Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Abortion and Health Care Reform

I just knew we were going to get to this place in the health care reform debate.

Today's New York Times has a front page article on increasing efforts in Congress to remove any provisions for coverage of abortion services in health care reform. Pro-choice legislators had already agreed that abortion would NOT be in the public option (thereby once again making sure that low-income women and federal employees would not have subsidized reproductive health services), but that women who had private plans that covered such services would not lose them.

But even that's not enough for those who would really prefer to make abortion illegal but will settle for making it impossible to get.

And I'm worried that the President is going to go along with this, backing down from his commitments to be a pro-choice President. It's not enough to assure that abortion is safe, legal and rare: it also must be accessible, and that means coverage in health care.

More than a thousand religious leaders have endorsed our Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Abortion as a Moral Decision. This isn't just a public health issue; it's about assuring that women's moral agency to make their own decisions about childbearing is supported.

President Obama, please don't let us down.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

ARTs: Raising Issues of Accountability and Equality

Today's post is by Dr. Kate Ott, Associate Director of the Religious Institute.

Since the advent of Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ARTs) 30 years ago, millions have used them to try to have children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in eight American women of childbearing age has used a fertility service of some kind. The development and use of these technologies have outpaced ethical reflection and critical social engagement on issues of regulation, equal access, and health risk.

ARTs are not new, yet their use remains largely unregulated. Fertility clinics currently self-regulate through membership in the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM). But, the Centers for Disease Control report that 8 in 10 clinics do not strictly follow ASRM guidelines. With regard to IVF, for example, implanting multiple embryos increases the risks to both mother and children when multiple births occur. Clinics practice multiple implantation often at patient’s request to maximize chances of implantation when costs per cycle are excessive. This practice continues even though current research suggests there is no benefit to implanting more than two embryos. Like IVF, the long-term health implications of some reproductive procedures are still unknown, there is a need for continuing research to determine future risks, and for caution in the use of ARTs that are high risk and low success.

The high financial cost of ARTs creates a class system of those with means and those without. The lack of government regulations and the sporadic, often biased insurance coverage of ARTs compound issues of access. Many insurance companies, fertility clinics, and state laws limit access to ARTs based on marital status, sexual orientation, and socio-economic standing. Granted not all ARTs are the same; they vary in their cost and medical risk. The availability of safe, effective, affordable reproductive technologies must respect the diversity of families in our culture, and not exclude women and men on the basis of partner status, economic circumstance or sexual orientation.

As the Religious Institute stated in the Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Assisted Reproductive Technologies, calls for increased regulation can best address disparities in ART practice if they “promote research to determine the risk of ARTs and raise questions about the use of resources for ARTs that are high risk and low success.” In addition, insurance coverage “for effective and safe ARTs should respect the diversity of family structure and not exclude on the basis of partner status, economic circumstances, or sexual orientation.”

There is a vital role for faith leaders to play in creating intentional dialogue about the effectiveness and safety of ARTs, the relative lack of regulation, and the moral dimensions of their use. We must commit to an ongoing conversation that respects the desire for biological children while honoring reproductive justice. Faith communities can take the lead in this conversation by promoting values that can guide moral and ethical decision-making on the use of ARTs. It is time we raise up our theologies and histories that value nontraditional family structures, uphold the dignity and diversity of human beings, articulate a principle of communal responsibility, and witness against social injustices that perpetuate inequalities based on race, gender, economic class, sexual orientation, age, and ability.

Portions of this blog are taken from A Time to Be Born, available for download at www.religiousinstitute.org.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Time to Be Born: Announcing Our Newest Publication

On Monday, the Today show featured a news story about a couple in the Midwest who had someone else's frozen embryo implanted into the women's uterus by mistake, but who chose to continue the pregnancy to term. When the baby is born, he will go to the biological parents of the embryo.

It's complicated to know the right language to even tell you that story. You may have had to read it twice to understand who is who.

I can only imagine how difficult it would be to be either of these couples' minister and provide pastoral care to them through these months and the years to come.

This is just one possible, complicated outcome of the burgeoning world of assisted reproductive technologies. As our Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Assisted Reproductive Technologies states, "fundamental questions of values and ethics are raised by expanding understandings of science and the development of technologies unimagined by earlier generations." Further, "there is a need for increased regulation to safeguard health, research to determine the risks...and caution...on ARTS that are high risk and low success."

It's complicated.

That's why I am so happy to tell you about the Religious Institute's latest publication, A Time to Be Born. It's available for download as a pdf on our web site. It includes information about ARTs, what Scripture and tradition say about infertility and childbearing, ethical issues and pastoral counseling, as well as lists of resources for more information. We're proud to be publishing the country's first multifaith resource for religious professionals on this emerging topic.

On Thursday, my colleague, Dr. Kate Ott, who directed the development of the new guide, will be blogging here about the ethical issues raised by ARTs. Be sure to stop by.

Friday, September 18, 2009

La Shana Tova -- My Prayer for Rosh Hashana

The Days of Awe begin with us tonight.

May the next ten days be days of reflection, introspection, and peace.

May we prepare ourselves for the changes in the year to come.

May it be a good year.

May it be a healthy year.

May it be a year of peace for all of us, all around the globe.

May it be a year of peace within ourselves.

May we live our lives with integrity, service, and love.

May we be blessed with the strength of this community, of our families, of our friends.

May we remember what it truly important in life and may we remember to be grateful every day.

May we all be inscribed another year in the Book of Life.

La Shanah Tovah!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Training Women Ministers in the South

Last week, Kate Ott and I had the privilege of leading a one-day training workshop for women ministers in the South. They came from Georgia, Texas, Alabama and South Carolina.

Most had grown up Southern Baptist; most are Cooperative Baptists now. Most had grown up being told that women should be ladylike and couldn't be ministers. In their own way, most have challenged that ideology and have important roles in their faith communities. Most had had abstinence-only-until-marriage programs as youth, and few had had sexuality education in seminary.

We offered them a seven-hour version of our seminary course, "Sexuality Issues for Ministers." We moved pretty quickly through personal reflections of sexual messages growing up, the five components of sexuality, sexual identity, sexual orientation, human sexual response, American sexual behavior -- and that was before lunch. After lunch, we addressed counseling issues, sexual attraction in ministry, Scripture and theology, and ended up with worship and adult education.

It was a fascinating, eye-opening experience for them as participants and for us as leaders. They were open, vulnerable, honest and eager for information. They talked openly about their difficulties as women in the church -- and their frustrations about what that means in a system that still primarily has only men as senior ministers and that teaches celibacy except in marriage. They shared the difficulties of having learned a message that "sex is dirty, save it for marriage." They want to do better with the young people in their congregations, and in private conversations, I learned many want to have sexuality be a more positive part of their lives.

Once again, we learned how important sexuality training for ministers is...and how important good education is for young people. I'm grateful to them all.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Caster Semenya -- A Teachable Moment on Intersexuals

I didn’t know her name until last week. My regularly readers know I don’t follow sports regularly, and I had missed the news that in August, Caster Semenya, a teenage runner from South Africa, had become the 800-meter world champion.

We know her name now, because an Australian newspaper leaked the results of complex genetic and physical tests that allege that Ms. Semenya does not have ovaries or a uterus, but internal testes androgen insensitivity syndrome. The International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) says it is considering the results and will decide if she can compete as a woman in the future.

I don’t know enough about sports to have a reasoned opinion about how intersex people might participate in a world of “women sports” and “men sports.” I do know, though, that all people should be treated with dignity and respect, and I find most of the media treatment woefully ignorant about people who have what the American Pediatrics Association has named “disorders of sexual development.” I've cringed every time I've read the now-discredited term “hermaphrodite” to describe her.

This could be a teachable moment in our congregations and in our homes. As many as one in 1,500 babies is born with external genitals not easily identifiable as male or female, and many more people find out at puberty or later that they do not have organs, chromosomes or hormones that neatly fit into male or female definitions of biological sex. As the Religious Institute’s Open Letter on Sexual and Gender Diversity says, “binary thinking fails to reflect the full diversity of human experience and the richness of creation.”

Does your congregation have the resources it needs to welcome and support an intersex child or adult? If you are a religious leader, are you prepared to support families and individuals with these conditions? Do you know what resources are available? The Religious Institute’s new online guide, Acting Out Loud, can help you educate yourself and your communities about the diversities of human sexualities, including diversity of biological sex.

There is nothing new about biological sexual difference, nor about our call to understand sexual and gender diversity as a blessed part of our lives. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus embraces the eunuchs “who have been so since birth” (Matthew 19:12). The prophet Isaiah promises they will be blessed with “an everlasting name” (Isaiah 56:4-5).

May Ms. Semenya – and the millions of intersex people around the world -- receive that same embrace and blessing.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Just Say Know: New Guide for Religious Leaders on Sexuality Education

Millions of young people started back to school today, including my 11th grader.

I'm hoping that most of them were able to listen to President Obama's speech.

The President steered clear of anything that might be controversial today, but I'm proud of his long standing commitment to comprehensive sexuality education and his administration's decision to end the abstinence-only-until-marriage program.

That doesn't mean, though, that community controversies about sexuality education will go away this year. In fact, there may be an increase in efforts to deny young people life-saving information.

That's where religious leaders and people of faith can play an important role -- in providing a faith-based voice for sexuality education and helping communities understand that providing sexuality education isn't just a public health issue, it's a moral responsibility. More than a dozen denominations and religious institutions are already involved, and a majority of people of faith from every denomination support sexuality education in school.

The Religious Institute has just made it easier for you to become involved. This morning, we published Just Say Know: A Faith Based Advocacy Guide for Sexuality Education. Just Say Know is an online guide to help clergy and religious leaders advocate for comprehensive sexuality education in public schools.

This guide provides background on comprehensive sexuality education, theological and spiritual grounding for advocacy, suggestions for involvement on the congregational, local, state and national levels, worship ideas, fact sheets, bibliographies and more. It will help you advocate for school based education in your community, state and nationwide, and includes resources for worship and social action in your congregation.

Check it out, become involved, and let us know what you think.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Listen To Your President

I just finished reading the President's remarks to America's school children tomorrow.

You can read them here: http://bit.ly/18Zd6a

His message: Work hard. Find something you love. Even young people facing the most difficult challenges can excel. Stay in school. Work hard. Make us all proud.

There are people who are objecting to this? Aren't these the messages that every parent wants for their children?

I don't get it. Unless of course, it's not about the message, but the man delivering them.

Have they forgotten he's the PRESIDENT? And that even ultraconservatives want their children to respect authority figures?

So, I'm email my son's school now and telling them I hope they'll share this message. And I hope you will call or email today or tomorrow am as well. And let's hope that most children will get to listen.

If not, you can always read it to them or watch online at dinner tomorrow night. It would be a good way to begin the school year.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Standing Up For International Sexuality Education: It's A Moral Obligation to the World's Youth

UNESCO was about to release new international guidelines for sexuality education next week. Instead, according to this article in the NY Times and verified for me by other sources, they have been pulled back due to pressure from US groups on the right that oppose comprehensive sexuality education.

UNESCO has pulled the draft from its website and says they are being revised. The complaints as you will read in this article include that the guidelines suggest that young people need a definition of masturbation, information about contraception, and to know how to protect themselves against sexually transmitted diseases.

In other words, same old, same old objections. Despite more than 30 years of research that demonstrates that sexuality education can help young people delay sexual involvement and protect themselves, ultra conservatives still want to stop it. And the fact that organizations like UNFPA has now disassociated themselves from these new guidelines and UNESCO has slowed their release, shows that those voices are still winning -- and our children and teens are still the losers.

I'm taking this one a bit personally -- because as I just discovered, the guidelines part of this new work is actually based on the National Guidelines for Sexuality Education, a project I created when I was President of SIECUS, way back in 1990. Dr. Bill Yarber and I co-directed this project and developed its framework, goals, and key messages, with input from a national task force of experts. We then adapted the project for guidelines development with task forces in such countries as Brazil, India, Russia, and Nigeria.

The objections that are reported in the article are familiar, because we've heard them regularly in the past twenty years. The UNESCO document itself talks about anticipating controversy.

I'm trying to find out more about how people of faith and religious leaders can speak out about these documents, demonstrating once again that sexuality education isn't just a public health responsibility -- but a moral obligation. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Hate Speech Not Allowed Here

I'm just back from a mini-vacation, and I didn't take my computer with me.

I moderate the comments on this site. As my regular readers know, I encourage dialog and discussion, and have several "regulars" who disagree with my positions who post comments.

But, I have never posted hateful messages, and my latest blogs on abortion in health care reform and single sexually active adults seem to have brought out particularly vicious ones. They are not posted here, but any that contain threats are turned over to authorities.

The Bible teaches us to love our enemies; it doesn't say we have to post them on our blog.