Where Will the Parents Come From?

Peter Boninger/Stone Sub —Getty Images

I read a New York Times debate about the adoption tax credit yesterday.  It struck me as a topic worthy of thoughtful discussion but paling in importance compared to larger questions like why does adoption cost so much in the first place.  Bigger even still is, if the Republican platform to outlaw all abortion comes to pass, where will all the parents come from?

The miracle of birth is full of mystery.  When I was pregnant, I marveled that anyone could ever be born at all.  It seems to go against all odds.  One thing that is not a mystery, thanks to scientific inquiry, however, is the conception process.  Human life does not begin at conception any more than a test tube full of my blood has a life of its own.  Human cells? yes.  Human life? no.

What about the human soul?  Do humans get souls at the zygote or blastocyst stage?  When an embryo or fetus or baby?  That question brings religious belief into a medical discussion. I don’t know the answer.  It’s a mystery to me.  Bring me someone who believes souls are imaginary and someone else who believes every sperm has a soul and I’ll let them try to convince each other.  Neither will be able to prove his beliefs to the other.  If you have ponderings on how humans grow into their souls, I invite you to share them here.  I promise I will respect your thoughts, and I won’t demand you prove anything.

Is it wise to base public policy on religious beliefs that are held only by some and that no one can prove?  Legislating public policy based on its practical consequences seems to be firmer ground. I was wondering about the practical consequences of restricting abortion access, so I did a little googling.

There are 117,000 domestic infant adoptions a year.  A rule of thumb is three families are waiting for every family that adopts, so about 300,000 more families want infants.  Half of US pregnancies are unintended, and of those somewhat less than half, or 1.3 million, end in abortion annually.  Adoption would not be the answer for more than a million unwanted babies every year.

There’s nowhere for babies to go but to the mothers who didn’t want them.  The reason women choose abortion is less emotional ability to care for a baby than economic ability. And who knows better the demands of raising a child than mothers? 72%  of women seeking abortions are already mothers. That’s 10% more than in the years before the economic collapse.  42% of women seeking abortion live below the poverty line already and another 27% have income low enough to qualify for Medicaid.

What is the social impact of outlawing abortion?  Check my math here, but it looks to me like 42% of 1.2 million (allowing for 0.1M adoptions), or 500,000 infants, will be born into poverty every year.  Add that to the 22% of US children already living in poverty. Some of the 78% of kiddos living less than $4,000 above the poverty line will fall below it simply by virtue of the addition of a new household member.  If that’s half of those qualifying for Medicaid but not poor, 230,000 children technically above the poverty line will slip below it with the birth of a new sibling.  Obviously, the infants born into those newly poor families will also be born into poverty, so add another 160,000 babies for a total of 890,000 children entering poverty.  Every year.  The US presently has 73 million children.  If abortion were outlawed, the number of children in poverty would rise more than 5% every year.

Forget compassion for children, what’s the economic impact on US taxpayers?  64% of the 1.6 million unplanned births were paid by public programs, primarily Medicaid, at a cost of $11.1 billion.  Adding another 900,000 Medicaid births (69% of 1.3 million averted abortions) would nearly double the public cost to $21 billion.

Of course, that is merely the cost of being born.  The costs of childhood poverty are far reaching and top $500 billion per year.  Citizens crying for a bigger tax base and smaller safety net could accomplish both by decreasing poverty.  Limiting access to family planning is a step in the wrong direction.

Join the conversation.  How do you weigh the ethics for and against forcing poor women to have babies they know they can’t afford?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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Who Dies?

Vision Regeneration Summer Program 2010

There’s a story about a couple people I used to work with that feels like it needs to be told. Some of you know I used to work for a nonprofit to keep inner city kids out of street gangs. None of the programs to help kids broke even, and money was always in short supply.  Most who worked there had multiple jobs, and no one had health insurance.

We had a bus driver who didn’t show up for work one day because he had a stroke and died in his home.  It was on the last day of our summer program.  The kids were excited about the closing ceremony when some would perform and they all would get a few school supplies for the start of the school year.  Of course, the kids were aware of the last minute shuffling when the driver no showed, and they were naturally curious about what had happened.  Keith was a big personality and even if he was a little overgenerous with his advice, at least by high school standards, he genuinely cared about those kids and they knew it.  They were sad to learn what had happened.  Incidentally, another bus driver, Arthur, died that same year from untreated cancer.

The gal in charge of the summer program had dangerously high blood pressure.  More than once, especially (and not coincidentally) near the beginning of the summer, panicked co-workers rushed her to the hospital ER with intense chest pain, confusion and blurry vision. ER personnel told her she really needed to be on medication under a doctor’s supervision. She often asked for an advance on her pay.  Her car loan servicer remotely disabled her car ignition when a payment was late, so she needed the advance just to get to work.  I’m not judging her spending priorities or how she managed her money.  I’m just reporting observations on the reality of the situation. Minute clinics cost money. The occasional free clinic that pops up at a church in the hood is helpful for many maladies but not for treating chronic life threatening conditions.

It feels this story needs to be told because yesterday, Romney told the Columbus Dispatch’s editorial board:

We don’t have people that become ill, who die in their apartment because they don’t have insurance.  We don’t have a setting across this country where if you don’t have insurance, we just say to you, “Tough luck, you’re going to die when you have your heart attack.”

As a point of fact, people do die in their apartments because they don’t have insurance. Maybe we have the heart attack emergency covered, but what about managing the hypertension that led to the heart attack? Cancer is up there with heart disease as the two biggest killers in the US. Let us not forget diabetes. Emergency rooms provide acute care, not routine care for the chronic conditions that kill most people in America.

Romney concluded, “No, you go to the hospital, you get treated, you get care, and it’s paid for, either by charity, the government or by the hospital.”  No, in reality, you go to the hospital, they tell you you really need to see a doctor for ongoing treatment, and a collections company hounds you for the ER bill.

Join the conversation.  Do you have a story that needs to be told just to keep it real?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

The M-Word

Middle class.  Isn’t that what this year’s presidential election is all about?  Not so fast, says Jim Wallis.  He is the CEO of Sojourners, an organization promoting faith in action with a Christian take on social justice.  Here’s what he has to say about 2012 election politics:

Jesus didn’t say “What you have done for the middle class, you have done for me.”

As we enter into the final stretch of the upcoming elections, we need to talk about the “P” word – Poverty.  Both political conventions talked a lot about the middle class, but what you didn’t hear much about was the poor and marginalized.  “Opportunity” was another key word at both conventions this summer.  As Christians, we must be clear that creating new opportunities must include poor children and low-income families.

We are called to care for the least of these, but how does that translate in selecting our public servants?

Jim Wallis addresses this question in his Sojourners feature article, “How to Choose a President,” and a free “Why Voting Matters” downloadable voting guide.   Click here to learn about Sojourners and here for the current magazine issue.

Entitlement” seems to be emerging as another of those presidential election key words, as discussed in the last post’s comments.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the Jewish tradition of tzedakah both suggest a human desire for self-sufficiency, not dependence.  Are there as many poor people abusing the social safety net as voters trying to justify eliminating it would like to believe?  The truth is, most citizens do feel entitled to safe roads, clean water, 911 emergency assistance, hazardous weather alerts, mail delivery and so on.  Let us not leave out education.  Even those educated exclusively in private institutions benefit from a well-educated populace.  And let’s be honest, most private educational institutions depend on government grants, tax exemptions or tuition aid—government benefits enjoyed for the most part by the rich.  Where is the line between entitlement and the marks of a just and civil society?

One dynamic emerging out of the current election politics is the humorous (and somewhat disingenuous) trend toward everyone considering themselves middle class.  What counts as middle class?  The answer is inflated by taxpayer self-interest.  Self-interest aside, however, could you agree to define the middle class as those with household income not in the bottom 25% or in the top 25% but in the middle 50%?  If so, then according to IRS 2009 tax returns, middle class families have income less than $66,000 per year.  More than that puts you in the top 25%.  More than $154,000 puts you in the top 5%.  Some notable 2012 election candidates are arguing that the middle class extends into this top 5% group.

Is it simply a matter of retaining popular tax deductions or escaping the “fair share” levied on the rich?  Or is there more to the desire to be “middle class” than that?  Do over-the-top lifestyles celebrated in the media skew our perceptions?  Is it a herd mentality that makes us comfortable in the middle instead of in the extremes?  Or does a simple lack of diversity awareness allow us to presume we’re in the majority even when we’re not?

Join the conversation.  What opportunities extended to the poor and marginalized would actually lift up and benefit the middle class?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Who Deserves What?

While on the topic of justice, forgiveness and consequences deserved, and on this Day of Atonement with it’s Closing of the Gates imagery, I’d like to ponder how dwelling on deserving drags our discourse down.  Because it is election season, let’s pick a political example.  The flap over Romney’s secretly recorded 47% statement seems to be timely fodder.  While I’m uninterested in speculating about Romney’s intention, I am interested in the question his words beg of us all.  Here’s what Romney said:

“All right — there are 47 percent [of US citizens] who are with him [Obama], who are dependent on government, who believe that, that they are victims, who believe that government has the responsibility to care for them. Who believe that they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing.”

Lingering over the last few words, I can’t help noticing we’re talking the lower levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, here.  I posed this question on Twitter:

What do social justice Jews and brother’s keeper Christians think of folks feeling “entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing?”

Jews view the question through the lens of tzedakah.  Often translated “charity,” tzedakah is actually the opposite of charity in important respects.  Whereas nobody is compelled to give charity, tzedakah is commanded.  Recipients aren’t entitled to charity, but tzedakah recipients are entitled to what’s fair.  Mainomides organized tzedakah into priorities and levels of giving.  Tzedakah priorities are like concentric circles around the giver, obligating the giver first and foremost to be responsible for himself and his immediate family before seeing to the needs of his more extended family, his religious community, his community at large, his fellow countrymen and, ultimately, people in dire straits across the globe.  The lowest level of giving is to give grudgingly.  Higher levels are defined by whether one gives after being asked or before, whether recipients are known or strangers, and whether a donor receives recognition or gives anonymously.  The highest level of all is giving someone a way to become self-sufficient.

Jews are nothing if not pragmatic, and the tzedakah tradition does require the giver to give responsibly, but it is important to note the emphasis on the giver’s obligation, not what the recipient deserves.

What does Christian teaching have to say?  Jesus left a pretty robust bread crumb trail on this one.  We have the socially despised Samaritan who saved a stranger’s life and paid his hotel bill, no less.  We’re told much will be required from everyone to whom much has been given.  And perhaps most germane to this topic is the admonishment to pay your taxes AND to give charitably.  Here again, the Christian tradition emphasizes doing the right thing for the sake of righteousness, not based on the merits of the guy lying in the ditch.

What happens to the conversation when we focus on the guy in the ditch?  Ponder this:

To blame the poor for subsisting on welfare has no justice unless we are also willing to judge every rich member of society by how productive he or she is.  Taken individual by individual, it is likely that there’s more idleness and abuse of government favors among the economically privileged than among the ranks of the disadvantaged.
~ Norman Mailer (1923-2007)

No one deserved to be born on 3rd base.  Self-made millionaires didn’t deserve to be born in the land of opportunity instead of in an oppressive regime.  If you want to focus on who deserves what, I would make a case for the hard working immigrants who came to the USA with nothing and made the most of opportunities that came their way, not unlike our nation’s founders, but the current prevailing view is that immigrants aren’t deserving if their parents broke the law to get here.

No matter where you stand in the political spectrum, dwelling on deserving leaves us wanting to take something away.  Tax wealthy estates.  Deport the high school valedictorian.  Let poor kids go hungry.  They didn’t earn it.  We sit in the judge’s seat when we focus on deserving.  When we focus on human dignity and human potential instead, we are reminded of ourselves.  When we do so with gratitude, we realize our cup is running over and we lift others up out of the abundance of our blessings.  The twitter question was not rhetorical.

Join the conversation.  Is healthcare, food and housing too much to require from those to whom much has been given?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

You Choose the Consequences: Justice or Forgiveness

The past week has seen widening violence throughout the Middle East and threats of violence on US college campuses.  What initially may have looked like isolated extremist reactions to an amateurish You-Tube video now looks like a bubbling up of deeply seeded anger and resentment aimed at local power holders in addition the US.  The long simmering discontent merely brandished the silly video in effigy to coincide with the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  The cascade of consequences seems to be an ever-escalating loop of one group retaliating for the destructive actions of another group in the name of “justice.”

My spirituality group just finished reading Forgiving Ararat, a novel that explores themes of justice and forgiveness.  The notion of justice portrayed in the book, however, is limited to retributive justice, a kind of justice that seeks to settle the score by giving wrongdoers what they deserve.  It thereby juxtaposes forgiveness against justice, as if they are opposites.

Who can’t identify with that?  Sometimes the ones who wronged us appear to be getting off scot free.  No one is holding them accountable for their misdeeds.  We might cling to resentment out of our sense of justice, to hold the wrongdoers to account.  But Oprah and Dr. Phil tell us holding anger and resentment is like eating rat poison and expecting the rats to die.  Our resentment really doesn’t hurt our offenders as much as it poisons our own lives.  Knowing this intellectually, however, doesn’t make releasing resentment in an act of forgiveness a slam dunk to do.

When I am working with folks trying to escape their resentments, I try to get the offenders and what they deserve out of the middle of the matter.  I encourage folks to put their own spiritual reality and relationship with God in the center instead.  Our injuries impair how we respond to others.  Harms suffered get tangled up with harms done.  When we take a cold hard look at our own actions and can honestly say we care more about receiving forgiveness for the harms we ourselves committed than what our offenders deserve, forgiveness is within our reach.

Are forgiveness and justice really mutually exclusive?  It’s a timely question in the Jewish tradition.  Today marks the beginning of the Days of Awe, the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when Jews examine their misdeeds over the past year, repair their wrongdoing and seek forgiveness from those they harmed.  Making amends not only repairs harm to the victim but also restores the soul of the sinner.  Thus, the Jewish approach to justice makes both the wrongdoer and the one wronged whole. Through the healing power of forgiveness, this restorative justice promotes peace and reconciliation.

Join the conversation.  What kind of justice are you going to seek today—the kind that restores wholeness or the kind that settles the score?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Free Speech is not Free from Consequences

All actions have consequences, including how we express our ideas and ourselves.  Often our expressions have unforeseen or unintended consequences.  Yesterday’s attack on the US Consulate in Libya that took the lives of four people is reported to have been a retaliatory response to a YouTube video.  The video disrespects Islam by ridiculing Muhammad.  I haven’t added my clicks to the view count, and I’m uninterested in commenting on the video itself, but I am interested in the consequences of free speech.

All expressions—especially those that reveal something we find real and true—expose us to some vulnerability.  Will the hearers disagree?  Will disagreement diminish me in their sight?  Will disagreement prompt action, like distancing from me or harming me?  Of course, in a presidential election season, we don’t need reminding that some expressions are not true and are designed to expose someone else’s vulnerability.  And some expressions are designed to provoke disagreement.  Some are designed to manipulate us or to bait us to respond in a way that benefits the speaker, if only to garner notoriety.  Perhaps the quip, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” turns out to be deadly after all.

Our First Amendment only protects free speech from government interference (or legal action) to the extent that the speech does not cause harm to others.  Specifically, speech that threatens others, incites immanent lawless action, states facts falsely, is obscene or sexually exploits children is not protected.  Happily for writers, speech owned by others merits no First Amendment protection, either.

The diversity of opinion on what qualifies for protection and on appropriate consequences provides the real grist for discussion.  Ted Nugent is legally free to make public political statements so long as he doesn’t threaten anybody or incite lawless action, but that does not exempt him from consequences like losing an employment contract.  How about the violence that saturates US entertainment—does it not incite more violence?  Isn’t it demonstrably harmful to our kids?  Tipper Gore made that argument, God love her, and her efforts met resounding defeat and castigation.

Personally, I have a hard time advocating limits on any artistic expression that a creator finds to be real or true, even if I find that expression upsetting or manipulative.  Embracing another’s truth and reality can expand our own.  On the other hand, I also believe we each carry responsibility for the footprint we leave in the world.  It is the people who threw grenades in the Libyan attack who are responsible for the deaths and damage, not the filmmaker.  The filmmaker’s contribution was to throw disrespect like a grenade.  Expressions that lack respect for others can do no good.  They leave only the footprints of destruction and human diminishment.

Join the conversation.  Do you think the filmmaker did the equivalent of yelling “fire” in a crowded global theater?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Public Apology

 

George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed unarmed teen Trayvon Martin, is in the news today for his public apology.  Here is what he said:

 

“I want to tell everyone, my wife, my family, my parents, my grandmother, the Martins, the city of Sanford and America, that I’m sorry that this happened,” he said, staring into the camera lens. “I hate to think that because of this incident, because of my actions, it’s polarized and divided America. And I’m truly sorry.”

As difficult as it is to release resentment in an act of forgiveness, it is also hard to admit one’s wrongs and to ask humbly for forgiveness in an apology.  Unfortunately, this is not what Zimmerman has done.  His words do not suggest he has taken responsibility for his choices or that he recognizes them as wrong.  Expressing regret for the consequences (“I’m sorry this happened”) is rather different from expressing regret for the choices (“I followed when dispatch said not to”).  In fact, Zimmerman said specifically that he does not regret his actions. “I’m sorry I got caught” vs. “I was wrong to rob that guy” is a more obvious variant.  It does not count as a genuine apology in my book.  My teenage kids wouldn’t even try to get away with a deflection like that.

Another deflection often heard in psudo-apologies is, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”  Like the statements above, this offers commentary on consequences while failing to assume responsibility for the precipitating actions, and so this, too, is not a legitimate apology.  Worse, it defects blame onto the one who expressed feelings, adding insult to injury.

Zimmerman takes the deflection one step further by throwing God into it, stating it was God’s choice, not his choice.  It is hard for modern believers to conceive of murder as God’s will, although there is plenty of it in Judeo-Christian scriptures.  Ancient scriptures notwithstanding, ascribing feelings or desires to God is a slippery slope.  Anne Lamott said it best:

“You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

What is the right way to make an apology?  My godfather taught me this handy script:  “I realize how wrong I was. Will you forgive me?”  We have banned the word “sorry” when making an apology in our house (too many ways it can go wrong with teenagers), and we try to use this instead.  The useful thing about it is it separates actions from consequences and encourages us to examine whether we have genuine remorse for our choices. We’ve learned it is best not to try to fake an apology if genuine remorse is absent. In a heated moment with frayed feelings, asking for time to think about one’s choices is infinitely more respectful than forcing an insincere apology or deflecting blame.  Simply acknowledging that one’s actions merit introspection sets the stage for healing.

Join the conversation.  What did you think of George Zimmerman’s apology?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.