Thursday, October 9, 2008


(But... before we start, I loved this picture on the front page of the NY Times:

It's actually the detail of a larger image, which features the "brain cells of a laboratory mouse glowing with multicolor fluorescent proteins." And I thought it was a painting!)


I have been thinking about contraception since reading the Nicholas Kristof op-ed piece, also in yesterday's New York Times. It's a disgrace that our current administration, driven by its sadly literal-minded "pro-life" ideology, "is quietly cutting off birth control supplies to some of the world’s poorest women in Africa." "Thus," Kristof continues, "the paradox of a 'pro-life' administration adopting a policy whose result will be tens of thousands of additional abortions each year — along with more women dying in childbirth."

The moral issue, I agree with Kristof, is less to do with preventing birth than with causing death--and incidentally promoting the spread of disease and the persistence of poverty. Birth control, clearly, precedes conception, and therefore sidesteps all arguments about when human life begins--unless there are those who want to argue that it begins at the moment of that gleam in the eye that precedes the sexual act. Given the absurd notions of creationists, I suppose that those people might exist, but to allow them into this argument is to give them too much credit.

What are the objections, I wonder, to contraception? That it frustrates the laws of nature--and thus, perhaps, of God? That it encourages promiscuity? I'd hazard a guess that our consumer society, presumably with the blessing of our free market conservatives, does much more to promote sex among the young--and the not-so-young!--than the availability of condoms. And the teaching of abstinence in our own schools, here at home, has done little to prevent the advance of teenage pregnancy, so far as I can tell. The morally righteous folk who so fervently preach abstinence--think no further than the Governor of Alaska--look more than slightly foolish in the context of a world in which their fine advice and proscriptions are routinely ignored by the young.

And that's here at home. Who are we to be preaching the fringe values of the more repressive of our own religious fanatics to the poor in other countries? Who are we, indeed, to impose them by administrative fiat on countries where hunger, disease and poverty are rampant, and where population growth threatens the fabric and stability of whole nations--while their inhabitants themselves are asking for nothing better than education and material support to back it up?

(This is another excellent reason, by the way, to support Barack Obama, who opposes the Bush policies in this matter. John McCain has consistently supported them, and is even shockingly indifferent to the suffering they cause. Kristof writes, "when a reporter asked [McCain] this spring whether American aid should finance contraceptives to fight AIDS in Africa, he initially said, 'I haven’t thought about it,' and later added, 'You’ve stumped me.'” Really?

Since the actions of the Bush administration are based primarily in religious convictions, I spent some time yesterday searching through Buddhist sites to ascertain what teachings on the subject are available. They are sparse, and such as they are they dovetail neatly with broader teachings on sex: the central principle, for lay people at least, is not to abstain from sexual activity but to do no harm--either to oneself or others. The teachings call for skillfulness and awareness of consequences, not for abstention. Thus, "Contraception is accepted by Buddhists. According to Buddhist tenets, the life cycle of a sentient being begins when consciousness enters the womb, and traditionally this has been considered the moment of conception. Therefore, there is no objection to contraception which prevents conception without damaging sentient life."

This, like most Buddhist teachings, is profoundly sensible, compassionate toward humanity and its foibles, and practicable without harm. How very different from Christian teachings, ranging from Vatican Catholicism to Protestant Fundamentalism, whose harm in this regard is widespread and, in view of the rapidly expanding population of the planet, even potentially catastrophic! And how much more realistic and humane. Once more, I find good reason to go with the Buddha...


Anonymous said...

Birth control is key to solving many of pur planet's problems - overpopulation, slowing the spread of STD's, hunger, and the need for educationg women. And of course, it would reduce abortion rates and death in childbirth/illegal abortion death rates, which is to the good. But my belief is that owmen HAVE to have the right to govern their own bodies, including terminating a pregancy if need be. Even the best contraception isn't 100% effective, and it's dangerous to bring "when beings become sentient" into the conversation if that is going to force women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term.

carly said...

The ancient Chinese provides a much more specific and individual approach. If each case is different depending upon the persons involved, no blanket definitions of what sentient and consciousness mean can cover all cases - in terms of the rectitude of men's actions. That's the problem with all codified religions. They are holier than thou and seek to impose their beliefs on others actively or passively. That kind of moral law has proven inadequate. Moreover, passion and reason cannot exist side by side. Each individual must be allowed and made to learn the natural meaning of equilibrium of passion and reason.

The ancient philosophy simply puts it in the laps of the individuals involved by saying, in each case, if an action is accompanied by lack of forethought, thoroughness and what is right, blame attaches - and those persons suffer misfortune and loss. Clarity in this case is knowing and teaching that the culpable do not escape justice.

In other words, if a pregnancy results from other than what is right in each case for each person and the fetus, one suffers the consequences - which can have wide-ranging implications. That the newborn suffer consequences is also part of the balance and lack of balance in life. But, other aspects of the philosophy address the plight of the newborn. Here, the irresponsible actions of the parents will inevitably be made to suffer. Buddhism seems to stop at punishment and justice, natural or man-made, saying that one should only seek to relieve the suffering - with no further directive. This may aid the situation somewhat, but does nothing to correct it, because the teaching doesn't go far. The teaching should include the chance for correction through recognition of blame, suffering, penitence, or loss.

The punishment should fit the crime. The punishment should be just and swift.

The ancient philosophy sees it as self-correcting. Misfortune is most inconvenient, but it teaches. Misfortune is a natural part of evolution. Denying misfortune arrests evolution. Furthering nature's yield in a way closest to nature's way is the most natural and effective corrective. Suffering is a resistance and where there's a resistance, nature takes the better course, i.e., evolves lucidly. Man should re-learn this virtue of nature and further it wherever possible. However, one must acquire the depth of understanding and clarity to accept suffering on the path to correction and enlightenment, and what's more, as a necessity. Suffering builds character. Character builds virtue.

Man is now so far off the mark, that all contemporary discussions attack the problem at the middle, and will not address the roots of such problems. And the factional divisiveness of religion, be it Buddhism or Catholicism, adds to the problem of man rationalizing his irresponsible actions, because within confusion there is an escape. Which I believe adequately describes America today.

carly said...

"At the center of your being you have the answer. You know who you are and you know what you want."
Lao Tzu

"I don't like people who have never fallen or stumbled. Their virtue is lifeless and it isn't of much value. Life hasn't revealed its beauty to them."
Boris Pasternak

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Somehow I doubt that McCain has thought of anything very much except getting elected.

I agree wholeheartedly with the ideas you have put forth here. And I also believe that Buddhism comes closest to a humane and intelligent organized system of behavior in all things.

It is deplorable that our self-righteous lunatic fringe crazies should be allowed to control the lives of those in other countries who need our help so desperately. We could do so much better if only enough of us truly cared.

Liz Nees said...

20 years ago I said to myself: it seems to me that the majority of the worlds problems are (directly or indirectly) cause by overpopulation. There are simply too many people. The results are poverty, overcrowding, competition for resources. I chose to not have children. I used contraception. This was my contribution. It seems like a small act, but if you consider the exponential expansion of the population, the power of doubling, over the span of generations I have significantly reduced the population by thousands. If we all embraced this concept, and adopted orphan children instead of selfishly insisting on reproducing our own genes, the impact on the environment would be reduced. I am for "more space". And contraception is the solution.