Thursday, June 23, 2005

Capture the Flag

By way of the Republican Right's own supposed poster boy Justice Scalia and his learned friends at the United States Supreme Court, a friendly reminder to the 286 members of the United States House of Representatives who--wearing their hearts on their sleeves and their heads in a hole--yesterday approved a constitutional amendment that would give Congress the power to ban desecration of the American flag:

If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable. Punishing desecration of the flag dilutes the very freedom that makes this emblem so revered, and worth revering.

U.S. v. Eichman, 496 U.S. 310, 319 (1990).

The way to preserve the flag's special role is not to punish those who feel differently about these matters. It is to persuade them that they are wrong. To courageous, self-reliant men, with confidence in the power of free and fearless reasoning applied through the processes of popular government, no danger flowing from speech can be deemed clear and present, unless the incidence of the evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall before there is opportunity for full discussion. If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.

And, precisely because it is our flag that is involved, one's response to the flag burner may exploit the uniquely persuasive power of the flag itself. We can imagine no more appropriate response to burning a flag than waving one's own, no better way to counter a flag burner's message than by saluting the flag that burns, no surer means of preserving the dignity even of the flag that burned than by--as one witness here did--according its remains a respectful burial. We do not consecrate the flag by punishing its desecration, for in doing so we dilute the freedom that this cherished emblem represents.

Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397, 419 (1989).

It never ceases to amaze me how easily the loftiest and most important constitutional principles in this country are sacrificied by the very people we elect to uphold them for the greater good.

Sadly, as George Will once said, "American politics as you know . . . is very often a matter of capture the flag."

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

But I'm So Hungry for Whale!

The vast majority of whales and other cetaceans on this planet are either threatened or endangered.

So I don't know about you, but the idea of hunting whales for food in 2005 strikes me as . . . a little old-fashioned. And the idea of hunting whales for food with explosives and the "electric lance" strikes me as . . . a little barbaric. But the idea of hunting 935 minke whales for food while calling it an annual "research cull" strikes me as . . . just plain idiotic.

But that's what the Japanese want to do. This year they plan to slaughter 440 minke whales so they can "conduct research" on whaling. Why? So a bunch of Japanese people can eat whale meat properly, as a delicacy, thinly sliced, in expensive restaurants without chairs.

Somehow, Japan managed again this year to convince the International Whaling Commission that in order to know more about minke whales it must exterminate them. Unlike the Norwegians, who are the only folks in open defiance of the world-wide whaling ban upheld today by IWC members, the Japanese say they're not defying the ban; they're conducting specialized scientific experiments.

I went over to the International Cetacean Research website, run by--guess who--the Japanese. Not surprisingly, I learned:

"It is important to remember that capture and testing is only conducted in a strictly limited way on the numerically abundant, non-endangered whale species. Sampling in the Antarctic has included a take of up to 440 Minke whales in one year. The [International Whaling Commission] estimates that 2,000 Minke whales per year could be taken for 100 years without posing a threat to the stock. Under the IWC's 'no waste' rules the by-products of the research program, including whale meat, are required 'so far as practicable to be processed'. It is this aspect of the program which is often inaccurately sensationalised as 'illegal commercial whaling'."

O.K. Let's assume that the Japanese want to study whales. Cool. Bully for them. Let's also assume that they could do this (as every other Western country interested in research on wild animals, including whales, does) with minimal--if any at all--killing of the animals they study. Why don't they? Because the Japanese market value of minke whale meat is so high.

But, c'mon, you say. You're being too hard on our friends perched precariously on the Pacific Rim. If it weren't for IWC's helpful "no-waste" exception that now drives commercial hunting on boats occupied by hungry scientists, we wouldn't know so much about minke whales. Maybe so.

But if the Japanese didn't know how good Minke whales tasted, they probably wouldn't want to know so much about our 30-foot-long finned friends.

Now I'm no vegetarian and I don't play one on TV (although I did play one in real life for about 6 years, then I got really hungry). But I'm thinking: Yo. Japan. Give it up. Traditions are one thing. Being arrogant dolts who flaunt environmental policies even the Bush Administration backs is another all together.

A Great Editorial On "The Best Evidence Available"

Here's an editorial on why creationism should not be taught in high-school biology class, and why evolution by natural selection is worth your attention. I like it so much I'm posting the entire thing:

"Intelligent Design," the religious alternative to Darwinism, ought to be taught in schools - Sunday schools and high school social studies or history classes. But in biology classes? No way.

In about 20 states - most notably, right now, before the Kansas Board of Education - conservative Christians are trying to demand "equal time" for ID and evolution as the explanation for how life developed on earth.

But ID isn't science. Its concepts can't be independently verified. In essence, ID holds that living organisms are so complex that they couldn't be the product of blind natural forces, but had to be the work of a Designer - or, at least, a designer.

The scientific problem is this: There is no way to locate actual evidence of a designer, be it small-d or big-D. Proponents of ID, including some sophisticated scientists, point to holes in Darwinian explanations for the development of life and say that only "intelligent design" can fill the gap. But that's not proof of design.

Kansas' conservative-dominated Board of Education seems to be on the verge of changing its state standards for science education by removing evolution as the preferred concept for students to learn in biology and creating a toss-up with ID.

In 2001, when Congress considered President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) tried to mandate that challenges to Darwinism be included in school curricula. He got a favorable vote in the Senate, but the provision didn't make it into the final law.

Charles Darwin transformed science in 1859 and set off a political and philosophical storm that hasn't stopped by arguing in "The Origin of Species" that life forms have evolved by a process of random genetic mutations and the added (and cruel) process of "natural selection" whereby only the fittest mutants survived and reproduced.

It's essentially a God-less theory, and religious conservatives have been at war with it ever since, most famously in the 1925 Scopes "monkey" trial in Tennessee that pitted lawyers Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan against each other.

Technically, the conservative side won the court battle - biology teacher John Scopes was fined $100 for teaching evolution - but Darwin triumphed almost everywhere else. The U.S. Supreme Court has twice struck down laws requiring the teaching of biblical creationism as breaching the barrier between church and state.

It's remarkable that, despite the preference for evolution in school curricula and overwhelming scientific evidence, polls consistently show that at least a plurality of adults - sometimes a majority - still hold the creationist belief that God created humans within the past 10,000 years.

In a 2004 CBS poll, only 27 percent supported the belief - one that has been endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church - that humans evolved from lesser species, but that God guided the process. And only 13 percent believe in pure Darwinism - that humans evolved without divine intervention.

Sixty-five percent of those polled said that both creationism and evolution should be taught in schools. Fully 37 percent favored teaching creationism instead of evolution.
Scientific critics of ID gibe that it's "creationism in a cheap tuxedo" or "creationism with God remaining anonymous," but that's not true.

Leading ID theorists - they are organized through the Seattle-based Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute - have long since abandoned "young earth" biblical literalism, accepting scientific evidence that the earth is billions of years old.

In fact, even though it receives much of its funding from religious conservatives, ID doesn't totally dismiss evolution or claim that the "intelligence" behind the universe is divine.

This constitutes such a retreat from old-line creationism and some commentators have said that the American scientific community should pocket the victory and, instead of turning their backs on ID as beneath debate, engage its advocates and prove them wrong.

In fact, that's happened to some extent -among other places, in a printed 2002 debate in "Natural History" magazine in which establishment scientists pretty well refuted the contentions of leading ID scientists Michael Behe, a Lehigh University biochemist, and William Dembski, a mathematician and theologian at Baylor University, that the complexity of cells and organisms implied "design" and a "designer."

As Brown University biology professor Kenneth Miller wrote, "if Behe wishes to suggest that the intricacies of nature, life and the universe reveal a world of meaning and purpose consistent with a divine intelligence, his point is philosophical, not scientific. It is a philosophical view, incidentally, that I share. However, to support that view, one should not find it necessary to pretend that we know less than we really do about the evolution of living systems."

A valuable primer on the proofs of Darwinism was published by National Geographic magazine in November 2004 ("Was Darwin Wrong? No."), arguing that evolutionary theory is sustained by numerous lines of inquiry from fossil studies through the microbiology of infectious diseases.

The ability of various microbes - bacteria like staphylococcus and viruses like HIV -to quickly develop immunity to the medicines invented to combat them is evolution in real-time, according to writer David Quammen.

Personally, I think that high school students ought to be taught about disputes between religion and science, but in a history class that covers the suppression of Galileo and the battles over Darwin.

They also ought to be taught that no one knows for sure what caused life to originate on earth or what caused the creation of the universe. I favor the religious view of this, but there's a secular view that students should know about, too.

But as to the "how" of biology - the science - schools should teach the best evidence available, which is evolutionary theory. That's especially true when a majority of Americans still think the world is only 10,000 years old.

--Mort Kondracke

I wish I would have written this.

Note of interest: Mort Kondracke is a political conservative who writes for RealClearPolitics and is Executive Editor of Roll Call on Fox.

And he's reasonable.

Monday, June 20, 2005

My Stance on Abortion


There are few topics that generate so much controversy. And for good reason. While abortion doesn’t always "stop a beating heart" as the conservative billboards in West Michigan will tell you, it certainly–uncontroversially–discontinues life: either the life of a human embryo or a fetal human being. So it must be dealt with carefully.

However, as is my nature, I begin boldly. I believe that abortion is wrong and should be prohibited with the following three exceptions: 1) when the mother is raped; 2) when the mother is the victim of incest; and 3) when the life of the mother will be lost for saving the child.

My approach is a simple one. In order to disarm those who would argue against outlawing abortion by adopting the contention that religion or faith in God as a basis for preserving human life is somehow less relevant than science or social justice of some other kind in preserving the right to have an abortion, I will argue against abortion from the perspective of an atheist. While I’m not one, I’m willing to bet this contraption will make my arguments more appealing to those who would otherwise disagree with me.

I start by defining the issue. It is whether the state should allow a doctor to enter a woman’s (or, in the saddest cases, a girl’s) uterus, and deprive a human life form of life separate from that of its mother’s. So many people fail to call a spade a spade, making abortion something else entirely. But it’s not.

(Now, if you’re one of the readers who is going to take me to task, you had probably begun formulating your argument before now. If you hadn’t yet, now you will.)

So if that’s what abortion is, what is it not?

Abortion is not about a woman’s right to choose what to do with her own body.

Why? Because anyone who has studied human embryology at an elementary level knows that the tiny mass of cells generated by fertilization is a living organism separate from its mother. While this organism is indeed dependant on its mother’s physiology, it is entirely human, and entirely not its mother.

As soon as pronuclei of a 23-chromosome sperm and 23-chromosome oocyte (egg) fuse, a zygote with 46 chromosomes exists. This organism is genetically unique from its mother and father. About 30 hours after fertilization, the zygote divides by mitosis, and each new cell (called a blastomere; first 2, then 4, then 8, etc.) also has 46 chromosomes. While dividing, this mass of cells moves down the fallopian tube towards the uterus where it will implant, having become a blastocyst. Implantation occurs approximately 5-6 days after fertilization. And so it goes.

But, you say, the woman sheltering, feeding, and otherwise maintaining the life of this mass of cells (or in later stages, a fetus with head, hands, and heart) affects and is affected by this little creature. Surely, she should have control over whether those cells exist. It should be her prerogative to either continue or terminate the pregnancy. It’s up to her, based on her comfort level.

I used to believe this. Then I realized the illogic of the argument. After 40 weeks of incubation in her mother, a baby is born. At that moment, the mother–or another adult willing to adopt or otherwise care for the child–is absolutely responsible for this child’s existence. The child is utterly unable to care for itself. The care giver–usually the mother–is no less affected by this child. She or he shelters, feeds, and maintains its life until it the child is able to care for itself.

Umbilical cord aside, the relationship remains the same. While the child is not physically connected to the mother or the care giver, she might as well be. Having watched my wife with our baby, I can attest to this beautiful encumbrance of motherhood with all its trappings, good and bad. Is it convenient? No. But many worthwhile things in life are not convenient.

As soon as baby and mom are physically disconnected no one would argue that a mother should have control over whether the child exists or not. But when the child and mother share a blood supply and a uterine lining, the mother is allowed such powers?

If it is about a woman controlling her own body, taking back her uterus, her blood, her ability to be pregnancy-free, then why shouldn’t society allow a woman to dump her newborn in a trash can? By doing so, she can control her own daily existence without the burden of a child. Take back her life at the expense of the child’s life. Take back her body, whose existence has been committed to a helpless human being for 9, 10, 11, 23, 46, 50, 100 months. I don’t see the difference.

Of course, a number of you do see the difference. No one wants to be responsible for giving birth to an unwanted child. There are so many unwanted children already. And the emotional toll this would take on the mother is potentially crushing. And the morning sickness. And, will I be a good parent?

So why not terminate the pregnancy when this . . . thing . . . is just a few cells? What are a few cells anyway? Each of us loses thousands upon thousands of skin cells per week. Cells are regularly grown in science class or in a lab and thrown out. We throw away bread with mold on it. We kill insects and vermin and beef cattle, millions upon millions of living cells laid to waste. And most of us think nothing of it.

But none of those combinations of cells–as we kill them–is in the process of becoming a human being. That’s the difference. And if we’re willing to destroy humans when they’re just a few cells, why shouldn’t we be just as willing to kill unwanted children who overcrowd orphanages, smelly, unshaven, irrational adults who inhabit mental hospitals, or our once-beloved elders who can no longer feed themselves or go to the bathroom?

The difference is that we are emotionally disconnected from the cells and emotionally committed to those humans who better resemble us. There’s a simple reason the partial-birth abortion ban passed with little outrage: a dead baby that looks like a child is harder to kill than a mass of undifferentiated cells.

But is that the line we’re willing to draw? The humans who look and behave like we do and can take care of themselves get a chance to live, but "the others" are at the mercy of those who might or might not want to care for them? I don’t think so. If we have any respect as a culture for the innate value of human life–and I propose that we do and that it is hard-wired into us–then whether a human owns eyeballs, connective tissue, or a cerebellum, or remembers his wife or how to use a pen, or thinks the sky is purple and he is being chased by rabbits should not matter.

But these people are so inconvenient and so hard on all of us. So much burden, and pain, and suffering exist in this world. Yes. But wouldn’t you rather have been born than killed to ease someone else’s emotional suffering? I would have. (An aside: for those of you who are starting to hate me for using the word "killed" to describe eradicating a life form composed of only a few cells or hovering in amniotic fluid: look it up. I’m not a Conservative Republican, but English is English.)

This brings up a sensitive point. As I mentioned above, I support abortion in very limited circumstances. When a woman is raped, if the abortion happens soon enough, I support it. Why? Because this woman never chose to have a baby or otherwise engaged in risky behavior that she knew could lead to pregnancy. But that’s arbitrary, you say. Yes. It is.

However, as many of us–whether we know it or not–are OK with the deaths of many thousands of innocent men, women, and children in order to win a war that must be won (think of Germany 1940-1945), I am OK with the death of an innocent human composed of relatively few cells (there’s the emotionally deceptive part of it again) to save the emotional life of another innocent: the raped mother. I must say as a caveat that I would be much less supportive of abortion in this case in the second trimester, and would oppose it in the third. A rape victim has a lot of time during the first trimester to make up her mind. If I were raped (and I am not a woman, so I tread on hallowed ground here at risk of castration), I would hope to be able to carry the baby to term and deliver it. But I would never tell another woman–an innocent victim herself–to do so.

The same applies to the victim of incest. However, that is a worse case: the chances of the child being physiologically normal are close to zero. Perhaps I would tolerate abortion at a later stage. Again: innocent for innocent.

Finally, as long as I’m covering exceptions: I would choose to save my wife’s life at the expense of the baby not yet born. I hate it. I hate conceiving it, contemplating it, and keying these sentences. But it’s true. Why? Because I am emotional. My love for my wife is greater than my love for a baby who hasn’t seen the light of day. That said, once the baby’s out in the light, I’d be faced with a dreadful decision that I don’t care to contemplate. Arbitrary? Perhaps. Human? Absolutely. Innocent for innocent.

Back to what abortion is not. It is not whether the state controls a woman’s body. I believe the state has a responsibility to protect the innocent all of us, regardless of our shape, size, color, or constituency. Unless, that is, the United States Senate and the United States House of Representatives enact a law, signed by the President, that legalizes abortion in the United States.

But, you say, the United States Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade legalized abortion. You’re right. It did. And that decision will be overturned in your lifetime. Why? Because there is nothing in the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution that supports the right to end the life of another human being, whether 4 cells or 400 pounds.

Roe v. Wade, as interpreted by the Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, created a right to "privacy" based on first-trimester "inviability" supported by the socioeconomic notion that a working woman should not be burdened by raising an unwanted child. Read them. You’ll be amazed. Just like all of my liberal law-school friends and I were. Without judicial feat–and I’m the first to say both liberal and conservative appeals-court judges can be "activist"–there would be no right to an abortion in this country without a statute guaranteeing as much.

But many people–perhaps you–argue that whether a woman has an abortion should not be the business of the state at all. We all agree that the state should prevent a person from murdering humans outside the womb, including you, me, our families and friends. There’s no debate. But the state shouldn’t protect the life of a human inside the womb because . . . it’s inside someone else’s body? I don’t get it. That non-human-looking human is human, unique, separate, self. Not an appendage of the body in which it lives and from which it takes its oxygen and nutrients. I see nothing but an arbitrary bright line that should be erased.

While some say the abortion decision should be between a woman and her God, I say this: if there is someone out there who would attempt to kill me or my family or friends, I am more comforted by his knowing that the state would prohibit and punish his actions than by his notions of what God might want. That said–and I remain in atheist mode–I can only guess that God didn’t give us the ability to reproduce simply to destroy the thing created.

Finally, with that in mind, I say this. We have the incredible ability to reproduce. (Although one of my more cynical friends calls it the ability to make "500,000 miracles a day.") Whatever you call it, it’s at the heart of my opposition to abortion-for-convenience. We have this privilege of reproduction. With every privilege comes responsibility. With every responsibility comes hard discipline. If you freely and willingly have sexual intercourse, you take the risk that the woman involved will become pregnant. You have shouldered a responsibility. You must have the discipline, therefore, to live up to that responsibility.

That means two things.

First: if you have sex and you’re not trying to make a baby, use contraception. There’s absolutely no excuse for not using contraception. None. (Remaining in atheist mode: if you happen to be Roman Catholic and follow the Vatican’s abhorrence for contraception, you’re out of luck. Get married early to the right person and hope the husband has a well-paying job and the wife has strong arches in her feet.)

Second: if you’re the mother or father of another human being, put yourself in that person’s place, whether that person is 30 hours old and 8 cells wide or kicking you in the intestines waiting to be born. Because–even though life sucks sometimes, and sometimes sucks a whole lot–it’s great being alive.