Saturday, September 23, 2006

A long, long, time ago...

...I was brought up in the same sort of liberal Christian orthodoxy that Jim Wallis is espousing. I have to admit that I haven't yet found his recent book, Nato, but I have skimmed two from the early eighties I found at the library. It is all wearily familiar and pretty much as I remember it from the guitar-playing nuns of my childhood. They never said anything about abortion. They said a lot about the evils of American militarism. They said a lot about the evils of poverty. They never said anything much about the evils of America's enemies, and they left me with the strong impression that poor people were poor just because the rich people were keeping all the money for themselves.

I am one of those 16% of people in the poll Jim Wallis talks about who would say abortion is the greatest moral crisis facing America. It is a wrong that is obviously wrong, it is symptomatic of a deep philosophical loss of bearings that separates our age from the earlier centuries of Western civilisation, and it is a wrong that is easy to fix. Poverty is also a wrong that is obviously wrong, but it is something that is non-trivial to fix, and the 'obvious' solutions to fixing it are not solutions that work. The empirical evidence seems to be that the best way to alleviate poverty worldwide, an outcome I fervently desire, is to eliminate artificial barriers to the movement of goods, services, and most of all, labour. At the moment, the people who are pushing for the removal of these barriers in the United States are overwhelmingly on the right-wing side of politics. So, if we accept Jim Wallis' vision of poverty reduction as the single overriding concern for Christian voters, voting for the Democrats is still daft.

You might notice in one of the Gospels, Nato- I can't remember which one- Judas says 'This is a waste of money: this perfume should have been sold and given to the poor' and Jesus says 'Don't sweat it. The poor will be with you always', and in the next chapter Judas goes off to betray Jesus? That synchronicity of events has seemed important to me ever since I noticed it. It still bugs me. I think Judas really believed Jesus was all about eliminating poverty and forwarding the historical praxis of liberation (like me, circa 1990, and like Jim) and that when he found out that the truth was something different, he couldn't handle it.

5 comments:

Marco said...

I cannot agree with your statement that it is a wrong that is easy to "fix". Perhaps one imagines that reversing Rowe vs Wade would be a fix for the wrong in the US. Most analysts believe that there are extremely hard to surmount forces that are playing against this fix, regardless of judges, and that it is very likely democratic forces may still make the point moot even if the precedent is overturned.
But even in Queensland, under Joh, abortion was technically illegal, but seemed to be no less common than in other states. It is a hollow victory if there is a moral law but it is just a moral guideline with no teeth. Which western countries have the lowest abortion rates (adjusting for estimated illegal ones)? Are there any that seem to be winning the moral battle in statement and deed? How does one know if we are going in the right direction or are just deluded by weasel politics which is winning votes but doesn't really care about the outcomes.

Dr. Clam said...

Well, *easier* to fix, then. You just have no confidence in technology! :)

The Netherlands seems to be the lowest, followed closely by Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland, and unfettered access to effective contraception to all parts of society seems to be the key element.

Dr. Clam said...

This is what the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs says:
Q.7. Why has the Netherlands always had such a low abortion rate?
A.7. The Netherlands has always had a relatively low abortion rate, and in this respect little haschanged since abortion became legal. The reason is closely related to the widespread use ofcontraceptives in this country.Family planning was taboo in Dutch society up to the 1960s. It was forbidden to sell or advertisecontraceptives. There was virtually no public debate on the subject, and the medical establishmentchose to remain silent on the issue. The Netherlands had one of the highest birth rates in Europe rightup to 1965.This situation changed dramatically in the decade from 1965 to 1975, reflecting a fundamental shift inthe social, cultural and political climate (see Q2). With the availability of new forms of contraception,sexual and moral values changed and family planning gained increasing acceptance. In 1961, theNetherlands started producing the pill, which gradually became extremely popular. There was also agrowing demand for sterilisation.
B.7. The question is, why did family planning become so popular in the Netherlands and why was there hardly any increase in the abortion rate?
Four factors played a role.Firstly, the social and political debate on family planning was prompted by concerns about the prospect of overpopulation. The Netherlands was the most densely populated country in the world inthe 1960s, and the future prognoses were alarming. This factor as a consideration in family planningwas unique to the Netherlands.At the same time, the influential Dutch Association for Sexual Reform (NVSH) launched a vigorouscampaign for new family planning legislation. By the mid-1960s the NVSH had over 200,000 membersand a staff of 100 at its headquarters in The Hague. Its aims were to persuade the government tointroduce sex education in schools, and to exercise influence on the media and establish family planning centres throughout the country. The women's movement, too, conducted a major family planning campaign.Towards the end of the 1960s, the Netherlands Society of General Medical Practitioners recognised family planning as an important aspect of general practice and almost all general practitioners began to offer their patients this service. This step had far-reaching implications. It meant that people coulddiscuss birth control in confidence and in a relatively familiar context, whereas in most countriescounselling services were provided by gynaecologists or special clinics. Within a short space of time,birth control had become an integral part of health care.Another reason for the sudden popularity of family planning lies in the changes in funding which tookplace in 1971. The government lifted the statutory prohibition on contraceptives in 1969 and in 1971made them available under the national health insurance scheme. Two years later, sterilisation was also covered by national health insurance. In addition, small family planning clinics run by the RutgerFoundation became eligible for government grants. Not only did these measures constitute anincentive to practise birth control, they were also a factor in making contraception morally acceptable.Family planning became a public issue instead of an individual problem.Hence, the use of contraceptives had gained widespread acceptance in the Netherlands not only bythe time abortion was legalised, but even before it became a political issue. Thanks to demographic,social, psychological and financial factors, nearly all obstacles to birth control had been removed. This is one of the main reasons for the low abortion rate. In a short space of time, the Netherlands wastransformed from a country with a high birth rate by European standards into one in which birth control was common practice.

But they also say:
"Two population groups which tend not to practise birth control are minors and ethnic minorities. Special attention is devoted to ethnic minorities, as their abortion rate is between three and almost tentimes higher than that of the rest of the population. Over the past 15 years, family planning research inthe Netherlands has specifically targeted the Surinamese, Antillean, Turkish and Moroccan communities.
Women of Turkish and Moroccan origin generally tend to have relatively large families. Thegovernment therefore tries to ensure they are informed about family planning and provides specialcounselling services. It is still too soon to say whether these measures will have any effect."

So I don't know, is it really some indefinable cultural thing? Our species is so irritating...

Dr. Clam said...

You are quite right to draw my attention to the fact that I often just complain about a problem with thinking of the best steps to fix it, just like I accused Jim Wallis of doing. :( What's good for the goose is good for the gander, etc. At least I have always supported universal government-funded health care, which seems to be a key part of the equation...

Marco said...

That is extremely interesting analysis. My model which mixes engineering and economic models which relates to other things that have a bathtub curve; gives an interesting view of the future. Basically, my "theory" is that as countries have become more affluent, age-dependent valuations on life have changed. This has essentially eliminated infanticide and deaths due to neglect at infancy, and instead replaced it with abortion. The rub is that the related abortion rate is orders of magnitude higher than the death rate it replaces. Extrapolating this further means ever higher rates but earlier forms of abortion, until very affluent societies almost universally use contraception (and occasionally morning after contraception) except for the rare cases where they want to conceive, and half the time they will use in-vitro anyway. Basically, all the "fun" (ie. risk) will have gone.