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Ad Astra: Science, Religion & Our Future

Clay Farris Naff

Clay Farris Naff
Location
Lincoln, Nebraska, 68502
Birthday
April 03
Bio
Clay Farris Naff (claynaff.com) is a science writer with a special interest in the rational reconciliation of religions with science. You can follow him at Twitter @claynaff, or visit his religion blog at www.huffingtonpost.com/clay-naff An award-winning journalist and author, he has been a science-and-religion columnist for the Metanexus Institute, an editor for Greenhaven Press, and a freelance writer for various publications, including most recently Earth magazine and The Humanist.

OCTOBER 8, 2009 8:46AM

Bible-Based Teen Pregnancy

Rate: 1 Flag

    Forget evolution. The most consequential conflict between science and religion concerns sex. Science has given us the ability to enjoy sex without necessarily having babies. Since that possibility was, if you'll pardon the expression, inconceivable at the time the Bible and other sacred texts were written, conservatives interpret the Scriptures as being opposed to any sort of family planning. This has terrible consequences.
 In the Islamic nations, a single woman who becomes pregnant, even if by rape, often faces death at the hands of her own family in what is quaintly called an "honor killing." In the United States, we're not quite so barbaric. We just condemn teen mothers to a life of poverty and poor health.
    There is a lot of handwringing among conservative Christians about unplanned teen pregnancy -- as indeed there should be, since they contribute to it through their adamant opposition to sexuality education and contraception for teens. A recent study by scholars at Drexel University and the University of Pittsburgh shows an extraordinarily strong correlation between fundamentalist religiosity and teen pregnancy. The correlation holds up even when other variables, such as income, are controlled. Having created a crisis, the fundies respond to it by setting up "crisis pregnancy centers" that try to scare young women into rejecting abortion and giving up their babies for adoption instead.
    A similar situation exists in South Korea, the New York Times reports today. South Korea is the one Asian nation where Christian missionaries have found great success. Abortion is illegal there, in contrast to Japan, where it is commonplace. In America, access to legal abortion hangs by a judicial thread. In the meantime, opponents do everything they can to make it impractical for a pregnant teen to get an abortion. It is understandable that those who believe that a zygote or fetus is just like a baby would be passionate about saving its life. But the question is why should anyone believe that?
    There is surely no justification at all for believing that a fertilized egg is just like a newborn baby. Anti-abortion zealots are fond of framing their position in scientific terms. "It has a unique human genome," they will say. Sure. So does one of my hair follicles, but no one would jail me for donating my hair to a wigmaker, I hope.
     As I've had an opportunity to point out to lawmakers in a legislative hearing, some of the daughter cells of a successful zygote will go on to become a placenta, the liver-like organ that mediates the exchange of nutrients and wastes between mother and fetus.

Not a baby, but a placenta

Do we want to extend civil rights to a placenta? I hope not. The question is never "When does life begin?" but rather "When does a new person arrive in the world?"
    As a society, we don't believe that kindness is confined to "unique human genomes." Otherwise, Michael Vick would never have served time. What we find immoral is cruelty to a sentient being -- something that can feel pain. Vegetarians feel empathy for cattle sent to slaughter, but no one weeps for wheat before the sickle.
    The question of whether a fetus becomes a sentient being before birth is one that science may one day evidentially answer.  Religion has nothing authoritative to say on this question, anymore than it does on astronomy. In the meantime, we must trust mothers.

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Good comment on the subject Clay. I like the comment on the question "when does life begin" I read a long time ago and can't properly attribute: "Life began some four billion years ago and has never stopped." Not that anything said on the matter can convince those with the One answer for all questions.
Readers might be interested in this old essay of mine.

What the Bible Says About Abortion
Edgar Pearlstein

The Bible doesn't explicitly mention abortion; so we have to be
indirect, and see what it says about some of the arguments used in the
dispute. Opponents of abortion say that: (a) Human life, for moral
purposes, begins at conception. (Biological or legal definitions are not relevant here.) (b) Human life is sacred.
The idea that human life begins at conception just isn't supported
in the Bible, and sacredness of human life is contradicted all over. So people who consider abortion to be murder might be shocked to learn that they are thereby in disagreement with the Bible!
In several places the Bible defines life as breathing, and I found
no place where it defines life otherwise. For example, Genesis 2:7,
which also defines the entrance of the soul: "and breathed into his
nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul". Other
references are Ezekiel 37:10, I Kings 17:17-21, and James 2:26. Since a fetus doesn't breathe, it isn't life and doesn't have a soul, according to biblical definition.
Additional evidence that a fetus is considered to be less than a
human life is that the biblical penalty for causing a miscarriage is
only a fine to be paid to the woman's husband (I don't know what is to
be done if she doesn't have a husband!), while for an injury to a born
person, it is life for life, eye for eye, etc. (Exodus 21:22-25,
Leviticus 24:17-21). Even an infant under the age of one month is
considered to be worth a lot less than an adult (Leviticus 27:1-8,
Numbers 3:15,28,34,39,40,43). Also, the god once punished David by
killing his newborn son (II Samuel 12:14-19); so apparently the
right-to-life of the infant was not important.
The sanctity of life, born or "unborn", is denied in many places.
Two examples: "Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that
they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and
suckling...." (I Samuel 15:3), "they shall fall by the sword: their
infants shall be dashed in pieces, and their women with child shall be
ripped up." (Hosea 13:16)
A lot of the discussion on abortion has to do with "illegitimate"
pregnancies. An adulterous woman is to be killed (Lev.20:10); with no
mention of an exception if she is pregnant. And "A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even unto the tenth
generation.." (Deut. 23:2). So according to the Bible neither the fetus nor the born child is worthy of much consideration.
Note also that Jesus talked of being "born again". He didn't say
"conceived again".

Some quotes that anti-abortion people use out of context:
"Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee.." (Jeremiah 1:5)
This is supposed to show that the "soul" starts at conception. But
reading the entire chapter, including the remainder of the
sentence quoted, it's clear that the god is talking specifically to
Jeremiah, not to the entire human race, as he is telling him that he was born to be a prophet.

"...he hath blessed thy children within thee." (Psalms 147:13).
Again, this is supposed to mean that "human life" begins before birth;
i.e. that a fetus is the same as a child. But read the rest of the
psalm, and see that "thee" refers to the city of Jerusalem, not
pregnant women!

"...the babe leaped in my womb for joy." (Luke 1:44) This refers
to the pregnant Mary visiting her cousin Elisabeth, also pregnant.
The passage is supposed to mean that the fetus in Elisabeth's womb was
aware that the yet-to-be-born Jesus was in the room. It's well-known
that fetuses move around in the womb, sometimes violently. A happy
mother-t0-be can interpret this as she pleases. Note that the Bible
does not say that the fetus "leaped for joy", but only reports that
Elisabeth said so.
Abstinence-only sex education does teens a huge disservice, by stressing that condoms are only effective "85% of the time." They don't explain this is per year of use, not act of intercourse. And they don't explain it can exceed 97% per year of use, rivaling the pill, by simply using condoms along with spermicide.

I suspect many teenaged girls delay their first gynocological visit until they are already pregnant, because they lack the $200+ it takes to get started on the pill and dread their first pelvic exam. Benefits of making the pill an over-the-counter drug, as it is in some countries, might outweigh the risks. But even if every sexually active girl in America were on the pill, they would still need backup methods during months they miss a pill and protection from STDs.

I have heard politicians repeat the "85% of the time" argument against teaching condom use, and wonder if the "sex educators" even know the facts. I'd also be curious to know what the military currently teaches, since the female recruits' discharge rate due to pregancy is quite high. That can't be cost-effective.
"A recent study by scholars at Drexel University and the University of Pittsburgh shows an extraordinarily strong correlation between fundamentalist religiosity and teen pregnancy."

The following statement is from the abstract of that article:
With data aggregated at the state level, conservative religious beliefs strongly predict U.S. teen birth rates, in a relationship that does not appear to be the result of confounding by income or abortion rates. One possible explanation for this relationship is that teens in more religious communities may be less likely to use contraception.