Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Religious right peddles myths to control women (Contribution)

US congressman Todd Akin is part of a long tradition of the religious right denying women agency over their bodies, writes FIONOLA MEREDITH

IF YOU’RE a politician, there are the things you secretly believe and then there are the things you say.

US Republican congressman Todd Akin’s mouth ran away from him when he was asked about his opposition to abortion, even in the case of pregnancy resulting from rape. 

In a now notorious response, he said: “It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Let’s leave aside the profoundly offensive idea of “legitimate rape” (the opposite of which, by implication, is soft, cuddly, harmless rape) and focus on Akin’s ludicrous central claim. Does he really believe women’s reproductive systems have an in-built border patrol force, designed to hunt down and kill hostile sperm?

The unpleasant logical corollary of this is that if a raped woman becomes pregnant it is the fault of her body, which has presumably failed to whip down the cervical portcullis in time.

Akin is now desperately backtracking from his comments but you can bet he is far from alone in clinging to such crackpot notions. He is merely the latest in a long, ignominious tradition of men who mythologise women’s procreative capacities while denying them agency over their bodies.

They are unashamed to play fast and loose with science, which is not surprising, because this is not about cool, clear, objective facts. It is about manipulation, power and control.

Nor are such reprehensible tactics confined to the American religious right. They have been successfully exported all over the world, particularly the unproven, fear-mongering claims that there are causal links between abortion and breast cancer or depression.

Here in Ireland, the prominent anti- abortion website prolifeinfo.iehas been peddling equally spurious nonsense. The site states that trauma from rape “may bring into play some natural defence mechanisms that reduce the likelihood of pregnancy, such as hormonal change and spasms of the Fallopian tubes which inhibit ovulation or fertilisation”.

It bases this outlandish suggestion on a 35-year-old journal article that focused on the sexual performance of the rapist during the assault, rather than the victim’s ordeal.

Anti-abortion campaigners are not the only religiously inspired zealots who use garbled science, imported direct from the US, to advance their aims. The Young Earth creationist lobby has practically turned it into an art form. Creationists, who believe God created the world 6,000 years ago, insist that every word of the Bible is the literal truth.

They have developed a wobbly pseudo- scientific framework to justify their beliefs, borrowing selectively from mainstream research, misrepresenting legitimate findings and filling the gaps in between with dodgy theories of their own making. In debate, creationists favour the blitzkrieg approach, firing off a barrage of misinformation that would take six days and six nights to refute painstakingly. It’s a bit like the old X-Files government conspiracy slogan: “deceive, inveigle, obfuscate”.

All this would be a matter of harmless curiosity were it not for the fact that creationists want this hokum taught as scientific fact in schools, museums and galleries. They are politically powerful in Northern Ireland – two DUP Assembly ministers are Young Earth creationists – and they have already scored a small but significant victory with the inclusion of their views at the new Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre in Co Antrim.

Don’t be tempted to dismiss this as more wacky business up north, irrelevant to the rest of the island. The creationists are on the move and they have their sights set on the Republic. 

Next month, Creation Ministries, a global creationist outreach group, is bringing its Olympics-inspired “Carrying the Creation Torch” UK and Ireland tour to events in Cork, Kerry and Louth, and they are looking for recruits, especially young ones.

Evidence suggests these creationist seeds may be falling on pretty fertile ground. There has been a dramatic rise in evangelical Protestant churches in the Republic in recent years, with Pentecostalism proving particularly popular.

This conservative church has a strong tradition of biblical literalism, and well-established connections with the US religious right. 

Perhaps the intense, emotional style of worship – guitars, dancing, speaking in tongues – seems like an antidote to years of staid Catholicism. Here it’s all about the feeling: personal experience and a direct relationship with God takes priority over doctrine.

Let’s be clear: this is not an attack on Christian faith in its entirety. (There’s nothing the extremists like better than to treat any criticism as some kind of evil, smouldering broadside against God.)

But with the decline of the Catholic Church, a vast spiritual vacancy has been created. Creationists and their ideologically driven fellow-travellers are eager to fill it. 

They may be pre-Darwinist in spirit but they speak in the persuasive modern language of equal rights. Some of them are even pretty hot on the guitar. 

If they gain ground in their dangerous crusade it will be at the expense of democracy, science and truth.

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