Beans and monkeys

My husband and I laughed alongside Joe Biden the other night at the vice presidential debates. I also tweeted angrily and wanted to wipe Ryan’s smug smile off his face.

When the moderator got to abortion at the last seconds of the debates, I wanted to cheer when I heard Biden. Fuck yeah! I get that your religion informs how you live your life and make decisions. But I am overjoyed that he is smart enough to understand that can’t be the basis to rule a diverse nation.

Ryan’s story about calling his kid Bean, well, the New Yorker has a good take on it: “a bean is exactly what the photograph shows—a seed, a potential, a thing that might yet grow into something greater, just as a seed has the potential to become a tree. A bean is not a baby.”

I didn’t call my kid a bean when I saw him on the first ultrasound. In fact, I didn’t even feel anything. I knew I was supposed to feel some sort of maternal love and affection, but it was just a blob. I didn’t even know if it was a boy of a girl. If I felt anything, it was fear of the unknown.

This confession might make me sound like a horrible mom, but I know I’m not alone in this. When I first held my baby, I didn’t have that lovey dovey experience that you see in movies. I just kinda thought, well, now what? And I think the feeling was mutual. After less than a minute of being held by the person he was supposed to love and cherish, my new born baby pooped on me.

My major bonding happened with my child only after I decide to bottle feed. I really tried to breast feed, but, well, long story short, it didn’t work. So only a few days in, I held my baby and gave him a bottle. I looked down at his squished newborn face and thought he looked like a monkey. And with a bottle in his mouth, he looked like an adorable orphan monkey.

OMG! How can you not love that face!

And I thought about evolution and the moro reflex (which I also thought was adorable) and how we came from monkeys (not really). So I started calling him Monkey. I still call him Monkey. At about six months old, didn’t respond to his name, but he responded to Monkey.

So here’s my question for Congressman Ryan: because I nicknamed my kid Monkey, and apparently giving our kids’ nicknames can be a valid argument to support a political opinion, does that mean you accept evolution? No? You mean what I think shouldn’t have any bearing on how you live your life? Huh…

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About emmawolf

I'm a freelance writer living in Baltimore with my husband, son, and two cats. I'm working on editing my first novel. I love reading, traveling, and the cello.
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20 Responses to Beans and monkeys

  1. Raunak says:

    the argument that one religion cannot be used to run the affairs of a diverse nation is very strong indeed. allowing abortion does not take away one’s right to “not” abort. Hence I do not see any sense in people clamoring for banning abortion.
    It wouldn’t even pass in the Supreme Court.

    • emmawolf says:

      “It wouldn’t even pass in the Supreme Court.”

      I’m not as sure of that as you are. The president has the power to appoint Supreme Court justices, as well as judges of lower courts. Lower courts determine what issues are heard at the Supreme Court. So a president’s view point has the ability to shape the nation, even without pursuing a particular legislation.

      • Raunak says:

        true…
        I was impressed by the way Chief Justice Roberts handled the case of Obamacare’s individual mandate. I trust that future judges will show similar wisdom.

  2. Ryan says:

    I get that your religion informs how you live your life and make decisions. But I am overjoyed that he is smart enough to understand that can’t be the basis to rule a diverse nation.

    Here’s the problem: religious beliefs are just like other beliefs that inform how we live our lives, make decisions, and govern.

    Most people believe that murder is wrong and should be illegal regardless of what others want. By making it illegal, we tell would-be murderers that our desires and beliefs trump theirs.

    Similarly, a Christian might say that abortion is wrong and should be illegal regardless of what others want. But if we tell him that he is not allowed to (or should not) set policy in accordance with his religious beliefs, we need to be able to explain why it is acceptable for the rest of us to set policy in accordance with our non-religious beliefs instead.

    • emmawolf says:

      Since writing that, I came across Kennedy’s speech again about not speaking for the church on public matters. It’s pretty sickening how far people have strayed from that.

      I don’t like your phrase “non-religious beliefs.” I don’t believe abortion should be legal because I’m an atheist (or whatever). But in answer, the first amendment is a pretty good explanation as to why it’s acceptable to set policy neutral to religion.

      • Ryan says:

        I don’t like your phrase “non-religious beliefs.” I don’t believe abortion should be legal because I’m an atheist (or whatever).

        That was not the point. The point is that religious beliefs are not unique beliefs, so if we say that we cannot involve religious beliefs in law, we need to be able to explain why it is acceptable to involve any non-religious beliefs in law. The label “non-religious belief” can apply to any belief that is not religious–not just to beliefs held exclusively by atheists or because one is an atheist.

        But in answer, the first amendment is a pretty good explanation as to why it’s acceptable to set policy neutral to religion.

        The First Amendment is the law. Appealing to it dodges the more important ethical questions that should determine how we approach the First Amendment, such as what constitutes a religion and why it is good to treat religious beliefs in a particular way and non-religious beliefs another.

        • emmawolf says:

          I’m answering you as a lawyer and (former) student of the Constitution, not a legislator. It’s cyclical logic, but I believe that laws should be made that can coexist with our existing laws (or former laws should be repealed if we are unhappy with them). As such, it’s unacceptable because it’s illegal.

          From a more policy or practical point of view, I don’t like the idea that one set of society can impose their opinions or interpretation of something on everyone (including those who do not hold with the interpretation) if such interpretation serves to deny the rights of living people.

          • Ryan says:

            As such, it’s unacceptable because it’s illegal.

            The rule of law is important, but should not trump everything else. Would you have defended slave owners on the same ground?

            Still, the more important point is this:

            I don’t like the idea that one set of society can impose their opinions or interpretation of something on everyone (including those who do not hold with the interpretation) if such interpretation serves to deny the rights of living people.

            I don’t want the Religious Right to ban abortions; I reject the idea that a zygote deserves rights that trump the mother’s right to make decisions about her body. However, the Religious Right believes the opposite.

            The two beliefs cannot coexist. Whatever the law is, either I or the Religious Right will believe that “the rights of living people” have been denied because of someone’s “opinions or interpretation.” There is no way out of imposing opinions upon other people in the process of governing.

            Now, it is my understanding from your post that you believe that we should reject the use of religious beliefs in government: you say that religion “can’t be the basis to rule a diverse nation.” But a religion is just a set of beliefs. On what basis do you decide that one set of beliefs (religion) can be a basis for ruling a diverse nation while another set of beliefs (philosophy, politics, etc.) is not?

          • Ryan says:

            That last line should read:

            On what basis do you decide that one set of beliefs (religion) cannot be a basis for ruling a diverse nation while another set of beliefs (philosophy, politics, etc.) can?

        • emmawolf says:

          “The rule of law is important, but should not trump everything else. Would you have defended slave owners on the same ground?”

          I think I also said that if we are unhappy with laws we should repeal them.

          “On what basis do you decide that one set of beliefs (religion) cannot be a basis for ruling a diverse nation while another set of beliefs (philosophy, politics, etc.) can?”

          I think this is exactly why I had the problem with the term “belief.” Belief can mean trust in something that is not provable or testable. I don’t think laws should be based on such fairytale-like things.

          • Ryan says:

            I think I also said that if we are unhappy with laws we should repeal them.

            Certainly, but if doing so takes time and is not guaranteed, then people suffer in the meantime.

            (Honestly, this is a tangent, so I probably won’t say anything more about it.)

            I don’t think laws should be based on such fairytale-like things.

            Many issues force us to act on belief or preference. Abortion is one of them. It is not a fact that a zygote should not be considered a person. It is not a fact that a mother should be able to abort her unborn child. We believe that these are reasonable positions because we begin with a certain set of beliefs and desires that guide us to our conclusions. Anti-abortionists do the same.

            What standard, then, can we use to determine if a justification is appropriate in ethics and law? If we should reject Biblical justifications because their claims are unproven or even unfalsifiable, should we not also reject justifications like “a woman has a natural right to make decisions about her body” or “a zygote does not deserve rights”?

            It seems to me that we have no basis for telling anyone else that he cannot vote in or rule a diverse nation simply because some of the beliefs that inform his decisions are unproven or unfalsifiable. That is a double-edged sword for which we are and will ever be unprepared. Instead, we have to focus on changing other people so that we don’t have to deal with a leader from the Religious Right who believes that his role is to “restore Christian values.”

            In short: What one person or group thinks already does have a bearing on how others live their lives. It is unavoidable. The sooner we accept that, the sooner we can recognize that we have to take the fight to our opponents. They can’t be expected to surrender willingly just because we appeal to a libertarian “you live your life; I’ll live mine” philosophy.

        • emmawolf says:

          “It seems to me that we have no basis for telling anyone else that he cannot vote in or rule a diverse nation simply because some of the beliefs that inform his decisions are unproven or unfalsifiable.”

          I really disagree with you. I know it’s cyclical, but the first amendment is that basis.

          “If we should reject Biblical justifications because their claims are unproven or even unfalsifiable, should we not also reject justifications like “a woman has a natural right to make decisions about her body” or “a zygote does not deserve rights”?

          No. Because we are born people, our country has recognized that we have certain rights. We have certain human rights no matter where we decide they come from. Since there is no religious basis for the notion that a zygote does not have rights (or a justification distasteful to our existing laws) (or if there is a religious basis, there is also a secular purpose) and when we look at the practicality of what would happen should we give a zygote rights (you and I have talked about this before), that can inform an opinion. But I don’t really know why you’re looking for outside justification to make laws. What’s the justification for not allowing cigarettes to be sold to someone under 18? What’s the justification for Daylight Savings Time? We don’t need moral authority to make a law, just a Constitutional basis.

          • Ryan says:

            I hope that I haven’t worn out your patience.

            But I don’t really know why you’re looking for outside justification to make laws.

            I am looking for consistency within the law. There is often no clear line to distinguish religious beliefs or justifications from secular beliefs or justifications.

            If you say that we cannot use religion to govern the nation, I have to ask you what a religion is, why certain sets of unprovable or unfalsifiable beliefs (arbitrarily deemed “religious”) are “off-limits” for government while other sets of unproven or unprovable beliefs are acceptable, etc. The answers are important because they determine whether or not our law contradicts itself (or you contradict yourself). If we already have unproven or unprovable beliefs built into our Constitution, then how can we consistently and fairly deny other people the right to use their own unproven or unprovable beliefs to guide the country? If one set of fairy tales is already law, it must be dismissed if we claim that fairy tales have no business being law.

            I am not saying that it is acceptable for one to break the law whenever it conflicts with his beliefs (though many of us believe that it is appropriate when the law is significantly harmful), but I see no way to deny him the freedom to go through “proper channels” to change the law to match his beliefs just because his beliefs are religious. If the American people elect enough members of the Religious Right or the Supreme Court ends up with enough of them as Justices to make a change, then we have to accept it. In that sense, religion can be the “basis to rule a diverse nation.” It simply seeks to exchange one fairy tale with another, one set of beliefs and preferences with another set. The rest of us do the same with our own unproven beliefs.

            Beyond all of this, abortion is a tricky issue because it is not as simple as looking to the Constitution. No passage reads: “Unborn children do not have rights.” No passage reads: “Personhood depends on the following criteria: …” No passage reads: “A woman’s right to make decisions about her body trumps any rights that her unborn child might have.” We each bring our own desires and unprovable beliefs to bear on the issue. “Consciousness should be a requirement of personhood” is an unprovable belief as surely as “A zygote has intrinsic value” is. If we are allowed to make our case, Paul Ryan should be able to make his. We can vote against him accordingly.

            What’s the justification for not allowing cigarettes to be sold to someone under 18? What’s the justification for Daylight Savings Time? We don’t need moral authority to make a law, just a Constitutional basis.

            And I see no Constitutional basis to forbid religious influence in government. (Nor do I see an ethical basis to forbid it, since religious beliefs do not encompass all unproven or unprovable beliefs.) The First Amendment cannot be read in such a way that it contradicts itself or any other part of the Constitution or prevents the government from functioning.

            The Religious Right reads it in such a way that religious people can pass on the law if they don’t like it, which quite clearly undermines the rule of law. I have to reject that reading.

            Your reading, at least as I understand it, would ban religious influence on government, but would not (1) satisfactorily explain how unproven or unprovable secular beliefs differ from religious beliefs or (2) prevent religious people from pretending that their beliefs are unproven secular beliefs. The first problem means that we would have to forbid all unproven or unprovable beliefs from influencing government, at which point our government would cease to function. Even if you could get past the first problem, the second problem means that religious beliefs would continue to influence our government, just slightly less openly. In short: it would have no effect and thus no purpose.

            “But I don’t really know why you’re looking for outside justification to make laws.”

            Every law–including the entirety of the Constitution–should have a justification, otherwise we are arbitrarily restricting our own and others’ freedom, likely costing ourselves money in the process of compliance, etc. No one supports the Constitution “just because,” though some justifications are almost as worthless. I am confused by your question.

        • emmawolf says:

          I think I’m repeating myself, which tells me I’m not understanding your questions. After studying Constitutional law for as long as I did, the only thing I can answer definitively is that we shouldn’t make laws that contradict the Constitution. I can’t answer your questions from a policy-making standpoint because I haven’t thought about it as much.

          Aside from calling democracy itself an experiment, I can’t really think of (m)any unprovable or untestable things built into our law or things built into our law based on mythology. Even the horrible parts of our law, like eugenics, that I disagree with were based on things that were testable or what people believed based upon their observation of their world.

          As for justification for the Constitution, do you mean something more than the failure of the Articles of Confederation and the avoidance of anarchy?

          • Ryan says:

            Sorry for the late response.

            I’ll try a different approach:

            Premise 1: Unprovable claims should not be used in lawmaking. (Essentially your own words.)
            Premise 2: Religion depends on unprovable claims.
            Conclusion 1: Religion should not be used in lawmaking.

            I agree with that argument, but here is a problem:

            Premise 1: Unprovable claims should not be used in lawmaking.
            Premise 2: Secular claims like “A zygote is a person who deserves rights” and “We have a natural right to make decisions about our own bodies” are unprovable.
            Conclusion 1: Such secular claims should not be used in lawmaking.

            In short: if we discriminate against religious reasoning in our government because religious claims are unprovable, then we must consistently discriminate against any other such reasoning.

            We therefore have two choices: permit all beliefs to influence government or permit only naturalism. If our goal is really to be sure that we are working with facts about the physical world that we all share, then naturalism is the way to go. Accepting naturalism for legal purposes, however, carries certain implications for which many secularists are unprepared.

            The other problem is that telling religious people to keep their religious reasoning to themselves will only lead them to disguise their beliefs as something else. Moreover, religious preferences, such as the desire to ban abortion, cannot be divorced from their beliefs and cannot really be distinguished from any other kind of preference. And ultimately, preference decides the law. Appealing to rights won’t stop the Religious Right from changing our rights if they have the power to do so. No law is truly set in stone.

            To put it all in context, here is the quote that prompted our conversation:

            I get that your religion informs how you live your life and make decisions. But I am overjoyed that he is smart enough to understand that can’t be the basis to rule a diverse nation.

            I am glad that Biden does not try to force his religious beliefs upon me, but Paul Ryan isn’t just trying to make some of his casual beliefs and desires into law. His religion (among other forces) tells him that abortion is murder–not just something that people shouldn’t do, but murder. We cannot expect him to pretend that he does not believe it just because we don’t accept his religion. This is quite different from the issue of, say, gay marriage.

            As for justification for the Constitution, do you mean something more than the failure of the Articles of Confederation and the avoidance of anarchy?

            I simply mean that we need to have good reasons to support the law. “It’s the law” and “Breaking the law will result in punishment” are good reasons to follow it, but are not justifications for its existence. The Constitution itself needs grounding in some kind of secular ethics.

        • emmawolf says:

          First, I’m going to be picky. I have never heard a secular argument that a zygote is a person. Every time I have heard this said, it is from a religious person. That aside, I’ll move on.

          Natural rights, as I understand them, are based upon reason and observation. I’m not saying that laws can only be based on something that can be proven, and I mis-typed if I said that earlier or have since revised how I phrase things.

          Religion, as I understand it, is not based on reason and observation (keep in mind, I do not have a background in religion). As I understand it, it is based on not knowing or understanding and attempting to explain things not necessarily by observation but by creating a story (even if things are observed in the creation of the story, eg, the world is cold, it’s snowing, Hades must have stolen Persephone). An example of this that I can think of is “intelligent design” v. evolution. ID people seem to want to throw up their hands when it come to the hard work of observation and believe that certain things were too complicated to explain or to come about by chance.

          Which brings me to: “The other problem is that telling religious people to keep their religious reasoning to themselves will only lead them to disguise their beliefs as something else.”

          I saw a documentary a while ago about ID. Apparently one of the plaintiffs proved ID was just creationism in disguise was by a typo in a textbook. The typo was something like “crinteligent designism,” which meant the person did “find replace” for “creationism” and “intelligent design.”

          “Appealing to rights won’t stop the Religious Right from changing our rights if they have the power to do so. No law is truly set in stone.”

          True. Which is why “would you overturn Roe v. Wade?” is an important question.

          “His religion (among other forces) tells him that abortion is murder–not just something that people shouldn’t do, but murder. We cannot expect him to pretend that he does not believe it just because we don’t accept his religion. This is quite different from the issue of, say, gay marriage.”

          Two things:
          1) it’s actually not so different from gay marriage, aside from the fact that no one thinks gay marriage is murder…I don’t think. For both issues, Ryan lets his religion dictate what the law should be. But I don’t think this is your major point.

          2) “We cannot expect him to pretend that he does not believe it just because we don’t accept his religion.” Well put. I think this is one of the things that frustrates me and this is something that I think about a lot. I suspect that he just hasn’t thought about it enough. Maybe it’s naive of me, but I really believe that if someone thinks about it enough, they will realize that a zygote cannot possibly be considered a person with the same rights. Here’s something I found to confirm my suspicion that conservatives are just lazy thinkers and that if they actually thought about things, they would realize what little sense they make: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22427384
          But it’s easier for me to complain about religion being the basis of his belief (because it is. I don’t know of any non-religious authority that treats a zygote as life) and to fight that than to make Ryan read the chapter in a biology textbook about the human reproductive system.

          “I simply mean that we need to have good reasons to support the law.”

          The social contract? Prevention of anarchy? I think that still might not be what you’re getting at.

  3. Ryan says:

    I have never heard a secular argument that a zygote is a person.

    I am not sure if I have heard that, but I know I have heard arguments like “If we decide that a zygote isn’t a person, then we’ll be on a slippery slope to deciding that infants or the comatose or other races aren’t people.”

    Natural rights, as I understand them, are based upon reason and observation.

    It depends on how you think of the term. Some people believe that a right is a thing that we have by virtue of being human (or some other characteristic). Reason and observation do not confirm that such a right exists. However, I can accept natural rights as “rights that people deserve by virtue of being human.” The difference is between “naturally has,” which is unprovable, and “ought to have,” which is a preference.

    Apparently one of the plaintiffs proved ID was just creationism in disguise…

    This is a perfect example of how separating religion from government does not effectively keep out religious or otherwise unprovable claims. Creationism in the United States has been associated with Christianity in particular, despite the presence of creation myths in most religions. So, Christians who wanted to introduce creationism to schools without being accused of promoting religion simply removed reference to the Christian God. Just because we stood in the way of their attempts to promote Christianity did not mean that their morale weakened or their goals changed. They simply adopted a new, more deceptive method, much like the fallacious slippery slope argument against abortion that I mentioned.

    [Abortion is] actually not so different from gay marriage…

    Here is why I regard the two differently:

    For many people, whether or not abortion should be legal depends on whether or not an unborn child is a person, such that killing it would be murder. (Others might reduce the question to whether or not an unborn child’s rights trump those of the mother, which is a separate value judgment.) If someone believes that it’s murder, then he has to believe that the law is being broken or is inconsistent.

    In contrast, marriage is now an undeniably secular institution with few rules and without an explicit purpose. We should not deny gay couples the right to marriage on religious grounds if it is not intended for only religious people and if many other marriages are non-religious or violate a religion’s laws. We should not deny gay couples the right to marriage on the grounds that they cannot naturally procreate if we do not insist upon the same requirement of heterosexual couples. We should not deny gay couples the right to marriage on the grounds that their relationships are “unnatural” if the rest of us do “unnatural” things as well. To do any of these things would be inconsistent.

    We are pretty much left with one question: whether or not gay marriage does actual harm to anyone. But there is no harm. Besides: almost anything that one can do while married can be done while single.

    The difference is (1) the quality of the arguments and (2) consistency. A conservative Christian’s stance on personhood (and thus abortion), while perhaps silly to us, is still legitimate and probably consistent with the rest of his philosophy. But his stance on gay marriage is probably (1) illegitimate because his arguments are poor and (2) inconsistent because he singles out one religious standard (sexuality) to outlaw without outlawing others (pre-marital unchastity, divorce, fantasies about other people, refusal to procreate, and so on). The Religious Right’s position on gay marriage would be much more respectable if it weren’t so inconsistent.

    Maybe it’s naive of me, but I really believe that if someone thinks about it enough, they will realize that a zygote cannot possibly be considered a person with the same rights.

    It’s a nice thought, but we can’t forget about the religious influence on conservative thought in the United States. They might respond that we each get a soul at the moment of conception and that it is wrong to murder a being with a soul–or perhaps that, even if we cannot be sure about when a fertilized egg becomes a person, we should not risk God’s wrath.

    The social contract? Prevention of anarchy? I think that still might not be what you’re getting at.

    Those are good reasons to support law in general. I mean that specific laws need specific justifications. For example: we might justify the First Amendment on the grounds that people who can speak freely are happier than those who cannot, that there is no need to restrict speech, and that allowing the government to restrict as it pleases gives the government excessive power. The reasons to support this freedom outweigh the reasons to reject it. And those reasons preceded the law.

    • emmawolf says:

      Re. gay marriage v. abortions: I only meant they were similar in the way that Paul Ryan wants to let his religion dictate the law of the country.

      Re. justification of laws: I believe in democracy and consent of the governed. Our laws are made by our elected leaders (mostly) who only serve with our consent. And I believe that laws should be based on observation and practicality and should be reasonably effective at addressing whatever it is they seek to address. Is that closer to what you were getting at?

  4. Ryan says:

    After all of this, I am not sure what “Is that closer to what you were getting at?” is asking.

    Throughout this conversation, ignoring the tangents, I have been seeking an acknowledgment that it is impossible to separate religion from government for various reasons, particularly because religion is a poorly defined term that could apply to various secular philosophies that we deem acceptable. It’s easy to condemn Paul Ryan for wanting to let the Bible dictate the law (regarding abortion), but it’s much more difficult to explain how and why consistently.

    Part of the answer could come from understanding the First Amendment. Unfortunately, it doesn’t explain exactly what a religion is or why it should be kept separate from the government. We need answers to those questions to understand and apply the law properly. In fact, if the First Amendment was (1) intended to keep unprovable claims out of law and (2) based on the unprovable belief that people have “natural rights” endowed by a Creator, then the First Amendment as understood at the time was a violation of itself! This just reveals the difficulty of working with laws that are not explicitly justified, such that they can be applied consistently.

    You said before: “We have certain human rights no matter where we decide they come from.” In other words (I think): a law is a law and should be respected regardless of our or the founding fathers’ justifications for it. But it is difficult to respect a law that is not explained–or whose explanation is inconsistent. The common understanding of the First Amendment is, I claim, one such case.

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