of God portrayed in the two testaments?

In this timely and readable book, apologist Paul Copan takes on some of the most vexing accusations of our time, including:

God is arrogant and jealous
God punishes people too harshly
God is guilty of ethnic cleansing
God oppresses women
God endorses slavery
Christianity causes violence
and more

Copan not only answers God’s critics, he also shows how to read both the Old and New Testaments faithfully, seeing an unchanging, righteous, and loving God in both.

Bart D. Ehrman, The Triumph of Christianity:  How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World (2018)
– Christianity did not spread only because it was adopted by the Emperor Constantine

The “marvelous” (Reza Aslan, bestselling author of Zealot), New York Times bestselling story of how Christianity became the dominant religion in the West.

How did a religion whose first believers were twenty or so illiterate day laborers in a remote part of the empire became the official religion of Rome, converting some thirty million people in just four centuries? In The Triumph of Christianity, early Christian historian Bart D. Ehrman weaves the rigorously-researched answer to this question “into a vivid, nuanced, and enormously readable narrative” (Elaine Pagels, National Book Award-winning author of The Gnostic Gospels), showing how a handful of charismatic characters used a brilliant social strategy and an irresistible message to win over hearts and minds one at a time.

This “humane, thoughtful and intelligent” book (The New York Times Book Review) upends the way we think about the single most important cultural transformation our world has ever seen—one that revolutionized art, music, literature, philosophy, ethics, economics, and law.

David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (2009)
– covers several bases, including Christianity and science, the Spanish Inquisition, witches and slavery.

Among all the great transitions that have marked Western history, only one—the triumph of Christianity—can be called in the fullest sense a “revolution”

In this provocative book one of the most brilliant scholars of religion today dismantles distorted religious “histories” offered up by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and other contemporary critics of religion and advocates of atheism. David Bentley Hart provides a bold correction of the New Atheists’s misrepresentations of the Christian past, countering their polemics with a brilliant account of Christianity and its message of human charity as the most revolutionary movement in all of Western history.

Hart outlines how Christianity transformed the ancient world in ways we may have forgotten: bringing liberation from fatalism, conferring great dignity on human beings, subverting the cruelest aspects of pagan society, and elevating charity above all virtues. He then argues that what we term the “Age of Reason” was in fact the beginning of the eclipse of reason’s authority as a cultural value. Hart closes the book in the present, delineating the ominous consequences of the decline of Christendom in a culture that is built upon its moral and spiritual values.

Atheism is not all it’s cracked up to be – part 3

Atheism is not all it’s cracked up to be – part 3

“I don’t want it, so it isn’t there!” is the third part in the Atheism is not all it’s cracked up to be series by Gavan O’ Farrell, who works as a public sector lawyer.

Part one can be read here: Reason and Evidence
Part two can be read here: Morality and the Human Being

“I don’t want it, so it isn’t there!”

So far, this series on atheism has discussed whether we theists are “irrational” (Part 1) and whether morality is viable without God (Part 2).

I’ll now briefly canvas some of the other things atheists often say.

Two seemingly peripheral arguments

“Which religion?”:  A common reason for rejecting God seems to be: “There are thousands of religions, most of them mutually incompatible, they can’t all be true.”

You’d have to look hard to find “thousands”.  Anyway, however many there are, my response is “If you are curious, you will do the work of inquiring, just as a serious scientist does when faced with a difficult and complex natural question. If you are not curious, or not willing to do the work, just say so”.

This atheist assertion insinuates, “Religions can’t all be true, so none of them are”, which is clearly illogical: one of them could be true, the atheist just doesn’t know which one.  The pervasiveness of theistic belief (globally and throughout history) should really make a genuine sceptic curious.

The “onus of proof”:  You will often hear atheists say it is up to theists to prove God’s existence.  This made better sense when Christians were doing the talking while the atheists just appraised the arguments.

This has changed, atheists now make a positive assertion “You may not claim a fact unless there is empirical/scientific proof of that fact”.  They are now on the front foot, pushing their [limited and limiting] theory of knowledge.

We do wish to persuade about God, but it’s not a matter of “proof” (see Part 1).  As I understand the dynamics, we Christians commend our faith to others.  I haven’t noticed any Christians insisting on belief in God – not recently, anyway.  By contrast, atheists insist that it is only permissible to talk facts (including facts about God) if those facts are proved empirically/scientifically.  This insistence swings the onus of proof onto them: they may no longer assume this view and impose it, they must establish it.

It is worth remarking that the location of the onus of proof has no bearing on the issue of whether or not God exists: it’s just a discussion protocol.

I mention these arguments, not because they are intrinsically important but because they come up so frequently.  They have negligible logical value as arguments.  Really, they seem to me to be excuses rather than arguments – attempted justification for not believing and for not being inquisitive.  Another refuge, like the “empiricist box” (Part 1).

It won’t hurt us to acknowledge that not wanting God to exist is entirely understandable.  We all value our autonomy and we’re all at least half-inclined to resent authority.  Even faith (a shifting, moody thing) is not a 24-7, airtight defence against this.

I wouldn’t be surprised if simply not wanting God to exist turned out to be the central point.  And, to the extent that we Christians can empathise, a meeting-point.

“Christianity is not ‘good news’ but bad news”

Atheists often say Christianity is evil and offer a bundle of “proofs” which have become familiar – war, forced conversion, the Spanish Inquisition, witch-hunting, tolerance of slavery, the oppression of women and gays, the suppression of science and, more recently, protected paedophilia.  To this list might be added Old Testament violence and the “immoral” nature of Redemption by Christ’s death.

Sometimes, atheists add that they would refuse to worship a God who is behind all of this – a strange assertion that wants to sound heroic but can’t possibly be if there is no God.

Atheists should hesitate before offering moral judgements (see Part 2) but, on the other hand, we Christians should not rely on this to avoid discussion of wrongs we know the Church has done.  After all, the Church consists largely of human beings and has wielded enormous power – a notoriously dangerous combination.  For the most part, though, the proofs rely on the hasty acceptance of information that is skewed or incomplete.

Christianiy’s track record is critical to the plausibility of Christianity because it is difficult to recommend Christ if history shows that accepting this recommendation is a bad idea.  In Part 4, I’ll mention some books that help set our track record straight.

The dark side of this track record is also another excuse for not being inquisitive, this time about Christianity.  After all, atheists don’t seem to consider the possibility that God might also be appalled at some things the Church has done.

The attack on Redemption is a separate matter, and is entirely misconceived.  Our critics liken it to the ancient ritual of “scapegoating”, where a village would seize a goat, load it up with paraphernalia representing the village’s sins and drive it into the desert so that the sins (and the goat) are never seen again.

We believe Christ volunteered to, so to speak, “carry our sins into the desert”, that He did this long ago without any urging from you or me, that He returned in excellent condition and that He now asks us whether the sins He bore included ours.  We say Yes, not to be cruel, but out of common sense and awe-struck gratitude.  It would be unspeakably stupid to say No.

Atheism is not all it’s cracked up to be – part 2

Atheism is not all it’s cracked up to be – part 2

Morality and the human being‘ is the second part in the Atheism is not all it’s cracked up to be series by Gavan O’ Farrell, who works as a public sector lawyer.

Part one can be read here: Reason and Evidence


Atheists say that Christians often accuse them of being wicked.  Such an accusation (which I’ve personally never heard in New Zealand) is not only rude but false:  it is quite apparent that many atheists are very moral people.

However, this is despite their atheism.  I say this because I suggest that atheists cannot explain their morals.  The morals of virtually all atheists are inherited from Christianity – especially the very basic ideas that human beings are highly (and equally) significant.

After all, New Zealand’s secularism is post-Christian:  it didn’t arrive out of the blue, like a baby delivered by a stork.  Like a real baby, it was generated organically and possesses inherited traits.

Moral relativism

Most atheists say they are moral relativists, who believe there are no “objective” moral requirements that apply to everyone.  For them, what we think is an objective morality is just the set of moral constructs developed by our society.  Other societies have theirs too and it is impossible to judge another society, no matter what it does, because there is no objective global standard.  Many moral relativists go further and say that relativism operates at the individual level: “my morality and my right/wrong” vs “your morality etc”.

As I understand it, moral relativism has long been discredited in philosophical circles.  For example, when they promote “tolerance” of other views as being immune from criticism, they insist on this tolerance as an absolute requirement – which contradicts their whole position.

In addition, relativism doesn’t capture the reality of moral discourse.  When two people disagree about a moral question, their views are in conflict.  However, if two relativists “disagree”, their views don’t conflict because they’re describing their respective moral feelings about the topic, not the moral character of the topic itself (because it has no objective moral character).  Their “disagreement” is like A and B discussing headaches, with A saying “I have a headache” and B replying “Well, I don’t have a headache”.

Anyhow, I have found that people who call themselves relativists don’t really seem to mean it.  They use it to ward off criticism directed at them: “That’s just your right and wrong (etc)”.  But, when they criticise others, they tend to speak very dogmatically, as though there is an objective standard (which they don’t explain).

It is tempting to disdain relativism, but it remains important because a large number of people nominally subscribe to it.

Objective secular morality

Some atheists do acknowledge that morality consists of objective rules, or at least principles, that apply to every individual and every society.

Evolved morality:

Some atheists believe that basic “moral” behaviours (eg altruism) evolved in order for societies (or humanity itself) to survive.

I accept evolution, but it just “happens”, it doesn’t give value and has no authority.  We don’t obey moral rules (eg behave altruistically) just because we find them in our midst.  We need a reason to obey them.

If we are urged to obey for the sake of the survival of humanity, we can still ask why humanity “should” survive.  There is an epic urge to survive, but this is different from “should”.  Especially nowadays, when some say we shouldn’t survive because of the harm we’ve caused to the environment.

Deduced morality:

Other atheists try to develop an objective secular morality from the ground up.


This approach to morality says an action is right or wrong according to its consequences.  However –

  • By speaking of good and bad consequences, this approach again assumes certain values (eg survival or well-being) and just imposes them. Besides, whose well-being are we supposed to value, and why?  Just humans?  All humans?
  • Consequentialism rests on the idea that the ends justify the means, and we all know how ruthless and dangerous that can be.
  • A consequentialist moral rule is only a rule-of-thumb. If lying is morally wrong because it usually does more harm than good, I must still decide what my specific intended lie will cause.
  • I can only consider the foreseeable consequences: the actual consequences are yet to occur.  A consequentialist can’t judge an action until afterwards.  We need to know beforehand!
  • And my decision could take ages. Every action has myriad consequences that go forever.  This is unworkable.
  • Workable or not, any rules emerging from consequentialism are made by human beings. I end up being completely subject to majority rule.  We know the majority can be wrong, which reminds us that the majority has power, not moral authority.
  • Consideration of consequences is an important element of moral decision-making, but it’s not all there is to it.


The alternative approach is “positivism”:  the rules identify behaviour that is considered to be inherently right or wrong.  EG lying is inherently wrong, wrong by its nature, no calculations are needed.  This is more realistic and workable as it relies on an intuitive repugnance for lying rather than a remote sense that the lie might do more harm than good.

However, secular positivism also assumes values and also subjects us to the dubious moral authority of the majority.

The human being:

When all the theorising about morality is done, nothing beats a rich definition of the human being as a reason for us behaving well towards each other.

However, relying on “the evidence”, the atheist tells us that human beings are no more than the latest gorilla upgrade, the planet’s most complex organism and top predator and that each of us is a mixed bag of kindness and malice.  If this is all a human is, it makes equal sense to hate them as to love them.

Atheists talk about justice because they believe in equality.  Good, but the evidence says people are not equal:  many differences are socially constructed, but there are also real inherent superiorities (eg intelligence, strength, agility, prowess, disposition).

We Christians believe each human being to be extremely significant and equally so, regardless of other characteristics, because we are made in God’s image and likeness.  This Imago Dei is the trump card.  Loving people and giving them justice makes immediate sense because of what they are:  a human being demands love and justice simply by being a human being.

Secularists reject all this, of course, and have not yet identified (or even imagined) anything lovable to replace it.  The basics of post-Christian secular morality are really a memory of Christianity.


It may be that the atheists’ difficulty in explaining the value of the individual human being has helped give rise to the new ethos, identity politics.  While this ethos pays lip-service to “human rights”, it has actually moved well away from the idea of valuing each person individually.  Identity politics sees only groups.

Groups are certainly important, but only because they are groups of individual human beings:  the value of the group is the result of simple arithmetic.

Identity politics doesn’t get this.  After all, it creates the groups – herds, really.  Identity politics displays the astonishing arrogance of beholding a spectacularly complex and unique human being and allocating them to a herd by reference to a handful of characteristics (sex, “gender”, sexual orientation, race).  So much about each person is simply ignored!  Then the herders tell us which herd is “good” and which is “bad”.

Identity politics is spurious, of course, but it must be taken seriously because it has become so powerful (and dangerous).  While many atheists are on the political Left, the more serious among them may have to break ranks from identity politics in due course, for the sake of intellectual integrity.



The battle-lines

Over the years, I have found abortion to be by far the most divisive and heated moral, legal and political issue of all.  Perhaps this is not remarkable.  Euthanasia is also divisive, reminding us that matters of life and death have always been regarded as significant.  In fact, to say “It’s a matter of life and death!” is a familiar way of indicating just how important an issue is.

Of course, the heat of the abortion issue is also due to the fact that many women feel that women have been imposed upon by a man-led system for a very long time and that any prohibition of abortion is one of the most intrusive impositions of all.

We wouldn’t need to discuss abortion if a pregnant woman were the only person involved in the procedure.  If the embryo or foetus were just a “mass” – say, a tumour or infected tissue – out it would go as soon as possible, no questions asked.  However, as soon as it becomes apparent, or even just possible, that the woman is not the only person involved, the scenario changes entirely and the subject must be paused for consideration.

I’ve been on the Pro-life side of the fence for some time, though not a signed-up member of any organisation.  A while back, I came to realise that the focus of the Pro-life movement was too narrow.  It tended to be so preoccupied with the issue of killing the human embryo/foetus that it ignored other considerations.  I can’t think of anything more significant than killing an innocent human being, but there is still more to the abortion issue than this.  In particular, there is the pregnant woman (or girl), another human being no less important than her unborn child.

Coming at this from a Christian perspective and what I think is the preferred secular perspective, I say that the Pro-life movement and the community generally owe the pregnant woman love, and there is a great deal more to love than judging, even you manage to judge correctly.

For some time, the battle-lines were drawn between one side that promoted the interests of the unborn child with little or no regard to the woman, unless her life was threatened, and the other side that promoted the interests of the woman with no regard to the unborn child.  We all took a side.

I’m relieved that the Pro-life movement no longer sees itself playing a partisan role in a zero-sum game.  It has realised that the woman and child are each infinitely precious and that the community’s role is to protect and support them both.

As far as I can tell, the Pro-choice movement shows no corresponding sign of maturing:  it remains steadfastly dedicated to promoting the interests of the woman without regard to the unborn child.  In fact, the unborn child is seldom mentioned – is, rather, the subject of a silent but determined denialism.  It has become the tiny “elephant in the room” in abortion discourse.

I see this denialism as the main reason why it is so difficult to converse with Pro-choice advocates.  For a discussion to be potentially fruitful, there usually needs to be a shared understanding about who is involved in the issue under discussion.  Perhaps the Pro-choicers are genuinely afraid that the pregnant woman will be sacrificed or overlooked for the sake of the child, which would be unfair.  If so, their minds need to be put at ease about this:  the woman matters just as much as the child does.  Of course, although discussion with Pro-choice is very difficult, we should always be willing to attempt it.

“Health issue” and the human being

Rebranding abortion as a ‘health issue’ is the latest attempt to avoid recognising that there are, or might be, two people involved and not just one.  According to this view, the unborn child is just a “mass” so that the woman is the only person involved.

My impression is that Pro-choicers see the health sector as a refuge from moral responsibility, another “safe space”, in which the moral character of the decision to terminate does not arise.  Indeed, a place in which the woman presents as a patient – not necessarily a victim, but still someone who is needy and an object of sympathy and tenderness, someone frequently asked “Are you comfortable?”.  A space in which moral abdication is permitted.  It is unfortunate that a significant proportion of the community likes to resort to such a “space”, for one reason or another.

I suspect that refuge in the health sector is sought because questions about the unborn child have proved awkward and “uncomfortable” for Pro-choicers:  after all, it is always tempting to avoid feelings of guilt or even misgivings about possible guilt.  Arguments that the unborn child is not a human being, and not even a potential human being in any significant sense, have not fared well.

Pro-choice usually try to justify abortions by constricting the definition of “human being” – for example, by saying the embryo/foetus must have a heartbeat, or lung function, or brain function, or even awareness, before claiming the coveted title.  This approach exposes Pro-choicers to the problem that many children and adults are occasionally without these functions and capacities for a time, relying on drugs or machinery, and yet we still regard them as human beings.  Even when life-support is turned off, it is seen as having supported the life of a human being.

When a person is deliberately killed, even with justification, they are usually given the courtesy of being acknowledged as a person, and the killing is regarded as morally significant – as justified in spite of the fact that a human being is killed.  This is true in all situations (including war, capital punishment, euthanasia) except abortion, which has been placed in a kind of moral blind-spot by those promoting it.

A minority of Pro-choicers are more honest about abortion – recognising what it involves but justifying it in the interests of population control.  It’s a poor rationale, even in number-crunching terms, as abortion on demand clearly won’t end the world’s population crisis.  Those who wish to cull the human race will have to look elsewhere – euthanasia, I suppose, especially by extending “eligibility”.  That may not be sufficient either, so we should perhaps regard a cull as not the best approach to managing population and as a shabby justification for abortion.

Returning to the denialism of the majority, I would be surprised if an open discussion about the status of the embryo/foetus produced resolution.  We are more likely to be left with a dilemma:  As we don’t “know” (or can’t agree) about the status of the embryo/foetus, we will have to decide on which side to err.

Do we err on the side of including it in the “human being” category or on the side of excluding it?  Which is the better error?

I suggest that, as a matter of principle, we should err on the side of being generous about this, if only because of the awful consequences of the opposite error.  Throughout history, the device of “dehumanising” some group of people or other – women, non-whites, slaves, enemies – has been used for great evil and has done great harm.  Let’s not repeat it.  It may not be long before clones want access to the category of human being, and also the products of AI will have to be considered (for “person”, at least, if not “human being”).  Already, a river or two has been given the deemed status of legal “person” in New Zealand legislation.  It seems strange to include all these in the Human or Person category, while a naturally generated human embryo/foetus continues to be excluded.

And why is it excluded?  Because it is not wanted, nothing more than that.

It makes very good sense to focus on conception as the time when a human comes into being:

  1. The DNA – the blueprint of a brand new, extremely complex and unique person – is already in place, along with all the building materials. It’s not like any other blueprint or design: construction is underway, nothing has to be done but watch and wait.
  2. Later stages of development seem arbitrary and, as mentioned above, have terrible ramifications for other people.
  3. From a hypothetically neutral point-of-view, this is the better “error” in an environment of uncertainty.

Whatever the status of the embryo/foetus while in utero, there is also the argument about it being a potential human life.  Even this is resisted by Pro-choice, though it seems to me that to argue against the human potential of the “mass” is barely even sincere.  After all, the only reason the embryo/foetus is terminated is because of its potential to develop into an obvious human being.

The sooner we all come to an understanding about the embryo/foetus, the sooner we can plan for what happens to the child once born and how to support the woman (if she needs support) in the meantime.  Of course, she can adopt the child out:  there is a ready market of couples who are struggling with IVF or with adopting overseas.   Beforehand, the community’s focus should be on the well-being of the pregnant woman or girl because some are in dire straits, sometimes through no fault of their own.

I shouldn’t close without saying something about the “backyard abortion” argument and the scenario in which the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.

The “backyard abortion”

It is true that an abortion performed in unhygienic circumstances by someone who is not a highly trained professional is dangerous to the pregnant woman.

However, I would say this risk of harm to a woman from a backyard abortion is not relevant to the issue of abortion on demand.

When abortion is legally available on demand, the pregnant woman who wishes to terminate the embryo/foetus asks the Government to help her do it in a way that makes things safe for her, so only the embryo/foetus dies.  If the embryo/foetus is just a mass, no problem, the request is morally neutral.  However, if the embryo/foetus is a human being, or at least “human enough” to be worth protecting, the request made of the Government is very different as it now has a significant moral component.

It is perhaps easier to make the point by analogy.  Consider this reasoning:

  • Person A intends to kill Person B;
  • in fact, A is definitely going to kill B, no matter what;
  • this inevitable killing would be safer for A if A knew where B was at the appointed time (so A could surprise B with a bullet and not be shot in return);
  • due to the availability of comprehensive surveillance, the State could tell A where B is at any given time;
  • to ensure that only one person is killed, rather than two, the State should let A know where B is.

Who in their right mind would ask the State to do this?!  The State is obliged to protect both A and B.  The same is true when it comes to abortion.The backyard abortion is dramatic and emotive, but provides no justification for abortion on demand.

The worst scenarios

Surprisingly, the scenario in which the pregnant woman or girl was raped is a red herring.  Not because it isn’t important:  her plight is terrible to contemplate (or even attempt to contemplate).  Rather, because Pro-choice introduce it into the discussion cynically.

I could imagine a compromise outcome being to allow abortion only in cases of rape, incest and, as now, risk to the life of the pregnant woman or girl.  It would be a compromise, of course, not quite satisfactory to Pro-life but far better than abortion on demand.  However, it turns out to be academic because, if ever this idea is put to Pro-choice, they say “No way, we want abortion on demand”.  So, these terrible scenarios are actually not relevant to what must be decided, they are just introduced to manipulate the discussion.

Even so, it wouldn’t hurt Pro-lifers to be mindful of what some women and girls will have to endure if we had our way and abortion was generally prohibited.  We should take the trouble to hear, if we can, a full account of the nightmarish 9 months that awaits someone who takes the product of a rape to term.  And of what she endures afterwards:  the rape may have long-term adverse effects and carrying the child to term might exacerbate these effects.

For all I know, a secular discussion (not premised on the infinitely precious status of a human life) might conclude that there is a certain degree of suffering that somehow outweighs the value of a human life.  Once the embryo/foetus is recognised, perhaps that’s the terrible discussion that must take place.

Whether or not any such discussion takes place, I think we owe some empathic understanding to the women and girls concerned.  Having said that, though, these terrible scenarios are not relevant to the topic of abortion on demand.  They are only relevant to the possible compromise result, which Pro-choice will not accept.  The Pro-life side might accept it (I don’t know) on the basis that it greatly reduces the number of abortions and therefore saves many lives.


Returning to the main issue, we should make sure we promote the well-being of both mother and child.  Pro-choice tries to present abortion as a zero-sum game and force everyone into taking sides.  It is very important to resist this manipulation.

The real choice is between the following two ways of understanding the abortion issue:

      1. mother-and-child;
      2. mother-vs-child.