Saturday, April 09, 2016


When I read websites where a lot of people address contemporary issues, some of them quite rarified and theoretical and others life-changingly practical, I constantly ask myself, “Who are these people talking about?”  Almost always they are talking about themselves.  

For instance, I just a read a piece on the right to have legal abortions.  It was clear that the discussers, even the men, had access to medical care already — legal or illegal — and they thought of surgeries as a little risky but entirely justified, elective.  A nearby argument was about plastic surgery.  Not addressing the kind of damage that makes people turn away in revulsion or anomalies that prevent function, but rather a matter of improving looks.

My reference point is always the starving Somali woman staggering across a barren landscape with her dead baby in her arms.  Did she have access to abortion?  To plastic surgery?  She didn’t even have access to food.  

Another reference point is the still-teenaged girl in an unstable family who barely realizes that she’s pregnant though she’s been inseminated many times by many men.  Do educated upscale people, often talking over a table loaded with good food, have anything to say to these women?  What is an illegal abortion next to the prevailing abuse — which is also supposed to be illegal?

Let me say right here that I’ve never been pregnant.  The docs write on my chart “null partum” and ask whether I’m sterile or a nun.  The only answer is that I have no idea, since I’ve had sex, but only with men who had a vasectomy and an income.  One CAN have sex without insemination.  At my age I don’t have to think about it anymore, but I think I should anyway, since creating a new human being ought to be a serious moral issue that affects the whole human community.  

But it isn’t.  It is a biological imperative that through the aeons (MORE than millennia) has been selected for again and again — that’s the definition of “selected for”— except that part of the selection is raising the next generation to the point that they can create and sustain the next next generation.  At that point one is on the ground of culture — is aborting a child worse or better than aborting a culture?  (Genocide.)

The force to make babies has pushed through 200 versions of hominins.  Ours was the only one to survive this far and we may not last a whole lot longer.  We all want to know what happened to end the 199 rough drafts of humans.  Was it war?  Disease?  Climate change? (It’s not unusual; this is just the first time it was human-made unless you count humans acting as vectors for disease that cut down enough people to allow forests to grow back, creating an abundance of carbon dioxide.)  

We are the first generation to intervene to sustain pregnancies and babies who would have been winnowed out in previous times.  Our problem is not medical skill or — for some classes — access to money, but rather this huge psychological syndrome that makes babies emotional firestorms.  I’ve already said that my father was a fan of Margaret Sanger and believed in the efficacy of condoms, which were illegal then and had to be ordered in the mail, arriving in a plain brown wrapper.  His sibs each had two children, as decided.  But my birth family was three, which I finally came to suspect was unplanned.  There was a pinhole in the condom or it slipped or things were too exciting to stop and find one.  

The extra child was the difference in the finances of the family ever after.  There was never quite enough.  My mother took up the slack, as was our pattern.  First, she had “repairs” after the third child, which included sterilization.  Her choice.  Then she went back to school to finish the degree cut short by the Depression, so she could teach.  This turned out to finally give her the benefits she had imagined were a feature of cities, a raised consciousness.  It kicked my father to the curb emotionally.

Mary, Mark and Paul Strachan

When I suggested to other family members that the third child was probably unplanned, I was taken aback by the ferocity of their reaction — it was as though I’d suggested something entirely immoral — as though she’d had an abortion!  I don’t think my parents would ever consider such a thing.  But I don’t think my father ever faced up to the necessity of making more money.

One of my new continuing series favs is Canadian, “Flashpoint,” about the next step after SWAT teams, called “Strategic Response” and including many psychological skills like talking people down from suicide, hostage-holding, and mass killings.  A recent episode was about the effect on members of the team when they try, almost succeed, and then fail.  The key example was a little girl who had nearly drowned, but — thanks to the extraordinary efforts of one officer who gave her mouth-to-mouth respiration for the entire distance to the hospital — survived.  But she was in a vegetative state and remained that way.  So did he save her?  What about all the miracle babies we celebrate?  What were their lives like?

Ed Lane from "Flashpoint"

This third child in my family, my youngest brother, fell hard as an adult and suffered a concussion, so my mother supported him until her death, after supporting my father until his relatively early death.  What she gave up was a pleasant retirement in a safe place.  She kept saying she wanted to talk to me, but then didn’t, as though a concussion were shameful.  There wasn’t even much research at that point, though ironically one of the world experts was right there in Portland.

The reason I had no children is that I intended to live as a writer and knew there would be little or no income, as well as selfishly wanting to be free to pull up stakes.  It’s true that at several points in my life, if I’d been supporting a child, I would have been forced into immoral choices.  Nothing dramatic like rape or robbery, but not getting fired for opposing authorities.  For instance, I turned in abuses of students and patients, which were required by law and forced the authorities to take action.  I knew this would get me fired.

But that third child, when grown up, created a new human being with the adult cooperation of his girl friend/student.  Someone wanted that child and was not using prophylactics.  Whatever, that child is my only blood descendent (collateral) and whatever happened is now justified by her life which is not just healthy but a joy.  She was kept secret from our extended family, but her mother had strong family support: money, education, counselling.  Things turned out well.

But what about that Somali woman, that hooked teen?  No doubt their bodies rejected some pregnancies.  My father-in-law was one of three surviving sons from at least twice as many pregnancies.  He himself was premature, on the edge of survival.  His incubator was a shoebox in the warming oven of the woodstove on a Quebec dairy farm.  He turned out small but tough, chose a big healthy woman, and raised two strong and potent sons who ran headlong into World War II and were never the same.  What does it mean?

All mammals create babies at high cost and through a multitude of small connections and flip-overs of molecules that can go wrong.  It’s not hard to see that every baby is a miracle but then the next step is much harder: the individual decisions and will-power necessary to take them to adulthood.  And then the next step is as full of consequences as those for an individual family — the feeding of whole populations of mothers and babies.  MY surviving baby is a miracle.  YOUR surviving baby is threatening the planet.

Stigmatized babies face death all their lives.  An abortion is only one crunch point.  Not so long ago — and probably still in some corners — young stigmatized women whether the wrong color or considered “immoral” were covertly sterilized.  It always makes me think of lions killing the progeny of their competitors so they can re-inseminate the lioness with their own genes.  Morality is overruled by biological effectiveness.  Morality responds to “necessity”, even if it is that of imagined superiority.  

But it backfires when we obsess over individual women, their needs and crimes, while neglecting the larger situation — like the limited carrying capacity of the planet.  

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