Marie Alena Castle is the communications director for Atheists for Human Rights. Raised Roman Catholic she became an atheist later in life. She has since been an important figure within the atheist movement through her involvement with Minnesota Atheists, The Moral Atheist, National Organization of Women, and wrote Culture Wars: The Threat to Your Family and Your Freedom (2013). She has a lifetime of knowledge and activist experience, explored and crystallised in an educational series. The first part of this series can be found here – Session 1
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: With your four decades of experience in activism for atheism, human rights, and women’s rights, you earlier described the victory for women’s right to vote and pursue careers and for reproductive rights. Who has formed the main resistance to the massive pro-life lobby from Catholic and other Christian religious groups?
Alena Castle: Groups such as NARAL and NOW and Planned Parenthood have been the most publicly visible opponents of the Catholic/Protestant fundamentalist assaults on reproductive health care. However, the most effective has been the political organising within the Democratic party. I was extensively involved in getting the Democratic party platform to support abortion rights and in getting pro-choice candidates endorsed and elected. Having a major political party oppose the Republican party’s misogynistic position was key to holding the line against them.
Jacobsen: In the current battleground over abortion, reproductive health and rights, modern attacks on Margaret Sanger’s character have been launched to indirectly take down abortion activists and clinics, and argue against such rights for women. What can best protect abortion access and Sanger’s legacy and work?
Alena Castle: The attacks on Sanger amount to “alternative facts” and seriously distorted history. Women’s rights leaders of the past, including Sanger as well as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are sometimes quoted in opposition to abortion – but their concern was that so many women died from abortions that were either self induced or done by incompetent quacks or because of the inadequate medical knowledge of the time.
Sanger has been accused of favouring eugenics (birth control to prevent the birth of genetically defective babies). These views have been deliberately misconstrued regarding their intent when in fact they were intended to save women’s lives and help ensure a better life for the babies they gave birth to. Today the anti-abortionists are still making up fake horror stories about foetal development and abortion and its effect on women that are outright lies. Nothing will stop this dishonest distortion of history and the absurd lies but more should be done to assert, often and vigorously, the actual medical facts about abortion and the moral rightness and integrity of Sanger’s and other feminists’ views and of the women who have abortions.
Jacobsen: What would you say has been most effective as a preventive mechanism against the encroachment on the rights of women from the hyper-religious Right, or the religious Right?
Alena Castle: Political activism! That is the only thing that will work. We need to focus on putting a majority of elected officials in office at all levels who support women’s rights and the rights of the nonreligious. You can’t make changes by just talking about them – it takes laws and their enforcement. Only politicians make laws – not NARAL or NOW or atheist organisations or people who march in the streets.
Jacobsen: As an atheist and feminist, what have been the most educational experiences in your personal or professional life as to the objectives of the anti-atheist and anti-feminist movements in North America and, indeed, across the world?
Alena Castle: I have personally experiencing the effect of the religious right’s political agenda on my life and on the lives of others. The first funeral I went to was when I was 10 years old. Our lovely 22-year-old neighbour had died of a botched illegal abortion. (At the time, such deaths were listed as “obstruction of the bowels” to save the family’s embarrassment and I only learned several years later what the true cause was). And then there were the funerals of good friends who were gay and died of AIDS while the religious right did everything to hinder medical research for treatment. And almost worse was seeing the total lack of compassion by advocates for that agenda for the harm it causes. Example:
I had a discussion with a very nice, polite woman about a news report of how an 11-year-old girl, somewhat retarded, had been raped by her father, was pregnant, begged for an abortion, and was denied by a court order. Soon after she had the baby, she was back in court on a charge of being an unfit mother. I asked this nice woman if she thought that girl should have been allowed to have an abortion. She said no, that forcing her to continue the pregnancy was the right and moral thing to do. Her religious beliefs had hardened her heart and I told her so.
How do we talk to people with such a warped sense of morality? This woman also believed in personhood from the moment of conception. At that “moment,” her “person” is a microscopic fertilised egg undifferentiated at the cellular level, and no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence. The anti-abortion people put up billboards with a picture of a year-old real baby and a statement that the baby’s heartbeat is detected at a foetal age of a few weeks. They don’t explain that it is then a two-chambered heart at the lizard level of development. (The adorable – always white – baby on the billboard has the fully developed four-chambered heart). Abortion never kills a baby; it just keeps one from forming. The religious right thinks preserving that development outweighs any harm it is causing the women. We have the words of the Pope and the Protestant reformers to thank for this inhumanity. Martin Luther’s associate, Philip Melancthon said, “If a woman weary of bearing children, it matters not. Let her only die from bearing; she is there to do it.” Pope Pius XI said, “However we may pity the mother whose health and even life is imperilled by the performance of her natural duty, there yet remains no sufficient reason for condoning the direct murder of the innocent.”
There is no baby, biologically speaking until the beginning of the third trimester – the rhetoric about innocence skips that convenient fact. After that, it’s a medical emergency affecting the woman, the fetus or both, that requires removal of the fetus. If these anti-abortion hard-hearts have a problem with this, they should go ahead and die from bearing if they find themselves in such a situation, but leave the rest of us alone.
Thank you for your time, Ms. Alena Castle! Your words and experiences are of even greater relevance at this time with women’s lives under attack again.