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Archive for April, 2010

A few days ago Bond of Dear Diaspora published her responses to this pro-choice values survey. The questions were thought-provoking enough that I decided to follow suit. I’d be interested in any dissenting opinions, so please drop them in the comments – or include a link to your own blog if you want to respond in detail.

My own responses are actually a little more restrictive than Bond’s, since I do see moral and philosophical reasons for state regulation in the final stages of pregnancy. The fundamental reason I support abortion rights is that unwanted pregnancy severely compromises women’s bodily autonomy – and thus our access to full legal and moral personhood. If the fetus is clearly able to survive outside the woman, then her right to autonomy can be  honored without destroying the fetus.

Do you agree or disagree with the following statements?

1. Every woman has the right to choose to terminate a pregnancy regardless of when during the pregnancy. Actually, I think Roe was correct in asserting that the state has a legitimate interest in regulating abortion beyond the point of fetal viability. “Viability” is somewhat spongy, since advances in technology may push it back beyond the current limit of 22-23 weeks, and I’m torn on the wisdom of trying to save the lives of such early preemies, who almost always have grave health problems in the unlikely event that they survive at all. I believe abortion should be universally and inexpensively available up to the point of viability. But I’ve got moral qualms about permitting termination on demand at a point when the fetus could survive outside the womb. I wouldn’t impute full legal “personhood” to that fetus, but if it’s able to survive outside the womb, then the argument for women’s autonomy is pretty weak. At that stage of pregnancy, I’d prefer induction of labor over abortion, though I realize most doctors wouldn’t oblige. If a woman wants an abortion at 27 weeks without any medical or psychiatric grounds, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect her to see the pregnancy to term, or alternatively to look for a physician who’s willing to induce early.

2. Abortion should be allowed even beyond 24 weeks of pregnancy. Well, 24 weeks is a reasonable proxy for viability, and so I support some legal restrictions on third-trimester abortions. However, there need to be broad provisions cases of medical necessity, including serious fetal deformity, fetal demise, and a serious threat to maternal health. I’d define that last category fairly broadly. As far as I can see, George Tiller’s practice served women who had compelling reasons for needing late abortions, and I’d have no problem seeing his practice guidelines enshrined in laws.

3. Parental consent should be required for any teen under the age of 18 requesting an abortion. Parental consent laws ought to be viewed as a crime, themselves, because they amplify the harms of sexual abuse. I’m not suggesting that every underaged pregnant girl has been abused, but if she was impregnated by a family members, these laws often force her to obtain consent from her abuser. Judicial bypass is terribly inadequate, because the more immature the girl, the less likely she’ll feel able to make her case in court.

4. Women who have more than 5 abortions are irresponsible. If they are irresponsible, is that a positive qualification for motherhood? Yipes!

5. Women who have more than 10 abortions are irresponsible. I do agree that a woman who has five or ten abortions probably has issues, but moral outrage – while it may feel satisfying – won’t help her avoid another unplanned pregnancy. Assuming she’s of at least average intelligence, she’s unlikely to be clueless about birth control. The question then becomes, why doesn’t she consistently use birth control? Those reasons can more complicated than simple ignorance or financial and practical barriers to access.  Does she feel that she has no hope – no control over her future – and thus sees no point in trying to steer her fate? Is she re-enacting earlier traumas? Is she torn between a desire for motherhood and the reality of a life where she can’t care for a child? Does she have a controlling or uncooperative partner? Does she actively eroticize the risk of pregnancy? Is she embroiled in any sort of addiction? There are lots of reasons people fail to use birth control. Shaming women won’t help reduce the need for abortion. Understanding why women and their partners don’t consistently use effective contraception just might help.

6. Women should not use abortion as a form of birth control. Not as a primary means of birth control – of course not. Abortion must be available as a back-up, though. And I’m very wary of the “abortion as birth control” trope, because I hear it constantly when I teach about abortion. It quickly devolves into woman-blaming and a good-for-me-but-not-thee condemnation of women who’ve had more than one abortion.

7. I think reproductive health advocacy organizations should promote the use of emergency contraception in order to decrease the number of abortions in the US each year. This is a no-brainer. Every heterosexually active woman at risk of unwanted pregnancy should have Plan B in her drawer. Its side effects are no fun – much like early pregnancy, though mercifully shorter! But its costs – financial, physical, and emotional – are much lower than the costs of abortion and unplanned pregnancy. Community clinics and college health centers should give Plan B away for free. Then again, I think all forms of birth control should be free! Even a cold-hearted cost/benefit calculation would show that prevented unwanted pregnancies will lead to net savings in public expenditures – which is why anti-choice politicians’ opposition to family planning subsidies is so revealing. They’d rather limit women’s options, sexual and otherwise, than pursue a fiscally conservative policy that would ultimately reduce government spending.

8. I feel uncomfortable if a woman has an abortion because of the gender of the pregnancy. Yes. I tend to think that if you’re having a baby, you need to accept that you cannot mold it into your imaginary ideal child. Apart from the potential for misogyny (or even misandry, as women in the U.S. tilt toward preferring girl children), it’s just lunacy to have a baby if you’ve got rigid ideas about who and what your child must become. You’re setting yourself up for bigger surprises and disappointments. Even worse, you’re setting the stage for your child to feel loved conditionally, only if she or he meets your arbitrary standards.

9. Male partners should have the right to be a part of the decision to terminate a pregnancy. The right to bodily autonomy can’t hinge on a partner’s whim. In a healthy relationship, women will weigh his desires and preferences, but the final decision still has to be hers. If the relationship is dysfunctional, then it’s even less appropriate for the law to barge in and give the male partner any “rights.”

10. I think a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion is an absolute and inalienable right no matter what. Up to the point where the fetus can survive outside of her body – yes, absolutely.

Finish the sentence:

1. Abortions are: an essential aspect of women’s bodily autonomy, and thus our full moral and legal personhood.

2. Women who have abortions are: your next-door-neighbor, your friend, your sister – a pretty ordinary cross-section of those who are fertile and female.

3. A woman facing an unwanted pregnancy needs to: search her heart for her own best path, although in an ideal world she’d also be able to turn to her loved ones for counsel and support.

4. In this country, abortion should be: not only legal but affordable and accessible – even (especially!) in places like Mississippi and North Dakota, where the closest clinic may require a full day of travel.

5. People working to restrict abortion should: stop trying to violate the Constitution by imposing Christianist laws on the rest of us; we’re a democracy, not a theocracy.

6. People working on behalf of women’s right to choose should: be celebrated as heroes, because lots of them are putting their lives on the line.

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So Sue Lowden – the Republican challenger to Harry Reid – is waxing nostalgic for the days when we could barter for health care, instead of having to mess with all that expensive, bureaucratic health insurance. Here’s the money quote (or the bartered-chicken quote?) at Big Think:

“You know, before we all started having health care,” she recently said in an interview, “in the olden days our grandparents, they would bring a chicken to the doctor, they would say I’ll paint your house. I mean, that’s the old days of what people would do to get health care with your doctors. Doctors are very sympathetic people. I’m not backing down from that system.”

Badtux suggests paying Lowden in chickens, should she become the next senator from Nevada. What an excellent idea! She can run her budget like my paternal grandfather did.

My grandpa was one of those country doctors who did accept payment in kind. Born in 1879, he earned his M.D. from the University of Nebraska in 1907, one of a graduating class of 18 (including one woman). He wound up practicing in North Dakota – whether for humanitarian reasons or due to a love affair gone bad, we’ll likely never know – in a poor part of the state populated mostly by German-Russians. These folks were originally from southwest Germany, where inheritance patterns split landholdings into ever smaller, less sustainable parcels. They migrated to the Crimea in search of an easier life, and thence to North Dakota. I know, I know – they must have had a very flexible notion of the “easy life.”

Once tucked into their large but chilly homesteads, the German-Russians stayed. Where else would they go? They were still poor, for the most part. And they continued to catch smallpox, measles, cancer, and the occasional pregnancy.

My grandpa was the doctor for much of south-central North Dakota. There were a few midwives in the area, too, but over time he attended more of the births.

And yes, sometimes his patients paid him in chickens. My mom describes him thus:

He had a gruff exterior and a very soft heart. I know that the people in Streeter idolized him (some may have feared him a little), and nearly everyone could tell of a time that he came to their farm in the middle of the night and dstayed until the patient was out of danger and usually refused to take any payment, especially if they were poor.

There were days when a chicken was more than a family could spare.

At the end of his life, the town’s very modest public park was devoted to his memory. I like knowing it’s there, even if the play equipment is decrepit. I never knew him; he died in 1961, two years before I was born. It’s a lovely testimonial to his putting patients above profits, which really does seem quaint and almost saintly in the new millennium.

But here’s the trick. My grandpa could afford to work for chickens – or eggs – or even a big old goose egg only because he also had patients who paid him! What’s more, he had much more substantial savings than his neighbors, having invested in Standard Oil around 1900. He and my grandma lived modestly, despite her pretensions to being the town’s aristocracy. (Well, the town was small enough that she sort of was the queen bee.)

My grandma fought with my grandpa over his generosity. He saw the grinding need up close. She saw it at a remove, and only through the lens of a trying to maintain a reasonably bourgeois household on the prairie. They fought bitterly anyway, and the chickens (and all the other bartered goods) became just one more bone of contention.

My grandpa did quite a lot of good, I believe. But it was no way to run a practice, and even less so today, when new doctors may start out burdened with six-figure debts. It also was no way to nurture a marriage. The whole thing was unsustainable, even then. Add in an MRI and a CT and an angiogram … and my grandpa could never have worked for free.

I suspect, though, that he would have been fascinated by the new technologies. He was smart and curious – qualities solely need in the practice of medicine as well as in the debates over its reform.

Frankly, though? As much as I like chickens, I don’t see much of a place for them in Washington. We’re gonna need tougher critters than chickens to fix our broken health system. Unless, perhaps, they’re as fierce as this guy looks – yet not bird-brained.

“Black Rock chicken” from flickr user Todd434, used under a Creative Commons license.

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Every so often, history serves up an analogy that’s misleading, highly distracting, and only indirectly relevant.

Oops. That’s not what David Leonhardt wrote at the New York Times. Here’s what he actually said:

Every so often, history serves up an analogy that’s uncomfortable, a little distracting and yet still very relevant.

In the summer of 1933, just as they will do on Thursday, heads of government and their finance ministers met in London to talk about a global economic crisis. They accomplished little and went home to battle the crisis in their own ways.

More than any other country, Germany — Nazi Germany — then set out on a serious stimulus program. The government built up the military, expanded the autobahn, put up stadiums for the 1936 Berlin Olympics and built monuments to the Nazi Party across Munich and Berlin.

The economic benefits of this vast works program never flowed to most workers, because fascism doesn’t look kindly on collective bargaining. But Germany did escape the Great Depression faster than other countries. Corporate profits boomed, and unemployment sank (and not because of slave labor, which didn’t become widespread until later). Harold James, an economic historian, says that the young liberal economists studying under John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s began to debate whether Hitler had solved unemployment.

It’s true that government spending works to kick-start an economy. But you don’t have to resort to the Nazis to make this argument! Later in the post, Leonhardt acknowledges that Franklin D. Roosevelt also implemented stimulus programs, though later in the decade and more cautiously, thus with less stunning success.

So why, then, frame Obama’s advocacy of stimulus (as the article goes on to do) with the Nazi example? Did it not occur to Leonhardt that this article plays right into the teabaggers’ framing? Obama = socialist = Nazi!

Leonhardt doesn’t get his history quite right, either. While it’s absolutely true that the Nazis banned trade unions, organizing workers instead in the much more employer-friendly German Worker’s Front, that doesn’t negate the real benefits workers enjoyed as the economy bounced back. In 1932, six million Germans were out of work. The resurgent economy – together with the pressure and incentives drawing women out of the workforce – put many working-class men back on the job. Unemployment dropped, and Germans of all classes were able to purchase consumer goods.

Also, the folks subjected to slave labor? They weren’t, by and large, the same people who’d been unemployed in the early thirties. While some were German Jews, the majority of those enslaved were not German citizens.

I’m not arguing that history never holds lessons for the present. It would behoove us, though, to understand what actually happened in the past before we start mining it for analogies.

Perhaps the most important thing one can learn from studying history is that context is crucially important. Apparently the teabaggers equating Obama with Hitler aren’t sharp enough to grasp that. But Leonhardt writes for the Times. What’s his excuse?

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In the shadow of the Catholic Church’s sexual abuses, Melissa McEwan of Shakesville wonders about the appropriateness of this image of Jesus in an Oklahoma church, while Andrew Sullivan simply comments, “Oh dear”:

(Image via Andrew Sullivan at the Daily Dish.)

In case it’s not obvious, the controversy is about the holy abdominal muscles, which are strikingly … um … erect.

Oklahoma Catholics appear to be split between oh-so-shocked and oh-so-in-denial. But they shouldn’t be. Nor does it make a whole lot of sense to attribute these massive “muscles” to the notion that Christianity is basically phallocratic, as one commenter does at Shakesville.

Instead, I’d read this picture as part of an artistic tradition that depicts the full humanity of Christ, emphasizing the paradox of his being completely human while also completely divine.

Back in grad school, I read a book by noted art critic Leo Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, which analyzes the depiction of Jesus’ genitals in Renaissance art. Steinberg marshals hundreds of images to show that artists went out of their way to emphasize the holy genitalia, whether by pointing at them, artfully draping them, or conspicuously exposing them. Far from being sacrilegious, these portraits underscored an important element of Christianity then in ascendance: the human side of the Incarnation.

You don’t have to be a believer to be convinced by Steinberg’s argument; at least, it worked for me! But if you are a believer, this artistic tradition should get you thinking about the shame Christians too often attach to the body, nakedness, and sexuality. From this angle, we need not see the sexualization of Jesus as something unholy. If he was perfectly human and perfectly divine, his sexuality must be perfect as well.

And if that’s the case, our sexuality must be at least blessed, if not perfect.

Just to give you a sampling of what Steinberg found, here’s the baby Jesus as portrayed by Veronese in the Holy Family with St. Barbara and the Infant St. John (circa 1560). He’s doing one of the things that babies do when they discover it feels good – even better than playing with their feet!

(Image borrowed from the Uffizi catalogue.)

There are also oodles of portraits in which Mary gestures at baby Jesus’ genitals, as in Perugino’s Mother and Child (circa 1500):

(Image from here.)

(There’s also an artistic tradition of gesturing at the genitals of the dead Christ after he’s taken off the cross, but I had a hard time finding the images Steinberg cites on the Internet.)

These artistic representations of Christ’s sexual nature as proof of the Incarnation are no longer comprehensible to most of us – even (or maybe especially) if we’ve grown up within a Christian church. I remember the sour-faced reaction of the clerk at Cornell’s campus bookstore when I purchased Steinberg’s book: “He should be ashamed of himself!” That was in the mid-1980s in a liberal college town. 

I can’t claim that the crucifix in Oklahoma is necessarily within the tradition Steinberg describes. I do think though, that one can legitmately read it as an expression of the Incarnation. Judging from the reactions it’s gotten, it looks like sexuality is still far from being reclaimed as not just compatible with Christianity but a blessed part of it.

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A couple of days ago, Historiann linked to a hilarious quiz, “Dante’s Inferno Test.” It’s definitely a cut above the average Hello Quizzy offering, and I was tickled to see her seriously edumacated commentariat parsing the second circle of hell (for sins of the flesh) versus the third (gluttony!).

In light of yesterday’s post, I can’t even offer a prize for the best guess at where I landed. Y’all know, I’m sure:

The Dante’s Inferno Test has banished you to the Second Level of Hell!
Here is how you matched up against all the levels:

Level Score
Purgatory (Repenting Believers) Very Low
Level 1 – Limbo (Virtuous Non-Believers) Very High
Level 2 (Lustful) Very High
Level 3 (Gluttonous) Low
Level 4 (Prodigal and Avaricious) Very Low
Level 5 (Wrathful and Gloomy) Very Low
Level 6 – The City of Dis (Heretics) Very High
Level 7 (Violent) Low
Level 8- the Malebolge (Fraudulent, Malicious, Panderers) Low
Level 9 – Cocytus (Treacherous) Low

Or in other words:

Huh. Sounds like a fun crew, down there in the second circle.

Maybe this is a neurosis left over from grad school, but I can never just take a quiz once. I always have to tinker with it to see how it works (and, um, also to manipulate my results – good thing I didn’t go into the social sciences). Turns out that flipping the answer on the one question that was hard to decide – “Would you sooner go without sex than go without good-tasting food?” – bumped me up into limbo along with the virtuous non-believers. It also ballooned my gluttony score from low to moderate, which sounds about right.

But I’m gonna stick with my original score. I figure if I’m in level two, I can occasionally pop upstairs for good conversation with the virtuous non-believers – and then slide down to visit the gluttons foodies on three, in hopes of creme caramel.

What about you, dear readers? Take the Dante’s Inferno Hell Test and let us know how you did in comments!

Also: The following picture might just knock me down to level six, the heretics. I’m betting it’ll be full of LOLcats and their human minions.

Helter Skelter kitteh from I Can Has Cheezburgers?

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This is a post about exercise, sex, and pleasure, but I wouldn’t be writing it if I hadn’t once worked on regulatory policy for trucking. In that former life of mine, my trucking project made me intimately acquainted with the concept of fungibility – the idea that certain goods are equivalent enough that they can be easily exchanged or substituted for other goods.

So anyway, this post is about sex, not trucks, and it’s only barely about exercise. Maybe it’s just that I really never understood the appeal of running (and feel okay with that ever since my brother-in-law told me that injured runners keep his physical therapy practice in the black). But I just can’t get on board with the idea that good sex is comparable to a good run, or to anything else either, though figleaf makes as good a case as possible for their comparability:

My big epiphany this evening, by the way, is that sex feels really, really good but it’s not the only activity, not even the only physical one, that feels that way. And now eight or ten hours after running I’m still feeling a warm endorphin rush. Eight hours after even the best sex and I’m… mostly ready for more sex.

Again, that’s not to say sex isn’t pretty darn nice, and I’m actually a little worried that you’re going to read this and say “he’s saying sex isn’t that great.” But it isgreat. It’s just there’s other stuff that’s really, really great too. And I think, or at least I’m considering, that we overweight sex with so much other significance that we (ironically) feel guilty and/or crazy and/or maybe even “kinky” about admitting there could be anything that could compete with it. :-)

(The rest is here – and mildly unsafe for work.)

It’s definitely blissful to be in the flow of making music, writing, even teaching – to inhabit that space where I know and feel that everything is right my whole self engaged in something I love and do well.

Meditation. Very dark chocolate. The aroma of lilacs in my back yard.

But I wonder about the wisdom of comparing any of these things. Yes, they’re all embodied experiences that give us a chance to transcend the everyday. But I see no need to claim (as figleaf did in his post’s title) that “there are some things that feel better than sex.” Why rank them? Is it just that those other things can be done on our own, without a partner, whenever we feel moved? Because the only reason for ranking that I can see is the intense pressure to sublimate our libido into other projects, whether that pressure comes from society or from a reluctant/unavailable/nonexistent partner.

Of course, sublimation isn’t the same as fungibility, either, and it never pretended to be. The whole point of sublimation, after all, is to transform libidinal energy into work or other endeavors that society deems more important than sex. Sublimation isn’t the same as repression, and some of it is absolutely necessary. We can’t all spend every day rutting. Freud was right that civilization depends on it. And yet, I can’t help but think there’s no shortage of sublimation, at least among my friends and acquaintances. If anything, we’re shorting ourselves on pleasure.

As for the overloading of sex, I think it’s helpful to distinguish between generally harmful aspects of this and benign or potentially enriching ones. The harmful freighting of sex usually has very little to do with pleasure; it comes into play when, for instance, a woman’s “purity” or experience or looks determine her worth, or a man’s “conquest” determines his status. It’s toxic, as well, to say that sex must *always* be wedded to love. That assumption undergirds abstinence-only sex “education” and leads too many people (women, especially) to feel emotionally bruised when a hookup doesn’t evolve into a relationship.

And yet. We sell sex short if we insist it has nothing to do with love. The potential for deeply connecting with someone – and not just getting off – is a pretty important one. Otherwise we’d all be perfectly content with solo sex. Otherwise couples in sexless marriages would be as happy as any other; but on average, they’re not. Within a relationship, sex helps us stay connected, be more forgiving, find more delight.

Speaking as a woman, I’m also wary of playing down the importance of sex, which is what we do if we treat it as fungible. Much of my time is spent in ordinary activities that give me deep satisfaction – mothering, reading, writing, teaching, discussing – but their rewards are quite different than the pleasures of sex. We’ve spent over 10,000 years subordinating female sexuality to patriarchal imperatives, and only about the past 40 trying to claim it as valuable and autonomous. (Okay, if you count Victoria Woodhull, that bumps it up to 140 years – still a nanosecond in human history.)  Calling sex just one pleasure among many not only denies the particularity of sexual pleasure. It also neutralizes the radical potential of unfettering women’s sexuality. And yes, here I might be overloading sex a bit, myself, but I also think it’s true that people can’t be truly free if they’re sexually repressed. Still: women’s sexual pleasure is a feminist issue.

As for endorphins that last eight hours? Well, as cool as that sounds, I’m not likely to experience that for myself. I’m going to stick to my trusty bike riding; no running for me. But I’d say being ready again for sex after eight hours isn’t a bug. It’s a feature.

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Wasps have taken up residence on my front porch. I am not at one with them. In fact, while I love bees, I fear wasps. Even more, they make my kids nervous, and for good reason. These wasps – or “wasp-ezz,” as the Tiger used to call them – like to fly right in your face.

If they would just nest anywhere in my yard (apart from the kids’ swingset), we could quietly co-exist. But no. They’ve decided the cracks in my front-porch bricks are the bee’s wasp’s knees.

My husband set up a trap, but so far all it’s caught is one lousy mosquito. Chemicals are a last resort.

And so I’ve taken to chasing them with a flyswatter, shouting, “I’m the ferocious wasp hunter!”

This set the Bear into fits of giggles. “Mama? YOU?” He knows darn well I’m neither ferocious, nor a competent hunter, nor unafraid of wasps.

Maybe this is one of the transformations wrought by parenthood. In times gone by I would have yielded to the wasps. Now, I fight them. I’ve killed four of them, thus far, and a few others are MIA.

Perhaps bravery really isn’t about being fearless, but about overcoming our fears.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some swatting to do.

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