Category Archives: Personal Autonomy

Uses and Abuses of Religion

My youngest son has a simple formula for comparing and evaluating religions. According to him, whatever their other differences and similarities, religions fall into one of two basic categories: those that encourage adherents to engage with the questions (good), and those that hand believers fixed, inflexible answers (bad).

It’s a handy guide.

Just this week, that distinction came to mind twice. Once, when I read about Governor Pence’s fundraising; evidently, one of his major donors is the owner of Hobby Lobby–the man who went to Court to protect his “right” to impose his religious beliefs on his employees. Our Governor is quite clearly in the camp of those who are sure they have the answers, that they know exactly what God wants (and isn’t it nice that God hates the same people they do!), and who give no evidence of ever having engaged with the questions or wrestled with moral ambiguities.

Fortunately, there is another kind of faith community, and it was on beautiful display last Sunday at an Interfaith Vigil for Nondiscrimination. The Vigil was held at North United Methodist Church, and hosted by the Interfaith Coalition on Nondiscrimination, Freedom Indiana and the Reconciling Ministries Network of Indiana.

When my husband and I entered the sanctuary, I was struck by the size of the audience. My husband estimated attendance at a thousand people, most of whom appeared to be middle-aged or older.

Program participants included Darren Cushman-Wood, Pastor of North Church; Rev. Danyelle Ditmer, pastor of Epworth United Methodist Church; Rev. Linda McCrae, pastor at Central Christian Church; Whittney Murphy, the student body president of Christian Theological Seminary; Rabbi Sandy Sasso, Rabbi Emerita of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck: and Philip Gulley, Pastor of Fairfield Friends Meeting.

If there was a “call to arms,” it would probably be Rabbi Sasso’s declaration that people of faith would not stand by and allow religion and religious language to be hijacked and used as a cover for hatred and discrimination.

If there was a summing up of the sentiments of those in the sanctuary, it would be these words of Phil Gulley’s–a small part of his extraordinary and moving speech. Gulley reminded us of “the America of the open door, its hand extended in friendship.

“It is the land of the kindly neighbor, the generous friend, the liberal heart. It is the America welcoming the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. It is the people with nothing to fear but fear itself, the nation conceived in liberty, dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal. It is the America made wiser by our differences, the America committed to justice, dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, who measures its strength in its citizenry, not its weaponry.”

To which we might add (with a nod to my son’s categorization), it is the America in which thoughtful religious citizens are grateful for their constitutional right to explore questions of meaning and transcendence for themselves—an America that understands the importance of extending that same intellectual and moral autonomy to everyone, that rejects the profoundly unAmerican theocratic urge to use religion in the service of their own dominance and privilege.

Both the Governor’s fundraising report and the Interfaith Vigil remind me that, like so much else in life, religion is neither an unalloyed good nor an unremitting evil. It can be used or it can be abused.

My own test is actually simpler than my son’s: if your beliefs make you a better, kinder person, they’re good. If they make you a rigid, judgmental asshole, they aren’t.

 

 

 

Rape, Incest and Ben Carson

Shades of Richard Mourdock and “what God intended”!

Among the many other retrograde positions he has taken, Ben Carson wants the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade and criminalize all abortions. As Ed Brayton reported at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, 

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson said on Sunday that believes Roe v. Wade should be overturned, and that women should not be allowed to have abortions even in the case of rape or incest.

“The mother should not believe that the baby is her enemy and should not be looking to terminate the baby,” Carson opined to NBC host Chuck Todd. “We’ve allowed purveyors of division to think that baby is their enemy and they have a right to kill it. Can you see how perverted that line of thinking is?”

There are a number of possible responses to this latest evidence of Carson’s worldview: the most rational is to simply shrug. Ben Carson isn’t going to be President of the U.S.–despite his current lead in GOP polls, he isn’t even going to be the Republican nominee, so the fact that he wants to make women carry their rapist’s baby to term–however creepy or nauseating one might find that–is ultimately irrelevant.

On the other hand, Carson is hardly the only Republican who sees “God’s will” in the consequences of a rape. Mourdock and Akin were the most high-profile, but there are plenty of others–almost all of them men– who want to deny women not just the right to abort, but access to birth control as well. (After all, if you give us the right to control our own reproduction, we’re likely to get all uppity and start thinking we’re equal to men.)

I don’t really expect this latest pronouncement to damage Carson’s popularity with the GOP fringe. After all, if stating that racism wasn’t a problem before Obama’s election, that Muslims should not be allowed to be President, that evolution is a “Satanic plot,” that we need to get rid of Medicare and Medicaid, and that university professors should be monitored and censored only operated to endear him to the party base, this latest evidence of bizarre reasoning is unlikely to offend them.

What’s a little misogyny among Republicans?

 

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up…

If Democrats were creating a caricature of a Republican extremist–a one-dimensional straw man to run against– it would look a lot like Mike Pence. Unfortunately, Indiana’s zealot Governor isn’t a fabrication by the opposition.

As the IBJ reported yesterday,

Gov. Mike Pence announced Monday that he will expand Indiana’s affiliation with a not-for-profit organization that counsels pregnant women against abortion and pushes abstinence as the only method of birth control.

Indiana Right to Life was reportedly gratified. A Google search confirmed the reason why–not only does “Real Alternatives” (the nonprofit in question) confine its “services” to “counseling” against abortion, it also provides “clients” with the horrifying “facts” about birth control. I found a handy little pamphlet explaining why Contraception Is Not the Answer, filled with misinformation and fear-producing “facts.” (Did you know that injectable contraceptives “drastically increase your risk of invasive breast cancer”? No, and neither do medical experts.)

A blogger in Michigan–where their anti-choice Governor has also contracted with Real Alternatives– detailed the organization’s dubious tactics, many of which were documented in an investigation conducted by a Philadelphia newspaper. The reporter visited a Real Alternative clinic, claiming to be pregnant; she was told that abortion would leave permanent psychological damage, that it often leads to depression, and could interfere with her ever having children– claims thoroughly debunked by reputable medical science.

Groups like Real Alternatives exist throughout the country, mostly funded by anti-abortion organizations like Heartbeat International and individual donations. Real Alternatives, though, is funded almost entirely by the state of Pennsylvania — financed, that is, by you, the taxpayer, and it has received tens of millions of dollars since 1997…

That money, City Paper has found, goes to pay for part of the $199,000 salary (including benefits) of the CEO of Real Alternatives, who has no medical experience. It also funds an army of hundreds of “counselors,” non-medically-qualified personnel whose job it is to dispense the organization’s (sometimes outright inaccurate) information — and who, despite lacking the credentials of nurse practitioners or psychologists, cost the state much more per hour for their services than either.

According to Cosmopolitan magazine, which conducted a year-long investigation of the organization’s operations in Pennsylvania,

Real Alternatives’ contract with the state relies on debunked studies that imply abortion leads to breast cancer and clinical depression. Centers are not allowed to advocate for birth control, much less dispense it. The contract’s directives advise pregnancy-center staff to make an “assessment of the client’s spiritual needs” by asking questions like, “How does your faith impact the choices you make?” (One quarterly report from a center to Real Alternatives refers to clients with the aliases “Mary” and “Joseph.”)

The United Nations Population Fund estimates that one in three deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth could be avoided if all women had access to contraceptive services.

Whatever one’s position on abortion, the use of tax dollars to support “clinics” that offer no medical services— clinics that exist solely to lie to women in order to convince them to forego both abortion and contraception–is immoral.

Our fundamentalist Governor is understandably frantic to mend fences with his Religious Right constituency, after reality and Hoosier businesses forced him to sign the RFRA “fix.” In the echo chamber he inhabits, this contract probably seemed like a good way to do that.

In the rest of the state–even among Republicans– not so much.

John Gregg is looking better all the time.

 

Tea Party Priorities

Evidently, the theatrics–make that “tea” actrics–will not end anytime soon.

You may remember that, in 2011, when he was still in Congress, Mike Pence was an enthusiastic leader of that year’s “defund Planned Parenthood or shut government down” effort. It’s 2015, but in the crazy caucus, only the faces have changed. Last week, Indiana Congressmen Young and Stutzman were among those voting to shut down government.

Despite last week’s passage of a short-term “clean” funding measure to keep government open until December, the zealots are still intent upon shutting down government unless Planned Parenthood is defunded, and a not-insignificant number of them say they’ll refuse to raise the debt ceiling when the time comes. (That, of course, would cause a massive default by the U.S. on its obligations, including such obligations as military pay, social security and medicare.)

Given so many Republicans’ willingness to do it again, you’d think the last shutdown (in 2013, over Obamacare) had been a rousing success for the would-be extortionists. It wasn’t–at least, not in what the rest of us call the “real world.”

Indeed, as the zealots prepare to play yet another game of chicken, twenty thousand federal workers are still suing over the last government shutdown, and a recent report by the Congressional Research Service calculated the economic damage done by that fit of pique:

Federal employees worked 6.6 million fewer hours during the 16-day government shutdown in October 2013, according to a recent report, with the loss of productivity resulting in a 0.3 percent loss in economic growth.

In other words, sending more than 850,000 federal employees home without pay for at least part of the shutdown took billions of dollars out of the economy.

Although the ideologues refuse to believe it, most government employees work at jobs that actually need to be done. When those jobs don’t get done, the economy slows, hurting everyone.

None of that matters to the zealots. In order to “defund” Planned Parenthood–that is, in order to keep Medicaid from reimbursing the organization for medical services provided to poor women and men (STD tests, breast cancer screenings, birth control pills, etc.), they’re willing to make poor people poorer. And sicker.

Tea Party “patriots” are willing to ignore the reality that there are no other providers with the capacity and reach to substitute for Planned Parenthood, and that defunding the organization would cut off medical care to millions of Americans.

Poll after poll confirms that most Americans support Planned Parenthood, value its services and don’t want to see it defunded. They also don’t want another government shutdown.

Americans would really like to see a Congress that governs rather than postures, but apparently, that’s too much to ask.

 

The Economics of “Social Policy”

There are economic consequences to most policy choices. That’s just as true of so-called “social” policies as it is of decisions to build roads or wage wars.

When religion is driving policy, economic repercussions tend to get ignored. So it was interesting to read Two Sides, Same Coin–a report by the University of California at San Francisco on the economics of abortion policy. Researchers followed women who were turned away–who wanted to terminate a pregnancy but were unable to do so. As the report noted,

Access to comprehensive reproductive health care, including abortion, is essential to women’s economic security. Yet many progressive politicians and advocates often ignore this important connection. This report delineates the many links between these topics—including that family planning increases women’s economic opportunity, lack of supports for pregnant and parenting women interferes with their economic stability, and there is an unfulfilled potential for reproductive health care to help create economic security—and the need to integrate both issues into any proactive policy agenda to achieve equality for women.

The Guardian recently noted the “costly choice” faced by pregnant American women:

For a country where politicians are rather eager to promote family values, America has few policies that make it easy to have children. On top of high health-care costs and limited employer benefits, the country has little in the way of affordable child-care. It is unsurprising, then, that three-quarters of women who choose to have an abortion say it is because they cannot afford to have a child. Some will argue that they can always put their child up for adoption. Others will add that marriage can be a fine antidote to poverty (45% of all women who seek abortion are unmarried). These are fair points. But perhaps instead of closing down abortion clinics, lawmakers might consider more ways to give these women better choices.

Perhaps the most widely-read economic analysis of abortion policy was the argument by the authors of Freakonomics,  

who concluded that legalization of abortion in the 1970s explained a substantial part of the crime decline in the 1990s. (Evidently, children born into households where they are wanted, and where the adults are financially and emotionally capable of raising them, commit fewer crimes.)

None of this is an argument for making moral choices on the basis of economic consequences. But opinions on the morality of abortion are hotly contested.

It’s interesting to note that people who believe that the moral position requires respect for personal autonomy and reproductive choice tend to give generously to organizations like Planned Parenthood. On the other hand, the lawmakers most willing to use government’s power to impose their personal moral/religious beliefs on women who may not share them have shown little interest in ensuring the well-being of children once they are born.

The economic consequences of that disinterest fall on the rest of us.