Contraception, Encouragement, and Affirmation

Last week, Matthew Lee Anderson published an article through Christianity Today arguing that Churches Shouldn’t Push Contraceptives to Their Singles. I thought the post was thoughtful and interesting, and shared it with a few friends. It helped start a couple of helpful conversations, so there was merit at least in that outcome, if not the article itself. Continue reading Contraception, Encouragement, and Affirmation

Convenience and Reducing a Pregnancy

I stand resolute on my position on abortion: I do not believe abortion is a viable option. The sanctity of the life of the child is tantamount to making any health-related decision. There may be extreme cases where there is a certainty that a pregnancy will lead to the death of both the child and the mother (though I express my reservations about the possibility of ‘certainty’ in this situation). But the primary push ought to be for life itself. Continue reading Convenience and Reducing a Pregnancy

What’s in a Name?

Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban announced the birth of their second child, Faith Margaret, last week thanking everyone for their support, especially Faith’s “gestational carrier.” While Nicole and Keith were simply using the vernacular of the fertility industry, referring to their child’s birth mother as a “gestational carrier” betrays an underlying cultural attitude fostered by technological developments in this field.

With advances in the field of assisted reproductive technologies [ART], a surrogate mother can carry a baby conceived with her egg and a donor’s sperm. Now there are also gestational carriers: a woman who carries a couple’s fertilized embryo to term, but is not herself the baby’s genetic mother.

Ethics within the field of ART are, admittedly, complex, but the shift from surrogate mothers to gestational carriers, while subtle, is significant. In the past, the words “birth mother” or “surrogate mother” and “adoptive mother” have been used to describe the situation in which a baby born biologically to one mother was given to another family. But as technology evolves, so does its vocabulary.

Regardless of the technical intent behind “gestational carrier,” the term is, at its root, dehumanizing. The phrase reduces a woman to a function, instead of a person in a relationship. No longer does her title represent who she is— a woman, a mother bearing a child in her body— she is her function, a gestational carrier.

Thanks in part to technology, our society makes distinctions between function and identity. Men can be “sperm donors” without being known as the father of the baby. We have children who are biologically one man’s, but socially another’s. This calls into question the very nature of relationships. Not all fathers always act like fathers, and children may look up to another man as a “father figure,” but for most of human history, fatherhood was tied to biology, except in cases of adoption. This is no longer the case.  Technology is changing what it means to be a parent: the creation and raising of a child can involve a sperm donor, an egg donor, a gestational carrier, or surrogate mother, and the couple that the child eventually lives with and calls Mommy and Daddy. And this technology defines people by what they do, instead of who they are.  While calling someone a mother certainly does not describe the totality of who that woman is, at least the title of “mother” is defining her relationally, humanizing her, for the ability to have relationships is uniquely human.

Jennifer Lahl, founder and president of The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network, notes that the use of ART is turning baby-making into a consumerist activity. Pregnancy has been reduced to a “bits and pieces” brokered industry: sperm from a handsome Scandinavian stud, eggs from a beautiful Ivy League graduate, a womb-for-rent from a poor woman in India trying to provide food and education for her children, and brokers in the middle setting up the legal transactions to build a better baby the 21st-century way.” Individuals are applying their bodies to bringing new life into the world through a segmented, fractured process,turning children into things to be designed and purchased. The Scandinavian man and the Ivy League woman are now means to an end. Lahl argues that children are not products to be made, but with the rise of medical tourism, that is what they are becoming.

Technology brings with it as many questions as answers. In the process of advancing our physical capabilities, it (in this case) blurs the bright line of relationships. I will not make a moral judgment on all blurry lines; not all things unclear must be rejected as wrong. But how we speak about things matters for words frame how we see the world. In this case, it is important to remember that people are fundamentally ends, not means thereto. Before helping ourselves to the vast array of opportunities technology offers, it is imperative that we ask hard questions and consider the ethical implications of each. When people are defined by their functions and not their relationships, are we seeing an age in which technology helps the body while harming the soul?

A Sack of Spin

.
A recent article by Kevin Sack concerns pre-abortion ultrasounds, and whether they might or might-not affect a woman’s decision. But he wrote another article simultaneously–one about how only cold, cruel extremists insist that clinics provide ultrasounds.

Impressive. Sack’s article is composed of subtle, well-crafted infusion of bias, all neatly packaged into what I would think appears to most people as a typical, passably-objective piece of journalism.

But take a closer look at the article. Sack uses rhetorical devices to maintain a dual agenda throughout his article—one on a literal, journalistic level, and another on a persuasive, op-ed level. A careful read can reveal the devices Sack employs. After all, it’s one thing for someone to be a bad writer; but it’s a whole other, and more dangerous thing to be a bad reader.

1. Euphemism, or ‘Positive Expression’, and Dysphemisms, or ‘Sneaky Smack’

A euphemism isn’t always bad. I’m glad we say, ‘I’m going to use the restroom’ instead of a more graphic description of that room’s goings-on. All the same, in an article like Mr. Sack’s, euphemisms are used as a powerful form of rhetorical manipulation.

Here are a few examples:

‘abortion method’? Nope: “method of extraction
‘Young (or small) fetus’? Uh, no: “bean-size fetus”
‘Abortion Supporters’?  Nah: “Abortion rights advocates”

These are some fairly obvious examples of how words can be crafted with that ‘dual agenda’ I mentioned earlier. On a factual level, both ways of speaking—the ‘moderate’ and ‘euphemized’—convey the same information. But the euphemisms motivate substantially different responses by softening and/or abstracting language.

Dysphemisms are the opposite of euphemisms, and Sack’s article is loaded with these as well. Dysphemisms employ words to make something sound a lot worse than it is.

For example, Sack does not say that anti-abortion supporters hope sonograms will convince women to ‘carry their babies to term’ or ‘not have an abortion’. Instead, they are trying to get them to “preserve pregnancies.” As if abortion were so natural that a woman must make extra effort to ‘preserve’ her pregnancy…?

Some dysphemisms verge on also being ad hominem. Sack calls ultrasound advocates ‘anti-abortion strategists’. ‘Strategists’—brilliant choice. Consider the dictionary definition: “a person skilled in planning action or policy, esp. in war or politics.” With a single word, Sack throws the anti-abortion side into freezing cold category connotations of war and politics, perhaps the two worst human inventions in all history.

My favorite dysphemism, though, was when Sack was still talking about the woman ‘Laura’, and why she did not want to look at the ultrasound images. The image, Sack writes, “would only unleash…hormonal emotions.”  Oh, Mr. Sack, don’t you mean they would ‘activate maternal instinct’?

Another tip: also look for overarching euphemisms/dysphemisms. Sack maintains a subtle consistency in his references to pro-abortion and anti-abortion supporters. Pro-abortion supporters are ‘who’s’: they are personified groups or individuals. Anti-abortion, on the other hand, is referenced as ‘groups, which’ or the aforementioned ‘strategists’.

Be aware of euphemisms and dysphemisms. Receiving information is good, but don’t fall for the word play.

2. Ambiguity, That-Sometimes-Interesting-Thing

Take a look at the following sentence:

Because human features may barely be detectable during much of the first trimester, when 9 of 10 abortions are performed, some women find viewing the images reassuring.
Sack impresses me. That’s a golden amorphous sentence—I bet that nearly all readers finish it thinking, ‘Oh, first-trimester fetuses are just blobs and seeing them has no effect on women.’ And yet, Mr. Sack doesn’t make that claim–at least, not concretely. Instead, his statements are couched by terms like ‘may barely’ or ‘some’.

Ambiguity is not only is what is written, but largely also in what is not written. For example, Mr. Sack never directly comments on what type or quality of ultrasounds women are given in abortion clinics.

His article only contains two vague indications: the first occurs in the opening paragraph, which portrays a woman named Laura, about to have an abortion, staring “away from the grainy image on the screen.” Okay, so we know they are ‘grainy’. The second comes from a post-abortive woman named Tiesha, who Mr. Sack quotes as saying, “It [the 8-week old fetus] just looked like a little egg, and I couldn’t see arms or legs or a face.”

No wonder Mr. Sack chose to be ambiguous in the ‘human features’ sentence. Look up high-quality, 4-D ultrasound images 8-week old fetuses. I highly doubt Tiesha saw what you see in those images—a fetal image from the best ultrasound technology wouldn’t be confused with a ‘little egg’.

3. Emotional Appeal, aka ‘Feel Good—Agree with Me’

‘Appeal to emotion’ is a powerful tool, but it also happens to be a logical fallacy. The fallacy runs something like this: A is associated with B. B is associated with positive (or negative) emotions. Therefore, A is a good (or bad) thing.

Take Sack’s following sentence: “But a number of women at the Birmingham clinic, which was the site of a fatal bombing in 1998, said they simply did not want to subject themselves to images that might haunt them.” The bombing of the Birmingham clinic has nothing to do with the ultrasound discussion. However, all sorts of negative emotions towards anti-abortion supporters are wrapped up in any mention of anti-abortion violence. Likely, those emotional connotations will transfer onto the also anti-abortion, ultrasound advocates, even though the two aren’t actually  connected at all.

Sack also embeds a lot of emotional quotations into his article, particularly at the beginning and end. The article closes with an interviewee concluding that ultrasounds are “emotional torture.”

This recalls an earlier statement, made by the National Abortion Federation’s president. Laws, she says, that require ultrasound images be available to women who choose to view them “don’t respect women’s ability to make informed choices.”

Funny, that. I never knew that providing information was disrespecting someone’s ability to use information. Thank you for enlightening me, Ms. Saporta!

4. Appeal to Authority, Their Word is my Communiqué

A writer need resources and authorities when he/she writes an article, particularly a news article. But choosing those authorities has a huge impact on the spin of the piece. Are they objective? Are they knowledgeable? Do cited statistics come from credible sources?

Sack uses at least two authorities that seems to be fallacious: first, people who are either unknowledgeable or highly biased, and secondly, questionable statistics.

Let’s look at Sack’ interviewee list:
Laura: 36-year old post-abortive woman
Tiesha: 27-year-old post-abortive woman
Carmen: 28-year-old post-abortive woman
Diane Derzis: abortion clinic owner
Vicki Saporta: president of the National Abortion Federation
Linda Meek: director of Reproductive Services abortion clinic in Tulsa
Carrie Earll: spokeswoman from Focus on the Family
.
For an article concerning abortion law and the boundaries of informed medical consent, Sack’s article has a startling lack of interviews with lawmakers or non-abortionist physicians. Also, the only voice on the pro-life side comes from Focus on the Family—undeniably, an organization with a pre-existing reputation among secular media, no matter or just or unjust that reputation may be.

Six of Sack’s seven interviews were with already pro-abortion advocates—once a reader notices that, the slant of the article begins to be recognizable. Another way to  reveal bias is to look at the source and type of cited statistics.

Sack writes:

In one of the few studies of the issue — there have been none in the United States — two abortion clinics in British Columbia found that 73 percent of patients wanted to see an image if offered the chance. Eighty-four percent of the 254 women who viewed sonograms said it did not make the experience more difficult, and none reversed her decision.
I was unable to find the source of this ‘study’. Where is Sack getting this information? And since when are two Canadian abortion clinics an adequate sample size or representation of all American abortion clinics?

Later in the article, Sack takes the report of an abortion clinic owner as an authority concerning ultrasound’s effectiveness or lack thereof. Again, Sack cites illegitimate statistical authority and inadequate sample size/representation.

Conclusion: Read Defensively

I know that here at Evangelical Outpost we often talk about ‘reading charitably’. And that’s true and good. All the same, reading a modern news piece on sensitive topics like abortion, health care, euthanasia, religion and other similar topics calls for a different method of reading than does reading other types of literature. Sack’s article could compel a blithe reader into, at best, opinion with strength unwarranted by the evidence and, at worst, pure uninformed belief. Read well, read defensively and seek out truth–it remains unmovable beneath any spin.

Instructions for Living Gently in a Violent World

Books that promise to radically change the way I see the world make me skeptical. Living Gently in a Violent World was no different, except insofar as that it actually did.

Living Gently is a release by InterVarsity Press in their ongoing series “Resources for Reconciliation,” which addresses an areas of life in need for reconciliation between theologians and practitioners on the one hand, and the Christian and ‘secular’ worlds on the other. In order to begin this process, each book is authored by an academic and a ‘field’ voice. In the case of Living Gently, the authors are Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, and Stanley Hauerwas, professor of theology at Duke Divinity School. Living Gently focuses on the way society, especially Western society, views and treats weakness, particularly the weakness within the disabled community. Vanier and Hauerwas use the L’Arche community—a network of homes in which people both with and without disabilities live together—as an example of their theology in action.

Their basic premise is this: every human person, disabled or not, carries a deep wound of loneliness. Vanier and Hauerwas say the binding for that wound can be found in healthy community, but that we cannot form those communities in our society until we learn how to see pain, disability, and weakness in a drastically new way.

For Hauerwas and Vanier, how we interact with the disabled, including the hierarchy that places them at the bottom of social pyramids, is connected to people’s varying capacity to hide their loneliness and insecurity. Those who cannot hide dependency well are considered ‘lesser’ than those who can. These pyramids result in a ‘compassion’ for the ‘lessers’ that ultimately kills them, e.g. the growing practice of aborting fetuses that test positive for Down syndrome. This occurs because hierarchy turns caring into curing, and the incurable makes us uncomfortable. Our ‘solution’ is to eradicate the source of that discomfort rather than question our social premises. Our compassion has manifested itself as a war: a silent, slippery imposition of a vision of ‘peace and prosperity’ where everyone is autonomous and whole. Pax America, anyone?

As Vanier puts it, Christian community is called to make a body out of the pyramids, and an ecumenical one at that. We are to love the disabled neither because they affirm our own ideology, nor because we will gain something by it, nor because it is ‘unjust’ that they are disabled and we can make it ‘right’. Rather, we love them because of their humanity: we see clearly in them the wound that disables us all.

Vanier and Hauerwas suggest that all people are essentially like Adam and Eve in the Garden, who knew their nakedness, were ashamed, and hid. We too know the vulnerability of our loneliness and build concealing walls of power, possessions, or feigned stability. People with disabilities are usually stripped of the ability to cower behind these facades. Thus, they become “privileged witnesses” of our fundamental cry to be loved and accepted by a physical, living community.

Vanier and Hauerwas’ book is appropriately challenging:  Can we learn to ask a person with disabilities to bear their cross as a living sacrifice for us all? And after learning to love them with visible wounds, can we learn to see the universal wound of loneliness behind the masks that most of us hoist? Can we see beautiful, stitched-up humanity inherent in a community without hierarchy?

For Vanier, such a community is based on three things: eating together, praying together, and celebrating together.  And at the core of such a community are relationships founded on caring for, rather than curing, one another.  As Hauerwas points out, the flu can be cured while the infected ‘person’ is maintained. But we cannot cure Down’s (at least at this point in time) without destroying the person.  We are instead to care.  As Hauerwas puts it, “There is no triumphalism in gentleness.” There is foot washing instead. There is freedom to love the unpopular and ungreat. There is space to love a God who “does not promise things will always work out right” in this fractured world. There is creation of mutual respect and love.

Living Gently in a Violent World offers readers a vivid vision of this gentle and merciful way of life as a community of broken and still-becoming individuals. And it’s not stretching the truth to claim you will see the world differently by the last page. ‘

Hype and Hypocrisy:
Kinsley, IVF, and Embryo Destruction

The writings of Michael Kinsley, former editor of Slate and The New Republic, are often intelligent, insightful, and invariably, incorrect. His latest article for Slate, Science Fiction: What pro-lifers are missing in the stem-cell debate, is a prime example. Kinsley suffers from Parkinson’s and has an intimate stake in the potential cures provided by stem cell research. He admits that he is ‘

The Issue at Hand:
IVF and the Obligations to Embryos

In a recent press conference President Bush was asked a question that was intended to clarify his position on the moral status of embryos:

If I understood you correctly, the embryos put together for in vitro fertilization do contain life. And if that’s the case, do you believe that those people who create those embryos for in vitro fertilization have an obligation to ensure that they are brought to term if they are, in fact, not needed by the original —

To which the President interjected ‘