Archive for May, 2008

According to the AP, the Catholic hierarchy is cracking down hard on the groundswell within Catholicism that favors ordaining female priests:

The Vatican is slamming the door on attempts by women to become priests in the Roman Catholic Church. It has strongly reiterated in a decree that anyone involved in ordination ceremonies is automatically excommunicated.

A top Vatican official said in a statement Friday that the church acted following what it called “so-called ordinations” in various parts of the world. …

The church has always banned the ordination of women, stating that the priesthood is reserved for males. The new decree is explicit in its reference to women.

Not that I thought Pope Ratzinger was going to deliver any surprises in this area – I remember hims well from his hard-line days as a Cardinal – but I didn’t expect this re-entrenchment, either.

I’m not a Catholic and never have been, so I don’t have a personal stake in this. But it’s a matter of justice for Catholic women who don’t want to give up their faith, yet also don’t want to accept permanent second-class status. Most other Christian churches are much further along in reforming their clergy to include women.

Since the AP report didn’t delve into the background, I did a little research to determine what that rather snide reference to “so-called ordinations” might mean. There’s an organization called Roman Catholic Womenpriests that’s been busy ordaining women as priests, and they’re mad as – well, mad as heck – at this latest threat from the Vatican.

We hold up heroic women in the church’s tradition like Hildegard of Bingen, Joan of Arc and St. Theodore Guerin who obeyed God, followed their consciences and withstood hierarchical oppression including interdict, excommunication and death.

In obedience to Jesus, we are disobeying an unjust law. The Catholic Church teaches that a teaching or law of the church is authoritative only if it is “received” by the sensus fidelium, the community of faith. If the community of faith does not accept the law, it has no effect on us. All people have a moral obligation to disobey an unjust law. St. Augustine taught that an unjust law is no law at all. Since 70% of U.S. Catholics favor women’s ordination and a growing majority of Catholics worldwide also favors women’s ordination, we do not “receive” or accept the Church’s prohibition against the ordination of women and the church’s continued reliance on sexist metaphors, beliefs and assumptions for denying ordination to women.

Pope Benedict XVI, written when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, in the commentary section of the Doctrine of Vatican II, volume V, page 134, stated: “Over the Pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority, there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority.”
(Source: Womenpriests press release)

So! The Pope would be hoist on his own petard, if he cared about such things. But I’ll bet he wasn’t thinking about women when he wrote those highfalutin words about the primacy of conscience. Maybe women’s consciences aren’t quite as pure or reliable as men’s?

Other internal critics within the Catholic Church eschew the Womenpriests’ civil disobedience tactics but note that eight out of ten Catholic scholars worldwide support the legal ordination of women.

The preponderance of evidence does support the idea that women enjoyed roles as teachers in the early church, particularly if you consider the apocryphal texts. (No, I’m still not a theologian or historian of religion, but I’ll fake it for a moment because this material was part of the class on gender, sexuality, and religion than I’m still helping teach for the next week.) The lineage of women leaders is much longer than Joan of Arc; it goes all the way back to the birth of Christianity.

For example, the Acts of Paul and Thecla tells the fantastical story of the virgin Thecla becoming a follower of St. Paul and a teacher in her own right. In the process, she had to survive burning at the stake, an attempted sexual assault, and being bound to a lioness. After the miracles that delivered her from these perils, she lived to age 90.

More significantly, the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Philip both portray Mary Magdalene as first among the disciples. If she, too, was an early teacher of the gospel, then she was one anointed by Jesus himself.

Peter said to Mary, Sister we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of woman.
Tell us the words of the Savior which you remember which you know, but we do not, nor have we heard them.
Mary answered and said, What is hidden from you I will proclaim to you.
(Gospel of Mary 5:5-7)

Of course, many orthodox Catholics will object that these are gnostic texts and thus heretical. This only begs the question of why they were deemed heretical in the first place. Might it be because the Church Fathers wanted to eliminate all evidence of the power that the Church Mothers had yielded? (If you’re interested in smart, nuanced scholarship that illuminates this history, check out Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels.)

Definitely heretical: the cult of the Ceiling Cat.

Evangelicat from I Can Has Cheezburger?

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Sugar Mag is telling some fascinating stories about her grandmother, who was born in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1925, came of age during the Nazi years, and had a brief, doomed engagement to a handsome, wealthy young SS officer. Her stories raise the question of how any of us might respond had we been born into a situation that called for extraordinary courage. In comments, Sugar Mag writes:

My grandmother’s parents were not party members but neither did they actively oppose the Nazis, I think they were just trying to get through it.

Based on my own experiences of having married into a German family with a mixed political heritage, I think that this phenomenon – sometimes called “inner emigration” – was widespread indeed. There was a range of accommodation, from simply lying low to joining a party organization in order to fit in or get ahead.

For instance, most young people who were eligible to join the Hitler Youth or League of German Girls (Bund deutscher Mädel, BdM) did so. My mother-in-law has lots of harsh memories of the later war years, but she did have fun with those girls in the late 1930s. The rest of her family responded ambivalently to this. On the one hand, her bourgeois parents looked down their noses at the coarseness of the Nazis, and so they weren’t thrilled about her BdM membership. On the other hand, her father joined the SA (Sturmabteilung, or brownshirts) as a doctor. He was not a true believer but recognized that joining would enhance his professional position, while staying neutral could hurt it. Apparently he thought this would be a lower-profile move than joining the SS, though his exact motives are impossible to reconstruct. He also personally profited when a colleague was forced to sell out for political reasons. He acted opportunistically rather than ethically.

Now, there’s obviously a big difference between this sort of low-level collaboration and inner emigration. Ethically, it’s the distinction between active and passive collaboration. But to be fair, professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, teachers, and judges, came under greater pressure to join the Nazi Party or one of its offshoot organizations than did farmers or manual laborers. Professionals who were Jewish or unfriendly to the regime lost their jobs early on or suffered professionally in other ways. There was a host of repressive mechanisms that fell fart short of the concentration camps, and they cultivated fear among those who weren’t already among those persecuted. Thus, most professionals cut loose their Jewish colleagues (this happened already in the spring of 1933 in law and medicine) and cozied up to the regime just enough to preserve and promote their careers. A substantially small number went on to lead the Nazification of the professions and society. Very few actively resisted – unless they were already being persecuted for political and/or racial reasons.

The other side of my husband’s family illustrates the penalties for not accommodating to the regime. His paternal grandmother was fired from her teaching job because she had a long history of involvement in Catholic politics. Prior to 1933, Germany had a specifically Catholic political party, the Center Party, and she had been an active member. Like most political Catholics, she did not suffer imprisonment but was considered too politically unreliable to hold an influential job. Of course, the Nazis realized that they needed an iron grip on the education system to consolidate their power. The results of this were both political and personal: My husband’s grandmother suffered real financial hardship because she was a widow and needed the income, while her son felt like an outsider at school. In the aggregate, the teaching profession became extremely brown, to such an extent that postwar schools in West Germany often employed large numbers of former Nazis because otherwise there would have been a massive teacher shortage.

Given all the repression, peer pressure, and propaganda, it’s amazing to me that any Germans of that generation grew up with a moral compass. Sugar Mag describes how conflicted her grandmother was when she overheard a conversation that ought to have been reported to the Gestapo (according to her teachers) but would have betrayed family and friends. She made what we would now consider the obvious right choice and protected her loved ones. We can never know how she preserved that nugget of morality in the face of propaganda and massive social pressure.

In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, the philosopher Hannah Arendt famously wrote of “the banality of evil” – the ordinariness and routine that greased the cogs of the Nazi death machinery. People collaborated, laid low, and sometimes even resisted for reasons that were ordinary or even petty. Bureaucracy and efficiency obviated the need for moral judgments. People just did their duty, and the sum result was monstrous.

But these family stories suggest how the banality of Nazi evil worked on another level, too: If you happened to be born in Germany in the 1920s or 1930s to a supposedly “ethnically German” family, that was just your life. If you grew up surrounded by militarism and anti-Semitism, it was just your girlhood. It was the framework – the lifeworld – in which you played, went to school, fell in love. And when an evil system is that pervasive, normal, and taken for granted, you have to call on extraordinary moral reserves to resist it.

Like most of us, I’d love to think I would have found that moral core in myself, but I’m not sure. Unless we’re tested, I’m not sure we’ll ever know. And I hope never to be tested in that way.

By the way, I included the Wikipedia references because they’re concise and quite well done, and because they’re convenient, but they would not have been allowed on my reading list for my Ph.D. comps. :-)

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Down by the Riverside

This is mostly a PSA for the benefit of my local readers, though the rest of you might check it out if you’d like to see what a pretty little town I’m lucky to call home.

A pseudonymous but obviously very, very bright fellow resident of Athens has started a blog called The Attention-Getting Device devoted to discussing local issues. It’s thoughtful, smart, and worth visiting if you live here, too.

So far its author, the Watchdog, is dissecting the retirement community planned to be built at the end of my street along the banks of the Hocking River. The original development was to be a continuing care facility, which the community actually needs, albeit in a less stupid location. But the original plans have been scaled back because the state won’t approve more nursing care beds. Now the plans foresee a relatively upscale project that will gobble up the last open green space in our neighborhood, continue the trend of paving over the river’s banks, and create a traffic hazard along routes that kids use to walk to the elementary school. It will also constitute a major evacuation problem the next time Athens experiences major flooding, which will be sooner rather than later if we keep destroying the floodway.

But the Watchdog says this all way better than me, so check out his/her blog.

I will just say that when we had relatively minor flooding last March, this was the view from the site of the proposed development. That concrete strip leading into the river is part of the bike path. The project would be built next to that path, slightly behind where I was standing as I snapped this shot. ‘Nuff said.

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Superior kitteh from I Can Has Cheezburger?

A comment from Jenny Block on my blogging and narcissism post raises an obvious but important question: Well, why do we read this stuff anyway? Why do we provide the sort of bloated audience that makes it worthwhile for magazines to put Emily Gould’s or Philip Weiss’s navel-gazing on their covers? Jenny further asks where we draw the line between good, affecting memoir and self-indulgent TMI.

Hmm. I can think of three reasons why I read confessions and memoirs. And let’s be clear: I’m a huge sucker for the confessional genre, including its excesses.

1) Well-written confessional lit makes me feel less alone with hard experiences and sometimes-taboo feelings. Here, I’m thinking mostly of the burgeoning literature on motherhood. Susan Maushart’s wonderful The Mask of Motherhood: How Becoming a Mother Changes Our Lives and Why We Never Talk About It is both analytical and experiential; it made me realize I wasn’t just nuts when I had a hard time staying home with my highly demanding first-born. Andrea Buchanan’s Mother Shock: Loving Every (Other) Minute of It made me laugh and reassured me that it was okay to just chill out once in a while. The writers at Literary Mama beautifully explore some of the less-well-mapped terrain of maternal experiences, usually from a first-person perspective. I could spend the rest of the day extending this list and making similar ones for sexuality, marriage, health, and so on.

While there’s usually an element of confession in these sorts of memoirs, they don’t feel like a guilty pleasure. They feel like a way to stay a little saner, kinder, and happier than I might otherwise be. They can also be politically powerful in much the way feminist consciousness groups used to be. They can push us to consider how our supposedly personal little problems might actually be systematic and if not completely socially constructed, at least socially exacerbated. Such is surely the case with motherhood as a largely privatized enterprise.

2) Confessional lit gives me an almost anthropological pleasure in seeing how other people live differently from me. Okay, that’s mostly a fancy way of admitting I’m nosy. I’m fascinated by the glimpses I get of my students’ lives in my women’s studies classes. Though I obviously keep a professional lid on my nosiness and respect their privacy, I still get to learn a lot about them. Much of this fascination comes from their inhabiting the next generation from my own. They give me a peek into the future. They show me different ways of thinking.

Jenny’s own writing on her open marriage definitely falls into this category for me. Her domestic arrangement is pretty different from my own, which is outwardly pretty conventional: a husband, two kids, monogamous heterosexual marriage, and a charming (if messy) house in the kind of friendly, front-porch neighborhood that supposedly went extinct by 1970. But then there’s my inner life, which is politically quite radical and emotionally turbulent, full of unruly desires and ideas. If I look calm on the outside, it’s only deep cover for my restless soul. Reading about how people live out very different choices satisfies my own curiosity, sure. But maybe it also helps me reconcile my own duties and desires by vicariously experiencing other people’s less constrained lives.

3) On a base and prurient level, confessional lit lets us feel superior. I react that way even to the grand-daddy of all confessors, St. Augustine: Didn’t he realize what a tortured hypocrite he was, trying to dissuade everyone else from sexual pleasure after he’d got his own? People got so riled up about James Frey fictionalizing half his memoirs partly because that sense of smug superiority relied on his exploits having been real. As I read about Emily Gould’s exploits and Philip Weiss’s inchoate desires, I was looking firmly down my nose at them – more so with Weiss, because he comes across as the sort of sexist pig that ought to be a feminist strawman but sadly isn’t. I’m not particularly proud of any of this, but I’m guessing it’s a common response.

I think an element of condescension often enters into our response to memoir, even if we’re reading mainly in one of the first two modes. To use Jenny’s work as an example again: It provokes a lot of judgmental comments. I’ll admit that when I read her piece linked above, I too wondered whether her husband was really on board with opening their marriage, or if he went along because he saw no other choice. In the end, I realized that only they can judge that. But plenty of commenters felt they knew enough to condemn her on that score and many others.

Similarly, lots of writing on motherhood provokes judgmental, patronizing reactions. I’m not totally immune to them, either, even though I think I have immense reservoirs of sympathy as an imperfect mother myself. Mothers are just soft targets, I’m afraid.

In the end, I’m not arguing that the confessional genre is illegitimate just because it’s possible to read most memoir while straddling a judgmental high horse. But I’m realizing that we’d do well, as readers, to be aware of when we’re starting to wallow in our own superiority. As a writer, I suspect that we need less writing of the sort that is an outright invitation to read in this third, judgmental mode. And maybe this suggests one tentative response to Jenny’s second question: As long as memoir can be read in the first two modes – as long as it advances our self-knowledge or our understanding of others – it probably has enough redeeming features to survive those readers who will insist on using it to build up their own egos.

I’d love to hear what others think about this, so please add your ideas in comments!

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That’s the number of reported deaths of American soldiers in Iraq since hostilities began in March 2003.**

I’m still waiting for someone to explain to me why we’re there and how we’re going to extricate ourselves. Even my man Barack Obama, who I think will steer a much wiser course in future foreign policy, doesn’t have a truly persuasive plan for getting out. No one does.

That figure of 4081 deaths doesn’t count other Allied deaths, nor non-fatal (but often devastating) injuries, nor the orders-of-magnitude higher toll among Iraqis. You can find much of that information at iCasualties: Iraq Coalition Casualty Count.

For Iraqis, the Lancet put “excess deaths” at 655,000 in its October 2006 study. The Iraq Body Count project estimates roughly 90,000 as of May 2008. (Wikipedia gives a decent overview of the controversies over Iraqi casualty figures for both the Lancet and the IBC.)

I tend to believe the Lancet numbers are closer to the truth because they use statistical and epidemiological approaches to compensate for the difficulty of obtaining an accurate actual count. But even the lower IBC number is scandalous.

Whatever the exact numbers, they raise the question: What are we commemorating this Memorial Day? Yes, there’s been a lot of bravery among both Allied forces and ordinary Iraqis, among soldiers and civilians alike. But to what purpose?

What will redeem the losses that so many of them have suffered – whether a dear comrade or family member, a limb, their mental health, or their very life?

** Figures were current as of the start of Memorial Day 2008.

Poppies from a neighbor’s garden.

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Narcissicats from I Can Has Cheezburger?

The confession is an old, old literary genre, going back at least to Augustine and his Confessions (which he wrote after he’d committed enough fun sins to be worth confessing, of course). Narcissism is probably even older. At least, it was a big enough deal for the ancient Greeks that they gave it a name and its very own myth.

But the Internet has taken these ancient impulses and not just modernized but amplified them. Most blogs – apart from the big political blogs – have a confessional element. Even the large feminist blogs (Feministing, Pandagon, Shakesville) give us glimpses of the writers’ lives, whether it’s their pets or relationships or just non-blogging activities.

In moderation, these dollops of the personal make blogging way more fun than conventional journalism for readers and writers alike. And sharing some well-chosen personal details is only rarely narcissistic. Even outright navel-gazing isn’t necessarily narcissistic. But blogging crosses that line when the writer exposes other people’s personal lives.

Lately, narcissistic confessionalism seems to be mounting a takeover of print journalism, too. This is troubling insofar as it represents further degradation of journalistic standards. It’s also compelling in ways much like a full pint of Ben and Jerry’s. You can’t help opening it; you can’t stop yourself from taking just one more spoonful. And when you hit the bottom of the carton, you realize you’re feeling just mildly queasy.

Case in point #1: Emily Gould’s piece in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, in which she confesses to previous sins of “oversharing” through an 8000-word exercise in, well, oversharing. Gould used to work for Gawker, which I’ve never really followed since it’s such a New York insider thing, but that hardly matters; oversharing has a universal fascination. And this is oversharing on a grand, epic scale.

Within the first dozen paragraphs, we already know why Gould’s ex-boyfriend Henry will have to break up with her:

As Henry and I fought, I kept coming back to the idea that I had a right to say whatever I wanted. I don’t think I understood then that I could be right about being free to express myself but wrong about my right to make that self-expression public in a permanent way. I described my feelings in the language of empowerment: I was being creative, and Henry wanted to shut me up.

That’s Gould “reflecting” now on how she disrespected Henry’s privacy on her personal blog. But see, even as Gould pillories her own past behavior – even as she seems to be confessing to her own prior lack of judgment and discretion – she doesn’t acknowledge that she’s dragging poor, private Henry into the public arena once again, this time not in a small-potatoes personal blog but in The New York Times Magazine! Even though Gould does seem to be assuming most of the blame for their break-up, millions of people now know that Henry would “sulk” about her blogging. That line between personal oversharing and encroachment on others’ privacy? Guess what – you just crossed it again.

We learn, too, about Henry’s successor, Josh Stein, and the courtship he and Gould conducted mostly via IM while sitting next to each other at the office. We hear about how they finally became a couple while on a weekend retreat:

Josh and I sat together on the couch, and I put my head on his shoulder in a completely friendly, professional way. The next day, I let him apply sunscreen to the spot in the middle of my back that I couldn’t reach. As a joke, we walked down the wood-plank paths that crisscross the island holding hands. I also remember joking, via I.M. as we worked, about us wanting to cross the hallway that separated our bedrooms and crawl into bed with each other at night when we couldn’t sleep. On our last day, I congratulated myself on having made it through the trip without letting these jokes turn into real betrayal. And then, 20 minutes outside the city on the Long Island Railroad on the way home, Josh kissed me.

We hear about how Gould chronicled their relationship on her blog, Heartbreak Soup, and how when things unraveled between the lovebirds, Gould blogged about those details as well:

A few weeks later, I arrived home in the early morning hours after abruptly extricating myself from Josh’s bed — he had suddenly revealed plans for a European vacation with another girl — and immediately sat down at my computer to write a post about what had happened. On Heartbreak Soup, I wrote a long rant about the day’s events, including a recipe for the chicken soup I made the previous afternoon and the sex that I’d been somehow suckered into even after finding out about how serious things were with the other girl.

Gould lets one of her best girlfriends pronounce the verdict on Stein after he cools it with her: “Emily, he’s so evil.” Of course, this is as good a way as any to let all of us, too, know that he’s evil, without Gould taking any ownership of the word.

But maybe she’s right. Stein actually launched the first volley in their mass-media post-breakup oversharing contest, publishing a long piece of his own called “The Dangers of Blogger Love” in Page Six magazine. (You can read it here, along with Alex Carnevale’s sarcastic take-down of it.) Stein tells us that he learned from Gould’s blog that she was in love with him; that she used her blog to slam his former girlfriend’s taste in magazines; that she routinely read his email.

Eew. If you have any Ben and Jerry’s in the freezer, you should haul it out now, at the very latest, if you’re clicking on any of these links.

Reading both Stein’s and Gould’s pieces – and heaven help me, I read every word – it’s hard not to wonder if maybe they’re both a little bit evil. Or at least deeply amoral, creepy, and, well, narcissistic.

Case in point #2: Narcissism just oozes from Philip Weiss’s essay in last week’s New York Magazine. Entitled – and I mean entitled! - “The Affairs of Men,” Weiss’s piece purports to examine the reasons men cheat on their wives. Mostly, though, he gives us an embarrassing yet irresistible glimpse into his own wretched psyche. Picture Philip Roth – minus much of the literary talent and masturbation – but plus TMI on his own marriage.

Weiss lets us know why he’s so frantically tempted to sleep with women who aren’t his wife. And it’s not just that they’re younger, tattooed waitresses whom he imagines – delusionally! – might be interested in his man-meat. No, he makes abundantly clear how he views his own wife: as a sexless middle-aged secretary-cum-organizer who mocks him and refuses to grant him the freedom that any French wife would give her husband.

I … suggested [to my friend] that we could change sexual norms to, say, encourage New York waitresses to look on being mistresses as a cool option. “That’s fringe,” my friend said dismissively. Wives weren’t going to allow it, and we men grant them a lot of power; they’re all as dominant as Yoko Ono. “Look, we’re the weaker animal,” he said. “They commandeer the situation.” He and I love our wives and depend on them. In each of our cases, they make our homes, manage our social calendar, bind up our wounds and finish our thoughts, and are stitched into our extended families more intimately than we are. They seem emotionally better equipped than we are. If my marriage broke up, my wife could easily move in with a sister. I’d be as lost as plankton.

Yeah. Look, Mr. Weiss, if your wife is all that keeps you from reverting to the bottom of the food chain, your marriage has got bigger issues, starting with your own insecurity and incompetence and ending with your inability to view your wife as a sexual being. Feel free to expose your own pathetic douchebaggery. But none of this gives you the right to portray her – and all your friends’ wives, too – as castrating scolds, especially when you seem to believe that what’s sauce for the gander isn’t sauce for the goose. When Weiss proclaims the beauty of non-monogamy to his wife, she gets “agitated,” then says:

“Okay. Let’s have an open marriage. And I have to be out Wednesday night.”I said, No thanks.

So why should those of us lucky enough not to be Mrs. Weiss give a rat’s ass about any of this foolishness? I mean, I didn’t have to read past their first few lines of these essays, which give ample warning of the wreckage ahead.

Responding to Gould’s essay, Jonathan V. at Galley Slaves observes:

… there is a difference between expression and exhibitionism. To the extent that blogs encourage the latter–even in thoughtful, professional writers–they are a pernicious force in the culture.

But as Gould’s and Weiss’s essays show, narcissism isn’t just for blogs anymore. Print publications dangle pieces like theirs in front of the blogosphere, knowing they’ll drive up traffic to their online incarnations. As we watch bloggy narcissism and exhibitionism bleed into the supposedly respectable press, we’re going to see more “articles” like these. If this becomes a larger trend, it will become a race to the bottom. (And yep, I realize that I just did my part to encourage this by first reading this tripe and then linking to it.)

These essays also raise questions for the rest of us who might not want to emulate their oversharing. How much personal information is too much? I’ve been fairly frank in my own blog about a couple of recent medical experiences – my “deep throat” exam and my UTI-related caffeine deprivation – and at least one long-ago lousy sexual encounter. I’ve got academic/personal interests in medicine, sexuality, and embodied experience, and so – since these really were my stories to tell, as long as I preserved the anonymity of my partner in bad sex – I didn’t see any reason to protect my own privacy. Even though all of these episodes could be construed as oversharing, I wanted to explore those larger issues through them.

The real danger of amoral narcissism lies in violating other people’s privacy. I write a little bit about my family here, but when I talk about my kids, it’s mostly either very innocuous (like yesterday’s post about making more persons) or focused on my own experiences of parenting. I don’t want them to be mortified by me later – at least, not above and beyond the normal baseline of adolescent embarrassment. You also won’t learn much about my husband and my marriage. If I ever take part in, say, TMI Tuesday (which is often pretty amusing on other people’s blogs), you can be sure I’ll keep it focused on me.

I’m not condemning people who put a lot more of their lives online than I ever will. I do think, though, that if what they write impinges substantially on other people’s private lives, they’re ethically obligated to write pseudonymously. And they’d better be careful not to blow their cover.

Augustine famously wrote, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” Were Augustine reborn today as a confessional journalist, he’d have to rephrase it: “Grant me discretion and empathy, but not yet.” At least not until he’d bagged a major article deal in a national magazine.

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Ohio is contemplating a law that would let adoptive parents pay a birth mother up to $3000 for her living expenses, according to a report in today’s Columbus Dispatch. (Current law allows reimbursement for medical and legal expenses, but not for more general expenses such as rent and groceries.)

I know that pregnancy often puts women in a financial crunch, especially when it’s unplanned. I want mothers and their (developing) babies to be well nourished, securely housed, well rested, and just plain nurtured. So why do I feel uneasy about this pending bill?

It’s not really true that this law would create a bidding war among prospective parents, which was my initial concern. It would cap the amount of aid at $3000. It’s likely that some adoptive parents do already help birth mothers with living expenses in violation of Ohio law, although I have no idea how common this is. If so, this cap would actually level the playing field by bringing a covert practice into the light and regulating it.

So far, so good.

Yet I feel slightly queasy at one rationale that proponents of the bill are giving:

“It is a birth-mom and a baby drain, and it means Ohio couples are losing babies,” said Thomas Taneff, a Columbus adoption lawyer. …

“Why is this important? It’s simple,” Taneff said. “Probably 25 or 30 percent of our birth moms are adopting out-of-state. This bill will help keep Ohio babies here for Ohio couples.”
(Source: Columbus Dispatch)

Am I the only one who thinks that babies start sounding like commodities when they’re discussed like goods in an import-export business?

Am I alone in feeling troubled when birth moms are discussed like a natural resource?

If the problem is a bidding war for babies among states – not among would-be adoptive parents – then a patchwork of state laws is not going to solve the problem. It’s only going to formalize the competition at the interstate level.

Several policy goals are at stake here, and I think they’re all things that decent humans ought to agree on: Selling babies is bad. Keeping babies and mothers healthy is ethically right and fiscally smart. Adoption is a beautiful thing when a woman feels able to go through with it. Birth mothers seeking an open adoption should always have the possibility of a local placement, because obviously if your baby moves to a different state you won’t have any chance at a real relationship. And finally, no one should feel compelled to have an abortion or give up a baby for financial reasons alone.

If we care about all of these things, then I think two things need to happen, legislatively. We need a federal law regulating payments from adoptive parents to birth mothers, so that states don’t get into stupid competitions over “their” babies. And we need much more generous public assistance for expectant and new mothers. I don’t know that bringing back old-style welfare is exactly the answer. But if some pregnant women are in such crisis that the prospect of $3000 or $4000 entices them to send their babies to a family out of state, then the system is broken.

And that’s exactly what’s happening, according to the Dispatch story. It describes an Ohio couple, recently married, who gave their baby to a Missouri couple. They were facing some relationship struggles over religion (she is Mormon, he is Jewish) and she regarded abortion as completely unacceptable. But the reason they gave up their baby? They were faced with losing their home. She used the $4000 the adoptive couple gave her for living expenses to cover the mortgage, as well as for groceries and utilities. You have to wonder: If they’d had health insurance and enough money for their basic needs, would they have relinquished that baby at all?

Simply allowing Ohio couples to play the same game won’t fix the real travesty: the fact that such games are necessary in the first place.

Dutch iris from my garden.

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