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Between Scylla and Charybdis: Reproductive Freedom after 9-11

Keynote Address: National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League Annual Convention
by Carl Pope, Executive Director, The Sierra Club
November 9th, 2001

It has been twenty five years since I addressed an audience on the topic of abortion rights. The last time was two years after Roe v. Wade, and I was at a seminar in Washington on how to deal with the anti-choice movement which was then growing rapidly. I felt, and said, that our conversation seemed to assume that we were fighting a political campaign, which would have an end, and that I feared we were instead beginning an enduring struggle. I immediately felt horrible - as the only man in the room I was the wrong messenger for that message.

So I was honored when I was asked to speak here today, but more than ordinarily anxious about addressing an audience. This was a topic on which I had let others do the speaking for a quarter of a century.

After September 11, however, this, like so many things, changed. Two weeks after the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked, I attended the dinner of CARAL.

The program included a marvelous jazz singer. She had changed her repertoire, and before one number, pulled out the lyrics to a song, and said to us, "Forgive me for needing the sheet, but it has been many years since most of us sang all the verses to this song." - America the Beautiful.

She helped me see the issue of reproductive choice in a much larger context with those words, one I will struggle to express today.

In the wake of September 11 I think we all need to strive to see ourselves, and our causes, in the broadest possible context - not as strategies or tactics, but as deeper questions of values and identify - who are we, what do we stand for, where have we come from, where are we going?

September 11 has given us part of that new context, our challenge today may seem clearer than ever before - however daunting.

The struggle which faces abortion rights advocates parallels and in many ways is the challenge facing America.

America is under attack by terrorists - just as clinics have been under attack by terrorists for years

My assistant now dons latex gloves before opening my mail - at some abortion clinics, gloves have been routine precautions for some time

Anthrax, one of the weapons being used to attack America, has been repeatedly threatened against abortion rights advocates.

And the roots of the terror are the same.

The seedbed of both the terrorism directed against advocates of reproductive choice and that which brought down the world trade center is fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism, the view that there is only one truth, that this truth has already been revealed, and that the only remaining task is to organize all of society - family, church, and state - to implement and enforce that vision of the truth.

Fundamentalism is the seedbed of both terrorisms.

Fundamentalisms have three elements in common. They emerge in the context of orthodoxy, traditionalism - they are its dark offspring. They arise at times of disruptive change. And they are empowered and enforced by extreme patriarchy. Women are the first victims of fundamentalisms in all religions. Women have been the first victims of Wahhabi Sunni Islam is Saudi Arabian and under the Taliban. Women have been the worst victims of Christian fundamentalism here in the United States.

So, it may seem, the challenge facing our movement and America are symmetrical. We must withstand terrorism, and extirpate its seedbed, fundamentalism.

And that, as we sit here today, seems like challenge enough - indeed, it seems as if it may be beyond our capacity, some twenty seven years after Roe v. Wade, even here in the United States, much less globally. None of us, I suspect, have any great confidence that we know how America and the world can deal with the repeated outbreaks of fundamentalism arising from traditionalism and orthodoxy under the stress of change - outbreaks that range in recent years from the churches of Alabama to the synagogues of settler communities in Hebron, to mosques and madrasas in Peshawar, and Hindu temples in Gujarat.

How do you answer someone who finds today's world so disturbing that they commit their entire life, and perhaps sacrifice it, to the restoration of the imagined reassurance of the social and moral and political order of a previous century or even millennium?

I find this overwhelming, and frightening.

But if I take a deep enough breath to slow down my heart, lower my anxiety level, and step back from my panic, things begin to look even more complex, more intellectually difficult.

I believe that we are on the verge of a challenge which, while it may nominally honor reproductive choice, will utterly devastate reproductive freedom.

In the Odyssey, Homer challenged his hero, Odysseus, with the task of navigating a narrow channel between two perils. Here are the sorceress Circe's words as she advises Odysseus:

"On the other side loom two enormous crags
One thrusts into the vaulting sky its jagged peak. . ..
And halfway up that cliffside stands a fog-bound cavern
gaping west towards Erebus, realm of death and darkness. . ..
Scylla lurks inside it - the yelping horror. . .
She has twelve legs, all writhing, dangling down and six long swaying necks, a hideous head on each, each head barbed width a triple row of fangs, thickset, packed tight - and armed to the hilt with black death!"

"The other crag is lower - you will see Odysseus -
though both lie side-by-side an arrow-shot apart.
Atop it a great fig-tree rises, shaggy with leaves,
beneath it awesome Charybdis gulps the dark water down
Three times a day she vomits it up, three times she gulps it down that terror! Don't be there when the whirlpool swallows down -"

Fundamentalism is the Scylla that has just taken 5000 American lives in the World Trade Center, that has terrorized abortion advocates for decades, that oppresses women in Afghanistan who try to teach girls to read, and has assassinated leaders like Anwar Sadat, Yitzhak Rabin, and Mahatma Gandhi. But we should remember from the Odyssey that Scylla lies only an arrow shot from with Charybis; danger never lies at one extreme only.

If fundamentalism is rooted in the belief that there is only one revealed truth, the threat that stands on the other side of the narrow channel humanity must navigate is nihilism - the belief that there is no truth at all.

If fundamentalism is the dark offspring of tradition and orthodoxy, nihilism is the equally dark offspring of pragmatism and relativism. Pragmatism, plain old common sense elevated to a formal belief - argues that actions can best be judged by the results they yield, not by their formal moral content. And relativism, in its healthy forms, is simply the recognition that there are a wide diversity of human cultures and belief systems, and that it is at the least impossible to determine which one is correct or divinely inspired. These are the two American philosophical currents that run along-side, and in competition with traditionalism and orthodoxy. But taken to the extreme, they lead to the belief that there are no intrinsic moral principals at all, that any outcome humans might choose is equally valid and equally moral. It does not, of course, follow, from the belief that there is no one fixed truth, that there are no falsehoods. And saying that we should take responsibility for the results of our actions doesn't automatically imply that the end justifies the means. But in the dark and powerful currents of human history, these currents have often led to exactly these results, just as orthodoxy and tradition too often lead to fundamentalism.

And already, the outlines of the nihilist challenge to the abortion rights movement can be discerned.

The current that threatens reproductive freedom with nihilism is technological triumphalism, the belief that if something can be done technologically, it will be done, and therefore, should be done - the hyper-Promethean assertion that humanity is measured by its technological prowess and boldness in using it.

If reproductive fundamentalism threatens women's control of their bodies, reproductive nihilism challenges women's - and men's - control of their souls. For the reproductive rights movement, it is reproductive technology's winds which are howling in the rigging.

Let me begin with the present. It is now possible for couple's to ascertain the sex of a fetus. That means that it is now possible for families to choose the sex of their children, if they have access to abortion. And, in a disturbingly large number of societies, that is happening, and is happening, almost exclusively, by choosing boys over girls. Patriarchal attitudes are already twisting the principal of reproductive freedom to their purposes.

The legal codes in these societies may look like they guarantee reproductive freedom - but the social reality is very different. We must face, and acknowledge, the reality that in the face of discrimination and human evil, even technologies which offer choice can be used to deny choice. Just getting the government out of the bedroom is not enough. Stopping there takes us right into the whirlpools.

It may seem comforting, in a narrow sense, to know that these particular abuses are, as far as we know, quite uncommon here in the United States, although we would probably be disturbed if we knew the entire pattern - I suspect this happens, even here, more often than we care to admit.

But the deeper and more profound nihilistic threat to reproductive freedom is only beginning to emerge, because the technologies that underpin it are only beginning to mature, and it is emerging here, in the United States, and in Europe, not in Asia or Africa or Latin America. That threat is the use of reproductive technologies to first select, and then engineer, children for a wide variety of physical, mental and emotional traits. I am referring to the emerging scientific endeavor that calls itself human genetic engineering, and which has set itself the task of perfecting humanity by taking direct control of the human genetic future.

This endeavor begins with some pragmatic, compassionate, humanitarian possibilities. Detecting Down's syndrome, or other crippling genetic defects, during a pregnancy, had made it possible for older women to become pregnant and give birth safely and securely. That is a choice, I suspect, that few in this room would wish to deny - and one that we see as genuinely contributing to human freedom and welfare.

And we are, almost certainly, on the verge of therapies that will enable us to intervene during a pregnancy and repair genetic damage so that a child that would otherwise be born with a crippling disease is borne healthy. This option, which the scientists call somatic therapy, really poses no more complex ethical challenges than repairing a baby's defective heart valve just after birth, except that it may well be less intrusive and painful, and more effective.

But there a third layer of technologies, just emerging, and probably further in the future, which seeks to repair or enhance not an individual, but the individual's genetic material, and thereby to shape not only one destiny, but that of an entire line, and eventually the entire human race. These technologies, which scientists call germline therapy, are being offered as promising an end to such diseases as Tay Sachs syndrome, sickle cell anemia, Huntington's chorea and hemophilia which are carried as
chromosomal defects. And, when applied for such purposes, the ethics
seems pretty straightforward. We would certainly urge pregnant women to avoid a drug that might create such a defect - why not repair one when we can, even though it first emerged genetically in a previous generation?

But suddenly, as we approach the lip of the whirlpool, we find the waters dragging us rapidly down. For the question of what constitutes a defect is not one with a universal human answer. If Huntington's chorea is clearly a defect, what of a child whose intelligence is so low as to make independent living almost impossible? What of one whose intelligence is simply slightly below the average? If parents can choose the best possible education for their daughter, why not engineer her genes for genius, once this is possible? If, for males at least, tallness is statistically associated with success, why not take my genes and make them "fitter"? While I don't normally feel that being 5 6 /12 is a defect, it is a definite disadvantage on a basketball court, or in a barroom brawl. Should my children, who carry genes for shortness, be able to decide that having NBA potential in the Pope family line would be pretty terrific?

It's likely that this will all be technologically possible in the lifetimes of some in this room. Indeed, one version of these technologies, cloning, may be possible very, very soon. We all know people, although we probably wish we didn't, who are so narcissistic that you can easily imagine them choosing to have children who were their genetic identikits.

And many of the scientists who are driving these technologies see an even brighter future ahead:

Here are some selected quotes, from respectable scientists and policy observers, on the potential of the new human genetic engineering:

"And the other thing, because no one has the guts to say it, if we could make better human beings by knowing how to add genes, why shouldn't we? What's wrong with it?? Evolution can be just damn cruel, and to say that we've got a perfect genome and there's some sanctity? I'd like to know where that idea comes from, because it's utter silliness."

James Watson, Nobel laureate and founding director of the Human Genome Project.

"[M]any people love their retrievers and their sunny dispositions around children and adults. Could people be chosen the same way? Would it be so terrible to allow parents to at least aim for a certain type, in the same way that great breeders? try to match a breed of dog to the needs of a family?"

Gregory Pence, professor of philosophy in the Schools of Medicine and Arts/Humanities at the University of Alabama.

[In the future?] "The GenRich-who account for 10 percent of the American population-all carry synthetic genes? All aspects of the economy, the media, the entertainment industry, and the knowledge industry are controlled by members of the GenRich class? Naturals work as low-paid service providers or as laborers? [Eventually] the GenRich class and the Natural class will become? entirely separate species with no ability to crossbreed, and with as much romantic interest in each other as a current human would have for chimpanzee? But in all cases, I will argue, the use of reprogenetic technologies is inevitable? whether we like it or not, the global marketplace will reign supreme."

Lee Silver, professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at Princeton University.

[B]iotechnology will be able to accomplish what the radical ideologies of the past, with their unbelievably crude techniques, were unable to accomplish: to bring about a new type of human being?[W]ithin the next couple of generations? we will have definitively finished human History because we will have abolished human being as such. And then, a new posthuman history will begin"

Francis Fukuyama professor of public policy at the Institute of Public Policy at George Mason University

I do not think I need to explain why I do not believe that a species that was responsible for the World Trade Center, or that uses reproductive freedom to ensure that baby girls are not borne, cannot be trusted with shaping its own genetic future. I do not think I need to explain why I do not believe that such an engineered future constitutes any true form of reproductive freedom.

But just as the soil of tradition harbors the weeds of fundamentalism, American pragmatism and western relativism, have prepared the way for this horrifying nihilistic endeavor.

And squarely in the middle of this debate will be the themes of reproductive rights and reproductive freedom. In a direct sense this will not be about abortion. Genetic screening will enable parents to identify more of the characteristics of a fetus in utero, and will create more opportunities to use an abortion as a response to a genetic defect, or an undesired genetic characteristic - like being a girl.

But the real nihilistic threat to the autonomy of the human species comes only with germline genetic technologies that will be implemented in vitro, in test tubes, not in wombs.

But the argument of reproductive choices that has been the core of the debate over abortion will be made in this new context, and I will submit that the challenge your movement will face will be to recognize that while freedom is impossible without choice, not all choices lead to freedom.

If we take the position that everything that is technologically possible should be legal, so long as parents freely choose the options, then we will be sucked down into the non-human future outlined by the hyper-Prometheans I just quoted. Those who choose an engineered human future are not only choosing for themselves. They are not even choosing only for their own offspring and germ lines. They are choosing for all of us a world in which, for example, those who have not been engineered will live side by side with those who have, and will mate and share offspring with what will, in some sense, be another species. So the choice of an engineered future for humanity can be made for all of us by some of us. That means that freedom cannot be defined solely as individual, parental choice.

Indeed, Scylla lies perilously close to Charybdis.

We will need to draw some lines, to say that some technologies simply should not be used . . .. by anyone. We will need to put the government in the laboratory, if not in the bedroom. We will need to deny the validity of some choices, some means, while acknowledging the value of the desires that might lead people to choose them. There is nothing wrong with wanting a child with a higher IQ. But there may be something wrong with cloning to get there.

Achieving such a recognition will not be easy. It will not be unanimous. Not everyone in this room will find the same line the point that they, personally, do not wish to cross. Not everyone will find the same line where they are willing to say, "here is something that should be made illegal." And the moral guideposts that have steered us through the pro-choice debate will not help us. Indeed, our past rough moral guideposts will probably make it harder to us to draw any lines, and steer away from Charybdis.

And so it is, I fear, our task not just to row as hard as we can to steer away from Scylla. We cannot mistake fundamentalism as the only enemy, and take harbor as far from its fearsome heads as we can. We must indeed find a path between Scylla and Charybdis, we must be as vigilant for the whirlpools of nihilism and extreme instrumentalism as we are for the Taliban or Operation Rescue. Freedom can be lost on either hand.

But where do we steer? What is the compass point that lies between Scylla and Charybdis, fundamentalism and nihilism? And what does it tell us about the true definition of reproductive freedom?

I find that a very difficult question - In preparing these remarks I hoped to find a clear vision of a course that would safely steer between these two perils.

I got as far as identifying two compass points.

First, we must recognize, and acknowledge, that we are neither mountain lions nor deer. We are neither herbivores nor carnivores - we are a social species. We need to act together to be fully human. We need communities. And we need to recognize that while there are some choices that, at the end of the day, ought to be and must be made by individuals or couples, there are other choices that must be made by communities. Wisdom consists in understanding that there are both, and in debating which fall into each category. Simply asserting that there is one right way and that the government should convert all morality into criminal law takes us into the maws of Scylla; but it is equally foolish to deny that need for some moral principals to be reflected in law if choices by some are not to deny freedom for all. There lie the whirlpools of Charybdis.

My second guidepost is that the politics of this new set of questions are going to look quite different than the issues we have wrestled with in seeking to pursue reproductive choice. If we are seeking to steer a course between two perils, we must seek the places where the two currents mingle. We will need to draw not only on the wisdom of pragmatism and relativism, which in general drive liberalism in America, but also orthodoxy and tradition, which drive conservativism. We need to recognize that while some of those who disagree with us on the issue of abortion rights are fundamentalists, seeking to deny women all meaningful reproductive choice, others are not. They simply draw a different line than we do. They seek a world, as we all do, in which reproductive choice can be exercised without the need for abortion except as a rare expedient of last resort, for a pregnancy which has become medically distressed.

These moderate opponents on a given vote in Congress, people like House Minority Whip David Bonior, are going to be our allies in the broader struggles to come.

By contrast, some who may agree with me on that same Congressional vote, if driven by an extreme libertarianism, may disagree on the need to prevent a genetically engineered human future, at least if preventing that future requires government action and legal limit setting, as it almost certainly does.

So I believe we will need in the coming debate to reach out to those in communities of faith and tradition who disagree with us on abortion legislation, but agree with us on deeper issues of human freedom and self determination.

But beyond these two guideposts, I sought some clearer pathway - some easier way to define where I thought we should draw the line. Exactly how do we steer our course between these two perils?

I failed. It is easy to reject the fundamentalisms of Operation Rescue or the Taliban. It is easy to reject the extremism and nihilism of the ubermensch project of Lee Silver. It is far more difficult to define the path between.

And so it was for Odysseus. Indeed, he failed. Following Circe's advice, he steered closer to Scylla, and lost six of his men to her loathsome heads. "Better" she told him," To lose six men, and keep your ship, than lose your entire crew."

And he did.

"Now Scylla snatched six men from our hollow ship
the toughest, strongest hands I had, and glancing
I could see their hands and feet already hoisted,
flailing high, higher, over my head -"

So if Odysseus failed, I can perhaps be pardoned for failing as well. But, of course, it is not polite to end a speech with its conclusion still dangling, the plot still unresolved, the listeners still waiting. So, whether or not I really had found a solution, I had to find a close. And I found a clue in the Odyssey itself.

In her first comments to Odysseus on his course, Circe told him, "A choice of route is yours. I cannot advise you which to take, or lead you through it all. You must decide yourself." And I wondered, perhaps the nature of our path is precisely this - that we cannot be told what to choose, what we must choose for ourselves, and the task of choosing is never over. Perhaps that is the realm of meaningful choice, of meaningful freedom. On the rocks of Scylla, fundamentalism offers no meaningful choice, because there are no meaningful questions - the answers have all been predetermined. In the whirlpool of Charybdis, nihilism offers no meaningful choice, because there are no meaningful answers - any answer will do, and the most brutally powerful will prevail.

What is missing at both of the extremes is the sense that there are hard questions, which have better, but still imperfect answers, and that tragedy and loss and uncertainty are, unavoidably, a part of human freedom.

Perhaps the pathway of meaning and freedom is defined by its acceptance of that hard reality. All the great religious traditions teach that humans are, first and foremost, the makers of meaningful moral choices. And for the last thirty years your movement has stood for choice. You have stood for freedom and choice against the ongoing onslaught from fundamentalism. The power, and success, of your movement, have been drawn from your willingness to defend that human capacity, and that human duty - the capacity and duty to make individual choices.

And now you must, and I believe you can, rise to the challenge that is arising from nihilism to reproductive freedom. For you, by striving to steer that narrow course fraught with perils on both sides, have accepted, more fully, your humanity. And while the course you must steer is narrow, only on that course can all of our strength as a species be bent to the oars.


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