alicia: April 2007 Archives

I hang out with a lot of different folks via the internet. I have the opportunity to 'hear' many different points of view and communicate with persons from many different cultures, backgrounds, and walks of life. It can get rather interesting and at times, the discussions can get heated. Some topics, in some groups, are guaranteed to set off flames, sometimes to the point that group moderators have banned the topic. For example, one midwife group I am on has banned the topics of infant circumcision, vaccination, and abortion as being just too controversial. Other groups have other 'don't go there' topics.

I have found that in my little corner of the blogosphere, family planning issues tend to bring out the trolls in spades. (side note - does anyone know why a large quantity of something is 'in spades'?). Whether discussing infertility, undesired fertility, chastity or its opposite, the topic seems to pull them in. And I guess that this is because sexuality is so big a part of who we are as created beings. My study of Theology of the Body has only reinforced to me that while biology may not always be destiny, we also can't ignore that we are incarnate beings - not ethereal spirits. We are created in the image and likeness of God, and we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

I have noticed that, among those who profess Christianity, the attitudes towards family planning and married sexuality tend to fall into one of 3 groups. The first is what I call providentialist, and what many other Christian groups call Quiverfull (QF for short).

Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord,
The fruit of the womb is a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior,
So are the children of one’s youth.
Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them. Psalm 127

The basic rationale in this group is that God opens the womb and that God shuts the womb, and that any method of family planning in marriage, including total or periodic abstinence, is immoral. (I don't know where they stand on marital relations during lactational amenorrhea or after menopause.) Many will also tell you that the main point of marital relations is procreation. "To have coitus other than to procreate children is to do injury to nature." Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor of Children 2:10:95:3 (A.D. 191). To call this attitude providentialist is to allude to the idea that God will provide. I worry though, that this attitude comes awfully close to the sin of presumption - to say to God that "I will do as I choose and you have to take care of the consequences". How does one balance trust and faith with sense and reason?

I have known of a few QF families that are quite happy - and I have heard hair-raising stories of abuse and serious post-partum depression. Many live in poverty, but some are quite wealthy. I don't buy into the stereotypes, but I do worry about whether the voice that they are hearing is truly of God or if it is something else.

Then there is that large group, (possibly even the majority of those who call themselves Christian) who believe in birth control. That is, they believe that it is responsible stewardship to use whatever means are available to them to exert control over their reproduction. To this end they will use chemical contraception such as hormonal manipulation to decrease fertility. Or they will use barriers between husband and wife. Or possibly they might choose to use chemicals to kill the sperm, or devices to prevent the implantation of the fertilized egg. And when they are through with childbearing, many will choose to destroy part of their reproductive system to bring their chances of an unplanned pregnancy down to almost zero. They point out rightfully that the Bible does not specifically prohibit contraception (other than possibly, withdrawal - "the sin of Onan". The prohibitions that are part of historical Christianity are subject to the interpretation of Scripture.

This group also points out, rightfully, that the purpose of the sexual act within marriage is twofold - the procreation of offspring and also to bind husband and wife together. They see their judicious use of birth control methods to be loving and responsible, and often (but not always) have disdain for large families. While I can see their logic and their loving consideration, I also think that this attitude of distrust can come perilously close to the sin of despair. It puts the individual, or the couple, in the position of saying NO to God in a very important part of married life, the procreation of children. There is also an element of hubris that says I will be able to have children when I please and not when I don't please.

All Christian groups up until close to 100 years ago opposed contraception as well as opposing abortion. Many may not know that contraception by various means as well as abortion has a record dating back to antiquity. St. John Chrysostom found it needful to homilize against both contraception and abortion:

"Why do you sow where the field is eager to destroy the fruit, where there are medicines of sterility [oral contraceptives], where there is murder before birth? You do not even let a harlot remain only a harlot, but you make her a murderess as well…Indeed, it is something worse than murder, and I do not know what to call it; for she does not kill what is formed but prevents its formation. What then? Do you condemn the gift of God and fight with his [natural] laws?…Yet such turpitude…the matter still seems indifferent to many men—even to many men having wives. In this indifference of the married men there is greater evil filth; for then poisons are prepared, not against the womb of a prostitute, but against your injured wife. Against her are these innumerable tricks." John Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans 24 (A.D. 391).

and he was speaking more than 1500 years ago!

And then, there is the third group - possibly the smallest minority among married Christians in the present time. Those who believe that it is occasionally moral and ethical to exert some control or judgement over their use of their fertility, but who also decline to use methods that either temporarily or permanently destroy fertility or block its transmission. They learn to identify the fertile days of the cycle, and make choices about intimacy based on this knowledge. This group can often end up trying to explain themselves to both the QF types and the "birth control is just responsible stewardship" types. To one, they are explaining that abstinence is not the same as contraception - to the other they are explaining that just because they are using periodic (or total) abstinence for avoiding or delaying pregnancy, they are not contracepting. It is a tough place to be in. But NFP is not just "Catholic birth control". It respects the way God created the body by not destroying fertility, and it respects the unitive aspect of marital love by not putting a physical or chemical barrier between the spouses. And its very difficulty is such that I think it is difficult to use for frivolous reasons. Contraception has become so easy that it becomes possible to think of pregnancy as the exception, rather than the rule, when considering the consequences of sexual relations!

A friend of mine pointed out to me recently that there is a chronological connection between the rise of bottle-feeding and the pressures to approve contraception. Breastfeeding, especially unrestricted and long-continued, provides quite a substantial spacing between pregnancies. God's design is not that a woman should have and raise a baby every year! The way the body is designed, the hormone level associated with frequent suckling and good milk flow inhibits ovulation. If the infant is suddenly weaned, or never suckles, the body thinks that the baby has died - and therefore will restart the ovulatory cycle in an effort to replace that lost infant. Generally fertility does not return until about 6 months postpartum in a fully breastfeeding mother, but some will be later and others earlier.

Widespread bottle-feeding became generally safe and commonly practiced in the 1910s in the USA, despite advice such as this. This booklet on birth control was published in 1921. In her part of the debate quoted in ths booklet, Margaret Sanger refers to women having a child every year - this is to my mind clearly a consequence of widespread bottle feeding. I could be wrong. My friends who midwife in the Amish, Mennonite, or other "plain" communities tell me that the moms who bottle feed generally do have their babies much closer together then those who breastfeed. These communities generally do not approve of any method of child spacing.

In any event, what does God truly desire from us regarding our families? In Casti connubii, Pope Pius XI clarified the position of the Catholic Church on marriage and family planning.
From Wikipedia:

Prior to this encyclical, it was believed by some Catholics that the only licit reason for sexual intercourse was an attempt to create children (Yalom 297-8, 307). At the time, there was no official church position on any non-procreative purposes of intercourse. Casti Connubii does repeat several times that the conjugal act is intrinsically tied with procreation:

" . . . any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin."

However, Casti Connubii also acknowledges the unitive aspect of intercourse as licit:

"Nor are those considered as acting against nature who in the married state use their right in the proper manner although on account of natural reasons either of time or of certain defects, new life cannot be brought forth. For in matrimony as well as in the use of the matrimonial rights there are also secondary ends, such as mutual aid, the cultivating of mutual love, and the quieting of concupiscence which husband and wife are not forbidden to consider so long as they are subordinated to the primary end and so long as the intrinsic nature of the act is preserved."

The 'natural reasons of time or of certain defects' are universally accepted as meaning menopause and infertility. This paragraph thus means menopausal and infertile couples may morally engage in intercourse, even though there is no possibility of children resulting from the act.

The 'natural reasons of time' is also held to mean the infertile portion of a woman's menstrual cycle. Though this interpretation has generated some controversy in the Catholic Church, it was supported by two 1951 speeches by Pope Pius XII (English translation entitled Moral Questions Affecting Married Life) and by the release of Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI in 1968 - nearly forty years after Casti Connubii. The use of natural family planning – that is, limiting sexual relations to the infertile phase of a woman's menstrual cycle – is considered moral by Catholic theologians where sufficient reason exists to avoid or postpone pregnancy.

Sufficient reason. Grave cause. Serious circumstances. There are many of these. Responsibility to the children one already has, the health of the mother, temporary or permanent hardships - it is not possible to give a complete list. Here is where the rule of an informed conscience is paramount. But it is also possible to be selfish here - and also to have a misunderstanding of what one's responsibilities and limits truly are. I only wish, at this point in my life, that I had been a little more generous. I wish that I had listened to those of my children who begged me for a baby brother - while I was still young enough to have tried again. And maybe that regret is one of the prime reasons I have come to the point where I am now. And again, maybe it is just that I have been trying to let God work on my life more and more.

totb and breastfeeding

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Prayer and practical request

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Addendum - the blog entry below (from my son) is no longer active. The young man for whom I was requesting help died this morning. RIP, Zach, and may the angels carry you home and may the Father of us all comfort your father.

via my eldest son. A young adult is dying of cystic fibrosis. He needs a miracle, and he needs a donation. Please read and comment on my son's blog if you could. link above.

carried to term against medical advice


I am honored


to have been quoted on this week's Spanning the Globe
Of course, TSO has many other quotable quotes from around the blogosphere!

news item about CNMs

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Department of Labor
Good as far as it goes, but it totally ignores the Certified Professional Midwife credential.

A Concord Monitor Article

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Evidence Basis
It is amazing how simple some of this seems, and how difficult to actually implement. There are profound social, financial, and cultural barriers to doing what, on the face of it, seems right.

One of the casualties at Virginia Tech was the son of SF writer Michael Bishop. I heard a profile the other day on Jamie Bishop, who was the German professor in one of the classrooms.

I get flashbacks whenever I hear about yet another school shooting. We lived in the San Fernando Valley when our oldest two children were in High School. Violence, especially gang violence, was an everyday part of life in that part of the world. My eldest daughter was mugged in broad daylight, in the parking lot of a 7-11, while she was in high school. Her friend was stabbed and had to get emergency surgery, and was critical for a while. She had schoolmates who were murdered. My eldest son was carjacked at gunpoint - he was not injured and his car was even eventually recovered, but it was stressful (to say the least). One of my best friends in Los Angeles lost her son and her nephew to a drive-by shooting - they were not involved in drugs or gangs or any such stuff, they just happened to somehow trigger a homicidal anger in the person who shot them. I can remember at least one time when the local police knocked on our door to ask if we knew or could identify a body found in our neighborhood. You learn to live with this kind of anxiety at the time, but looking back I am surprised that I wasn't more distressed.

We left Southern California to move to Eugene OR in January 1997. Eugene is an interesting place. Very tie-dye, lots of people who are living the voluntarily simple life (or so they say - wages are extremely low there!). While we were living there, and when we had 3 children in high school there was a shooting at the next high school over. May 21, 1998, Thurston High School,Springfield, OR. Here is a timeline for many school shootings - you can see that this is alas not a rare phenomenon.

I was at work 60 miles from home when the news came that there had been a shooting at a high school in the Eugene-Springfield area. In a medical office, as in so many workplaces, one is in a bubble and somewhat isolated from the outside world. And so I was as well. I knew that I was a good hour and a half drive away from home, and that realistically there was little or nothing that I could do, even if the incident had been at my kids' high school. So I finished out the day, hearing tidbits of details as patients came in one by one and shared what they had heard on the news radio or seen on the TV. I learned fairly soon that it wasn't my kids' school, but that didn't make it any easier.

The shooter turned out to be Kip Kinkel, a 15 y/o boy, the son of a professor at the community college where my husband then worked. Unusually for the school shooting scenario, he was captured alive.

In researching this story, I found this summary of the events of that day, and what followed. I also found this from the Portland Oregonian. Amazing, isn't it, how the internet can keep so much alive and in the present tense, even though it was nearly 9 years ago.

One of the things that I find somewhat surprising is that there has not been a concerted effort to research the mind set of the shooters who survived, who were not shot by police nor managed to shoot themselves. In the few things I have seen about Kip (and he is who I think of, every time I hear of a shooting), I read about a surprised remorse and a sense of the unreality with which he views his actions. Death is unreal - it doesn't seem to be permananent until suddenly it is. If you read what he said about shooting his parents, it seems that he thought that they would find death preferable to the embarassment he would bring them. I recognize that chain of thought. It is one of the things that the enemy of us all whispers in our ears when we are depressed and desparate. It is a seductive vision, especially if one's belief systems do not include the Christian concept that "man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment" (Hebrews 9:27).

Charles Manson, infamous for his multiple murders, has been associated by some with the Heinlein novel Stranger in a Strange Land. One of the themes in this book includes reincarnation - and it specifically justifies the idea of murder as a means of sending a person back to start all over again.

So, what does this have to do with the school shootings?
Well, something struck me in listening to news coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings. It was a commentator on National Public Radio. He or she (I don't remember the details, I was in the car) said something about how these 'children' don't seem to have the respect for human life. I think that the commentator was talking about violent video games especially the 'first-person shooter' games. But it really struck me that this is the generation that grew up with around 1/4 of its members missing due to abortion. And this is also a generation where many have a belief system that justifies abortion due to the belief that the baby's soul is just recycled, that killing the baby now will give it a chance for a 'better life' somewhere else where it is wanted. And hence my somewhat rambling connection of thoughts about the school shooting, respect for life, and some science fictional influence on two generations.

I've had some other thoughts on this over the last few days, but I think I am going to go ahead and post this now. Comments welcome.

In Turnabout, Infant Deaths Climb in South

One of the big puzzles of modern life is the association between poverty and obesity. One would think that being poor would mean having less food available, and hence being underweight. But one of the 'miracles' of modern intensive factory farming is the availability of cheap sources of calories that do not contribute much to health at all. For example, high fructose corn syrup, found in almost everything.

My maternal grandmother was often poor. But in those days, the kind of food help given to the poor was in the form of actual food. They got beans, canned meat, government cheese, oatmeal, canned fruits and vegetables, etc. It wasn't the world's best, but it provided a base for home cooked food. And the packages had recipes, too. Now we provide food stamps or the equivalent in an electronic benefit card. And so people can make the same sad food choices that the Standard American Diet provides - chicken nuggets, cheap packaged dinners, twinkies and ho-hos, and so on. We have a couple of generations who just don't know how to cook and who eat based on what is cheap, convenient, and loaded with 'taste-good' chemicals.

Another contributor to infant mortality is babies that are born to moms who, though they may really want to do the best by their babies, just don't have the resources. A single teen mom can be a good mom but it is darned hard when the FOB just isn't there. Marriage, even shotgun marriage, used to protect the moms and babies to some extent. But that just isn't happening anymore. And we have so disassociated sexual activity from procreation in our culture that many young girls (and boys, too, for that matter) are just stunned to learn that they are pregnant. Chastity and marriage, it seems to me, might also help decrease the infant mortality rate.

Prenatal care is also important, but there is an interesting qualitative difference between the care given by the average OB and the average midwife (CNM or CPM). Medical training is based on a model of early detection of problems and early intervention via technology. Midwifery training is based on a model of primary prevention of problems through education, nutrition, social support, and referral to the medical model where appropriate. In the 1970s, there was an interesting natural experiment in Madera County CA. The infant mortality rate was higher than it should have been, because moms were not coming in for prenatal care and they were presenting to the hospital with advanced cases of many preventable problems. There were not enough OB physicians in the community to provide all the needed care, at least partially because the rate of reimbursement from the state was not even enough to meet the cost of doing business. So the state brought in some CNMs to provide the care, and the infant mortality rate went down. After a while, the state decided to increase the rates of reimbursement for maternity services, and the docs came back, got rid of the midwives, and guess what! the infant mortality rates went right back up.

I don't think that it would be possible to solve all the problems cited in this NYT report just by bringing in midwives and making them part of the system. But I think that it would be a good starting point. Local clinics with accessible hours, staffed by midwives and nurses, would really make a difference. Too bad the local politics will probably totally block such an intervention.

rest in peace

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Dr. John Billings Founder of Billings Ovulation Method

died at 7:50 AM April 1. No arrangements have been announced as yet. We thank God for his and his wife's courage and contributions to NFP over more than 50 years.
His death was not unexpected, and the family have deep faith.. so let us pray with and for them.

palm sunday, passion sunday

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When I was a child, I was a little confused about the sequence of the events of Holy Week. For some reason, I did not understand that Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday are actually the same day. Maybe because in my Book of Common Prayer they aren't. For some reason, the BCP (at least the one I got from my parents in 1964) puts Passion Sunday on the 5th Sunday in Lent. And Palm Sunday, of course, is the Sunday before Easter. As a child, I didn't see how the Passion could precede the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, but then what did I know?

And why is it that the Gospel readings for Palm Sunday make little or no mention of the Palms?

Don't get me wrong, I love Palm Sunday. I love it the most when there is actually a procession with the waving of the palms - but I will take even the low key liturgy where the palms are barely mentioned. I love that we are getting ready to enter into the most solemn and beautiful week of the liturgical year. And in just a few short days, the Easter Vigil. Light my hair on fire day!

I've been Catholic now for, what, 34 years? And I've attended Easter vigil service in parishes literally all across the country. My first was on campus, where we lit a bonfire on one end of the mall and walked the length of the campus carrying our candles. My last one, last year, was a very subdued one in a New England parish with not a single rite of initiation to be done, and hence was very short and some what sorrowful to my eyes. I am looking forward to seeing how it is done in my new parish. Given that we have been rehearsing the music for a few weeks now, I have a few ideas. But it will still be interesting.

I am curious as to what you all have been experiencing in your parishes and congregations this Lent. I would like to invite comments, especially about your Palm Sunday liturgy. What was the music? Was there a solemn procession? Did the congregation participate in the gospel readings? Were there any unusual events?
I will post the music from our Palm Sunday liturgy in the extended entry. Please realize that I have zero influence on the choices. It was a very mixed bag. Something to (dis)please everyone.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of recent entries written by alicia in April 2007.

alicia: March 2007 is the previous archive.

alicia: May 2007 is the next archive.

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