(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...