February 2012

I know this is kind of shooting-fish-in-a-barrel stuff, but it’s gotten enough attention that I thought I should break out the logic elephant gun. You’ve probably heard about the article that appeared in the Journal of Medical Ethics about infanticide “after-birth abortion” (the writers are apparently seeking to murder the English language as well as babies). A pair of medical ethicists named Francesca Minerva and Alberto Giubilini advocate a return to the ethics of the late Roman Empire:

A serious philosophical problem arises when the same conditions that would have justified abortion become known after birth. In such cases, we need to assess facts in order to decide whether the same arguments that apply to killing a human fetus can also be consistently applied to killing a newborn human.

Such an issue arises, for example, when an abnormality has not been detected during pregnancy or occurs during delivery….One example is the case of Treacher-Collins syndrome (TCS), a condition that affects 1 in every 10 000 births causing facial deformity and related physiological failures, in particular potentially life-threatening respiratory problems.

Read the description at the National Institutes of Health Genetic Home Reference page, and check out the pictures of TCS sufferers. The GHR says that the “potentially life-threatening respiratory problems” are in “severe” cases, not all, and gives a description that suggests that surgery can correct the problem. The authors chose this genetic abnormalityI suspect, not just because it is rare enough to not typically be tested for, but because parents would respond so harshly to an infant who looked like the children in some of the those pictures. So, they are essentially arguing that parents should have the right to kill their children if they are abnormally ugly.

However, such rare and severe pathologies are not the only ones that are likely to remain undetected until delivery; even more common congenital diseases that women are usually tested for could fail to be detected. An examination of 18 European registries reveals that between 2005 and 2009 only the 64% of Down’s syndrome cases were diagnosed through prenatal testing. This percentage indicates that, considering only the European areas under examination, about 1700 infants were born with Down’s syndrome without parents being aware of it before birth. Once these children are born, there is no choice for the parents but to keep the child, which sometimes is exactly what they would not have done if the disease had been diagnosed before birth.

“No choice but to keep the child”? What, they don’t have adoption where these people live? They are apparently unaware that there are many potential parents who would jump at the chance to adopt a Down’s Syndrome child. In any case, anyone who has ever known a victim of Down’s Syndrome knows that they are some of the happiest, warmest, most caring people living. The idea that abortion of them has become routine is sickening, and the idea that you’d kill a new-born just because of Down’s is barbaric.

Euthanasia in infants has been proposed by philosophers for children with severe abnormalities whose lives can be expected to be not worth living and who are experiencing unbearable suffering.

Minerva and Giubilini, however, plan to go beyond that. Way beyond.

Nonetheless, to bring up such children [as those with Down's Syndrome] might be an unbearable burden on the family and on society as a whole, when the state economically provides for their care. On these grounds, the fact that a fetus has the potential to become a person who will have an (at least) acceptable life is no reason for prohibiting abortion. Therefore, we argue that, when circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible.

They are right about this. In the West, the fact that a person may have a perfectly wonderful life is of no consequence. If a woman or her family is inconvenienced, she can dispose of an unborn child as she wishes. For years, Christian ethicists and pro-life leaders have made the argument that there is no logical way to prevent infanticide if you permit abortion on demand, and have been derided for using a “slippery slope” argument. Apparently Minerva and Giubilini are more than willing to grease the skids. Oh, and did you catch the reference to “the state”? That makes the logical next step that the government can require abortion in those circumstances where it believes it would be compelled to bear an “unbearable” burden. Think China’s one-child policy. hailed by enlightened statists everywhere, and especially in Western media and academia.

In spite of the oxymoron in the expression, we propose to call this practice ‘after-birth abortion’, rather than ‘infanticide’, to emphasise that the moral status of the individual killed is comparable with that of a fetus (on which ‘abortions’ in the traditional sense are performed) rather than to that of a child.

Actually, they choose this language because abortion is acceptable in the West, whereas infanticide is not. Words that come to mind to describe this rhetorical device are “nonsensical,” dishonest” and “Owellian.”

Minerva and Giubilini recognize that the only way this makes sense is if new-born children have no more moral worth than an unborn one. They proceed to that argument next.

The moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus in the sense that both lack those properties that justify the attribution of a right to life to an individual.

Both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life’. We take ‘person’ to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her.

The implications of this are truly staggering. This kind of reasoning can be used to justify the killing of pretty much anyone who does not view life in the same way that the authors do. What is the “basic value” that a person must recognize in order to justify not being killed, and who gets to decide what qualifies as a “basic value”? Is this something a person has to be able to verbalize and explain to the satisfaction of a philosophy professor, an employer, a middle-school teacher, a nanny, or a parent? Is it enough to be able to draw a picture of that value with a crayon? The truth is I’ve known plenty of teen-agers who would fail this test, let alone new-borns.

Our point here is that, although it is hard to exactly determine when a subject starts or ceases to be a ‘person’, a necessary condition for a subject to have a right to X is that she is harmed by a decision to deprive her of X.

I’d say that a new-born infant, who if given so much as a moment’s opportunity begins to bond with his or her mother, will be harmed if that relationship is then taken from her. Problem solved.

Those who are only capable of experiencing pain and pleasure (like perhaps fetuses and certainly newborns) have a right not to be inflicted pain. If, in addition to experiencing pain and pleasure, an individual is capable of making any aims (like actual human and non-human persons), she is harmed if she is prevented from accomplishing her aims by being killed. Now, hardly can a newborn be said to have aims, as the future we imagine for it is merely a projection of our minds on its potential lives. It might start having expectations and develop a minimum level of self-awareness at a very early stage, but not in the first days or few weeks after birth. On the other hand, not only aims but also well-developed plans are concepts that certainly apply to those people (parents, siblings, society) who could be negatively or positively affected by the birth of that child. Therefore, the rights and interests of the actual people involved should represent the prevailing consideration in a decision about abortion and after-birth abortion.

These are clearly people who don’t have any or know any children. “Aims”? “Plans”? This is the way adults speak. They seem to be suggesting that Tommy had better say, “When I grow up I want to be an asparagus farmer” as soon as possible after he’s born, or else his parents won’t know whether he has any “aims” or “plans” and can dump him in the wood chipper  at their whim. As for children “having expectations” and developing “a minimum level of self-awareness,” this is the kind of vague, pseudo-psychological gobbledygook that the authors want to use to determine whether a human being is worthy of being allowed to live.

There is one other philosophical move Minerva and Giubilini have to make to think they’ve clinched their argument. They have to make the case that killing a new-born does not “harm” it:

If a potential person, like a fetus and a newborn, does not become an actual person, like you and us, then there is neither an actual nor a future person who can be harmed, which means that there is no harm at all. So, if you ask one of us if we would have been harmed, had our parents decided to kill us when we were fetuses or newborns, our answer is ‘no’, because they would have harmed someone who does not exist (the ‘us’ whom you are asking the question), which means no one. And if no one is harmed, then no harm occurred.

So, let me get this straight: having decided on the basis of ethereal notions like “self-awareness” that new-borns are not “persons” (the authors admit earlier, remember, that they are human beings, but “personhood” is a special category reserved for the “self-aware”), they become “someone who does not exist.” Kind of like your Aunt Mildred once you put her in the nursing home (and yes, I have no doubt that they say Mildred should be killed as well once she no longer measures up to their standards of “personhood”).

I think it interesting that Minerva and Giubilini say that they are “actual persons.” They do so on the basis of a purely arbitrary set of criteria. Why is being “self-aware” so important? Why are “aims” and “plans” so crucial? What if I decided–oh, I don’t know, pick something obvious–that if one weren’t Aryan that one was not a person, and therefore had no right to life? Or, to be a little less realistic, if one decided that the sum total of what one wanted from existence was to play video games and drink Ripple? Would that deprive one of “personhood”?

There’s one more thing that needs mentioning here, and that is that the authors do, in fact, recognize the possibility of adoption, but dismiss it. This needs to be quoted in full:

A possible objection to our argument is that after-birth abortion should be practised just on potential people who could never have a life worth living. Accordingly, healthy and potentially happy people should be given up for adoption if the family cannot raise them up. Why should we kill a healthy newborn when giving it up for adoption would not breach anyone’s right but possibly increase the happiness of people involved (adopters and adoptee)?

Our reply is the following. We have previously discussed the argument from potentiality, showing that it is not strong enough to outweigh the consideration of the interests of actual people. Indeed, however weak the interests of actual people can be, they will always trump the alleged interest of potential people to become actual ones, because this latter interest amounts to zero. On this perspective, the interests of the actual people involved matter, and among these interests, we also need to consider the interests of the mother who might suffer psychological distress from giving her child up for adoption. Birthmothers are often reported to experience serious psychological problems due to the inability to elaborate their loss and to cope with their grief. It is true that grief and sense of loss may accompany both abortion and after-birth abortion as well as adoption, but we cannot assume that for the birthmother the latter is the least traumatic. For example, ‘those who grieve a death must accept the irreversibility of the loss, but natural mothers often dream that their child will return to them. This makes it difficult to accept the reality of the loss because they can never be quite sure whether or not it is irreversible’.

We are not suggesting that these are definitive reasons against adoption as a valid alternative to after-birth abortion. Much depends on circumstances and psychological reactions. What we are suggesting is that, if interests of actual people should prevail, then after-birth abortion should be considered a permissible option for women who would be damaged by giving up their newborns for adoption.

So, a child who might well bring joy to someone else, and who may certainly live a full and productive life, can be killed after being born if the birth mother would be saddened to give her little one away.

So, what we have hear is an argument that only Alfred Rosenberg and Peter Singer could love, but it appears in a supposedly reputable international scholarly journal. Because there is decency still left in the world, it provoked a rather strong response, one that the editor of said journal, Julian Savulescu, thought was awfully illiberal. He took to the JME blog yesterday to explain his problem:

This article has elicited personally abusive correspondence to the authors, threatening their lives and personal safety. The Journal has received a string abusive emails for its decision to publish this article. This abuse is typically anonymous.

Death threats and the like are never the right response to an argument one doesn’t like. It’s wrong, and makes one look like a thug. The proper response is to destroy the argument.

He goes on to quote some of the comments from an article about the uproar that was published by The Blaze (one of which calls for the authors “immediate execution,” which is horrendous and absurd, but one of which calls the article “vile,” and another of which says, “The fact that the Journal of Medical Ethics published this outrageous and immoral piece of work is even scarier,” which I think is absolutely correct). He then proceeds:

As Editor of the Journal, I would like to defend its publication. The arguments presented, in fact, are largely not new and have been presented repeatedly in the academic literature and public fora by the most eminent philosophers and bioethicists in the world, including Peter Singer, Michael Tooley and John Harris in defence of infanticide, which the authors call after-birth abortion.

That Singer, Tooley, and Harris can be referred to as “the most eminent philosophers and bioethicists in the world” says far more about the state of philosophy and bioethics than it does about their defenses of infanticide.

The novel contribution of this paper is not an argument in favour of infanticide – the paper repeats the arguments made famous by Tooley and Singer – but rather their application in consideration of maternal and family interests. The paper also draws attention to the fact that infanticide is practised in the Netherlands.

Again, more’s the pity that the Netherlands has withdrawn from the circle of civilized nations at this point. The fact that infanticide is practiced there says nothing more about its legitimacy than does the fact that euthanasia was routinely practiced in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. Oh, and the “novel contribution” of this paper is not that it applies arguments in favor of infanticide to considerations of women’s or families’ interests. It’s that it takes the logic of abortion-on-demand and extends it on in such a way as to make clear just how morally loathsome the latter is.

Savulescu then makes the case that the JME doesn’t support substantive positions, but is an open forum for the discussion of all points of view on bioethical subjects. But by picking out bottom-feeding anonymous comments from one article, and treating those as if they are some kind of threat to freedom of speech, he gets to this:

What the response to this article reveals, through the microscope of the web, is the deep disorder of the modern world. Not that people would give arguments in favour of infanticide, but the deep opposition that exists now to liberal values and fanatical opposition to any kind of reasoned engagement.

So arguing in public fora for infanticide doesn’t show the “deep disorder of the modern world.” That is found in the hostile reactions that some people have to those who make those arguments. Okey-dokey.

I know I just used this one last month, but it came back to me unbidden as an apt description of what this stuff represents:

UPDATE: John Harris, mentioned by Savulescu in his blog post, responds to the editor’s post:

I wish to clarify my position on infanticide to correct the impression that infanticide is something I defend or advocate.  There is a big difference between an analysis of the moral symmetry of some abortions and some cases of infanticide on the one hand,  and the defence of infanticide or indeed the advocacy of infanticide on the other.  I have always drawn a clear line between what I call “Green Papers” and “White Papers” in ethics.  Green papers are intellectual discussions of the issues, white papers are policy proposals.  I have never advocated or defended infanticide as a policy proposal.

I would not and do not advocate the legalization of infanticide on the basis of any alleged  ethical parity of infanticide with abortion.

Draw from that what you will.

UPDATE: If you believe that this thinking has no consequences in the real world, or that it’s all just academics blathering, I’d suggest you take a look at Patrick Brennan‘s article at National Review Online in which he discusses then-Illinois State Senator Barack Obama’s opposition to the proposed Born Alive Infants Protection Act, which he voted against in 2001, 2002, and 2003. There are strong suggestions that now-President Obama would agree with at least some of the logic of  Minerva and Giubilini.

If you happen to be in Cleveland tomorrow, you might want to drop by the denominational headquarters of the United Church of Christ. As part of the UCC’s celebration of Black History Month, HQ will be welcoming a special speaker:

The Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. is a man of faith, a homiletic genius, a theological scholar and a pastor’s pastor.

As senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, where he served 36 years, Wright combined his studies of African traditional religions, African music, African-American music and the African-American Religious Tradition with his studies of Judeo-Christian thought to create ministries that addressed the needs of the community and enriched the lives and faith of his congregants by moving ministry, as stated in his own words, “from theory to praxis.”  Describing Wright’s preaching style, the Rev. Otis Moss III, the pastor of Trinity and Wright’s successor, says, “The weight of the holy is upon his words.”

Wright said in a published article: “I have tried to bring those two different worlds together [the academy and the pew] in the context of pastoral ministry in an effort to move an ignored people from hurt to healing and from hate to hope. My mission at Trinity has been to bring those worlds together by using the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the life of Christ as a model for what is possible, of what might be, and of what our faith really is —‘the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen.'”

Wright’s efforts made Trinity –– long considered in theological circles as a model for the Black church –– one of the most politically active and socially conscious churches in the nation. When he retired, the church had more than 50 active ministries with social justice advocacy at the core of its theological perspective.

One can understand why the UCC would want to bring in such an important speaker when one considers some of his greatest hits (from Dana Milbank of the Washington Post):

Speaking before an audience that included Marion Barry, Cornel West, Malik Zulu Shabazz of the New Black Panther Party and Nation of Islam official Jamil Muhammad, Wright praised Louis Farrakhan, defended the view that Zionism is racism, accused the United States of terrorism, repeated his view that the government created the AIDS virus to cause the genocide of racial minorities, stood by other past remarks (“God damn America”) and held himself out as a spokesman for the black church in America.

Wright seemed aggrieved that his inflammatory quotations were out of the full “context” of his sermons — yet he repeated many of the same accusations in the context of a half-hour Q&A session this morning.

His claim that the September 11 attacks mean “America’s chickens are coming home to roost”?

Wright defended it: “Jesus said, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ You cannot do terrorism on other people and expect it never to come back on you. Those are biblical principles, not Jeremiah Wright bombastic divisive principles.”

His views on Farrakhan and Israel? “Louis said 20 years ago that Zionism, not Judaism, was a gutter religion. He was talking about the same thing United Nations resolutions say, the same thing now that President Carter’s being vilified for and Bishop Tutu’s being vilified for. And everybody wants to paint me as if I’m anti-Semitic because of what Louis Farrakhan said 20 years ago. He is one of the most important voices in the 20th and 21st century; that’s what I think about him. . . . Louis Farrakhan is not my enemy. He did not put me in chains, he did not put me in slavery, and he didn’t make me this color.”

He denounced those who “can worship God on Sunday morning, wearing a black clergy robe, and kill others on Sunday evening, wearing a white Klan robe.” He praised the communist Sandinista regime of Nicaragua. He renewed his belief that the government created AIDS as a means of genocide against people of color (“I believe our government is capable of doing anything”).

Yep, that sounds like UCC leadership all over.

According to Israel National News, Pastor Yousef was scheduled to be executed today, but the Iranian government has delayed that:

Iran has put off the execution of Christian Pastor Yousof Nadarkhani — probably in response to massive international pressure — but it is not clear for how long.

Nadarkhani was due to be executed on Tuesday, after having lost the final appeal against a conviction on a charge of apostasy in Iran’s Supreme Court.

In 2009, Nadarkhani filed a complaint with local officials over Islamic indoctrination of his children at school, contending that his children should not be forced to learn about a religion they do not practice.

He was arrested shortly thereafter and convicted of apostasy by a provincial court in Gilan, in the state of Rasht, where he and his wife and two children live. The pastor, a member of the Protestant Evangelical Church of Iran, was given a chance to recant, but refused.

According to Article 225 the Iranian penal code, “punishment for an Innate Apostate is death,” and “punishment for a Parental Apostate is death.” Shari’a (Islamic) law states the same.

There’s no word from Iranian media sources about this that I could find (at least not the English ones), so I don’t know what sources INN is using. But assuming this is true, it’s good news, but also a sign that the world needs to keep the pressure on. Keep praying!

(Hat tip: Kevin Curtis via Facebook.)

First it was the cynical left, now the lunatic right. What is it with these people? From the Christian Post:

The organization Stand Up America Now, led and founded by Dr. Terry Jones, revealed on Feb. 22 that it will burn Qurans and images of the prophet Muhammad in protest of the Islamic religion, should Iranian Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani be executed for his Christian faith.

According to the Stand Up America Now website, the organization focuses on many social issues, with a special emphasis on standing up for Christian minorities persecuted in Islamic dominated countries.

On Feb. 23, 2012, Stand Up America Now, based in Gainesville, Fla., protested Islamic Awareness Month at the University of Florida, also located in Gainesville.

The organization’s president and founder, Dr. Terry Jones, describes the planned burning of the Quran as a form of protest which would “obviously get Islam’s attention,” saying that Christians “cannot just stand by and do nothing.”

Of all the lame brained stunts this publicity hound could indulge in…

I have a personal message for Terry Jones which I sent to him this morning via email (you can do the same at the Stand Up America Now site). Here it is:

Pastor Jones: The Christian Post this morning brought the distressing news that you plan on burning the Quran if Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani is executed by Iran. The Post quoted you as saying that Christians “cannot just stand by and do nothing.”

I agree. There are many ways that protests of an execution could be done, beginning, perhaps, with a prayer vigil on behalf of Pastor Yousef’s family and other Christians who are threatened with persecution by Iran outside that nation’s interest section at 2209 Wisconsin Avenue, N.W., Washington, DC. I live near Washington–I would even help organize it for you.

The method you suggest, however, would do nothing more than inflame passions throughout the Muslim world, not just in Iran, and put the lives of countless Christian brothers and sisters in danger. You may think you’d be registering a protest against tyranny, when in fact all you would be doing is making a bad situation immeasurably worse.

Please, for the love of Christ and His people, reconsider this course of action. Publicizing your anger is not more important than the lives of our brethren.

I will let you know if I get an answer.


Press TV has changed its article on Pastor Yousef, which I reported on yesterday:

Iran’s Supreme Court has not yet handed down its final verdict in the case of the pastor Yousef Nadarkhani in order to allow authorities to further investigate the file and reach the best decision, Press TV reports.
Informed sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Press TV on Friday that the Supreme Court returned Nadarkhani’s case to a lower court in October 2011, saying investigations were incomplete and insufficient.

The lower court has yet to complete its probe, the sources said, adding that the case has not been sent back to the Supreme Court for a final verdict.

Nadarkhani, a 32-year-old Iranian born Muslim who has converted to Christianity, made headlines in the Western media which claimed he has been sentenced to death for apostasy.

Nevertheless, he has not even named the church where it is claimed he has received a degree authorizing him to perform religious duties and ceremonies in Christianity.

Western media outlets’ obsession with handwringing about Nadarkhani’s case aims to mount pressure against Iran in light of the 4th Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, which is scheduled to take place on March 13, 2012.

Note that they have edited out both the contention that Pastor Yousef is a violent criminal, and that Western media only “claims” the pastor is a convert. If I didn’t know better, I’d say someone in Tehran was reading this blog.

We should have seen this coming. A Christian pastor is facing death at the hands of a barbaric Muslim regime, which is a great opportunity for former presidential candidate Gary Hart (yes, evidently he’s still alive and kicking) to take to the pages of the Huffington Post to bash…conservative American Christians. Really:

There are reports that an Iranian Christian pastor, Youcef Nadarkhani, is under threat of execution by the Iranian authorities for blasphemy for his refusal to renounce his Christian faith. Though there are reports of persecution of Christians in many countries, China included, it usually takes the plight of a single identifiable individual to make an otherwise generalized problem — in this case religious intolerance — take concrete rather than abstract dimensions.

The re-emergence of the religious right in America during this current presidential campaign, though mild by comparison to threatened executions by radical clerics, should give us cause for concern. Though well over two centuries ago, “witches” were burned in this country and a recent book documents the struggles of Roger Williams against fundamentalist intolerance. The persistent thread of intolerance springs from a narrow fundamentalist insistence on orthodoxy in an age in which strict religious doctrine in some quarters quickly emerged to fill the vacuum of failed 20th century political ideologies. And religious orthodoxy exhibits an almost demented insistence on conformity and intolerance toward political dissent.

“Demented”? What’s demented is a supposedly mainstream figure like Gary Hart daring to mention the involvement of conservative Christians in American politics in the same breath as the persecution of Pastor Yousef, or the burning of witches. Though the comparison is with Iranian tyrants rather than German ones, I think it fair to call this nonsense “Godwinesque.”

(Hat tip: Faith McDonnell of the IRD, on Facebook.)


Press TV, propaganda outlet for the Iranian government, is claiming today that no “final verdict” (by which I think they mean final sentence, given the headline) has been reached on Pastor Yousef:

An informed source in Iran’s Supreme Court says the Court has not handed down its final verdict in the case of an Iranian-born convert to Christianity, Yousef Nadarkhani, Press TV reports.

According to the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the Supreme Court returned Nadarkhani’s case to the lower court in October 2011 saying investigations were incomplete.

The lower court, the source added, has not completed its investigations yet and the case has not returned to the Supreme Court for a final decision.

Even though a “final verdict” has supposedly not been handed down, Press TV has no doubt what kind of criminal the state has on its hands:

By claiming that Nadarkhani, a rapist and extortionist from Gilan, is a convert to Christianity and priest, Western media outlets have been trying to intensify their propaganda campaign and mount pressure against Iran.

Iran has refuted allegations of violating human rights, stressing that Nadarkhani has a history of committing violent crimes and that he did not receive the death penalty for religious beliefs.

This is, from all accounts other than those of Iranian propaganda, utter nonsense. (Note that Press TV can’t even get the story right within its own article: it refers to Pastor Yousef as “an Iranian-born convert to Christianity” in the first paragraph, but then says that “Western media outlets” are “claiming” he’s a Christian convert as part of a “propaganda campaign.” Editor needed for cleanup on aisle 4!) But if it is true that a “final verdict” has not yet come down, there may be time to save our brother yet. Keep praying!

After months of waiting, there is news from Iran about our brother Pastor Yousef, and it isn’t good. According to the American Center for Law and Justice:

We are hearing reports from our contacts in Iran that the execution orders for Christian Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani may have been issued.

Pastor Youcef’s situation – an innocent man convicted and sentenced to death for becoming a Christian – has not been this dire since we first brought his case to your attention last year.

It is unclear whether Pastor Youcef would have a right of appeal from the execution order. We know that the head of Iran’s Judiciary, Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, must approve publicly held executions, but only a small percentage of executions are held public—most executions in Iran are conducted in secret.

There has also been a disturbing increase in the number of executions conducted by the Iranian regime in the last month.

Iran is actively violating its human rights obligations by sentencing and detaining Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani. We call on the Iranian government to release Pastor Youcef immediately.

Sad to say, Pastor Yousef may at this point be a pawn in a game of international political chicken, with the Iranians trying to show Israel and the United States that it will not be coerced on anything, from its nuclear weapons program to its human rights obligations.

Now more than ever we need to be praying for him, and to join efforts to step up the pressure on Iran to do the civilized thing. You can go to the ACLJ and sign their petition asking Congress to get back in the fight. You can also go to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and use their form to email Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, the Chief Justice of Iran, who is in a position to save Pastor Yousef. Faster, please!

That would be Jim Winkler, the General Secretary of the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church. In the latest edition of that agency’s newsletter, Winkler again demonstrates that facility with logic and argument is not a prerequisite for his position.

I’ve always appreciated that The United Methodist Church has never claimed to be a victim of religious persecution. Even though we imposed our religious views on others when we pushed through an amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting sale and manufacture of alcohol nearly 100 years ago, we did not insist our religious liberty was infringed when Prohibition was repealed.

That’s because claiming such would have been absurd. Two reasons: 1) the passage of Prohibition, whatever you think of its success or failure, was a democratic act that involved a diversity of citizens, some of whom had religious motivations, some of whom did not, so that no one’s “religious views” were “imposed” by anyone; 2) the repeal of Prohibition placed no burden on the free exercise of religion in any way. No Prohibitionist was required by the government to start paying for his neighbor’s booze.

We strongly oppose gambling and find war incompatible with Christian teaching. We don’t suggest, however, that the spread of gambling and the constant warfare around the world represent persecution of Methodism.

As far as I know, no Methodist institution is required to pay for anyone lottery tickets or trip to a casino. As for war, Methodism is not pacifist. According to the denomination’s Social Principles:

We also acknowledge that many Christians believe that, when peaceful alternatives have failed, the force of arms may regretfully be preferable to unchecked aggression, tyranny and genocide. We honor the witness of pacifists who will not allow us to become complacent about war and violence. We also respect those who support the use of force, but only in extreme situations and only when the need is clear beyond reasonable doubt, and through appropriate international organizations.

We believe war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ. We therefore reject war as an instrument of national foreign policy.

So the analogy of war, absurd on its face (does anyone really think that, say, Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980 to thumb his nose at the United Methodist Church?), really doesn’t apply anyway.

Yet, when the General Board of Church & Society agreed that religiously affiliated employers have an obligation to provide contraceptive services through the health insurance plans they offer to their employees, we have been accused of thwarting the religious liberty of various groups such as evangelical Christians and the Roman Catholic Church.

You know, those people who are wrong about religion, and who therefore have no claim to practice their faith as their beliefs dictate. This is exactly the same mindset that Winkler supposedly laments regarding Prohibition. Apparently, it’s OK to impose your “religious views” when it has to do with birth control, but not alcohol.

Why is it that the liberty of those who are denied basic health-care services is not at issue?

Because, Jimbo, no one–absolutely no one–is being “denied basic health-care services.” Contraception is universally available, and extraordinarily cheap. Please note the confusion of free health care services with access to health care services. That confusion is utterly deliberate, and has been the basic tactic that both the political and religious left has been using for weeks now to try to bamboozle the citizenry, which they assume is too stupid to know the difference.

Contraception benefits society. It reduces the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, reduces the need for abortions, and assists families to plan the number and spacing of their children.

Fine. So pay for it out of your own pocket. Birth control is one of many health care items I could name that has benefits for society as well as the individual. I don’t see Winkler pounding his spoon on his highchair demanding that Lipitor (increases productivity by lowering the incidence of heart attack and stroke), Enbrel (reduces claims for disability by preventing destruction of joints by rheumatoid arthritis), or Norten (an ACE inhibitor that helps lower blood pressure and thus reduces the likelihood of a person being struck with any of a number of diseases) be given for free to anyone. For that matter, why not make all medicines available for free? Why not all medical procedures?

Just because someone says their religious liberty is being infringed upon does not make it so. Just because the Catholic hierarchy says that birth control is a sin against God does not make it so.

So what Winkler wants is for the federal government to adjudicate theological and moral questions–is the use of birth control a sin against God?–and then base its formulation of public policy on the answers. No First Amendment problems there.

This is one area where The United Methodist Church is in clear disagreement with the Roman Catholic Church: “People have the duty to consider the impact on the total world community of their decisions regarding childbearing and should have access to information and appropriate means to limit their fertility” (United Methodist Social Principles, 162K, 2008 Discipline). “We affirm the right of men and women to have access to comprehensive reproductive health/family planning information and services that will serve as a means to prevent unplanned pregnancies, reduce abortions, and prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS” (Social Principles, 162V, 2008 Discipline).

Fine. Terrific. Then it will in no way bother the consciences of United Methodists that their church agencies have birth control among the covered medical items in their health insurance. Gotta wonder, though, how Winkler would feel if in January, the new Santorum administration mandated that Methodists had to include reparative therapy for homosexuals in their health insurance. Anyone suspect he’d be on the phone to his friends at the ACLU and Americans United within minutes, screaming about the separation of church and state?

A compromise has been offered that enables religiously affiliated institutions to refuse basic contraception coverage to their employees by mandating that insurance companies offer these services to women who opt for them. Catholic leadership has rejected the compromise.

If Winkler actually understood how insurance works, I’d say he was deliberately misconstruing what the “compromise” is about. Since I’m sure he doesn’t, we’ll put this down to ignorance.

Why? Because they don’t want women to have the liberty to choose to use birth control. They want to deny that freedom to women.

Right. And after that, they want to make us all subjects of their papist master. Who knows, maybe they’ll even bring back…THE SPANISH INQUISITION!!!

There were those who argued that racial segregation was biblically mandated, that keeping women out of church leadership was sanctioned by God, and that destruction of the environment is approved by God. All of these notions were and are wrong.

At this point, Winkler appears to have simply stopped thinking altogether, and just let his fingers wander across the keyboard. What do any of these things have to do with religious freedom? The state is not in the business of desegregating churches, nor does the state force churches to hire women, and as for environmental regulation, I just have no clue why he brings that up.

Religious freedom is not violated by denying religiously affiliated hospitals, universities and other institutions the right to discriminate on the basis of race or gender.

Birth control has a race or a gender? Who knew? And did you know that birth control was something only women use? Someone really had better tell the condom manufacturers that they are wasting their time.

The wonderful thing about  a column like this is the clarity it offers, even despite the author’s apparent intentions. Though Winkler is trying to obfuscate, confuse, and misrepresent what this entire debate has been about, it comes through loud and clear. He, and his allies in the religious and political left, are determined to impose the correct view of sexual morality on the United States, no matter what the First Amendment has to say or the electorate thinks. If your faith leads you to disagree with that morality, that’s your tough luck. You’re wrong, and you’ll do as the Winklers of America tell you. You’ll pay up, or else.

Lisa Miller, who isn’t really a journalist but plays one at Newsweek and the Washington Post, dons her White House advisor hat to instruct President Obama on how he should deal with the religious fanatics who have been plaguing him lately:

It seems far-fetched, from my perspective, to think that God should have any opinion at all about contraceptive technology, let alone about which corporate entity should pay for it. Yet that is the argument the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops made last week. God doesn’t like birth control, they said. To force Catholic organizations to pay for birth control goes against God and so against the consciences of right-minded Catholics who believe in God.

That’s the way of the pseudo-journalist: don’t even try to understand, much less explain, the positions of those with whom you disagree; instead, make them into a caricature that can be sneered at and rendered unworthy of respect by the state.

The First Amendment protects the bishops’ rights to freely believe such things — to teach them in their parishes and in their schools, to say them out loud without fear of reprisal. That is a good thing. Yet last week, the furor over protecting the religious beliefs of that small minority grew so loud that the president blinked. He entered a negotiation on the bishops’ terms, over their so-called freedoms.

So now it isn’t about what the Roman Catholic Church–a world-wide organization of over a billion people–believes and teaches, or even what millions of faithful American Catholics believe and practice, even if imperfectly. It’s about a few hundred guys in fancy duds, and their concerns certainly can and should have been ignored by the White House.

In Washington, religious groups are interest groups. Just like the National Rifle Association or the farm lobby, the bishops want their priorities to take precedence over everyone else’s — and their clerical garb gives their position gravitas.

Religious groups are “interest groups.” That mention of freedom of religion in the First Amendment? Window dressing for the booboisie. The rights, concerns, and work of religious groups is actually no more consequential than that of the National Asparagus Association or the Pork Belly Council. Let ‘em stand in line, or better yet they should pony up the piasters if they want the leader of the free world to listen to them. There’s an election coming, you know.

But in truth, the bishops’ claims to moral truth are just that — claims. Their religious vows do not make them, in any objective sense, more moral than anybody else. (And, to bring up a sore subject, the sex abuse scandals of a decade ago might force one to conclude that the moral compasses of a few American bishops are extremely out of whack.)

Last time I checked, the bishops–and their allies on this issue among evangelicals, liberal Catholics, Jews, and Muslims– were not basing their claim on any delusions about their moral superiority. (That would be Nancy Pelosi and friends, claiming that they and the HHS mandate are the only thing standing between women and chattel slavery.) And given that the bishops and their allies are basing their argument on the First Amendment, rather than any claims about their personal morality (lots of the people opposing the mandate even think birth control is hunky-dory), the gratuitous reference to the sex abuse scandal is not only irrelevant, but reprehensible.

The “religious freedom” argument, then, is a red herring, an election-year ploy to make the president look un-American.

You wonder whether people like Miller even bother to think about what their fingers are doing when they type this kind of drivel. Many, perhaps most, of the Catholic bishops supported Obama in the last election. They also supported the passage of Obamacare, with proper conscience safeguards. All kinds of liberals–including Joe Biden, for goodness sake–thought the mandate was a bad idea because of the First Amendment implications. Is the vice president trying to make his boss look bad? Is he in the habit of throwing up “red herrings” to prevent his boss from doing something he wants to do? You know, when Joe Biden is the voice of reason about anything, we know we’re in trouble.

Here, then, are some suggestions for the president as he enters these new culture wars.

●Have some moral backbone. By negotiating with zealots, you lose the high ground. By standing up to the zealots, you show them for what they are: zealots.

That’s right. Stand up to the loonies, and show the world what they really are. Joe Biden, E. J. Dionne, Kirsten Powers, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Sen. Joe Lieberman (J-CT), Sen Bob Casey (D-PA), Sen Joe Manchin (D-WV), heck, half or more of the American people–zealots, Neanderthals, sexists, the lot of them. The president shouldn’t even acknowledge their existence–it just dignifies them.

●Stress the record. This is the president, remember, who infuriated his base by inviting the anti-gay-marriage evangelical pastor Rick Warren to pray at his inauguration and who stood up in federal court to protect the National Day of Prayer.

Darn right. The Good Lord, whoever he/she/it is, knows that having Rick Warren pray at the inauguration more than trumps the hysterical First Amendment claims of a bunch of old men in dresses. (Rick Warren opposes the mandate, you say? When did he convert to Rome and get a pointy hat?)

As far as “the record” is concerned, is it really necessary to point out that this is the administration that just got its head handed to it by a unanimous Supreme Court for backing a view of the First Amendment that Chief Justice John Roberts called “remarkable” (as in remarkably wrong, or remarkably restrictive, or remarkably crabbed). Yeah, he should definitely stress that record.

Secularists do not see Obama as their guy in the White House.

That’s true. People like Barry Lynn of Americans United, whose view of the First Amendment sounds like something straight out of Pravda, think the only place religion should be protected is inside the individual’s skull, and the president may not agree with that.

●Tell a different religion story. It’s time to remind people that in a democracy citizens have to participate in activities they don’t like and sometimes pay for things they don’t believe in.

Taxpayer dollars have funded wars in Iraq and Afghanistan resulting in the deaths of more than 6,000 U.S. service members and countless more civilians — and yet the conversation on the moral dimensions of these conflicts barely exists in the public sphere. My conscience tells me the death penalty is wrong, yet 58 people sit on federal death row, and some fraction of my federal tax dollars will inevitably contribute to their execution.

Miller demonstrates yet again that she doesn’t understand the issue. This isn’t about taxpayer dollars going to the government. It’s about the government forcing private organizations to give money to other private organizations (insurance companies) to pay for something that they believe is wrong.

Does the government spend my tax money in ways I don’t approve of? Of course–I doubt that there’s a single taxpayer in American who can’t agree with that, no matter what their politics are. But there’s a way to deal with that, and it’s by being politically active, voting the bums out, and changing the way the state spends our money. In addition, from the standpoint of moral responsibility, it isn’t me who is deciding to spend my money in immoral ways, and it isn’t me who is actually doing the spending.

That’s a completely different matter from being forced by the state to use my money to directly buy a product that I don’t want, and to do so under threat of a far greater amount of money being extracted from me as a penalty for refusing.

Obama made the Golden Rule the moral foundation of his 2008 campaign, and he has started to speak this way again. In his budget speech in Northern Virginia this week, he linked a sense of collective destiny to patriotism. “Here in America, the story has never been about what we can do just by ourselves; it’s about what we can do together.”

It is a difficult moment to convince Americans that they should care about their neighbors as much as themselves, but if anyone can make the case, this president has the rhetorical gifts to do so. He needs to use them.

And what that has to do with the HHS mandate beats the daylights out of me. But then, I’m not a pseudo-journalist getting paid by the Washington Post to offer political advice to the Obama re-election campaign.

You have to hand it to Washington Post “On Faith” columnist Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite. She is more predictable than a sub-.500 record for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

She took to the Interwebs to echo various congress critters in decrying the patent sexism of a hearing held Thursday by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The subject was the mandate imposed by the Department of Health and Human Services on religious organizations, requiring them to cover contraception and abortifacients in their health insurance plans. The hearing focused on the religious liberty question, and Thistlethwaite joined the chorus asking, “where are the women?”

Ranking committee member Elijah Cummings (D-MD) asked the chairman to include a female witness. His request was denied. The reason given was that the hearing wasn’t about “birth control,” it was about “freedom of religion and conscience.”

So that’s the core question: Don’t women have consciences? Don’t women have religious freedom too?

For once, she’s absolutely right. There should have been women at this hearing. Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School and Jean Bethke van Elshtain of the University of Chicago would have been excellent witnesses in favor of the religious freedom of women.

And if you think that would have satisfied either Cummings or Thistlethwaite, I’ve got a pair of 2012 Pirates World Series tickets I’d like to sell you.

“What I want to know is: Where are the women?” asked Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) of the committee chairman before walking out.

I’d like to know that, too. I’d also like to know where were the gays? They have religious freedom, too, don’t they? Where were the native Hawaiians? Isn’t it important to protect their First Amendment rights? How about American Indians, whose religious liberty was trashed by the Supreme Court in Employment Division v. Smith, the infamous peyote case that was so far off base that Congress passed the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (unanimously in the House, 97-3 in the Senate) to overturn it? Shouldn’t there have been AmerInds there?

But of course Thistlethwaite and her buddies don’t mention anyone other interest group but women, for the obvious reason that they had no interest in the religious liberty aspect of the issue, and in fact think it’s a red herring being trotted out to justify the evil plot to keep women barefoot and pregnant.

The only way Thistlethwaite would have been happy is if women were trooped into the hearing to make as much of a mockery of it as the Democratic representatives did, by turning the issue from religious liberty to contraception. She says as much at the outset of her column:

Women’s religious freedom and freedom of conscience were just violated by a congressional hearing chaired by Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA). Rep. Issa held a hearing to consider insurance coverage for contraception and did not allow a single woman to testify in support of the benefit. I support contraceptive coverage by insurers precisely because reproductive responsibility is a core part of my religious beliefs and a way I act on my conscience.

That’s marvelous. Go for it, Suze. Buy all the pills and condoms and IUDs you want. Buy them for all your friends and neighbors, too, if that’s what floats your boat. But don’t expect me, or the Catholic Church, to buy them for you.

There are a couple of truly amazing things about the way people like Thistlethwaite (and NARAL, and Planned Parenthood, and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and Emily’s List, etc.) think about abortion and contraception.

One is that they believe that those “rights,” though not explicitly found in the Constitution, trump all others. Thus, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech–all important enough to have been mentioned in the First Amendment–may be trampled at will in order to ensure that no one is ever, under any circumstances, prevented from having total and unfettered access to abortion and birth control. In fact, no one may even be inconvenienced in their access to these two highest of all moral goods.

The other flows naturally enough from the first. Unlike explicit constitutional rights, according to Thistlethwaite and Friends the penumbra and emanation derived rights to abortion and birth control come with a built in guarantee that someone else will pay for them. No one has ever said, for instance, that in order for every person to be able to exercise freedom of the press, every person should be provided with a printing press. The Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms does not come with a voucher for a Glock 9mm or the hunting rifle of your choice. Freedom of religion doesn’t mean the government has to build you a church, or that a private company can be compelled to do so. But for Thistlethwaite and Co., it is an abridgment of their religious freedom if someone else doesn’t provide them with the tools of the “reproductive responsibility” trade.

No one–not even those elderly celibates in the funny clothes who run the Catholic Church–is seeking any restrictions whatsoever on the right of Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite and all her lefty female friends to buy as much contraception  paraphernalia as their hearts desire. They are asking only that they don’t have to pay for it.

Time to grow up, Susie. Put your big girl panties on and pay for your own birth control. That’s what adults do.

UPDATE: I love the analogy that InstaPundit Glenn Reynolds uses to explain the Thistlethwaite position:

It’s as if we passed a law requiring mosques to sell bacon and then, when people objected, responded by saying ‘What’s wrong with bacon? You’re trying to ban bacon!!!!’ (VIa Mark Steyn.)

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