Can we talk? Can we afford not to?

Family Planning changes lives
Family Planning changes lives (Photo credit: The White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood)

A thoughtful reader named Lydia left a comment in response to my blog (just below) giving thanks for Mark Ruffalo and his support for reproductive rights. If you’re not into reading comments, here is Lydia’s in full:

So, are you saying that killing your unborn child was a better option than allowing the child to live-maybe to be welcomed into another family’s life, and your secrecy was better than taking action to hold the rapist accountable for what he did? I have had an unwanted pregnancy, too, and as horrified and hopeless as I felt, I allowed my child to live and I have no regrets. Abortion is never the right choice, but I know it sometimes feels like the only choice. That is why women need to pick up the phone and call a crisis pregnancy counselor. Abortion is like suicide. It is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

If we’re going to talk, we have to listen. In trying to listen to Lydia I hear a couple of points of similarity and/or agreement. She and I each struggled with how to deal with an unwanted pregnancy (hers I suspect much later than mine in 1956.) We both appreciate strong & welcoming families. We both believe women need access to a pregnancy center which might offer help. Maybe we can build on these points. And try to work through some disagreements.

We need to set aside the business of holding the rapist accountable, at least in my case. In 1956, workplace rape was without recourse. I would have been laughed out of town — after destroying the fabric of several families, probably not including his. Today, women often fail to prosecute acquaintances who don’t hear No. Should they be required to prosecute, to relive painful experiences in the name of public justice? I’m not sure. Perhaps they deserve the right to make that decision for themselves, with legal advice if they choose and with the support of loved ones. Should they be required to carry the fetus that results from a painful experience for nine months in hopes that it might — might — be welcomed into another family? I don’t think so. I think they should have the right to choose otherwise, with the support of physicians and loved ones. I think no two such experiences are identical, so blanket dictates seem unwise.

Neither Lydia nor I have regrets about the course of action we chose. We differ on definitions. Lydia equates fetus with child, presumably because she believes life begins at conception. I respect the religions that teach this doctrine. I strongly support their right to protect the life of any fetus they happen to have, wanted or not. I just do not share the same belief about life’s beginnings. My own deeply held Christian beliefs see the beginning of life somewhat later on. But I think neither my religion nor Lydia’s has the right to tell other women — Jews, Muslims, Buddhists or nonbelievers — what they may or may not do with their bodies.

Lydia sees abortion as never the right choice. I see it as complex and personal, but sometimes the right choice. Mother Nature often sees it as the right choice when miscarriage happens. No one but the woman herself can know about her fetus, her body, her circumstances, her life, so I think it’s improper for me to presume to tell her what she must do. Often, counseling can help.

Which brings us to the crisis pregnancy center. Despite the fact that women have reported hearing untruths and accusations at crisis pregnancy centers, I believe many of them offer compassionate counseling and useful information. My greatly beloved daughter-in-law works at a pregnancy crisis center, and I know my daughter-in-law to be honest, kind-hearted and truthful. I support the right of pregnancy crisis centers to thrive and prosper although I do not support their promotion of unscientific theories. If we can talk, can we consider the possibility that pregnancy crisis centers might coexist with regular reproductive health centers? The latter, after all, offer many, many services unavailable elsewhere: information and testing about STDs; contraception and family planning services; pregnancy testing and counseling — even, in some of them, abortion. In that latter case, abortion is nearly always a tiny percentage of total services. Where they are being driven out of business, all of those services disappear and the results are tragic for countless men, women, boys and girls.

I can absolutely guarantee that when abortion is unavailable women suffer and die. I don’t think those on either side want women to suffer and die. Those on both sides want healthy women, few-as-possible abortions, healthy families.

What do you think, Lydia, is there any hope for conversation?

Guns and children

Case O' Guns
Case O’ Guns (Photo credit: Gregory Wild-Smith)

There’s a women-for-guns photo floating around Facebook that should get an award for creepy-scary picture of the year. It features a pretty young blond with a baby in one arm and a rifle in the other. It praises all the brave women currently bearing arms (there are a lot of them, and we’re not talking military,) touts the second amendment and winds up with “…you could call it a woman’s right to choose.” For those of us already distressed about the growing infringements on women’s reproductive rights (not to mention the co-opting of  the term “pro-life,”) that’s a low blow.

I’m fine with women packing heat if they feel the need. And if they recognize that the simple fact of having a gun around vastly increases the chance of violence to themselves and their loved ones. But baby on one arm and gun in the other?

When we were young, my oldest sister (there were four of us) awoke one night to find a man lying beside her on her bed. After a great deal of shouting and confusion the intruder, who had come in the side door, dashed down the stairs and out the front. Nobody locked their doors in Ashland, Virginia in those days, though I’ll admit that for a while after that we did. The town sheriff was called, but no one was ever arrested.

The next day — after a night that began with six people in five beds but finished with three sisters in one and the frightened oldest in between her parents — my father bought a gun.  It was theoretically locked, and appropriately set far back on a shelf. But we all knew about it. My father talked a lot about his cowboy childhood in dirt-poor rural Texas, about shooting rats down at the barn, even about being briefly in the Army; we were not reassured.

Within a few weeks the presence of the gun became too much. My sisters and I explained that we were not afraid of future intruders, but we were afraid of the potential damage to them, us or innocent others represented in that ugly piece of machinery on the shelf. Finally, my mother chimed in.

“I want my children to be safe,” she said. “That gun simply endangers their safety.” The gun went off to wherever unwanted guns go.

So I wonder about the young woman with the baby on her hip. My sisters and I ranged in age from 8 to 16, and our mother still just wanted us to be safe. I wonder if that gunslinging mother really wants her baby to be safe?

When Mom & Dad go wandering: dementia on a relentless rise

“MISSING,” the sign reads. “Distinguished-looking elderly man. 6′ 1” slightly stooped. Gray hair. Wearing dark blue sweater and gray slacks. Name: George; does not always respond. Suffering from mild dementia. Wandered away from the Laurel Village shopping center area. Please call 415-xxx-xxxx with any information.”

The sad, 8″ x 10″ flyer has appeared (once the words were slightly different, but it was clearly the same George) at the bus stop near my home twice in recent months. I kept the number in my wallet for a while, hoping I might spot him because I walk the city myself. But the difference is that I have on a warm jacket — it’s way too cold in San Francisco, especially after dark, for only a sweater — and I know how to get home.  I have wanted to call the number and learn whether George got home, but it seems intrusive.

Last year for the first time, as reporter Kirk Johnson writes in The New York Times, people like George and a 60-year-old Virginia woman named Freda Machett accounted for more missing-person alerts than children and adolescents. They are confused and lost, and often are not found in time.

Ms. Machett, 60, suffers from a form of dementia that attacks the brain like Alzheimer’s disease and imposes on many of its victims a restless urge to head out the door. Their journeys, shrouded in a fog of confusion and fragmented memory, are often dangerous and not infrequently fatal. About 6 in 10 dementia victims will wander at least once, health care statistics show, and the numbers are growing worldwide, fueled primarily by Alzheimer’s disease, which has no cure and affects about half of all people over 85.
It started with five words — ‘I want to go home’ — even though this is her home,” said Ms. Machett’s husband, John, a retired engineer who now cares for his wife full time near Richmond. She has gone off dozens of times in the four years since receiving her diagnosis, three times requiring a police search. “It’s a cruel disease,” he said.
“You have to stop thinking logically, because the people you’re looking for are no longer capable of logic,” said Robert B. Schaefer, a retired F.B.I. agent who cared for his wife, Sarah, for 15 years at home through her journey into Alzheimer’s. He now leads two-day training sessions for the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services.

How to deal with dementia is the most bewildering of end-of-life issues, whether for oneself or for a family member. Most of us would choose almost any other scenario for our last months or years, but the choice is often not ours to make. We can file advance directives (mine includes a “Dementia Provision“) and express our wishes and do brain exercises; still, one in seven Americans, according to most fairly recent reports, now suffers from dementia and the numbers are on the rise.

Here’s one interesting perspective. My greatly beloved brother-in-law, who recently relocated with my sister to a retirement community, has Parkinson’s. Though his mobility and function are diminished, the disease has yet to affect his mind. Several weeks ago he told me he no longer fears dementia. “I see people more and more with varying stages of dementia,” he said, “and I believe you can be happy.”

But you can also wander off.

More Wander Off in Fog of Age – NYTimes.com.

Drill, baby, drill?

It’s going to be a long time fixing.

The Deepwater Horizon site is pouring some 200,000 gallons (5,000 barrels) of oil daily from a broken pipe into the Gulf of Mexico. Millions of dollars are being added to the leak’s cost, and despite BP‘s assurance that they will pay for the fix, long-term costs are beyond estimating at this point.

PBS NewsHour‘s Judy Woodruff got differing views Monday night from Greenpeace Research Director Kert Davies and Sara Banaszak, senior economist for the American Petroleum Institute. Asked how the current catastrophe will affect his organization’s long-standing opposition to off-shore drilling, Davies said

Well, it reinforces what we have seen worldwide. As we drill for oil, it’s a dirty, dangerous business. And the farther afield we go, deep into the Amazon, into the Arctic, and into deeper water, the greater those risks are, and the worse the impacts when things go terribly wrong.

[daylifegallery id=”1272648400606″]

Things have gone terribly wrong. But not wrong enough to change much, considering our continuing dependence on fossil fuels. Banaszak seemed unshaken:

(A)t this point”, she said, “we don’t know what happened in that incident offshore. And that’s what’s going to be critical to find out.

What the industry has focused on doing over the years is using advanced technologies and multiple safety systems in order to prevent accidents. So, it’s a constant process of using the latest information and the latest technology, to incorporate that into developing technologies that can deliver the oil that we’re consuming in our economy today. And that’s the way the industry has approached the problem.

It was not an encouraging interview (but worth reading the entire transcript.) Banaszak mentioned that 63% of our energy comes from oil and gas, and repeatedly said that dependence will continue for at least the next 20 or 30 years. Davies mentioned, at one point, that if a similar catastrophe were to happen off the Virginia coast, where this writer grew up sailing on a pristine Chesapeake Bay and where offshore drilling could soon begin, damage would hit beaches as far north as New Jersey and beyond.

So far, one glimmer of good news for the west coast: Governor Schwarzenegger is thinking that perhaps opening up the California coast to drilling might not be such a grand idea after all.

More on mortality: living strong, dying well

It’s hard to think about the death of my sister Jane (below) without thinking of another death we faced together.

Our father, in his 90th year on the planet and his 20th year of widowhood, started putting the pressure on Jane and me to come to see him one Thanksgiving. As we were in different states and had families and other things needing attention, getting to Virginia required some doing. Our dad had two daughters in between Jane and me, but she was the executor of his estate and I was the one who brought comfort because I closely resemble my mother. We four daughters usually visited at different times in order to stretch out the audiences for his story-telling and generally keep an eye on him. This time he was adamant. He wanted the two of us there together.

In mid-January we got it worked out. Jane and I met in Atlanta, having to spend the night there because the Richmond airport was snowed in. We managed to get on the first plane to land in Richmond the next morning. After picking up a rental car for the drive to Dad’s home in Ashland we took him to lunch at the only place open in town. He was impatient to get back home. Once there he did his traditional monologue about his 12 flawless grandchildren, a reassurance, of sorts, of his posterity. Then he shuffled off to his room for a nap.

And that’s where we found him when he didn’t answer a call to dinner. Keeled over, on his knees at the head of his bed, where he had said his prayers for 90 years. Having  departed this realm in the midst of a conversation with God, all arrangements complete. He and God had long maintained a strong, conversational relationship.

Not all of us can engineer our departures so efficiently — you had to know my father. Or so gently as Jane’s closing days with her family around, singing hymns. But there are millions of such stories (some of which are in the book, Dying Unafraid, that was motivated by the first story above, if you’ll pardon a little blatant self-promotion here; it’s still in print.) The great majority of those stories happen not because the central character had an unshakable faith in some deity or other (although that does tend to help matters) or because he or she had mystical powers or superhuman strength and determination, but because the central character accepted his or her mortality. We’re born, we live, we die. The facing of, and preparation for, its eventual end often makes dying better and always makes life richer.

That’s the lesson of these two stories. Dying unafraid tends to happen to people who live unafraid. And who talk to their families and friends, and complete their advance directives, and make it clear what their choices are. This is equally true for the young and the old, the fit and the infirm.

What are you waiting for?

Obama, Pelosi & the health bill yo-yo

Invoking the not-so-long-ago proposals of Senators Bob Dole and Howard Baker, President Obama told the Republicans Friday that his health bill is “pretty centrist,” while suggesting they might leave off referring to it as a Bolshevik plot. “People in America don’t believe it’s centrist,” Congressman Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) told PBS NewsHour‘s Judy Woodruff just after the event — “the government defining costs, benefits…”  Hensarling did not sound much like someone ready for bi-partisan cooperation.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, said yesterday, in a letter e-mailed to constituents, that “Congress will pass health insurance reform no matter what barriers stand in our way. We will go through the gate. If the gate is closed, we will go over the fence. If the fence is too high we will pole vault in. If that doesn’t work, we will parachute in.” And therein may lie the problem: Obama’s move from health care to jobs as number one issue, and Pelosi’s, well, Pelosi-like determination to get some sort of a health bill through, no matter what. Some of us who agree that jobs and the economy are admittedly number one still believe the disaster that is our current health care system has got to be addressed. (One wonders what planet Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell lives on, commenting during his rebuttal to the State of the Union address that Americans don’t want to mess with “the best medical care system in the world.”)

Health reform, whatever remains of it, has become the yo-yo of the year: it’s up, it’s down, it’s tangling in multiple strings, and the axle connecting it between Democrats and Republicans looks more worn with every loop.

Here are a few of the assessments Friday night pundits were making: New York Times reporter Peter Baker on Washington Week in Review: “It’s become bad politics. There is no option but to slow down.” Also on Washington Week, Politico‘s John Harris remarked, “It’s comatose.”

The President did himself proud with the Republicans, in what was indeed a remarkable event, even if no immediate good will arises. It felt downright civil. But as to the health care yo-yo and whether it now rolls quietly under the sofa to rest a while, a parting thought came from columnist Mark Shields on NewsHour. “President Obama,” he observed, “doesn’t control Nancy Pelosi.”

Marriage: made/un-made in California

In the marriage equality case now being heard in San Francisco, and presumably headed for the Supreme Court, it’s worth looking at the points being made and the people being heard. One person being heard this week was the pro-Proposition 8 (i.e. the defendants, who want to keep the ban on same-sex marriage) star witness David Blankenhorn.

Blankenhorn, touted as scholar and expert authority for reasons I don’t fully understand, is the founder and president of the Institute for American Values. His values aren’t exactly my values, but never mind. We are each American, and a case could be made for institutionalizing us both.

If you visit the IAV website, which seems initially designed to sell books (Blankenhorn and his fellows are industrious authors) because books get front-page billing, you are then invited to “Jump directly into the think tank!” — IAV being, as noted, a scholarly operation. This is what you will learn about IAV if you float to the top of the tank:

The Institute for American Values, founded in 1987, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization whose mission is to study and strengthen key American values. The Institute brings together leading scholars from across the human sciences and across the political spectrum for interdisciplinary deliberation, collaborative research, and to issue joint public statements.

We ask: What are the cultural values most closely associated, especially in the American context, with human flourishing? That is, what are those ideas and practices that tend to produce competence, character, citizenship, thriving families, and a vibrant civil society?

What are the main challenges to those values? And how can those values be encouraged and strengthened?

In operational terms, our mission can be stated concisely: Through groundbreaking research and analysis focusing on fundamental American values, and in forging strong and diverse partnerships, the Institute seeks to strengthen families and civil society globally.

Blankenhorn testified that extending marriage rights to those unable to conceive and bear children — this would have ruled out my final union, since we were 58 and 62 at the time — would change it from “a child-based public institution to an adult-centered private institution” and lead to all manner of horrors, polygamy, that sort of thing. As San Francisco Chronicle writer Bob Egelko reported, in what is ongoing, thorough coverage of the trial,

Blankenhorn, the trial’s last scheduled witness, said he believes “leading scholars” share his view that same-sex marriage would weaken heterosexuals’ respect for the institution and accelerate a half-century-old trend of increased cohabitation and rising divorce rates.

But under cross-examination by a lawyer for two same-sex couples, Blankenhorn was unable to cite any supporting statements or evidence for that conclusion from the scholars he relied on for his testimony, though he said he was sure some of them would agree with him.

Blankenhorn did get tangled up a bit in his testimony, leaving one to wonder how thoroughly the Prop 8 folks read his research. Or how solid is the thinking in the IAV tank.

Plaintiffs’ lawyer David Boies also pointed to a passage in Blankenhorn’s 2007 book, “The Future of Marriage,” that appeared to contradict his entire position.

“We would be more American on the day we permitted same-sex marriage than we were on the day before,” Blankenhorn wrote.

He said Tuesday he still holds that view, and also believes that allowing gays and lesbians to marry would probably be good for the couples and their children.

Go figure. Some of us watching this unfold are old enough to remember when my native state, the Commonwealth of Virginia, decided it would be all right for Mr. and Mrs. Loving to live there as husband and wife, even though they were of different racial backgrounds. Until that day, in 1967, the arguments had been that allowing people of different ethnicities to wed was bad for everyone. It may seem ridiculous now, but it was the law of the land in more than one state then.

The Bible is going to come in here somewhere before this is all over, since same-sex marriage opponents believe it is wrong because their Bible tells them so. Biblical invocation could be speculation on this writer’s part, but the Mormon Church and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops pretty well got Prop 8 passed, so I think it unlikely they will stay out of any Supreme Court battle. Their Bible isn’t my Bible. Uh, oh; yes it is. Interestingly though, my Jesus taught love and compassion while their Jesus teaches that some of His children are less equal than others.

At the beginning of this trial (in which two same-sex couples are the plaintiffs) Chief U.S District Judge Vaughn Walker posed this question: How does a ban on same-sex weddings protect marriage, the stated goal of Proposition 8? I’m still trying to figure that out.

Whatever the verdict, it is expected that it will be appealed to the Supreme Court. So this may be about marriages made — or un-made — in California right now, but it will be a question of equal rights for all Americans tomorrow. Stay tuned.

Prop. 8 witness warns of societal upheaval.