Gay marriage and unintended consequences

D.C. High School Students Collect Food for the Needy

So yesterday we talked a bit about some of the tensions between religious freedom and gay rights. The Washington Post has a nice follow-up on the matter of Catholic Charities changing its health coverage benefits to comply with both church law defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman and new D.C. laws legalizing same-sex marriage.

D.C. archbishop defends Catholic Charities’ stand on health benefits

Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl said Tuesday that the decision by Catholic Charities to change its health coverage to avoid offering benefits to same-sex spouses of its workers is justifiable under Catholic teaching as long as the employees are paid a just wage.

“The Catholic Church teaches to pay a just wage. The compensation package you use to pay that just wage isn’t defined by the church,” Wuerl said during an interview with Washington Post writers and editors. “Employers have the right to frame compensation packages. . . . At the end of the day, Catholic Charities is here serving the needy, after the law has passed, in complete conformity with the law.”

I don’t see anything wrong with the way this story begins or is framed, per se, but I do think it’s interesting that the church is put on the defensive rather than the DC City Council. I may be wrong, as I sometimes have trouble navigating the Washington Post web site, but I don’t think there was any story where reporters went to the council members who voted to change the law and asked them if they’d thought about any of the unforeseen consequences of their vote or whether they worried they were burdening religious groups too much.

You know what would be a good series for someone to pen? Considering all the unintended consequences of changing marriage law. I myself predicted that insurance coverage would be one of the first things to change but I bet people who actually think about this stuff have considered a ton of potential changes in everything from family dynamics to business decisions to the layers of law that have been formed with a different idea of marriage in mind. You could probably write a story every day for a year and still not run of out ideas. Take this:

On Monday, it told its 800 employees that it would not make spousal health benefits available to any new employee, straight or gay, to any current employee who marries in the future or to spouses of current employees who are not covered by the plan.

How might that change affect a young couple that wants one spouse to stay at home and raise the children? If they’re already operating on one salary — and presumably a low non-profit type salary — will that in any way change their decision to work for Catholic Charities? If these changes are replicated throughout the country, would it have a significant effect on such decisions? Do we care? What if marriage law is changed to permit, as some prominent same-sex marriage advocates hope, “small group marriages“? Will even secular companies drop insurance benefits for spouses? Then how will that change family dynamics? (If you’re in any way interested in this topic, here’s a great article from years ago about how changes in policy can have widespread and unforeseen consequences.)

Maybe it won’t change family dynamics, but I’d sure like to see some media coverage that explained why or why not.

Okay, back to the story. One thing I liked about the story was that it showed how reaction among Catholics was mixed. You have the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issuing a strong defense of the decision, the executive director of the progressive group Catholics United disagreeing with the decision, and an employee giving her own view:

One employee, Michelle Mendez, who helps immigrants as a staff attorney in the legal service program at Catholic Charities, described it as a sensitive issue for employees.

“I disagree with it on a personal level,” she said. “I think it’s unfortunate to cut off benefits and worry about the effect it may have on employees’ families. But on a public level, I understand how hard the decision was and where the organization is coming from.”

As a Catholic believer, she said the church needs to keep to its tenets. But as an employee who might marry sometime and need health insurance for a spouse, she wishes the option were still there. “But at the end of the day, the reason we work at a place like this is to make a difference,” she said. “As long as we can continue doing that, that’s what’s most important.”

The most interesting part of the article, from my perspective, came at the very end:

Wuerl said that with the decision to curtail benefits, he thought no other social service contracts with the city would be affected. He repeated during the two-hour interview that he thought the church and other faith-based groups were facing new opposition because of their beliefs about sexuality.

“No one in the past said, ‘Because you’re motivated by love of the Gospel, you can’t perform [social services.]‘ The question always was: ‘Did you serve everyone?’ And the answer was yes,” said Wuerl, who said The Post had unfairly characterized the church as having a choice. He cited an expression, “The prophet isn’t judged by the success of his message but fidelity of his message.”

I actually think this could have been explained a bit more. He’s saying, I think, that no one seemed to complain about the Catholic Church’s doctrinal views when it meant that those moves motivated them to do excellent work on social services (such as a food drive for the needy, pictured above). But when they remain faithful to those same teachings, now they’re facing opposition? I think that it would be great to give gay rights activists a chance to respond to this. I also would love to hear a bit more from this 2-hour interview about Wuerl’s criticism of the “choice” angle. Maybe there will be excerpts of a transcript posted. Or maybe the team there is working on a larger story about this issue. I hope so.

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Where did Catholic students go?

Sometime this morning, more than a few Catholic educators in Baltimore are going to get some very bad news. Once again, it’s time for a major urban archdiocese to shut down some schools — permanently.

As you would expect, the Baltimore Sun ran a lengthy news feature several days ago that focused on the impact these closings will have on families and neighborhoods. That’s a completely valid angle, of course. Thus, we read:

Over the past decade, Principal Pamela K. Sanders has watched as enrollment at St. Ambrose Catholic School has fallen by more than half. Now she wonders if she’ll soon have no school at all.

On Wednesday, the Archdiocese of Baltimore will tell principals, teachers, parents and students about plans to close many of its 64 schools at the end of the academic year and reorganize the system of 22,700 students.

Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien is taking the steps in the face of rising costs and falling enrollments, problems affecting many of the oldest and largest Catholic school systems in the country.

“We’ve been praying, the parish has been praying,” said Sanders, who has seen the kindergarten to eighth grade at St. Ambrose drop from 330 students when she arrived in 2000 to 160 today. On Wednesday, she said, “at least the uncertainty will be over. So much anxiety comes from the uncertainty.”

If you know anything about newspaper writing, then you know what comes next.

Some journalists call it the “nut graph,” the “summary statement” or even one or two other nicknames that cannot be used in a family weblog. The basic idea is that the reporter is supposed to let you know the “why” of the story, the reason this event is taking place and why it matters. So here is the “nut graph” for this report:

If the school on Park Heights Avenue, in a neighborhood of boarded-up homes and empty lots, is an extreme case of distress, it still reflects the broader challenges confronting Catholic schools in the traditional urban strongholds of the Midwest, the Mid-Atlantic and New England. The faithful have fled the cities for the suburbs, teaching sisters available to provide instruction at little cost have dwindled in number, and families have been less willing or able to pay rising tuitions.

Clearly, we are dealing with declining statistics in some key areas. My question is simple: Might there be other causes for some of these declining statistics? Is this really a story that is rooted in economics, alone?

I have asked some of these questions before and I will ask them again. How healthy are the parishes linked to these schools? The story focuses on suburban flight and that is clearly an issue. But there are other reasons that there are declining numbers of students in some Catholic schools, just as there are multiple reasons that there are declining numbers of women and men taking vows and serving as sisters, brothers and priests.

The bottom line: Where did the Catholic students go? Why give readers only one answer to that question, when there are others? Here’s a trail worth following: Does the Catholic school system in Baltimore have critics, on the left or the right?

Some students have gone to other schools, primarily public schools in the suburbs. But what about Catholics who have chosen to send their children to other private schools, including religious schools? (A personal confession: My family is Orthodox, but our son attends a Protestant school that has attracted a number of very dedicated Catholic families. One Catholic mother once told me that her children have been treated better, as conservative Catholics, in this Protestant school than in the Catholic school they used to attend in Baltimore.)

And then there is this:

As the 1960s saw historic peaks for Mass attendance and priestly vocations in the United States, so also was the era a high-water mark for Catholic education. In the decades since, the flight to the suburbs has emptied classrooms. The ranks of religious orders have thinned, depriving the schools of teachers who worked for next to nothing, meaning that Catholic schools could no longer be free, or nearly so.

As the bonds of church for many families have loosened, a Catholic education has seemed less essential. The National Catholic Education Association estimates that about half of Catholic children attended Catholic elementary schools in the 1960s. Today, the figure is about 15 percent.

So, have there been other trends since the 1960s that have impacted Catholic statistics, broadly defined? What has happened to Catholic birthrates, especially among Anglos and families with old ties to Catholic churches in Europe? What about Catholic birthrates in urban zip codes? What has happened to Mass attendance? To religious vocations?

I know that these stories cannot cover every possible angle on this kind of issue. But, in story after school-closings story, we see the same factors discussed as the “why” factor. At some point, journalists need to ask some new questions, as they seek answers to that question, “Where did the Catholic students go?”

Photo: From a website offering tips on decorating classroom doors in Catholic schools.

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Getting right with God and government

It was only four years ago that Catholic Charities of Boston announced that it was getting out of the adoption business in order to comply with new state laws dealing with sexual orientation discrimination and same-sex marriage. Last month the District of Columbia, where I live, voted to legalize same-sex marriage.

Let me be clear: Our notorious City Council decided to change the law on this matter and efforts to allow the actual residents of the city to vote were successfully fought. That means DC Catholic Charities had to choose between obeying church teaching on the sanctity of life and continuing to have contracts with the city government to assist with adoptions and foster care.

And that’s not the only unintended consequence of the new ruling. Here’s the Washington Post‘s William Wan reporting on the latest:

Starting Tuesday, Catholic Charities will not offer benefits to spouses of new employees or to spouses of current employees who are not already enrolled in the plan. A letter describing the change in health benefits was e-mailed to employees Monday, two days before same-sex marriage will become legal in the District.

“We looked at all the options and implications,” said the charity’s president, Edward J. Orzechowski. “This allows us to continue providing services, comply with the city’s new requirements and remain faithful to the church’s teaching.”

It’s been years since the warnings and concerns about how introducing same-sex marriage would affect religious freedom ceased being theoretical. This Post story is good. It’s a very straightforward account that focuses almost exclusively on the news and doesn’t include much analysis from folks on various sides of the religious and political issues. But before you do analysis, you need the news and this is a good piece packed with information.

But I don’t think we’ve seen anything close to the amount or type of coverage that this issue warrants. When I think of mainstream coverage of the tension between gay rights and religious freedom, I can think of one piece that ran in NPR two years ago. Consider this quote from the article I linked to earlier in the week by traditional marriage advocate Maggie Gallagher:

I PUT THE QUESTION to Anthony Picarello, president and general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The Becket Fund is widely recognized as one of the best religious liberty law firms and the only one that defends the religious liberty of all faith groups, “from Anglicans to Zoroastrians,” as its founder Kevin J. Hasson likes to say (referring to actual clients the Becket Fund has defended).

Just how serious are the coming conflicts over religious liberty stemming from gay marriage?

“The impact will be severe and pervasive,” Picarello says flatly. “This is going to affect every aspect of church-state relations.” Recent years, he predicts, will be looked back on as a time of relative peace between church and state, one where people had the luxury of litigating cases about things like the Ten Commandments in courthouses. In times of relative peace, says Picarello, people don’t even notice that “the church is surrounded on all sides by the state; that church and state butt up against each other. The boundaries are usually peaceful, so it’s easy sometimes to forget they are there. But because marriage affects just about every area of the law, gay marriage is going to create a point of conflict at every point around the perimeter.”

So we’ll have points of conflict everywhere, great uncertainty about how to resolve these issues, and have the media really treated the issue with the seriousness that it deserves?

Take this USA Today blog treatment of the most recent news. Here’s how a recent post looking at how Catholic organizations follow Catholic teaching begins:

If the sign says “Catholic,” then, by golly, it had better be by-the-book Catholic. That’s what U.S. bishops and agency heads are saying as they make moves across the country to ensure the Church’s directives, particularly on marriage and sexuality are followed to the letter by everyone who flies the brand flag.

As opposed to what, by golly? I’m not Catholic but I would hope that any church leadership worth their salt would encourage everyone in the church to follow both the letter and the spirit of God’s law. Some of us even think that what the church has to say is just as or possibly even more important as what my city council thinks at a given moment. Maybe some people think that “everyone who flies the Catholic brand flag” should just bend their practices to whatever winds blow their way, but that’s not really the way the traditional church has operated over the years.

And while some people think that the most important civil rights issue in the world right now involves allowing two people of the same sex to marry each other, others actually think that this is a pernicious idea on several fronts (none of which ever seem to be explored by the media). And no matter what people think about the issue of changing marriage law, few scholars will disagree that this will have affect religious freedom. There is major tension. It’s happening wherever legislators and judges impose same-sex marriage. Let’s start seeing some more substantive mainstream coverage.

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Abortion: black and white issue?

A fair piece on abortion? Believe it or not, it can be done. I was pleasantly surprised by the ground covered in Saturday’s front-page article on anti-abortion groups courting blacks in The New York Times. This isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon, but it has been in the news lately because of 80 billboards appearing in Georgia (right).

A search on suggests this is the first time the Times has covered Lila Rose’s work and made more than a brief mention of Alveda King, the niece of Martin Luther King Jr. Here are the key paragraphs from reporter Shaila Dewan:

The factors fueling the focus on black women–an abortion rate far higher than that of other races and the ties between the effort to legalize and popularize birth control and eugenics–are, at heart, old news. But they have been given exaggerated new life by the Internet, slick repackaging, high production values and money, like the more than $20,000 that Georgia Right to Life invested in the billboards.

Data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that black women get almost 40 percent of the country’s abortions, even though blacks make up only 13 percent of the population. Nearly 40 percent of black pregnancies end in induced abortion, a rate far higher than for white or Hispanic women.

Overall, the story packs in a lot of information and quotes from both sides, weaving in history, ethics, and anecdotes for a solid story. I was, however, disappointed to read this sweeping generalization:

Across the country, the anti-abortion movement, long viewed as almost exclusively white and Republican, is turning its attention to African-Americans and encouraging black abortion opponents across the country to become more active.

Almost exclusively white? Viewed by whom? I realize Houston may not be representative of the country (then again, neither is New York), but if you watch this Houston Chronicle video of an thousand-plus anti-abortion protest in January, you won’t see an exclusively white crowd.

If I can pick on a one more part of the story, I found this quote on Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, quite unsatisfactory.

Scholars acknowledge that Sanger did ally herself with eugenics, at the time a mainstream movement, but said she believed that birth control, sterilization and abortion should be voluntary and not based on race. She was also allied with black leaders like W.E.B. Du Bois and Dr. King, who praised her efforts to bring birth control to black families.

“It’s unfair to characterize those efforts as racially targeted in a negative way,” said Ellen Chesler, a historian and Sanger biographer, who is now on the board of Planned Parenthood.

The quote feels pretty obligatory since it doesn’t offer anything but an opinion from someone who sits on Planned Parenthood’s board. Couldn’t the reporter find someone a little less connected to the organization?

Those points aside, it’s good to see the Times tackle a tough subject. If the story could have been lengthened, I’d be curious what people in the movement think about the rhetoric being used in these strategies. Are people on both or either side questioning the use of the word genocide, for example?

Joshunda Sanders of the Austin American-Statesman writes about her experience covering a 40 day vigil abortion clinics last fall.

[T]he New York Times piece points to a national trend I thought the activists mentioned to me because I’m black, not because it was a new angle for the anti-abortion movement …

When I talked to Sheri Danze and others outside of the clinic, they mentioned that Margaret Sanger had a plan to wipe out black people via abortion. While I took notes respectfully, it sounded like an extremist version of history that might take years to verify. So I disregarded that and wrote about what was verifiable. I honestly also felt like I was being baited, like they wanted me to lead any stories with the fact that abortion providers are not only, in their opinion, morally corrupt, but also racist.

I have a feeling that more reporters are reluctant to write about Sanger and these issues. Put race, abortion and religion into the same story and your letters inbox might explode.

Finally, I would have also liked to see the Times explore the role of the black religious community. It’s not absent from the story, but it doesn’t play a prominent role. Here’s more from Sanders:

Still, the cultural divide in the recruiting of black churches and abortion opponents might be underscored by an economic one. Studies have shown that abortion in the U.S. has declined, but there have been increased among low-income women who are black and Latino. This cultural argument in the anti-abortion movement also interests me because it might be the few places of activist overlap between traditionally black churches and predominately white churches. As black history month draws to a close, I’ve been thinking about what seems like a permanent gap between the world of black churches and other houses of worship, and what it will take to bridge that gap.

More reporters could look into stories along these lines. I’d be curious, for example, if pro-life groups are partnering with black churches. Hopefully more reporters can follow the Times‘s lead and put a local face on these issues.

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Family values and the NCAA

If you’re part of an organization trying to get your message out, you usually have to spend money to place ads where people can see them. Communications shops usually prefer getting stories written about them. Not only is it free but you can communicate more thoroughly with your audience. So while Focus on the Family seems to have been running more advertisements as of late, they have to be taking note of all the earned media they’re getting.

First there was the Superbowl ad controversy. And now there’s this:

The National Collegiate Athletic Association removed a Focus on the Family banner ad from one of its Web sites this week, NCAA spokesman Bob Williams said Wednesday.

The NCAA made the decision after some of its members – including faculty and athletic directors – expressed concern that the evangelical group’s stance against gay and lesbian relationships conflicted with the NCAA’s policy of inclusion regardless of sexual orientation, Williams said.

The ad in question was not about sexuality. It featured a father holding his son and the words, “All I want for my son is for him to grow up knowing how to do the right thing.” Like the Tebow ad, it included the address of Focus on the Family’s Web site and the slogan, “Celebrate Family. Celebrate Life.”

Focus on the Family spokesman Gary Schneeberger said that if such material were “all of a sudden labeled hate speech, we have deeper problems in our country than we even know.”

It’s enough to make the conspiratorially minded among us wonder whether Focus is baiting its critics into appearing intolerant and histrionic.

The above excerpt comes from an Associated Press report written by none other than Eric Gorski. He had moved on to the higher education beat, about which I’m still terribly upset, a few weeks ago. But here he was able to blend his understanding of the religion beat, his longtime coverage of Focus from his days as a reporter in Colorado Springs, and his new beat. It works well and the story is very balanced and informative.

Inside Higher Ed ran a piece that reads like it comes from inside higher ed. It’s very sympathetic to the NCAA position. So, for instance, we learn that Focus on the Family (but not its critics) “created a stir” when the group announced it would run a pro-family ad during the Superbowl:

(When the Focus on the Family ad actually aired, some commentators suggested that critics had overreacted, because the conservative group soft pedaled its often strident message by featuring Tebow’s mother celebrating the fact that he had made it “into this world” despite her very rough pregnancy — before showing the former University of Florida star, an outspoken Christian, apparently tackling her.)

I’m not sure why that excerpt is in parentheses but I think the use of the word “strident” indicates the perspective of the reporter. (Strident: making or having a harsh sound; grating; or having a shrill, irritating quality or character.) As does this excerpt which comes after a brief description of the ad:

That message may seem innocuous, Pat Griffin, an emerita professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said in an interview Tuesday, “but if you have any awareness of what Focus on the Family is and their position on issues of family and life” — championing traditional definitions of marriage, deeming homosexuality to be immoral, and fighting to eliminate abortion — it’s very clear what their message is…. It’s very disingenuous to say, those are innocent messages, messages anyone can join in.”

The reporter doesn’t bother finding anyone to defend the ad (pictured below), defend free debate, or suggest that Pat Griffin’s views are in any way objectionable.

Now maybe the pulling of a small ad from a website isn’t big news. But one of the big reasons why I’ve developed an interest in media coverage of gay activism is because of the fact that so many stories about gay rights involve tension with religious organizations. I was reading this amazingly prescient 2006 story by traditional marriage advocate Maggie Gallagher that predicted quite a few legal, academic and civil rights struggles as they relate to the push for same-sex marriage. Here’s a brief excerpt from a portion dealing with scholarship on the topic:

Generally speaking the scholars most opposed to gay marriage were somewhat less likely than others to foresee large conflicts ahead–perhaps because they tended to find it “inconceivable,” as Doug Kmiec of Pepperdine law school put it, that “a successful analogy will be drawn in the public mind between irrational, and morally repugnant, racial discrimination and the rational, and at least morally debatable, differentiation of traditional and same-sex marriage.” That’s a key consideration. For if orientation is like race, then people who oppose gay marriage will be treated under law like bigots who opposed interracial marriage. Sure, we don’t arrest people for being racists, but the law does intervene in powerful ways to punish and discourage racial discrimination, not only by government but also by private entities. Doug Laycock, a religious liberty expert at the University of Texas law school, similarly told me we are a “long way” from equating orientation with race in the law.

By contrast, the scholars who favor gay marriage found it relatively easy to foresee looming legal pressures on faith-based organizations opposed to gay marriage, perhaps because many of these scholars live in social and intellectual circles where the shift Kmiec regards as inconceivable has already happened. They have less trouble imagining that people and groups who oppose gay marriage will soon be treated by society and the law the way we treat racists because that’s pretty close to the world in which they live now.

It’s safe to say that the values regarding marriage espoused my most religious groups are not shared by most people in newsrooms. And this is a really serious difference of opinion about what marriage is. I wonder if it’s not just scholars who live in social and intellectual circles where the shift has happened but for many journalists, too.

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‘Enjoy the baby, feed the baby’

Surely, somewhere in America or the world at large there are a few atheist or agnostic women who are active in the La Leche League network that encourages modern women to breastfeed their babies. There must be a few.

But if there are, I have never met any of them or read any coverage — mainstream or otherwise — of their work, and my wife and I tend to hang out with a pretty laid back, natural cotton, Birki-wearing, Earth Mother-esque kind of crowd. It seems that there is some kind of connection between a faith-friendly lifestyle and breastfeeding, a practice that remains counter-cultural in some social circles.

Thus, I enjoyed the wonderful New York Times piece this week — “The Breast Whisperer” — describing the life and times of Freda Rosenfeld of Brooklyn. Here is the top of the report:

Amy Brill, a writer who lives in Windsor Terrace, survived nine months and six days of pregnancy, then 40 hours of labor. But after a few days of nursing, she was in excruciating pain, crying every time her baby latched on. Ms. Brill’s pediatrician wrote out a phone number as if it were a prescription. “Call this woman,” he said. “She’s seen every new mom in Brooklyn.”

Not quite, but over the last five years this woman, Freda Rosenfeld, has seen some 2,000 new moms, some of them multiple times, and many with multiple babies at once.

Ms. Rosenfeld is part medical professional, part therapist and part sleuth; a hand-holder, tongue-coaxer, savior of sore nipples. At 52, she wears her chestnut hair in an ageless ponytail and bangs, dressing in long denim skirts — the better to get spit up on — and cruises the borough with a “got breastmilk?” bumper sticker on her minivan.

Clearly, this woman is a professional and the story does a good job of describing that. She knows her stuff.

Yet, early on, it’s easy to see that there is more to this for her than business. In every sense of the word, what she is providing for these women, children and their families is a ministry.

Thus, there is no surprise when we learn, near the end of the story:

… Ms. Rosenfeld has spent her whole life in Brooklyn; she knows alternate-side parking regulations well enough that she schedules appointments in certain neighborhoods at odd times, like 10:10 or 11:35.

A religious Jew, she starts each day with morning prayers, followed by yoga and 20 minutes jumping on the trampoline in the basement. Her face is makeup-free, usually framed by dangly earrings. When things get tense in a session, she lightens the mood by cooing, making faces and uttering ridiculous nicknames like “Bu-ja-boo!”

Having raised eyebrows as a teenager by going vegetarian and swearing off soda, Ms. Rosenfeld took a job after graduating from Brooklyn College at a nutrition center for low-income women, where her devotion to breast-feeding began. “To me, the breast-feeding was not just about better health for the baby, it was about these young girls realizing their baby is important,” she said. “I had 14-year-olds, and here was my opportunity not just to make these babies healthier but to make these mothers caring parents.”

The story is simply packed with carefully reported details, layer after layer after layer.

I, of course, would want to know more about her life as an Orthodox Jewish woman, which seems to be the case based in the content of the story, who helps modern women in this ultra-urban setting, a place where mothers may hear some smirking urbanites mutter “breeder” as they, with their multiple children, roll past on busy sidewalks.

But the key religion details are woven into the story. The ghost is there for all who have eyes to see.

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Covering conception complexities

Octomom Nadya Suleman and her entourage of nannies caravan the octuplets and the twins to a park in Los Angeles

My husband and I have been blessed with two wonderful children and we hope to have more. Sometimes I reflect on how grateful I am that we were able to conceive these children without any trouble. I have more than a few friends that have been unable to procreate and I know it has been terribly difficult for them.

As difficult and expensive as much reproductive assistance is, some people have even greater difficulty because they have religious objections to some of the most popular methods. One of the little-discussed issues with in vitro fertilization, for instance, is that it usually produces many more embryos than will ever be implanted. Assisted reproduction is a huge issue, with tons of difficult details. Considering how many great human interest stories surround the topic, I’m surprised at how little coverage we read of the issue. (Here was a great in-depth Tennessean report on the issue that we looked at last year.)

I was elated to read St. Louis Post-Dispatch religion reporter Tim Townsend’s piece on recent Catholic news about infertility treatment. The bishops approved a new document called “Life-giving Love in an Age of Technology” at their fall meeting in Baltimore.

The story has been published widely, appearing in the Washington Post.

Here’s how he begins, framing — with ease — the issue in terms of the Christian understanding of reproduction:

“Be fruitful,” God instructed Adam and Eve, “and multiply.”

They were the first words God spoke to his creation, and his creation has heeded them ever since. But over the years, God’s creation has become sophisticated enough to rewrite the original rules of being fruitful, and most of the new rules don’t sit well with leaders of the Roman Catholic Church.

Nice. He goes on to explain that Philadelphia’s Cardinal Justin Rigali believes there is great confusion among Catholics regarding the morality of reproductive technologies. Many bishops, we learn, hold masses for infertile couples:

On one hand, bishops need to educate Catholics about the church’s moral stance on assisted reproductive technologies. On the other, they also need to minister to Catholic couples suffering through the heartache of infertility, many of whom believe their church seems intent on contributing to that heartache by putting up roadblocks to medically assisted pregnancy.

The story gets into the nitty gritty of what is acceptable and what is not. Basically, any technology that supports conjugal acts and resulting conception is fine — anything else is not. We also learn why the Catholic Church teaches that way:

For instance, church teaching is compatible with tests and treatment for low sperm count or problems with ovulation, but not with artificial insemination by anyone other than the husband. Even using the husband’s sperm is forbidden if it is obtained in any way other than normal intercourse.

“Children have a right to be conceived by the act that expresses and embodies their parents’ self-giving love,” according to the U.S. bishops. “Morally responsible medicine can assist this act but should never substitute for it.”

The story even gets into a bit of politics. Noting that American Catholics have a reputation for ignoring the church on various teachings, Townsend quotes a few scholars vociferously disagreeing with the bishops’ position. But he also gets a response. He gives each side sufficient space that I can’t even quote here and do everyone justice. Here’s a sample:

“American Catholics are no more going to listen to this than they listen to the church about birth control,” said Glenn McGee, a scholar at the Center for Practical Bioethics in Kansas City.

Barbara Collura, executive director of RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association, a nonprofit patient advocacy organization in Virginia, said the bishops would have a hard time trying to explain to infertile Catholics “that the medical technology is there but not available to them; that their dream of a biological child is gone.”

But Catholic bioethicists say the point of the church’s position is to protect the dignity of children by honoring the church’s conception of natural law.

Some pretty salacious claims are made — one guy says that the Vatican is “bringing the hammer down” and looking to excommunicate Catholics whose children are created outside of church-approved means. Townsend also gets quotes from others saying the bishops are simply trying to provide Catholics a frame of reference by which to understand what is right and wrong. The doctrine is explained, and argued over by various sides, throughout the piece. I don’t think either side in this particular debate would feel that their views weren’t accurately expressed — even if the church would probably like more space to explain its teaching.

You don’t have to be Catholic, Christian or even religious to struggle with the ethical questions surrounding assisted reproduction. But religion clearly plays a role for many and this story does a nice job of looking at some of the tensions in one church body.

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Absolutely normal home schoolers

Years ago, I wrote a Scripps Howard News Service column about a pagan mother and some of the parenting choices that she was making during an age in which pop-culture was becoming increasingly fascinated with its own glitzy few of witchcraft and wizardry. It was a Mother’s Day column.

In addition to deciding not to read the Harry Potter books to her children, she was also actively considering becoming a home-school mom. Her reasons, I discovered, were typical of others who have made that choice, including her conviction that public schools in American really could not afford to take religion very seriously, especially the beliefs of religious minorities. She wanted to be able to pass her beliefs on to the next generation.

This brings us to a perfectly normal news report in the Washington Post about homeschooling. Actually, that is not quite right. This story treats home schoolers with complete and total respect, which is not always the case in the mainstream press.

The news hook, of course, is the fact that the story centers on the choices made by Muslim families — here in the United States. Here is the top of the story by Tara Bahrampour:

On a chilly afternoon in western Loudoun County, a group of children used tweezers to extract rodent bones from a regurgitated owl pellet. A boy built a Lego projectile launcher. A girl practiced her penmanship. On the wall, placards read, “I fast in Ramadan,” “I pay zakat” and “I will go on hajj.”

Welcome to Priscilla Martinez’s home — and her children’s school, where Martinez is teacher, principal and guidance counselor, and where the credo “Allah created everything” is taught alongside math, grammar and science. Martinez and her six children, ages 2 to 12, are part of a growing number of Muslims who home-school. In the Washington area, Martinez says, she has seen the number of home-schoolers explode in the past five years.

Although three-quarters of the nation’s estimated 2 million home-schoolers identify themselves as Christian, the number of Muslims is expanding “relatively quickly,” compared with other groups, said Brian Ray, president of the National Home Education Research Institute. … Parents say it is an attractive alternative to public schools, with whose traditions and values they are not always comfortable, and Islamic schools, which might be too far away, cost too much or lack academic rigor.

Read on. One of the most interesting elements of the story is that many Muslims, at first, shy away from home schooling because — like many immigrants before them — they are determined to succeed in America on its own terms. They want to show that they can take advantage of what mainstream American culture has to offer, including educational opportunities.

What makes them change their minds?

Maqsood and Zakia Khan of Sterling, who emigrated from Pakistan two decades ago, say home schooling has allowed them to enhance and internationalize their children’s curriculum. Now, in addition to the standard subjects, their children, ages 15, 14 and 9, study the Koran for a half an hour a day, one-on-one, with a woman who teaches them online from Pakistan. …

The Khans decided to home-school four years ago after a kindergarten teacher, unaware of the religious issues, told their son that he could not refuse school food in favor of the Islamic-sanctioned food he had brought from home. The food incident was small, but it highlighted the issues many Muslims say their children face every day as minorities who don’t celebrate Christmas, Halloween or birthday parties, who don’t eat pork and who fast during Ramadan.

As a convert to her faith, Martinez makes another point that will sound familiar to other parents in religious minorities in this nation. Yes, when I say that I would include the minority of Americans who are very, very dedicated evangelical Protestants, Roman Catholics, Orthodox Jews, etc. The key word is “worldview.”

There are also religious reasons. “We definitely do learn from a different worldview,” she said. “Everything has God as its center. We don’t just study the bee, but we study what the Koran says about the bee and the many blessings and the honey. … We get religious studies out of it, we get biology out of it and chemistry.”

Read it all. If anything, this story leans too far in the direction of avoiding critical voices. This probably was not necessary, since home-school families are used to those kinds of debates.

Most of all, I was impressed that the Post allowed these parents to state their beliefs, without pinning shallow labels on them. Dare I say that this is an approach that might work well with other parents, in other faiths, that make the same decisions for the same reasons?

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