Saturday, December 18, 2010

Of parachutes and prophylactics

In my last post, I observed that William Saletan seems almost willing to concede that abortion is wrong; however, his obsession with contraception forces him to maintain it as a fundamental right … albeit an unattractive and unpleasant right, one that he would rather see exercised as little as possible. This is almost a textbook example of cognitive dissonance, the moral and psychological tension caused by holding two conflicting principles simultaneously.

Babies are good, but unwanted pregnancy is bad. Killing babies is bad, but making women carry unwanted babies to term is bad too. So women shouldn’t get pregnant if they don’t want to have babies, especially if they don’t like the idea of killing unwanted babies.

Now, it might be argued that I do the basic argument an injustice by putting it in see-Spot-run language. But my intent in putting it so simply is to point out that it has a certain elementary attractiveness that more complex words can only nuance, not destroy. Put this simply, and only to this extent, these are propositions to which I could for the most part agree, with the single stipulation that unwanted unborn children don’t necessarily—or even usually—remain unwanted throughout pregnancy, let alone throughout life.[1]

If you like, I’ll even cheerfully agree that every child should be wanted … so long as you agree that, if an unborn child is unwanted, it’s not the child’s fault.

So far can Saletan and I agree: the best way to avoid unwanted children is to not get pregnant. But where we separate is on the best way to avoid getting pregnant. Saletan argues that the best way to avoid dying in a free-fall accident is to make sure your parachute is in good repair, packed properly and worn religiously; I argue the best way to avoid dying in a free-fall accident is to not go parachuting.[2] Saletan contends that you should take all necessary and reasonable steps to minimize the risk of pregnancy; I maintain that not having sex makes the risk almost completely avoidable (barring both the felonious and the miraculous).

Boy, I’m no fun at all, am I? What’s life without a little risk, anyway? Some days you take a big risk just stepping outside your front door, or even staying at home.

Except that people parachute, bungee-jump and drag-race precisely because of the risks involved; they do it for the rush that comes with cheating Death. Nobody has sex to cheat procreation; in the situations with which Saletan and I are concerned, the people involved aren’t even thinking about procreation … which is, we both agree, 96% of the problem. Women take The Pill precisely so they don’t have to worry about procreation when they want to have sex; this in turn allows men to slack on thinking about it, to think of condoms only when a risk of infection is present (an irony, since condoms are better at preventing pregnancy than at preventing most STDs).

But here’s a more revealing dissimilarity: The rush of parachuting comes from a body doing what the cerebral cortex, the oldest structure of the human brain, knows it shouldn’t be doing and—quite sensibly—doesn’t really want it to do. On the other hand, reproduction is the outcome the cerebral cortex is driving for, from the initial spasm of hormones rushing through the body at the very beginning of foreplay to the final orgasmic spasm of muscles driving male and female gametes to their destiny. The human body isn’t made to withstand the kind of high-velocity collisions that come with dangerous sports; in contrast, the body is designed to achieve reproduction through sex. The Pill is possibly the one chemical produced by the pharmaceuticals industry that’s made to prevent the body from doing something it’s designed and meant to do rather than force it to do what it’s supposed to.

Here, then, is where Saletan and I diverge. Saletan’s insistence on contraception rather than behavioral discipline makes sense only if decisions to have sex are good by default, even by definition, or if the individual human is incapable of exercising judgment in the matter at all. But I’m also morally certain that Saletan condemns such sexual activities as rape, incest and bestiality. Saletan and I agree that forcing sex on another person is illegitimate; we also agree—in principle, at least—that certain choices of sexual partner are also illegitimate. If sexual behavior is beyond the reach of ethical judgment, then condemnation of such perversions is baseless; if sexual behavior is beyond the reach of free will, then condemnation is bootless. Legitimacy is an issue only if free will is granted, and only if decisions can be good or bad.

Saletan and I also agree that the decision not to breed can be legitimate and appropriate. The contraceptive approach, however, seeks merely to minimize a risk that, within the context of the decision to not breed, is entirely unnecessary. People don’t “have” to have sex any more than they have to parachute, bungee-jump or drag-race; it isn’t a physical, moral or psychological necessity. You won’t die if you don’t copulate regularly, or even sporadically. You won’t become a twisted monster. You may even have a mostly happy and fulfilled life, though lifelong celibacy is not for many people. And if the decision to not breed is temporary because circumstantial, then the decision to abstain from sex need only last so long as the circumstances obtain.

The risk of dying in a parachuting accident is unnecessary because parachuting itself is unnecessary; there is no excuse for not knowing that you could die or be horribly injured from doing it. If you don’t want to take the risk, then you have no legitimate business getting on the plane … unless you’re the pilot or an interested onlooker. To willingly strap on a ‘chute and jump out of the airplane, then, is to willingly, tacitly and implicitly accept the risk.

So it is with sex: if you’ve decided that children aren’t an option, either for now or for ever, then the risk of pregnancy is unnecessary because sex itself is unnecessary. If you don’t want to take the risk, then you have no legitimate business in having sex; to have sex is to implicitly accept the risk of procreation. This is where a woman’s “right to choose” rightfully begins and ends, and it brings with it a concomitant responsibility to choose consciously and rationally. This is also where men have an equal right and a greater responsibility, greater because they ought not to inflict on women a burden they won’t willingly share.

“But what about married couples?” you cry, astonished and outraged. The institution of marriage makes sense only in the light of the conscious decision to bear and raise children. I don’t condemn people who marry yet avoid child-rearing; I merely observe that they can get from the first “hello” to the deathbed “goodbye” without ever incurring the expense and hassle of a wedding. Marriages are failing at an alarming rate, and more people are viewing it as an unnecessary ritual, precisely because marriage and sex are considered almost solely as ends in themselves rather than as means to another end … that end being procreation.

People can love each other without living together, without having sexual relations with one another. If you want companionship, get a dog. If you don’t want to live alone, get a roommate. Platonic relationships have their own compensations and bittersweet moments that make them emotionally satisfying without introducing the messy complications of reproduction. But the whole anthropological point of marriage as an institution is to provide the social and economic structures and environment in which adult humans can grow little humans to a relatively stable and productive adulthood … where they too can grow more little humans. Couples ought to love one another, not only because love is such a wonderful bond but because the growing child ought to learn to love by witnessing and experiencing love. Nevertheless, while love is a necessary component to marriage, it isn’t necessarily a sufficient cause for marriage … as the divorce statistics so tellingly illustrate.

Saletan’s insistence on contraceptive discipline is born of a theory of human sexuality that is incomplete. It pretends to be realistic, but only insofar as it bows to the drearily obvious observation that “people are gonna do it anyway”. But people are gonna do it anyway not because they can’t help it but because they don’t help it, mostly because they don’t want to help it. And they don’t want to help it because, in their selfishness, they see sex only in the light of self-gratification, in the pleasure that it brings. This selfishness even extends to a distorted view of pregnancy and child-rearing as being not good in themselves but good only insofar as they please and satisfy the parents.

It’s a bit much, as I’ve said before, to expect people who fail to exercise good judgment in their decisions about when, where, how and with whom they have sex to have the wisdom to use contraceptives with the kind of discipline Saletan demands. But more to the point, good sexual decision-making ought to make contraceptives irrelevant and unnecessary. The decision to have sex isn’t bad because the person isn’t using contraceptives; rather, the decision is bad because the person is having sex at the wrong time, with the wrong person, and/or for the wrong reasons, when they should not be having sex at all.

Until Saletan and the other apostles of contraception question their most fundamental assumptions about sex and sexuality, they will never understand why contraception doesn’t work they way they want it to. To get acceptably bad results; you have to demand good results; to get good results, you have to demand damn-near-perfect results. That is a realistic assessment of people. And that is ultimately why a birth-control policy that relies on contraceptives must fail: it expects too little of people.

[1] A study done back in the 1970s showed that, by the seventh month, there was no statistically significant difference in attitude between women who wanted their children at two months and women who didn’t; about 9 out of 10 women showed signs of wanting and accepting their unborn children regardless of how they felt at the beginning.
[2] For the purposes of this post, I speak of parachuting only as a sport and not as a military tactic, where different analyses of necessary and unnecessary risk obtain.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Tony,

    In case I might not "stop by" your blog in the next couple of days, I wanted to wish you a Wonderful, Merry Xmas. And I look forward to reading more of your blog next year!



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