HAI Summer School 2014 : Full Paper from Diana Brown

Diana Brown’s Talk HAI Summer School 2014 together with Question & Answer Session at end of this page.



Humanism and Human Rights
I want to start from a personal point of view.
I decided I was an atheist 60 years ago when I was 14.
I decided I was a Humanist 57 years ago when I was 17.
What did this mean to me?

1. Humanism = atheism + morality
2. I felt a need for a morality
3. I had no god or holy scripture as a starting point
4. I had to wrestle with decisions of morality on my own: I alone was responsible for what I did, with no prospect of reward or punishment.
At that time, most people I knew had some sort of religious allegiance. Religion was pushed at me from almost all sides. Religious people still had to tackle specific moral problems, but they had a starting point: their religion laid down general precepts and often prescribed particular solutions. I felt that all I had was reason.

Reason is a very powerful tool, but it does not automatically come up with correct answers. – Why not? – because it has to start with premises. All the correct reasoning imaginable will fail if it starts with an erroneous premise.

I have a personal history of almost 60 years of trying to reason my way to moral conclusions. I have no guarantee that my conclusions are correct, so all I feel I can offer you are problems with my own personal solutions. Each Humanist trying to cope with morality without any crutches faces a difficult task, but does have freedom as well. And another thing is that we shouldn’t have to cope with “sin” and its associated feelings of guilt. I don’t think we need morality except insofar as we interact with other people. We don’t have to agonise about masturbation, for example, or impure thoughts; we just need to worry about how we affect others.

Events like this are very useful, where we can share ideas and criticise them. I feel, however, that it would be a big mistake for organised Humanism to try to emulate churches and other religious institutions and attempt to lay down fixed moral rules. We should be willing to let individuals come to their own moral decisions, although we should not be afraid to criticise those decisions or point out omissions in one another’s reasoning.

Given that we are not starting from a pope or a scripture, what do we have? I think it would be wrong, though tempting, to take any document, such as the Amsterdam declaration, as definitive. There are no totally reliable shortcuts. But there is no reason why we shouldn’t take something like that as a starting point, as long as we are prepared to be critical of its contents. And that applies equally to religious precepts. (Some of them may be useful.)

Personally, I find the Universal Declaration of Human Rights a good starting point. I feel it has done some of the heavy lifting for me. It is in fact a Humanist document. If we follow it, we will be prepared to accord the same rights to every other human being and if necessary to fight for everyone to have those rights.

Why might it be necessary to fight? There are two main reasons: vested interests and religious dogma. Both tend to result in struggles to maintain privilege of some groups and to reduce the rights of some others.

Peter yesterday was talking about the importance of the UDHR and I know that Roy also finds it very useful. If you’ve never read it, I suggest having a look online.

The very first of the clauses in the Universal Declarationi says that
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are
endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

The second says that
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

I cannot imagine many Humanists disagreeing with those ideals in principle. The difficulty for all of us is living up to them. However, we might well not get perfect agreement from adherents of various religions.

In this talk I am mainly concerned with some of the rights and privileges associated with gender and sexuality.

“Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains”. In some ways that sentence is typical of Rousseau, who cared deeply about the rights of men, but not much about the rights of women.

Women’s subordination

It’s more or less true that women have been subordinate to men in most societies that we know of. One can understand that from the point of view of evolution. Males are typically stronger than females and if they use force they will usually win. So we have ended up with a society largely run by alpha males.

However, ever since we have had civilisation, we have many activities that do not require a great deal of physical strength, and there is no particular reason for choosing physically strong men for the vast majority of tasks. Civilisation has also enabled inheritance of wealth, power and influence, so that ruling men no longer even need physical strength. As our technology has progressed in the past 200 years, even jobs that did once require physical strength may no longer do so. I was reading a little while ago In New Scientist about a sort of wearable robot suit that hugely enhanced the physical strength of any worker. A woman could work in such a suit just as well as a man.

For a long time, many men in control claimed that women were inherently less intelligent than men and even incapable of rationality. But ever since women were first admitted to universities it became clear that the claim was rubbish. Except, of course, in much of the Islamic world, where a great deal of religious writing tells us of the disaster that awaits the community where a woman is in charge of anything importantii.

And let us not forget the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, for whom the leadership of a female priest is apparently an abomination.

Regardless of religion, heterosexual men and women tend to bond in pairs. Pair bonding has had obvious evolutionary value. It helps to raise healthy offspring if the parents remain together to care for the offspring until they are at least approaching maturity.


Most of us are programmed to seek reproductive success, passing on our genes to as many successors as possible. One human male mating strategy seems to be to establish exclusive ownership of a woman or women, a formalisation of pair bonding in the form of marriage. Humans have by and large adopted monogamy, with polygyny available to some more powerful men and a certain amount of sexual infidelity available to both sexes.

Turning back now to the Universal Declaration, Article 16 says that

Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family.

It also says that

They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

and that

Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.

If only that clause were always observed!

Both historically in the west and still now in many other countries, women were seen as commodities, to be owned and controlled by men. Typically, a young girl was the property of her father. He would then negotiate a marriage for her, upon which she would become the property of her husband, who might legally beat her. Marriage of this type is really a kind of slavery. A good marriage could only be negotiated on the premise that the bride was a virgin. Of course, in the absence of reliable contraception, it made sense to insist on a virgin bride and also to severely punish adultery by a wife. A man would not want to have another man’s child foisted on him, so close control of his wife’s sexuality was important.

Child brides

Many men find child brides preferable. A child should be more malleable and more easily controlled than a woman who has developed her own ideas and personality. And to be really crude, it should be pointed out that she is likely to have a smaller and tighter vagina than a bigger, adult woman. It’s no coincidence that the Muslim heaven will keep the good Muslim man constantly supplied with young virgins. We’re not told much about what awaits good Muslim women.

It’s not just potential husbands who favour child marriage; many parents do as well. In a society that prizes female virginity very highly, the later you leave your daughter’s marriage, the higher the risk that she will indulge in illicit sexual activity and lose her value in the marriage market, as well as bringing shame on her family.

Child marriage is quite simply child abuse. Children as young as nine years old can be married in some countries, often to men old enough to be their grandfathers. In Shariah law, a husband is not supposed to engage in sexual relations with his “wife” before she reaches puberty, but there are a few cases of young girls being raped to death on their wedding night, and quite a few more who have been badly damaged by penetration. The emotional damage can only be imagined.

Child brides usually lose out on education, and they are more likely than mature brides to be beaten by their husbands. Their biggest risk is of early pregnancy, which carries a considerable toll of maternal mortality and morbidity.

Controlling female sexuality

Women’s sexuality can be controlled in various ways. Women can be kept shut up, unable to go out at all, or unable to go out except in the presence of a husband or other controlling man. The Saudi prohibition on women’s driving seems to be a part of such a form of control. Women can be required to wear clothing that conceals a prescribed amount of the body. (What is considered to be an erogenous zone has varied with fashion over centuries. Apparently the Afghan Taleban found a flash of white ankle sock sexually provocative.)

Another possibility is to mutilate the woman’s body so as to render sexual intercourse painful and remove sexual stimulation. After thousands of years the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation is finally being discouraged, but a great deal more social progress is needed in this respect.

In many societies there was or is a strong preference for sons over daughters. Again, this must once have had some justification. Men typically want to pass on wealth and power to another generation, and if the world is run by men, and women are prevented from partaking in all sorts of important activities, then a son will be better able to build on a man’s legacy than a daughter. Even a mother may prefer to have a son if she is likely to find herself in a risky situation when widowed and therefore possibly dependent on a son for protection.

Understanding human reproduction

Curiously enough, women who gave birth to girls but were unable to give birth to and raise sons were held to blame for this so-called “barrenness”. With scientific progress, this is no longer an accepted truth. We need only look at the history of Henry VIII of England and his wives to see the havoc that this belief could wreak. A pre-scientific view of the process of fertilisation – and one that is still fossilised in the koran – is that women are like fields in which the man can sow his seed. We still use the word “semen”, Latin for seed, to refer to the male ejaculate. There was a total absence of knowledge of female eggs before microscopes made them visible. Even when sperm had been seen through the microscope, people still tended to believe that each sperm contained a tiny, curled up homunculusiii that would take root in the womb and expand until it was big enough to be born.

Science has changed what information is available about the facts of reproduction and the world, and technology has changed what we can feasibly do. But in societies round the world things are still viewed through the prism of religion, and religion is definitely pre-scientific. Interestingly enough, when it comes to human reproduction, various pseudo-facts are often claimed to have scientific support by fundamentalist American Christians (or the Vatican ). So we’ve been told variously that women’s wombs can repel rapists’ sperm and thus avoid pregnancyiv, that condoms can help spread HIVv, and that emergency contraceptive pills are abortifacientvi. These statements are all contrary to what real scientists say.

All too often, however, religious authorities reject aspects of science and scientific thinking in favour of superstition. When it comes to human rights, it often feels as though there is a constant struggle against pre-scientific religious ideas.

Who owns anyone’s body?

The title of my talk is “Who owns women’s bodies?” But first I’d like us to look at the question of who owns anyone’s bodies, male or female. Some people will certainly answer “God”. God created all of us, and therefore we can’t make decisions like choosing to die when suffering unbearably. It’s up to God to choose the moment of our death. Are Humanists bound by such an idea? I would hope not.

Then there is the state. If you are a man, the state may claim ownership of your body in time of war and push you into the armed forces. Do we agree with this? I’ll leave that as something for you to consider later.

Not quite the same as God, but claiming to speak for him, the church may claim ownership of your body. You may not masturbate, for example. In the Middle Ages you would be told not to have sexual intercourse on a whole lot of specified days. You would be prohibited from enjoying homosexual intercourse. You might also be punished in various prescribed ways for extramarital sex.

Churches and other religious authorities may also control what you are allowed to eat or drink and when.

Under extremist Islam men may be obliged to grow beards and women to cover most of their body. People enjoying extramarital sex (although usually only women and not men) can be stoned to death.

Humanists, however, will nowadays tend to agree that a man owns his own body.

Who owns a woman’s body?

But let’s now come to women’s bodies. If I ask “Who owns a woman’s body?” I might get the answers of “God” or the “state”, just as with men. Religions can be very prescriptive as well. However, other possible answers, depending on culture, might be the woman’s family, her father or her husband. At worst, a woman can be forced into marriage, a marriage where her body is always at her husband’s disposition – a kind of legalised rape. Where religion supports this arrangement, it is hardly surprising that the idea of marital rape is simply not accepted.

Then there is the question of pregnancy and childbirth. Who should decide whether and when a girl or woman should become pregnant and bear a child? Of course, once upon a time there wasn’t a great deal of choice. Once a couple married, it was assumed that they would have sexual intercourse and the babies would keep on coming. The wife might well die as a result, and many of the children might also die from various causes.

But efficient contraception has been technically available for many decades, allowing the possibility of choice. I say “technically available”, because I am well aware of how Ireland lagged behind most of Europe in access to contraception and of the heroic struggles to improve the situation. UN human rights instruments recognise the right of couples to plan the births of their children and the spacing of births, but they don’t usually go so far as to formally recognise the right of a woman to decide whether or not she should be impregnated at all. And yet surely, a woman should have as much right to personal autonomy as a man. The right of a couple, in a culture where a woman is subordinate to her husband, may mean no right at all for the woman.

What ought to be an important UN human rights document is the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women, popularly known by its acronym CEDAW.vii It is a very impressive document, and, unlike the Universal Declaration, has even been ratified by Saudi Arabia, which normally vies with the Vatican for the title of the “Home of discrimination against women”. When ratifying UN treaties, states are allowed to enter “reservations”. The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties makes it theoretically impermissible to have a reservation to a treaty that is considered incompatible with the treaty’s object and purpose. Nevertheless, Islamic states have mostly entered reservations to the effect that Islamic Shariah takes precedence over various articles of CEDAW.viii

There are many interpretations of Shariah, and some of them allow child marriage and marital rape. All of them give men control over women. Article 16 of CEDAW is one of the key articles, and, unsurprisingly, the one with the most reservations. I’ll just read it out:

1. States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations and in particular shall ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women: (a) The same right to enter into marriage;

(b) The same right freely to choose a spouse and to enter into marriage only with their free and full consent;

(c) The same rights and responsibilities during marriage and at its dissolution;

(d) The same rights and responsibilities as parents, irrespective of their marital status, in matters relating to their children; in all cases the interests of the children shall be paramount;

(e) The same rights to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and to have access to the information, education and means to enable them to exercise these rights;

(f) The same rights and responsibilities with regard to guardianship, wardship, trusteeship and adoption of children, or similar institutions where these concepts exist in national legislation; in all cases the interests of the children shall be paramount;

(g) The same personal rights as husband and wife, including the right to choose a family name, a profession and an occupation;

(h) The same rights for both spouses in respect of the ownership, acquisition, management, administration, enjoyment and disposition of property, whether free of charge or for a valuable consideration.

2. The betrothal and the marriage of a child shall have no legal effect, and all necessary action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify a minimum age for marriage and to make the registration of marriages in an official registry compulsory.

I think as Humanists we have a duty to fight for these rights to be enjoyed by all women.

But it will indeed be a fight. Quite apart from the precepts of Islamic Shariah, The Roman Catholic church and some Protestant churches tend to dislike the idea of women’s rights. The 1995 Beijing Declaration pledged to support the rights of women and girls as inalienable. The Vatican response was that this was not good enough because it left women and girls alone with their rights. In other words, they could not be trusted to make decisions for themselves.

The Catholic church has also fought tooth and nail to block access to modern contraception and even to the use of condoms as a protection against the transmission of HIV/AIDS.

The Church would go so far as to accord rights to each of the hundreds of million sperms in a single male ejaculation. In the words of the song from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, “Every sperm is sacred”. Nothing of human manufacture should come between a sperm and the egg it might fertilise. Contraceptive rights belong not to potential parents but to the god who just happens to be the greatest abortionist there has ever been. Not only does he apparently create a vast number of sperm that will never be successful in the struggle to capture an egg, but he will quite naturally abort a high proportion of early pregnancies.

When we ask “Who owns women’s bodies?” there is yet another possible answer: “any foetus resident therein”. In Ireland this is a big issue. Foetuses are not normally accorded human rights, and yet many people think that foetuses should not only have rights, but should be accorded rights that supersede the rights to bodily autonomy of the women within whose bodies they reside.

Most women who are pregnant look forward to the birth of a baby, but there are cases of unwanted pregnancy, and in my opinion no woman should be forced to bear an unwanted child. Pregnancy carries risks to health and even life, but Catholic bishops have been known to deny the right even to terminate an ectopic pregnancy that will kill both mother and foetus. People round the world were disgusted by the recent case in Ireland of a refugee woman made pregnant by rape who was not only denied a termination but had her body further violated by forcible feeding to compel her to act as an incubator for the foetus until such time as it could be delivered by caesarean sectionix.

I contrast this with an important case in England in 1998, when the Court of Appeal ruled in the case of a woman who had vehemently refused hospital admission and a caesarean considered medically necessary by obstetricians. She was detained in a mental hospital and then a High Court judge ruled in a hearing where she was not represented that she could be compelled to have a caesarean, which was duly performed. She later sued for false imprisonment and trespass to her person. The Court of Appeal, led by Lady Butler Sloss, ruled in her favour. The court reaffirmed the right of any competent adult, male or female, to refuse medical or surgical intervention, even if the result was certain death for the individual or for a foetus. A spokesman for the British Medical Association welcomed the ruling, saying that the fact that a woman had moral obligations to her baby, did not mean the health professionals or the courts could compel her to fulfil them.x

This highlights the distinction that was mentioned yesterday between what may be moral and what ought to be legal. If the law does allow personal autonomy, then some people will use that right to make decisions that we don’t agree with. They might, for example, abort a healthy foetus simply because it is female. I personally wouldn’t like or approve of that at all, and I would consider it socially undesirable. But I would still support the right to have a choice. To be genuinely pro-choice, you have to allow choices that you may dislike, just as to be pro-democracy means that you have to support the right to come to a political decision you dislike. I would also maintain that to be genuinely pro-life should mean that you support action to save the life of a pregnant women even if it costs the life of her foetus.

We may disagree as to a pregnant woman’s moral obligations towards her foetus, but we should support her sole right to make decisions about the pregnancy. The Catholic church does not recognise the reproductive rights of women and has fought against every step towards legal reform. The legislature has pandered to them, secure in the hypocrisy of using Britain as a solution to Irish women’s needs. The current abortion law is more or less useless. I hope that Humanists in Ireland will actively support the necessary legal reform.

When it comes to the question of “Who owns a woman’s body?” my answer is simply that she should own it herself. I hope you will agree with me.


HAI Summer School 2014 : Diana Brown – Who Owns Women’s Bodies

Questions & Comments from audience arising from lecture:

  • Q. In Ireland women, without their knowledge, had sym-physiotomies performed on them rather than caeserians in order to ensure childbearing without limitation. Can you comment.
    DB: This is abuse, a woman is denied the correct treatment as it affects her fertility.

  • Q. In some Irish minority groups such as travellers, the men are in control of contraception and arranged marriages occur.
    DB: Whether we like it or not, we have to accept that some women feel safer with an arranged marriage. However, a woman should always have control of her own body.

  • Q What is the age of consent for women:
    DB: The United Nations promotes 18. In some countries it is as low as 15.

  • Q. Why age 18 when the voting age is 15.
    DB: These are inherited laws.

  • Q. How can you criticise a country and its rulers without being racist.
    DB: In the United Nations we do it all the time because we can. Many countries, in order to conform with the U.N., accept the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, afterwards adapt it to fit in with their own agenda.

  • Q. At abortion clinics, pro-life campaigners attack the girls on their way in. Is there a law to prevent this.
    DB: Depends on the law of the country. Some countries prohibit protesters within a certain radius.

  • Q. Does you see a future where women, through social media, will become empowered.
    DB: In many suppressed countries they have little access. In countries where they are less put upon, access to social media improves their lives.

  • Q. Would you imbue a foetus with human rights.
    DB: A foetus does not have any rights before it is born. The woman’s rights supersedes the rights of the foetus.

  • Q. Would you abort a 38 week foetus.
    DB: At 38 weeks what you get is an early birth. Sometimes there are late abortions but these are mostly due to fatal abnormalities. We may disagree as to a woman’s moral obligation but it is her body and her decision.