Miscellaneous musings from the perspective of a lefty (both senses) atheist with a warped sense of humor.

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Location: Madison, WI, United States

I am a geek, but I do have some redeeming social skills. I love other people's dogs, cats, and kids. Snow sucks, but I'm willing to put up with it just to live in Madison.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Compassionate Care for Rape Victims

Compassionate Care for Rape Victims (CCRV) is a piece of state legislation (formally Senate Bill 129) that would guarantee that any woman who is sexually assaulted could go to any hospital in Wisconsin and receive information about emergency contraception (EC) as well as having EC dispensed immediately on the spot at her request. Today the Senate Health and Human Services Committee held an open hearing on CCRV, at which I testified. I spoke extemporaneously, but the event is still fresh enuf in my mind that I can largely recreate my comments, and I do so below.

First, however, the most memorable moment of the day. The last person to testify was a priest from Saint Paul’s Catholic Center on campus. He opposed the bill. Included in his testimony was this sentence, which I am able to quote verbatim because it burned itself into my memory:

“Rape isn’t always an unmitigated evil.”

My remarks:

I am here today only on behalf of myself, but I represent the point of view of 2 constituencies likely to be underrepresented on SB 129. The first is men.

Only women can get pregnant, so this bill has been framed largely as a women’s rights issue or women’s health matter. And that’s as it should be. But that’s not ALL it is, and I want to make sure that you don’t lose sight of the fact that sexual assault against women affects men as well.

Every woman who experiences sexual assault has a father. Most of them have brothers. Many of them have husbands, fiances, or boyfriends. Some of them have sons. And, while the effect on us men is only about like a 10th-generation photocopy, compared to what the woman went thru, we come in for our share of all of it.

For a woman, it’s her body that’s assaulted; for us, it’s a member of our family. She feels shock and horror. So do we. She feels outrage and anger. So do we. She feels a sense of violation. So do we. She feels frustrated, confused, anxious, uncertain, overwhelmed, and helpless. So do we.

So what is our job as men when this awful, awful thing happens to a woman near and dear to us? It is to do everything we can to restore her sense of control over her own life, her own body, her own experiences.

If she says she wants to talk about it, our job is to listen. If she’d rather talk about anything but, our job is to change the subject. If she doesn’t want to talk at all, we should shut up. If she wants to be held, we do. If she doesn’t want anyone to touch her, we don’t.

In short, to do everything we can to give the woman back her sense of control over her own life. That’s our job as men, and, with all due respect, I believe that should also be your job as legislators.

I’m almost embarrassed to mention my 2nd point, because it seems so trivial in comparison to the terrible emotional and psychological trauma I’ve just alluded to. However, I do so because, believe it or not, this is the only way to get thru to some people.

The average rapist is seldom considerate enuf to leave behind a cashier’s check for a hundred grand on the off chance that his assault will result in a child who needs to be raised to adulthood. The financial consequences of that result are indeed a hardship for many people, and it’s a hardship shared by the men.

So, as I said, this is indeed a woman’s issue, but it’s a men’s issue as well.

In earlier testimony, you heard a doctor talk about professional responsibility and standards of care. Those are the ethical considerations of his profession. You, as legislators, have ethical standards of your own to consider. Each of you took an oath of office to uphold the Wisconsin Constitution and the United States Constitution.

I’d like to remind you of the great guiding principles in the preamble of the US Constitution: “to promote the general welfare, and to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity”.

“General welfare” means you need to look out for the health and well-being of ALL the citizens of the state. “Blessings of liberty” means that, to the maximum extent possible, those citizens should be able to make their own choices, to live as free people in a free society.

You will be asked today to legislate on the basis of narrower interests, to place restrictions on the options available to your constituents and other citizens of the state. That’s not your job. Your job is to look out for the best interests of the GENERAL population.

Now I’d like to turn to the 2nd constituency I mentioned earlier: atheists.

I myself am an atheist. I’m a founder of Atheists and Agnostics of Wisconsin, which is a member society of Atheist Alliance International, the world’s largest coalition of autonomous, democratic, grass-roots atheist organizations, and I’m an officer of the Alliance. However, as I said, I’m here representing only myself, not those organizations. I mention them only to demonstrate my own credentials as someone who’s familiar with the atheist viewpoint and who’s spent a lot of time thinking about interactions between religion and government.

In that regard, I’d like to respond to comments made by some earlier testifiers about the free exercise of religion. That is indeed part of the Bill of Rights, and we need to accord it every bit of respect we can. What they neglected to mention was the OTHER part of the 1st Amendment, the part that says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”.

Obviously, these 2 clauses are in tension with each other. However, I believe there’s a good way to resolve that tension, and it goes to the phraseology used by some of the earlier testifiers.

I am somewhat amused, as a student of history, to see the idea of animism making a bit of a comeback. It used to be that ancient, primitive peoples thot that just about anything that moved — wind, lightning, the ocean, the Sun — or anything that grew had some kind of animating spirit, usually with its own patron god. As time went by, there was less and less of this, until now we’re down to only things like souls, angels, and of course gods.

Until today, when I heard some opponents of this bill talk about “the right of individual conscience” — which, I hasten to repeat, is something we should all respect and defend — but also “the right of institutional conscience”. OK, this is where the animism comes in. I’m here to tell you that institutions don’t have consciences. That’s because an institution is not alive, therefore it does not have a brain, therefore it cannot have thots, and thus it cannot have a conscience. What it CAN have are policies.

Let me repeat that: Institutions do NOT have consciences; all they have are policies.

And the first and foremost policy of every such institution should be “We will operate within the law!”.

Senate Bill 129 admirably does not address means, only ends. It says that a hospital MUST make EC available to a woman who’s been sexually assaulted; that is the desired end. It says nothing at all about how it has to go about it; those are the means, and they’re left entirely up to the institution itself.

If the hospital has employees who, as a matter of INDIVIDUAL conscience, don’t want to get involved in the process, they should not be assigned to such cases. If the hospital claims that it has NOBODY whose conscience permits such action, it has the legal responsibility, as a matter of good management, to go out and hire someone who CAN comply with the law.

Lastly, I want to address the issue, raised by many of the previous speakers, of when life begins. I believe the answer that would be given by most atheists is “about 4 billion years ago”. Every cell in your body — and for that matter, every cell in the pine tree on the corner, or your cats or dogs, or a sponge at the bottom of the ocean, or any glob of pond scum you’ve ever encountered — is a direct lineal descendant of that very 1st cell from billions of years ago. So, for that matter, is every single sperm cell and every single egg cell. They’re all alive, both before and after they combine.

Since life exists as a single unbroken continuum from the dawn of time, it is absolutely arbitrary to pick any particular point along the continuum and say “This is it. This is where it all begins. This is the start.”

The history of the Catholic Church in particular reflects this arbitrariness. At one point, it was said that life begins with the first breath (literally “INspiration”). Then it was set at the time of quickening, or first detectable motion in the womb. For awhile, it was the moment when the soul supposedly entered the body, which was set at 4 weeks for male fetuses and 8 weeks for female fetuses. [laffter] No, I’m not making this up — altho clearly SOMEBODY was! Of late, the magic moment has hovered somewhere around the time of conception, altho now they’re splitting hairs over whether that involves implantation or not.

Please! Clearly ANY point you care to pick is arbitrary, so why should any church or religion get to impose its preferences on everybody else? My plea to you, members of the committee, is to respect the separation of church and state. Do not enshrine the superstitions and prejudices of any religion into the law. Consider your obligation to look out for the general welfare, and to secure the blessings of liberty to the women of the state, and let them make up their own minds.

Thank you.


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