E-mail Conversations Summer 2000

Holland's low abortion rate

Interestingly, in the Netherlands the one ad you're most likely to see in any train station in the country is designed by a pro-life group, VBOK (the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children). VBOK's campaign is incredibly successful.

The ads are large black-and-white photos of a young woman, sometimes shown with a male partner, looking distressed, and the caption is always the same: "Unexpected pregnancy? What now? For help for mother and baby, call [this number] day or night."

I find this shift in focus very interesting. The pro-life movement here is not the battlefield it is in the US. It seems to me that there's an assumption in these ads that an unplanned pregnancy is always distressing because the question of abortion is distressing. To focus on the baby would be "too American" and probably would be counter-productive in this country, although the organization's name reveals that the organization itself is strictly focused on protecting the unborn.

Would pro-life groups in other countries be more successful if they had a similar focus?

Nancy Forest

Works of mercy for the unborn

The Pascha In Communion reached me last week. I devoured it as did my wife. She had an interesting response to the abortion article by Renee Zitzloff: it caused her to think of the passage in Matthew 25:31-46, how our Lord Jesus teaches us that whatever we do to the least, we do to Him. And she noted how infants are all those things: hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and in prison. Doesn't that describe an infant in the womb!

Thaddaeus Nielsen

Life-saving support

Recent In Communion articles and letters on abortion and pro-life commitment argue, no doubt correctly, that if they have true community support, many women will not resort to this desperate measure. But what should be understood by community support?

Two cases of abortion of which I know may show that in different contexts community support may mean different things.

One concerns a Serbian woman living with her husband and two children on a farm who discovered during the Bosnian war that she was expecting a third child. One of her children was handicapped and had to be taken regularly to the hospital despite the immense difficulties in getting petrol. She could not face the thought of a third child.

The other concerns a Syrian woman with four children, the sole breadwinner for her family since her husband suffered an accident which left him an invalid. She works as a maid an hour's bus ride away from their village. She would have got no paid maternity leave if she had kept her fifth child.

For married women like these, what kind of community support would be needed to allow them to keep their babies? Part of the answer certainly depends on the local and personal situation of the people involved. Are there informal networks of support in the community? Relatives who can help? A climate in society which places value on having children? These are points often mentioned in In Communion.

The OPF cannot intervene directly in the decisions of governments to increase social and economic justice. And we may say that the idea of a welfare state has only ever been applied in a few countries -- although other societies may have developed their own forms of solidarity. What we should realize now, however, is that globalization, as it is presently practiced, threatens to make conditions for the Syrian mother and her Serbian sister worse. Specialists of development economics agree that globalization is making the rich richer and the poor poorer. And poverty is increasingly taking on a woman's face, as the proportion of women, alone or supporting children, among the poor rises.

It may be assumed that the number of abortions for reasons like the ones outlined here will rise correspondingly.

Apart from the general impoverishing effect of globalization on most of the world's population, the pervasive doctrine of economic liberalism sometimes strikes directly at prospective mothers. At its annual conference in Geneva in early June, the International Labor Organization had before it a proposed revision of Convention 103, which fixes the minimum rights to maternity leave for the countries which have ratified it (only 36 of the 176 members of the ILO). The employers' representatives wanted greater flexibility to be introduced into the text, for instance by suppressing the obligation for six of the stipulated twelve weeks of maternity leave to be taken after the baby's birth. But many women, if they cannot reckon on six weeks of leave after their baby is born, will be forced either to stop work -- or not to have the baby. At the moment it is illegal to sack women while they are on maternity leave, but another of the employers' demands was that they should be able to get rid of their female employees during that period too "for reasons unconnected with their pregnancy."

The attitude of employers is more than apathy to pregnant women's vulnerability, it is hardness of heart -- the quality often ascribed to the women who undergo abortions. It is a hardness of heart induced by the modern idolatry of maximum profits and the free play of market forces.

Fortunately the employers' group was defeated by the representatives of governments and workers' organizations on the question of maternity leave, which was extended from twelve to fourteen weeks. But they did not lose entirely. Under the revision, women taking maternity leave will only receive two-thirds of their salary -- and since most women are underpaid already, this will leave them very little indeed. And it will be possible to lay them off during maternity leave, for reasons unconnected with their pregnancy. How many women will be able to take on their employer and fight a dismissal caused in fact by their pregnancy, even though the employer has given some other excuse?

Any serious discussion of abortion and efforts to combat it have to take into account that the reality of women's lives in most parts of the world is harsh, not because women like it but because outside factors -- governments, employers, social structures, and also the world economic system and the multinationals -- make it that way.

Apart from trying to do that where we live, we in OPF can operate a kind of community support at a distance, working and praying to soften the hearts of legislators, politicians and economic decision-makers in our countries, to ensure that the measures they take, which may well have an influence internationally, favor life.

Hilary Waardenburg

Capital punishment

If I may venture an opinion as Candide (still being largely an outsider in the American political culture, having lived here for merely 20, partially informed, years), my hunch is that the quasi-religious attachment of many Americans to the unproven virtues of capital punishment belongs with the idol of self-determination and the obsession with quick, visible and simplified retribution. In other words, it "feels" right for most people to make their own justice with a gun or to delegate it to an equally expeditious and lethal electric chair or injection. The causal connection is direct, uncomplicated by too much reflection and, especially, not subject to the much-feared demon of "Centralized Control" (which may include anything from concrete gun restrictions to abstract ethical misgivings).

Ioana Novac

Terminator seeds

Genetic alteration is inseparable from the very concept of agriculture. A cultivated plant or animal, especially cared for and protected from its natural predators, is naturally weakened over a period of generations, simply because weak individuals within the species are permitted to survive and then to hand on their inherent weakness to the next generation. There is considerable question whether the ordinary rices and wheats and apple trees, without human cultivation, could even survive now, after millennia of special cultivation. How long would our domesticated farm animals make it in the wild now, if their natural predators were still around?

All this means is that the civilization of anything, but of human beings most of all, has a weakening effect on its genetic constitution. It was realized a long time ago that civilization, with its humane support for weakness, has a consequent weakening effect on that which it civilizes.

This perception has always been the major argument against feeding the poor. If you feed them, you keep them alive and reproducing; there will consequently be more of them. Feeding the poor (this argument runs) simply increases poverty.

The empirical evidence for this argument seems so unassailable that I am glad I am not limited to empirical evidence to argue against it.

Fr. Pat Reardon

Alice pointed out that "rice with vitamin A now prevents blindness in those countries where a rice diet without the vitamin causes blindness."

I agree that a diet without vitamin A is a problem. The key word here is "diet," which indicates that although the rice may be the primary staple, it is part of a larger whole.

This would indicate that the problem isn't that the rice didn't have vitamin A, but that the rest of the diet as a whole lacked a balance of nutrients sufficient for good health. If this is the case, perhaps there might be a better (not to mention more enjoyable and, therefore, more potentially contemplative) solution than monkeying with the rice.

Fred Bittle

Terminator seeds and hurricanes

We tamper with nature to our peril, though all agriculture/horticulture involves tampering with nature to some degree -- imposing a human order on the natural order. Genetic modifications that yield plants or animals that would never occur in nature seems to me on a different order from cultivating, over time, a new strain of grain or a new breed of cattle. I think the danger is in thinking of nature as product.

One doesn't have to be a vegetarian to be dismayed by discussions of animals raised for slaughter that resolutely avoid the fact that we are talking about creatures, let alone creatures capable of suffering. There's a sense in which nature should humble us, and there's a danger with western science of thinking that it's all just there for us to figure out and control.

Is it necessary for me as a Christian to believe that it is all there somehow for our sake? Or is it God's creation, in which God delights and through which God somehow speaks?

The tough part is discerning just what this means in practical terms in how we order our lives...

Juli Tarsney

All creatures great and small

I came across this in a text I was translating today. The speaker is an animal on display in a sciece museum:

"You are so easily convinced by your own arguments. And as you argue yourself out of physical presence, your abstract reasoning modeled itself a place upon a Darwinist evolutionary scale. Bit by bit, through a subtle process of elision and omission you climbed the ladder to the heights of philosophical contemplation, dragging yourself out of the dark platonic cave into the daylight and scopic delight of pure vision.

"But the origin of your species lies within the body; just like all creatures on this earth. In that sense you are no different from the beasts that crawl or the birds that fly, or all manner of fish, fowl or furry things. Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

"But somehow you ignore the fact of your beginning, and as if by giving birth to yourself, you find your place at the peak of perfection in the personification of theoretical thinking, free of bodily limitation, free of an origin outside yourself, author of your own life story.

"You turn your false 'bodilessness' into your great advantage. And from here on, all the rest of us must suffer categorization according to body type. We become determined by the significance that you read into our bodies and hence forward must live our biology like destiny."

(Polly Gould, Utopian Dreams)

The text resonates with my suspicion that a big problem today is what Walker Percy called "abstraction" -- not speaking, thinking and acting as though you were inside your body, but far outside it, contemplating it and all the rest of creation from across a vast intellectual void.

This has hit home recently here with a new turn of events -- we have taken in our daughter's best friend. She now lives upstairs in the little spare room. Her stepfather died in January and her mother is presently unable to care for her.

I ask myself why are we doing this? Is it because I see the face of Christ in Laura? Is it because Christ commanded that whatever you do for the least you do for me, and my salvation depends on this? Did we go through this kind of reasoning process when we took her in? No. We took her in because she was there and we had a room. It was that simple. But how complicated it can become if you start "doing good for a reason"!

Nancy Forest

Eucharistic reception

Alice Carter recently pointed to the priestly activity of man in relation to creation. It is difficult to define how this priestly activity is to take place.

Perhaps we could speak of a "contemplative stewardship" together with a "eucharistic reception." By contemplative stewardship I mean a stewardship that goes beyond utilitarian conservation to include a reverence based upon the perception of the continuing creative act and presence of the Creator.

By eucharistic reception I mean to recall the three acts in the Liturgy of the Faithful: offering, transformation, and communion. We should consciously offer creation back to God who first gave it to us. God will no doubt be able to further transfigure it with His energies because of our free offering, and then he will offer it back to us for our reception.

I realize that the way I have expressed this is clumsy and awfully theoretical, but I do think it points in the right direction.

Yes, only God can save creation, but He asks us to act in synergy with Him as His priestly agents. It does make a difference what man does; creation will be either more or less "saved" based upon man's activity. I know that I leave myself open to the knee jerk charge of chiliasm here, but I will just have to live with that.

Fred Bittle

Orthodox peacemaking

John Brady commented: "I'm strongly in favor of pondering on, praying about, talking about, what makes something an Orthodox peace fellowship, not just an Orthodox branch of the peace 'movement' if there still is such a thing. I'm reminded of a friend's sardonic comment about Christian environmentalism: that most writers just say the same old things but use 'creation' in place of 'environment.' We don't want to just say the same old things with some Orthodox icing on them."

God protect us from ever becoming an echo (with a few Orthodox trimmings) of what passes for a peace movement these days. So much of the current peace movement is hardly more than a garage sale of politically correct bumper stickers. The groups I am aware of do very little to overcome the divisions within or between nations and with but a few minute exceptions do nothing at all to focus on the sanctity of life (for to do so would oblige them to defend the unborn).

The Orthodox understanding of peace is shaped by Christ himself and the example he gives us. It is the Holy Trinity's dialogue of love. It is honoring the image of God in the other, even in the enemy. We see the contours of the peacemaker's life in the Beatitudes.

Jim Forest