Graphic abortion images have their place, but they don’t belong at the March for Life

Are you going to the March for Life, either in DC or in your state?  If so, are you planning to display graphic photos or videos of aborted babies?

If so, I’m begging you to reconsider.

I understand why people use them. Many Americans are still somehow ignorant about what abortion really is — what it really does to real babies.  They believe the lies about a “clump of cells” or “fetal pole activity,” or let themselves get confused in a cloud of euphemisms about “choice.” Many pro-lifers remember seeing those bloody images for the first time, and can recall being shaken out of a vague, fuzzy support for the pro-life cause into the realization that this is a life-and-death struggle — real life, and real death.

These images have their uses.

But a public place is not the place to use these images — ever, I’m convinced.  These images are like a terrible weapon which should be used with fear and trembling, and only as a last resort.  Ideally, they should only be used in the context of a relationship. Why?

Those are real babies.  Christians are almost alone in affirming the dignity of the human person.  The human body is sacred and always worthy of respect.  When we use pictures of real babies as a tactic or a tool, we are allowing ourselves to forget that these are children with an immortal soul, and who have a name that only their Father knows.  They have already been killed.  Let us treat their poor bodies with respect.

There will be children at the march.  Do you let your little kids watch slasher films or play gory video games?  No?  Well, those things show us actors with fake blood, pretending to be tortured and killed, or computer-generated images.  It’s bad enough when it’s fake. Why would you let your kids see the real thing?  The pro-life cause is about protecting innocent life, and that includes protecting the innocence of young children.  Violent images stay with us for a lifetime, and they damage us.

There will be post-abortive women at the march.  Imagine their courage in being there at all.  Then imagine what it does to them to see, once again, the dark thing that keeps them from sleeping at night — the thing that often keeps them in decades-long cycles of self-loathing and despair.  We don’t ask victims of rape to look at videos of rape in progress.  We don’t ask holocaust victims to look at huge banners showing the piles of emaciated bodies.  As pro-lifers, we must remember that every abortion has two victims:  the child and the mother.  We must never be on the side that hurts mothers.  Never.

Women who have miscarried will be there.  Thousands of the women at the March are mothers — mothers who have already given birth, mothers who are pregnant as they march, and mothers who have miscarried, delivered dead babies.  For many of them, the grief over a miscarriage never goes away entirely.  Many women stay away from any public march for fear of being subjected to these images so similar to the thing that caused them so much pain.  Motherhood makes a woman’s heart tender.  The pro-life movement should be a shelter that protects that tenderness — because the world needs it desperately.

Public image matters.  Some people’s only contact with obvious pro-lifers is with people who shout and condemn and terrify.  It’s just basic psychology:  if you want people to listen to you and have sympathy for your cause, don’t come across as a lunatic.  You’re not a lunatic — but to people who don’t already agree with you, you sure look that way if you’re out in public with an oversized photo of gore flapping in the wind.  Yes, your cause is worthy.  No, you’re not helping it.

They’re not an unanswerable argument that pro-lifers imagine, because people see what they want to see.  When the apostles begged the Lord to send the dead to persuade people to repent, He said that if they didn’t listen to the prophets, then they wouldn’t be impressed by the dead coming back to life, either.  Many pro-choicers speak as if it’s a foregone conclusion that pro-lifers use photoshopped images — that the tiny, mutilated feet and hands and heads are a hoax that’s been thoroughly debunked.  It’s a lie, of course.  But people believe it all the same, because they want to (and pro-lifers don’t help their cause by being sloppy about things like identifying gestational age on photos).

Desensitization is a real danger — even among pro-lifers.  It’s just how humans are made:  see something too often, and you stop really seeing it.  I thank and bless those who work so tirelessly for the pro-life cause, including those who had to spend time up close with the heart-rending remains of babies, rescuing them from dumpsters and photographing them.

But to those who use these images routinely everywhere, indiscriminately, I beg that they to stop and consider that, like policemen or like soldiers, they are human, and are in danger of becoming hardened out of self-preservation. People who have become hardened must never be the public face of the pro-life cause.  If you, as a pro-life activist, see a bloody image and you don’t flinch, then it’s time to take a break — move into a different segment of the ministry, perhaps one that emphasizes prayer and reparation.

*****

These are all arguments against using graphic images indiscriminately, in a public place. Does this mean they should never be used?

Absolutely not.  Bloody and shocking images have their place.  Pro-life activists are right when they say abortion depends on silence and darkness, and that truth must be exposed.  Too many people who are pro-choice because they somehow still don’t know what fetuses actually look like, or what happens to them when they are aborted– or because they’ve simply slipped into a comfortable shelter of euphemisms.  These lies, this comfort must be stripped away.

So when should you use graphic images?  When a teenager shrugs and says, “My health teacher says it’s not a person until 25 weeks.”  When someone who works in the front office of a clinic says she’s doing a gentle, compassionate work of mercy.  When your boyfriend wants you to get rid of “it” before it becomes a real baby.  When a college girl likens unborn babies to tumors or parasites.  Then you can respond to the actual situation, to the actual person.  Then you can take out the picture and say, “Is this what you’re talking about?” And let the poor, dead child speak for you. 

I believe that everyone should see an image of an aborted baby once in their lifetime.  And I believe that, like any traumatic image, it will stay with you.  Once or twice in a lifetime is enough. 

Abortion is violent.  Abortion is cruel.  Abortion inflicts trauma and pain on the vulnerable.  Abortion is dehumanizing to mother and child. As pro-lifers, we should have no part in any of that.  Let use those graphic images with care and respect, as a weapon of last resort. 

***
Photo used with kind permission of the photographer, Matthew Lomanno, from his photo documentary of the March for Life 2014.

 

The womb of the world is a private place

Somehow at one and the same time, He is the flower of all creation, the open, shining blossom of the Father’s love, and also the tightly furled kernel of blessed humanity, ready to become anything we need Him to be.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image: Detail  of Photo by Charles Deluvio 🇵🇭🇨🇦 on Unsplash

What is women’s responsibility to men while breastfeeding?

Today, on International Women’s Day, a conservative Catholic Twitter personality retweeted a story about a gubernatorial candidate who breastfed her baby in an election ad. He added this comment:

“Lady, cover that up. Breast feeding in public is fine but cover up. No one needs to have to avert their eyes uncomfortably.” (I’ve taken out his name because it’s not about him. His sentiment is very common among conservative Catholics.)

 

Curious, I looked up the ad in question to see how flagrant a bit of lactivism it was.

Now, a disclaimer: I’m rare among my friends in that I have some sympathy for men who find public breastfeeding distracting. Men like boobs, and I’m okay with that. I do believe women should be aware at the effect their exposed breasts can have on men.

Of course, it’s not always possible for women to be completely discreet, and lots of babies won’t tolerate covers, and of course there is often a flash of skin that shows while you position the hungry baby, and the most important thing is that a baby get fed when he’s hungry; but it does kind of bug me when moms go out of their way to turn breastfeeding into some kind of exhibitionist statement, hanging out at Starbucks with their entire titty on display like some kind of–

Um.

Watch the ad. Here’s the footage that made this Catholic conservative fellow’s eyeballs feel so uncomfortable.

 

Did you even see anything? I didn’t. Just a hungry baby getting fed.

This video is almost miraculous for how unboobful it is. Margaret Thatcher showed more skin on any given day than the woman in this commercial. She’s far more modest than I ever manage to be. (For the record, my own public nursing technique was to remove my glasses. Then everything got all blurry, and no one could see us.)

So . . . what’s the deal, here? Why does this Tweeter, and so many other men (and women, too), find even the idea of public breastfeeding so disconcerting? Because that’s all there was here: An idea. We saw a woman; we saw a baby; we knew what was going on, but we sure didn’t see anything. And yet merely knowing it happened caused the fellow discomfort.

Long have I pondered over this puzzle. I can easily understand how secular men can find breastfeeding off-putting. Many men are so warped by porn that they prefer videos to living women. Actual, real, in-the-room women are unappealing to them. They only want to see women who’ve been artfully separated into parts, like a cow at the hands of a butcher.

But how is it that conservative, Catholic men tremble with consternation if they must be in the same room with a woman using her breasts as if they are some kind of, ugh, mammary glands or something? They say they are concerned with modesty and decency, but how can that be so? They’re happy to partner with Fox News, which has a “cleavage” tag on its page, and whose female news anchors routinely show abundant skin. Conservative men don’t demand draconian modesty from their political idols, male or female. Only from nursing mothers.

Truly, I believe them when they say public breastfeeding causes them discomfort. But I don’t believe it has anything to do with the woman offending their sense of modesty, decency, or chastity.

The discomfort they feel is the discomfort of being excluded. The discomfort they feel is in seeing a woman’s body in a context that has nothing to with them. It makes them uncomfortable to see a woman in a context that even temporarily excludes them.

When a woman shows half her boobs in a skin-tight dress at a gala, men feel that this display is for them (and be honest, it probably is). They understand the situation, and they are in control of it. They feel themselves to be the central actor: I am a man with eyeballs and a penis, and look! Here comes a set of breasts for me. 

But if those breasts are in use for feeding a baby, where does the man fit in? He’s excluded. He feels weird and itchy and unhappy. He feels he has to look away, but it’s breasts, so he doesn’t want to look away, but when he does look, he sees something that doesn’t have anything to do with him. And he doesn’t like that, at all.

As I said, I have sympathy for men who struggle with public breastfeeding. It’s not wrong or bad or disgusting of men to be sexually aroused by the sight of a breast.

But here’s the thing: We feel what we feel, but we’re in control of what we do next. Normal, healthy, decent men can be aroused by a breast, but then immediately tell themselves, “Okay, that’s enough, now” if they find themselves acting or thinking like a creep. Men must earn the title of “man” by training themselves to get used to the idea that breasts are not always there to turn them on.

And that is a man’s responsibility, not a woman’s.

It’s a man’s responsibility to always remember that women are whole people, and not just body parts. This is true whether a woman is breastfeeding discreetly or openly, whether she’s dressed like Daisy Duke or draped like a dowager, whether she’s starring in a National Geographic special or if she’s a woman clothed with the sun. She’s a whole person, and it’s a man’s job to remember that.

It’s his responsibility to remember she is a whole person if she’s topless because he’s currently having sex with her. She’s still a whole person, always a whole person. It is his job to train himself never to forget this, and to act accordingly, even on Twitter.

It’s his job to train himself never to forget this even if, when confronted by a woman feeding her child, he has to “avert his eyes uncomfortably.” The man who whines about having to avert his eyes?  Barely a man. If shifting his eyeballs is the hardest thing he’s is ever required to do, this is a soft age indeed.

And so I’ve changed my mind, in recent years, about women’s responsibility to breastfeed discreetly. I used to think she should do everything she can to cover up as much as possible, out of charity for men who struggle with chastity. But now I see that behavior as potentially propping up a culture of pornography.

As I said above, I do believe women should be aware at the effect their exposed breasts can have on men. But I’ve come to understand that that effect may very well be to help restore our culture to sexual health. Public, uncovered breastfeeding reminds everyone that women are not isolated parts. They are whole. They have a context of their own, and that context sometimes has nothing at all to do with men’s desires.

My friend Kate Cousino said it well: “I firmly believe public breastfeeding is a blow against pornography culture. Context is precisely what porn omits. And the context of sex and breasts is real human beings with lives–and babies.”

As I said in my conversation with Claire Swinarski, extreme modesty culture is just the flip side of pornography culture. Both are obscenely reductive. Both rob women of their personhood. Both say that women are valuable only insofar as they do what men want them to do.

And men say the same thing, when they rage and sneer at women who breastfeed in public. It’s especially scandalous for Catholic, conservative, family men to behave this way, making a huge show of huffily leaving the room if their daughter-in-law begins to nurse at a family gathering, or complaining bitterly to the pastor when women dare to feed their infants in the pew without a cover.

When men do these things, they’re saying, “It’s more important for you to protect me from passing hormonal inconvenience than it is for you, who haven’t slept in four months, to just sit down and feed your baby. My obligation to exercise self-control is too hard for me. All the obligation is on you, breast-haver. Because I’m a man, you must make my world easier by caring for me, too, as you care for your new baby.”

It’s International Women’s Day. A very good day to be a man by taking responsibility for your own eyes, your own brain, your own hormones. A very good day to start your training. Women are whole people. If you work at it, you can learn to see them that way, even if they’re feeding babies.

 

***
Maria Lactans image By Wolfgang Sauber (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

A lot to ask from a baby

Listen, world.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

They said my kids don’t belong at Mass. Now what?

Hey, parents, how did Mass go yesterday?

Let me guess: Everyone was exhausted and cranky, the kids were still sticky and vibrating with last night’s sugar, several faces showed traces of whiskers and fake blood, and all in all, you kept thinking how nice it would be to venerate the saints any other day at all but this one.

The only thing that could make it harder? If another parishioner went out of his way to make it harder. Yes, it happens! If it’s never happened to you, you’re lucky.

Yesterday, a mom asked me how to get yourself to go back to Mass after it happens once too often. It wasn’t just a passing glare, sigh, or stink-eye from a crabby fellow Catholic, she explained, but the person actually hissed in her ear that her children do not belong at Mass. That she is doing a bad job as a mother. Incredibly, the complainer sought her out after Mass to double down and say it again: Your children don’t belong here. Do not bring them here.

Let’s be clear: This is a message straight from Hell. The Mass is humanity’s main source of grace and life, and if no one goes, then no one will have grace or life. Telling parents their kids don’t belong at Mass is like trampling down every seedling you find, then clucking your tongue over the poor harvest.

 

So, yes, children belong. Yes, even if there is a cry room and a nursery and a separate kiddie liturgy available.

You as parents may believe this with at least part of your heart. But what do you do about the people who don’t believe it? What if the prospect of setting yourself up for another public flogging next Sunday just feels crushingly impossible? You know how much you need Christ, but you also know you’re going to spend the entire hour feeling tense, angry, guilty, and defensive; and it’s not as if the kids are begging to be there, either. You know you need what Christ has to offer, and you know grace isn’t a matter of how you feel. But even knowing all of this, sometimes it just seems pointless, utterly pointless, to go. What to do?

Sometime before Sunday, talk to the priest. This may or may not work. Some priests over-value silence, and some underestimate how hard it is to keep kids quiet. Priests are human, and no human responds well to all situations.

But many priests will be horrified to hear that families are being discouraged from coming to Mass. When the pastor insists from the pulpit that true pro-lifers want, need, and love children in the pews, and insists that we act that way, it changes the culture of the parish. So ask your priest if he will say something, or put a note in the bulletin, or distribute some of these encouraging cards. Have more than one conversation, if need be. Yes, the priest is busy, but your complaint is not trivial.

Make a simple strategy ahead of time. Not necessarily a plan for how to manage your kids (although that’s important too; although some mornings, not arriving naked is triumph enough), but a plan for how to respond if someone does harass you. When I’m already frazzled by a rambunctious toddler, I’m not going to be able to improvise a sensible response to an equally unreasonable adult (hereafter referred to as “The Hisser”). It’s invaluable to have an all-purpose tool at the ready.

Suggested stock phrases: “Thanks, we’re doing the best we can!” or “We’re having a rough time. Let’s pray for each other” or “Go back to hell where you came from, you old warthog.” Well, maybe not that last one. But you get the idea. Smile blandly, stare just over The Hisser’s left ear, and repeat, repeat, repeat. It doesn’t even have to make sense. Just having a ready response and sticking to it helps you regain control.

Third, enlist help. This is a tall order, I know. If you had an army of helpers surrounding you, you wouldn’t be struggling to begin with. But often, we see our pews as little isolation chambers, everyone turning up with their own personal issues; but the Mass is supposed to be a communal experience that extends beyond the sign of peace. So look around and see if you can spot a sympathetic person to act as a buffer between you and The Hisser. People pick on parents because they can. If they discover those parents have bodyguards, they will be less bold.

Find a spot close to another family or a friendly elderly couple. Gather up your courage and whisper, “Hey, listen, could you help me out? I’m trying to teach my kids to behave, but sometimes they get away from me, and it would be so great to feel like not everyone’s mad at me! If anyone gives us a hard time, could I ask you to stick up for me?” It’s weird, I know. But it’s hard to imagine someone turning you down, and many people (especially those who wish they had kids of their own) might be honored.

Prepare spiritually. This one is indispensable. We rightly think of the Mass as a meal where we are nourished (although that nourishment may not be a lovely, cozy experience every time), but it is also where we go to offer ourselves to the Father along with Christ. The Eucharist may be an unbloody sacrifice, but that doesn’t mean we won’t come away feeling bruised.

Sometimes Good Friday feels more present than Easter Sunday — even at Mass. Remember that Christ, too, was mocked. Christ, too, was castigated. Christ was told that He didn’t understand how to worship properly, that He was dishonoring God’s house, that He didn’t belong there. He knew it wasn’t true, but don’t you think it hurt Him anyway?

As you enter the Church, offer what is to come up to the Father. It is real suffering, and a worthy sacrifice to dedicate.

 

Remember you won’t live in Babyland forever. I cannot say it often enough: This stage passes. You may feel like you’re going to spend the rest of your life getting dressed up once a week to be screamed at in a drafty lobby for an hour, but it will pass. Kids grow up. They turn a corner. Even if you have baby after baby, the older kids can help with the younger kids, and they can set a wonderful example for their siblings, too. Babyland is intense, but it is not a life sentence.

You may have to find another parish. I believe in blooming where you’re planted, and I believe in improving the soil when you can. But some churches simply don’t want kids. So shake the dust from your sandals and let them have their wish — not vindictively, but because you and your kids don’t deserve to feel like pariahs simply for existing.

Once you’ve found a friendlier home, let the old pastor know why you’ve left, in as civil terms as you can manage. If enough people do this, he’ll notice the trend and maybe turn things around before it’s too late.

Just don’t leave the Catholic Church altogether! If you have left for a time, do come back. No welcome is warm enough to substitute for the sacraments.

***
Image: Detail of window in Lansdowne Church in Glasgow; photo by Tom Donald via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Why do I take my noisy little kids to Mass?

We are there to praise and worship God, to be spiritually nourished, and to unite our lives with the life of Christ as He offers Himself up to the Father. We are not there because we bought our ticket and are entitled to a certain experience.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

How to let your toddler entertain herself (without screens!)

After eighteen straight years with more than one child in the house, I suddenly find myself alone with a toddler. I was worried it would be hard to keep her occupied while I got my work done, but it turns out toddlers are great at entertaining themselves. All you have to do is supply them with the right equipment — and try to turn off the over-anxious housekeeper in your brain.

Here are some tips to help your little one have fun, and to help you relax while she does!

-Let her play in the sink. Turn the chair backward for stability, and put lots of ladles, cups, sieves, and other tools in her reach. Don’t worry about the mess! Water is easy to clean. Put some towels on the floor if it helps you relax.

-Give her a bunch of brightly-colored cloths, preferably silks, that she can sort, fold, and distribute around the house. Yes, laundry will do! Laundry can be cleaned up, Mama, but babies don’t stay babies forever. Relax.

-Give her giant chalk and let her do her thing. Sure, inside. Chalk comes off just about any kind of furniture or paint, so relax. Or it doesn’t. Relax. Just relax. Just. Oh shit those are markers. But maybe they’re washable. Relax.

-Give her a spray bottle and let her “clean” things. Ignore it when she licks up the spray. Yes, ignore those other things she is licking, too. And those other things she is spraying. Maybe put bells on her so she can’t sneak up and spray you in the back of the neck. Or down the back of your pants. Or your compu— oh, well, keyboards can be replaced, Mama! But babies don’t last! Mama!

-Give her a metal can with a slot cut in the lid, and a bunch of coins. Such a satisfying sound as they tumble in! If you’re nervous about her eating coins, give her a milk jug with a hole cut in the side, and a supply of clothespins. Or give her whatever she wants. Give her your wallet. Give her a goldfish. Give her the gold bouillon you’ve been saving for your retirement. Give her live ammo. Just check her diaper later.

-Give her a knife. No, just a butter knife, and some, some, some play doh or celery or whatever to chop. Fine, let her have the real knife. Fine, let her cut you. You have more blood to give, Mama, I know you do.

-Watch Octonauts. Watch it and watch it and watch it.

A sentimentally brutal response to the artificial womb

Remember the scene in Monsters, Inc. where all the various monsters are getting ready to be scary? They each have their own style: One is a blob with many eyes, one has retractable spikes; some are sneaky, some are creepy. And then there is the one who makes his point by flailing his orange tentacles around and rushing forward with a hysterical shriek.

This is the approach taken by a blogger for the Register a few days ago, in a post called “The Advent of the Artificial Womb: Suddenly, it’s a braver, newer world.”

The artificial womb is a long-awaited technological breakthrough which, it is hoped, will eventually allow very premature babies to continue gestating until they are stronger.

Currently, preemies must adapt prematurely to breathing air and receiving nutrition orally — an ordeal which sometimes saves lives, but still often leaves survivors with profound, lifelong disabilities. Rather than being intubated in an incubator, sedated and on a respirator, premature babies in an artificial womb would grow in a pouch filled with lab-made amniotic fluid, which would be gentler on their tiny bodies, and would allow their lungs and brains to develop more normally.

But this blogger calls the artificial womb a “travesty.” In nearly 3,000 words, he devotes only a few brief paragraphs to the idea that the invention, if successful, will keep premature babies alive, and he allows half a sentence for the idea that it’s a good thing to keep premature babies alive.

And the rest of his post is flailing tentacles, as he drags in everyone from Descartes to Dune to homeless schizophrenics to Simone de Beauvoir to Octomom, to the right to spank and homeschool, to (of course) the gays, and finally to – shudder – “feminists,” saying, “The artificial uterus is fraught with danger to the point of moral disaster on the par with abortion.”

He looks into his crystal ball and sees nothing but horrors:

Now that artificial uteri are to soon be a possibility, how many more made-to-order pedophile sex slaves are we to expect? How many of more will a liberal media refuse to shed a spotlight on?

Also, can a woman who has used an artificial womb truly bond with her child? Can the child develop normal feelings for the person who purchased its birth in a plastic Ziploc baggie?

Does he have a leg to stand on?

Well, it’s true that some folks will immediately scheme how to use this medical advance in ways that are harmful and contrary to human dignity — like incubating a child entirely and electively in an artificial environment, so that women no longer have to give birth, or so people can design and purchase a child to their specifications, with motives ranging from selfish to monstrous. I’m no fool: I know that there are people who desire these things. (It’s already being done, only we use poor Indian women rather than a plastic bag.)

But it’s also true, once artificial wombs are functional, that some of the tens of millions of babies born prematurely may live instead of die, and may be born closer to full term, with less trauma and more of a chance of avoiding life-long health problems. This is not nothing. This is not some negligible perk that we can easily decline for fear of potential abuse.

Artificial wombs are not intrinsically evil.  They may someday be used for evil, but so may every other medical advance you can name. The medical syringe, for example, was invented to inject painkillers; now it’s also used to heal the sick, to administer vaccines, and to save lives. Syringes are also used for delivering heroin, and consequently are responsible for the spread of HIV and hepatitis, which is transmissible to unborn children of the infected. Bad, bad stuff. Things that make the world undeniably worse.

But that doesn’t mean that syringes are a travesty on par with abortion. It means that human beings are prey to original sin, and will immediately set to work perverting the use of everything they can lay their hands on.

The outraged blogger fails to draw a vital distinction between two kind of scientific advances:

  1. Things that are morally neutral, and may be used well or misused, and so should be approached with caution, and
  2. Things that are intrinsically immoral, even if they may be used for good ends.

IVF and abortion fall into the second category. The artificial womb falls into the first category. But he seeks to blend the two categories, essentially arguing, “Just think how very wrong this could go!”

And what if God the Father had made this very persuasive argument when He made our first parents? Lots of potential for abuse there. Should He have scrapped the whole project?

There should always be special caution when we see medical advances related to the conception and gestation of humans. Because human life is sacred, it is especially heinous when it is treated as a commodity, as a means to an end, or even, God forbid, as a trinket.

Because human life is sacred, it is wrong to use technology to create a human life in a petri dish, even if the parents of the child love him. It is wrong to use technology to deliberately end human life through euthanasia, even if the patient is suffering.

And there are some murky areas about which, as far as I can tell, Catholic bioethicists have still not made a definitive pronouncement. For instance, it’s possible that a theoretical womb transplant might be moral or immoral, depending on the object, the end, and circumstances surrounding the procedure. It’s uncertain whether it’s ethical to “adopt” a frozen embryo which would otherwise be destroyed.

So I have some grudging sympathy for the blogger. Medical advances and human gestation make uneasy bedfellows, and modern folks are not especially particular about which bedfellows they choose. It’s no use pretending that there are no dangerous possibilities when medical technology makes another leap ahead. It’s no use pretending that everyone who might use new technology will be pure and noble. Horror are all around us, and technology is advancing faster and more recklessly than we can keep up with.

But nothing will be gained — nothing but more horrors– by shrieking hysterically and wishing for the good old days when people just went ahead and died. “It’s a braver, newer world suddenly,” says the blogger. “It’s moments like this that make me long for simpler days.”

I was at a cemetery yesterday. One large grave plot included one man, his first wife with a string of child’s headstones, and his second wife with her own string of dead children.

Those were simpler days.

Babies died, women died, over and over and over again, because the medical technology available was a bowl of hot water, a poultice, and a prayer. Things were simpler then, and children flickered in and out of life like stars, too tiny ever to send their light all the way to earth.

Was it simpler? Yes, it was. Was it better? No, it was not. Evil ebbs and flows. It adapts to whatever the current age can offer. There was evil, and carelessness, and the devaluation of human life back in the old days, and there is evil, carelessness, and the devaluation of human life now. An artificial womb may look scary and dystopian to us. For perspective, maybe browse baby coffins.

I won’t lie: I’m horrified when I look into the future (or even the present) and see that science is separating us more and more from our humanity. But I’m equally horrified when I see Catholics retreating into a sort of sentimental brutality that sighs heavily, dons a cloak of false nobility, and grandly chooses death for others over hard choices for us all.

 

IVF jewelry and the scandal of sentimentality

Last week, pop science entertainer Bill Nye set off a wave of righteous indignation by asking, “Should we have policies that penalize people for having extra kids in the developed world?”

The only response is, of course: What the hell do you mean, ‘extra?'” What is an extra child? Who is disposable and extraneous, and who gets to decide? Are you “extra,” Bill Nye? Am I?

Last night, I saw for myself what an extra child looks like. An Australian company called Baby Bee Hummingbirds will take your extra, unused IVF embryos, preserve and cremate them, and then encase them in resin as “keepsake jewelry.”

The founder asks, “What a better way to celebrate your most treasured gift, your child, than through jewellery?”

Well, you could let him live, I suppose. You could allow him the basic dignity of spending time in the womb of his mother, to live or not, to grow or not, but at least to have a chance. You could celebrate the life of your child by giving him some small gift of warmth and softness, however brief, rather than letting him travel in an insulated pouch from lab to lab, frozen and sterile from beginning to end. You could conceive a child so as to give him life, and you could rise like a human should above the blind proliferation of biology.

I have not experienced the anguish of infertility. I can easily imagine how the ancient, unquenchable desire for a child would drive a couple to consider IVF. Who would fault a loving couple for wanting a child?

I can imagine, if I had no guidance, seeing IVF as a way of simply bowing to the inevitable awkwardness of life. We’d rather do things the natural way, but sometimes nature fails us. If science offers us a workaround, and we end up in a place of love, what does it matter? I can imagine thinking this. It is natural to want children.

And it is natural to want our children to remain with us even if we can’t hold their plump, warm baby bodies in our arms. We want something we can touch. I can imagine this: Knowing, no matter who thinks they’re just “extras,” that these embryos are more than just specimens. I can imagine wanting to keep them safe, or something like it.

And so the mother does the thing that makes the most sense to a pagan, when nature fails her: She bows to artifice, and finds a way to bring her children with her, clumsily, sentimentally, but grasping at something that seems true: We are made to be with the ones we love. We are supposed to be able to give them life, and to keep them safe.

She knows they are her children. But does she know what children are?

In order to turn embryos into jewelry, one must believe that all children, and all people, can be made safe. One must believe there is such a thing as safety in this world.

“It’s about the everlasting tangible keepsake of a loved one that you can have forever,” says the founder of the jewelry company.

But mothers, and fathers, and you barren ones, listen to me. You cannot have any loved one forever. Don’t you know that they all go? Don’t you know this?

Sometimes it happens before we even knew they existed; sometimes it happens when they are old and feeble, frightened and crying for death. But they all go. No one is safe. No one can be preserved. Why are you lying about it? Haven’t you been through enough springs to know that winter always comes? Haven’t we been through this? No one is with us always, until the end of time.

Anyway, hardly anyone.

Imagine, a body encased in glass, made portable, made consumable. But not jewelry. Instead, a sunburst, a fountain of life, a wellspring, the maker of worlds somehow contained, first in His mother’s womb, and now on our altars, through springs and winters and then through springs again.

The body inside is a willing victim. Not preserved in death, but alive forever, immortal. Here is the difference between the scandal of the Incarnation and the scandal of sentimentality. The Incarnation invites us to accept forgiveness, bought for us through His death. Sentimentality puts our sin always before us, but tells us we can be comforted through everlasting death.

I do understand. We want the body. We grieve when the beloved one is lost to us, even if, like the parents who make “extra” embryos, it’s entirely our fault that our children are cold and dead. We want to heal our grief, to control it, to contain it.

That is not how sin is healed. That is not how death is conquered. Healing comes when we send our dead to be with Him, not preserved forever in death, but to be restored forever in His life.

I commend all the dead, all my beloved ones who are passing away like the grass: Go and be with Him. You don’t need to stay here with us, to comfort me in my weakness. Go and be with Him.

***
Embryos image by ZEISS microscopy via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Monstrance image by Aleteia image department via Flickr (Creative Commons)

 

Nanodiapers in a brave new world

Here’s a spot of light in the news this week: Huggies has just announced a new diaper designed for babies who weigh under two pounds.

Under two pounds.  Two pounds is how much a large loaf of bread weighs.

It’s not just that these babies are so tiny, and need tiny diapers, but they need to be curled up like little bean sprouts, and their poor little skin is terribly sensitive. Huggies quotes “an infant development specialist at Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital in Houston, Texas” as saying the new tiny diapers “conformed to the baby’s bottom without gapping or limiting leg movement. The thinner fasteners and less material at the waist provided a good fit for baby while still protecting their fragile skin.”

I mention all this because it’s good to remember that this is still a very excellent century to be alive. It was not so long ago that a baby born young enough to need a “nano preemie diaper” would never have a chance to need a diaper at all. Now such babies often survive, and even thrive.

In the same week, the Vatican has released a new Charter for Health Care Workers (the last one was in 1995; and that’s the Vatican site, so you’ll want to put on your parchment-filtering goggles so you can read it). It’s a directive for those who, among other things, care for premature babies and other that would have died in other centuries — and also for human beings who, in any other century, would have been allowed to live, but now may not.

Catholic Culture.org reports:

The Charter provides encouragement and guidance for health-care workers in coping with three stages of human life: “generating, living, dying.” Regarding “generating,” the document affirms the Church’s teaching on the immorality of abortion and destructive embryo research. It calls for treating infertility problems only by natural methods, and without destroying unborn lives.

The “living” section includes articles on topics as diverse as anencephaly, ectopic pregnancy, embryo reduction, vaccines, regenerative medicine, and the treatment of rare diseases with “orphan drugs.” The section on “dying” stresses the need to respect the dignity of the person, providing care but not extraordinary or burdensome treatment for those who are terminally ill.

A strange and terrible and wonderful time to be alive. Terrible and wonderful at the same time. As fast as medical gains are made, we dream up ways to exploit them. And so the Church rolls up her sleeves and sets to, giving guidance on problems that simply didn’t exist fifty, thirty, or even ten years ago.

I want to be a Catholic like the Church is a Catholic: looking clearly at life as it is right now, and saying, “There is good and bad here. How shall I help?”  It is no good pretending everything is fine, but it is no good pretending everything is dreadful, either.

In the meantime: Two-pound babies and one-pound babies are surviving. Thanks be to God.

***

photo credit: Mrs. Jenny Ryan Preemie Diaper via photopin (license)