My thoughts on personhood. . . .

There’s been a lot of talk lately about “personhood,” abortion, when life begins, and what value should be placed on the earliest stages of human life.  I’ve hesitated to enter this discussion as it gets so emotionally charged and because religious interpretations figure so centrally in this discussion.  However, I’ve realized that I can’t state my opinion properly in a couple of sentences here or there. I’m long winded,  and I do have something to say on this issue.

Part of the problem is defining the words we use in this discussion in a way that everyone can agree on.   The problem exists because even science doesn’t agree on one answer to each of these questions.  My hope, in writing my thoughts, is that maybe we can put down anger for a few moments and try to find some common ground that will allow us to understand each other better and to respect each other’s views.

Let’s start with a basic one first. What is life? You would expect that it’s easy to define life and when human life begins, but there’s a lot of controversy on this one.  The controversy exists not because life is so hard to define but because of the implications of that definition.

According to the dictionary definition, it’s simply the condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death.  By this definition, all plants, viruses, and microorganisms have life and human life begins when an egg is fertilized and begins to divide and develop.

But does that mean that from the moment that an egg is fertilized that it is a person with the same rights as you and I?  Does the embryo have rights that override the rights of the mother whose womb he/she is growing in?

Let’s step back from those questions a moment.  It’s clear that we don’t treat all living organisms the same.  We routinely kill viruses and bacteria without hesitation because of either a real or perceived threat against us.  We, as a group, have decided that human life is more valuable than viral life.  We also kill bugs and plants with no real hesitation.  We don’t begin drawing a line until we get to animals.  Why is that?  It’s because animals have some level of intelligence or consciousness that we recognize.  We give more value to them for that, but we still place them below humans.  Why are we okay with that? Science still argues with itself over what differences exist between animals and humans and whether or not animals are self-aware.  So for the sake of argument, I’ll just allow that human life can be valued more because of our consciousness and our self-awareness.  Further, I’ll state that it’s the combination of our intelligence, the capacity to speak a language, our creativity, the ability to make moral judgments, our consciousness, our free will, our self-awareness and our ability to reason that sets human life apart from other forms of life.  I’m sure we can come up with more, but I think you get where I’m going with this.  This all ignores the fact that as a society we consider killing in the process of war or the death penalty to be acceptable, but that’s a different discussion.

Now that we’ve concluded that our consciousness is what makes human life more valuable or deserving of protection, we are left with another question:  When does human consciousness begin?

Between week 24 and 28 of pregnancy, the physical network of nerve cells that’s necessary for human consciousness begins to be in place.  It’s roughly 2 more months before an EEG will signal the beginning of the global neuronal integration that’s needed for consciousness.  Many of the circuits needed for consciousness are in place by the third trimester.  Does this mean that the baby is conscious at this point?  No, it just means that most of the pathways are finally in place.  Studies show that during the third trimester, that the fetus is almost always in one of two sleep states, basically sedated by the placenta.  Neonatologists have concluded that the fetus is sedated while his/her brain matures.  2 decades ago a pediatrician discovered a large surge of norepinephrine occurs when the fetus disconnects from the maternal placenta.  Along with being removed from the sedative effects of the placenta, this surge during the birth process arouses the baby.   “As he/she draws their first breath, they begin to experience life.”(1)

So there’s evidence that the biological means for consciousness begins to develop during the second trimester and continues into the third trimester.  There’s also evidence that the fetus is sleeping throughout the pregnancy.  So, can we conclude that consciousness starts before birth or at birth?  Babies don’t begin to exhibit their own personalities immediately after birth.  It takes months for parents to begin to see those traits that are unique to their child.  So are they finally conscious when they begin to exhibit their own personality?  These are questions we can’t answer at this time.  Science is working on the questions, but we don’t yet have the answers.  We don’t know when consciousness starts, partly because there’s controversy over what consciousness means.

So where does that leave us?  What rights does an embryo or fetus have? Does an embryo or fetus have more rights than the mother whose womb he/she lives in? If, as the constitution says, “all people are created equal,” then when does a person begin to exist?

To answer that we need to think about this question:  What is a person?  And this is where the discussion always gets heated.  There’s so much disagreement around when a fetus or embryo or baby becomes a person.   And it seems that so much of that disagreement comes from religious beliefs.   Since Christianity claims a Jewish history and that Jesus is fulfillment of Jewish law, I’m going to go back to the ancient Jewish concept of a person.

The Hebrew word “nephesh” is “the usual term for man’s total nature.”  The word is used 755 times in the Hebrew Bible and goes back to a root meaning “to breathe.” (2).  A “nephesh” is understood to be a creature that breathes,  so based on that definition a fetus was not considered to be a person under ancient Jewish law.  This is consistent with Exodus 21: 22-23 which states that if men are fighting and cause a woman to miscarry but the woman is unharmed, a fine is levied.  If the woman is harmed, then the life for a life, eye for an eye rule was applied.   We see similar examples and interpretations in other Jewish texts.

The other religious argument I see regularly is the command that Thou shalt not kill.   It’s important to remember that this was not a prohibition on taking any life.   The Israelites killed animals with God’s blessing.  They killed their enemies in war with God’s blessing.  They even killed each other for violating God’s laws.   “ The command not to kill was not pro-life in an unqualified way.”(2)

Additionally, to say that the Christian Bible is silent on abortion because abortion didn’t exist then, is also incorrect.   There were laws regarding abortions as far back as 12,000 BC (the Assyrians), and the Greeks and Romans had many techniques for abortions.   We see both old and new testament authors regularly “condemning practices of their neighbors such as idolatry, idol worship, and pagan temple practices, yet they didn’t condemn abortion.”(2)

My views, since the Bible is essentially silent on the issue of abortion and science has not resolved all the questions of life and consciousness, are based entirely on opinion, just like everyone else’s.  It can’t be God’s opinion because that wasn’t provided in any of the ancient texts.

Personally, the concept of viability is important to me.  By viable, I mean able to survive after birth without medical intervention.   By that definition, medically, a fetus is not viable outside of the womb until around 34 weeks.   Yes, babies have been born much earlier, but they can only survive with Herculean medical efforts.  So by my definition a fetus isn’t viable until it’s able to be born and survive without medical intervention.   If the lungs aren’t developed yet, it’s not viable.  Again, that’s my opinion, not fact.   That doesn’t mean that I oppose medical intervention for babies born prior to 34 weeks just that from a standpoint of discussing personhood, I consider viability an important piece of the puzzle.

In American society,   we as persons, have certain freedoms.  One of the most basic in my opinion is the freedom to choose how to believe and to not have to live by another’s belief system.  That means that I have to allow others to live by belief systems that I don’t share.  So, if in your belief system, abortion is wrong, don’t have one.   But please, respect my right to believe differently.  Don’t use legislation to try to make me live according to your beliefs.  We risk so much when we allow one groups religious beliefs to trump another’s.  If it’s okay to use Christian beliefs or “God’s” laws to determine the laws of the land, then it’s also okay to base laws on the beliefs of Islam, or Buddhist beliefs.  We have  to allow all groups to live by their own beliefs but not bind those beliefs on others or we lose our most precious freedom.

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When someone you love can’t get pregnant. . . .

Consider this a public service announcement.   Whether you realize it or not, you most likely know someone who is dealing with infertility.  It can be hard to know what to say, especially since you really don’t know much about it unless you’ve been through it yourself.

I’m going to start with what not to say.   I’ve heard every one of these.  They don’t help.  They hurt.   Please don’t say these things to people you care about.

1).   Just relax.  Or stop trying so hard. Or stop thinking about it and it will happen when you least expect it.

Infertility is a medical condition.   My inability to get pregnant is not because I’m “trying to hard.”   This implies that it’s something I’m doing that is keeping me from being pregnant.  Would you tell someone with cancer to stop thinking about it and it will go away?   Don’t tell me that it’s somehow my fault I’m not pregnant or that just ignoring a medical problem will fix it.

2). You’re still young, you have time.

Infertility isn’t limited to a specific age.  Some women lose their fertility in their 20s or 30s.   Don’t tell me you know anything about the state of my ovaries.  The calendar may say my body is a certain age, that doesn’t mean my ovaries got the message.   We don’t know why some women’s ovaries age at different rates but they do.   Infertility doesn’t start at a specific age.   And no one is too young to be infertile.

3). Don’t tell me the story of the person you know of “who was in my situation and this is what worked for them.”

You don’t know what my diagnosis is.   You don’t know what I’ve tried.   This implies that I’m an idiot and I need someone who is not a medical doctor and really only knows anecdotes to tell me how to fix my problem.   I know you’re trying to give me hope, but this doesn’t do it.   Chances are that if your suggestion has any validity, I’ve looked into it and either tried it unsuccessfully or rejected it based on my actual diagnosis.   This is really a lot like looking at someone and telling them how your friend cured their high blood pressure when they really have diabetes.

4). Why don’t you just do IVF (in vitro fertilization)?

When I’m asked this question, I know the person I’m talking to has absolutely no clue what they are talking about.   You don’t just “do IVF” and take home a baby.  First, it’s expensive.  IVF runs anywhere from about $10,000 to $35,000 depending on what drugs you need and whether or not you need a donated egg or sperm.   Secondly, it’s not a sure thing.   In my best case scenario, I was looking at only a 60% chance of taking a baby home from the hospital.  Thirdly, it’s not an easy or comfortable procedure.   It starts with lots of blood being drawn, like every other day during parts of the cycle.  It included daily or twice daily shots that you give yourself in your stomach, and possibly shots in your bottom daily depending on your situation.  The egg retrieval is not comfortable.   The IVF can fail before retrieval if you ovulate in spite of the drugs (happened on my first IVF), or if your eggs don’t grow properly.   If everything goes as planned, the eggs will be fertilized and they will divide.  Here’s the next place your IVF can fail, if your eggs don’t divide properly after fertilization and get to a certain stage of development by day 5, they won’t be placed in you.   Let’s say that works, and they transfer the embryo to your uterus.   Now it has to implant.   After 10 days, you’ll have more blood drawn for a pregnancy test.  This is where my second IVF with a donated egg failed. I’ll tell you, it feels like a miscarriage.  I have an ultrasound photo of that embryo in my uterus.   The emotional toil of all of this is huge.   It’s not a simple thing.   Don’t minimize the pain, the money or the effort it takes to do this.

5) Don’t use the “look on the bright side” approach, or offer me your kids, or tell me how lucky I am for whatever thing you can’t do now that you have kids, or be grateful for what you have, or things could be worse.

All of these things are so hurtful and insulting.  The bright side approach is like telling someone after their house has burned down, “Hey at least you don’t have a heating bill.”    And believe me, someone going through infertility knows that it can be worse, we don’t need to be told.

6)  Why don’t you just adopt? Or I know someone who after years of trying adopted and got pregnant.

I think everyone must know these same 6 people.   First of all, anecdotes are not statistics.  Realistically, only 6 – 8% of people who adopt later get pregnant.  That means that over 90% don’t.   This is not hope.  This is once again implying that it’s something we’re doing that is preventing us from getting pregnant.    Secondly, no one “just adopts.”  It’s a long hard expensive and invasive process.   Regardless of whether or not you are adopting domestically or internationally, your life will be dissected to determine whether another person thinks you are fit to be a parent.   They look at your medical history, your finances, your criminal background, whether or not 911 was called to your house for a domestic dispute 5 years ago,  they’ll talk at length about your childhood, how you plan to discipline your child, your thoughts on anything about family and home life.   They’ll tell you how you can and can’t raise the child you are adopting.   Once you get past these hurtles, then for a domestic adoption, the birth mom has to choose you.    Then she has to give birth and not change her mind.  20% of the time the birth mom changes her mind and decides to parent her baby.   This is not a journey for the faint hearted and it’s not a consolation prize for those who can’t get pregnant.

7)  It’s not God’s plan.  Maybe it’s just not meant to be.

Really?  You’re telling me you think it’s more God’s plan for a baby to be born to a crack addict addicted to cocaine than for me to get pregnant?   You think he’d rather children be born into abusive homes than into my loving home?  Or do you think that I’d be a horrible mother?   I know that people who are saying these things think they’re being supportive.   I guess it’s supposed to comfort me that I’m not pregnant because it’s not God’s plan for me.  It doesn’t comfort me.  It doesn’t give me hope.  It insults me.   I’d like to think that if God is intervening in this way that he spend his time preventing pregnancies that end in abortion rather than preventing me from getting pregnant.

I know it can be hard to know what to do or say.   Here’s my advice on that.

1)       Just listen and be supportive.  Don’t judge, don’t offer advice.   You can say I’m so sorry you’re going through that.   You can say I’ll pray for you.    Let me know you care.

2)      Support my decision to stop treatment when I get to that point.  Don’t rush me to move on to adoption.  Let me grieve and move at my own pace.

Thanks for taking the time to read through this.  I’ve had every one of these things said to me during my journey.   I hope that by sharing them here, someone else won’t have to hear these things and feel extra unnecessary pain caused by insensitivity.   We’ve stopped infertility treatments about a year and half ago but if you have questions that will help you understand infertility and how to support someone you love, I’ll be happy to answer them.

 

 

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What Americans really want. . .

After looking at the results of this CNN poll, it’s clear to me that as Americans we aren’t really ready to fix our debt/deficit problems.   Don’t get me wrong, we talk a great game.  The poll results show that most of us understand the concepts that it will take to fix the problem.  The bottom line, according to this poll, is we’re not ready to make the sacrifices necessary to fix it, in spite of all the rhetoric flying around.

I’ve seen numerous headlines quoting this poll indicating that 2/3 of Americans favor the Republican “Cut, Cap, and Balance” plan.   This headline doesn’t really tell the whole story. For example in CNN’s poll, both of these questions had 66% of respondents in favor and 33% opposed.  These questions are referring to different proposals but the responses are the same.

“Question 21       In some proposals, Congress would raise the debt ceiling while cutting between two trillion and four trillion dollars in government spending over the next ten years and raising taxes on some businesses and higher-income Americans. Would you favor or oppose this proposal?”

“Question 23      In another proposal, Congress would raise the debt ceiling only if a balanced budget amendment were passed by both houses of Congress and substantial spending cuts and caps on future spending were approved. Would you favor or oppose this proposal?”

So in reality 2/3 of Americans also favor the White House proposal.   Instead of using this poll to say that Americans favor one proposal over another which really is not supported by the results, politicians in in Washington need to realize that governing, like all relationships, is about compromise.  The take away from the poll is Americans understand that it’s going to take a combination of cutting spending and raising taxes to reduce the deficit.   We realize that the debt ceiling is going to have to be raised but we want a long term solution to the problem of debt and overspending rather than just raising the ceiling.    It’s clear to me when you look at the questions in this poll that Americans are not set on a specific plan but we are in agreement on the principles.

Question 24 illustrates the heart of the problem.  The poll asks about cutting spending to some of the largest areas of government spending.  With the exception of defense spending, the answer is a resounding “No.”  To be fair, most people didn’t want to cut defense spending either, but the response was not a capital NO with an exclamation point as with some of the other areas.

Question 24.  Now I’m going to read you some of the specific proposals for cutting government spending and increasing taxes that have been suggested as part of the discussions on the debt ceiling.  For each one, please tell me whether you favor or oppose that proposal as a way to reduce the amount that the government owes.   (RANDOM ORDER)

Favor

Oppose

No Opinion

Cutting federal subsidies to farmers

31%

66%

2%

Cutting pensions and benefits for retired government workers

30%

68%

2%

Cutting defense spending

47%

52%

1%

Cutting the amount the government spends on Medicaid, the federal health program for the poor

22%

77%

*

Cutting the amount the government spends on Medicare, the federal health program for the elderly

12%

87%

1%

Cutting the amount the government spends on Social Security

16%

84%

1%

Increasing the taxes paid by oil and gas companies by ending federal subsidies for those businesses

73%

26%

1%

Increasing the taxes paid by businesses that own private jets

76%

26%

*

Increasing the taxes paid by people who make more than 250 thousand dollars a year

73%

26%

*

Since it seems that we’re all in agreement that we need to cut spending, and we seem to be in agreement on what we don’t want to cut, what does that leave?

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in 2010 the government spent $3.5 trillion or about 24% of GDP.  With $2.2 trillion paid by tax revenues, that left $1.3 trillion added to the deficit in 2010.

Defense Spending                                           20% or $705 billion                                              Social Security                                                20% or $707 billion                                        Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP                   21% or $732 billion ($452 billion Medicare)  Safety Net Programs                                      14% or $496 billion                                    Interest on the National Debt                      6% or $196 billion                                            Benefits for Fed Retirees and Vets             7%                                                                            Scientific and Med Research                       2%                                                          Transportation and Infrastructure            3%                                                                                  Education                                                        3%                                                                            Non-Security International                          1%                                                                                 All Other                                                              2%

Based on the poll, Americans are unwilling to make cuts in 48% of the budget.   Another 6% can’t be cut as it’s the interest on our debt (Keep in mind that default on even some of our obligations would cause an increase in our interest rates).   If you add in defense spending, 74% of the budget would be off the table for discussion.   I’m pretty sure that we don’t want to cut spending on Education, and we really don’t want to have bad roads, so we can’t cut spending on Transportation.

To me, this poll says that as a people we aren’t willing to make the hard choices that need to be made.   What Americans want is for someone else to spend less.  Spending cuts are exactly what we need as long as they affect someone other than me.   Increase taxes?  Absolutely, as long as it’s not my tax bill.

And speaking of taxes, according to the poll, 73% are in favor of increasing taxes/ending subsidies on gas and oil companies.  Let’s be clear, if the subsidies are ended, gas prices will go up.  The gas companies will pass this additional cost on to the consumer.   I understand why so many people are in favor of ending these subsidies.  I’m not arguing to keep them but I am pointing out what I think a lot of people aren’t thinking about.  We’re paying for this subsidy now and we’ll still pay this cost if the subsidy is removed, but it will be in the form of higher gas prices.

It’s past time for a serious discussion.   Washington – stop with the “my way or the highway” rhetoric.   We elected you to make government work, not to stop it in its tracks.  Americans, it’s time to make serious long term changes.  If you believe that cutting spending is the way to solve the problem, then let’s get real about what can be cut.  If you think that taxes will need to go up to pay off the deficit, then stop yelling no more taxes.  If you’ve been sitting in your house silently, it’s time to speak up. We need to let our elected officials know what sacrifices we’re willing to make to solve this problem.

Most importantly, we need to start focusing on how we can impact the problem instead of how we can escape the consequences.

DM

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It begins

I’ve had some thoughts I’ve wanted to share but they weren’t appropriate for my crafting blog.   I’ve been thinking about a second blog for a while.  A place where I can share my thoughts that aren’t the least bit crafty.  I’m not making any promises on how often I’ll post.   Rather, I’m only going to post when there’s something I really want to say.  I’m looking forward to sharing.

 

DM

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