In 2019, the religious right in America lobbied state governments to have their theological assumptions about abortion embedded in law. Several states complied, outlawing abortion under most circumstances. Likewise, in 2014, radical feminists in Canada successfully persuaded federal politicians to criminalize the purchase of sexual services. Six years later, the Canadian law remains in effect.
The stakes here are real. Secular values involving truth, equality, freedom and compassion are being undermined by both religious and feminist ideologues.
Evangelical Christians and Abortion: Church and State Collide
America is a nation that prides itself on separating church and state—that is, unless the issue is abortion. A recent rash of state restrictions on abortion rights clearly demonstrates three elemental truths about the Christian right: it wants to make religion operative within secular law; it demands punishment for transgressors; and it ignores empirical research when crafting legislation.
Republican politicians defending the pro-life perspective have made no attempt to conceal their religious biases. Take, for instance, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey. She believes that the sanctity of life ethos, which is grounded in Christian belief, should be the guiding principle shaping the state’s new foetal heartbeat law. “This legislation [HB 314] stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God,” affirmed Ivey.
Likewise, in Texas, Tony Tinderholt (R-Arlington), the state representative who introduced the Abolition of Abortion in Texas Act, has admitted that God is foundational to his legislative aims: “God creates children in his own image, regardless of how that child is brought into the world, it’s created in his image, and how can someone want to destroy that?”
In Georgia, HB 481, dubbed the “Living Infants Fairness and Equality (LIFE) Act,” would ban abortion when a foetal heartbeat can be detected, typically at six weeks’ gestation. After signing the bill into law, Republican Governor Brian Kemp confirmed that HB 481 was a declaration that “all life has value, that all life matters, and that all life is worthy of protection.”
The act’s sponsor, Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth), maintains the traditional Christian notion that life begins at conception: “The fact that, morphologically, certain organs have not grown or their arms aren’t as visible, doesn’t change the fact that they are living, distinct human beings.” Other Republican lawmakers who supported the legislation have outlined their position in vividly theistic terms: “There are many scriptures that make it clear to me that God knew us and had a plan for us when we were still in our mother’s womb,” admitted Republican Sen. Greg Kirk.
Ohio’s own heartbeat bill, SB 23, formerly known as the “Human Rights Protection Act,” bans abortion after just six weeks. It was the brainchild of anti-abortion activist Janet Folger Porter. A zealot with a track record of conjuring up conspiracy theories, Porter claimed that God, “put this idea into my heart,” adding that she was inspired by Ohio’s state motto: with God, all things are possible.
For anyone who rejects religious dictates and seeks out an abortion, there is no mercy. In Missouri, doctors who perform abortions will be given five to fifteen years in prison for violating the eight-week cut-off. In Alabama, any physician who terminates a pregnancy at any time after conception faces up to 99 years in prison. Not only did Texas politicians forbid exceptions for rape, incest or foetal abnormalities, but women who have abortions could be prosecuted for murder—and potentially receive the death penalty.
In December 2019, Ohio made headlines again when Republican legislators proposed to ban all abortions. They demanded the death penalty for both women and for doctors who break the law, allowed no exceptions for rape or incest and wanted to require a medically impossible procedure to implant an ectopic pregnancy into a woman’s uterus. Governor Mike DeWine did not view these measures as “extreme,” admitting that his is a “pro-life administration.” But death penalty opponents found it disturbing that a supposedly pro-life government would invent a new capital crime—aggravated abortion murder—and then put someone to death for aborting a foetus.
When lobbying for abortion restrictions, religious militants and the politicians who enable them tend to ignore evidence-based inquiry that challenges their narrative that abortion is psychologically harmful to the mother. This claim was debunked by a 2015 American study, which found that more than 95% of women did not regret their abortions. In fact, “women overwhelmingly felt abortion was the right decision in both the short-term and over three years, and the intensity of emotions and frequency of thinking about the abortion declined over time,” the study concluded.
Severe medical complications and deaths from abortion are highly unlikely, largely because most abortions are performed early in the pregnancy. A landmark 2018 report entitled “The Safety and Quality of Abortion Care in the United States” found that 90% of all abortions occurred during the first trimester, and complications from abortions were “rare.” There is no scientific evidence to support the claim that women suffer adverse long-term emotional or physical effects from abortions.
The religious right also lacks a moral majority. According to a 2019 CBS News poll, two-thirds of Americans want Roe v. Wade—the landmark 1973 case that protects abortion rights—left in place. If the law were overturned, almost twice as many Americans would be dissatisfied/angry as opposed to happy/satisfied (48% and 26%, respectively).
In a 2018 Gallup poll, when asked, “with respect to the abortion issue, would you consider yourself to be pro-choice or pro-life?” more Americans sided with the former designation than the latter (49% and 45%, respectively). And, according to a 2018 Pew Research Survey, 58% of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, whereas only 37% believe that it should be illegal. In addition, 77% of Americans—including 57% of those who identify as pro-life—support abortion in cases of rape or incest.
More Americans identify with the pro-choice side of the debate and want medical access to abortion and few women experience physical or psychological drawbacks. For secularists, these hard truths should help to inform public policy and law, but religious extremists are not interested in research. From the beginning, their goal has been to pressure Republicans to overturn Roe v. Wade. With the inauguration of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s controversial nominee, they are closer than ever to achieving that aim.
Americans face an important litmus test. Do they want laws grounded in secular ideals—evidence-based reasoning, freedom of choice, and compassion for women—or do they want them to be shaped by religious dogma? Pro-choice supporters need to be ready to defend secularism because pro-life forces have already decided that faith trumps fact.
Radical Feminists and Prostitution: Ideology Reigns Supreme
Although they reject patriarchal religions, radical feminists have, ironically, become a new priesthood. They imagine a world in which prostitution is permanently outlawed, a utopian fantasy based on the grand narrative that men exploit and oppress women whenever they purchase their sexual services. To impose this ideological worldview on others, radical feminists dismiss any empirical studies or competing perspectives that challenge their sacred beliefs. The end goal—to punish men who purchase sex—is what truly matters.
Abolitionist feminist organizations first tried their luck with the judiciary. In Bedford v. Canada, a 2010 Ontario Superior Court of Justice case that found the Criminal Code provisions surrounding prostitution unconstitutional, feminist interveners suggested that prostitution was “a global practice of sexual exploitation and male violence against women that normalizes the subordination of women in a sexualized form.” Prostitution, they claimed, “exploits and compounds the systematic inequality of women.” In 2013, leading up to an appeal of Bedford before the Supreme Court of Canada, the interveners once again staked out their position clearly: men were “the source of prostitution’s harms.”
However, in a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court of Canada rejected the radical feminist position. On the basis of decades of research, the justices emphasized that the current criminal code provisions prevented prostitutes from working indoors, forced them to spend less time vetting clients and prevented them from hiring security. In other words, the law made the lives of sex workers more dangerous. Radical feminists ignored the decision and, like their religious counterparts in America, began to lobby politicians directly.
When the Conservative Party of Canada passed Bill C-36, the “Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act,” in 2018, radical feminists were instrumental in framing the bill’s major conclusions. For instance, grave concerns were expressed about “the exploitation that is inherent in prostitution,” as well as “the social harm caused by the objectification of the human body and the commodification of sexual activity.” Of import was the need “to protect human dignity and the equality of all Canadians by discouraging prostitution.” First and foremost, this would be accomplished by prohibiting “the purchase of sexual services.” To anyone familiar with women’s studies discourse, this is the rhetoric of second-wave feminism writ large.
Obsessed with victimhood, radical feminists place their faith in the oppression paradigm—the belief that prostitutes can be reduced to a single category and are universally exploited and violated. Credible evidence, however, contradicts this model. For instance, in Sex Work in Canada, a report issued by Cecilia Benoit and Leah Shumka, the authors note that “anywhere from 60–80% of indoor workers report never experiencing any work-related violence.”
International studies have produced similar results. In Nevada, where prostitution has been legal since 1971, the exploitation myth has been widely discredited. Of the brothel workers surveyed by Barbara G. Brents and her colleagues, the vast majority (84%) felt safe in their jobs, were free to come and go, and had not been forced into the trade. A 2011 Queensland, Australia report by the Crime and Misconduct Commission acknowledged that, “regulated brothels are the safest and healthiest work environments for sex workers.” And, according to a 2004 report by the Netherlands Ministry of Justice, the “vast majority” of workers in Dutch brothels and window units report that they “often or always feel safe.”
But empirical findings are only relevant to those who subscribe to objective standards. Sadly, abolitionist feminists do not. They feel that paid sex constitutes violence, so, from their point of view, personal conviction should dictate legislative aims. But radical feminists who seek to criminalize consensual sex between adults in private—and then arbitrarily select which gender belongs in prison—are clearly motivated by animus. Their methods speak for themselves.
First, those who buy sexual services (primarily men) are labeled victimizers and targeted for criminal sanctions. By contrast, those who supply sexual services—mostly women—are treated as victims of sexual violence and offered exit strategies. Known as asymmetrical criminalization, this legal tactic treats men and women differently under the law. From the abolitionist feminist perspective, some are more equal than others.
Because radical feminist ideology informs Bill C-36, men face incarceration for up to five years in prison for the “crime” of offering financial compensation for sexual services. And women who wish to stay in the sex trade often find themselves in more dangerous, underground environments, which directly threaten their health and even lives. Phoebe J. Galbally puts it succinctly:
The radical feminist perspective of sex work, as deployed throughout the enactment of Bill C-36, has the effect of undermining the capacity for women to consensually engage in sex work, directly criminalizes their status, and provides no alternate means for their subsistence—a factor that is particularly problematic in light of the noted effects of poverty and social disadvantage in generating the need to engage in sex work.
If Galbally’s conclusions are true, it is anti-prostitution legislation—not sex work—that is a form of violence.
The fact is: most Canadians do not have a moral problem with sex work. According to a 2011 Angus Reid Survey, 67% of Canadians believe that prostitution “should be legal between consenting adults.” A clear majority of respondents (62%) “support the notion of prostitutes working indoors”: a far safer option than call-out work. The same percentage agreed that “they would be comfortable living in a society where prostitution is legal.” A mere 35% of the populace supported Bill C-36.
Radical feminists have never addressed the tough questions. For example, why do more than 150 human rights organizations want the Canadian federal government to decriminalize sex work? Moreover, why do Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the World Health Organization all support decriminalization? Why do liberal feminists support sex workers’ rights? Most importantly, why do Canadian sex workers themselves lobby for decriminalization?
Answering these inquiries honestly would force radical feminists to concede that their political position is fallible. Too often, though, radical feminists view uncertainty as a threat to their worldview. This insecurity leads to the reinforcement of two cognitive biases: noble cause distortion (a belief that, if the cause is just, illegal or unethical means may be used to achieve it) and confirmation bias. Left unchecked, these weaken the link between evidence and sound decision-making and corrupt the rational basis of law.
If new legislation were passed based on secular values, the Liberal Party of Canada, under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, would quickly resolve four important issues. First, the government would be delivering the compassionate message that the health and safety of sex workers is being taken seriously. Second, if neither sex were liable to criminal charges, both men and women would be treated equally under the law. Third, by removing the ideological basis of Bill C-36, liberals would reaffirm the position that sexual freedom takes precedence over state paternalism. Lastly, legislation would be grounded in evidence, not dogma.
Two Choices: Secularism or Ideology
Secularism’s core values—truth, freedom, equality and compassion—lead to a more just society. Religious fundamentalists and radical feminists undermine these values whenever they reject evidence-based inquiry in favour of belief. In this sense, they are two sides of the same coin.
Both groups want the law to be tailored to fit their perfectionist ideals surrounding reproductive choice and sexual behaviour. Their underlying motivation is the need to control the actions of those who offend against their ideological worldviews.
In America, theists want to shape law according to a militant form of evangelical Protestantism. With the support of Donald Trump, along with a Republican-dominated Supreme Court, their hope is to make America religious again. Unfortunately, this means that women must now live with the kind of draconian abortion legislation that harkens back to the laws of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In Canada, radical feminist ideology has influenced legal matters concerning prostitution. This has resulted in the passage of Bill C-36, an act that has nothing to do with protecting women. The law is being used as a means to deter the demand for sexual services.
When framing legislation, the secular state is supposed to keep ideologues at bay, but governments can, at times, fail in this regard. The ability of religious extremists and radical feminists to bend legislation in their favour should be a stark reminder to us all that where ideology thrives, secularism dies.