Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Why I don't believe in natural law

Andrea has promised to come back and argue in favor of natural law, but it occurs to me that the comment thread we were on has gotten very long and unwieldy, so I thought I'd write a new post to continue the discussion.  I'll include a more complete explanation of the problems I see in "natural law" arguments against, for instance, birth control and homosexuality.

First, I have to clarify, because "natural law" is not a clearly defined term.  When some people say it, they simply mean "those ethical rules we can derive through reason alone," or "the moral intuitions everyone agrees on."  Of course I have no objection at all to this idea.  I've written a number of things on the emotional and rational grounding of morality.  Simple rules of thumb for moral action include things like, "Would I like it if someone did this to me?" "Does this action harm anyone, either inherently or through some distant side effect?" or "Would I like to live in a world where everyone acted like this?"  These rules are reasonable -- I can demonstrate that it is to everyone's benefit if we all follow them -- and they are universally applicable.

The sort of "natural law" talked about in these arguments, though, is much more specific.  The natural-law argument that underlies Catholic sexual ethics is as follows: Human faculties possess a teleology, a purpose or end.  For instance, the sexual faculty exists to create children.  The pleasure we get from using it is meant as a spur to get us to beget children, and to seek out the pleasure while frustrating the primary end, reproduction, is a perversion of the sexual faculty.

The first simple objection I can make to this is that teleology implies a creator.  That is, nothing has an end unless someone creates it for that end.  If I create a car, a fork, or a chair, I create them the way I do because I have a purpose in mind for that thing.  To comb my hair with a fork or to stand on a chair would be misusing that thing, and if it's my item you're misusing, I might object.  However, from a human perspective there is no "proper use" of a tree.  It simply is, because we didn't make it for any particular purpose.  We can turn it to any purpose we like -- we can make it into chairs or into paper or we can sit underneath it.  It might be better for some of those purposes than others, but no one will object to how we use it if it's our own tree.

If God created us, it's reasonable to say he built in our different functions and desires for his own purposes, and he might have an opinion about how we use them.  If, however, we came into being through the blind process of evolution, nobody actually cares what we do besides other humans.  Evolution is a terrible source for morality, because it doesn't care about human concerns like happiness, love, or beauty.  If we took evolution as a guide, we should probably give up things like art and music, each of us should have the maximum number of children we possibly can -- celibacy or late marriage would be sinful -- and we should euthanize our grandparents because they're a waste of resources.  That, need I point out, would be terrible, so I vote for "kick evolution in the face and do things it never intended."

So if you are already Catholic, it is quite reasonable for you to believe in natural law.  However, the church claims that natural law is available to everyone, regardless of their religion, through the unaided light of reason alone, and it just does not appear that this is true.  You have to have a prior belief in God, and it's pretty evident that reason alone does not bring everyone to a belief in God -- particularly not a specific version of God that has specific expectations for what we are to do with our bodies.

The second problem with natural law is that it doesn't really distinguish between things that are perversions of a bodily function and things that aren't intended by our body but are just fine.  For instance, if the purpose of the sexual faculty is to beget children, you would think that we are all bound to beget children since we all have a reproductive system, but the church says no to that -- you can forego using the sexual faculty altogether, provided you don't use it in a way that frustrates procreation.  That seems a distinction without a difference -- as though the point was to make sure those who don't have children suffer for it, rather than to get everyone to have children.

And, while natural-law proponents make a huge deal over the difference between sex between naturally infertile people and artificially infertile people, it does not appear to me that there is a real difference.  In both cases, the effects are the same; and the intentions of the people may be the same too.  (For instance, a couple that only has intercourse when one of them is infertile is deliberately avoiding procreation.)  Only the means varies, and what is the justification for making the means matter?  What is intrinsically bad about the means?

Another issue, when you bring homosexuality into the equation, is that a gay couple is not deliberately frustrating procreation.  They might want to procreate, like an infertile couple might, they just can't.  Like the infertile couple, they experience the other ends of sex, like pleasure and bonding.  Like the infertile couple, they don't experience the procreative end, but that's not intentional.  It's a massive stretch to me to imagine that there is a teleology of the body that exists to encourage procreation, but it cares about things irrelevant to whether a couple procreates.

And then, of course, we can point out that sex is the only faculty of the body that is treated this way.  The digestive system can be frustrated in similar ways, but no one makes a fuss about it.  You can drink a zero-calorie soda.  You can chew gum, which gets your stomach growling as it expects food, but which will never nourish you.  You can do all this purely to get the pleasure of food while not nourishing your body -- even though the only reason it is pleasurable to eat is to get you to nourish your body.  That doesn't matter; no one thinks this is immoral.  And if you're sick, it's okay to nourish the body without eating -- with a feeding tube or an IV.  That's perfectly fine, even though begetting children without sex is not okay.  The rules for sex are different, and I don't think there is a rationally-explicable reason why this should be.

It's a general medical principle -- accepted by the Church -- that you can damage one part of the body to save the whole.  You can take out a diseased kidney.  You can irradiate the body to kill a tumor even if it makes the rest of you sick.  You can do a gastric bypass which hinders the digestive system in order to help a person lose weight.  All of this is okay!  But sterilizing a person because pregnancy will risk their life is not okay.  I can't see a clear rule which you could figure out ahead of time that would allow you to draw these conclusions.  Instead, it seems like people had the conclusions in their minds in advance and tried to come up with an argument that would justify them.

And you know what?  That's totally fine.  It's okay to say, "We think God created us with a purpose, and through revelation, we know a lot about what that purpose is.  Let's spend some time and see if we can figure out what the logical rules are that made God draw the lines where he did."  That's a part of religion, but it's not a bad thing.  The bad thing is when you claim that non-Catholics could come to the same conclusions without first knowing the rules, and then claim that this means they are bound to your rules despite not sharing your beliefs.

We all know that virtually no non-Catholics ever are convinced by natural-law arguments.  The few who are generally wind up converting to Catholicism, because apparently they already believed many of the same first principles.  I think it's uncharitable the way that some Catholics put this down to self-deception or outright lying -- that is, "you would be convinced by this argument if you weren't so selfish/lying about not being convinced/morally twisted by your sinfulness."  Is it so hard to imagine that people might simply disagree?  I myself was ready and willing to be convinced by natural-law arguments in college, and I studied them quite a bit, but I simply felt that without the basic premise that God wanted certain things of us and had revealed what they were, the arguments would never be convincing.

For more on this topic, I recommend this post by Melinda Selmys, as well as the comments.  I also agreed with many of the counterarguments in the comments on this post.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

7 Independence Day takes


Happy Fourth of July to my American readers!  It's not my favorite holiday, mainly because I don't care for loud bangs going on all night.  And of course American patriotism can sometimes take on a jingoistic tone that I really don't like.  I love my country and don't want to live anywhere else, but I also think that criticizing it is part of the point.  "Love it or leave" is cult language, not American openness.

On the other hand I used to love the Fourth of July a lot because it was the time of our family's reunion.  My great-grandfather's birthday was nearby, so we would celebrate both together.  G-gpa would put on his ridiculous 1920's bathing suit, take out his hearing aids, and leap in the freezing lake.  Nobody else would be brave enough to get in the water, except me!

After G-gpa died, the reunions shrank down a bit, but we still had them.  I have so many great memories of swimming with my second and third cousins, the stomp rocket contest, the water balloon toss, the push-the-marshmallow-with-your-nose race.  (Having the Clarke profile -- i.e. a big nose -- really helps with that one.)  The last time I went, my grandpa was starting to decline from cancer.  It was the only time I've seen him less than a glowing picture of energy and health.  He had a brave face and a good attitude, but he confided that his doctors weren't trying to cure him anymore, just to give him time.

He rallied enough to participate in the paddleboat race -- the main event of the day -- and I was lucky enough to be his partner.  Despite his illness and my inexperience, we won!  For a moment I couldn't help but think, maybe this means he isn't really going to die.

That was the last time I saw my Grandpa.  I sobbed as we pulled away from their house.  I knew there was no way I could afford to fly back out anytime soon, but I also knew I'd never be ready to say goodbye.  He was a special person and things just aren't the same without him.

*clears throat* Anyway, it makes the "Glorious Fourth" not a huge thrill for me these days.


So I haven't given you all any updates on our house situation!  When we finally got it on the market -- a process that took longer than I would have thought -- it sold in three days for our asking price.  What a relief -- especially as attempting to keep it clean for people to look at it, and finding places for us to go during showings, were both extremely difficult with these kids.  I would kick them outside to clean the house for a showing, go out to check on them, and they'd be drawing on the outside of the house with charcoal.  I am kind of amazed we managed, especially as I've felt very lethargic lately.

I thought that meant our worries were behind us, though, and they really weren't.  First we had to bid on the house we wanted, and had to hold our breath for quite some time because someone else almost got it away from us.  Then our house had its inspection, and that was nervewracking too.  The inspector spent three hours checking every last thing, as if eager to find something, anything, he could ruin the deal with.

The roof, we already knew we had to fix, and that wiped out most of our savings.  The inspector found a cracked pipe, too, and insisted we hire a plumber to send a camera down to inspect the rest of the line.  More problems were found, and we had to drop almost a thousand more dollars to fix it.  (That went on the credit card, ugh.  Though we should be able to pay that off before it accrues any interest.)  And the inspector also was concerned about the foundation.  Nothing specific, he just was "concerned"!  The buyers demanded we hire an engineer to look at it -- $750 just for an assessment!  The assessment came out just fine, so we thought we could breathe out.  The engineer said that it might be good to pour a little concrete at the base of one column, and we thought, "That doesn't sound so bad.  We could get that done for cheap."

Well, despite having an engineer's recommendation -- the recommendation they insisted we get! -- the buyers still weren't sure.  (When I say "the buyers" I really mean the buyer's agent.  I really like the lady who is buying our house, but she has never owned a home before and I think the agent and inspector are teaming up to freak her out, for whatever reason.)  They wanted more work done.  And they wanted the plans to be drawn up by an engineer ($$$) and the work to be inspected by an engineer after (more $$$).  Now we've found a contractor to do the work, and she says because the work is being planned by an engineer, that puts us into a category of work that needs a permit and the permit will take weeks to get.  It's just one ridiculous thing after another.  And all that money is going to come out of the proceeds for the house -- which, between the down payment on the new house, the realtor's fee, and paying off what's left of our mortgage, doesn't leave a lot of leeway.  We thought we would have enough money out of this house to pay down our car loan, but NOPE.  I just hope we have enough money left to buy a washer and dryer for our new house.  I'm not really keen on washing our family's copious laundry in the tub ... again.


I am just staggered by the unprofessionalism of all the contractors we've dealt with.  It seems to be everyone's habit to say "we'll be out there tomorrow" every day for weeks.  The roofers said they could get the work done in time for our inspection, and they didn't even start until two weeks later!  Then it took them over a week to finish what they said was a two-day job.  Not because they spent a week working on it, but because they would come, work for awhile, and then vanish and not come back for days.

The roofing work has been the worst for me.  The kids couldn't play outside because they might have gotten hit by roofing material or poked by nails.  And the constant banging was like a nail file on my nerves.  I felt anxious and starting having trouble breathing again, like I had a few months ago.  But, at last, it is finished.  Now we just have to pick dozens of nails out of the yard.

We had to deal with some unethical plumbers, too.  They gave us an initial guess of $5000 to fix our waste line, and then the official estimate was $3000 -- I guess to make it feel like we were getting a bargain.  But another company came out and did it for $950.  So I'm not sure what the extra couple thousand were supposed to be for -- John's guess is, they saw the "for sale" sign and figured we were in too much of a hurry to get a second opinion.


I have to acknowledge that it could be a whole lot worse.  We feared the engineer would find serious structural damage in the foundation, which could have cost tens of thousands to fix.  It would have not only destroyed our sale, but made the house unsellable for the kind of money we needed to get for it.

Or we could have lost the house we want to buy, if our house had sold even a day slower.  To me that wouldn't have been a huge deal; there are other nice houses.  But John was extremely attached to this one.  And I have to admit it's very nice.  It's over twice as big as this one; it has a room we could use as a playroom; it has a dishwasher and a vegetable garden with blueberry bushes.  And it's on a quiet street that's on the end of town closer to John's work, so it will shave a little time off his commute.

Really, we're very lucky that things have gone as smoothly as they have.


I'll miss this place, though.  I have a lot of happy memories here.  Of course we never meant to stay long, but knowing that hasn't stopped me from sending down roots.  I love spending time in the back yard, or under the plum tree.  I hate the thought that we might be gone before my tomatoes get ripe.

It's hard to imagine waking up in the morning in the new place, wandering downstairs, getting breakfast.  Where will I drink my tea?  I have a spot here to drink my tea, at my desk which faces out the front window toward the rising sun.  The new place faces west.  So where will I put my desk?  Or will I want to sit at the dining room table?  I just don't know.  It's weird to think about.

I like continuity in my life.  If there is to be change, I want it to be one thing at a time, while the rest of my life stays the same to buoy me up.  But my life has never changed like that.  It's involved a lot of getting into airplanes and flying across the country with two suitcases.  I have more continuity in my life now, to be sure -- I have my family to come with me wherever I go.  But the kids, of course, just keep growing and changing.  It feels like trying to hold onto a river.


Part of the nostalgia in all this comes from going through our stuff.  Of course we've had to go through our attic and throw as much stuff as possible out -- we don't want to move with dozens of old copies of The Philadelphia Bulletin and a broken tennis racket.  But it's hard.  John does it with ease, consigning whole boxes of books to the giveaway box and bags of old letters to the trash.  Not I.  I wistfully look through folders of old college notes and sketches of scenes from novels I was writing and poems in made-up languages, and I can't part with a thing.  I do try.  I threw out some old stuck-together letters from boarding school and some cards we got at our wedding.  But that caused a pang and maybe I shouldn't have.  I've got enough change in my life right now!

I've read articles about the KonMari method and how you're supposed to get rid of anything that doesn't spark joy.  Admit you'll never read those books, wear those clothes, whatever.  The thing is that my stuff really does spark joy.  Old journals?  Letters?  Notes John and I passed to each other in class?  So much joy.  I readily get rid of old clothes, but most everything else stays.  Even jewelry, despite the fact that I never wear jewelry.  I like to take it out and look at it and remember the people who gave it to me.

I read an article about tattoos lately, saying that it's just a desperate grasp for commitment in a world where nobody gets married and everybody gets divorced.  (Most people still get married.  Most marriages last.  C'mon, people.)  But someone commented that it's hard enough that so many things have to change, even if you do have real commitments in your life, and a tattoo is something you can always take with you, no matter what happens to your other stuff.  And I get that.  I'm still scared of needles, but it is a tempting idea.


I feel ... eh.  Not horrible.  I feel randomly sad some days.  I have very little energy right now but hopefully that will pick up soon when I get into the second trimester.  Food still sucks.  I hate it all.  Well, that's not true.  A lot of it sounds delicious and then I feel ill afterward.  Fatty things make me feel like I ate some bad sushi.  Acidic things give me heartburn.  Vegetables sit in my stomach like a pile of rocks and then I get bloated.  Dairy makes me gag.  Bread, crackers, and ramen noodles are acceptable, but you can't live like that!  So I try to plan very carefully what I'm going to eat and then eat teeny tiny portions of everything.

My stomach's pickiness has caused a lot of wasted food.  Well, really, it's Miriam who causes that, it's just that I'm used to eating her leftovers and lately I can't make myself do it.  She will come up saying "I hungee, I hungee."  I offer a million things and finally she picks one.  She has a bite, throws it on the floor or gives it to the dog, and then comes back: "I hungee, I hungee."  If I physically feed her, she'll eat more.  I remember Marko having a stage like that too, where he would starve to death if you didn't put the food in his mouth for him.  I guess it's just an almost-two thing.

I suspect the lack of eating is why she is sleeping so badly.  I'll put her to bed at eight and she'll wake up at 9:30 or ten, go back to sleep in her bed, and then wake up again around midnight.  At that point I just bring her to my bed because I've had bad luck trying to get her back into her bed that far into the night.  But I do not like sleeping with her all night.  She always lies on my arm and it falls asleep.  I want to work on getting her to sleep better, but that's always a challenge because to get a child to sleep better, you generally have to sacrifice your own sleep for awhile.  I'm barely functional as it is!  So I'm saving it for after we move.

I finally got around to contacting the midwife.  I'm getting the same one as last time, because we were very happy with her work -- or, honestly, her nonwork.  A midwife is someone who can be trusted to sit back and NOT do anything when she doesn't need to do anything.  But she also said all the right things at the right times, and basically seems competent and confident.  She brings calm and positivity into a room.

I feel anxious about my first appointment with her, which will be in a couple of weeks.  Till I hear the heartbeat, I don't feel that sure that we are even having a baby.  Something in the back of my head keeps bugging me that something is wrong.  On the other hand that may be just my anxiety talking.  If I can finally hear the heartbeat, I think I'll be able to put those thoughts to bed and start focusing on actually planning for a real baby.

Happy Fourth of July weekend, all.   Hope you are having a pleasant one.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

In which I abandon the naturalistic fallacy

I've changed a lot in the past decade or so since I started blogging.  That's obvious, I'm sure, to all of you.  But a change I've not remarked much upon is that I've become a lot less crunchy.

Don't get me wrong.  I still love whole foods, clover in my yard, and handspun socks.  But I've gradually realized the errors in the prime directive of crunchydom -- a prime directive that I unconsciously was taking as a first principle: the way things happen in nature is always the best way.

It's not usually expressed in those exact words.  Rather, we say, "Why would nature work things out that way if it weren't better?"  Or, "If you have a health problem, it must be something unnatural in your environment."  Or, "I keep noticing this health problem!  It must be a modern epidemic because people surely didn't use to suffer from this."

It's pretty easy to believe.  If humanity was designed, then obviously our designer would make sure that our bodies were generally functional.  And if it was just evolution, one would expect evolution would have weeded out the problems by now.

But the evidence is against either theory, because human bodies are defective all the time.  There are genetic mutations, of course, and there are always communicable diseases.  Then there are just normal variations, like being a person who gets a lot of headaches or is vulnerable to mental illness or gets heartburn.  I don't know how you explain this in a theist worldview, but from an evolutionary perspective, these don't matter because you can still live to adulthood and reproduce.  Evolution doesn't care if you are happy, it cares if you have kids. And it doesn't mind occasional mistakes.

Evolution, after all, is a constant process.  It's never perfected because it's always ongoing.  The mechanism it needs is mutation, and the mutations happen regardless of whether or not they are harmful.  Most of them are either neutral or harmful, because the odds are always against a beneficial mutation.  And the way harmful mutations are weeded out is that you die.

Now, of course, is a good time to point out that evolution's goals aren't ours and that one of the great successes of humanity is our ability to kick evolution in the face: save frail babies, take care of our "useless" elders, and spend our time doing things like art and poetry that evolution would see as pointless.  So we have found treatments for a lot of perfectly "natural" ailments; the natural solution is for people who get them to die, but we don't want that so we turn to the "artificial" art of curing people.

So when I have a minor health problem, I have begun to realize it could be more than one thing.  Sure, it could be a toxin in my environment -- I don't at all deny that modern life is full of dangerous or untested things.  But it could also be that I was infected with an all-natural virus, or just that my body has some nonfatal but annoying variation.  And while I believe that, in theory, a headache is my body trying to tell me something, it's also possible that it's just a headache and I should take some (unnatural!) tylenol because there isn't going to be some easy explanation.

Another thing that bothers me about the naturalistic fallacy is that there are plenty of all-natural things that are deadly, so making a dichotomy between "natural plants" and "artificial chemicals" is often not so simple.  For instance, peach pits and bitter almonds are often touted by alt-health gurus as a perfectly safe cancer treatment because, after all, they're plants.  But they contain cyanide, which the plant produces to protect itself from predators like you.  It's all-natural and it wants you to die.  Meanwhile some pharmaceutical treatments -- aspirin, for instance, or digitalis -- are plant-derived.  The sorts of things that are so medically useful as to become drugs are usually quite powerful, so having an expert carefully dose you with them is a good idea.  The kinds of things that don't have a lot of healing power never get picked up by the medical community and thus remain "all-natural."  So rather than the line actually being drawn between "things that are plants" and "things mixed up in a lab," the line is drawn between "things for which there's good scientific evidence of efficacy" and "things for which there really isn't."  Believe me, if cyanide or frankincense is really that great and you can prove it, sooner or later a medical researcher is going to come test it and then market it as a pill.  Maybe it just hasn't happened yet and you are very clever and ahead of the curve to have figured it out first.  But maybe it just doesn't work.

You can see that just because something has never been picked up and marketed as a drug doesn't mean it's harmless.  You know how I mentioned bitter almond and how toxic it is?  Well, it's available as an essential oil!  They recommend that, if you do decide to take it internally, you just take "a little bit."  How little?  Who knows?  I know, I know, some essential oils have been shown to be effective for some things.  But I also know that some people take them willy-nilly and, unlike homeopathics, they actually contain active substances and can therefore be toxic.  And the sorts of people who so constantly assure you that they come from plants and therefore cannot ever be toxic are usually paid to say that so they're not really any more trustworthy than Big Pharm -- they have a profit motive to lie to you.

All that said, I admit the medical establishment is freaking frustrating.  It's expensive, it's slow to change and adapt to new discoveries (see: childbirth), it's dedicated to breaking you into little bits and hyperfocusing on the bits to the exclusion of the rest of your body, and it's way too eager to prescribe stuff without paying a whole lot of attention to the side effects.  I, too, wish there were another option.  But often there is not.  I can get a midwife, for instance, and that's great, but I can't get an all-natural Rhogam shot, which means I have to fight the medical establishment for nine months every dang time I have a baby so that someone will give it to me.  I can see a naturopath or chiropractor and it is possible they will give me some new directions I can look in for healing.  Or, you know, they'll try to sell me on some quack medicine.  You can't really know when you go to these people -- yes, they are willing to look outside the system at evidence-based treatments your doctor didn't think of.  But they are also willing to look so far outside the system that they want to put you on a permanent juice fast or feed you cyanide.  You can get a recommendation from a friend, but it's possible you have a gullible friend.

Of course I still look for a home remedy for minor ailments before going to the doctor.  I consider the possible side effects on the rest of my body before taking anything, because even though my body isn't perfect, it is in a delicate balance.  I haven't taken an antibiotic since 2006, though I would if I had an infection that I felt merited it.  I'm not saying nature is the enemy, or that it doesn't have to be respected, because it has its own way of doing things that we always have to work around.  But it isn't exactly our friend.  Sometimes it wants to kill you, and it's okay to fight back.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Contraceptive misconceptions

The last post reminded me of other misconceptions I frequently see thrown around in Catholic circles.  I'm sure Bat would like me to remind you that not all Catholics believe or spread these errors.  Today I want to talk about a few things I've learned about birth control in the past few years that I found very surprising -- considering the things I have been told in my Catholic education.

Myth #1: 50% of abortions are in women using birth control, which proves birth control contributes to abortion.

I see this one often, and the first half is right: half of women who have abortions were using some kind of birth control in the month they got pregnant.  Most of these were using it inconsistently or incorrectly, true, but they were using it.  So did it give them a false sense of security?  Let's take a look at the numbers.

If 50% of women who were sexually active but did not want to get pregnant were on birth control, while 50% were not, that 50/50 split would mean that birth control had no effect on a woman's odds of getting an abortion.  However, we all know most sexually-active women of reproductive age are on birth control.  This very informative link  suggests that "at-risk" women -- women who could get pregnant and don't want to -- use birth control at a rate of 90%.  So already we're seeing that birth control is having an effect, because if 90% of women use it and get abortions at the same rate, they would be having 90% of the abortions, not 50%.

I am not sure what the correlation is between believing in birth control and believing in abortion.  Presumably there is some correlation, because the very religious don't believe in either.  We can then assume the subgroup that is on birth control is also a subgroup that also is more strongly in favor of abortion.  They're also, I would assume, more likely to have access to it -- they have money and nearby Planned Parenthood clinics.  But I can't say what the numbers might be here.

But I have the unplanned pregnancy numbers: 54% are among women who don't use birth control, 41% among women who use it, but inconsistently, and 5% among women who use it consistently.

I understand the assumption is that if women weren't using birth control, they would be less likely to have sex, but it doesn't appear so.  Over half of the women who are getting pregnant aren't using birth control at all.  I'm not sure what they expect to happen.  Maybe, as has been the case throughout human history, they don't have a whole lot of self-control.  Fornication wasn't invented in the Sixties.

But, you might say, birth control fueled the sexual revolution, and if only we didn't have that, we wouldn't have so much abortion.  Well, that might be true, sure.  But the numbers show that you can't put that genie back in the bottle simply by taking everyone's birth control away.  People who don't have access to it -- because it's expensive, because insurance won't cover it, whatever -- are still having sex.  And the odds of getting pregnant when you are fertile, sexually active, and not using any form of birth control are 85% over the course of one year.

And keep in mind that promiscuity isn't the only cause of abortion.  Women who are married still get abortions.  So even if no one had sex outside of marriage, abortion would still happen, because of the married women who feel unable to have another child right now.  Married women are much more likely to consistently use birth control, which is surely part of the reason why they are less likely to have abortions than single women.  What if women were more willing to have babies?  Well, most women who have abortions already have at least one child.  It looks like they like children fine; it's that they don't feel that they can care for more.  Attempting to convince women that having a baby every year for their entire marriage is okay, especially in an economy which makes having children very expensive, would be a much tougher change to make.

The abortion rate has dropped significantly in the past few years, and it's pretty clear from the statistics that the reason is more people using birth control.  It's not more people choosing to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, because it tracks along with a decreased unintended pregnancy rate.  And it's not more people wanting babies either, because the intended pregnancy rate has gone up only slightly.  Why are more women using birth control?  Because their insurance is now required to cover it.

So it really puzzles me that Catholics are putting so much of their energy toward getting rid of that law.  I understand, they feel it's cooperation with evil (and, in my opinion, they're wrong about that -- cooperating involuntarily, because you are legally required to, is not sinful) but still, do they realize they would be indirectly causing many abortions if they got their way?

Myth #2: But surely, on a cultural level, accepting contraception means encouraging abortion.

Then there's the question of whether, on a national or cultural level, widespread contraception use increases fornication and promotes a culture of death, thus driving the abortion rate up.  I want to just drop this link on you and tell you to read it, because it seems to put that theory to rest pretty definitively.  But instead I'll pull out a few facts for you:

*In Russia, at the time abortion was legalized (since illegal abortions were already rampant) an average married woman had ten abortions in her life.  In the eighties, contraception started to become available and abortions started to drop.  Between 1988 and 2001, contraceptive use rose 74% and the abortion rate declined 61%.

*In a region of Bangladesh which was provided with family-planning services, abortion rates dropped to one-third of the rates in the rest of Bangladesh.

*Studies like this one show that providing birth control did not increase sexual activity.  (In fairness, this one showed a very slight difference -- though much smaller than the reduction birth control causes in the unplanned pregnancy and abortion rates.)

So, no, it does not appear that the availability of birth control increases the abortion rate by encouraging people to have more sex.  It seems that the amount of sex people have and the number of children they want are both pretty independent of whether they have birth control available.  The difference is in what methods they have to achieve what they want.  When birth control isn't available, many people are going to turn to abortion.

Myth #3: The Pill causes abortion

That leads me to the third myth, which surely is a lot of people's reason for opposing birth control availability.  The theory is that the Pill causes zygotes to fail to implant after fertilization, thus causing an "invisible" abortion.  And I can't blame anyone for believing this, it's on the insert for the Pill: first, it claims, it suppresses ovulation; second, it thickens cervical fluid so that sperm can't reach the egg; and third, it makes the uterine lining thin and inhospitable to an embryo.  That third method would amount to a very early abortion, though legally it isn't considered one.  (In America "pregnancy" is defined as beginning with implantation, probably to avoid debates like this.)

The thing is, there isn't actually any evidence that this third method ever happens.  We do know that the pill makes the uterine lining thin.  However, that's when it actually works and prevents ovulation.  When a breakthrough ovulation does take place, a woman's hormonal profile is quite different.  Isn't it possible that in this case the uterine lining also manages to mature?

That's the argument made by these pro-life doctors.  I share this article often because I think it's important for people to know that not only is there no evidence that the Pill causes abortions, the evidence leans toward showing that it does not.  To sum up (because I admit the article is long and difficult; it took me a long time to read), the rate of breakthrough ovulation is (corrected for the normal early miscarriage rate) the same as the Pill's failure rate -- the rate of unintended pregnancy while on the Pill.  (The evidence is even stronger, surprisingly enough, for the morning-after pill.  The morning-after pill has a very high failure rate precisely because it can't prevent implantation.)

Now I mentioned "the normal early miscarriage rate" because a very large proportion of fertilized eggs never implant as it is.  This is probably because of DNA errors and it appears there is no helping it.  That means that if you are a sexually active woman who is not on birth control or pregnant, you have almost certainly lost many zygotes.  This post points out that out of 100 women who aren't on birth control for a year, 85 zygotes will be lost.  (And a further 85 will implant, which is why 85% of women will get pregnant in one year.)  But if they are all on the Pill, they will only lose (using the worst possible estimate in case the Pill does cause zygotes to be lost) only two.  Of course this is a utilitarian argument; I understand if your feeling is that it's better for 85 zygotes to die through no human cause than for two to die because of something a person did.  But you aren't actually saving any lives by trying to prevent people from using oral contraceptives.

What is my point, with this post?  Am I suggesting you should get on birth control?  No.  You should do what you want.  Your own behavior is entirely in your control: you can choose to abstain, choose to accept many children, whatever you like.  But influencing other people's behavior is another ball of wax.  In public health, they don't talk about what it would be nice if people did.  They talk about what interventions we can do, and what the actual results of those interventions will be.  And it seems clear that intervening to keep people from getting birth control doesn't change their hearts, it doesn't stop them from having sex, and it doesn't make them want more children.  It makes them get pregnant when they don't want to, and many of them will go on to have abortions.

So if you want to reduce abortions, trying to stop people from getting birth control when they want it is the most counterproductive thing you could possibly do.  That's all I'm saying.  I think it's important to shoot down these three misconceptions so that people know exactly what the results of their actions will be.  I don't think, as many pro-choice activists do, that the pro-life movement is dishonest, or that it's just trying to control women rather than to save lives.  I think people just don't know this information, and pro-life activity will be much more effective if it uses the most accurate information.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Catholic revisionism

The news of the Orlando shootings really upset me.  You kind of get used to mass shootings, in a way; you learn not to let them get to you and to get off the internet for a few days so you don't have to read about them.  But this one was extra upsetting because it targeted a group that I know gets targeted a lot.  And that must feel really scary to people who are gay and wondering if they are safe.

At first I was worried about the reactions from my Catholic friends.  In the past, I've shared things about violence against gays and gotten shrugs, or worse, statements that the victims brought it upon themselves and don't deserve protection because they are living a sinful lifestyle.  I thought maybe the whole thing would be ignored, erased, or even approved of.  And it was a huge relief that this did not happen.  My friends were quick to condemn the shooter and empathize with the victims.  And this is encouraging.  Regardless of my friends' opinions about homosexuality, they care about the individuals involved.  That speaks to how much I've pared down my friendlist, or how much society has changed, or just how uniquely upsetting this tragedy was, but whatever it is, it's good news.

However, what was a little less encouraging was the defensiveness.  Catholics announcing that they condemn all violence, OF COURSE, and always have, OF COURSE, and while Islam is a religion that naturally leads one to shoot up gay nightclubs, Catholics NEVER EVER would because it's a teaching of the Church that they should be tolerant of gay people and treat them with respect.

And what I wanted to say was, yes, that's true, the Catholic Church now teaches that gay people should be treated with respect.  But that is a new teaching.  In the past, Catholic nations punished homosexuality with the death penalty, just as many Muslim nations do today, and the hierarchy appears to have had no criticism for that.

Here are two articles on Wikipedia which testify to what I've said.  Legal violence against gay people has been pretty universal starting with the acceptance of Christianity by the Roman empire till the 19th century.  Sometimes the Church specifically argued in favor of the death penalty, such as at the Council of Paris in A.D. 829; at other times it simply said nothing and let the executions proceed under Catholic secular governments.

I will admit that this is not a case of the Church changing infallible teaching.  It never definitively or universally taught that gay people should be put to death -- although, of course, it is perfectly scriptural.  Leviticus 20:13 reads,"If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads."  So it's no wonder that Christian countries have assumed that this was a good thing to do -- why would God have commanded it if it weren't?

But to revise the entire history and claim that Catholics would never and have never used their religion as a justification to kill gay people is simply false.  Or that Catholicism has always taught that gay people should be treated with respect and tolerance.  It does now, and I'm glad it does now, but it did not invent the idea of tolerance.  It was very late to get on board -- so far as I can see, the first ever condemnation of violence against gay persons was in 1986, the year I was born.

This of course is relevant to the question that's troubled me so much in the past -- if God were inspiring the Church, so much that he carefully spelled out how many natures Jesus has and whether the persons of the Trinity are equal, why did he not bother to say, "Don't burn gay people alive"?  Is it because he didn't really care that much about them?  Or is it because he really is not that involved in what the Church does?  I don't blame the medievals for being people of their time.  But that is clearly all they were -- not people with extra enlightenment coming from their divinely-inspired faith.

Some people I know acknowledge and accept the Church's tradition and maintain that in a truly Catholic society, we would still be putting gays to death.  It must be a good thing to do, because the Church once did it, and because it's in the Bible.  So they say it has something to do with divine justice, or avoiding the corruption of others.  I can't go that route, though I admit it's logical.  But the fact that people can, and that they can justify it with reference to scripture and tradition, shows that, like Islam, Catholicism can be used to excuse violence against gay people.  Hate crimes against gays are sadly common, and some of them are carried out by Christians.

Islam, of course, has its own controversies.  Some people use it to justify violence, but there are 1.6 billion Muslims and most of them don't actually do anything violent.  In part it's because, like many Catholics, they listen to their own conscience first, before their religion.  And in part it's because some of them see their religion as a whole picture in which love and mercy are at the center, just as Catholics do.  So I'm not going to say religion is bad, that it's the enemy here and everyone whose religion contains some justification for killing gay people is evil.  Rather, we should remember that different threads of the same religion can be wildly different, but the love-and-mercy types are doing good and should be encouraged.  At the same time, let's not lie or attempt to revise history: religion, including Catholicism, has been a justification for violence throughout human history.  Believe responsibly.

Monday, June 6, 2016

7 quick takes

Things have been nutty around here.  May as well start with the big news first.


I'm pregnant.  Let this be a warning to all NFP users .... it is possible to follow the rules, abstain almost completely, and still get pregnant.  I know all birth control methods can fail.  However, none of them seem to fail quite so much as NFP.  

I can't even tell you how bad it was when we first found out.  I didn't sleep for two nights, panicking about it.  The past almost-two years have been a long, slow slog into the light, and it was like being shoved right back to the beginning and having my head held under the water.  But, well, no choice really but to find some way to make peace with it.  I'm sleeping at night again.  I'm figuring out ways to make things better this time.  

The due date is January 20th, which means Miriam will be just shy of two and a half.  That's the longest space we've had between kids, by two months.  Yay, NFP!  You bought me exactly two months more time than I would have had otherwise!  That was totally worth the massive struggles of dealing with you!  *dripping sarcasm*

I wasn't able to spend much time coming to terms with this news, because immediately after finding out, we had a trip to Wisconsin to see John's mother graduate at last from college, and then to Chicago to see his sister, visiting from the convent.  A whirlwind trip involving seven days, 2,000 miles, two different hotel rooms, one guest bedroom for the five of us, three children, and a social event with strangers every single day is going to be difficult at the best of times.

Though, surprisingly, it was probably the smoothest trip we've had so far.  We shelled out for a car DVD player so they could watch The Land Before Time over and over again the whole way there.  Marko was in bliss.  Michael kept demanding attention and food.  Miriam slept part of the way and only fussed at the very end.

But I had a really hard time coping with my Awful Secret while surrounded by all those people.  I wanted to just hide in the bedroom the whole time.  Still, there were encouraging moments: the girl at the graduation party who told me all she'd ever wanted in life was a little sister, John and I picking names during our long drive, and the encouragement of my mother-in-law when we finally told her the news.  I find it very difficult to be congratulated for something I didn't accomplish and didn't want, but it was nice to have her sympathizing with how awful pregnancy is but at the same time saying "Oh, it won't be bad though!  My fourth was no extra work!"

The kids were pretty good through everything, but painfully shy.  None of them would speak to anybody but us, and Miriam cried if anyone even looked at her.  I felt like this was somehow my fault, that they must have absorbed my social awkwardness or else I had failed to teach them properly.  But on the other hand, very few people actually made any real effort to get on the kids' level and make friends, and the people who did try actually did get some interaction out of them.

for instance, Grandma got them hamming it up for awhile


Of course, there is no earthly way we can fit four children into a two-bedroom, 900-square-foot house, not without getting rid of things, like my sanity for instance.  We didn't intend to move till John finished his town council term, but there's a lot going on we didn't plan. So we've decided to put our house on the market.  We spent the remainder of John's time off after the trip scrubbing everything and throwing stuff into the attic.  We've met with a realtor and she thinks it will hopefully be snapped up fast, since there's not much in town in its price range.  

I'm feeling very nostalgic.  I know we never planned to stay here long, but I've never been able to help putting down roots.  And it really is a darling little house despite being tiny and in poor repair.  The view out the back has always calmed me, and I've put so much work into the garden in the front.  So many memories here.  (And so much crayon to scrub off the walls!)

We have to move within the town limits, which narrows down our options a lot, but there are some very nice houses in our price range.  Since John's been working at the library, we have a lot more leeway in what we can afford, and over five years we've gotten plenty of equity in this house, to go toward a down payment.  So I am not terribly worried about that end of things.

And I know dealing with kids will be so much easier when they have separate bedrooms, a playroom of their own, and places to be that aren't all up in my grill.  I dream of a dishwasher, a living room that can be kept clean-ish by not also being the playroom, and more than one bathroom.  Life will be better.  I have to keep repeating this.


Physically, this pregnancy has not been bad so far, probably due to still nursing Miriam lots.  (I know last time that really reduced my worst symptoms.)  So instead of morning sickness, I'm just having indigestion when I eat .... well, most anything, it seems, but I'm still working out what will and won't go down well.  Drinking a little apple cider vinegar in water seems to help.  The sad part is that, just as with Miriam, chocolate is a definite no.  I had a little bar of the super-dark stuff the other day and it felt like it was trying to claw its way back out.  Not worth it.

My back still doesn't hurt at all (knock on wood).  I think I must have gotten it into better shape this time.  I actually feel LESS tired and lethargic than I did two months ago -- which tells me, yes, something WAS wrong with me up to now.  Perhaps anemia or something, who knows.  I'm not going to question it -- I have energy now, and I need it, considering I'm working on the house all the time.  Keeping the house clean so people can look at it while also having kids is no joke.

Most days I feel just fine emotionally.  Some days I'm oddly touchy or weepy.  There have been some days that have been a yawning pit of despair and terror.  I'm afraid to even write about it for fear that thinking about it will bring it back.  It's hard to say how much of that is "depression" per se and how much is just not wanting to be doing this right now.  But, again, I actually feel kind of better, most of the time, than I did before so I don't feel inclined to complain.

Overall, as first trimester goes, I am so far getting off easy.  And, of course, this whole process is temporary.  


Thinking too much about the future, right now, is kind of borrowing trouble.  It occurred to me, early on, that the coward dies a thousand deaths and a brave man but one; and in the same way, if I don't obsess over it now, I should only have to undergo labor once.  There will only be one postpartum, and better still, I only have to experience one day of that at any given moment.  I have, in the past couple of years, gotten really, really good at coping through things I don't want to be doing or that aren't going well.  I did it before, which is how I know I don't want to do it again, but it's also how I know I can.

I do think about the future a little, though.  I think that if the baby is a girl, Miriam will have a sister close in age, like I always wished I'd had.  Maybe they'll all get along well together, anyway.  (I worry about this because my four younger siblings get on like a four-sided brawl.  But you never know.)

I think that Miriam is very independent, as almost-two-year-olds go, and she'll probably adapt to a younger sibling better than Michael did.  She is really, compared to either of her brothers, a very agreeable kid who doesn't get into trouble a whole lot.  I think having them for constant entertainment helps.

And I think that I'll get a baby swing, because I'll have the space, and baby can nap in it, and I might actually get some moments when no one is on me.  It could happen.  Especially if I have a dishwasher and don't have to use all that precious time washing dishes.


My birthday is coming up.  I will be thirty.  I was really excited for this, seeing the new decade as a whole new chapter in my life, a chapter where I stop being "constant nursing and baby-holding mom" and become "homeschooling and fun outings mom," where I do more baking and crafts, and I let the kids take out the legos because everyone knows not to eat them, and my garden can finally get through a summer without collapsing from neglect, and so on.  With the hope that by forty I would be pretty much free to get a second degree or start a second career or publish my novels or whatever I wanted to do.

But now, I'm seeing a long tunnel of two years or so before I get even back to where I am now.  I wonder if I will ever publish anything, if I will build the loom I dream of building, if I'll ever have anything to show for having been alive.  A firm belief in an afterlife would be really helpful for dealing with all this, but I don't have that so it feels like years just flushed away.

On the other hand (she said brightly) it's not like I don't like motherhood.  I do, and many of my hobbies are compatible with it, so long as I'm not too exhausted to do them.  And if there's a limited time to be alive in, all the more reason not to spend the next two or ten years waiting for the next thing before I'm allowed to be happy, but trying to ground myself in the present moment and find joy in it.


How about some more pictures from the trip to cheer us all up?

I swore up and down they wouldn't get in the pool because they've never done it before, and Miriam hadn't willingly gotten wet in six months, but what do you know, they all got in and loved it!

Well, keep me in your thoughts, or wish me luck, or whatever.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The illusion of control, and the illusion of non-control

Something I've been thinking about a lot lately is how control is an illusion.  We like to believe that we've got a handle on life, that if we work hard we'll succeed, and if we are careful nothing bad will happen.  People do a lot of dumb things to preserve that illusion, like obsessing over details or blaming other people for bad things that happen.

Of course we're not really that much in control.  Crap happens and sometimes it isn't anybody's fault.  Or it's someone's fault, but not yours, so that no matter how good or hardworking or careful you are, you wind up in trouble.  Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people.  Life isn't fair.

Simcha Fisher wrote a good article about this today.  So let's set it aside: control is an illusion.  Much of what happens in life, happens despite your plans and carefulness.

But I have been thinking as well that non-control is also an illusion, and one that's much more tempting to me.  I like to walk through life assuming things will just work out, or if they don't, I probably couldn't have made them work out anyway so it's not my fault.  I prefer to believe that the hour of my death is already somehow decided and doesn't rely on small decisions I make; that getting and keeping a good job is mostly a matter of luck and the economy and doesn't rely a whole lot on me being superlative.

Of course one ought to be responsible, in a general sense, but there's a certain basic level of responsibility that is all anybody could expect.  If you do your due diligence, if you watch your kids as well as most parents do and you work hard at your job and you look both ways before you cross the street .... you're responsible enough and anything bad that happens isn't your fault.

However, this too is an illusion.  Sometimes it's the germaphobe that avoids catching the plague.  Sometimes staying home instead of going out might save your life. Sometimes you forward-face your toddler at two because that is what everyone does and they break their neck in a crash.  Sure, you might not be blamed because everyone knows you did your basic diligence, but it will still be a reality that if you had been more careful, results would have been different.

And I know the illusion of non-control can be dangerous.  There was a time when I felt no sense of responsibility at all for how many kids I brought into the world because it was out of my hands.  It was wonderfully freeing, but was it responsible?  Maybe not.  Certainly there are cases where it would be terribly irresponsible to take this attitude -- if I had a serious illness and could die, if my children were all disabled and needed extra care.  I don't have a job, but if I did have one and was willing to work more-or-less hard and blame any layoffs on the economy -- well, sooner or later I might be jobless when I really needed to have a job!

However, giving up the illusion of non-control might be even more terrifying than giving up the illusion of control.  The latter means accepting that you could be perfect and crap could still happen to you.  The former means accepting that despite that, you still have to try to be perfect because if you don't, even more crap will happen to you and it will be all your fault.  Then you have to take both of these tough realities and work out a balance that you can live with, that will have you working hard at your job but still sleeping at night, looking both ways before you cross the street but not afraid to leave the house.  And you have to accept that the balance you worked out might not be the "right" balance, and in fact there's no way to know, but you still have to live with it.

Life is hard without these two comforting illusions.  But as they are illusions, and as you can't navigate the world in a moral way without reference to the truth, it's good to remember (at least once in awhile) that illusion is exactly what they are.
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