Friday, September 25, 2015

The Meaning of Marriage

This is part 7 of my series "Cultivating a Heart Open to Life"

“When has marriage ever been about having children?”

 These words, spoken over the radio, stopped me mid-stir. I was making dinner for my family and listening to the news on NPR. The news coverage was about the legal battles that had been going on in California over the gay marriage issue. This man, who was preparing to be married to his male partner, had just given a long list of reasons why there were no reasons that anyone should be opposed to same-sex marriage. When asked by the reporter about the rights of children the man ended his argument with those words,

“When has marriage ever been about having children?”

His words rocked me to my soul and I realized something that completely changed my perspective on same-sex marriage.  I think, like many of my faithful Christian friends and acquaintances, I had been confused about why the LDS Church (and other Christian churches) has taken such a strong stance in opposition to same-sex marriage. It seemed to me that two adults should have the same right as any other adults to live however they felt made them happy. Why do we need to take a stand against that?

Yet in those moments in my kitchen I had a wash of understanding and clarity and I saw that much of my confusion came because we, as a society, have lost an understanding of what a marriage really is about.

To most Americans the word "marriage" now means something like this:
“The commitment of two consenting adults [insert gender-specification if you are conservative; exclude gender-specification if you are liberal] to cohabitate under the sanction of legal and/or religious institutions.” 
When one views the marriage relationship like this, as merely a loose contract between two adults who love one another and want to commit to each other then it does get confusing about why a church, or even God, would be opposed to such a thing. I mean if a same-sex couple loved and cared for each other as much, or more, than a hetero-sexual couple what could be the problem? It doesn’t really affect anyone but them, right?

Yet I think what I understood that day in my kitchen was that marriage is about so much more than love, sex, or even commitment. Marriage, as it has manifested itself is all successful societies,  is about two things: unity between men and women and the creation of new human life.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Tamar: What's a Girl to Do?

This is part 6 of my series "Cultivating a Heart Open to Life" 

Tamar is one of the most misunderstood women in the scriptures and I think she is often portrayed incorrectly and unfairly. This is because her story is, admittedly, very confusing. Yet I hope that as we discuss her story you will better understand this amazing woman, whose example of having her heart open to life made it possible for ancient promises to be fulfilled.

Her story starts with Judah (one of the 12 sons of Jacob and the son of Leah) who married the daughter of a Canaanite named Shuah. This woman bore Judah three sons named Er, Onan, and Shelah. When Er was grown Tamar was given to him as a wife. We don’t know how long Tamar and Er were married but they had no children. Eventually the Lord slew Er because he, “was wicked in the sight of the Lord” (Gen. 38:7). Er’s death put Tamar in a hard situation. She became a widow, which meant a drop in her social status, and the loss of the security and prosperity she expected when she married a firstborn son.

In ancient times many cultures had a practice, which later became known as Levitirate marriage, where if a man died without any children it was the responsibility of one of his brothers to marry his widow and conceive a child with her. It didn’t matter if he was already married because the child she conceived would not legally be his but would belong to the deceased brother, continue on his deceased brother’s name, and inherit the deceased brother’s property. This custom was for the benefit of the widowed woman and it was her right to demand it from her brother-in-laws. They could refuse her, but doing so was viewed as selfish and often resulted in public humiliation. If all the brothers refused the widow’s demand, of if there were no brother-in-laws, then it was the duty of her father-in-law to provide her with a child. Later, under the Mosaic law the Lord would forbid sexual interactions between daughter-in-laws and father-in-laws (Leviticus 18), but at the time of Tamar’s story there was no such provision.

As was custom Judah arranged for his next son, Onan, to provide Tamar with a child. Yet as Genesis 38:9 says, “Onan knew that the seed should not be his”. Onan knew that if Tamar remained childless then all of Er’s inheritance as the firstborn son—a double portion—would come to him. So when he was with Tamar he “spilled his seed on the ground, lest he should give it to his brother.” Onan was willing, and perhaps more than happy, to use Tamar for his sexual pleasure but when it came to actually creating life with her-- life that might make his financial situation harder-- he was unwilling. One can only imagine the hard place that Tamar found herself in; being used to gratify the lust of a man who was unwilling to allow for the life that might be created as a result.

We don’t know how long Onan treated her like this, but it may have been a long time. Eventually, though it seems that the Lord heard her cries because Genesis 38:10 says, “That the thing which he [Onan] did displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him also.” The “also” in this verse is interesting because it references the fact that the Lord also slew Tamar’s first husband, Er for wickedness. We don’t know what type of wickedness Er was doing but, if like his brother, he was also using his sexual power inappropriately it just makes your heart ache for poor Tamar.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A "Brief" History of Eugenics

This is part 5 of my series "Cultivating a Heart Open to Life"

“It is common to think of our time as standing at the apex of civilization, from which the deficiencies of preceding ages may patronizingly be viewed in the light of what is assumed to be “progress”. The reality is that in the long perspective of history the present century will not hold an admirable position, unless the second half is to redeem its first… If we can not eliminate the causes and prevent the repetition of these barbaric events, it is not an irresponsible prophecy to say that this twentieth century may yet succeed in bringing about the doom of civilization.”

-US Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson in his opening statements as a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials ("Better for all the World" , pg. 305)

The word eugenics is one that has almost disappeared from our modern vernacular. You might be hard pressed today to find a group of people who know what it means and who understand the extent of its embarrassing and scary history. Yet, about 100 years ago the word was a household term and was tossed around with the ease that we might talk about “sustainable development” or “genetic engineering”. Literally the word means “good genes” (eu= good, genic= genes) and starting in the mid-1800’s the word was used to describe a philosophy that advocated for improving the human population through breeding in order to increase the occurrence of desirable characteristics.

The idea of eugenics, as we know it today, began to form around the time that Darwin’s theory of evolution was beginning to become widely accepted by the scientific community. The study of genetics and heredity was flourishing and scientists could see no reason why if you could engineer a plant or breed a horse to have certain characteristics, then why you shouldn’t do the same with humans. Scientists of the day observed that things like eye and hair color, facial features, and even health conditions were all things that could be passed on through heredity. Through their observations they concluded that other less desirable traits-- things like poverty, criminal behavior, laziness, and feeblemindedness (a person with a low IQ)-- were also hereditary and could be "bred" out of a society.

Around the turn of the century social society reformers latched onto the idea of eugenics as way to improve social conditions and reduce crime and poverty. Most Americans were supportive of the practice of eugenics and viewed it as a way to increase the nation’s strength and superiority in the world. President Theodore Roosevelt was a strong supporter of eugenics. He said,
“ Some day we will realize that the prime duty, the inescapable duty, of the good citizen of the right type is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world; and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type.” ("Better for all the World" , pg. 6) 
By early 1900’s the United States had even established the Federal Eugenics Records. The purpose of this office was to collect and record hereditary data for all citizens of the United States to be used to identify and control those citizens of the “wrong type” from reproducing themselves and thereby taking away valuable resources from the “right type” of citizens-- those who were economically and socially productive.

.US eugenics advocacy poster from the Philadelphia Sesqui-Centennial Exhibition, 1926

The other main purpose of the Eugenics Records Office was to help states and counties identify and control their populations of “undesirable” citizens. One of the main ways that this was done was by the forced imprisonment and sterilization of men and women who were deemed “unfit” to be parents or who possessed characteristics, such as a low IQ, mental illness, laziness, or fecundity (high fertility), that were viewed as socially undesirable. Indiana implemented the first sterilization law in history in 1907. California’s law passed in 1909 and sterilized 2,500 people in 10 years. Fifteen other states had similar laws before 1927.  In 1926 the US Supreme Court even ruled that it was constitutional to forcibly sterilize such citizens, without their or their family’s consent, because it was in the best interest of the nation to make sure they didn’t reproduce. By the 1930’s Canada, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Japan had passed laws similar to the US’s eugenic sterilization laws ("Better for all the World" , pg. 228)

Eugenics was widely accepted and viewed as the most innovative scientific approach to improving social conditions. Havelock Ellis, who was a strong supporter of eugenics and a close "friend" of Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, wrote,
“The superficially sympathetic man flings a coin to the beggar. The more deeply sympathetic man builds an almshouse for him so that he need no longer beg; but perhaps the most radically sympathetic of all is the man who arranges that the beggar shall not be born.” ("Better for all the World" , pg. 143)
The idea of eugenics and forced sterilization as a method of social reform and progress was so common and acceptable that in the United States it was common to see educational displays at State and County fairs promoting the principles of eugenics and heredity. Many counties also hosted “Fitter Family” competitions showcasing families who embodied the “right sort” of eugenic principles and characteristics.

Eugenics display at the Kansas State Fair in 1920.

"Better Baby" Contest at the Indiana State Fair in 1931

"Best Couple"  from the Fitter Family Contest at the Texas Sate Fair in 1925 (Click to see larger)
Even Latter-day Saints were not immune from buying into the idea of eugenics. For example in 1928 an article called “ Intellectual Responsibilities of Mothers” was published in the Relief Society Magazine. In it the author, Heloise Day Merkley, wrote about the responsibility women had to develop their intellect and their minds. This is the advice she gave to young women looking for husbands:
“The eugenist lays great stress upon the heredity of the child. He tells the girl that the surest way in which she can help her children intellectually is by choosing for them a father with the proper intellectual equipment, and from an intellectual family…it is important to choose the best possible mate if you would fulfill your intellectual responsibility to your children as their mother. But how many girls know anything about eugenics and heredity? Or, if they know, how many think seriously of such things when they decide to marry? Moonlight often plays a more important part in the choice than does eugenics.” (“Motherhood: A Partnership with God.” Compiled by Harold Lundstrom. Bookcraft, Inc. Salt Lake City, Utah. 1956. Pg. 75)
Yet despite the wide support and enthusiasm for eugenics in the United States and around the world the word and its history are rarely discussed. This is because the “scientific” study and practice of eugenics, when carried to its natural end, resulted in one of the most horrific events of the 20th century.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

No Respecter of Persons

This is part 4 of my series "Cultivating a Heart Open to Life".
 A version of this post was first posted on The Gift of Giving Life 

“Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons” Acts 10:34

Before my youngest son was born my husband and I decided not to find out what gender he was. With our other two children we found out the gender at 20 weeks but this time, because we already had a boy and a girl, we figured that it would be a fun surprise. I was really fine with not knowing the gender until I hit 24 weeks. I was having a hard time feeling like this baby was “real” and I didn’t feel like I could bond with it at all. I constantly worried that I might not be able to love this child.

When I was about 31 weeks pregnant I spent the afternoon crying into my pillow. I poured out my fears to God and asked him if He would please let me know what the gender of my baby was. I told Him that if I just knew if it was a boy or if it was a girl then I would finally be able to love the baby, that I would be able to envision a place for it in my family, and I would be able to open my heart. I cried and I cried and when I was finally done I waited for an answer, for a vision, for a feeling, for… anything.

But nothing came.

I got up off my knees and started down the stairs feeling empty and sad. Then as my foot hit the bottom stair I felt a wave of peace envelop me and these words penetrated my soul, “ God is no respecter of persons… he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female…all are alike unto God.” (Acts 10:34 and 2 Nephi 26:33)

Those words took my breath away and as I stood on the bottom step, stunned. The spirit washed over me in waves and I knew that it didn’t matter if this baby I was carrying was a boy or a girl. I felt the distinct impression that in God’s eyes the worth of the baby I was carrying wouldn’t change if it was male or female.

All souls were the same to Him.

At that moment at the bottom of the stairs I felt, so clearly, the immensity of God’s love for ALL of his children. It overpowered me and from that moment on I chose to open my heart to this baby, no matter how it came—male, female, healthy, or sick.

Yet over the next several months I began to see that the world around me didn’t see things the same way. It was very obvious when reading the newspaper or listening to the conversations going on around me that the world was a “respecter of persons”. So often I heard things that made my heart ache.

One afternoon I read an article about how there are over 90 million females “missing” from the current expected populations of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, India, Pakistan, South Korea and Taiwan because the sex-selective abortion of female fetuses is so common. In fact, in some countries it is actually illegal for a nurse or doctor to tell prospective parents the sex of their fetus after an ultrasound because abortion of females is so prevalent. Some of these countries are now facing major shortages of marriageable aged women.

This information made my heart ache. Yet the more I thought about it the more I realized, that with my obsessive need to know the gender of my baby in order to “love” it, I wasn’t all that different from those Chinese and Indian parents. Somewhere inside of me I placed value on gender and health and I was determining the worth of person based on what they could do and not who they were.

It is easy to look at parents in China and India with condemning eyes and wonder how a society could be so unequal that they would systematically deny life to a portion of their civilization. Yet I was appalled to learn that in the United States the abortion rate for fetuses diagnosed with Down Syndrome is 90%, fetuses with spina bifida is around 50% and, in general, abortion rates for fetuses with any sort of malformation or genetic disease is on rise. Our society’s attitude towards the disabled isn’t all that different from the attitudes of societies who selectively abort females.