Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The pro-abortion "forced organ donation" analogy

I heard this on NPR today:
Forcades is a frequent commentator on Spanish TV. That's where a few years ago, she voiced her support for abortion rights — on live TV. A letter of reprimand swiftly arrived from the Vatican. And Forcades wrote back, posing a philosophical question to the Vatican in response. 
"So let's imagine you have a father and the father has a compatible kidney, and you have a child, an innocent child, who needs the kidney. Is the church ready to force the father to give the kidney, to save the child's life?" she says, recounting her reply to the Vatican. "That the right to life of the child takes precedence over the right to self-determination to his own body, of the father? And that was my question I sent to Rome in 2009." 
She received no reply back. So for now, Sister Teresa remains very much part of the church — and proud to sometimes disagree with it.
I'm happy that the Vatican has enough sense to direct its limited resources to doing its job rather than entertaining long and fruitless arguments with individuals who are past persuading. Now I just wish that NPR would do its job, and report the news instead of cheerleading its side of the culture wars.

The "forced organ donation" analogy is relatively interesting because it's one of the few pro-abortion arguments that does not try to dispute that a fetus is a human being (with all of that statement's implications). For that reason alone, it's one of the few pro-abortion arguments that actually deserves some attention for not being preposterous.

Instead, the analogy relocates the center of the disagreement: from the ontological status of the fetus, to the bodily autonomy that every individual enjoys as a natural right. The fact that it also highlights an apparent sexism is just gravy. If a man, who can never be truly pregnant, can thus never be morally required to submit his body to medical trauma for the life of an innocent, then by what logic should the same ever be required of a woman?

And childbirth is traumatic. I've witnessed one. For many women, it's at least as traumatic as an organ donation. C-sections involve no fewer slicings, tuggings, and stitchings. So I can't fault the metaphor for exaggerating the difficulty of childbearing.

These concessions notwithstanding, the forced-organ-donation analogy is as a worthless comparison. When accepted on face value, it fosters no new knowledge--in fact, it induces forgetfulness.

Side-by-side, human gestation has as much in common with an organ transplant as the whole green Earth has in common with the ill-fated Biosphere 2. Arguing that the first is the moral equivalent of the second effectively obliterates every truth about childbearing apart from some medical procedures. It is an absurd reduction born out of a good intention: trying to help men put themselves into women's shoes. But the result is a twisted, shrunken mental parody of motherhood.

Now, Sister Forcades argues for bodily autonomy. Bodily autonomy is a natural right. That means that it's everybody's right, no matter what. Governments can't grant the right; they can only respect it or violate it, but the right is always there. That's the beauty of theories of natural rights.

The problem for the pro-abortion's application of the idea is that "natural rights" presuppose a thing called "human nature," i.e., the totality of our aggregate defining attributes which we neither invented, nor can we ultimately escape (without terrible consequences). All human rights are actually descriptions of human nature: things like freedom, intellectual curiosity, the need for companionship, ingenuity, emotion, and love. And it also includes things like our corporeality, our two sexes, our biological origins, and perhaps even our mortality. Not least of items on the list are maternity, gestation, and childbearing.

My point is that any alleged similarity between an organ donation to an innocent child, and the intricate forces comprising each of our entrance into life, is so superficial as to be a bad joke.

For a mother's natural right to bodily autonomy to trump a fetus's natural right to life, the pregnancy must be thought of in ridiculous terms: as a mere medical procedure, as something which is not a part of the humanity of both the mother and the child, as something with no inherent value except as a means to an end. I (and, I believe, the Catholic faith) reject that characterization.

Now, the unfairness of the situation is not lost on me. A wise person once wrote:
There is, as I understand it, a whole movement in the conservative legal arena to say that if someone's motives aren't biased, then it doesn't matter if the outcome is. Which works out really well for the discriminatory folks of this world b/c it's of course it's nearly impossible to prove that someone has discriminatory attitudes if they're claiming otherwise... 
The liberal legal preference (again, as I understand it) is that if the outcome is discriminatory then it doesn't matter if the intent isn't. Makes it much less likely that people can get away with rationalizing away their distaste for women who have non-procreative sex or black people who vote.
I categorically regard women to be in a singular, incomparable position: morally obligated to carry pregnancies to term. No analogy to that is possible for men. Therefore, I may be accused of hiding a bigotry behind the curtain of "nature." I won't bother trying to change minds that take comfort in that position.

And yet, the only alternative seems at least as repulsive to me: to regard our biology and corporeality as something alien to ourselves, as a patriarchal lord to be overthrown so that our body-irrelevant free consciousnesses can finally be truly equal. If it's a choice between loyalty to the human organism, and loyalty to the ideals of equality, I will choose the human organism every single time.

I am not without my egalitarianism, however. Each of us breathing right now, and every single one of our forebears, male and female, straight and gay, of every race, nationality, and ethnicity, has enjoyed the benefits of a complete gestation. The same cannot be said of an organ transplant. So let's not be choosy! Full term pregnancies for everyone. It is, after all, a part of who and what we are.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Human nature

There's a theme that I return to in my mind quite often. We're all children. Infants, even. Infants wearing adult clothes, (or armor), but infants all the same.

Recently, Leo has been reinforcing this idea in me. I look at him, and I am only more persuaded that in each person's heart of hearts, the deepest felt joy will come from being held. And held not by just anybody, but by arms in which we can place total, unreserved, innocent trust.

The longer I think on this idea, the more I am convinced that our adult selves have little inherent value. The virtues of maturity, skill, charm, culture, and responsibility are all useful. But being useful isn't inherently valuable--it is only valuable to achieve an end. What end? To find a way to let our infant selves be held, or whatever approximation of that we can attain.

This perspective alters my understanding of good and evil. Most of the time, I suspect evil is an adult self which has forgotten its true purpose, and forgotten the true nature of people. When adult selves abandon seeking after the primordial infant need to be tenderly loved, they magnify the (perhaps more easily reached) adult needs into ends in themselves. Power, control, money, admiration, respect--all necessary and good, but when they take lives of their own they become monsters.

It also relieves me of some of the stresses of daily life. When I count the number of things that aren't going my way, I can see that in fact none of them impact or even threaten my ability to be held and loved, and so ultimately they are only so much wind. I like to believe that the theory leads me to treat other human beings better, too.

One thing that this theory lacks is an account of being on the giving end of that tender holding, rather than the receiving end. To hold and love a baby requires a lot of adult skills--maturity, patience, etc. But it cannot be reduced to one of those adulthoods. Caring for a child is not just one adult activity. In a way, it is the adult activity. It is that for which all of those other adult skills are intended. It is the condition for possibility for each new person's first taste of that tenderness that they will always, on some level, seek.

But what some forget, I think, is that the giver of that love does not thereby cease to need it themselves. The happiest anyone can be made is to be allowed to lay down their adult armor, and be a sleeping infant in strong, caring, tireless arms.

EDIT: And yes, I know it's a cliche to talk about our "inner child". Don't care.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Vaccines: A Tale of Two Articles

I argue with people online about a number of things. There is one debate that I haven't much gotten into, and that's vaccines. Being a public radio addict and a news junkie, I come down on the side of vaccination. Ultimately, the risks of side effects of vaccinations are outweighed by the damage caused by mass anti-vaccination panics stirred up without sufficient evidence.

But two articles posted by Facebook friends of mine deserve some attention and some dissection:
These articles oppose each other but they share some features in common. Both are unabashedly partisan. Both characterize the opposition of being at least partially sponsored by selfish, moneyed, crypto-criminal elements of economy and market forces, preying upon gullible and helpless Americans. Both are reasonably well-sourced, with links to abstracts and citations; and both make quick conclusions about the import of those citations.

Let's start with the McGovern article.

McGovern is writing for a conservative Christian publication, and as a side effect, frequently appeals to conservatives' sense of being embattled and unfairly judged by the rest. Christians are on a "suspect list" because of shrill accusations by the "mainstream media" and a medical establishment of "worn-thin" credibility.

After a summary of medical articles, in a paragraph subheaded "Blind faith," McGovern's essay ends on a conspiratorial note, citing two anecdotes of pharmaceutical company corruption, although neither of these cases were directly relevant to the vaccine question. She implies that if one cannot trust Big Pharma regarding some matters, they cannot be trusted in others. No dispute from me, but of itself that has no bearing on the vaccine connection. On contentious matters, nobody with vested interests should be taken on blind faith. Who ever argued the contrary? It is needlessly rhetorical to accuse your opponents of succumbing to "blind faith".

What about McGovern's sources?  I am not an expert in peer review, so I am going to assume for now that they are trustworthy. Here are the ones she hyperlinks:

The upshot of the abstracts and McGovern's summaries is that aluminum is bad for you, or in the case of the Tomljenovic article ("Death after Quadrivalent") that the combination of aluminum and vaccine particles specifically is harmful. However, I could not uncover data about dosage or aluminum quantities in any of her presented articles.

I don't need to spend as much time on Raff's article in the Huffington Post. It is not meant to be a measured, careful treatise, but rather an accusatory litany of errors (and their peer-reviewed corrections). I only want to focus on the paragraph that would seem to contradict the main thrust of McGovern's article:
They say that the aluminum in vaccines (an adjuvant, or component of the vaccine designed to enhance the body's immune response) is harmful to children. But children consume more aluminum in natural breast milk than they do in vaccines, and far higher levels of aluminum are needed to cause harm.
I preserved the links as they were. However, the third link has an error in it, and it takes the reader to the 10th citation of this 2009 article. That citation had nothing to do with aluminum. Probably, she was referring to this paragraph from the same article:
Sears' main argument for spacing out vaccines is to avoid giving infants too much aluminum at one time, writing, “When a baby gets the first big round of shots at two months, the total dose of aluminum can vary from 295 micrograms… to a whopping 1225 micrograms if the highest aluminum brands are used and a hep B vaccine is also given. … These doses are repeated at four and six months.” Extrapolating studies of patients undergoing hemodialysis and severely premature infants to healthy newborns, Sears claims that these quantities might be unsafe. However, Sears fails to put aluminum exposure in context. By 6 months of age, infants typically ingest ∼6700 μg of aluminum in breast milk, 37800 μg in infant formula, or 116600 μg in soy-based formula. Furthermore, Sears fails to describe scientific studies that led the National Vaccine Program Office to conclude that the amount of aluminum contained in vaccines did not warrant changing the vaccine schedule.
These authors cite a 2003 article, "Addressing Parents’ Concerns: Do Vaccines Contain Harmful Preservatives, Adjuvants, Additives, or Residuals?"  which has an extensive section about aluminum adjuvants, including the quantities used.

The overall conclusion here is that aluminum in itself is not harmful to humans up to a level far exceeding what vaccinations contain. The comparisons to human breast milk are instructive.

Is it possible that the risks indicated by McGovern's article, and the phenomenon of ASIA, are distinct from those addressed by Raff? Raff's sources seem to show conclusively that aluminum is not dangerous below certain quantities. But one might argue that that is not McGovern's point. The research she cites is not so much about the harm caused by aluminum directly, but rather the potential harm caused when aluminum, combined with the vaccine, triggers an autoimmune overreaction.

Assessing Risks

I'm going to come to the very boring conclusion that both authors may valid points, and the risks warned-of by McGovern should not be ignored. But neither should they be coupled with fear-mongering and the language of the culture war.

The reason I don't argue about vaccines is because this topic seems an odd field for a "culture war" battle. What stake do conservatives or Christians have in defeating vaccines? What's the point? Where is the victory? I am not saying we should have "blind faith" in pharmaceutical companies... but neither should we use every scrap of peer-reviewed journals that suggests possible medical risks as proof that vaccines are autism pills. (Note: this is hyperbole. I do not think McGovern believes this).

All in all, the issue of vaccines should be much less controversial than it is. Are there risks? Let's find them out. Are they statistically significant enough to outweigh the benefits of stopping many deadly diseases in their tracks? Show me the numbers. If ASIA poses a real causal link between adjuvants and neurological damage, then it should be investigated--but carefully, dispassionately, and without suspicion.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

About About Time

Just watched "About Time" with Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams. Highly recommended!
The film's messages are really quite mixed. But it's worth pointing out: all of the biggest problems that Tim solves with his time travel powers were, one way or another, created *by* his time travel powers. The movie winds up with an overall moral of, "time travel is unnecessary, just live and appreciate each day exactly the way it is" (not a spoiler, by the way, it says this on the box).
Now, that is a slightly rosy outlook for me. Those words come easily to someone whose life is going swell. But try telling them to someone who is suffering tremendous loss, or pain, or loneliness, and the words will sound hollow. Now, speaking as someone whose life *is* going swell, I should point out that my present blessings rest on a foundation of past horrors. If I hadn't lost past friends, jobs, dreams, and security; if I hadn't had the years 2005-2009; if I hadn't graduated from the college of sadness, then I wouldn't have met Laura.
Would I be here, nurturing a new family, surrounded by love and meaning, if I had Tim's time-travel power? If I could white-out my terrible mistakes? Not likely. Now, all of my depressing stories have a new worth. They're sacred. Every event is sacred.
Not everyone's story will have a happy ending. We can't judge the value of each event based only on whether, by some butterfly effect, they terminated in a worldly joy. But that's where the Christian story comes in. As per Julian of Norwich, "All will be well, all will be well, and all manner of things will be well." Christian hope is the basis on which every event, the wonderful and the terrible, becomes sacred.

Monday, February 10, 2014

First post in a long time.

I haven't written in a while, and that is good news. When I don't write, it means that I am happy and occupied. When I write excessively, it means that I am anxious and probably procrastinating something important. I'm 32 now, soon to be a father, with a marriage and a teaching career still in their infancy. I feel as though I live a life of perpetually just getting started. When I remind myself that I am 32, I get a little chill, like all of my accomplishments lose credit for being so far past deadline.

That's silly, of course. No one on earth is grading me, and the only One who is doing so isn't using that rubric. The one thing that matters is whether I loved  and did so without counting costs.

I never thought I would be a family man. At late as 2009 I was still strongly considering celibate life, and I was surprised to discover how well domesticity agreed with me. I love my sweet Laura, and I love this life--it is the small, manageable arena where we can practice love and remove distractions. It is focused, distilled, simple and comforting. To a large extent it's everything I hoped the monastery would be, and in hindsight, far better for me. One of my worst aches through seminary was to be known, understood, and loved without having to hide flaws. I longed for the euphoria that came after a few nights of retreat, where talented guides lead you into that teary feeling of welcome, acceptance, forgiveness, brotherhood, and hope. I wonder if my friend Fr. Thomas feels the same satisfaction at St. Meinrad as I do married in Illinois.

Of course, vocation isn't exclusively about satisfying deep emotional needs (or even primarily that). But it does not need to be less than that, either. Hard lesson I learned.

Looking at my new life, with Laura my love, and home, baby, and career, it's tempting for me to ask questions like "What direction am I going?" or "What will be my legacy?" But I'm not sure that's right. It's not appreciative enough of the now. And, now, there are people to love, there is a family to serve, and a home to build.