Thursday, April 27, 2006

Two nights ago, I attended a lecture/debate featuring Richard Hays and Bart Ehrman. They used The DaVinci Code as a jumping off point to discuss the classic issues of biblical scholarship: whether the Gospels tell us anything reliable about Jesus, whether the Church has suppressed all but the "orthodox" views of Jesus, whether text corruptions have obscured what we can know about the authors' intent.

Although I learned nothing new in terms of content--I am familiar (to put it mildly) with both scholars' work, and NT studies will form a significant part of my dissertation research--I did learn a lot about holding such events.

First of all, the room was packed out, standing room only, in the biggest lecture hall the Divinity School has. (We moved to the new Chapel, which was also too small, but I don't think we were supposed to. Don't tell anyone.) Five hundred-odd community people came to hear two scholars debate on the technical details of biblical scholarship. Who'd'a thunk it?

Two, the debaters clearly had fun doing this--and their enjoyment was contagious. They cracked jokes (often at each other's expense, but not in a vicious way), they ruthlessly mocked Dan Brown, they put their whole selves into making their points. It was lively. Imagine that--scholarly debate. Lively.

Three, I really admired Hays's debating style. While he wasn't afraid to toss a well-aimed dart or two (the first audience questioner asked, "From the flyer, I thought we were going to talk about The DaVinci Code, not all this Bible stuff. Why aren't we talking about The DaVinci Code?" and Hays's response was, "Because it's not worth talking about!"), he made a point of speaking about his debating partner with profound respect. While it was clear that they had some serious disagreements on substantive issues, he would make a point, again and again, to highlight commonalities. ". . . And I know this is where Bart and I agree." "I want to highlight the importance of what Bart just said about . . ." At one point: "This is a lot like a presidential debate, in that there's never enough time for the candidates to tell you what they really think about an issue. Of course, the major difference is that Bart and I actually want to tell you what we really think about these issues." In fact, he came off rather better than Ehrman in this respect.

He was able somehow to combine vigorous and actual disagreement with respect in a way that I almost never see done (or done well). Never once . . . well, ok, except for when he talked about Dan Brown. . . did he display any of that pseudo-scholarly snobbery that passes for intellectualism in some circles. He answered unsophisticated questions with grace and gentleness. ("Why can't we just believe that the Gospel writers saw this all in a vision? Why do we have to think they had sources?" "Well, I'd want to focus on the claims that the text makes for itself, and no NT test except Revelation claims to be received in a visionary experience. The author of Luke tells us that he has done research and listened to eyewitness accounts. I think we should take the author's claims for himself seriously when we talk about how he might have written his texts. That doesn't at all discount visionary experiences--but it respects the text a little better, I think.")

It would be worth my while to practice this kind of graceful argument. It's certainly not one of my natural strengths.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Well, here I am, in my first official, professional-type credit:

ATLA Digital Library

Isn't that exciting?

I actually digitized and manipulated (via Photoshop) all the images in the collection. Every single one of them is "Photo by Sarah."

If you'd like to see some of the images in our sub-collection, try here. Click, on the left, "Browse the collections," and when you get to the search screen, put a check mark in the box next to "Images of mainline protestant children . . ." Then "submit." (I tried to link directly to the collection for you, but it wouldn't let me.)

My favorites, if you page through the collection at all, are the advertisements. Oh, what a hoot!

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

A fascinating article on higher education faculty salaries: Chronicle Article on Salaries

A few interesting things:

* Obviously, the male-female salary gap. And this is in education, where people tend to be more liberal than the general population. I'd hate to see stats for businesses.

* The break-down by type of institution. Church-related doctorate-granting institutions have average salaries somewhere in between public and private schools, while church-related bachelors-only schools have the lowest average. I wonder whether that's related at all to political leaning, population served, or denominational politics.

* My reaction to the listing. I'm salivating at the thought of earning a Lecturer's salary at a community college. "Wow!! What would we DO with ALL THAT money?!?! Thirty-five thousand dollars, for just ONE of us!! Wow! We'd be RICH!"

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Killing the Black Body, by Dorothy Roberts

My mentor suggested this book as a "relief" after I finished reading Beauchamp & Childress's Principles of Biomedical Ethics. I've written elsewhere about why I might need "relief" after reading B&C. Roberts certainly offered a challenge to the dominant mode of bioethics (as represented by B&C, whose work is not just the standard read, but the gold standard), but perhaps not challenging enough.

If you're not up on why people might challenge the standard read, the short version is that it is heavily invested in moral reasoning that privileges autonomy or maximizing choice. In Beauchamp and Childress's case, even though their bioethical principles include justice, beneficence, and non-maleficence as well as autonomy, when you read through their chapters on the three other principles, the other principles are defined in terms of autonomy. So, their definition of distributive justice is a distribution that mitigates inequities for which one is not responsible (which one didn't choose). Their definition of maleficence is anything that impinges on the freely chosen life plan of another. Obligations of beneficence are optional when they involve more than minimal inconvenience.

So, ever since the Nuremburg trials, the understandable and admirable goal of various proposed or enforced laws, policies, professional ethics statements, and so on is to protect or maximize the autonomy of the individual chooser. Never again should non-consensual medical procedures be performed; never again should doctors lie or coerce; never again should the search for knowledge justify cruelty. All well and good.

Now, this interest in personal autonomy has channeled the discussion of reproductive liberty into a certain predictable course. When one speaks of reproductive liberty and whether and how it should be abridged by the state, one assumes certain things about reproduction: that it is an activity undertaken by an agent whose choices and life plans must be honored even by those who may not agree with her choices and plans. That which is good, reproductively speaking, is that which enables the agent to make better, more informed choices, or to carry out those choices more effectively and efficiently. Distributive injustice occurs when technologies and information exist, but are not available to a certain chooser because of the selfishness, paternalism, or economic policies of people or nations. (So, even though IVF produces waste embryos, it is good because it helps couples realize a particular goal; failing to offer pre-natal diagnostic tests is a paternalistic refusal to allow a woman to make a choice about the course of her pregnancy; etc.)

Roberts does not challenge autonomy as a pre-eminent value of bioethics; she challenges how the standard read ignores the racial dimension inherent in the discourse of reproductive liberty. She traces the history of reproduction among African-Americans, highlighting how reproductive liberty has been an elusive dream for Black women. (I'll use Robert's self-designation for the rest of this review.) Under slavery, their wombs and the fruit thereof were the property of their masters; Margaret Sanger, late in her career, joined with eugenicists to plant clinics in predominantly black and immigrant areas (Roberts wants to believe that Sanger's motives remained pure, though, despite her evil bedfellows); welfare reform proposals often seek to limit the "irresponsible" fertility of minority women; doctors who treat infertile Black women often push adoption rather than referring them to a reproductive endocrinologist; even members of the early Black Panther movement instructed Black women that it was their duty to reproduce for the sake of the race--no liberty to be had, even in the fight for liberty.

She challenges both classic pro-choice discourse as well as pro-life discourse. Pointing to one practice for disciplining pregnant slaves--digging a hole in the ground just large enough for her belly, so that she could be whipped without damaging the valuable commodity in her womb--she suggests that any discourse which seeks to protect a fetus at the expense of its mother's choices participates in this slave-holding mentality. (I cannot agree with this as a blanket statement, but it is certainly a provocative read on, for example, laws that seek to criminalize prenatal drug use among minority women.) Yet she also suggests that pro-choice activists focus too much on securing birth control and abortion services for minority women, at the expense of efforts to secure pre-natal care and funding for child assistance programs. They assume, in other words, that offering liberty and justice to Black women means offering them ways to have fewer children, not more. When economic reality forces women to choose between food and childbearing, Roberts suggests that offering access to abortion is not enough. The economic reality must be changed, so that the woman can have real choices.

In the end, however, her constructive proposals fail to offer anything new, save a powerful read of the history of reproduction as influenced by racism. Her analysis of the ways in which poor and minority women are overlooked or ignored (and even demonized) in many discussions of distributive justice is convincing. If one is committed to maximizing autonomy as *the* appropriate goal of justice (distributive and otherwise), one will appreciate her challenge to give greater attention to maximizing the autonomy of minority and low-income women. One may wonder how on earth the government is supposed to finance this autonomy-maximization (which necessitates, for example, infertility treatment for any who might want it, including the destitute). But one will have no serious objection to her basic argument: if autonomy is to be protected at all, it must be protected for Black women.

If one would like to hear a more serious challenge to the role of autonomy in the pursuit of the justice, the common good, or individual happiness, it's not here.

Friday, April 21, 2006

There are two genetics-related stories on my internet news wrapup today. I can't not click on them anymore. (The sad, sad byproduct of taking a class in something--you see it everywhere and have to know about it.)

In the first, Genetics plays role in chronic fatigue syndrome, genes are demonstrated to have a possible health outcome:

The research is being called some of the first credible scientific evidence that genetics, when combined with stress, can bring on chronic fatigue syndrome — a condition so hard to diagnose and so poorly understood that some question whether it is even a real ailment.

But note the secondary function genetics is playing. A condition whose existence "some question" is demonstrated to have a genetic component. It, therefore, can be presumed to be real. This is testimony to the very strong explanatory power of genetics in our culture. If a patient reports symptoms, her report may or may not be accurate and/or helpful. If her genes report an anomaly, now that's something. DNA testing is supplanting even that forensic favorite "the eyewitness" as a sure-fire jury convincer. (Hmm. . . wonder if that will come up at all in a certain upcoming Durham legal battle.)

Of course, this is a subset of a more broad acceptance of the explanatory power of tangible medical data. One of my classmates read a book on "jury nullification"--cases in which the evidence for a defendant's guilt was uniformly understood to be conclusive, but the jury nonetheless acquitted. She said that in the majority of those cases, defense counsel gave some sort of physical, medical evidence that won the jury's sympathy. So, if a defendant claims to have been physically and sexually and emotionally abused all his life, the jury believes this history not to have any mitigating effect. But if the defendant claims some sort of structural injury, which can be shown on, say, a brain scan or a genetic test, juries are more likely to accept that explanation.

Is this a good or a bad thing? I'm not sure I know.

In the second story, Liver Transplant Saves Babies, mothers carrying a genetic defect which is uniformly fatal to their infant sons (but not their daughters) were spared the tragic consequences of their genetic defects. Early liver transplants saved the lives of two baby boys, easily the youngest ever recipients of liver transplants.

Keeley Gibbs knew it was risky to get pregnant. Doctors warned that she and her son born in January could have died. The young woman from Eldorado, Ill., like generations of her family's females, carries the gene for a rare metabolic disorder of the liver. OTC-deficiency is fatal in males, and in utero tests diagnosed the fetus with it. Gibbs wouldn't consider abortion. She survived the pregnancy and birth, and her son, Jacob, received a lifesaving liver transplant at St. Louis Children's Hospital at the youngest of ages, 10 days.

Now, perhaps the broader availability of cadaveric and live-donor livers accounts for the positive tone of this story. The subtext of this story, which you will easily pick up from the full article, is, "Isn't it great that medicine is overcoming genetics?" I'm guessing that a similar article might be written if kidneys were the subject.

I wonder what the tone of the story would be if the affected organ were the heart, or the lungs. The overwhelming attitude toward the more hard-to-come by organs is expressed by the all-knowing, all-powerful writers of bioethics scripture, Beauchamp and Childress: when a resource is scarce, guarding against "waste" is the most pressing moral obligation.

If Ms. Gibbs were the carrier of a genetic anomaly that uniformly destroyed the heart of her male sons, would doctors have been so sanguine about her "choice" to conceive and bear a child? Would she have received more pressure to abort, or at least use IVF combined with pre-implantation genetic screening? Or, if she was rabidly pro-life, to use one of the two available sperm-sorting techniques to bear only daughters? Would there have been some reaction to her failure to make a more "responsible" choice? Some blame-placing that justified keeping her child(ren) off any transplant list? Something along the lines of, "You know, this heart could have gone to a baby that was in a car accident, or had cancer. Some other child will die because this mother didn't use the reproductive technologies that are already out there to avoid this!" Would the afflicted child have been placed on a priority list at all?