Category Archives: Religion

Kennedy’s True Legacy on Abortion and Disability

In his column this morning, Ross Douthat sets up a dichotomy between Ted Kennedy and his also recently-departed sister, Eunice. Ted was a Bad Kennedy and a Bad Catholic because he was pro-choice; Eunice was a Good Kennedy and a Good Catholic because the cause of her life was disability rights, and she supported anti-abortion rights organizations such as Femnists for Life, the Susan B. Anthony List, and Democrats for Life.

But Kennedy's legacy on abortion and disability is actually far more complex than Douthat acknowledges. In 2005, Kennedy co-sponsored a bill — the Prenatally and Postnatally Diagnosed Conditions Awareness Act — that expanded federal financing for support programs for expectant and new parents who receive a Down syndrome diagnosis. Research shows that doctors delivering such a diagnosis often share very little information about living with the disease, and presume that the patient would prefer to terminate her pregnancy. Indeed, about 90 percent of couples who receive a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis do choose abortion. But enriched by his sister Rosemary's life, Kennedy sought to link expectant and new parents with mentor families already raising a child with Down syndrome, as well as create a national registry of families willing to adopt disabled infants.

Kennedy's partner on the bill was conservative Catholic Sen. Sam Brownback, who regularly compares abortion to slavery. During negotiations between the two offices, Kennedy held fast to his belief that the law must go further than just dissuading abortion; he wanted to be sure the legislation offered funding to improve the lives of disabled people and their caretakers. Last October, the bill was signed into law by President Bush. In a testament to Kennedy's coalition-building genius, it was even supported by NARAL President Nancy Keenan, who said it offered women choices without undermining their right to an abortion.

Only Ted Kennedy could bring NARAL to the table with Sam Brownback. And that's because he knew, in his heart, that there was no contradiction between being deeply pro-choice and deeply pro-disability rights.

For more on the moral complications of genetic testing, disability, and abortion, check out my 2007 In These Times feature, "Genetic Disorder."

cross-posted at TAPPED

Pro-Sex Conservative Christianity?

We last encountered Mark Regnerus in the pages of the Washington Post, singing the praises of early marriage. Last week, while I was blissfully unawares on vacation, he took his argument to a friendlier audience with a cover story in Christianity Today. In the new piece, Regnerus casts himself as a truth-teller to evangelical America, informing them that in their emphasis on sexual purity, chastity, and virginity, the movement has forgotten to encourage healthy marriages, particularly among the young. He writes (emphasis mine):

Evangelicals tend to marry slightly earlier than other Americans, but not by much. Many of them plan to marry in their mid-20s.Yet waiting for sex until then feels far too long to most of them. And I am suggesting that when people wait until their mid-to-late 20s to marry, it is unreasonable to expect them to refrain from sex. It's battling our Creator's reproductive designs. The data don't lie. Our sexual behavior patterns—the kind I documented in 2007 in Forbidden Fruit—give us away. Very few wait long for sex. Meanwhile, women's fertility is more or less fixed, yet Americans are increasingly ignoring it during their 20s, only to beg and pray to reclaim it in their 30s and 40s.

This message will be, I think, powerfully attractive to many progressive Christians. It accepts — and even celebrates — the naturalness of sexual desire. Regnerus writes, "sex feels great, it feels connectional, it feels deeply human. I never blame [young adults] for wanting that."

And yet, if you plumb Regnerus' worldview, you see that just beneath the sex-positive surface is a deep yearning for traditional gender roles. He's upset with Christian America not just because it has made sex so shameful, but also because the community has bought into a trend in the wider culture: that of encouraging both men and women to delay marriage into their late-20s, in order to focus on education, career success, and financial stability. "Most young Americans no longer think of marriage as a formative institution, but rather as the institution they enter once they think they are fully formed," he laments.

That's true — and there are major benefits to that. As Regnerus admits, financially-stable, highly-educated, slightly-older couples are much more likely to avoid divorce. His solution to this problem is to encourage parents and communities to offer more "support" to young couples in love. He seems to envision all these young lovers as middle-class college students with bright futures ahead, and parents able to offer a gentle push toward bourgeois marriage, preferably with open checkbook in hand. With their families' and ministers' approval and counsel, Regnerus imagines, young people can reasonably marry at the age of 20 or 21, and thus engage in guilt-free, God-sanctioned sex.

But in his enthusiasm for young women hunkering down at home with hubby and kids — they must not "ignore" their reproductive destinies! — Regnerus simply ignores the class implications of his argument. Poor people in their early 20s don't have the inherited socioeconomic and educational advantages that would make success at early marriage more likely. Economic instability and early marriage are leading predictors of divorce. Put together, they are disastrous for a couple's future.

If Regnerus really wanted to encourage early marriage and more stable, young families, he might support government social safety nets, such as universal health care, child care, and maternity and paternity leave. All of these make parenthood and marriage more tenable for the young and poor. Yet he describes himself in the piece as a lifelong "fiscal conservative." It's hard, then, not to conclude that, like the evangelical Christian movement as a whole, Regnerus is really more interested in promoting "traditional" family life — with a woman at home — than in revisiting notions of sexual abstinence.

cross-posted at TAPPED

Hebrew Schools and Israel

Over at the Prospect, I've written an essay about my Jewish upbringing, and what I was and wasn't taught about the history and politics of Israel. This is a piece that's been percolating in my mind for years, so I hope you all check it out. As a bonus, you get to read about my childhood rabbi who was arrested for driving while high. You can't make this stuff up.

The institutions that claim to speak for the broadest swaths of mainstream American Jewry — the three unions of Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox congregations — explicitly teach children not to identify with the Jewish people's long, Diaspora history as a strange people living in a series of strange lands. Rather, they valorize Zionism and Israel, often discouraging any critical thinking about either the history of the Jewish state or its present-day politics.

Raised as a Conservative-movement Jew, it was not until college that I learned about Israeli history — written by Jews — documenting the stories of the 800,000 Palestinians displaced by Israel's founding. At synagogue, I heard nothing about the daily lives of the nearly four million stateless Palestinian Arabs living in the lands seized by Israel after the Six-Day War of 1967.

Hebrew School taught me that Israel was the Jewish people's answer to the Holocaust, and that its open immigration policies for Jews would prevent the occurrence of another genocide. In medieval and early-modern Europe, laws often prohibited Jews from owning weapons or serving in the military. One teacher told us that Jewish men were regularly forced to stand by, idly, as Gentile brutes raped their wives and daughters. But in Israel, the Jewish people would no longer be weak, effeminate, or intellectualized. In Israel, we became sabres, or prickly pears — still sweet and loving internally, but proudly tough and dangerous on the outside. In Israel, we would have machine guns.

New Studies Find Use of Ulcer Drugs to Induce Abortion

A stomach turning article in the New York Times today reminds us that the fight for reproductive justice isn't just a legal one, but is also deeply cultural. Two new studies of Latina women, particularly Dominicans, have found widespread use of prescription ulcer medication to induce abortion. Side effects include excessive bleeding, shock, and even rupture of the uterus. Nevertheless, some pharmacists are willing to sell the drug without a prescription for about $30. In a Catholic, anti-choice culture, many teenagers and women find this painful, dangerous abortion method preferable to visiting a family planning clinic or doctor's office, even if they are insured.

It was 12 years ago, but the memory remains vivid: She was handed a packet of pills. They were small and white, $30 for 12. Ms. Dominguez, two or three months pregnant, went to a friend’s apartment and swallowed the pills one by one, washing them down with malta, a molasseslike extract sold in nearly every bodega in the neighborhood.

The cramps began several hours later, doubling Ms. Dominguez over, building and building until, eight and a half hours later, she locked herself in the bathroom and passed a lifeless fetus, which she flushed.

Affordability remains a factor here; with abortions costing upwards of $1,000 and uncovered by public insurance plans, many women simply cannot afford them. Another option that should be more available and affordable is RU-486, the "abortion pill," which also includes misoprostol, the active ingredient in the ulcer medication. Yet RU-486, administered by a doctor and taken in private, is safe and intended for this purpose. It still gives women the advantage, if necessary, of passing their abortions off as miscarriages to anti-choice partners, family, or friends.

Most disturbingly, the Times reports on two cases of immigrant women being imprisoned by American judges for the crime of inducing abortion with ulcer drugs. Desperation and lack of health insurance should not be criminalized. It's hard to believe that any judge would see women — not society and culture at large — as the problem here.

Update: It just came to my attention that The American Prospect's deputy editor, the estimable Ann Friedman, was all over this story two years ago when she worked at Mother Jones. Go Ann!

cross-posted at TAPPED

How Best to Help FLDS Children?

If you’ve been following the story of the 437 children removed by the state of Texas from a breakaway, fundamentalist Mormon community in Eldorado, you know things are more complicated than they initially appeared: Police raided the compound after they received a call from a woman who said she was a 16-year girl who’d been sexually assaulted there. Now authorities believe those calls were actually placed by a Colorado woman with a history of making false police reports. Yet a Court chose to keep the children, even breast-feeding infants, away from their families and in foster homes, at least for the time-being. It is known that the sect forces girls in early puberty into marriages with older men, and that girls as young as 13 years old have been impregnated. A powerful argument can be made that when a community of adults forces children to conform to such a misogynist, violent, and abusive ideology, it is in their children’s best interest to be raised by adults outside of that community.

Yet voices are beginning to raise in protest of the removal. Warren Binford, a children’s rights expert, writes in the Oregon Statesman Journal:

If these teenage girls are being sexually abused, they should be in protective custody — absolutely. However, most of the children in custody are boys and young children, and thus, not at imminent risk of the abuse alleged.

All children have the right to remain with their families unless and until there is substantial proof of imminent risk of serious harm to that specific child. Due process rights entitle each and every child to individualized findings of harm or serious risk of harm.

It is sensible to assume that, especially for girls, being raised in an environment of sexual coercion has a profoundly negative psychological impact well before the actual acts of physical abuse take place. Still, Binford’s point is well taken; removing young children from their parents abruptly may be equally traumatic. Indeed, there is no way for society to root out every family subjecting their children to such ideas and put those kids into an already over-burdened foster care system. So policy and legal solutions to these problems are unclear. Readers, what do you think? Is Texas right to keep the FLDS children in state custody?

cross-posted at TAPPED 

McCain’s Far Right Catholic Support

The media coverage of televangelist John Hagee‘s endorsement of John McCain in late February may have left some with the impression that McCain hadn’t, until that point, received wide support from the religious right. In fact, right wing Catholic leaders had been flocking to the McCain campaign since the fall. That’s why Hagee’s derision of Catholicism is so problematic for McCain: Hagee alienates a key Republican social conservative constituency — anti-abortion rights Catholics — that McCain had already won over.

Over at RH Reality Check today, I look more closely at exactly who on the religious right supports McCain, and whether the Hagee controversy will hurt McCain’s electoral success with Catholic voters. Here’s an excerpt:

In South Carolina, the campaign trotted out Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn to call McCain "an unwavering voice in Congress for the rights of the unborn." A doctor himself, Coburn supports the death penalty for physicians who perform abortions. In January, McCain attracted endorsements from Cathy and Austin Ruse, a prominent couple in the Catholic anti-choice movement. Cathy is a former pro-life spokesperson for the United States’ Congress of Catholic Bishops, and Austin is president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, which lobbies the United Nations in opposition to family planning and abortion services worldwide. "We believe that abortion is the greatest civil rights issue of our day," the Ruses said in their statement of support for McCain. (No word on how the Ruses feel about income inequality or housing and workplace discrimination.) Also this winter, Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio, a leader in the effort to ban so-called "partial-birth abortions," signed onto the McCain campaign.

With those endorsements, McCain had plenty of anti-choice credibility even before his ill-fated pas de deux with John Hagee. But in his rush to the Bush right, McCain will leave no stone unturned — even if lurking underneath is the possibility of angering over 60 million American Catholics. Of course, McCain has never been a shoe-in for the Catholic vote; ironically, polls show that like most Americans, Catholics believe abortion should be generally legal. Just more evidence to support the fact that John McCain’s views on reproductive health lie well outside of the mainstream.

Check out the whole thing.

An Unexpected, Anti-Choice Endorsement for Hillary

A few days ago I stumbled upon a tiny item in Time‘s European edition saying that Vampire Chronicles author Anne Rice — who became (for lack of a better term) a born-again Catholic in 1998 — is supporting Hillary Clinton for president, in part because Rice believes Democrats are more likely to end abortion than Republicans. No further info. As a former Rice fan-girl, I investigated upon my arrival back home and found a small blogospheric kerfuffle over Rice’s statement, posted on her personal site:

 To summarize, I believe in voting, I believe in voting for one of the two major parties, and I believe my vote must reflect my Christian beliefs.

Bearing all this in mind, I want to say quietly that as of this date, I am a Democrat, and that I support Hillary Clinton for President of the United States. …

I want to add here that I am Pro-Life. I believe in the sanctity of the life of the unborn.   Deeply respecting those who disagree with me, I feel that if we are to find a solution to the horror of abortion, it will be through the Democratic Party. …

And much as I am horrified by abortion, I am not sure –  as a student of history – that  Americans should give up the right to abortion.

I am also not convinced that all of those advocating anti-abortion positions in the public sphere are necessarily practical or sincere. I have not heard convincing arguments put forth by anti-abortion politicians as to how Americans could be forced to give birth to children that Americans do not want to bear.  And more to the point, I have not heard  convincing arguments from these anti-abortion politicians as to how we can prevent the horror of abortion right now, given the social situations we have.

Rice professes not to have any "solution" for the problem of abortion in mind, but it seems to me she’s gesturing toward a public policy of increased access to contraceptives and comprehensive sexuality education. In other words, she prefers a policy of prevention, the keystone of the Clintons’ "safe, legal, and rare" formulation. I also wouldn’t be surprised if part of Rice’s support is based on Hillary’s 2005 statement that abortion is often a "tragedy." Pro-choicers have been wary of this language. But maybe it’s time to reconsider.

While it’s true that poll after poll shows Americans want abortion to remain legal, this support is somewhat "soft." Americans consistently express moral ambivalence about the procedure, and say abortion should be less common.  So should pro-choicers be shifting the 2008 debate away from federal abortion funding and rural abortion access, and toward access to contraceptives? The danger, after all, is that by not talking about the very real barriers that remain to abortion access, we’ll do nothing to compel the next president to alleviate them.

But as Ann Friedman writes, Republican candidates have consistently signaled to the conservative base that they find oral contraceptives as abhorrent as surgical abortion: "While the nation may be divided on how we feel about abortion rights, there is widespread and unequivocal support for contraception access. Moderate Republican voters should know that Mitt Romney wants to take away their birth control pills."

The Anne Rice position on abortion and birth control is smack in the middle of the mainstream. So instead of running scared from discussions of reproductive health, could contraception become a wedge issue for Democrats? And how could we make it so without compromising on abortion?

“The one who forces Israel into a peace treaty with the Arabs is the one you have to watch out for…”

Because that person will be the Antichrist.

"We’re fighting what is behind the Muslim people, which is Satan."

"We’ve been praying for the whole Jewish race for a long time."

"We believe that Jesus is the Messiah, and you guys haven’t really come to that recognition yet, but we believe you will."

"It’s time for America to embrace the words of Senator Joseph Lieberman and consider a military preemptive strike against Iran."

Those are just a few of the dangerous, anti-peace views featured in Nation/Huffington Post journalist Max Blumenthal‘s video report from the Christians United For Israel conference here in Washington. CUFI is the organization of televangelist John Hagee, who AIPAC, the conservative American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has embraced as an ally. Lieberman attended the conference, as did a former Israeli ambassador to America and representatives from college student zionist organizations.

Watch Max’s video to see born again Christians in talit doring the hora and singing in Hebrew, all the while insisting that Jews who don’t covert will burn in hell. And then wonder if it’s responsible for people who claim to speak for the American Jewish community to embrace this  radical, irrational movement.

Rapture Ready: The Unauthorized Christians United for Israel Tour from huffpost and Vimeo.

Christian Fantasy & Harry Potter

So we’ve known for years that some fundamentalist Christians disapprove of the Harry Potter series because it depicts humans using magic. It seems to me that this stance is uniquely fantastical: Magic is only to be feared if it’s real, right? This just confirms my feeling that believing in witches, warlocks, and quidditch is not so different from believing an old man in the sky impregnated a peasant girl and the resulting child rose from the dead a few decades later.

In anticipation of the release of the last Harry book this Saturday (yep, I’ve pre-ordered my copy), the Washingon Post reports on alternative Chrisitian fantasy books. Although even James Dobson believes J.K. Rowling‘s series is a positive moral influence on children, some literalists disagree:

The use of magical powers by humans is a controversial theme for Christian writers and readers. They cite this biblical verse from the book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament: "Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead."

The writers of the Old Testament clearly believed sorcery was a real, powerful force for evil in the world. Why would contemporary religious people stigmatize themselves by continuing this line of reasoning?

Kids (and the young at heart!) effing love Harry Potter. In "Jesus Camp," the documentary about fundamentalist Christian children’s programs, preachers scream at kids that Harry stands alongside the devil. But as the film depicts, just a few minutes later while eating lunch, the children buzz about which person’s glasses are more like Harry’s and who has seen the most recent Potter film. And I think this is why, like Matt Yglesias, I’m totally sick of all the bitter Potter critics. It isn’t often that a piece of pop culture comes along and truly unites so many of us in delight.

Jews:Poland::Native Americans:USA?

In a New York Times article about the fetishization of Jewish holidays, music, and food in Poland — a nation where 10 percent of the population was Jewish prior to the Holocaust but where now only 10,000 Jews live — the founder of a Polish-Jewish magazine explains, "It’s like when you lose a limb. Poland is suffering from Jewish phantom pain.”

This idea of "phantom pain" or guilt reminds me of how the United States has appropriated a certain vision of Native American culture. We name our sports teams after tribes and turn Native people into face-painted mascots. We consecrate a holiday (Thanksgiving) that ignores most historical evidence to mythologize non-coercive friendship between European settlers and Native Americans. In the town where I grew up, where the local Sint Sinck tribe was deplaced by white settlers into the Connecticut River valley, a middle class neighborhood of Cape Cods is referred to as "Indian Village," with street names such as "Mohawk," "Ramapo," and "Mohegan."

It strikes me that in some ways, we’re actually further behind many European nations in explicitly acknowleding our own continent’s history of genocide.

cross posted at TAPPED