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First Post on The New Civil Rights Movement Now Up

October 7th, 2011 No comments

It’s here. Please, trundle on over and see what you think. I’m responding to the argument from the left that marriage equality would be bad for the GLBT community. I get into how the denial of equality in marriage for women negatively affected not only married women, but all women.

“It Ignores the Writings of [Three Long-Dead Guys]”

August 17th, 2010 1 comment

In an op-ed in today’s Washington Post, former Reagan AG Ed Meese takes Judge Vaughn Walker to task for ignoring facts and evidence that would supposedly have supported the state’s interests in restricting marriage to opposite-sex couples. One thing that Meese didn’t like about Walker’s opinion:

“It ignores the writings of legal giant William Blackstone and philosophers John Locke and Bertrand Russell.”

That’s really it, isn’t it? The defenders of marriage fall back on tradition and history, little realizing (or acknowledging) that the institution of marriage that these (admittedly) great men spoke of bears little resemblance to the version on offer today. Blackstone, for example, whose influential Commentaries on the Law of England were completed before the U.S. existed, spoke of marriage from the perspective of coverture, a principle by which a married woman’s legal existence was swallowed whole by her husband. This quote will give you the flavor of how extensive the disability was:

“By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband; under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing; and is therefore called in our law-French a feme-covert, foemina viro co-operta; is said to be covert-baron, or under the protection and influence of her husband, her baron, or lord; and her condition during her marriage is called her coverture. Upon this principle, of a union of person in husband and wife, depend almost all the legal rights, duties, and disabilities, that either of them acquire by the marriage….For this reason, a man cannot grant anything to his wife, or enter into covenant with her: for the grant would be to suppose her separate existence; and to covenant with her, would be only to covenant with himself: and therefore it is also generally true, that all compacts made between husband and wife, when single, are voided by the intermarriage.”

How could Walker have ignored the bewigged Blackstone’s writings? Here’s a better question: How benighted is Meese — not only to chide Walker for failing to consult Blackstone, but to think that his argument would be strengthened by this point? Yet his failure gets at the real deficiency of the anti-equality forces: They don’t have any arguments that work under current, and generally well-accepted, views of what marriage is, or should be.

Empathy for “Entities”?

July 29th, 2010 3 comments

The controversy continues, as it must. I recently explored the issue of late-term abortions through a sort of thought experiment, asking whether anencephalics were “human” in any meaningful sense. A couple of posts later, and after a discussion about the point here at home and an internet-mediated exchange with Andrew Sullivan (see here, here, here, and here), I answered my own question — they are human and entitled to respect.

My readers mostly disagreed. Here are some of their responses to my rethinking:

“I think your initial comment was correct, and that you are silly to back down to Andrew Sullivan’s emotional bleating. What makes us human is our brain. A “baby” with no brain isn’t human in any real or significant sense of the term.

“Aborting such an entity raises none of the moral questions raised by aborting a fetus that already has the cognitive equipment of a human, or which will have such cognitive equipment in the near future.

“Yeah, the entities look vaguely human, but they have no brain, dude. They’re not entitled to any respect or empathy, because there’s nothing there to empathize with. You might as well have empathy for your desk lamp.”

This next reader agreed, eloquently:

“[I]…disagree with Sullivan. It’s important to distinguish between empathy, which requires something similar enough that we can imagine what it is like to be that other, from the emotional response to something that is physically similar to us. People cry at funerals, but that corpse is not another person. People sometimes imagine what it is like to be dead and in a coffin, but that of course is a pretense. The fact that our animal brains are cued by a corpse’s appearance to the person who once was doesn’t change that fact. Nor is a brain-dead corpse a person, even if the heart and lung are kept beating by modern medical technology. For all it might look like the person who once was, it isn’t. Nor is an anencephalic infant a person. In all three cases, the appearance of another human organism can tug at our heartstrings and cause us to imagine there is someone there. But there isn’t.”

Finally, this reader, who expressed disappointment in my change of heart:

“I found your original post refreshing and rational….”

“[I]t seems like you’re backing down now. All I can say is I wish you wouldn’t. You shouldn’t have to back down from asking a thoughtful question.”

Thanks to these readers and to others for their comments. Just a few additional thoughts seem in order.

I’d like to think I didn’t “back down,” which suggests some kind of intimidation. (Is anyone really intimidated, short of a threat of litigation or violence, on the internet?) No, I had a change of heart, upon reflection. My earlier position was lifted, more or less intact, from my days as a philosophy student. But I’m no longer than person, and —  when pushed — I discovered that my views had changed, probably without my realizing it. I will confess that when I originally wrote that anencephalics weren’t human in the sense that mattered to me, it didn’t feel…right. There’s a difference in making a logically sound argument and believing it in your bones.

Nor did I — or do I — apologize for asking the question. Just because I ended up answering it differently than I or my readers expected doesn’t mean it was wrong to ask it. Judging from the intellectual firestorm this issue has generated, it seems that my raising it was a great thing.

Of course, I’ve gone back to read my “change of heart post” with Talmudic scrutiny. And I find that I never said that I had “empathy” for anencephalics; the readers’ comments suggest why that term isn’t descriptive. I did say that they are entitled to respect, and I’d say that whether or not I thought they were “human.” As I also stated in that later post (and with apology for quoting myself):

“[P]art of the problem is that we generally afford so little respect to other species that when babies without cognitive capacities appear, thinking of them as similar to other animals with lower cognition can lead to a cold place. For me, then, this conversation is a reminder that humans are part of a larger, teeming universe, and that we mostly do a terrible job of remembering and respecting that.”

Finally, I want to bring this conversation back to the women carrying these unfortunate offspring. I think we can agree that they are entitled to respect and empathy. (Here’s Sullivan’s collection of the stories, current as of about a week ago, just in case you need an empathy boost.) Their view of an anencephalic is entitled to respect, and to our deepest empathy: Can any of us really know how we’d feel (or act) in such a situation? And how might we want our own decisions treated in such a case?

As an staunch member of the pro-choice community, it’s important to keep in mind that some have made moving decisions not to abort, even in these cases. Most seem to do so for religious reasons, but…whatever. There should be enough respect go to around.

Anencephalics, Humanity, and Respect

July 28th, 2010 6 comments

For awhile, I wish I’d never written on anencephaly. My first clue should have been that I didn’t know how to describe these unfortunate children, born without most of their brains. Since one of my points was to raise the issue of what counts as humanity, I didn’t want to answer my own question by calling them “babies”; at one point, I used the clinical term entity, which drew a criticism from Andrew Sullivan (one that I now largely accept, as I’ll soon discuss).

Several WordinEdgewise readers commented on the issue, with most taking the position that anencephalics prove the point that “human” is really just a category that we use for our own purposes; by creating anencephalics, the universe is reminding us that it doesn’t care about our efforts at taxonomy. One reader invited me and others to take a look at some of the images of anencephalics, and I did. I had planned on posting a couple of these here, but decided that it could too easily be taken as a kind of pornography. Those who are curious about exactly what these tragic babies look like can go to Google images.

I’d really just wanted to raise the issue in the context of the late-term abortion controversy so respectfully unfolding over at the Daily Dish. But the whole discussion has been valuable to me, and I hope to others, as I sort through the intractable complexity of these issues that are so central to our humanity. One immediate result was a conversation with my spouse, David, who is the one in the family with true empathy. He was astonished that I’d even raised the question of the humanity of anencephalics, uninterested in the logical case I was able to build for that possible conclusion. Eschewing metaphysical terms like “soul,” he simply stated that these babies were entitled to respect.

It’s really impossible for me to argue with that. I realized that part of the problem is that we generally afford so little respect to other species that when babies without cognitive capacities appear, thinking of them as similar to other animals with lower cognition can lead to a cold place. For me, then, this conversation is a reminder that humans are part of a larger, teeming universe, and that we mostly do a terrible job of remembering and respecting that.

But there’s more to it than our connection with other species. Logic only gets one so far. I’m not religious, but perhaps the combination of being a bit older and having kids of my own makes me realize that membership in the human race, defined broadly enough to include anencephalics, is important — even if I can’t exactly say why. Maybe it’s just the way we’re wired. (Ask Edmund O. Wilson, or some other brilliant and delightfully controversial sociobiologist.)

And every one of us is entitled to respect, which is at least to say serious consideration in any moral decision. That doesn’t necessarily lead to any particular conclusion; it may be that respecting the interest of an anencephalic, or other grossly deformed fetus, is to abort. It seems to me that reasonable people can disagree here, and it also seems to me apparent that the humility of uncertainty requires giving the woman carrying this life — who, it should go without saying, is also entitled to respect — the right to resolve these impossible  questions according to her best judgment.

I still don’t believe in the “soul,” or any such dreamed-up construct. But there’s a kind of poetry of the shorthand in the term, as it captures something vital about our shared humanity. As long as it’s not used as a trump card, it can be used to express the ineffable.

Certainties? If Only

July 26th, 2010 2 comments

Responding to my first post on the subject of late-term abortions, Andrew Sullivan takes issue with me on anencephalic fetuses (i.e., those whose brains will not develop to enable cognition, and most of whom will die shortly after birth). In the context of questioning his opposition to late-term abortions even in such cases, I had asked whether anencephalics are “human” in a morally relevant sense. After a long quote from me (see the earlier post), here’s his response:

“I am just aware that another human life is at stake here and I find describing such infants as “entities”, as Culhane does, misses an essential fact about them: their soul and their humanity. Our view of what is human “in the sense that matters to me” is where we differ. From reading the emails, it seems the mothers are actually closer to my conflicts than Culhane’s certainties.”

Yeah, I did describe them as “entities,” recognizing of course the response it would likely (and with some justification) elicit. But I did so because to have referred to them as “babies” or “humans” would have begged the very question I was seeking to raise, somewhat in the spirit of a thought experiment: What does it mean to be human? I don’t know, and I’m not even “certain” that even these most tragic figures shouldn’t have at least some rights. But why? What makes us human? Should we accord rights to anencephalics even if we decide, pace Sullivan, they’re not human in some morally relevant sense? If so, why? And, right to the point, should these rights outweigh those of the mother who makes the painful decision to terminate her pregnancy under such circumstances?

These complex issue vex moral philosophers, and I make no claim to certainty. So, to the extent that my point was presented syllogistically, I went further than I should have.

On the subject of certainty, though, what about Sullivan’s citing of the “fact” that humans have souls? And their humanity, while it would likely be debated by fewer people, isn’t a “fact” either, but a proposition in need of argument. Otherwise it’s an article of faith (yes, that kind) — take it or leave it.

Let me end this on a more conciliatory note: After yesterday’s post, I continued reading the many Dish entries on the issue; as I said earlier today, I was taken aback by the stories of the women who’d undergone late-term abortions and by Sullivan’s obviously  sympathetic view of their situation. That remains true. Whatever our disagreements about  abortion (in the abstract or otherwise), the Dish has contributed an important element to the often dispiriting debate: nuance.

Beginnings of Life, Impossible Issues

July 24th, 2010 4 comments

I’ve got two somewhat related topics to discuss today. Let’s start with the unpleasant subject of late-term abortions: On Keith Olbermann’s “Countdown” last night,1 Andrew Sullivan said that he was moved by the tragic testimonials of those who’d had such abortions when faced with the prospect of giving birth to seriously disabled children, some of whom were destined to live very short, painful lives. Yet virtually in the same sentence, he added that he opposes late-term abortions; he later reiterated that statement in the Daily Dish, in the most sympathetic way I’ve ever read:

“I am immensely grateful to those readers who have shared such personal, painful experiences with such candor and open hearts. I have to say that I remain somewhat shaken by the emails…. They reminded me of the human beings behind these tragedies, and forced me to reassess my own certainties and beliefs. I still cannot in good conscience support these abortions; but I can offer my profound gratitude for the readers who have forced this blogger to see things I had not fully grasped so keenly before; and to return to them respect and empathy in the particulars, even while we may disagree in the abstract.” (emphasis added)

I’m not clear as to whether he believes that such abortions should in all cases be illegal, or that he can’t support them morally. In either case, though: Why? Why doesn’t that empathy, so eloquently expressed, translate into a change in the “abstract”?

Let’s take the most extreme case, as the statement in opposition isn’t qualified in any way: A woman is to give birth to an anencephalic, a (human?) being without a functioning brain, or perhaps with nothing but a brain stem. What justifies the abstract position against abortion in this case? We’re talking about an entity that will live for only a few hours, often, and which isn’t human in the sense that matters to me from the point of view of moral philosophy: as a rights holder. Without any capacity for functioning beyond the most primitive, the anencephalic can’t be distinguished from other species to which we afford far less sympathetic (sentimental?) treatment.  I do think the cases are different, somehow, but it’s hard to say why. Is this tragic being one of us? Are we so clear about that to oppose a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy that will have this result, with the visual image of this unfortunate being likely to be seared into her brain forever?

To his credit, Sullivan acknowledged that in some of these cases the women’s lives will also be placed at risk. Yet his position was stated without an exception to cover such cases, thereby placing him beyond even those who favor legislation prohibiting late-term abortions, where such exceptions are routine. (I’d welcome a contrary clarification, of course.)

On the subject of tragic lives, what should the law do about a sperm bank that negligently fails to screen its donors for various kinds of genetic abnormalities, and then sells the “product” to a woman whose child then ends up seriously disabled? I’m about to be interviewed on this very subject (by WHYY, the local Philadelphia affiliate of NPR) later this afternoon. The woman’s claim, which likely would have focused on the increased expenses of raising and caring for such a child, was barred by the statute of limitations, but her daughter — now a teen with serious mental disabilities — is able to sue, as the statute doesn’t start to run against kids until they achieve majority.

But what are the child’s damages? Her “choices” were this life, or none. Can she sue for something called “wrongful life”? Most states say no, and go all metaphysical in the knees: “It’s impossible to weigh even an impaired life against the inky void of utter non-existence, only God knows, etc.” Is this child a “defective product”? What a horrible thing to say, to think. But if she can’t raise a claim, where’s the accountability?

As a parent of young twins with my own difficult story to tell (but I’m not going to), all of this makes me uneasy. How do we respect life without being (effectively, if not intentionally) punitive?

Originally published on June 2, 2009

  1. The link will take you to the video, too.

Back to the Burka

February 6th, 2010 2 comments

In an earlier post, I criticized the French government for its plan to ban the public wearing of the burka. It won’t liberate women, it will drive the issue underground, it sacrifices religious freedom to nothing more than public sensibility, and so on.

But what about the government’s recent decision to deny citizenship to a Muslim man whose wife is veiled? Is that equally indefensible? I don’t think so. The guy’s comments about his power over his wife amounted to an almost cartoonishly chauvinistic litany. According to the official with responsibility for the decision, the less-than-enlightened hubby said: “My wife will never be able to go out without the full veil; I don’t believe in gender equality; women have inferior status; I will not respect the principles of the secular society.”

If that’s really what he said, the government made the right choice. This is quite a different situation from the one presented by banning the burka in public. Here, the government has to decide whether to accept, as a French citizen, someone who openly rejects gender equality, one of the principal pillars of modern, secular society (at least rhetorically, anyway). The burka that his wife wears is but one tangible expression of his repressive behavior, and the government should no more approve his application than one filed by a domestic abuser. To gain membership in a secular democracy, there are certain principles by which one agrees to abide.

So what’s different about the “no burkas in public” rule? It’s all a matter of degree, of course, but I think the cases are quite different. Although the burka is certainly a marker of women’s inequality under religious law, it’s more than that; for some women, at least, it might be a deeply felt expression of their own religious belief, uncoerced at least in any obvious way by their husbands. A society should be open enough to accommodate the kind of conversation that the burka invites, even if it makes many (including me) uncomfortable. But a potential citizen who openly sneers at the very foundations of gender equality, in 2010, should be rejected — both on the merits and as a symbol of France’s willingness to take a stand in favor of women, and against those who would oppress them.

“Corrective Rape” in South Africa and the Limits of the Rule of Law

December 14th, 2009 No comments

According to this seemingly reliable story, coming out as a lesbian in parts of South Africa carries substantial risks. They have been subjected to “corrective rape” and, at least in one case documented in the story, disregard (and worse) by officials when they report what’s happened.

South African women and a man in South Africa

A group of women are shouted at as they walk through Soweto.

The misconduct by officials, at least, is in clear defiance of South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution, which broke ground by including sexual orientation as a category protected against “unfair discrimination.” I  (Bill of Rights, Section 9 (Equality), ¶ 3.) And the national legal system, at least, takes this anti-discrimination promise seriously: In 2006, acting after the Constitutional Court had required marriage equality, the Parliament enacted a conforming law. But matters on the ground, as we like to say these days, are obviously quite different.

Why? The long-term oppression of apartheid is surely one reason. Don’t expect sudden respect for the rule of law when the legal system itself, through an elaborate and ruthlessly enforced set of rules, ensured oppression. Then there’s religion: One man in the story at the top of this post attempts to justify these horrific acts by saying that “There is no mention of lesbians in the Bible.”

But there’s more to it than that. The story is based on events in a black township outside of Cape Town, and — at the risk of unwarranted generality — this isn’t the only instance of “traditional” views impeding progress and public  health. Another chilling example is the rape of young girls — even babies — by HIV-infected men, on the “theory” that sex with a virgin will rid them of the disease. This post gathers these cases and others into an informative story, which links to discussion of a study by South African’s own Medical Research Council.

According to the professor who carried out the research:

We have a very, very high prevalence of rape in South Africa. I think it is down to ideas about masculinity based on gender hierarchy and the sexual entitlement of men. It’s rooted in an African ideal of manhood.

If this is the (or even a) notion of “masculinity” still at work in South Africa, we should at least put aside any impulse toward cultural relativism long enough to denounce it, loudly.

Does this make national law and policy irrelevant? In the short term, maybe; but constitutional rulings aren’t for the short term. The court gets it; and both the national legislature and public health officials understand the need for change, too. But marriage equality in (at least parts of ) such a nation is legal formalism, nothing more. What same-sex couple will marry when violence can be expected to follow? Only those much more courageous than I’d ever be.

Federer and Hingis in 2012?

December 10th, 2009 No comments

During the 2008 Summer Olympics, I became convinced of two things: (1) Tennis really does belong in the Olympics1; and (2) It’s a shame that they don’t offer mixed doubles. My “mixed doubles” wish has just come true. Starting right away — the 2012 Games in London — mixed doubles is part of the program. Why should you care? After all, tennis broadcast eminence Mary Carillo has referred to mixed doubles as “the funny cars” of tennis — as Jon Wertheim stated in that same linked story, it’s “nothing to be taken seriously.”

Not outside of the Olympics, anyway. But placing mixed doubles in the Olympics will make people, especially the competitors, take it seriously. Even Roger Federer, who almost never plays doubles, was overcome with joy at winning the gold medal in men’s doubles in 2008. (See video at end of post.) Funny cars will become a source of soul-stirring, nationalistic inspiration.

Also: Funny cars or not, tennis is the only sport besides badminton (which is more exciting than you think) where women compete head-to-head with men. (Other Olympic sports where women and men are in the running for same set of medals, such as pairs ice dancing and equestrian, involve serial performances. In sailing, men and women do race at the same time, but…who cares?)

The Olympics have a global audience, and thus a chance to bring visibility and respect to women in places where their status is, shall we say, less than equal to that of males. It won’t solve anything, but it can’t hurt. Sports are surprisingly powerful, as Nelson Mandela demonstrated. (Here are some early reviews from the new Clint Eastwood flick Invictus (out tomorrow), that chronicles Mandela’s use of rugby-fever to unite South Africa shortly after his election.)

One more thing: This may inspire twice-retired (but still young) Martina Hingis to emerge from the shadows one more time, for the chance to play mixed doubles with Federer. I bet he’d be eager for the chance to team up with the smartest player ever to set foot on the court (although hardly the most powerful). They’d be unbeatable.

  1. Watch this weird video (and listen to accompanying song) to get a sense of how much victory means, even to someone like Federer.

Enabling “Mad Men” — Part II: Joan or Peggy?

August 16th, 2009 No comments

There’s a great scene in the final episode of Season 2 of Mad Men. Joan Holloway, the office manager who’s hit the glass ceiling within the secretarial ranks, sees Peggy Olson, who has, remarkably, become a copywriter, as Peggy is about to enter her new office. Joan, crushed when her foray into script reading was snatched away, nonetheless exchanges a warm moment with Peggy, noting her name on the door and congratulating her. Sisterhood trumps envy.

As I said in my previous post about this show, the women on the show are more interesting than the men: They bob and weave for advantage in a male-dominated domestic and business world. Peggy and Joan advance in quite different ways, though. Joan is almost a caricature of the voluptuous sex object, while Peggy tacks back and forth, uncertainly, between being “one of the boys” and creating a female identity for herself. Joan advises her to take the latter course.

Joan’s the more self-assured and confident of the two, but the writers provide constant reminders of the compromises, large and small, that she must make. In one poignant glimpse, we see her taking down the bra strap that holds so much weight, and wincing at the painful mark left on her skin. In another, much more troubling scene, she is raped —  there’s no other word to describe it — by her fiance in one of offices. She protests, but has neither physical nor, as a practical matter, legal, recourse. Worse, she stays with the guy — a successful MD who’s lauded by another cast member for his charity work with “Negro children.”

In the early 1960’s, marital rape was not a crime. It took the feminist movement to change that archaic rule, and even today, rape is treated less harshly by the criminal law when it occurs within a marriage. This law was a holdover from the much earlier rule, abolished in nineteenth century, that permitted men to “chastise” — beat — their wives for insubordination. That marital rape was protected for an additional century speaks to the lingering idea that rape within marriage was an oxymoron — marriage bestowed consent to sex, all the time.

Of course, Joan was not yet married, so she could have reported a crime. But at that time, even more than today, Joan’s very sexuality, coupled with lingering ideas of male prerogative would have made prosecution unlikely, conviction less so. And Joan, as a wily  maneuverer within the constraints of her era, would perhaps not have seen reporting the crime as in her best interest. (At least not immediately — I have  some hope that the show will return to this issue, and show the psychological damage that must have been inflicted.)

Even today, many women put up with all sorts of crap in defense of the male prerogative that is so slow to die. That’s why I was heartened at the recent comments, and reaction, to Gov. Mark Sanford’s infidelity by his wife, Jenny. This former Wall Street big shot was not going to stand for it, nor stand by his side before the media when he “confessed.”  She told him to stop, and forbade him to see his Argentine lover again. (I can’t believe he even had the [fill-in-the-blank] to ask). And now she’s moved out of the Governor’s Mansion with the couple’s four sons.

Of course, not every woman is Jenny Sanford. Many are still in the powerless position of Joan, or the impossible one of Peggy, who hides her pregnancy and gives her child up for adoption (in a world where abortion was illegal) so that she can continue her career, which is the most important thing to her. Only in the last few episodes does she begin to realize the toll that her decisions have taken.

Season 3 starts tonight. I can’t wait.