Dear Pope Francis: you are half the way there

The Thinker by Rodin

Presumably Pope Francis is now back in Rome and settling in after a whirlwind tour of Cuba and the United States. He’s a pope who is hard to dislike, perhaps because he comes out of the Jesuits. For a pope he is also suspiciously pragmatic.

He was not shy expressing his opinions while in the United States. Mostly they gave Republicans heartburn as he preached to them on subjects they did not want to hear: that poor people had equal rights, that income inequality had to be addressed and that global climate change was a serious problem. He spoke passionately of the refugee crisis affecting mostly Europe and asked America to do its part compassionately. He complained that corporations were not working in the interests of the people as a whole.

Democrats did not wholly escape his preaching. He spoke passionately about the family, but his idea of a family looked a lot like June and Ward Cleaver’s and seemed to exclude marriage for same sex couples. Still, overall it was refreshing to hear messages from a pontiff that were truthful and people-centric. Francis is a catholic in the apostolic and universal sense of the word. He even acknowledged that those who do not believe in God could be good people simply by acting as good people.

It’s not enough to make me return to the Catholic Church. It’s a lost cause in my case, as I don’t believe Jesus was God, and I don’t believe in miracles, saints and most of the peculiar beliefs of Catholics. I’m too left-brained. But his words as well as his actions (like having dinner with homeless people and riding in the back of a Fiat instead of a limousine) convinced me he is a much different pope, beloved as few will be, and acting in the spirit of Jesus. Pope John Paul II was much loved and is even on his way to sainthood, but Pope Francis’ appeal extends significantly beyond the Catholic faithful to much of the world at large.

I really tuned into his message on climate change. He introduced a small ray of hope into a problem that looks gloomy at best and catastrophic to humans and most species on the planet at worst. Perhaps some of his grounding on the matter came from outside the church. Before becoming a priest, Francis worked as a chemist. He earned the rough equivalent of an associate of science degree in chemistry in Argentina. Francis understands enough about chemistry to know that when you introduce too much carbon dioxide into an atmosphere, with no other changes to the system then temperatures will increase and it will affect most living species. He sees the obvious costs of our industrialization and acknowledges that the earth is finite and we cannot continue to exploit the earth’s resources so unintelligently.

What he did not acknowledge was that population growth is a major driver of climate change. Without an end to population growth and probably a long-term effort to reduce the earth’s population, climate change cannot be reversed. Humans drive almost all climate change because we all put demands on the earth simply to survive. The problem is much worse in industrialized societies because with increased standards of living we want more stuff, and this consumption also feeds climate change.

It’s not enough to practice “natural family planning” as a population control solution. The Catholic Church advocates refraining from intercourse during a wife’s fertile period and abstinence as the only non-sinful ways to limit family size. The rhythm method of course is chancy at best, which leaves abstinence as the only foolproof and sinless methods of birth control for devout Catholics. It makes it virtually impossible to be both a devout Catholic and an environmentalist. If you are familiar with Catholic theology then you know that using birth control pills, IUDs and prophylactics are sinful.

If Francis truly wants to take a concrete action to address climate change then simply giving Catholics permission to use these and similar forms of birth control would be a huge step forward. Of course in many parts of the world, people are too poor to afford birth control, so also stridently arguing that governments should make birth control universally available for free to all citizens is as necessary as giving birth control devices church sanction. Among the many benefits will be a reduction in abortions. Children never conceived cannot be aborted.

China’s somewhat loosened one child per family policy was effective at limiting its population growth, but at a horrendous cost. It meant forced abortions mostly of females and arguably wreaked a lot of psychological damage. It’s not hard to envision a time when climate change becomes so pressing that something like this becomes policy in most countries. While it may be necessary to do this simply to survive as a species, such policies would be the opposite of humane.

This doesn’t have to happen. With over a billion adherents, if the Catholic Church were to change its policies on birth control then it would do a huge amount in the medium term to limit population growth and subsequent climate change. It would be a humane step forward. Francis has the power to do this today.

I am not a praying man by nature, but I pray that Pope Francis will see the light on this and very soon. Our future, and the perpetuity of the Catholic Church may depend on it.

The abortion of a child’s potential is the real crime

The Thinker by Rodin

In case you haven’t been following the news, states are getting very creative in finding ways to skirt the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, which in theory allows a pregnant woman to have an abortion during the first trimester of a pregnancy. Calling these laws “creative” is generous. “Illegal” is more appropriate for some of these state laws. It will just take some years before courts fully strike them down or as pro-lifers hope, the Supreme Court overturns its 1973 decision. It’s hard to see though how some of these new laws can possibly cut the mustard.

For example, some states require counseling prior to an abortion, a curious requirement as in most other things, like smoking, drinking and gambling, there is no similar requirement. The law assumes that adults are entitled to make judgments without coercion by the state because they are, well, adults! Even more intrusive are vaginal ultrasounds, required for women who want an abortion in states like Texas and Louisiana. Curiously there are no similar laws requiring anal ultrasounds of the prostate before men undergo vasectomies. North Dakota decided that if you can discern a heartbeat no abortion is allowed, which suggests no abortions are legal past six weeks of pregnancy. Thankfully, a federal judge overturned the law but as there is only one abortion clinic in the whole state, it’s kind of moot. Other states like Virginia (where I live) keep tightening the screws for abortion providers, most recently by requiring facilities to have hospital-wide corridors.

The intent is not hard to discern: to make abortion as difficult to get as possible until effectively it’s impossible to get because it has been regulated away. Curiously many of these states claim to be all about freedom, such as the freedom to bring a loaded gun into a teen recreation center (yes, it’s legal here in Virginia). Apparently freedom of choice is not for pregnant women. Apparently the moment a woman gets pregnant they become value impaired.

An abortion supposedly destroys a life, but what “life” means to the pro-life crowd is peculiar. In the case of a fertilized egg that is not yet implanted into the uterus, it is arguably not alive as it does not move or grow. As the blastocyst matures into a fetus though clearly something (or someone as pro-lifers would say) is alive. A tiny fertilized egg is hard to see even in a petri dish but this is a life? Then the mole on my neck must be a life too. However apparently my mole can be surgically removed with impunity – no state counseling is required, even though, like the zygote, it can’t think but it does have something resembling a circulation system. In reality, there is no magic moment when a fetus becomes a person. At eight months it’s ridiculous to claim it is not. At eight days it is laughable to claim it is. The Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision was imperfect, but reasonable. I have yet to hear of a fetus expelled during the first trimester surviving through prenatal care.

I am hardly the first to remark (as many others have) that carrying a child to term does not mean that the child will be loved, clothed, fed and nurtured. With a few minor exceptions, the pro-life people are wholly indifferent to the fate of the child after birth. Mostly they are indifferent to the mother during pregnancy as well. I have not heard of any state law requiring pregnant mothers to take prenatal vitamins, for example, to increase the odds of a healthy child, but they are myopic about vaginal ultrasounds and hospital-wide corridors. Go figure. After birth, most pro-lifers could not give a crap what happens to the child. They willfully don the eyeshades of ignorance, start humming happy tunes and plug their ears.

This is usually not true for those women who are forced to carry a child to term. Typically the reason they seek an abortion in the first place is because they realize they cannot fit a child into their complicated lives. While the life of the poor may seem deceptively simple, in reality it is quite complicated, a far more complex chess match than any of us moneyed people are ever likely to experience. If you have ever lived in poverty, or near poverty, you know this is true. (I know this from experience.) Try surviving on Walmart wages, particularly with a child you are supposed to raise and doing it without government money. (So many Walmart employees are on food stamps that it’s practically required in order to work there.) Try doing this with no or little support system in place as well. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of these mothers either fails or does a substandard job.

It would be nice if government picked up the slack. Sometimes it does, with food stamps and credits for childcare and the like. Yet these are usually not nearly enough for a child to thrive, and sometimes not enough to even fend off malnutrition. Nor do these measures begin to measure the psychic cost to children from living in poverty: lack of parental attention, lack of a father in the house in most cases, lack of nurturing because the mother is usually working, the shuttling from one substandard home to another, neighborhoods full of crime and poverty, and schools where education is generally substandard. It’s completely reasonable to draw these inferences just by looking at scores of children at these schools on standardized tests.

Thus it’s wholly reasonable to ask pro-lifers: If this will be the fate of these children who might not otherwise be born, why did you force these mothers to carry them to term in the first place? Maybe, just maybe, the mother had a pretty good idea of what her life would look like, and this wasn’t what she wanted for her children. Maybe it was because it is how she spent her childhood and youth. The next reasonable question is: How can you make any person carry an unwanted child to term if you won’t take care of it once they are born if the parents cannot?

Sadly, our world is overrun with children whose mothers, if they had the option, probably would not have carried them to term. Many of them would have been happy to take a morning after pill to preclude the possibility, but in much of the world a $50 Plan B pill is unaffordable, if it is even available. Every child has potential, but that doesn’t mean that they can actually realize their potential when born into poverty or dysfunctional circumstances. It is only possible with a huge societal investment in time, money and nurturing. This seems to be the freight pro-lifers won’t pay for, unless it is for your own son or daughter. What could be much crueler than bringing a child into the world who will know little but insurmountable obstacles? Why do we want children in this world whose circumstances will doom them to be just ten percent of who they could be? These children are much more likely to be flipping burgers as adults instead of doing scientific research, writing a great novel and building our bridges.

This is the real abortion: the abortion of a child’s potential by requiring them to be born into substandard circumstances. A largely indifferent and uncaring society snuffs it out after birth. These children are cut off at the kneecaps at an early age. They face a life full of endless obstacles. Scaling over just a couple of them is beyond most of us, and we expect them to scale hundreds of them. Add to this sad story the cost to the planet to bring a child into the world and we have set up a cycle where each generation leads more difficult, shorter and less endurable lives. Through being “pro-life”, we are creating hell on earth and worse, being willfully ignorant of the consequences.

It is this versus giving the mother the simple dignity of deciding whether to have a child and if she does not then making it safe and legal for her to terminate the pregnancy. It is so much cheaper and actually much kinder not to have the child until she is ready. Birth control pills are quite cheap and can prevent fertilization altogether. Even if they are not available a morning after pill is much cheaper than 18 years of trying to care for a child with inadequate resources.

Every child should be a wanted and a nurtured child. No child should be born to live a life of misery, but only into conditions that will nurture him or her as a valued member of society where they have a reasonable expectation of achieving their potential. A sustainable earth and our common humanity require nothing less.

A sudden Rush to judgment

The Thinker by Rodin

Thank goodness at least some people you would think would not bother continue to listen to Rush Limbaugh. The conservative radio host says so many outrageous things that it is hard to keep from being inured by his latest rants. At least one person in the progressive blogosphere must tune in, because otherwise his outrageous comments on Sandra Fluke, a 30-year old Georgetown University student might have gone wholly unnoticed.

Ms. Fluke, as you doubtlessly heard, was called a “slut” and a “prostitute” by Rush on his radio show last week. Once was apparently not enough for Limbaugh, who double downed his assertions the following day on his show, suggesting her every sexual encounter should be filmed for the benefit of her sponsors, the American taxpayer. Over the weekend he had a sudden change of heart, likely because his advertisers starting withdrawing their sponsorship of his show en masse. Limbaugh sort of apologized without really apologizing, and like the whiny liberal stereotype he likes to lampoon, blamed much of his behavior on liberals. At least forty of his sponsors have pulled the plug so far and more are likely to join the parade.

It’s curious that these obviously false assertions should get him in trouble when so many others have gone, if not quite unnoticed, at least unchallenged. Limbaugh coined the term “Feminazi” to describe feminists. He’s been using the term for decades but like so much other slander and filth out of his mouth, we tuned it out. You would think equating the tens of millions of peaceful but assertive American feminists with a group of fascists that were responsible for the deaths of millions of Jews, homosexuals, and other minorities might have triggered advertisers to bow out from supporting his show long ago. But almost all advertisers are glad to keep sponsoring a show to reach a target market unless it suddenly becomes politically expedient to drop them.

If only there were some tiny speck of truth in his allegations. Fluke “testified” before an unofficial panel of House Congressional Democrats, only because the six male members of the requisite House committee wouldn’t let her or any woman testify on the need to have birth control covered in employer-based health insurance contracts. Fluke wasn’t even talking about herself, but about a friend at Georgetown who needed birth control, not to sleep around, but to control PCOS. Lots of women need birth control for reasons other than to prevent pregnancy, such as for PCOS and to control periods that would be dangerously heavy or excessive. Even when women take birth control to prevent pregnancy, it doesn’t mean that the government is subsidizing birth control. The issue is whether employers should be required to offer birth control as part of their health care coverage, as is required in a majority of states already. That’s it. No government subsidies involved.

And clearly few of the 99% of women who use birth control at some point in their lives are sluts. Some have legitimate medical reasons why their periods need to be regulated. Others are happily or otherwise married women who just don’t particularly want a bun in their oven but want the freedom to have a sex life with their husband. I am not sure how you define a woman as a “slut” but I do know that since Rush cheated on his wives he was putting his dipstick into places where people like him would argue it should never be. However, Rush can avoid the “slut” label because he is a guy. Guys can’t be sluts. There’s not quite an equivalent word for a guy, because it’s okay for guys to sleep around. Granted I don’t hang around men’s locker rooms very often these days, but in my day those guys who bragged about their multiple exploits in locker rooms tended to be envied by the rest of us virgins, who would have been happy to get an opportunity to have sex with something other than our right hands. In any case, when Rush takes vacations alone in the Dominican Republic without his spouse, caught entering with illegal Viagra and is cited for the offense, this sounds like a guy who was aching to be a male slut.

Maybe it’s just me, but I hate the “slut” word. Plenty of women have high sex drives, and I’ve been fortunate to have known a few of them in the biblical sense. Having a high sex drive means you really enjoy sex, which is entirely fine and natural. Having many sex partners at the same time is probably not a wise choice if you are trying to avoid sexually transmitted diseases. It is possible to be sexually active with multiple partners and be reasonably safe at the same time. Undoubtedly some women do put out for reasons other than having a high sex drive, but the same is true with men. Whether a woman chooses to live a life of celibacy, refrains from intercourse until marriage, sleeps around before marriage or has multiple sexual partners at the same time is a choice she must live with. The same is true with men, but for some reason we don’t dwell on satyrs except possibly to envy them. It’s something about being a woman that makes being sexually active with multiple men (or women) at the same time especially morally reprehensible. Maybe its because Mary the mother of Jesus never slept around, or so we assume. Apparently Mary Magdalene did, and Jesus considered her a close friend.

Insurance companies of course are glad, even eager, to provide free contraceptives to its insured women. Entities like the Catholic Church don’t have to compromise any of their cash on principle, an accommodation that was recently granted by the Obama Administration. Fifty dollars a month in birth control pills and paying a couple of hundred dollars a year for the woman to see a gynecologist is infinitely cheaper than the costs of bringing up an unplanned child.

What really annoys the Limbaughs of the world is that many women won’t choose to live the stereotypes they would prefer they live. At the root of Limbaugh’s anger is a frustration that people like him cannot always control the intimate lives of women. They get angry when women choose to exercise their right to be free and liberated human beings. People like Limbaugh want to exert power over women, but really power over any person whose morals they object to. Democrats simply want to put freedom of choice into the individual’s hands, particularly women who otherwise could not afford $50 a month for pills and hundreds of dollars a year in doctor and lab fees to ensure their reproductive health. Let women decide whether they want to use birth control or not, since it is safe and effective. Because it is almost universally used by women, simply make it available as a health choice for them like any other treatable health condition. Because health insurance is all about maintaining personal health and by extension happiness, the same happiness our founders talked about in our constitution that we are all supposed to crave. It appears that the Limbaughs of the world very much want to take away such freedoms from anyone they don’t like while inconsistently and furtively giving themselves license to indulge.

Break out the condoms

The Thinker by Rodin

Miracles do happen in the Catholic Church, but it turns out they are much rarer than even the Catholic Church would acknowledge. I’m not talking about alleged miracles of weeping Madonna statues. I am talking about the unexpected fit of common sense by the Catholic Church this week regarding condoms. What’s next? Women priests?

Not that Pope Benedict is expressly approving use of condoms. They still prevent conception, when used as intended, so using them is still a sinful act. However, according to Pope Benedict, the use of a condom may mean that the person is on a path toward more moral behavior. I’m guessing this means using condoms is now a venial sin, instead of a mortal one.

I figure this fit of common sense from a church doggedly insistent on not using any when it contravenes previous teachings is something of a miracle. For a church that supposedly is all about the sanctity of life, it was hard to square its devotion to life with the ability to take it away by passing a sexually transmitted disease like AIDS through an unprotected sex act. Yet until this week, that was the teaching of the church: do not use any form of artificial contraception ever! It was a policy so bat shit insane that in a matter of just decades, rather than centuries, the Catholic Church actually got it.

It’s like God himself sent a thunderbolt of common sense directly into Pope Benedict’s brain, which is the miracle part. The Catholic Church, after all, is an institution organizationally aligned to tune out all common sense when it contradicts its teachings. I am sure God never swears, but if God were to swear the message to Pope Benedict would be something like this, “You stupid asshole! People are dying needless and painful deaths. They are leaving orphans to fend for themselves by the side of the road. All because you tell them I say that it is sinful to use condoms! And you claim life to be sacred? Don’t you realize this makes no sense whatsoever? Don’t you realize that you are driving away the very pro-life Catholics we are trying to keep? Change this policy and change it now!

The new policy is currently written in pencil rather than into stone, since it was not ex cathedra. At first, the ruling seemed qualified. In an interview for an upcoming book, Pope Benedict gave an example of a male prostitute using a condom, saying using it would be a “first step” toward moral behavior because it shows concern for his sexual partner. (He might also be showing concern for his life, but that’s selfish, so I imagine is not a good reason to use a condom.) Today we learn that the Vatican spokesman (well, obviously not a spokeswoman) Rev. Federico Lombardi personally asked the pope whether condom usage when having sex with a women was also okay. Two thumbs up from the holy pontiff! “This is if you’re a woman, a man, or a transsexual. We’re at the same point. The point is it’s a first step of taking responsibility, of avoiding passing a grave risk onto another,” Lombardi said.

So, just for the heck of it, use a condom tonight, and if you are a Catholic why not break out the champagne as well? Miracles don’t happen every day. Pope Benedict may not be a particularly personable pope, but when his obituary is written, this one act may be the one that is most remembered and celebrated.

Perhaps its popularity will inspire the pope toward even clearer thinking. Maybe miracles can come in clusters. For an ex-Catholic like myself, there are still many things to admire about the Catholic Church. Catholic, after all, means universal. One thing you can truly say about the Catholic Church is that age, income and race don’t seem to matter. Granted, we have not had a black pope yet, but I suspect that is just a matter of time.

I am a Unitarian Universalist and like many denominations, we suffer from the same problem: we are a lot alike. Specifically we are left-brained, predominantly white and predominantly overeducated. The Catholic Church does not have our diversity problem. White, black, Hispanic, Asian, Indian: the Church has all the colors of the rainbow. Their ranks include peasants and presidents. Moreover, it is one of the few Christian denominations left that is insistent about doing unto others, feeding and caring for the poor, as well as working on unsexy things like income equality and health care for all (albeit without abortion services).

With condoms no longer a major moral problem for the Catholic Church, perhaps it could loosen certain other ridiculous practices. Being more expansive with birth control would be nice, but is unlikely to happen. However, the church has a real problem on its hands filling its staff. Its policy of not allowing priests to marry is not only counterproductive; it also goes against most of the church’s history. In addition, of course, there is the church’s policy of allowing only male clergy. Like its now vanquished no condom policy, it is counterproductive and makes no sense. Given how many Catholic congregations no longer have priests, changing this policy may be necessary for the survival of the church in a secular age. As a practicing non-Catholic, I am hoping more miracles like this one quickly follow.

Perhaps I should thank Pope Benedict, but my feelings remain mixed. This policy should have been done away with decades ago. It resulted in many people dying needlessly, although I suspect those who rigorously follow Catholic birth control policies are relatively few. Not only was the policy deadly, it was also sinful, hurtful and generated a lot of pointless guilt. It caused adherents to choose between their faith and their common sense. While condoms will still not come with a seal of Vatican approval, at least their use in some situations is understood to be more moral than not using them at all.

It’s a miracle, all right.

Welcoming the Bush Babies

The Thinker by Rodin

News item:

A federal judge ordered the Food and Drug Administration yesterday to reconsider its 2006 decision to deny girls younger than 18 access to the morning-after pill Plan B without a prescription.

Another news item:

The 4,317,119 births, reported by federal researchers Wednesday, topped a record first set in 1957 at the height of the baby boom.

Behind the number is both good and bad news. While it shows the U.S. population is more than replacing itself, a healthy trend, the teen birth rate was up for a second year in a row.

I was born in 1957, at the height of the baby boom. It was an excellent year for cranking out babies. Apparently, 2008 was as well. One of the reasons that 1957 was an excellent year for bringing babies into the world was that birth control was largely unavailable. The FDA approved an estrogen-based pill in 1957, but for menstrual pain only. A variation of this pill was not approved for birth control until 1960. The first plastic IUD was made available in the United States in 1958, but many women found it uncomfortable to use and serious side effects like uterine bleeding were common. Condoms were available, although they were often hard to procure given that birth control was generally frowned upon and public discussion about sex was largely taboo. When men discovered how much pleasure was lost using those old-fashioned condoms, many preferred to take their chances. In effect, in 1957, contraception was largely unavailable. With plenty of fertile men and women in their prime baby-making years, the nation’s maternity wards were full.

Society today is quite different but many things are still the same. Men and women continue to have sex, and teenagers in particular feel their oats more than most. Condoms can now be readily procured with no questions asked, but it generally falls on the male to buy them and only men can use them. The contraceptive sponge turned out to be a so-so contraceptive device, better than nothing, but no guarantee for preventing pregnancy. For years it was off the market, and was only relatively recently reintroduced in 2005.

The birth control pill is still only available by prescription. Plan B is contraceptive available without a prescription that allows women concerned that they might be pregnant to change the situation, provided they take the medication within 72 hours of intercourse. However, the Bush Administration found Plan B to be deeply offensive. In its view, it was an abortion drug, should not be available to anyone, but in particular should be restricted from use by minors. It gave marching orders to the FDA to drag its feet on approving the drug, which went on for three years. Finally, the FDA approved it for adults only. Even though there was no credible evidence that it was medically unsafe for minors, it required pharmacies to place the non-prescription drug behind the pharmacy counter, and to ID purchasers who appeared to be minors.

While birth rates are up for all age ranges of women, it is disturbing that they are up for teenage girls in particular. Doubtless, some of these girls were trying to get pregnant. Some of them would have liked to have had the option to purchase Plan B discreetly off the shelf.

The Republican theory was that teens could be deterred through abstinence education. There was also doubtless the hope that these adolescents would confide in Mom or Dad before taking a major step like becoming sexually active. I doubt many of these knocked up girls were comfortable with having such conversations with Mom and Dad. I also doubt many of them knew that if they could get to a Planned Parenthood clinic they might have gotten free or reduced costs contraceptive and counseling. One thing is clear: after having sex, they could not get a Plan B from their local pharmacy. So at least some (and likely a great deal of) teenagers gave birth to little baby girls and boys that would otherwise not be here. Call them Bush Babies. The Bush Administration tacitly agreed that if it would mean compromising their principles then it was okay to bring thousands of unplanned babies into the world. In their crazy heads, this apparently was a more moral choice to have babies out of wedlock than to allow minors to procure a safe over the counter contraceptive designed specifically for these teenage encounters with adult life.

Sarah Palin’s daughter Bristol (who recently gave birth to an out of wedlock child and who is now estranged from the baby’s father) recently provided some pragmatic advice. Doubtless Republicans everywhere were stopping their ears full of cotton and singing “La la la la la” when she told Fox News that teenage abstinence was not realistic. The sadder-but-wiser Bristol Palin also suggested that teens should wait ten years before having a child.

Even if the Wasilla, Alaska Wal-Mart had Plan B on its shelf of other non-prescription drugs, there is no guarantee that Bristol would have purchased it. At least if it had been available she would have had the choice. She could be planning for college now instead of trying to figure out how to raise a baby with an absent father.

If abstinence is not realistic, the reality of teenage birth is something far more tangible. Bristol could do teenagers everywhere a favor by documenting her life as an unwed teenage mother. Meanwhile, we can only hope that with a new administration it will not be long before this counterproductive rule on Plan B is rescinded and seventeen year olds like Bristol can postpone the responsibilities of parenting until they are mentally and financially up to the task.