Political Protest in the Deep South: Sorry, I forgot my Bible.

Being politically active in the Bible Belt is a whole different basket of fishes and loaves. Political rallies are often led by preachers, and even if they are not, they open and often close with a prayer.  I personally am not one of those atheists that are offended by every display of faith, but I will admit to feeling a bit excluded.  I show up to support fully funding public education, and everyone assumes I’m a Christian. Well in this town, I show up to buy shoes, and everyone assumes I am a Christian, so I should not take it personally. But what really bothers me is the framing of every issue against the backdrop of guessing what it is God really wants.  Progressives and conservative alike claim the support of the same God.  I’m not sure where that leaves me.   All I can say is that if one group of people claim the Bible says that homosexuals should be treated like their straight peers and another group of people claim the Bible says homosexuals should be shamed, persecuted, and beaten, maybe the difference of opinion is not about the Bible.  Let’s quit pretending Christianity is a unifying belief system. It’s a crutch at best; at worst it is no more than a pathetic excuse for the need to hold onto white male heteronormative cisgender power. Or a ploy to push forward the gay agenda.  Take your pick.

I stand with my Mothers for Choice sign, listening  to public prayers that include not just the usual praise and requests for blessings, but pleas that the opposing side will see the light, that their hearts will be softened, that they will come to understand that they are not doing God’s will.  As I recall, this did not work on the Pharaoh any better than it does on Mississippi legislators.

So the problem is not that some people are greedy, or conservative, or misogynistic, or Republican.  The problem is that some people are not interpreting the Bible correctly.  They are bad Christians.  No. That’s not right.  That’s not what Christian Progressives call them.  They call them “not true Christians.”  It would be interesting to find out if the political right uses this same terminology when describing the left.  It wouldn’t surprise me.

Since you cannot get elected if you do not call yourself Christian in Mississippi (you can’t even legally hold office if you are an atheist), it’s pretty clear that all of our State leaders are Christians at least in name.  It even tells you which church they belong to in the official directory. Did they simply exercise free will and choose the wrong denomination? Are they lying?  Influenced by the devil?  Motivation matters here.  If Republicans are all wearing invisible demon horns, that’s a whole different fight than if they just need an education about the science of Climate Change.

What do people mean when they say that those with differing political opinions are “not true Christians?” If you are a false Christian does that not imply some intent? As if you have studied the teachings of Jesus and chosen to reject them while still professing to be a person of the faith? Have you made a Faustian deal with the Devil for political power while pledging your soul to the dark side?

That’s a pretty serious accusation, and it leaves very little room for further political negotiation.  How can we reach common ground once I have accused you of purposefully denying your own faith?    I was not prepared to fight Satan himself when I took to the steps of the Capitol on the issue of transgender rights.  I have aligned myself with a movement which creates an impasse by framing political differences as no less than a war between good and evil.  I just want to make sure everyone can pee where they want.


How the Pro-Life Movement Lost its Soul

Whatever your religious or philosophical background, most of us fall for the idea that humans are special somehow, that we are more than the sum of our biological components.  Ok, you biologists out there may not agree, but the idea of the soul, whatever you may call it is an idea I sympathize with, if not fully embrace (I’ve studied a lot of biology).

Yet I do appreciate the sentiment, even so far as it reaches the unborn.  Maybe that spark, whatever it is, happens at the moment of conception.  Maybe that life is sacred, unique, suddenly, irreversibly human.  If the pro-life movement wants to argue that united gametes are life, it’s hard to argue.  We think in binary, after all, and if it’s not life, it’s certainly not death.  If there is a third category, defining it proves to be elusive. What if the spark comes first and the flesh just grows around it?

If the human soul is intangible, science is ill-equipped to disprove its existence.  That’s why it’s beautiful for us all to believe different things about the origins of humanness.  Problems occur, of course, when politics get involved.  Don’t they always?  I think the political movement claiming ultimate authority as to when life begins has taken on a life of its own.  And it all starts to fall apart when the movement fails to protect the very core of its belief system.  It fails to protect the soul.

When Donald Trump claimed last week that he thought women who had abortions, were they illegal, should be punished.  As distasteful as this idea may be, it’s not exactly illogical.  As a society, we generally accept that people should be punished for committing crimes.  But the pro-life movement responded immediately to disavow both the candidate and his statement.  He back pedaled, as politicians who speak before they think (or learn anything about the abortion debate) are wont to do, but not before being schooled on what the pro-life movement really stands for.

NPR’s Steve Inskeep interviewed Marjorie Dannenfelser of the pro-life group, the Susan B. Anthony list, about this very issue, and she made her feelings on punishing women for abortions quite clear.  “The pro-life movement has never, for a very good reason, promoted the idea that we punish women, she told Inskeep. “In fact, we believe that women are being punished before the abortion ever occurs. In other words, the early feminists believed this was the ultimate exploitation of women.”  Abortion, in other words, is punishment enough.

I hardly see this argument as pro-woman.  It implies that a woman is simply incapable of making the decision to terminate no matter how much she has thought through her options.  Apparently, Ms. Dannenfelser thinks all women should be treated like underage children, legally incapable of consenting to what happens to their own bodies.  Women should not even be respected enough to be held responsible for committing a crime.

But not only that, what about that spark we talked about?  That unique human soul that is created at conception.  The life that is so valuable that it is to be protected, even at the expense of the well-being or even the will of the mother.  If it is a human life equal to all others, how can we excuse women for being too stupid to know any better?  If a woman is convicted of killing her post-utero child, we expect her to go to jail.  So giving women a pass on abortion just illustrates that the spark, however special it may be, is not valued the same way as a human life.

I also take issue with those who try to offer compromises in terms of “exceptions.”  Many pro-lifers, trying to soften the image of absolutists, claim if a mother is raped or a victim of incest, then abortion should be allowed.  In other words, if a man was responsible for the pregnancy, then it’s ok to terminate it.  It’s only when a woman has consented to sex that an embryo is suddenly an irreplaceable human life.  Abortion is murder or it isn’t. And the pro-life movement just proved to me that it’s not.

I’m calling you out.  Your political stance is not about compassion.  It’s not about protecting babies, and it’s certainly not about protecting women.  It’s about control. And don’t bother to hide behind your religion.  Or at least not the part where it defines life as occurring at conception.  Where is that part exactly? I lost my bookmark.  Now, if you mean the part where women should be property used only for the purpose of begetting progeny, then carry on.

To those of you who do believe abortion is murder period, that egg and sperm, once united, are so special that no one has the right to end that spark of a holy zygote:  well maybe you and I can find some common ground.  Maybe we can work together to end the stigma of single motherhood, to provide evidence based sex-education for all our kids, to give every baby that is born love and a home.  If you are not willing to do that, then calling yourself pro-life is just a smokescreen for shaming and controlling women for making choices about their bodies



White Baby Lust and Surrogacy Gone Wrong

I was 26 the first time I got pregnant.  I am glad to report that this kid is now a National Merit Finalist despite the fact that I threw back a few before I found out he was on his way.  I had not been trying.  In fact, I was using a diaphragm.  Here the word “using” actually means “I owned one.”  So infertility is not something I have ever faced personally, but even at 26 it was something I feared.

The possibility that I could not have children of my own lurked in the back of my mind although I had no medical conditions that might have predicted any such problems.  Watching friends go through infertility is especially heartbreaking as I am fully aware it could have been me.  The thought of any  child in the world growing up without a family is also heart breaking.  You’d think it would be simple to match these groups of people together, but the adoption process is far from easy.  If you are single, for example, or a gay couple, there are places where it is almost impossible.

Instead of focusing on the intricacies of adoption, however, we as a society have chosen to turn to technology to produce biological children that carry familial DNA  in cases where the back seat of a car (or the front seat if it’s a Buick) just isn’t going to cut it.  I am not going to chastise people who choose this option over adoption because I honestly don’t know how I would have felt about it if I were faced with the choices given to them by the asshole God of Infertility.  I think it is only after I became a mother and had my own biological children that I came to understand I love them because they are my children, not because my DNA is in them, but in spite of that.  I love them for all the crazy things they do and for the things they are good at and for the things they are not so good at and because they are kind and when they are not as kind as I’d like them to be.  Sure it’s cute that my younger one has my dimples, but it’s not why I love him. I love them for who they are, and they are not me.  They are not even half me.  They are 100% them.  It is only because I understand this now that I know that I could love a child that is not related to me.  I don’t think I knew this in my 20’s.  And I’m not proud of it.

I know some happy families that have come together through IVF.  The United States was once so threatened by this technology that the research was banned.  Now it’s a multi-million-dollar industry.  Despite the regular destruction of embryos, the pro-lifers generally leave you alone if you are producing pretty white middle class babies.   I think those of us who insist we want a baby who looks like us have to face the grim reality of the racism implied in this desire.  It’s also white baby lust that is largely driving the surrogacy industry, and I think that’s enough to  make me uncomfortable.

I’m having some trouble wrapping my brain around surrogacy.  I heard this great podcast on NPR recently about a gay Israeli couple who purchased eggs from the Ukraine (this is where you get cheap white eggs) that were then fertilized by their sperm and implanted into Indian women who due to legal stuff had to live in Pakistan for the duration of their pregnancies.  These men were not able to legally adopt or hire a surrogate in their own country due to their sexuality. This story is more successful than most because it resulted in three babies.  Three!  One surrogate delivered twins and the other a singleton. But despite the great deal of money the men spent on this process, they were distraught to find out later that the women who were paid by the agency did not receive as much cold hard cash as they had been led to believe.  It was still a good bit of money to these women, however.  Life-changing money.  Enough to raise the standard of living of the children they already had.

I think a woman should have the right to provide a greatly needed service for a price. But it’s tricky.  There should probably be lawyers involved.  Better lawyers than this Californian woman had.  She is 47 years old and is pregnant with triplets.  Three! And she is convinced the man whose sperm was used to fertilize Ukrainian (cheap white) eggs and then rent her womb is a completely unfit father.

If the fact that this single man who lives in his parents’ basement ordered himself a white male (the embryos were selected for sex before implantation) baby does not give you pause, perhaps the fact that he is having trouble coughing up the money needed to cover a high-risk-woman-over-forty-having-triplets-what-could-go-wrong type pregnancy probably should.  If that’s not bad enough, since he never ordered THREE babies, he asked the surrogate to selectively abort one.  It turns out this woman already has triplets of her own, so the fact that this might happen again when she was implanted with THREE! embryos even though many doctors refuse to implant more than one at a time might have occurred to her.  It did not occur to the sperm donor, however, even though he assured the surrogate in an email that he would be happy to take care of as many babies as she produced, and there was a $6000 bonus in the contract for multiples.  But he didn’t mean THREE or a high-risk pregnancy or any of the other things that can unexpectedly happen when you are a parent.

It turns out that the contract also stated he had the right to request multiple fetuses were selectively reduced, but the surrogate refused, saying she was against abortion.  She even offered to keep the third baby, but the donor refused, asking her instead to put him up for adoption. All three babies will certainly be preemies and are likely to have health problems.

Now he’s threatening to sue for breach of contract, and she isn’t sure she’s willing to hand any of them over to him.  This is a man who after all, asked if she could maybe not visit the doctor so often as it was costing him too much money.  Meanwhile, she has developed gestational diabetes and can no longer work.   The babies are yet to be born, a selective reduction is no longer possible (the surrogate has passed the time period at which abortion is legal), and the lawyers are hashing it out.

This mess may have been avoidable if the surrogate had understood her contract and the medical risks involved, if a doctor had thought through implanting 3 embryos into a woman who was already at high risk for complications due to her age, if the sperm donor had been screened more thoroughly (he was subjected only to a criminal background check), if it had been more important to him to give a child a home than to create a clone….

Maybe our legal system just needs to catch up to the technology that creates on-demand babies.  Or maybe we as a global community just need to love the children we have.  Even the ones that don’t look Ukrainian.

Will a Mosquito Change the Abortion Debate Forever?

Part of my day job is keeping track of outbreaks of infectious diseases, and I have to tell you I am losing sleep over the emergence of the Zika virus.  Zika is a mild illness related to Dengue Fever which is caused by the bite on an infected mosquito.  80% of people who contract the disease are asymptomatic, and those that do have symptoms recover quickly.  Cases reported in the United States were thought to have been contracted in South America, and it is not expected to become a serious problem here.

In Brazil, however, Zika is thought to be causing serious birth defects.  Women who contract Zika during the first trimester of pregnancy are thought to have an increased risk of giving birth to baby with microencephaly, characterized by a smaller than normal head, moderate to severe brain damage, and even death.  Nearly 4000 cases of this condition have been reported in Brazil since October in a country that saw only 150 cases in all of 2014.

Management of this crisis must take multiple forms.  Vaccine research is already underway and increased mosquito control programs are also in the works. Meanwhile, Brazil (along with Colombia) has advised that women simply do not get pregnant.

In this heavily Catholic country, access to birth control has increased a great deal over the last decade.  Just this past May, the government announced that oral contraceptives would be available at reduced cost without a prescription in both private and government run pharmacies.

How available these pills are to the poorest of Brazil’s women who are more likely to be exposed to the elements including infected mosquitos is unclear.  What we do know is that some Brazilian women will become pregnant over the next few years, and some of them will have been infected with Zika.

Abortion in Brazil is legal only in the case of rape or to save the life of the mother or if the fetus has a rare birth defect called anencephaly.  Like microcephaly, anencephaly affects brain growth, but is considered incompatible with life.  Even with these exceptions, information about legal abortions is hard to come by, and finding a provider is even more difficult. Only about 3000 legal abortions are performed annually.

Nonetheless, abortion is actually more common in Brazil than in the United States with more than 1 million performed per year.  That’s a lot of illegal abortions.  Despite the growing black market for safer pharmaceutical abortificants, back alley abortions remain dangerous.  It is estimated that a Brazilian woman dies from an illegal abortion every 4 days.

Whether or not you believe that abortion in the case of severe birth defect is a moral choice, rest assured, it’s already happening.  We can expect the maternal death rate from abortions to go up from here.  The question is just how bad will it be? Letting women bleed to death who feel unable to care for a severely handicapped child is not a solution.

If the Brazilian government is serious about preventing a generation of brain damaged children and an increase in illegal abortions, cheap pills are not good enough. Long term forms of birth control such as implants and injections must be offered to all women, especially those with little access to even basic medical care.

As these children continue to be born and need care, taxing the current medical and social services systems, will attitudes towards abortion change? In the United States, many medical personnel who were on the fence about abortion in the 1970’s became more sympathetic after witnessing birth defects in children born to mothers who had contacted  Rubella, which like Zika caused severe and often fatal birth defects.  Abortion suddenly became a compassionate choice.

It will take several years to fully realize the effects of Zika on the women of Brazil, their children, and the choices they must face.  I have no idea what I would do if I found myself pregnant under the threat of Zika.  I only know I would want to have choices.  The women of Brazil as well as the other 20 affected countries deserve choices too.