"The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God." -St Irenaeus of Lyon

Archive for January, 2011

A Musical Interlude

So I’m in the middle of writing a pretty heavy series on abortion as I see it, but I’m thinking it’s time for an intermission. Benjamin Dunn is a rather funky independent musician. He recently released a new album called “Circle of Love.”

One of my favourite tunes is “Smile on me.” Someone else has liked it enough to post it on Youtube. Enjoy!

[Sorry their graphic is a bit annoying but the song more than makes up for it.]


The Inconsistency of the Ciderhouse Rule

The Ciderhouse Rules premièred when I was in high school. I know I didn’t see the film in the cinema, but I remember watching it shortly thereafter. The premise of the plot is the quest for a young doctor to come to terms with questions of abortion rights. The film tracks through a variety of elements, but the convincing argument comes near the end as our young doctor must contend with a woman suffering from a botched self-induced abortion.

The Ciderhouse Rule is that we should establish proactive measures to ensure that women have access to abortion services because women will seek the procedure anyway. Because people will go to desperate measures to access the procedure, medical doctors have an obligation to provide safe, reliable access to the procedure.

Increasingly, this particular justification of abortion strikes me as totally odd. For instance, we do not typically argue that youth violence needs a safe, reliable outlet. We do not focus on trying to convince a person engaging in cutting behaviour to cut more safely. These behaviours fall into a category of behaviour that we would like to see stop. Humans engage in all sorts of activity that is both dangerous and problematic. We don’t direct our energies into making things safer. We try to address the broader problematic.

Recently, I read about a woman so desperate for an abortion that she paid someone $150 to beat her until she miscarried. I’m struck not by the context of abortion in this story, but rather by the woman’s willingness to be beaten. This woman’s willingness to be beaten might have come principally from an emotional imbalance that lead to risky behaviours to seek validation. Was this woman not, in effect, screaming out, “I’m worthless!” with her choice of mechanisms? Might not that view of self-worth influenced what drove her towards a sexual encounter? It does not take much for me to see that the presence of a child is a symptom of a much deeper root cause.

Having a child occurs amidst an interconnected web of causal factors. Some of these causal factors are distinctly biological. But I also think these causal factors are influenced a great deal by social realities. It is much more difficult to parse the differences between young poor women unexpectedly pregnant and partnered professional women inconveniently pregnant at the “wrong time” in their career. Encouraging girls to pursue their education with a healthy self-esteem and regard for the integrity of their bodies requires a very different approach than addressing the need for financial stability in the midst of an insanely paced professional world.

It’s much easier to cite the problem with a lump of unwanted cells in a woman’s uterus and remove those cells surgically. Because if those cells just go away, then everything will be better. After all, routinised technology solves everything.

But we can also fall into a huge trap of embracing a technological solution. I cannot for the life of me understand why some people treat abortive surgeries as minor procedures. The people I’ve talked to regarding the procedural aspects of an abortion are absolutely shocked to learn that I stayed awake for my wisdom teeth extraction. They could recite danger upon danger of wisdom tooth extraction and didn’t differentiate between exposed and impacted tooth. But I think there is also something that when my doctor extracts my wisdom teeth, he has to look me in the eye. Dental surgeries are uniquely human in that regard.

Acknowledging the uniquely human dimension means that yes, doctors will need to be prepared to support women with a myriad of pregnancy implications. Some of these implications may come from self-induced procedures. Yet, acknowledging the human dimension means looking beyond the technology while serving the full person present before you.

Two Great Distributions

Because I study poverty, I spend a considerable time thinking about income distributions. Largely, we can speak of countries with high incomes, countries with low incomes, and countries with medium incomes. You can see a map that shows the global income distribution here in terms of purchasing power parity (which I think is a better income indicator than say GDP or GNP). So we have one great distribution: the distribution of income.

Additionally, when you consider the map, I cannot help but think about global fertility rates. Have a look at the global birth rate. We see a lot of overlap in that the countries with lower incomes have a higher birth rate. So we have the other great distribution: the distribution of people.

The rhetoric around these two distributions could not be further apart. When it comes to money, we seem to be universally of the opinion that we should have more of it. Go, go economic growth! Depending on where you fall on the political spectrum, you generally do not favour either reducing production or redistributing existing resources.

But when it comes to children, the dominant picture requires having less of them. The birth rates in the developed world are impressively low. [And as an aside, the UK’s rate is 1.66 kids per woman. The US’s rate is 2.05 kids per woman. I miss seeing little people.] Because population growth significantly taxes the planet’s resources, we should all embrace all forms of birth control including abortion.

If a high birth rate can stand as a proxy for income, then we have a problem related to the policies we encourage. Correlation does not equal causation. For instance, raising the legal marriage age and encouraging compulsory education will lower birth rates while simultaneously building human capital. Improving child survival odds can also lower the birth rate and build human capital.

Additionally, the desire for children is often like the desire for income. Some people would legitimately like more than they have. Yet, as we have emphasised the biological relative to children, we have families with large amounts of income devoting that income towards procedures like in vitro fertilisation. Sometimes redistributive solutions have their place.

Be careful what you read

Things began innocuously. I, according to my traditional custom, tried to read a book on the train completely unrelated to my course of study. The book focused on the power of weakness. I had never really given the idea much thought.

But, then, in the introduction, I found them discussing Down’s Syndrome. Down’s Syndrome, an unpredictable genetic condition, can only be eradicated through abortion. The book captured the obvious in a way that made me think. And when I think, I connect the various ideas screaming through my head.

My mid-term paper about the nature of development dominated my thinking. One question asked the advantages and disadvantages of defining development as “good change.”

Do I include the deliberately provocative example of abortion as a response to a difficult and unexpected pregnancy in my paper? If we consider something like eliminating disease and disorder as a good thing, then what methods will we use to obtain our goal? The provocative example survived not only my colleague’s feedback, but also a change in my title. Moreover, the tutor assessing my paper thought the example provided a very solid line of reasoning that could have been developed still further.

Because that piece of writing remains relevant to my thinking today, I will post the Introduction.

Learning about Development from Unlikely Sources

What can the experience of a child still in the womb teach us about the Western development agenda? Our responses to pregnancy and our hopes for children illumine our attitudes towards the weak. Additionally, our hopes for our children may reveal our ideological predispositions. Critical observation of how we respond to a child with anticipated disability may enable us to question assumptions inherent in assorted development projects. When confronting disabilities, people living today have greater interventions through technological changes than people living in the past who did not have the range of relevant technologies. We find ourselves in situations where we have power over people we have never met. Moreover, we may rethink how we rely on technology to change circumstances for people in places we have never properly lived.

Persons with Down’s Syndrome live within a web of compounding difficulties. Down’s Syndrome is a genetic condition that can occur in any population. The likelihood of a child with Down’s Syndrome increases with the age of the mother (Macnair and Hicks, 2010). Prenatal testing can confirm the genetic abnormalities; one often-cited study (Mansfield, Hopfer and Marteau, 1999) reports that over 90% of positive Down’s Syndrome prenatal diagnoses in the UK and Europe end in elective abortion. Additionally, advocacy organizations in the United States have issued position papers exhorting that any woman who wishes to continue her pregnancy after a prenatal diagnosis should be supported in that decision (National Down Syndrome Society, 2010). The presence of these position papers suggests clinical practice frequently involves pressuring the woman to terminate her pregnancy. Moreover, support organizations for persons with Down’s Syndrome hold the promise of living a normal, semi-independent life (Down’s Syndrome Society, 2010). The pressure to end Down’s Syndrome and the goal of an approximately independent life point to an ideological position that favors eradicating and mitigating perceived weakness through technological interventions.

Using technology to eradicate and mitigate perceived weakness reflects the ideological character of development. Development began with an agenda to rebuild Europe and expanded to building various economies throughout the world. Engineers and economists served as the first development professionals. The opening agenda of large-scale industrialization indicates the technocratic nature of development. Over time, development practitioners adopted various guiding doctrines that continue to support ideas of Western professionals providing technical assistance to communities (Thorbecke, 2006). Vocal critics of the development agenda have emerged with the exhortation to reflective practice (Nolan, 2002; Chambers, 2005) and the rise of post-modern critique (Esteva and Prakash, 1998; Rapley, 2004). In order to stay relevant, the development industry must adopt a different ideology towards human weakness and technological power.


If you would like the full citations of anything I’ve offered here, you can leave your request in the comments.

Breaking my silence

There are some hot-button issues where my general approach is to preserve silence. But the more I read and reflect, the less I can honestly preserve my silence around the issue of abortion.

Today some of my fellow Americans have gathered in Washington, DC to march for life. The march’s timing reflects the anniversary of the Roe v Wade decision to legalise abortion. People generally have a typical image of a pro-life advocate. My experience around pro-life advocacy is that it generally focuses on an unapologetically Christian view of anthropology, marriage and responsibility.

Yet I have struggled in so many different ways with the pro-life platform as it is politically expressed. Rhetorically, I could not be further removed from the typical view. Today I begin to break my silence because I think two common struggles unite people of a range of religious convictions to consider making steps to confront the abortion tragedy.

I believe abortion exists because of poverty and vulnerability. Moreover, I think abortion shows that, by and large, we lack the wherewithal to respond meaningfully to such challenges. Without confronting the realities of abortion in wealthy countries, I do not think we will have much success in advocating human rights around the world.

Abortion provides a nexus where we see how we personalise values around weakness, vulnerability, power, technology, convenience, wealth, and aspirations. When a woman and her trusted ones approach a pregnancy, we see a range of attitudes. In our increasingly liberal, progressive world, no one particularly likes questioning abortion. However, I no longer can remain silent regarding my inconvenient observations.

Over the next few days, I am going to be writing a series of posts about coming out as pro-life. Specifically, I intend to steer clear of religious argumentation and encourage any people who would like to comment on my posts to do likewise. Additionally, I fully acknowledge that my thoughts are riddled with inconsistencies. Caring about poverty invites one to acknowledge one’s hypocrisy.

How badly do you want it?

Over-familiarity can breed contempt, but sometimes we need ready access.

My own church life is quite odd in England. The Orthodox community is rather thin on the ground. Generally, parishes that serve services in English rent spaces within Anglican buildings. Some parishes do not even have a regular priest so they meet once a month. Coming from communities in the States that, at minimum, observed weekly Vespers and Sunday Liturgy, confronting spareness has had its share of difficulties.

But there is something about sparseness that provokes desire. Sparseness forces one to make a choice. Being Orthodox has produced its share of difficulties, precisely when so many other opportunities present themselves. Additionally, being a Christian isn’t exactly a solo sport. Many of the Christians I’ve met here have not even so much known about Orthodoxy, let alone talked with an Orthodox Christian.

I was trying to think of an appropriate analogy to most of my opportunities to spend time with other Christians. While I keep a very bounded Communion discipline (only communing in Orthodox parishes), I do take advantage of a range of opportunities to get to know other Christians. Occasionally, these include an invitation to a Eucharistic service.

As I reflected on the run-up to Christmas, I realized that between 15 November and 25 December I had identically three opportunities to receive Communion. Such realities leave one hungry! And when you’re hungry, you definitely ask yourself why you make the choices you do.

Because so many people I interact with are Anglicans (fancy that), I often have to address the divergent Communion discipline with the folks I’m getting to know. [Anglicans will commune anyone who is baptized in the name of the Trinity, although in practice this discipline comes as anyone in “good standing” with a Christian church as some Anglicans don’t take exception to the idea of communing Quakers.] It’s particularly challenging on days where I would like to receive if a legitimate opportunity was available. But, as I was thinking about an appropriate analogy, finding myself in a non-Orthodox context when I want to receive communion is like craving a hamburger during Lent. It’s a non-starter.

I resolve the tensions by trying to make an active choice to prioritize being at Orthodox liturgies. Today definitely had the character of having to drag myself to get going. When you have an investment in a train ticket and need to leave your house 2 hours before the service starts, you experience the journey differently than when your parish is 5 minutes away from your flat. But I’m learning to welcome the space for desire.

And I really do miss Vespers.

I have an unhealthy relationship with my railcard

The best thing about being an American in England is that travel does not phase me.

Because England has an extensive public transport network, many people navigate it everyday. The English tend to stick to the networks they know. They can get about an hour away from home before a journey strikes them as terribly far.

Yet, as an American, I think very little of spending 2, 3 hours in transit to see someone. When I don’t have to drive, the journey is also much more straight-forward. I hop on the train, and I get anywhere I want to go.

It’s absolutely brilliant to have Canterbury, Cambridge, and London all within my grasp on the weekend. It’s also incredibly outstanding to have a student railcard that allows me to save 1/3 on all of my transportation costs. I have recouped the cost of the railcard several times over!

And I’m off today for a full day of traveling, yet again.