Privilege and Paper Balls.

This story on Buzzfeed was going around Facebook today, and I felt that I needed to expand on the point it makes.

In short, it is about a social experiment that may or may not have actually occurred in a classroom. Kids were asked to sit in their seats and try to toss wadded paper into a bin. The kids in the back of the class objected, stating that it was unfair, but the exercise went ahead. Many of the kids in the front made their shot, though it is clumsily pointed out that not all of them did. It is noted that “only a few students in the back of the room made it.” It succeeds in painting a relatable picture of what privilege is, but it fails to point out somethings that people who have privilege often miss.

I think, as a story, it would make sense to point out that there might be someone in the front of the class with a visual impairment or a physical ailment or disability who still missed, but had a much better chance for being in the front of the class than the back. Others may not have taken the exercise seriously enough to make a solid effort. Privilege does not ensure success, just as some people with less privilege, through hard work and/or luck, might succeed.

It fails to point out that the people in the back probably noticed right away that this was unfair, because it was obvious from where they were. Many of them might not have even been able to see the bin from their seat, having to either count on a description, someone pointing at it, or being allowed to look at it from another angle before returning to their seat to make the attempt. Maybe one of them was brave enough to try standing in their seat. All of these are forms of affirmative action. They give a person without privilege a better chance at success, but they don’t change the factors that limited them in the first place, or not all of them. We can give a person a place in an institution that they could not fully earn, but they would have no role models, no allies, and the resources would not be in place to ensure that they could cope. We can give them some relief, but they still have to work harder.

The story fails to make the point that maybe even those in the middle of the second row who were still closer to the bin than those on the edges of the front row. Because privilege isn’t a straight line. It is a graph with a hundred axes. I score well on several important ones, like being a white, straight man in the United States. You may score less well, because of gender or sexuality, or better because you live in a country with universal healthcare and better market regulations. Your religion may be closer to the cultural assumption of mainline protestantism; Catholics have it better than Hindus through much of the United States. You may be a transgendered person who is lucky enough to rarely have that fact noticed, and therefore can live under the assumption of cisgendered privilege most of the time, or a person of Hispanic decent who looks white enough that people don’t discriminate against you for your race. Privilege is a tricky concept with a lot of variables.

I like the way this experiment sets up the discussion, but I think that it lacks follow-through in helping to go beyond the idea that “some people start closer to the basket”. That is essential in making it a discussion that reaches those people who need to understand it the most: the people in the front row who still see a challenge in getting that ball in the bin and don’t have to think about how much harder it is for the kid behind them because that is happening outside the focus of their objective. And we all need to be reminded, sometimes, that all positions in the front row are not equally advantageous, and it doesn’t illuminate every challenge that a person might face. If a person is struggling, we can acknowledge and hear that without diminishing the understanding that they might still have privileges we do not; it simply reminds us that, occasionally, perspective is also a privilege.

I am not a feminist, but you can call me that if you want to.

That’s right: I rarely refer to myself as a feminist. I don’t like the term. I don’t think it applies to me. This frustrates my significant other at times, and so I thought I might share my thoughts, because others might find them equally maddening, and that is good for page hits. Let me explain further with a comparison:

I am not gay, transgendered, or otherwise “Queer”. I don’t cal myself a part of the LGBT community, though I fully support their right to be heard and included and their civil rights. I do not have their experiences, and I cannot rightly claim to be one of them. I mess up all the time when talking about the issues of homosexuals, including the fact that many of them now dislike the term “homosexual”. I certainly mess up when speaking about and with transgendered persons and it is nearly impossible to speak about the gender-nonbinary without an introductory lesson in each person’s preferred lexicon.

I am, likewise, uncomfortable calling myself a feminist. I support equality and representation and empowerment, but I do not have the personal experience with discrimination to draw from. I do not have a connection with “feminism” that runs any deeper than my connection with the LGBTQ community: I love these people, and I support them, but it feels wrong to claim to be a part of their struggle. I am an ally for equality and justice, but that is the only label I am comfortable with. It is not that I am against feminism, or even just the word; it just doesn’t speak to who I am or what I am for.

I am an ally for all those people who need to be heard and who need to be treated better. I am strongly against gender bias, and actually against the concept of binary gender even as I am very happy and comfortable as a man. I want my penis to matter less in other people’s valuation of me than what I give back to the world. I want that for everyone no matter what their biology, how they dress, or how they identify. If you think that makes me a feminist, then so be it. I don’t call myself by that term except when it must be defended against people who use it as a slur.

Privilege: Oppression by Omission

“This is no simple reform. It really is a revolution. Sex and race because they are easy and visible differences have been the primary ways of organizing human beings into superior and inferior groups and into the cheap labor on which this system still depends. We are talking about a society in which there will be no roles other than those chosen or those earned. We are really talking about humanism.”
Gloria Steinem

That is the goal, isn’t it? People, all people, having choice and self determination? What can you do to help us get there? Well, if you are anything like me, then it starts with an admission that we have to participate in the process by getting out of the way. If you are a man by biology and personality, are of northern-European decent, or are attracted primarily to those of the opposite gender, then you have a cultural privilege. It isn’t your fault that other people have prejudice, but it is your responsibility to stand up to it and refuse to allow it to be part of your culture any longer. If you won’t do it, then the discrimination goes on until the discriminated are powerful enough to overthrow the system or are exterminated.  We’ve seen extermination in Europe, and we’ve seen both outcomes in various parts of Africa. We can do better, and we have to. We need equality, and it can only come peacefully if straight, white men (and everyone who fits into one or more of those categories) demand it of each other. We are the dominant groups in our culture, and like it or not, we are the problem.

People will tell you that their family isn’t racist, “It’s just my Grandfather and a couple of uncles, so we just don’t provoke them.” People will tell you that a political movement isn’t racist, sexist, or homophobic, or biased against minority religions if only some of the people it represents hold any or all of those views. People will tell you that they aren’t biased, but their company, their industry, their department, their culture has a problem, and they don’t want to rock the boat.

That is the defining point of “institutional” discrimination; a segment of the population, no matter how large or small, sees the problem, but doesn’t think that they can effect change because the problem is small, or wide spread, or any other of a number of excuses for letting it happen to other people. That kind of discrimination, whether it is sexism, racism, or discrimination against those with handicaps, requires a group with power which uses their power to oppress others. A person can be prejudiced, but only a culture can have institutional discrimination; it requires a group of like people who are empowered to protect their status, and who are allowed to do so.

That is the definition of cultural privilege. I can speak of privilege; I have plenty of it, and the places where I am an outsider are so far outside the norm that we aren’t even really talking about them. I’m white. I’m straight. I’m male. I am the default hero in a romantic comedy (most kinds of comedy, really), and I look a lot like the action hero, too. Since we don’t see religion as a major theme in a lot of movies, television shows, or books, my most prominent sticking point isn’t really talked about much. We talk about Islamophobia and antisemitism, but we don’t really have discussions about the privilege of being Christian in the US, and that is clearly one of the biggest problems I may ever face with discrimination in this country.

So, I am speaking from a place of privilege, to people with varying degrees of privilege. We cannot ignore our position in the dominant culture, because of gender, race, primary language. We have to be aware of the advantages that come to those in the US with fair skin or the appearance of male-ness, or simply a functional English vocabulary, or an understanding of Christian culture and symbolism. More over, we need to understand that any one of those things is still privilege, even if you only have one working in your favor. A Black man who is a baptist still has advantages over his sister or a black man of similar build who was raised Islamic, or to whom English is a second language, even where his skin tone causes him trouble. A white woman will still face less scrutiny than a black woman, or,in many cases, a black man. While it might not come up as often, I can tell you that a white man who has turned away from Christianity, even though he was raised to it and knows it better than most believers, will face discrimination over the choice. It has never cost me a job, that I know of, but I am certain that it would have if it had ever been known to at least one employer.

I don’t say this to compare my struggles with those of anyone else; I refuse to believe that we can compete for equality and I know I have it easier than most. I say that I have faced some discrimination in my own life to illustrate that I don’t take my privilege lightly. I try not to use it as a crutch, and I never hold it over anyone else. We cannot have an unequal fight for equality.

What I am saying is that Privilege is real. To deny that it exists is to literally deny the institutional nature of the discrimination faced by women, by persons of color, by those with disabilities, or by those from minority cultures or religions. It is fine to say that it can be hard to be a man, living up to expectations, but to do so must come with the understanding that those expectations are unfair to all genders and that it is still men who hold most of the power. Your ex-wife wins custody “because she’s the woman”? That’s not fair to her, either, because it presumes that she’s more willing to suffer in her professional life. It is the system punishing you for not properly owning your family, in a manly way, and letting your marriage “fall apart”. That isn’t women oppressing men, it is a male dominated culture claiming that women are better suited to raising kids. Feminists don’t want that, either.

You didn’t get the job you wanted because, all things being equal, a minority was hired instead? Or even someone who wasn’t quite as qualified, but had darker skin? Well, then let’s remember that the qualifications they have were harder to earn. Let’s remember that black and Hispanic students are far more likely than white students to repeat a grade, and that more than 70 percent of K-12 students who were arrested or referred to law enforcement were Hispanic or black. The people who make it through all of that deserve a little more consideration for the effort.

Ultimately, the thing about privilege is that we have the choice to ignore it. Being white factors into almost none of my decision making in a given week. Being a man, I can go to the store or for a walk and have very little concern about what I am wearing because anything it does say about me isn’t really going to bring me any real trouble. if I look good, then I just look good with very little chance of sexual assault. If I look like a slob, there is little chance anyone will feel compelled to comment. It is up to me to notice that my relatively positive treatment is a privilege, and to use it to stand up for those who aren’t being treated fairly. It is up to me to use my visibility, my better chance at an education, a job, or a television appearance, to speak up and demand equality for those who don’t have the odds in their favor the same way.

It is the responsibility of those who have privilege to reach out to those in need of recognition, because we need their ideas and we need their participation in our society. They have things to share and to teach us. They can help us be a better culture. It is up to those of us with more options to work to share those options with everyone, because equality isn’t equality if it only applies to some groups. It is, by definition, still privilege. You cannot refuse to believe in privilege without also disbelieving the underlying discrimination that comes with it. You can’t ignore racism, sexism, ablism, or many other forms of institutional discrimination without ignoring not just statistics, but millions of individual identities across the nation. When you say “That’s just Grandad” or “Boys will be boys”, what you are really saying is “I’m Ok with a little discrimination”. Only, discrimination is insidious, and there is no such thing as “a little bit”; it is always either being consciously fought with education and active changes to policy and practice, or it is hurting more and more people, denying them their rights and depriving us all of their full potential.

FYI: A reply to Mrs. Hall

As a father with 2 boys and 3 girls in my care, I feel I have to respond to FYI (if you’re a teenage girl). If you haven’t read it, and don’t care to click through, let me give you a quick breakdown.

This is a mother who loves her kids. She clearly understands that she needs to be involved in their social lives, and monitors their social media, looking with them at posts made by their friends. The thing is that she is putting on notice the young girls who are friends with her sons: if mom thinks a post is too provocative, the friend is blocked. No warning and no second chance. She doesn’t initiate a conversation. She doesn’t tell her sons that she has high expectations of them. She puts it on the girls not to temp her boys. And she does it in a post that features pictures of her sons, topless, in their bathing suits.

I applaud the effort. I thank her for being a concerned and involved parent. I question her assertion that a teenaged girl bares the responsibility for her sons’ impure thoughts. I disagree, strongly, with her assertion that one picture that she finds mildly offensive is grounds for ending a friendship, or even just an on-line connection. I dispute her claim that “once a male sees you in a state of undress, he can’t ever un-see it”.

Girls do not owe it to the world to hide their bodies. You are allowed to find it offensive or appealing, but they do not owe you their modesty any more than they owe the world their nudity. Each of us has a body, and it can be argued that it is the only thing that we truly own. I’m sure that you are teaching your boys to respect women, but they need to know that every woman, and every man, deserves respect. Even the scantily clad woman on the street corner could be an  addict in need of health care she can’t afford, a single mother trying to keep food on the table, or even an undercover police officer. Who are you to judge any of them? It isn’t the job of a woman to guard herself against the impulses of men. That is the job of society as sure as the need to guard one person against the murderous rage or the felonious greed of others. We teach that it is wrong, we instill responsibility and respect in our kids, and we prosecute those who act on their impulses.

As I have said before, though never written into a full post, this is the kind of misogyny that is as damaging to men as to women; it claims that men can’t help themselves, and that they shouldn’t be blamed when they act on impulses that they were never told to control. I can see a woman in a towel, in a hospital gown, or a burqa, and still get to know her as a person of inherent worth and dignity who deserves the chance to earn my respect. And a second chance. And if the second goes badly, there are always opportunities to earn another by embracing your inherent worth and being good for the world. But, unlike Mother Hall, I not only believe people can change for the better, and that teenagers can do so in a very short time, but that you can change the world for the better while wearing a bikini. That’s what I teach my kids, too.

If you just can’t get through those two points, though, please remember that people do change. People learn from their mistakes, and they do it faster and more effectively when the people around them help them, lovingly, to see the errors that they have made and support the effort to fix the problem. Everyone can be better today than yesterday, but they have to believe that there is a reason to try. We all have inherent value, as humans, to one another. Each of us has experiences that we can share with the rest of the world. When we recognize that and nurture it in those around us, we gain so much more than we ever could through shame or derision. These young women might be the ones most in need of good boys in their lives, who will value them for more than their appearance. They may be looking for validation, and by refusing to let your sons communicate with them, they might continue down a road of self doubt and manipulation when all they really needed was a good friend. Then again, they might just be that self-aware, which could make them excellent influences on your own kids.

In short, congratulations; you are a good mother who clearly wants the best for her kids and who hopes to instill in them a sense of self confidence and self respect. Your heart is in the right place, and I am sure that you are doing many things well. This policy, though, is not one of those things. I doubt you will read my reply, with over 600 comments on your blog already. I couldn’t ignore the core of your message, though, because I think the consequences of your actions will be at odds with the intent, and I hope that writing this will help someone, if not you, see that there is a better way to teach your boys to respect women than by telling them that these young girls are unworthy of their friendship.

Popular fallacies in the debate on Gun Control, Part 2

Last week, I published a post about popular fallacies being used as debate points in the current, and hopefully unrelenting, effort by the American majority to change our laws and our culture relating to firearms and their accessories. It racked up several comments, and it was taken by one person as an invite to feed me even more such misguided wisdom. That post has been very popular reading, though I don’t know if anyone has read it and learned anything new.

Today, I would like to address a few more of the red herrings and strawmen that keep showing up on the side of people who just don’t want things to change for reasons that, generally, have nothing to do with the arguments being proffered.

First off, let’s talk about things that do not actually cause gun violence.

Television and movies do not create killers. They do desensitize people to some degree, and they do glamorize guns. These are problems, but no more so now than in the 50s, when television shows with titles like Gun Smoke and The Rifleman were on the air. The Lone Ranger was a vigilante with a gun before there were moving pictures in the living room. Clearly, then, the problem isn’t just the visibility of firearms in entertainment.

(Edit to add: Wouldn’t reducing the number of guns also mean fewer guns on television and in movies? The British version of “Law & Order” has to take in to account that the police in London don’t generally carry firearms. That is how they make it look believable.)

Similarly,  we cannot blame video games. Certainly, many gamers develop certain skills in coordination and tactics. almost none of these skills would be applicable to a mass shooting attempt. The controls for an X-Box are nothing like the trigger and sight of a real firearm. Gamers aren’t even shown the actual loading of a weapon as the magazine is slapped into place. The people who commit  insane crimes have access to real weapons and time to practice with them. Their time with the video game might exacerbate some instability in their brain, but it does not train them to kill in the real world any more than World of Warcraft trains you to wield a sword or axe. The skills are far more applicable to piloting a killer drone than to firing the weapons simulated in First Person Shooters. For further proof that games don’t create crime: the Japanese spend fully 10% more on video games per year than Americans, despite the US having nearly 250% of Japan’s population. Japan has 1% of the gun homicides that the US does, along with a stronger sense of civics and 87% fewer guns per person. Clearly the guns are a factor.

Let me be clear: the Second Amendment is not more important to American freedom than the First Amendment.

Even after I dismiss violent entertainment as a major contributor to gun violence, I will give you a remedy for the impact it does have: civics and empathy. We need to instill in our kids the sense that they are part of a community and that they have responsibilities to that community, and the community has responsibilities to them, too. We tell them that they are not alone, and we teach them that people are not superior or inferior to others except through their choices and actions.

We absolutely need to address the problems with our mental health system, but we just had a huge fight over healthcare reform, and it didn’t exactly come down on the side of massive expansion in services to the poor or in the area of metal health and treatment. Now seems a strange time to take on healthcare again, but I am in favor of doing more for those in need.

I purposely avoided one point in my last post: the seemingly ancient trope that “Guns don’t kill people.” To that, I have to ask: What is the purpose of a gun? If not to injure and kill, then what is the point? To look threatening? That comes from the knowledge that since the invention of the single shot Chinese fire lance, which was invented in the 10th century, people have been refining firearms to be more accurate, more lethal, and more efficient at killing, or at least seriously injuring, other living things. Sure, there are other ways to do that, but there are few things currently available to the public that are more capable of killing large numbers of people, and the things that are, like explosives, don’t have the same mythology. That is why we don’t see people emulating Timothy McVeigh: these crazy people and gang members and vigilantes don’t want to kill people, they want to shoot people.

“Criminals are criminals, and they aren’t going to care what the laws are”, I hear over and over, but we all know this to be untrue. Most criminals work pretty hard to not get caught. They care a great deal about the laws, and they do the things that get them the greatest reward for the least risk. If we make it harder to get guns, then fewer of them will have guns. If we threaten higher penalties for illegally obtaining a gun, then fewer people will be willing to risk it. If we start prosecuting straw purchasers and shutting down the small number of dealers who “loose” to criminals over half of the guns used in violent crime in the US, then we will have less violent crime. We aren’t, generally, talking about terrorists and anarchists trying to bring down western civilization. Sure, those people are out there, and they make headlines, but they are not the biggest contributors to gun crime.

Plenty of people with some grasp of history ask about how prohibition only led to more illegal activity in the 1920, and that smuggling would keep up the supply of guns. First, 78%of the guns used in criminal activity in 1994 that could be traced originated in the United States. Smuggling could not supply those numbers, and would increase the prices drastically. Similarly, most of the illegal alcohol consumed in the 1920s was illegally produced in the US, which is a difficult process requiring leaving the orange juice in the fridge too long. There is no correlation to be drawn between alcohol prohibition and firearms.

“People will just use another weapon, though,” you might be thinking. Certainly, there are those who will. That isn’t really the important part of the question, though. The question is what will changing weapons do to the victims. Gun violence is 5 times more deadly than knives. You cannot have a drive-by knifing. Just this week, a man went on a stabbing rampage through a college here in Texas. He stabbed 14 people, 2 were critically injured. No one was killed. He was stopped simply by one brave young man tackling him. This was a disturbed individual by all reports, having thought about a stabbing rampage for years. He killed no one.

Along with all of the crimes that would either be less deadly or outright impossible to commit with another weapon, we need to look at the incidents of where the ease of access to a gun makes a situation deadly when it would have only been violent, or the many that would never have happened at all. Domestic violence with a gun in the house is 5 times more likely to result in a murder; so much so that half of the women murdered with guns in the U.S. in 2010 were killed at the hands of their intimate partners.

In 2008, the last year for which I can find numbers, there were 680 accidental shooting deaths in the United States. More than 15,500 additional shooting injuries. Each day approximately five children were injured or killed on a nationwide basis as a result of handguns. Most of these were accidents, and not targeted shootings.

Finally, we need to address one of the most difficult areas of gun violence in the US: Gun suicides are almost twice as common as homicides (19,392 to 11,078 in 2010). Gun ownership makes you more likely to commit suicide. Again, the argument that comes up is that these people will just find another way to kill themselves. The fact, though, is that a great many people who attempt suicide aren’t addicts, terminally ill, or clinically mentally ill. A great many suicides are, more or less, spontaneous and unplanned. As the link tells it, proof of this exists in the history of England, where the switch from deadly coal gas being piped to residential ovens to less lethal and more sickening (thus less comfortable to breath long enough to be fatal) natural gas. In making the switch, the rate of successful suicide went down by about 1/3, or exactly the percentage that had resulted from people sticking their heads in the oven in the first pace. Similarly, would-be jumpers who were stopped by the police from jumping off the Golden Gate between 1937 and 1971, which was 515 individuals in all, were researched for the book “Where are They Now” by Richard Seiden. He found that just 6 percent of those pulled off the bridge went on to kill themselves. The overwhelming majority weren’t acting out some careful plan to end unendurable suffering. Similarly, then, by making guns less available to people in general, and not just criminals and the certifiably mentally ill, we can reduce the number of suicides.

One fact that is on the side of the gun lobby that you hear almost endlessly is that gun homicides are down, and down drastically, in the last few years. Many of the people touting that fact claim that the rise in gun ownership is responsible. That is odd, sense the rise in gun ownership is due almost entirely to the decreasing number of gun owners buying more and more gun, to the point that 20 percent of gun owners own 65 percent of the guns. The fact is that assault rates are up, as are property crimes in many “right to carry” states. So-called “Stand-Your-Ground” laws can be traced to several incidents where an armed individual seemed to provoke others, in one case leading to the aggressor actually being convicted of murder in Texas. It seems unlikely that he would have been this brazen if he hadn’t convinced himself that the law was on his side.

The fact is that guns do kill people. They make it possible for 5 and 6 year olds to kill. The NRA brags that tweens can handle an AR-51. They make it possible for a person in a car to kill 2 or 12 or 20 people without ever slowing down. They make death easy, and they kill people who would not otherwise be in any danger from the person with the gun. There is no other class of weapons that this is true for, because that is the intent of the gun maker: a tool designed to make killing so easy that an unlucky toddler can become a killer.

There are certainly other factors, but the gun is the common denominator in these suicides, infant deaths, drive-by shootings, and mass murders that no other weapon will replace. It is proven by history, mathematics, and the obvious evidence of the daily news. There are other avenues that might each address some of these circumstances, but none that will be more effective or less controversial. In short, real reform on gun ownership and accessories could make a difference in all of these areas and is much simpler than trying to implement changes to the mental health system, the education system, and censoring movies, television, and video games.

I am a Humanist, which, I Guess Make Me an Ally.

I am a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation, and I am very proud of the work we do and the community we’ve built. While I believe in a higher power that we can address and which is concerned with creation, I am a humanist who doesn’t see the hand of God anywhere that I don’t see the dirty hands of women and men doing good work. So, let me say that my faith has a lot to do with my stance on Marriage Equality.

I’ve seen a lot of talk this week about how important it is for straight people to voice their support for Marriage Equality right now. That is something I have done for years, mind you, but some seem to think that the Supreme Court of the United States is looking at Facebook to decide how the Constitution feels about homosexuals being treated as equally as possible. That’s all good and well, because I don’t mind being a vocal ally of equality. I just want to make clear that I am not a supporter of “Gay Rights”, because if the rights are “Gay”, then they are not rights at all. I support equality, and all I want to see in our laws is gender neutrality that reflects the complicated state of gender that science has come to understand cannot be broken down into “male” and “female” or “straight” and “gay”.

I am a humanist, who believes in love and family and the right of all people to create their own family from whomever they can. I am in favor of love, because when love is shared, nothing is lost, and there is simply more love in the world. I want people to be free to love and to settle down, and to be able to say “This is my person who speaks for me when I am incapable and who deserves my support and my trust” because those are the things that are being denied to homosexuals that are truly human rights. We can talk tax breaks or the right to go on Divorce Court when things go bad, but ultimately, what society is withholding from these people is the right to designate their next of kin, and that has got to be the most fundamental need a person has after health and education.

So, I am an ally, not because I want to give anything to the homosexual, bisexual, or gender queer among us. I am an ally because I am ashamed at what has been kept from them, and I cannot just let the injustice continue unopposed.

Abortion: Everyone is “Pro-life”. Are you anti-choice?

I have been trying to convince a “pro-life” UU that a woman is a person, and that a fetus is, at best, a special class that requires special consideration when we look at what rights we ascribe to it.

Let me start by saying that I am Pro-Life. I am in favor of not only life in simple terms, but in quality of life and the fullness of life and in life being something to celebrate. I was adopted as an infant. I have 2 children of my own, and I assure you that the first was a surprise. I wish that bearing a child didn’t come with social stigma and economic burdens. I wish that Maternal Mortality weren’t still an issue all over the world, more than 1 women in every 50,000 births in the US. Even if we managed those social and medical achievements, it can’t be ignored that having a child changes a woman’s body and brain chemistry, and not just the first time, but with each child that she bares. Every pregnancy requires a commitment to a real and unpredictable alteration to your way of life. It requires something akin to ego-death and accepting that you may not come out the same person. That isn’t something that we are likely to overcome any time soon.

I am Pro-life. I am also, out of necessity, pro-choice. Let me explain why, and how I rationalize that with my own past, my principles, and modern science.

Let’s start with a look at what it is that makes a person. It can’t just be genetics: a cancerous tumor is genetically human, and yet, differentiated from its host. It cannot live outside the host, even as it drains resources to fuel growth. It is alive, and it is human, but it is not a human being. The crucial distinction, then, is in the potential for a fetus to outgrow that specialized dependency and become an individual. I can accept that that potential is important, but it is not the same as a promise.

This is something so obvious that no country that I am aware of treats the fetus as a person. No industrialized nation issues “fertilization certificates”. Fetuses are not counted in any census. They are neither taxed, nor dependents to be claimed. If we are fighting for the “rights” of the fetus, what rights is it capable of exercising? It cannot have liberty from its womb. It cannot own property. It cannot believe, speak, read or write, or assemble freely. It cannot do these things, not for a defect in its development or an injury it has sustained, but due to an inherent and obvious lack of ability ensuing from the fact that it is not, as of yet, a person. It is not reasonable to describe the fetus as a whole person, and certainly not one that has the right to reside within an unwilling woman.

Why is it so obvious to all these secular agencies? Why has science been able to change our definition of death so clearly, but left the beginning of life so obscure? In part, it is because people will believe what they want, and that, generally speaking, the idea of when someone gains “humanity” is not a scientific question; it is generally held that a zygote is human, but that only something that has been separated from its egg, its mother, or (in the case of seahorses at least) its father’s womb. Before that, it is “alive”, but it is not a qualified individual member of its species.

Let’s look at some of the reasons why the promise of the embryo is not the same as an individual, much less a person:

Up to one half of all fertilized zygotes never make it beyond the 3rd week.  Many women will have at least one miscarriage in their childbearing years. Some of the critical errors that can cause a miscarriage are:

* Inheritance of a defective set of chromosomes. Errors in meiosis (called nondisjunctions) can produce an egg or sperm that has an abnormal number of chromosomes or broken chromosomes. This is almost always lethal. About half of the early miscarriages in humans are afflicted with this kind of random chromosomal defect.
* Errors in mitosis after ferilization. A nondisjunction in a dividing blastula may produce one abnormal cell — but since the blastula has so few cells, that means a significant fraction of the embryo is defective, preventing further development.
* Implantation errors. Human embryos have to nestle down in a good home, in the uterus. If the mother’s hormones are not just right, that can prevent implantation, and the otherwise healthy zygote may be sloughed away. In addition, 0.5 – 1% of all pregnancies are ectopic: the zygote tries to implant in the wrong place, most often in the fallopian tubes. This is always fatal for the embryo, and has the potential to be fatal for the mother.

Plenty of zygotes never implant in the uterus, and plenty of embryos are ejected by the host’s body for a variety of reasons, and this is possible at all stages of gestation.

At around 16 days after fertilization, we see a process called gastrulation, the point in development when the genetic code of the father first becomes truly involved in the embryo’s development. Until this point in development, even interspecies hybrids are possible, though most will die off once gastrulation occurs. This shows that simple fertilization does not promise a viable member of any species at all.

So, there must be a point in development where we are certain that we are going to get a person. Arguably, this happens around 20-23 weeks along, when we can detect actual brain activity above just the brain stem. That parallels the common medical definition for brain death, which is where we commonly declare the end of life, or at least hope for quality of life.

Even after that, though, many premature births still result in a being that is incapable of living more than a few weeks, even days. At least at that point, though, the fetus has a chance at life, outside the womb, in the care of someone other than the woman in whom it implanted. And that is the earliest point at which I can hold the argument for real personhood.

That still doesn’t explain clearly why women need to be able to choose to evict this mass, if they choose to do so. I feel I have established my position of the fetus as a non-entity, but why does that matter? Let’s cook up a ridiculous analogy; ridiculous because any attempt to duplicate the strain of an unwanted pregnancy with a relatable  situation is doomed to seem silly to anyone who has been through even a planned and welcome pregnancy.

I am adopted. No member of my family is genetically close to me. I need a kidney. I, therefore, insist that everyone in the US be screened, and that a random person with a proper DNA profile who has 2 good kidneys be forced to give up one. My need of their body is life or death, where as the risk to them is slight to moderate. We must also make them pay for the operation and drastically change their lifestyle for 9 months to prepare for a potentially deadly (one woman dies in the US for every 50K live births) medical procedure that will take months to recover from and alter their own brain and body chemistry for the rest of their lives.

Oh, and they have to wear a silly hat for those 9 months that opens them to public ridicule and even scorn for having been a viable donor. That is the real problem I have with a prohibition on abortion.

We can change the world such that a woman knows that she’ll have food and medical treatment. We can ensure that she will still have educational opportunities. We can continue the work of medical science, though I don’t know what kind of breakthrough would make delivery any safer outside of some sort of teleportation. We can do all of these things, and some women will still refuse to share their body with that child at the time the child needs it. She should retain that right, even as we work to reduce the chances it will be exercised. She is a person, actual and whole, and she has a right to control what and who has access to her body.