Friday, February 5, 2010

Haiti, good intentions, and the road to hell

Like much of the country, I've been reading about the American missionaries arrested for their attempt to move 33 Haitian children into the neighboring Dominican Republic.

Charges of child abduction and criminal association were filed Thursday and were less serious than the charges that many Haitians have demanded: kidnapping and child trafficking. Many have had it with the unfortunately common problem of child enslavement in Haiti and want the government to use this case to make a stand on the issue.

According to relatives and friends of Laura Silsby, one of the charged, she was not intending to sell the children. Rather, she had hoped to open an orphanage in the Dominican Republic for up to 200 children, at least some of whom would have been placed for adoption. As The Wall Street Journal reported, "For Ms. Silsby it was the latest in a series of wrong turns on a road her parents and others who know her in Idaho say was paved with the best intentions."

It irked me as a kid when my mother would say, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." It spoiled the endorphin rush I got from planning grand, good things.

Later, as I got more theologically sophisticated and evaluated the statement from a faith-not-works Protestant perspective, I decided it was nonsense, since our going to heaven or hell is supposed to be determined by the condition of our heart, not anything we do.

I am afraid that the 10 missionaries share that faith-not-works perspective, because they clearly did not evaluate the consequences of their actions. I'm not talking here about the harm they've done to themselves; I'm talking about their inability to see a better alternative for these children because they were so caught up in the good feelings they got from their good intentions.

What has come to surface in this case is that many, if not all, of the children that the missionaries were trying to help have families. Silsby told her mother that parents signed over the children to her because they could not afford to care for them.

I don't want these children to starve to death, either. But there is a much cheaper way of saving children's lives than sending them to America for adoption: give their families money.

I used to work for an international development organization and "Homes, not orphanages," could have been one of our mantras. A home, in this case, almost always meant living with relatives or family friends in the child's community of origin. The job of international aid organizations is to help those caring adults raise the children - not to pay caring adults in an orphanage or find caring adults in some other country to do that work. For one, it's cheaper, so you can help more children. For another, it fosters stability in the child's life.

There are certainly cases where community support may not be viable - when a child's entire family or community has been killed in war or by disaster, when parents or guardians are abusive, or when a child has been exiled from a community because she is suspected of witchcraft, to name a few examples. But the overwhelming reason that children are placed in orphanages in developing countries is poverty.

To the well-intentioned missionaries, I say that taking children from their homes is not the proper response to an emergency. The proper response is to address the emergency.

Two months ago, The New York Times ran a story about a new effort in Malawi to keep orphans with their extended families by providing their caretakers with money to pay for each child's needs. The program can support 24 children for $1,500 a year; that's what it costs Malawi's Home of Hope orphanage, from which Madonna adopted a son, to care for just one child.

I am not against international adoption. As in the United States, parents everywhere should have the option of placing their children with adoptive homes if they feel incapable of raising their children. But they should not feel forced by circumstances to make this decision, and they should have the option of an open adoption process.

As I follow the trial of the ten missionaries, I'll be hoping that they and all who sympathize with them dwell on that old saying about the road to hell.

Or maybe, if it doesn't jive with their faith-not-works theology, they can think about it this way: "Don't automatically go with every heart-warming impulse. Think thoroughly about what the consequences of your actions might be. Reason must be the partner of compassion."

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Vatican unfamiliar with religious history

I couldn't help smirking when I read this article about reviews of the movie Avatar* by Vatican Radio and L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper.

It wasn't the predictable comments by the Vatican media (okay, except for maybe the use of "pseudo-doctrine" as an insult, which was pretty funny, considering its source). It was this:

Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said that while the movie reviews are just that — film criticism, with no theological weight — they do reflect Pope Benedict XVI's views on the dangers of turning nature into a "new divinity."

A "new divinity"? Apparently the Vatican has forgotten that nature worship goes back thousands of years, which is surprising, given the number of nature worshippers and alleged nature worshippers that the Vatican and its adherents executed during the Middle Ages (and even before).

I thought the virtual elimination of paganism from Europe was supposed to be one of the Vatican's crowning achievements. Apparently it's too humble to remember its great deeds.

*which I have not yet seen, because my dad pretends that everything by James Cameron is below him so wouldn't go see it when I was visiting over Christmas

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Polio explained

I ran across this great comic book today that explains the rise and fall of polio. I'd like to share it with all my friends who are against vaccines, and also those friends who don't have an opinion either way.

I've been getting into lots of arguments about vaccination lately on Facebook. I know a lot of people who are wary of most or all vaccines, and many of these people are my friends. Alas, I have read the arguments against vaccination and I'm just not convinced. Most of them seem to be based on hypotheses that are unproven or, more often, proven false.

There are some vaccinations that I don't think people should get. Small pox vaccines carry a small risk of causing serious illness, and smallpox isn't found in the natural environment anymore, so I wouldn't recommend someone get a smallpox vaccine unless some asshole rereleases it into the human population.

The benefit-risk ratio is unfavorable for some other vaccines, as well, unless a person has a high risk of exposure. So I wouldn't get the anthrax vaccine unless I was in the military, or was a veterinarian treating anthrax-infected sheep.

Nonetheless, my anti-vaccination friends tell me it is very sad that I believe anything big pharma says (some put it more politely). If that's true, though, I can't figure out why I've concluded that a significant portion of prescription drugs on the market today are useless or harmful for most of the people who receive them. (See Worried Sick by Nortin Hadler for an introduction to this topic.)

Oh, well. Maybe the comic book will help to explain my crazy views. In any case, I am looking forward to reading more great stuff from The Science Creative Quarterly.

P.S. Thanks to the Science-Based Medicine blog for pointing me to the comic!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Now I'm waiting for Obama to come up with a really cool hairstyle

After seeing this picture of Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenk, I've decided that Ukraine is a really cool country. Dude, the prime minister gets to wrap braids over the top of her head! I haven't worn my hair that way since I was a kid; I have a feeling that, even in a business casual environment, most American bosses would not tolerate this hairstyle. If I were allowed to, I just might grow my hair out again ...

(Apparently, I'm way behind the times. The New York Times wrote about her braids two years ago.)

Monday, December 7, 2009

More carnivorous plants!

A few minutes ago, while washing my dishes, I caught the very end of a radio interview on As It Happens*, the daily news magazine from CBC. I didn't catch the species or genus they were talking about until after the interview, when one of the hosts commented that she was going to go have some fries and ketchup to reassert her dominant position on the food chain.

Nightshades! The discovery must be about nightshades!

Dishes be damned. I pulled off my rubber gloves and rushed over to my computer to do a Google news search on "nightshade carnivorous." The search brought up only one result, which was a bit of a disappointment -- hello, global media, this is world-changing news! Yes, yes, I know Copenhagen is interesting, but those bigwigs aren't actually planning to agree to any changes in their policies just yet, so can't you free up at least one reporter per venue to report on breakthroughs in botany?

Well, maybe there will be more news results tomorrow.

To be fair, a search of "potato carnivorous" brought up seven results, but don't get too excited yet. Three of these were just blog rehashes of a story in the Independent, which also showed up in the results. The remaining three were:
Note that all the newspaper coverage is from the United Kingdom. If this story makes it to the States, how much do you want to bet that newspapers will simply rehash those three articles (with an exception, perhaps, for The New York Times, which - bastion of secular liberalism that it is** - actually devotes an entire weekly section to science)?

*Spoiler Warning: If you listen to this show and have always imagined the hosts to look like an older version of Nurse Hathaway, as I have, linking to this Web site will present a challenge to the theater in your mind. A photo of Carol Ott and Barbara Budd is fetured prominently on the intro page.
**Yes, insert snicker here.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Who would be against compassion? Me, I guess.

A friend of mine invited me to the Charter for Compassion - Madison inaugural event tonight. I thought: "Is that the Karen Armstrong thing? I'm not a big fan of Karen Armstrong." A month or so ago, she was on Here on Earth with Jean Ferraca - not a big fan of hers, either, you'll soon see why on both accounts - and they were going on about how true religion is peaceful and loving and non-dogmatic and doesn't make absolute claims about the character of God.

I am a linguist. Linguists describe language as it is, not as we want it to be. And in the English I know, religion refers to systems based on a belief in the supernatural and its relationship with the natural world. Some religion is peaceful. Some religion is loving. And some religion inspires people to fly planes into buildings, beat women for the sin of having been raped, jail and kill homosexuals, molest children, and murder relatives.

Not according to the Carter for Compassion Web site. It says
"The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions" (emphasis mine)
As I said to my friend via Facebook,
"That's ... rose-colored thinking. Compassion is important, and it may lie at the heart of most religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, but there are also those that reject compassion, and I don't want to blind myself or others to that tragic fact. If I don't acknowledge it, I can't help change it."

Sorry, we think you built that cave illegally

I was surprised to see an article on the eviction of a Palestinian from his childhood home - a cave in the hills between Jerusalem and Bethlehem - prominently listed on the Yahoo! News homepage today. I don't think I've ever seen an article on this issue in the American press. And, technically, it's still not in the American press - Reuters is the article's distributor - but it's about as close as it can get without being technically American.

The man is being evicted to make room for Givat Yael, another Israeli settlement* in the West Bank - settlements that the U.S. government (along with Israeli groups like Peace Now, Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and Rabbis for Human Rights) says are an obstacle to peace and in violation of international law and common courtesy. (Although the U.S. government says it, the Israeli groups actually mean it.)

When I was in the West Bank a few years ago, I visited quite a few families who lived in such homes, all of which were either under threat of demolition or, just as often, had already been filled by the Israeli military with rocks, rubble and the trashed property of the homeowners. It goes like this: The occupying authorities say the people who live in the caves built the caves without permits, never mind that the caves are hundreds of years old. The homeowners go to the courts with papers showing that they own the land. The courts either tell them that the papers are worthless (perhaps because they predate the Israeli government), or they agree with the homeowners and issue an injunction to prevent the demolition of the home. Whatever the courts rule doesn't really matter, though; the military is still pretty likely to destroy the caves, because once you've created facts on the ground - a destroyed home, an eviction, and a nice new Jerusalem suburb with orange-tiled roofs - it really doesn't matter what the courts say.

It may sound like an oversimplification, but it really is a lot like Joseph Heller's Catch 22.

*Whether or not Givat Yael is a settlement is disputed by Israelis. Some say the land on which Givat Yael will be built - and I have no doubt that it will be, barring some miraculous new consensus within the Israeli government - is within the municipal borders of Jerusalem and therefore part of Israel. Others say that if that land were part of Jerusalem, the Palestinians who live there would have been given Jerusalem I.D. cards and be Israeli citizens. They have not and they are not, which of course makes it much harder to fight a case in Israeli court, since they are given no inherent legal right to travel inside Israel.