The Ethical Dilemma: Letters from a Military Humanist and a Person Pondering Abortion

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Coming Out in the Military: I am a female US Marine Corps (USMC) veteran and a life member of both the Marine Corps League (MCL) and the Women Marines Association. In the MCL, I held down the positions of chaplain, treasurer, sergeant at arms, and am now filling the position of newspaper editor. However, since I am now an atheist and humanist, I don’t feel comfortable being on the board in any other position (not that the newspaper editor is “on” the board, but I do have the position of reporting to the membership our sick and distressed members, which I do monthly). I also say the Pledge of Allegiance when the meeting is started (however, I don’t say the words “under god”), and I do include the words “keep them in your prayers” when reporting on sick/distressed members.

I am not allowed to join the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, or any of the ethnic veteran organizations. I am allowed to join the AMVETS, the DAV/Disabled American Veterans Charity (I hope), and the Marine Corps League (but not if I profess that I am an atheist). I have no idea what joining the AMVETS entails; if I had to swear or vow that I was a believer, I would simply have to lie to get in and then live with the consequences to my conscience.

I am going to be eighty years old next September so I don’t have much time left in this world. If I were thirty or even twenty years younger, I would be willing to take on setting up a secular USMC organization, or fighting for this one to accept me, but that option is not available to me due to my advanced age. I also had a minor stroke about twelve years ago that left me with aphasia, so I am not so quick to respond to personal slurs.

I wonder what the services will do with us secular veterans who don’t fit into any other categories and simply don’t believe in an omnipresent being or deity. I don’t believe that I will live to see the day—the prejudice against nonbelievers is too pervasive and deeply seated to eradicate easily, especially in our current political climate! I am so sick and tired of having to deny the real me, and I would like to know what I can do now to mitigate the situation.

My second husband is buried in the National Cemetery in Ohio, and I will join him when my time comes; I have a young man scheduled to recite the rosary at my funeral and will get the pastor from the Methodist Church where my children and I were baptized to give the sermon at the funeral parlor. The current MCL will take over and do the standard military funeral service at the funeral parlor. However, when my body gets to the cemetery, I want a humanist celebrant to do the final “goodbye.” I already have someone in mind. But that is (I hope) a long while away, and I would like to know how to negotiate the rocky road between now and then.

–Trying To Plan Ahead

Dear Plan,

Because I’m not familiar with things military, I took the liberty of forwarding your query to Jason Torpy, the president of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers (MAAF). He’s rephrased your questions as 1) what services are available for veterans, and 2) can I include a humanist as part of my memorial?

In answering the first, Jason says:

MAAF is a community for veterans as well as active duty. We’re not the VFW or some of these larger organizations, but we are supporting veterans and non-theists. If all the atheists in foxholes were to join and donate, I think we’d rival the other veteran organizations, and we’d at least get those other organizations to support veterans and not just evangelical interests. So join up!

Jason also notes that as an atheist you actually can join the Legion and the VFW, if you want to.

The Legion and VFW both have political and Christian leadership and biases in various ways, but their membership is not restricted by religion, only by prejudices of membership and leadership. Although certain local membership documents reference a god, those are unofficial and any veteran denied membership should speak out in protest.

Besides, only veterans can fix the Christian biases of these organizations. So in summary, Jason says, “Yes you can join the VFW and Legion, if you can stomach them, but don’t forget MAAF as the obvious but often overlooked choice.”

As for the memorial services, Jason agrees that you could certainly involve a humanist celebrant (and you wouldn’t have to deal with any fallout). “I have had boycotting, protests, tantrums, and obstruction from god-believing clergy and family when faced with a humanist celebrant,” Jason observes. “This sounds like a complicated situation, but early planning is best, and a humanist celebrant could manage those personalities and do what fits your wishes.”

If you’d like to learn more, feel free to check out MAAF’s website here.

Now here are my civilian comments. Your somewhat incongruous final wishes are a bit puzzling, involving not only a humanist celebrant but also the rosary and your pastor. Perhaps those are sentimental additions or geared to comfort your family, which is perfectly fine. But maybe you are just feeling timid about your atheism, even when it comes to your funeral arrangements. If the latter, I encourage you to speak out, the sooner the better.

Figure out what you have to lose and gain by acting now versus biding your time. I would think your age and experience give you the right and privilege to say and do whatever you damn please. You’re eighty, but you could still have a decade or two ahead of you. Why not give yourself permission to express what you really think and do what you really want? And if speaking is challenging for you, perhaps you can do it in writing (you are, after all, a newspaper editor).

Start by dropping the prayers in “keep them in your prayers” and switching to “thoughts,” or say something along the lines of “thank them for their dedicated service.” Whatever you decide to do, pledge to enjoy yourself and make the most of this final act of your life. I think you’ll be glad if you decide to assert yourself. So will others, who will rally to your side if you wave this flag.

Abortion Perspective: I’ve been struggling with the idea of abortion for a while now, and I was hoping to get another perspective. I know there is no dogma attached to this, but I’m just interested in hearing your thoughts.


Dear Pat,

It’s interesting (but also completely irrelevant) that you have one of those gender non-specific names. My response is the same regardless.

The issue of abortion is way too big a can of worms to cover in an advice column, particularly when your question is not specific (e.g., “Should I have an abortion under these particular circumstances?”) but rather a philosophical musing.

Is your quandary about whether abortion is murder, or under what circumstances it is or isn’t appropriate (e.g., rape, threat to mother’s health, seriously deformed/compromised fetus, preference for one gender, quintuplets, etc.)? These are huge questions. I would suggest looking for answers from reliable sources such as Planned Parenthood. Beware of anti-abortion groups who are likely to provide misinformation along with fear and guilt tactics, including hiding the fact that they are anti-abortion.

All I will say is that abortion is and should be the right of every individual prospective parent to decide for him or herself, and if there’s a dispute, I believe a woman faced with giving birth or not should, in most cases, be the ultimate decider, trumping the father or sperm donor or whatever. (Such questions can become very sticky when the egg, sperm, embryo, uterus come from various people with various claims to parenthood.)

I feel so strongly about abortion being a personal choice and right that it is very hard (impossible?) for me to consider ever voting for anyone who does not agree. (There go all the Republican presidential candidates.)

No one should ever be forced or coerced into having an abortion. But no one should ever have that option taken awa​​y​​​​. And the only way to satisfy both sides of that equation is universal access to safe, legal abortion.