Thursday, December 23, 2010
This story from Toronto’s National Post (here) reports a rise in the use of “selective reduction” in Canada.
“Selective reduction” (an Orwellian euphemism if ever there was one) is of course a procedure in which one or more of the unborn children gestating inside his or her mother’s womb is chosen for extermination. Potassium chloride is injected through a needle into the fetal heart of the child “selected” for “reduction,” causing the child’s death in utero.
The reason for the procedure may be that the child’s sex is not to the liking of his or her parents; or because the child has some congenital disorder; or it may be to avoid the normal risks (e.g. premature birth, lower birth weight) attendant to a multiple pregnancy. (For a longer article on “selective reduction” in the Washington Post from 2007 see here).
The article from the National Post says that the procedure has “become increasingly common in the past two decades amid a boom in the number of multiple pregnancies.” The story notes in passing that the rise in multiple pregnancies (a 40% increase in multiple births over the last 20 years) is due to the now common use of various assisted reproduction techniques including IVF.
Reflecting the seismic shift in ethical norms that has taken place with the legalization of abortion and the seemingly unquestioned acceptance of assisted reproduction the article notes that “[t]here seems to be little ethical debate around reduction for triplets or more.” What is new, according to the story, is “a growing demand for reducing twins to one, fuelled more by socio-economic imperatives than medical need [sic], and raising vexing new ethical questions.”
For example, the anonymous woman interviewed in the story who underwent the procedure said of herself and her husband: “We’re both career people. If we were going to have three children two years apart, someone else was going to be raising our kids. . . . All of a sudden our lives as we know them and as we like to lead them, are not going to happen.”
For this woman, then, parenthood doesn’t necessarily involve acts of self-sacrifice and abnegation made in love for the sake of one’s child – a defenseless human being wholly dependent upon the care of others. Rather, children are items to be fit into a life-plan – a plan that has certain features fixed in advance that children cannot be allowed to alter, even where their creation has been deliberately and painstakingly sought by techniques designed to achieve this very end. No matter. Where convenient they are made to fit in. Where not, they are discarded as so much refuse.
Although the article doesn’t say that the couple used some kind of assisted reproduction, it does say that “[b]oth parents were in their 40s – and their first son just over a year old” when the woman became pregnant for a second time. Thus, despite the woman’s claim that the news of her carrying twins “came as a complete shock” it seems fair to read this with some skepticism. To satisfy present needs, the rewriting of history often begins before the ink is dry.
There has been resistance in some Catholic circles to the use of the phrase “culture of death,” and not without reason. The fear is that invocation of the phrase by pro-lifers will not be helpful, that it will immediately cut off the opportunity for meaningful conversation with the proponents of abortion. While such prudence may be well-advised in attempting to engage in conversation with those on the other side of the life issues, the testimony of the woman interviewed in the article leaves no question as to whether the “culture of death” is an apt description of a certain mind-set that is now comfortably at home in the West:
“I’m absolutely sure I did the right thing,” she said. “I had read some online forums, people were speaking of grieving, feeling a sense of loss. I didn’t feel any of that. Not that I’m a cruel, bitter person . . . I just didn’t feel I would be able to care for (twins) in a way that I wanted to.”
The absence of any remorse, any sense of loss at the deliberate destruction of one’s own child is what is truly chilling.
Isn’t this the transformation of sin into virtue so that the person “can feel self-justified?” (Veritatis Splendor ¶104)
Doesn’t this reflect the loss of the “sense of sin” (Reconciliato et Paenitentia ¶18) brought about by “creating and consolidating actual ‘structures of sin’ which go against life”? (Evangelium Vitae ¶ 24)
Doesn’t this manifest a profound corruption of the human conscience?
And isn’t that the social malady that John Paul II so provocatively – and accurately – labeled the “culture of death”?
The comments by readers of the story expressing their disgust at the woman’s actions and attitude show that even where this malevolent culture has taken root, the seeds of a "culture of life" still persist. It is our task to nurture this good seed, to bring about its full flowering in thought, word and deed.
Here's what seems to me a balanced article about the waning courtship of religious liberals by the Democratic party and President Obama's administration. It will be interesting to see whether efforts pick up in advance of 2012.
This is Steve Shiffrin territory, and maybe he will have some thoughts about these developments.
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Over at Slate, Kenji Yoshino continues the conversation with Robby George et al. regarding the nature of marriage. I find the exchange to be healthy and productive, not because it's reaching consensus, but because it's clearing away much of the name-calling and easy assumptions and getting down to the core of the disagreement. The core, not surprisingly, centers on the malleability of marriage. Yoshino articulates his view:
[T]hose who have propounded trans-historical, much less eternal, definitions of marriage have often been time's fools. Fifty years from now, I expect new challenges will be made to the definition of marriage. Yes, such challenges could take the form of challenges to recognize polygamous marriages (in fact, such challenges would not be new, as they were made on grounds of the free exercise of religion in the 19th century). Currently, I would distinguish polygamous marriage primarily on the intuitive ground that one can give one's full self to only one other person—that is, that the "undivided commitment" the co-authors praise can be valuable even in the absence of common procreation. But I would prefer to test such intuitions if and when such debates become live national controversies. I do not purport to know where future challenges will arise, or how those challenges might require us to reassess the purposes of marriage. I refuse to answer the question "What is marriage?" by saying "Marriage is one thing, always and everywhere, for all people." I regard that refusal as a strength, rather than as a weakness, of my position, as I do not think we stand at the end of history today.
The family and I spent the morning at the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. A small group of Spanish-speaking pilgrims were celebrating Mass in the Grotto, the site of Mary's "yes", when we arrived, and another group of eager, bubbly pilgrims from Lagos were "on deck" for the next slot. Outside the Basilica, on nearby walls, are banners with anti-Christian propaganda, and underneath them locals sell inflatable Santa Clauses and Spider Men. A strange scene, at a place around which the salvation history of the world turns. Even today, someone could be forgiven for expressing surprise that anything good could come out of Nazareth. And yet . . .
This Christmas season, I wanted to patch up one of the many holes in my reading and picked up a copy of The Screwtape Letters (for New York readers, there's a theater performance of it in town that I've heard some good things about, but please weigh in if you've caught it). The book is clever and very enjoyable, and I thought it might be fun to share some passages over the next few weeks with the MOJ community for comment, discussion, remonstration, silently satisfied rumination, etc.
Here's a passage from the second letter. Screwtape, a highly placed demon, is describing to his nephew, the novice demon Wormwood, the best way to prey on the sensibilities of the recent Christian convert -- to direct him back to the devil's fold:
Work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax which is certainly coming to the patient during his first few weeks as a churchman. The Enemy allows this disappointment to occur on the threshold of every endeavour. It occurs when the boy who has been enchanted in the nursery by Stories From the Odyssey buckles down to really learning Greek. It occurs when lovers have got married and begin the real task of learning to live together. In every department of life it marks the transition from dreaming aspiration to laborious doing.
I was reminded of the statement (I can't remember where) that for the convert, the first experience of Christianity is like the first experience of the Post Office. How marvelous!! One's mail is picked up and is actually (by some sorcerer's magic?...no...but how, then?) delivered in timely fashion all over the world? Not to be believed! For the ordinary church goer, by contrast, the Post Office performs its regular, necessary and vital labor, just as it ever has and ever will.
My book recommendation for the year (still in time for Christmas shopping, if not for the super-saver discount for shipping by Christmas) is Gilbert Meilaender's Neither Beast Nor God: The Dignity of the Human Person. It's a truly elegant book, offering an explanation for much of the confusion evident in the ways we use that elusive phrase "human dignity." He explains that we sometimes mean human dignity (dealing with the powers and the limits characteristic of the human species) and we sometimes mean personal dignity (dealing with “the individual person, whose dignity calls for our respect whatever his or her powers and limits may be”). Only by keeping our eye on BOTH of those meaning can we fully comprehend the richness of our unique in-between status, as something in between other animals and angels.
If you're too busy to read, you can watch the video of Meilaender's talk on this topic at UST's Murphy Institute's "Human Dignity" lecture series at the video link on the Murphy website. In conjunction with this talk, we organized an excellent interdisciplinary faculty seminar with Professor Meilaender for law, philosophy and theology scholars from UST and some neighboring universities. I thought one of his most interesting comments at that seminar was in response to some questions about whether a convincing (or even helpful) conception of human dignity is possible without any resort to a notion of a God. He responded that, while he deeply respects the efforts of those engaged in the 'natural law' arguments in that direction, his personal perpective on this topic was something like this: "Here's an account of human dignity that I think makes good sense and should be convincing to most; it relies on a notion of a God. Those of you who do not believe in a God, show me your alternative account, and convince me that makes as much sense."
I think a good test for this approach might be to read Meilaender's book together with Michael Sandel's The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering . It's also a short, elegant book offering an account of human dignity to apply to many of the same genetic engineering debates as Meilaender's book. But Sandel tries to ground it in an account of what makes humans "special" that does not depend on a notion of God, but is instead based on a notion of our "giftedness." While I like where his arguments lead him in the ethical debates he engages, I just don't think Sandel's account is as convincing as Meilaender's. How can you have a notion of 'giftedness without some sense of the Giver?
Happy Birthday, Giver! (Merry Christmas, everyone!)
Monday, December 20, 2010
Rob recently called our attention to an important new paper by Jeremy Waldron in which he observes that what is "infuriating" to many liberals is the determination of their opponents "to actually argue on matters that many secular liberals think should be beyond argument, matters that we think should be determined by shared sentiment or conviction." Professor Waldron notes that "many who are convinced of the gay rights position," for example, are "upset" by the fact that their opponents "refuse to take the liberal position for granted." What do some people do when they are "infuriated" and "upset" that others dissent from their views and insist on continuing to argue about things that they think should be beyond argument"? All too often, as Matthew Franck documents in a powerful op ed piece in the Washington Post, they try to shut down their opponents by labeling and stigmatizing them as "bigots" and "haters." As Franck remarks, playing the "hate card" is the ultimate conversation stopper in contemporary moral debates. Read the piece here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/12/17/AR2010121702528.html.
Here is Pope Benedict's recent address to the Roman Curia. The Pope makes some interesting comments about the issue of sexual abuse and traces the crisis to the moral theories that led to such confusion and that prompted Pope John Paul II to issue Veritatis Splendor, his great encyclical on moral theology.
Benedict also makes some insightful observations about the proper meaning of conscience. In particular, Benedict comments on Blessed John Henry Newman's understanding of conscience. Newman is frequently lauded as a proponent of a modern understanding of conscience. But, in Benedict's view, this is all wrong. For Newman,
"'conscience' means man’s capacity for truth: the capacity to recognize precisely in the decision-making areas of his life – religion and morals – a truth, the truth. At the same time, conscience – man’s capacity to recognize truth – thereby imposes on him the obligation to set out along the path towards truth, to seek it and to submit to it wherever he finds it. Conscience is both capacity for truth and obedience to the truth which manifests itself to anyone who seeks it with an open heart. The path of Newman’s conversions is a path of conscience – not a path of self-asserting subjectivity but, on the contrary, a path of obedience to the truth that was gradually opening up to him."
In his post earlier today, my colleague Rob Vischer provocatively proposes that "a good Catholic cannot rule out tax increases in today's fiscal climate" and confesses that he finds the anti-tax camp "more infuriating" than the anti-government spending cuts camp. In the end, though, Rob acknowledges that taxing and spending debates fall into the realm of prudential judgment.
Considering only one aspect of those practical, real-world, economic factors, we have compelling evidence just today that the zenith for what counts as a reasonable tax rate plainly has been reached here in Minnesota. Today's editorial from the consistently left-leaning Minneapolis Star-Tribune is headlined: "Dayton plan misses competitive reality."
If Minnesota were an economic island, the call for tax fairness across income lines that Gov. Mark Dayton made with his budget-balancing proposal Tuesday would have considerable appeal in this traditionally egalitarian state.
. . . Dayton's proposal would also give Minnesota the highest top-tier income tax rate in the nation in the next three years . . . .
And the total size of his proposed new taxes appears likely to rank at or near the top this year among the 50 states.
Dayton's proposal is true to this state's 20th-century preference for taxation based on ability to pay. But Minnesota is not an economic island.
The rigors of the 21st-century economy demand that the state leaven its egalitarian impulses with the imperatives imposed by worldwide competition for highly mobile capital and talent. Most states have tax systems more regressive than Minnesota's.
What Dayton proposes would make Minnesota an outlier, at a time when the penalty for a reputation as a high-tax state is large and growing.
At what point are taxes high enough? Well, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune opines that the new Democratic governor's tax increase proposals are dangerous to the economy and likely to frighten away new capital investment in the state -- an editorial I would not have expected to read in that newspaper until the flames of Hell had been suffocated beneath deep drifts of Minnesota-style snow. Sometimes prudential judgment becomes a prudential imperative. In Minnesota at least, we've reached that point.
My friend and colleague Chris Borgen flagged this fascinating little project undertaken by some sanguine Harvard data jocks to uncover the human "culturome" -- the social scientific equivalent of the human genome -- by systematically analyzing the evolution of language patterns in the roughly 5-odd million books that Google Books has scanned and drawing conclusions about the history and future of culture. I enjoyed this bit:
As the team says, the corpus “will furnish a great cache of bones from which to reconstruct the skeleton of a new science.” There are strong parallels to the completion of the human genome. Just as that provided an invaluable resource for biologists, Google’s corpus will allow social scientists and humanities scholars to study human culture in a rigorous way. There’s a good reason that the team are calling this field “culturomics”.
Some of my favorite findings: "Contrary to warnings about its imminent demise at the hands of teenagaers and Americans, English is booming. In the last 50 years, its vocabulary has expanded by over 70% and around 8500 words are being added every year." Well, that settles it!! Expansion is to linguistic health as cleanliness is to godliness.
And another: "When the team looked at the frequency of individual years, they found a consistent pattern. In their own words: “'1951' was rarely discussed until the years immediately preceding 1951. Its frequency soared in 1951, remained high for three years, and then underwent a rapid decay, dropping by half over the next fifteen years.” But the shape of these graphs is changing. The peak gets higher with every year and we are forgetting our past with greater speed. The half-life of ‘1880’ was 32 years, but that of ‘1973’ was a mere 10 years. The future, however, is becoming ever more easily ingrained."
Poor forgotten 1973 (and 1880)...but here's to 2011! And here's hoping that "culturomics" does for cultural studies all that empirical legal studies has done for law. But I digress. Didn't Giambattista Vico try to do something similar in The New Science? (Scanned here, as culturomicists will know, by Google) To be sure, his empirical instruments were slightly less refined, but perhaps "culturomics" will inspire the revival of the sort of historicist philosophy that Vico fathered and which flourished in 18th-19th century Germany. One can only dream. Thoughts, philosophers or culturomic wannabes? [p.s., -- I know most people say Vichian, but I can't bring myself to bastardize Vico's name like that...at least not until I see more usage data from the study].