Segregating Liberty by Sex and the Matter of Religious Freedom

On average, seven hundred women die each year in the United States as a result of pregnancy or delivery complications. To be sure, some of them took on that risk voluntarily. But it was their choice. It should always be their choice.

Folks portray pregnancy as if it presents no risks to girls and women. But it does present risks—including death. Pregnancy can be dangerous. It moreover, affects almost every aspect of a woman’s life.

A fetus may sicken a woman. Women often develop serious and detrimental health conditions while pregnant. Women may be permanently disabled from pregnancy or child birth. A fetus may delay cancer treatments. A fetus imposes many costs a woman may wish not to bear. A fetus curtails her freedom. So she chooses not to bear a child.

The risks and effects associated with pregnancy mean that it must always be a voluntary decision. Even if at one point the woman wanted the pregnancy, her situation at a later point may indicate discontinuing it. She should be allowed to make that choice.

The code of Nuremberg requires that, in human subjects research, those conducting the study always allow the subject to withdraw from the study at any time. A researcher never says, “I’m sorry, Sir, but it is too late to withdraw now. You decided to involve yourself in the study. You have to see it through.” No, ethics demands that a free person may revoke his consent to participate. It is, after all, his body, his choice. The right to terminate a pregnancy is not unlike the right to withdraw from an experiment.

It is also like the right to defend one’s home. But there is a double standard in play. Why are men expected to defend their home and persons against interlopers, but women disallowed from defending their body in a similar fashion? Because the interloper is a fetus? Because the intruder in one’s home is an actual threat to safety and wellbeing?

We have already established that the fetus is a threat to safety and wellbeing. At the same time, a homeowner doesn’t know the intent of the stranger in his house. The stranger may be in the wrong house. He may wrongly believe it is his house. Mistake of fact, as they say in the law. He may not know where he is. He’s lost. He may be mentally ill and in need of help. But the homeowner doesn’t have to determine his intent. He only needs to believe that the stranger may harm him, that he is where he should not be. So he is entitled to use lethal force against him.

What right does a fetus have to be involved in a place or situation where it is not wanted or is considered not to belong? Its right to life? Why doesn’t a stranger in my house have a right to life? The answer is because my liberty is at stake—and I have a right to it. Why is liberty valued over life when it’s a man whose liberty is at stake but not a woman’s? As we have established, there are a myriad of threats the woman faces from the stranger in her womb. These are enough actual and potential threats to justify the expression of liberty in the same way a man can defend his home.

There is a principle involved here. Ideology should not negate principle. It must not be allowed to determine the law. The principle is foundational: the right to defend one’s home flows the inherent right to defend one’s self—his life and liberty. This right allows me to take a life. It is not murder. Imagine the state denying the homeowner his right to defend his sanctuary. This would be tranny.

A chief measure of liberty is the extent to which we are able to remove uninvited guest from our homes—or even invited ones when they overstay their welcome. We have to be allowed to defend ourselves from dangers, otherwise the right of personal sovereignty doesn’t exist. If we say a woman must bear a fetus in her body, then why can’t we say that the man must bear a stranger in his house? Is it his house or not? Is it her body or not? Why would we deny women the right to self-defense and bodily autonomy? What’s the point of the castle doctrine if you have to keep a stranger inside you?

Imagine the state commandeering a man’s body to sustain the life of the woman he just had sex with, arguing that he chose to have sex. Would any man stand for that? To be sure, the man may choose to have his body used in this way. But any man who is okay with the state forcing him to do so is a man who does not love liberty. A man could not be expected to serve as an incubator for the state—a vessel used to grow a fetus—but a woman can and is.

That’s a hell of a double standard. Can there be a more patriarchal assumption? Women are second-class citizens in the patriarchal double standard. This has been true for millennia.

Furthermore, this argument that pregnancy should be compelled because the woman chose to have sex is straightaway absurd. Sex and pregnancy are not intrinsically linked in purpose. If this were true, sex would only occur for procreative purposes. The notion that sex is strictly for procreative purposes is a religious perversion. Only a theocracy would impose such an absurd notion.

Is America becoming a theocracy?

Is it wrong to forcibly impregnate a girl or a woman? You know the answer and the reason: No. Because it is not her decision. It’s not her choice. It’s against her will. It’s not just the intercourse part she does not want. It’s being impregnated. She does not want to be pregnant. It is moreover wrong because it exposes her to risks she did not wish to take on, the myriad of risks noted above. If all that is obvious, and surely it is, then forcing her to remain pregnant is just as wrong for all the same reasons. It is just as wrong to keep a man in slavery as it is to enslave him.

Suppose she wants the intercourse, but not the pregnancy. She must be free to choose either. For the most part, we have intercourse because it’s fun, not the have children. (Perhaps some people ought to have more fun.)

Should we feel bad that the fetus loses its life when the woman exercises liberty? One is entitled to remorse. If the fetus was wanted, then its death is tragic. Nobody should ever be forced to have an abortion. What’s at issue is whether a woman’s life and liberty are more important than the continued existence of a fetus; if the woman does not want or no longer desires to carry a fetus, she has the right to terminate the pregnancy. As bad as that makes you feel, her life and liberty are more important than your feelings—or your religion.

People tell me that without life there’s no liberty. There is truth in this, of course. Why am I allowed to kill a man who threatens my life? Because I wish to continue to live in order to enjoy liberty. But the formulation has lost some spirit. It’s missing the part about no life without liberty. No life worth living, at least. Life is not just about existing. It’s about the freedom to choose.

To be used for the interests and purposes of others, to be denied one’s freedom to choose, is to be reduced to an object, robbed of agency. I have compared being forced to be a vessel in which to grow another person is an incubator. A mother once objected that she never felt like an incubator. One may never feel like an incubator, but may serve as one nonetheless—just as one may feel like a valued employee and a team member, but exist as human capital.

This is what moved Patrick Henry to declare, “Give me liberty, or give me death.” One must never be an object for the purposes of the state. There are causes which involve killing. It is why we make war, overthrow tyrannical government, and defend our homes—and bodies.

* * *

This is the season for Supreme Court rulings. Amid the Dobbs decision (The Supreme Court Affirms the Tyranny of Majorities), the Court handed down another decision concerning religious liberty. yesterday morning, the Court vindicated a Christian football coach terminated for praying on the field after games. Joseph Kennedy, an assistant football coach at Bremerton High School, Bremerton, Washington would “give thanks through prayer” at the end of each game by kneeling on the 50-yard line. Students would join him. To stop him, the school board enacted a ban on “demonstrative religious activity, readily observable to (if not intended to be observed by) students and the attending public.” 

Coach Joseph Kennedy praying with his students at Bremerton High School

It was just a matter of time before the Court recognized the right of Christians to their religious liberty. After all, Muslims have had a right to theirs for a long time. In the document Religious Practices of Muslim Students in Public Schools, the Islamic Networks Group (ING), “a peace-building organization providing face-to-face education and engagement opportunities that foster understanding of Muslims and other misunderstood groups to promote harmony among all people,” details all the ways Islamic faith practices exist in public schools.

Imagine none or most of what ING lists were true and the Court had just removed barriers to Muslim prayer and attire in public schools. How progressives would be cheering. Of course, there were no such barriers because progressives run the public schools and progressives are Islamophiliacs (see The Democratic Party and the Doctrine of Multiculturalism). It was never even a thought. But they aren’t so eager to Christianity expressed in our schools. This is how such an absurd notion as “Islamophobia” can be a rallying cry but complaining about “Christophobia” sounds absurd.

The counterargument is that religious expression carries subtle pressure to conform. The paradigm is the Jew in the Christian locker room. Indeed, pressure can be subtle. But Muslims have been praying in the hallways of my sons’ high school for years. Surely a Muslim teacher prays to Mecca. He must, as it is his religious duty to pray several times a day—if he is devout. Why could he not pray with the students? (What if there is sex segregation as there is in the mosque?) The influence here may be subtle; a kid with a Muslim background may not wish to pray because he wishes to be secular, to leave behind the irrational traditions of an atavistic culture. Would we for his sake stop the Muslims in the high school from praying in the hallways? (We’d be accused of bigotry, wouldn’t we?) Would we tell the Muslim teacher she couldn’t wear a hijab? (We’d be accused of bigotry) How then can a public school district tell the coach he cannot kneel at the 50 yard line and pray to his god and allow whomever among the students who share his faith to join him? 

As long as no student is punished for not participating, this sounds like religious liberty—if we are to allow Muslims their costumes and prayers. Either nobody gets to express religious sentiment or everybody gets to express religious sentiment. School authorities allow Sikh kids their ceremonial knives (see The Kirpan and the Seax) but Coach Kennedy can’t pray? Christianity is no less important to that faith community than are Islam or Sikhism to their own. As long as the public school is not instructing students in religious doctrine, or punishing them for no participating, and if we are going to allow religious scarves and knives, then I think it is difficult to deny teachers and students the exercise of their Christian faith. (Moreover, as I have argued on this blog, we must also allow hoodies and pocket knives. Otherwise, the religious are allowed privileges in the face of the demand that the state respect no such distinction. See The Injustices of Public School Dress Codes.)

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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