Saturday, May 31, 2008

On Contraception

With all of the recent discussions of new birth as well as the longstanding defense of the sanctity of life it is important to make a clarification on the issue of contraception. As a whole-hearted supporter of the Pro-life movement I believe it is essential that we recognize human life begins at conception and defend the dignity and rights of all our fellow humans. Unfortunately, many of the most vocal in the Pro-life movement often add to the cause political opposition to access to contraception. Contraception as its name implies prevents conception. While, the responsible use of contraception (and thus sex) is a topic that deserve much introspection and discussion it is not directly a "life issue." While leaving the "right" to kill our fellow humans to our own discretion is something that must be opposed, I believe that leaving decisions such as contraception in the realm of personal ethical choices makes for a better, freer, and more just society.

Contraception, unlike abortion, does not kill. Contraception is a non-violent tool: a tool that can be used wisely or unwisely, but it should not be the goal of the Pro-Life Movement to make everyone wise--it should be to make a society in which we do not kill. Fortunately, the vast majority of pro-life Americans (80% according to a recent poll) favor no restrictions on contraception. These more "pure" pro-lifers, however, are not usually the public face of the pro-life movement. Pro-life advocates that politically oppose contraception re-enforce the rhetoric that seeks to label us as trying to control people's choices rather than save human lives from violence. If we truly desire to save innocents from being murdered we do better to simply oppose killing in the public sphere and leave contraception to discussions of private ethics.

Therefore, today I declare along with other pro-life bloggers (sponsored by TurnTheClockForward) on dozens of blogs that we support access to contraception.

On Midwives

Doctors can be quite useful, but when they are not necessary it may be best to not have them. Last week when my son was born an incredible nurse midwife was beside my wife from the moment she arrived at in her room until almost an hour after our son was born. As a doctor myself I have been in hundreds of deliveries and I have never seen a delivery so calm or a physician so comforting.

There are times when a doctor is needed. In a life-threatening illness a doctor may be the best person to have, but we doctors are trained to act boldly, to fix, to intervene. When there is discomfort but little danger a physician's presence can often disrupt, dismay, and even bring a danger of its own. I think of all the times people bring their sufferings to the ER with minor illnesses such as colds. My training says "It could be a cold or it could be something more dangerous. I need to poke, prod, X-ray, and draw blood just to be sure." The doctor must constantly disturb the patient in order to look for death or disability hiding behind their suffering.

That is what I loved about the midwife. She saw the suffering of birth as part of a natural process. I know she was alert for problems, but unlike a doctor her primary goal was comfort and support. She had a doctor in the hospital on back-up if their were any problems. She didn't have to focus on death. She recognized the suffering as part of a beautiful unveiling of life. In many ways I was jealous of the midwife. I became a doctor due to a rather vague desire to "help people" but often I find my job is more fighting illness than really bringing comfort to people's lives. Comforting people is a side job in medicine, the real responsibility is to find, fight, and manage diseases. I realized watching the midwife that I wish had the ability to stop worrying about disease and focus exclusively on caring.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Doctoring and Parenting

When the midwife found out I was a doctor who had delivered babies in the past she offered for me to assist with the delivery. I declined mainly because I knew my wife would prefer I focus solely on emotional support.

Now it is interesting to realize how much I am shunning any sort of doctoring in my new son's life. I haven't even laid a stethoscope on him to check his heart for murmurs. I am realizing that there is such a difference in perspective that I never want to think as a physician about my child.

A doctor looks for flaws—a parent only sees perfection. A doctor tries to remain objective—a parent unreservedly loves. A doctor prepares for possible future illness and disability—a parent looks at his child's life with optimism. A doctor expects death and decay—a parent lives to hope for his child.

I used to think that being a physician would be be a wonderful asset in my parenting. Now I think I'll leave my doctoring at the hospital, and leave my son's doctoring to his physician. I am his father and I want to be nothing else to him.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Good Tidings of Great Joy

Our little baby boy was born in the early hours of the morning two days ago. He is sleeping beside me as I write now. I am overwhelmed with joy and love for this little child as I finally get to hold him in my arms. He is so tiny and beautiful. All my anxieties about fatherhood just melt into simple love. I look forward to watching him grow over the years and teaching him about the world. I hope he becomes a better man than me.

I know The Gridbook Blog isn't typically for updates about my life, but such monumental news I couldn't help but put here. For more details and pictures you can read my personal blog here and here.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Death of Dignity: the danger of theory

You can become so deeply entrenched in theory you completely looses touch with your humanity. A fascinating example of this is a recent article by Steven Pinker a professor at Harvard: “The Stupidity of Dignity” Pinker argues that the idea of human dignity has no real value and should have no part in discussions of what is right and wrong. The ethical theory that has lead him to this absurd conclusion is his focus on autonomy (a person should make his/her own decisions without coercion). The curious idea that each human being has some inherent value (ie: Dignity) is just a mental trick to make us respect the will of others. Pinker seems especially offended that religious people see dignity in God's regard for humans rather than our will for ourselves. Pinker then cherry picks some rather absurd arguments based on dignity to show us what a foolish idea this is.

Pinker makes his argument with all the tack and self-assuredness of a scientist assuring us that there is no such thing as love. “Love is only a mental trick our brains use to describe our sexual need to pass on our genes. Why be so na├»ve as to talk about love when what you mean is sex? Besides this unnecessary concept of love is impossible to define precisely and is subject to misuse.” Similarly Pinker tells us the human dignity we see in each other is a useless illusion.

Forgive my reactionary response, but such ideology can have real and dangerous consequences. Pinker is right that in many (perhaps most) situations my ethical obligations based on respecting the dignity of another person involves respecting and deferring to that person's will. But when you strip away human concepts such as dignity and replace them with theory your calculations can lead you to dangerous places. The bioloethics based on autonomy only allows for the will of a human, therefore those who have no will have no value. Pinker never mentions this in his essay but the principle difference between those who talk of dignity and traditional bioethics is the ethical ability to kill our fellow human beings. Those who cannot make decisions such as unborn children or the mentally disabled can be killed without ethical dilemma because you have not violated their will. Dignity sees value in all humans, will or no will. Believing in human dignity means that traditional bioethics have given the nod to the murder of millions of human beings—humans with value and rights simply because they are human. (Perhaps it is too sensationalistic to mention that ideologies on the supremacy of the human will also lead to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.)

Is Pinker a monster? No, but perhaps the inhuman calculus of his ethical reasoning may stand as an example to all of us whose attachment to an ideal threatens to cloud out our humanity. I know that in this blog I have rather staunchly espoused certain ideas and ethics, and it is with shame I say that sometimes in defense of these ideals I have acted in ways that are less than humane. I have even been ungracious when disagreeing with my wife. Theory is fine, but be cautions if it leads you away from love, compassion, or respect for the dignity of others.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

An Open Letter to Senator Obama

Dear Senator Obama,

I hope that out of the many letters your receive every day you have an opportunity to read this and consider my words. First I must say that I admire your dedication to social justice, equality, and peaceableness, as well as your deep sincerity. On a personal level as part of an interracial marriage and the father of a biracial son I would feel deeply proud to see a man such as yourself in the presidency. I will not, however, be able to support you in your run for the presidency due to your support for legalized abortion, which contradicts all the ideals that you espouse in your speeches.

In your book “The Audacity of Hope” you imply that opposition to abortion is a primarily theologic concern, and thus while it must be respected it is foreign to the realm of politics. Nothing could be further from the truth! Claiming that opposing abortion requires a faith inaccessible to the uninitiated ignores the universality of human rights. To segregate basic respect for our fellow human beings to the church does a disservice to the rest of the nation. If people of faith were the first to oppose injustices such as slavery, inequality, and mistreatment of women it is not because these issues were only theological, but because religious people sometimes have a heightened sensitivity to real wrongs.

My personal awareness that this is more than some “political issue” was when I was fifteen years old and my mother told me that I was scheduled to be aborted myself and I had two older siblings who had been killed by abortion. Then I understood that abortion is not some abstract issue but a real violence destroying real humans. When I became a physician my mother asked that I use my influence as a doctor to help prevent abortions and help other women and families avoid the devastation that legalized abortion had on us.

In your explanation of your abortion position you said you support unrestricted access to abortion because the act is never done without the woman “wrestling with her conscience.” While this certainly should change our perspective on women who terminate their fetuses (compassion instead of judgement) the difficulty of the decision doesn't make the outcome (killing a fellow human) any less wrong. If you read in a history book that a slave owner or participant in genocide had deep misgivings about their actions this should elicit your sympathy, but the result for their victims (death and enslavement) becomes no less wrong because it was hard for their oppressors to do it. Nor should empathy for those who feel they have no choice but to act violently prevent their fellow citizens from restraining this violence and demonstrating a more peaceable way.

Senator Obama, as someone who champions human dignity and recognizes that our rights as individuals should not allow us to trample our weaker neighbors I would expect that you would be pro-life or at least more neutral on abortion. As someone who has been moved by your writings and speeches, I hope that your unwavering support for abortion is a blind spot you have carelessly inherited from the Democratic Party platform, rather than any true hypocrisy of the humane values you claim to espouse. Having read your books I really believe the sincerity of your values. I also believe it is not mere rhetoric when you say that you deeply respect me as a pro-life American. But your respect for me and your pronouncements of sympathy towards pro-life values are no comfort when the outcome for the victims is the same. Unborn Americans are being killed by the thousands everyday and as president you would do nothing to defend them.

Were it not for your position on this single issue I could have wholeheartedly supported your run for president, but instead I must vote against you and invest all my political energies into opposing your election.

Despite my opposition, however, I believe that you will become the next president of the United States. So as you enter your presidency I beg you to reflect on your values and reconsider your duties to human beings not yet born. You could use the “historic moment” of your presidency to lead America towards a more compassionate way that protects all the weak from violence. Like you, I am optimistic that the recognition of human dignity by political power will someday make our nation and world a better place. Future generations will judge our lack of action. If you do not realize that human rights apply to all humans another reformer one day will, and I fear that history will judge you harshly for your blind spot—like the early American leaders who spoke boldly about liberty and kept fellow humans as slaves.

Thank your for taking the time to read this letter and consider its contents. I pray that you exceed all my expectations and prove all my concerns wrong, and become the sort of leader America so desperately needs.

Jonathan Davis