23/77: Life begins at…

[Old man ramble alert!]


Here is all I plan to say right now about the blatant misogyny
of the Republican Party as currently formulated and presented.

Thirty-five years ago I attended a conference to discuss the impact of technology on society. Participants — myself excepted — were people with strong religious training and beliefs. Half were lay people, the rest were ministers and theologians. All (except me) were members of or subscribers to a fairly liberal Christian church.

    I was there as representative of a minister who was unable to attend. I was not a member of his church, or any other, but he and I had been friends for years; he asked me to go in his stead and, on the subsequent Sunday, to deliver, as the weekly sermon, an account of the event. I did address his congregation, but did not include the following anecdote.

During the day we listened to presentations or sat around and discussed technology from the theologian’s point of view: what have recent developments in science/technology done to traditional beliefs and practices; what can we say about
the morality of war; is nuclear power justifiable; when does life begin and end; and so on.

    (At first I was hesitant to join in, as everyone but me had theological background. It balanced out, however, because — as a graduate student in Technology Studies at RPI — I was better versed in technology than many of them.)

Evenings, our discussions were less formal and more interesting. Predictably, it was the matter of life and death that most interested us.

  • What is life?
  • How do we define and describe it?
  • When does it begin and end?

That led to discussions of birth control and abortion. About birth control these people were quite open and supportive. (It may be relevant that most of them, though married, were childless.)

About abortion, however, they could find no consensus, no grounds for agreement, no grounds even for rational discussion. They were not as a group flatly opposed to it; they simply could not decide what to think about it. One evening the discussion centered on how difficult it was to determine when life begins.

The discussion had stumbled into the “Well, as Bishop Winken wrote in response to Doctor Blinken’s commentary on Professor Nodd’s article” stage when unaccountable I grew thirsty. I was, fortunately, standing near the punch bowl. I stepped over to it, took a couple gulps of fresh air and a swallow or two of punch, then returned to the group and said, brightly, “Did any of you see the article in the latest issue of [I cited a respected journal] about the New England theologians who speculate that life may not begin until a day or two after birth? You know, for many hours the new-born is scarcely distinguishable from the fetus, other than breathing air on its own. Apparently they feel it’s difficult to define a baby as human until some time later, when the movements become more deliberate and….”

I realized the group had frozen. No one said a word. Their eyes flickered toward one another briefly, but mostly they just stared at me. So I paused and looked back. At last, since none of them would speak, I said, “Hey folks, I was only kidding. I meant it as a joke. Sorry if I upset you.”

But the chill did not dissipate. I do not think it was aimed at me — most of the people were quite cordial for the rests of the conference — only at what I had said. And I wasn’t sure then — nor am I now — whether they were outraged at the concept, startled that no one had thought of it before, or dismayed that, having thought of it, they failed to articulate it.

I can report, though, that no one — then or later in the conference — flatly contradicted it.

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