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Family Planning in Jurassic Park, Part 2

John Hammond created a controlled environment in his laboratory. It looked quite different in the jungles of Jurassic Park.

Morality and ethics too often seem designed for controlled environments and pristine conditions – which hardly describes any human community I know. The great divide in the United States between a “pro-life” and a “pro-choice” position provides a classic case in point. Both positions make assumptions that rarely obtain in the real lives of the people they supposedly describe.

It’s time to retire these labels as utterly inadequate for addressing the complexities of our social context and the profound mystery of life itself. I do not mean that we should abandon goals, ideals, and principles. I do mean that they are always contextual and more complex than we first thought.

In the first of this two-part series, I declared my own position: I am “pro-choice” because I am “pro-life.” Simply put, I want to affirm the sanctity of life by affirming a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body. Of course, there’s nothing “simple” about that.

So here I’ll go back to Jurassic Park to suggest why the language of both choice and life are problematic and propose a possible alternative. This is definitely a work in progress; help me make it better!

Contextual Choices and Dino-Bait
To put it mildly, running away from a hungry T-Rex limits one’s choices. The effects of a tropical storm, electrical outages, and an unfamiliar terrain limited those choices even further in Jurassic Park.

Thankfully, we don’t have to worry about carnivorous dinosaurs, but every culture and human society shapes and determines the limits of our choices, sometimes just as severely as the situation in Spielberg’s film.

I don’t believe anyone is truly free to choose anything apart from the cultural contexts that shape even our most privately held desires. Most of us are usually quite unaware of how deeply others around us and the wider society shape what we think, what we want, and the choices we make.

“Liberals” generally find these contextual limits on choice perplexing if not repugnant. Modern western culture continues to laud the rugged individual, autonomous and free, even when its limits appear in bold relief. (See my recent blog series on Jesus and Ayn Rand.)

Robert O. Self’s recent op-ed in the New York Times describes particularly well the significance of context for the choices all of us make. Or rather, the significance of refusing to acknowledge the difference context makes in our ability to choose “freely.” His analysis of dividing “culture” from “economics” alone deserves careful reading.

Continuing to insist on a woman’s “right to choose” not only perpetuates the illusion of context-free choices; it also places a burden on her that no one should have to bear alone. Rather than the language of “pro-choice,” perhaps it’s time to talk about the “dignity of discernment.” How could we create spaces and communities for women to engage in discernment with dignity about their bodies and relationships?

Liminal Life and Dino-DNA
Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight’s geeky character) stole dino-DNA from Jurassic Park for his corporate backers. So, did he steal life in that moment or only the potential for life? Do you know the difference? Can any of us really be so sure what life itself is let alone when it begins? How about when it ends?

Miscarriages, for example, happen for a number of reasons. Most occur because the fertilized egg simply wasn’t biologically viable. It had the potential but failed to achieve all the miraculous things required to actualize that potential.

Would Arizona’s Governor Brewer classify a miscarriage as an illegal abortion? That doesn’t seem any less absurd than what the law she just signed does in fact do: define pregnancy as starting two weeks before conception, before the egg ever encounters a sperm. If the desire for ever greater precision in these matters now extends to the potential for life, then it’s likely time to ban male masturbation.

Declarative statements about life seem far more elusive after standing with a family at a hospital bedside as a loved-one sits in a coma; the heart beats but the brain has stopped functioning. Is that life? Agonize with that family before you answer. I have, and I have no satisfying answer.

Any attempt to define precisely when life begins or ends is futile. It’s always messy, it never conforms to “Plan A,” it perpetually offends everyone’s sensibilities, and it belongs in the realm of spiritual awe, not hackneyed political debates.

Rather than the language of “pro-life” (is anyone really “pro-death”?), perhaps it’s time to talk about the “integrity of inquiry.” Life, after all, is not self-evident. It always refers to a particular entity, and is therefore always a matter of degree, quality, and circumstance. Whether we’re talking about ovulation or hospice-care, everyone deserves to inquire about what life is with integrity, with all the complexities and ambiguities on the table.

The language of “choice” and “life” will likely persist in our public debates for some time. While they do, I will continue to insist on at least this much: no more bloody coat hangers and knitting needles in back alleys. The lives of desperate women mean too much to subject them to that.

But I do hope for more: dignity in discernment, integrity in inquiry, and compassion in community.

I refuse to believe that such a position is too much to ask, even in the vexing polarization of the U.S. But it will mean that “liberals” might need to let go of the supremacy of the individual just as “conservatives” will need to let go of their certainty about what life actually is.

It does seem abundantly clear, however, that we cannot rely on political discourse alone to provide this kind of space. We need faith communities and religious leaders willing to take courageous stands in ambiguous situations – both for the sake of women’s bodies and for sake of the profound mystery of life.