Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Up, Up, and Away

A few weeks ago, I took my 16-year-old son to a local university for parking practice. (Just to be clear on this — he was practising; I was instructing.) Our timing was good:  just as we arrived, a local company was launching hot air balloon rides. What an easy way to get dynamic pictures!

The italicized text is from Sundance Balloons.

We fly year round, twice a day, seven days a week weather permitting. We require light winds, good visibility and no precipitation.

[Translation:  we can fly about twenty days per year in this God-forsaken climate.]

At the launch site, you will watch with awe as your balloon takes shape before your eyes, ultimately standing more than 10 stories tall.

[Note the large fan at bottom left, forcing air into the balloon.]

Once fully inflated and ready for take off, you climb into the gondola and begin the adventure of a lifetime.

[Read:  …begin screaming for your Mama as you are overwhelmed by terror.]

During your flight you will drift silently over the countryside where you will watch for wildlife …

["Don't hit that porcupine, it looks sharp!"]

… and talk with envious onlookers down below.

["Tell my children I loved them!"]

There is no wind chill and very little feeling of movement or sensation of height. After drifting serenely for approximately an hour we prepare for landing.

[Serenely? Who are they kidding?!]

We fly at approximately 1000 feet above built up areas, but will come down to touch the tree tops or skim across the corn fields if we are out in the countryside.

[If I get anywhere near the ground, I'm outta here.]

Since we fly with the prevailing winds, our flight patterns and landing sites vary due to the changing wind directions. Once on the ground, we share in the oldest of ballooning traditions, a champagne toast.

[Not so. The oldest ballooning tradition is when we change into dry trousers.]

I'm cheating with this photo. I downloaded it from the Web some time ago, with no idea that I would be posting on this subject on my blog. I can't even direct you to the original site.

Whoever took it is more of an artist with a camera than I am!

There's a hot air balloon festival in September. I expect I'll revisit this subject with more photos then.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Dan Brown

Dan Brown, in case you don't recognize the name, is the author of The Da Vinci Code. The novel, which was published two years ago, has sold more than 25 million copies in 44 languages.

For the sake of his plot, Mr. Brown assumes that Mary Magdalene was Jesus' wife. As summarized in Friday's Ottawa Citizen:
The novel suggests that Jesus and Mary Magdalene produced descendants. According to the plot, Jesus' heirs were able to maintain their secrecy over the centuries because of an international conspiracy; clues to unravelling all these mysteries can be found in various books, architecture and artworks, including paintings by Italian Renaissance master, Leonardo Da Vinci.
The Da Vinci Code is a work of fiction. But, according to a new poll, many Canadians have trouble distinguishing fiction from non-fiction:
Almost two million Canadians who read the mega-selling book, The Da Vinci Code, ended the novel convinced that Jesus Christ fathered a line of descendants on Earth, a new survey suggests.

The coast-to-coast survey for the National Geographic Channel conducted by Decima Research found that, among 1,005 adults surveyed June 9-12, 16 per cent had read the book in the past two years.

Among those readers, 32 per cent believed the story that "a holy bloodline exists and that this secret has been protected through the ages by a dedicated society," the television channel announced yesterday.
Decima Research extrapolates from this data to conclude that 5.2 million Canadians have read The Da Vinci Code, and 1.7 million of them believe that its message is historically accurate.

WARNING WARNING WARNING:  The blogger is about to make a statement that is elitist and therefore not politically correct.
Sometimes I am driven to despair by the appalling stupidity of the masses.

The news item interests me because it touches on a subject that I take very seriously. For fifteen years I was an evangelical Christian. Toward the latter part of that period, I had a spiritual crisis. I had been studying the academic literature for several years. Slowly, reluctantly, I was persuaded that the Gospels cannot withstand critical scrutiny.

I have spent literally thousands of hours investigating the puzzle of the "historical Jesus". (As distinct from the Jesus proclaimed by the Church.) I have concluded there are very few things we can assert about Jesus with much confidence.

Many people are shocked to learn that there are other gospels, not included in the New Testament. These books are commonly referred to as the "apocryphal" gospels.

Dan Brown has apparently taken his theme from the apocryphal gospels. The most notable passage is found in the Gospel of Philip. (The ellipses, in square brackets, indicate gaps or undecipherable words in the manuscript.):
The companion of the [...] Mary Magdalene. [...] loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her mouth. The rest of the disciples [...]. They said to him "Why do you love her more than all of us?"
The significance of such material depends on your purpose. If you want to write a history of the early Church, the Gospel of Philip and the other apocryphal gospels are relevant. If you want to write fiction, like Dan Brown, the texts may provide grist for the mill. But if you are looking for information about the historical Jesus, you're in the wrong place. The apocryphal gospels cannot be utilized to correct the New Testament record.

People can believe what they want, of course, based on their "feelings", or what they wish to be true, or superstition, etc. — even based on a rollicking good yarn like The Da Vinci Code. But if you take the question of the historical Jesus seriously, as I do, you should consider what scholars have to say on the subject.

Allow me to illustrate my point by considering a scientific fact. Scientists tell us that the earth revolves around the sun. But this is entirely contrary to my personal observation. As far as I can tell, the earth stands still. I have no sensation of the earth hurtling through space or spinning on its axis. It seems to me that the sun moves while the earth stays put.

Nonetheless, I accept that my perceptions are inaccurate. Scientists have investigated this question, and they assure us that the earth orbits the sun. You can evaluate the data for yourself, if you wish:  scientists have published their observations and the reasoning that led them to such a counter-intuitive conclusion.

The same logic applies to any serious investigation of the historical Jesus. If you're satisfied to have any old opinion, you're entitled to it. But some opinions rest on a faulty foundation. Anyone who is seriously interested in Jesus as a pivotal historical figure should consider what New Testament scholars have to say on the subject.

It isn't necessary merely to take things on authority. New Testament scholars publish the evidence on which their conclusions are based, and explain their reasons for interpreting it as they do. Any interested person who is motivated to make the effort can scrutinize the raw data and reach an informed conclusion.

History is not one of the "hard" sciences, of course. But historians have devised various methods by which to evaluate historical accounts:  of Socrates, for example, or the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

New Testament scholars employ the same canons of criticism that are applied to other historical figures. They have concluded that the Gospels are unreliable at many points, leaving the field open for much speculation.

Mark, the earliest of the canonical Gospels, probably dates from around AD 70 — i.e., forty years had already passed since the death of Jesus. During those forty years, information had to be passed from one person to the next, to the next, etc. The more time that passes, the more remote you get from the historical events.

As for the apocryphal gospels, scholars have concluded that they were written later than the canonical Gospels. The earliest of them was not written until fifty years or more after the Gospel of Mark.

Beliefnet.com has published an interview with Bart Ehrman on The Da Vinci Code. Ehrman is a liberal scholar (i.e., not an evangelical or a fundamentalist) who has published a book on Lost Christianities. The book
discusses the various forms of Christianity that didn't make it from the second and third century, including the Gnostics, for example, and various Christian groups who had gospels that didn't make it into the New Testament but that supported their points of view. My editor at Oxford thought I really should read "The Da Vinci Code" because the Lost Gospels are talked about — a lot. But the things that Dan Brown says about them are wrong.
The interview continues:
Q. What do you think of the debate about how important the Gnostic gospels are? Some people say that the Gnostics, like Thomas, should be given as much weight as the Gospel of John because it was written — they say — at the same time.

A. I think that the Gospel of Thomas was written about 20 years after John; my opinion on this is the majority opinion; almost everybody who studies Thomas thinks of it as later than John with a few notable exceptions, including Elaine Pagels. She's the main one, but most people think Thomas was written in the early second century. And Mary was written some time after that. So I think these gospels are highly important for understanding how people were portraying Jesus, but they're not as useful for establishing what Jesus was really like, as the New Testament Gospels are.

Q. So in a nutshell, what's the fallacy that "The Da Vinci Code" puts forth as it relates to these gospels?

A. There are several fallacies — but in a nutshell, the fallacy is thinking that these gospels give a more historically accurate view of Jesus than the New Testament gospels. I'm saying this not out of any religious conviction, but strictly on historical grounds — that statement is not true.
If you've read The Da Vinci Code, I hope you enjoyed it. But it's a work of fiction, folks, not a historical study. (I can't believe this needs to be said.)

What can we know about the historical Jesus? That's a much harder question, and a subject for another day.

He deserved a good mauling

There's a story of another bear attack in yesterday's Ottawa Citizen (picked up from the Calgary [Alberta] Herald). For reasons I will point out in a moment, I found the story amusing. The first sentence reads:
A Quebec man who camped illegally in a closed section of Banff National Park escaped with minor injuries after a nose-to-nose encounter with a mother grizzly bear, frustrating park wardens who say the man's actions put the lives of the bear and her newborn cubs at risk.
The victim, Jean Daniel, awoke to find Mama Bear less than a metre away from his sleeping bag, accompanied by her three cubs. He turned over to play dead and the bear merely nipped him.

So why am I amused? Look closely at that first sentence:  "A Quebec man … escaped with minor injuries … frustrating park wardens."

The wardens think he deserved a good mauling, I guess.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

George Lucas vs. Michael Moore

I saw Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith this week. I found it entertaining and satisfying. Having seen the original trilogy when it first came out, I was curious to know the background stories of Luke, Leia, Yoda's exile, and how Darth Vader became the evil villain we love to hate. The movie works well at that level.

But is there another level to it? Does the movie also convey a political message? One of my favourite blogs, Kerckhoff Coffeehouse, has commented on the supposed anti-Bush bias of Episode III.

There are two main scenes to consider. In the first scene, Anakin — part way down the path of his transformation into Darth Vader — remarks, "You're with me or you're my enemy." This is a near-quote of George Bush's infamous statement, "If you're not with me, you're against me." Obi Wan speaks for the good guys when he replies, "Only the Sith speak in absolutes."

In the second scene, Chancellor Palpatine is addressing the Senate. He declares that the Republic will henceforth be an Empire. I can't recall the exact wording, but Palpatine defends the shift by saying that it will enhance security. When the Senators applaud, Queen Amidala remarks, "So this is how democracy dies — to thunderous applause."

Ralphie at Kerckhoff's Coffeehouse doubts that Episode III has an anti-Bush message:
According to the Wall Street Journal, Lucas claims he was thinking about the past, such as Nazism. Aside from Obi Wan's line … that's what I was thinking. After all, his use of the term "stormtroopers" was not too subtle.

And the stuff the emperor does - such as press the senate to give him additional powers and make overwrought speeches to thronging masses - is Hitlerian indeed.
I don't quite agree with Ralphie on this one. In my opinion, George Lucas is taking a bit of a poke at the Bush administration. On the other hand, Lucas is not to be mistaken for Michael Moore. I haven't seen Fahrenheit 9/11 but, by all accounts, it is none-too-subtle.

Lucas clearly has a message, but it's a broad one. The Wall Street Journal explains:
The director keeps insisting that he wrote the basic "Star Wars" saga decades ago. He was thinking of Hitler, Vietnam, Watergate and Nixon, he has said at various times; and if recent events have proved him prescient, that just shows that history keeps repeating itself....

In truth, the themes of "Star Wars" are so universal, and so familiar (like Darth Vader, Satan is a former good guy gone over to the dark side), that they can be read any way one likes. The message that freedom and democracy must be vigilantly protected is always worth repeating.
The first point is disingenuous. Sure Lucas planned the movies decades ago, but he made this movie in a post-9/11 context.

So let's try to achieve a nuanced position. Lucas has a broad, pro freedom message, not a narrow, anti-Bush message. But the movie touches on current events that trouble many Americans (and Canadians like me).

Lucas is more of an artist than Michael Moore. He tells a story, set in a galaxy far, far away, and the story stands on its own. But Lucas doesn't leave it at that. He throws in an allusion to Nazi Germany here ("stormtroopers") and an allusion to George Bush there ("if you're not with me…").

Lucas expects the movie-goer to think for herself. Emperor Palpatine is a type of Hitler. Does President Bush fit into the same category?

I think the answer is, He could, if he continues along his current trajectory.

I need to express myself carefully here. Very few people are so evil as to be in Hitler's league, and President Bush certainly isn't one of them. Misguided? — I think so. Doctrinaire, undoubtedly. But not evil.

President Bush subscribes to a binary worldview (good/evil, friend/enemy, us/them) that I find alarming. And he is in danger of getting the balance wrong:  too much emphasis on security at the expense of civil liberties.

I think George Lucas would agree with that assessment, but he doesn't say it in so many words. He respects the movie-goer's intelligence enough to leave the dots unconnected.

As a result, Star Wars: Episode III works on that level, too.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Saying goodbye

This weekend we travelled several hours west to visit Journeywoman's mother. We drove past the house that used to belong to one of my sisters (within a few hundred feet of it), which stirred up my memories of her.

Kathy led a paradoxical life. There is a marked history of mental illness in my family, and Kathy struggled with it terribly at various seasons. Even so, she was the funniest person I have ever known — by far.

Any time the family gathered, Kathy kept us laughing. She liked to tell jokes, but mostly she told stories about her own life — the "rotten" things that constantly happened to her. She saw the humour in every situation. No doubt it was a survival skill learned at a considerable cost.

Kathy was also a practical joker. When she got together with another of my sisters, and they started drinking, look out!

The practical jokes were merely outrageous, never malicious. The time they stuck a toilet plunger to the plate glass window of a neighbouring house, for example — it illustrates the spirit of their pranks. (The next morning, when they were sober again, they seriously considered ringing the neighbour's doorbell to ask for Kathy's plunger back.) Or the many late-night phone calls to women in the family to ask embarrassing questions about bodily functions. Or the rubber chicken that would turn up in your luggage or the trunk of your car after a family gathering.

My favourite practical joke involved a sign that hung on a neighbour's door. It was a small wooden cow, painted black and white, hanging via chains from a welcome sign. Kathy snitched it on impulse one evening, and then she and my sister wondered what to do with it. They decided to send it all across Canada and send photos back to its owner:
Having a lovely time visiting Toronto. Had dinner in the restaurant atop the CN Tower — see enclosed photo. Wish you were here to share a Kahlua and milk with me.
To put the plan into effect, they had to enlist any family member or friend who was travelling that summer. The finishing touch was provided an aunt who dutifully took the cow to Japan with her.

It was particularly funny because the neighbour had been chosen completely at random. Kathy had no real relationship with them, so there was no reason to suspect her of stealing their cow and sending it off to such exotic locales. Naturally, they would be questioning their family and friends. And they would never be able to pin it on any of the likely suspects, since all of their family and friends were genuinely innocent.

After about three months of holidaying and partying — one picture was taken after a long night of debauchery, with the cow lying on a table littered with empty wine and liquor bottles — the cow was returned without further explanation to its post on the door.

How tragic that a person who could be so much fun should suffer so intensely.

Kathy suffered a marital crisis toward the end of her life, and she was plunged into depression. It was a very difficult time for other family members, who rallied to pull her through. And then, after two years of desperate struggle, Kathy was diagnosed with abdominal cancer.

She succumbed to the cancer very rapidly. The sad truth is, Kathy's will to live was weak; I think she was grateful for an honourable way out.

The last time I saw her, Kathy was at her son's house. I wasn't expecting to see her there (the plan was to visit at her house, later in the day), and I didn't immediately recognize her. She had wasted away in a matter of weeks. I did a double take and had to look closer to verify that it was, in fact, my sister.

After a brief visit, Kathy was tired and she went into the house to take a nap. I went in after her, told her I loved her, embraced her, and kissed her on the top of her head. When I walked out to my car, I knew I would never see her alive again.

That her death was imminent was obvious for two reasons. First, her appearance was radically altered. Second, she had nothing funny to say. It was the only time I ever visited Kathy without laughing.

She was fifty-four years old, and she was dead in about a week.

I am profoundly grateful that I had that opportunity to say goodbye. Families often talk about the importance of this gesture, and it's true. It's part of the process of letting go:  of accepting the death of a loved one by stages.

When I think of her now, as I did this weekend, my thoughts always turn to that final interaction between us:  the spoken words, the embrace, the kiss. There was nothing more I could do for her.

Except let her go.

Friday, June 17, 2005

What a difference 2% makes

Since we're in the middle of an intense discussion, I should let everyone know that I'm heading out of town for the weekend. If you post a comment, and I don't respond until Monday, it isn't personal.

Meanwhile, I'm offering the following book excerpt for your reading pleasure. It isn't intended as a direct comment on our discussion of abortion, but it touches on some of the information I've used in defence of my position.

The excerpt discusses the correspondence between humans and chimpanzees. At root is a 98% correspondence of our respective genes, which gives rise to all the other physical correspondences:  the three little bones in the middle ear; all the chemicals present in the brain; various systems (immune, digestive, nervous), etc.

All these physical attributes are present, albeit in embryonic form, at conception. Nothing is added in the uterus of a chimpanzee or a human woman that changes the essential nature of what is already present.

I've been thinking about human genetics in recent days, because of our dialogue, so I dug this excerpt out of Matt Ridley's book. I'm confident you'll find it interesting for its own sake, even if you draw different conclusions from it.


Sometimes the obvious can stare you in the face. Until 1955, it was agreed that human beings had twenty-four pairs of chromosomes. It was just one of those facts that everybody knew was right. They knew it was right because in 1921 a Texan named Theophilus Painter had sliced thin sections off the testicles of two black men and one white man castrated for insanity and "self-abuse", fixed the slices in chemicals and examined them under the microscope. Painter tried to count the tangled mass of unpaired chromosomes he could see in the spermatocytes of the unfortunate men, and arrived at the figure of twenty-four. "I feel confident that this is correct," he said. Others later repeated his experiment in other ways. All agreed the number was twenty-four.

For thirty years, nobody disputed this "fact". One group of scientists abandoned their experiments on human liver cells because they could only find twenty-three pairs of chromosomes in each cell. Another researcher invented a method of separating the chromosomes, but still he thought he saw twenty-four pairs. It was not until 1955, when an Indonesian named Joe-Hin Tjio travelled from Spain to Sweden with Albert Levan, that the truth dawned. Tjio and Levan, using better techniques, plainly saw twenty-three pairs. They even went back and counted twenty-three pairs in photographs in books where the caption stated that there were twenty-four pairs. There are none so blind as do not wish to see.

It is actually rather surprising that human beings do not have twenty-four pairs of chromosomes. Chimpanzees have twenty-four pairs of chromosomes; so do gorillas and orang utans. Among the apes we are the exception. Under the microscope, the most striking and obvious difference between ourselves and all the other great apes is that we have one pair less. The reason, it immediately becomes apparent, is not that a pair of ape chromosomes has gone missing in us, but that two ape chromosomes have fused together in us. Chromosome 2, the second biggest of the human chromosomes, is in fact formed from the fusion of two medium-sized ape chromosomes, as can be seen from the pattern of black bands on the respective chromosomes.

Pope John Paul II, in his message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on 22 October 1996, argued that between ancestral apes and modern human beings, there was an "ontological discontinuity" — a point at which God injected a human soul into an animal lineage. Thus can the Church be reconciled to evolutionary theory. Perhaps the ontological leap came at the moment when two ape chromosomes were fused, and the genes for the soul lie near the middle of chromosome 2....

Apart from the fusion of chromosome 2, visible differences between chimp and human chromosomes are few and tiny. In thirteen chromosomes no visible differences of any kind exist. If you select at random any "paragraph" in the chimp genome and compare it with the comparable "paragraph" in the human genome, you will find very few "letters" are different:  on average, less than two in every hundred. We are, to a ninety-eight per cent approximation, chimpanzees, and they are, with ninety-eight per cent confidence limits, human beings. If that does not dent your self-esteem, consider that chimpanzees are only ninety-seven per cent gorillas; and humans are also ninety-seven per cent gorillas. In other words we are more chimpanzee-like than gorillas are.

How can this be? The differences between me and a chimp are immense. It is hairier, it has a different shaped head, a different shaped body, different limbs, makes different noises. There is nothing about chimpanzees that looks ninety-eight per cent like me. Oh really? Compared with what? If you took two Plasticene models of a mouse and tried to turn one into a chimpanzee, the other into a human being, most of the changes you would make would be the same. If you took two Plasticene amoebae and turned one into a chimpanzee, the other into a human being, almost all the changes you would make would be the same. Both would need thirty-two teeth, five fingers, two eyes, four limbs and a liver. Both would need hair, dry skin, a spinal column and three little bones in the middle ear. From the perspective of an amoeba, or for that matter a fertilised egg, chimps and human beings are ninety-eight per cent the same. There is no bone in the chimpanzee body that I do not share. There is no known chemical in the chimpanzee brain that cannot be found in the human brain. There is no known part of the immune system, the digestive system, the vascular system, the lymph system or the nervous system that we have and chimpanzees do not, or vice versa.

There is not even a brain lobe in the chimpanzee brain that we do not share. In a last, desperate defence of his species against the theory of descent from the apes, the Victorian anatomist Sir Richard Owen once claimed that the hippocampus minor was a brain lobe unique to human brains, so it must be the seat of the soul and the proof of divine creation. He could not find the hippocampus minor in the freshly pickled brains of gorillas brought back from the Congo by the adventurer Paul du Chaillu. Thomas Henry Huxley furiously responded that the hippocampus minor was there in ape brains. "No, it wasn't", said Owen. "Was, too", said Huxley. Briefly, in 1861, the "hippocampus question" was all the rage in Victorian London and found itself satirised in Punch and Charles Kingsley's novel The water babies. … Huxley, by the way, was right.

A record of our past is etched into our genes. Some two per cent of the genome tells the story of our different ecological and social evolution from that of chimpanzees, and theirs from us. When the genome of a typical human being has been fully transcribed into our computers, when the same has been done for the average chimpanzee, when the active genes have been extracted from the noise, and when the differences come to be listed, we will have an extraordinary glimpse of the Pleistocene era on two different species derived from a common stock. The genes that will be the same will be the genes for basic biochemistry and body planning. Probably the only differences will be in genes for regulating growth and hormonal development. Somehow in their digital language, these genes will tell the foot of a human foetus to grow into a flat object with a heel and a big toe, whereas the same genes in a chimpanzee tell the foot of a chimp foetus to grow into a more curved object with less of a heel and longer, more prehensile toes.

It is mind-boggling even to try to imagine how that can be done — science still has only the vaguest clues about how growth and form are generated by genes — but that genes are responsible is not in doubt. The differences between human beings and chimpanzees are genetic differences and virtually nothing else. Even those who would stress the cultural side of the human condition and deny or doubt the importance of genetic differences between human individuals or races, accept that the differences between us and other species are primarily genetic. Suppose the nucleus of a chimpanzee cell were injected into an enucleated human egg and that egg were implanted into a human womb, and the resulting baby, if it survived to term, were reared in a human family. What would it look like? You do not even need to do the (highly unethical) experiment to know the answer:  a chimpanzee. Although it started with human cytoplasm, used a human placenta and had a human upbringing, it would not look even partly human.

Photography provides a helpful analogy. Imagine you take a photograph of a chimpanzee. To develop it you must put it in a bath of developer for the requisite time, but no matter how hard you try, you cannot develop a picture of a human being on the negative by changing the formula of the developer. The genes are the negative; the womb is the developer. Just as a photograph needs to be immersed in a bath of developer before the picture will appear, so the recipe for a chimpanzee, written in digital form in the genes of its egg, needs the correct milieu to become an adult — the nutrients, the fluids, the food and the care — but it already has the information to make a chimpanzee.

Genome:  the autobiography of a species in 23 chapters
"Chromosome 2, Species"
Matt Ridley

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Innovative stupid warning signs

You're probably familiar with some of the stupid warnings that circulate on the World Wide Web:
  • Clothes iron: "Never iron clothes on the body";
  • Coffee cup: "Contents may be hot";
  • Superman costume: "Cape does not enable wearer to fly";
  • Sleep medication: "May cause drowsiness";
  • Knife: "Keep out of children";
  • etc.
Here in Canada, we recognize the wisdom of stupid warning signs. In fact, we have begun to get quite innovative in this field of human endeavor. For example, this sign is posted just a few minutes' walk from my house:

Dangerous Dock

"Use the dock at your own risk". You're probably picturing a huge dock that extends far out into the water, or one surrounded by aggressive sharks, or one that is frequented by drug smugglers. But actually it is located at the shoreline of an idyllic river:

Ooh, very scary.

If you're anxious for the woman who foolishly ventured out onto the dock, rest easy. Immediately after taking the photograph, I sprinted onto the dock, threw my arms around her, and dragged her to safety.

(Heroism is hard work, but I'm up for it.)

Here is another innovative stupid warning sign:

Hazardous High Hoe

It's like this. The construction company is aware that not every driver will notice the large, brightly-coloured object that completely obstructs the left-hand side of the road. Such drivers will, however, take note of the arrow sign and veer safely to the right.

Another example:

Perilous Post

Note the miniature pylon. (I'm not sure it's big enough to do the job, but let's not quibble.) It warns cyclists, do not attempt to cycle directly over the concrete post. Ottawa has many kilometers of bicycle paths like this one, so the potential number of injuries prevented is considerable.

And this is merely phase one of the project. In phase two, the municipality will place a flashing light on top of the pylon.

(Someone has stolen the pylon from the concrete post in the background. Canadians do not usually show such reckless disregard for the welfare of others.)


Risky Rocks, or Rapids, or something

It's not often you see a "danger" sign in the water. Its significance is not immediately clear. It could mean:
  • shallow water — do not dive;
  • rapids — unsafe boating conditions;
  • polluted water — do not drink;
  • piranha — no swimming;
  • etc.
The sign is regrettably ambiguous, but still — full marks for thinking outside the box.

But this one doesn't quite work for me:

Precarious Crossing

It seems to mean, do not attempt to cross the canal on foot. Note there is a minimum $75 fine for disregarding the sign.

Again, a creative concept, but I dunno. I think it will be found to violate Canadians' constitutional right to freedom of religion.


Beware the Babe!

I've thought it over, and the dock doesn't constitute much of a threat. But the woman? — she should be marked with a DANGER sign.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Balancing interests on abortion

It's time we reached some conclusions on our discussion of abortion. I wish to set the context for the discussion which follows by quoting, again, from R. v. Morgentaler. Here, Justice Wilson advocates a developmental view of the fetus:

The undeveloped foetus starts out as a newly fertilized ovum; the fully developed foetus emerges ultimately as an infant. A developmental progression takes place in between these two extremes and, in my opinion, this progression has a direct bearing on the value of the foetus as potential life. …

Both traditional approaches to abortion, the so-called "liberal" and "conservative" approaches, fail to take account of the essentially developmental nature of the gestation process. A developmental view of the foetus, on the other hand, supports a permissive approach to abortion in the early stages of pregnancy and a restrictive approach in the later stages.

In the early stages the woman's autonomy would be absolute; her decision, reached in consultation with her physician, not to carry the foetus to term would be conclusive. The state would have no business inquiring into her reasons. Her reasons for having an abortion would, however, be the proper subject of inquiry at the later stages of her pregnancy when the state's compelling interest in the protection of the foetus would justify it in prescribing conditions.

Justice Bertha Wilson

This statement is remarkable, considering its source. Justice Wilson was the most liberal of the Supreme Court judges in her view of abortion.

(There were four sets of reasons given in R. v. Morgentaler. Five of the seven judges agreed on the disposition of the case, but there was some disagreement with respect to the reasons they gave.)

Justice Wilson maintained, alone among her colleagues, that a woman has a constitutional right to abort a pregnancy. She deduced that right from a woman's right to liberty. The right to liberty is protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but it is not absolute:
The Charter is predicated on a particular conception of the place of the individual in society. An individual is not a totally independent entity disconnected from the society in which he or she lives. Neither, however, is the individual a mere cog in an impersonal machine in which his or her values, goals and aspirations are subordinated to those of the collectivity. The individual is a bit of both.

The Charter reflects this reality by leaving a wide range of activities and decisions open to legitimate government control while at the same time placing limits on the proper scope of that control.
So Justice Wilson argues that a woman has a constitutional right to abort a pregnancy; but that some degree of government control is nonetheless legitimate. The question, then, is this:  "At what point does the state's interest in the protection of the foetus become 'compelling' and justify state intervention in what is otherwise a matter of purely personal and private concern?"

Take note of the word "compelling". It implies that the state has an interest in the protection of the fetus from the moment of conception; but, at such an early stage of the pregnancy, the state is not compelled to intervene on behalf of the fetus.

We ask, then, at what point does the state's interest become compelling? There are various possibilities, of course:
  • conception (the traditional pro-life position);
  • "quickening":  i.e., when the pregnant woman can feel the fetus move inside her, approximately 16 weeks into the pregnancy (the view of English common law prior to 1803);
  • sometime in the second trimester of the pregnancy (Justice Wilson's suggestion, deliberately vague, since she thought it was a matter for the legislature to determine);
  • the point at which the fetus becomes "viable":  at approximately 25 weeks' gestation (Roe v. Wade);
  • birth (the point at which a fetus becomes a person, in Canadian law);
  • some time after birth:  e.g., after the baby's first breath or when the child is named (significant demarcations in some cultures).
This issue, when does the state's interest in the protection of the fetus become compelling?, can be distinguished from the issue that usually dominates the abortion debate:  when does a fertilized ovum become a human being?

On the latter question, I am firmly in agreement with the pro-life folks. All demarcations are arbitrary, in my opinion, except one:  conception. I am largely in agreement with Dr. John Stott, an elder statesmen in the evangelical church, on this point:

That an embryo, though carried within the mother's body, is nevertheless not a part of it, is … a physiological fact. This is partly because the child has a genotype distinct from the mother's....

It was only in the 1960s that the genetic code was unravelled. Now we know that the moment the ovum is fertilized by the penetration of the sperm, the twenty-three pairs of chromosomes are complete, the zygote has a unique genotype which is distinct from both parents, and the child's sex, size and shape, colour of skin, hair and eyes, temperament and intelligence are already determined.

Dr. John Stott
"Abortion" (pamphlet)

Dr. Stott overreaches on the last point; neither temperament nor intelligence is determined solely by one's genotype. But his general point is sound. The whole package is present, literally in embryonic form, from the instant the sperm penetrates the ovum.

In a society which puts so much stock in evidence derived from science, this position is virtually unassailable — or so it seems to me. At conception, we have a human being.

For Dr. Stott and other advocates of the pro-life position, this settles the matter. Abortion is morally repugnant and should be illegal. It may even be regarded as equivalent to murder, though I am not sure Dr. Stott would go so far. (If we wanted to recriminalize abortion, it could be placed in a different legal category — something akin to infanticide, for example — with lesser penalties.)

But the matter is not settled yet. There are two parties to every abortion:  the fetus and the pregnant woman. Two human beings, if you will. Both the pro-choice camp and the pro-life camp try to exclude one party or the other from consideration. The goal, in my view, is to balance the interests of the two parties, however difficult such an analysis may be.

In the balancing exercise, we must seriously consider the developmental view of the fetus advocated by Justice Wilson. But there is another valid moral consideration:  the degree of harm to which each party is potentially subjected.

What is the potential harm to the fetus (if society allows an abortion)? Death. What is the potential harm to the pregnant woman (if society refuses to allow an abortion)? The answer to this question is less obvious.

Inevitably there will be some inconvenience:  some disruption to the course of the woman's life (e.g., education, career). If, after delivery, the woman gives the baby up for adoption, the inconvenience is confined to a short timespan. (Forty weeks, measured against approximately 75 years' life expectancy.)

Second, pregnancy has emotional consequences, not all of them negative:  mood swings caused by hormonal changes, excitement, fear. In the case of an unwanted pregnancy, the fear will be greater and the woman may experience shame and/or embarrassment. A woman may permit the pregnancy to continue and then give the child up for adoption. That choice, too, will come at an emotional cost.

On this point (the matter of emotional consequences), I think there is merit in the position of the dissenting judges in the Morgentaler decision:
The mere fact of pregnancy, let alone an unwanted pregnancy, gives rise to stress. The evidence reveals that much of the anguish associated with abortion is inherent and unavoidable and that there is really no psychologically painless way to cope with an unwanted pregnancy.
Third, I would set post-partum depression in a category all its own. I am not very knowledgeable on this subject, but I suspect it has both a physical and an emotional component; and I know that, in severe cases, the woman may even become psychotic. The risk of such an occurrence is small but, if it comes to pass, the impact can be catastrophic.

Finally, pregnancy also has physical consequences:  weight gain, stretch marks, the need to make responsible lifestyle choices for the good of the baby, etc.:  and the pain of labour and childbirth. After the baby is delivered, the woman's body may be permanently changed in some respects. More significantly, there is a risk to the woman's health. The risk is usually small, but there is always some risk, even of death.

However, there are physical risks associated with having an abortion, too. To escape a risk associated with pregnancy only to embrace an approximately equal risk associated with abortion is of no net benefit to the woman.

In some cases, the pregnancy may present a higher risk to the woman, and society should take this into account. (As the Canadian legislature had attempted to do in the abortion law struck down in the Morgentaler decision.)

My point is this. On the one hand, we must take Justice Wilson's developmental view of the fetus into account. At conception, the "fetus" is fully human (in my view). But, unlike the woman, it is not fully developed. Because of her position in life, the woman has social responsibilities (to parents, a spouse/partner, children, friends). She is emotionally sophisticated, subject to depression, shame, fear, etc.:  i.e., she is capable of suffering and even misery. Even at the end of its gestation, the fetus has not reached a comparable stage of development.

On the other hand, the degree of potential harm is also a valid consideration. For the fetus, the consequence of abortion is death. (Pro-life advocates would say, half of the people who enter abortion clinics do not come out alive.) For the pregnant woman, an unwanted pregnancy is inescapably an ordeal (even if she chooses to abort it). But only in rare cases are there catastrophic consequences of an unwanted pregnancy. (I believe this is an accurate assertion, though I do not have statistics to support it.)

These are the factors we must take into consideration if we set out to balance the interests of the two parties to an abortion.

At last, I will step out onto the thin limb. I offer the reader the following conclusions:
  • I believe it is morally repugnant to carry out abortions after fifteen or sixteen weeks of pregnancy. I say this because of our earlier discussion of the instillation method of abortion:  it is horrific, and it is used as of the 16th week. The very need to resort to the instillation method suggests that the fetus has developed to the point where it is, in fact, a baby. I think it is suggestive that this stage of development is reached at around the same time as the old common law standard of "quickening".

  • If there is a serious risk to the woman's life or emotional welfare (e.g. evidence that severe post-partum depression is likely), I would allow a woman to abort at a later stage of pregnancy. I'm not going to suggest an administrative process by which requests for abortion, after 16 weeks, would be considered. It goes without saying that no process will be perfect. But a reasonable solution is surely possible.

  • I am still ambivalent about the recriminalization of abortion, but on balance I favour it.

    To pro-life groups, I would say this:  it is not sufficient merely to say "No" to abortion. Abortion is a social problem, not to be reduced to the supposed sins of an individual, and we must address it by providing social supports for women in this position.

    (Some pro-life groups don't need to be told. For example, I used to volunteer on the board of a residence for women in crisis pregnancies. The residence was an interdenominational Christian ministry. The women were trained in basic life skills and supported during pregnancy, childbirth, and for a short time after the birth. It was a highly constructive response to an issue that generates a great many purely negative responses.)

    That said, I think social supports alone will be inadequate to discourage large numbers of women from choosing to abort. Some women (and their male lovers) will readily disregard the interests of the fetus. To a detached observer, death is obviously a more catastrophic outcome than inconvenience. But to a young woman who has limited life experience, who is afraid, who feels unsupported and sees her carefully-constructed plans going down the toilet — "inconvenience" may weigh heavily with her.

    On balance, then, I support the recriminalization of abortion. Women would still be free to abort a pregnancy at will, provided that they do so prior to 16 weeks' gestation. After that, I would recriminalize abortion with the exceptions noted above.
A final comment, and I will invite the reader to respond.

Some people believe that men should have no say on abortion. I will share, as a post script, Justice Wilson's remarks on the subject. I find her position on this point offensive. Even so, I admit there is some merit to it. I want the reader to understand that I am aware of the issue and, on this point also, I invite your response.

This decision is one that will have profound psychological, economic and social consequences for the pregnant woman. The circumstances giving rise to it can be complex and varied and there may be, and usually are, powerful considerations militating in opposite directions. It is a decision that deeply reflects the way the woman thinks about herself and her relationship to others and to society at large. It is not just a medical decision; it is a profound social and ethical one as well. Her response to it will be the response of the whole person.

It is probably impossible for a man to respond, even imaginatively, to such a dilemma not just because it is outside the realm of his personal experience (although this is, of course, the case) but because he can relate to it only by objectifying it, thereby eliminating the subjective elements of the female psyche which are at the heart of the dilemma.

Justice Wilson
R. v. Morgentaler

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Missing In Action

6:40 a.m. I go to www.simply-put.blogspot.com, and there's nothing there. I don't mean, "page not found", like my blog has been deleted. I mean, a blank white screen — that's it, that's all. I try some other blogs — Snaars, Mary P., Carolyn, Aaron — you're all there.

8:25 a.m. Try again. Same result. The weird thing is, if I go to "Edit posts", everything is there. All my posts exist, but they don't display on my home page. WTF???

Blogger has it in for me, and it's personal. What did I ever do to them?

update: After I published this new post, I clicked "republish blog". Now I'm back in business. Thank you, blogger.

There's no point holding a grudge. It's a free service, after all.

update on the update:
9:40 a.m. I nervously visit the site and my blog is gone again! Now it is getting personal.

The good news is, I've discovered the significance of the "Status" link, located where you edit posts. I clicked on it and it said, "You have not published this session. No posts to display." Then it gave me the option to republish.

But WTF is going on here?! Stop it, already!!

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Nature, red in tooth and claw

I have a little Canadian content for you today. (The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, which enforces Canadian content regulations on TV and radio, would heartily approve.)

The subject matter is rather macabre. "Nature, red in tooth and claw," in Lord Tennyson's words. Quite literally.

Here in the "great white north" — though it's not so white, this time of year — there have been several recent grizzly bear attacks. On June 5, a woman in Alberta was killed. About a week earlier, a woman in British Columbia was seriously injured but survived. And there have been several other close encounters that probably ended with soiled underwear, but without a mauling.

The experts say such events are going to occur more frequently than they have in the past. We are expanding our communities into the bears' habitat, thereby inviting trouble.

Jogger mauled to death by grizzly
Globe and Mail, June 7, 2005

Canmore, Alberta — All through May, the young grizzly bear was seen ambling through a golf course at the edge of town, his appearances causing no huge concern among wildlife officials.

He was thought to be nothing more than a curious youngster — even though he got so close to a local photographer that she could smell his breath.

There was no danger sign, experts say, until Isabelle Dubé and her two jogging companions rounded a sharp corner on a wilderness trail Sunday afternoon and saw a grizzly just 20 metres away.

According to provincial officials, the three women began to back away slowly, but Ms. Dubé decided to climb a tree, while her two companions continued to walk backward until they were out of the animal's sight. But not out of earshot.

"All they heard was their friend shouting at the bear," Mr. Ealey said.

They ran for a half-kilometre to a golf-course clubhouse, where police were called. But Ms. Dubé was already dead; mountain-bike riders who encountered the bear said it seemed to be guarding a kill.

When a Fish and Wildlife officer responded, he found the bear with the body. "As he approached, the bear moved off the body," Mr. Ealey said. "[He] shot it. One shot."

Ms. Dubé's death has shaken this picturesque town, a weekend getaway destination for residents of Calgary, 100 kilometres to the east.

"Everybody is just reeling from it," said Niki Davison, 35, who got within two metres of the same bear in late May when photographing flowers. "I realize now that if I had made the wrong move, I could have been hurt too."

I wonder how Niki Davison is sleeping these nights? I've seen her interviewed on TV. She says she tried to walk away from the bear, but it followed her for 5-10 minutes. Finally, she realized it wasn't going to go away until its curiosity was satisfied. So she stood still and waited.

The bear got within five feet of her before it finally ambled off. She could smell its breath, according to the above account. And, days later, it kills this other unfortunate woman.

Talk about an it-could-have-been-me moment.

BC woman survives mauling
Globe and Mail, May 31, 2005

A Prince George woman who was viciously mauled by a black bear in British Columbia's northern region is in stable condition in hospital Tuesday after she suffered severe bites and lost a piece of her scalp and part of an ear.

Julia Gerlach, 27, a triathlete and university student, was surveying a dense bush for an environmental company in a remote region more than 150 km north of Fort Nelson, B.C., when the 90-kilogram [approximately 200 lb.] bear attacked Friday afternoon.

"The attack was territorial, aggressive and unavoidable. While trying to reach for my bear spray, I was knocked to the ground and the bear was on top of me," Ms. Gerlach said in a written statement from the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton. "All I remember is using the bear spray and the bear ripping skin and muscles from my skull and arms."

Ms. Gerlach's co-workers likely saved the woman's life by scaring the bear away and calling for help.

Bear spray? More on that in a moment.

According to experts, our relentless expansion into wilderness areas puts us at risk. To return to the first story:

The death of Ms. Dubé, originally from Cap-St-Ignace near Quebec City, has raised fresh questions about the wisdom of Canmore's rapid expansion.

The fatal encounter occurred in an area attached to a wildlife corridor, a strip of land up and down the Bow Valley that allows large animals to move through their habitat without being impeded by rapidly spreading development.

The town, with a population of 14,500 including weekend residents, expects to more than double its size over the next 20 years. Deputy mayor John Borrowman said Ms. Dubé's death underscores the need to be aware that Canmore is in an area teeming with wildlife, including bears, wolves and cougars.

"It's a serious issue to begin with, and having a death just drives it home. We're in their territory."

I was feeling pretty troubled by these accounts, until I read the following addendum to the first story. If you're ever attacked by a bear, don't panic! Just follow these simple instructions and you, too, will suffer nothing worse than soiled underwear!

Surviving a bear encounter

1. Bear at a distance

If you see a bear far off, stop moving toward the bear. Slowly reverse down the trail for at least 350 metres until the bear is out of sight. Then, either use another trail or wait 20 minutes before hiking back along the original trail, making lots of noise.

2. Bear on or near the trail:

Stand your ground and take out bear pepper spray. Keep a canister of approved spray accessible at all times. While continuing to face the bear, slowly back away until it is out of sight. Continue back along the trail for at least 400 metres. Consider another route or follow the advice in No. 1.

3. Bear at close range:

Do not panic, run wildly, or scream. That could cause a bear to charge. Stand still and be quiet. Get your pepper spray ready. If the bear does not move closer, it probably isn't aggressive, but stay put until you are sure. Slowly back away, talking to it quietly in a monotone voice. Do not turn your back on the bear, run, kneel down or make eye contact. Slowly back away.

4. Charging bear: Again don't panic; many charges are actually bluffs. Have your pepper spray ready but don't spray unless the bear is within range. If the bear charges then stops, follow the advice in No.2, slowly backing away. If the bear doesn't stop, use the pepper spray.

5. If pepper spray fails -- black bear, or grizzly bear sow with cubs:

Female bears that feel threatened are the most common attackers, but most of these encounters are not fatal.

Remain calm and quiet. Fall to the ground on your stomach. Clasp your hands over your neck and, spread your legs so your feet are apart. Play dead and do not make a sound. Do not fight back. Most sow attacks when cubs are involved are only to frighten away a perceived threat. Fighting back or making noise will only aggravate the bear.

In the case of a female black bear, if playing dead is not working, then you should fight back.

When the attack is over, continue to lie still until you are sure the bear is gone. Carefully and slowly get up, and back away. There have been documented cases of multiple attacks by the same bear because the victim got up too soon.

5. If pepper spray fails -- grizzly bear male:

Grizzlies will actively hunt animals that are larger and faster than humans. If a grizzly attacks and it is a male, you are at the highest risk of being killed compared to any other bear-attack scenario.

Remain calm and quiet, fall to the ground and protect your neck and stomach by clasping your hands over your neck, lying face down. Play dead during the attack. If the bear stops its attack, do not move, do not make a noise and continue to play dead. Even if the bear "buries" you under leaves or brush, continue to play dead. When you are as sure as possible the bear is gone, carefully and slowly get up, and back away. Do not run.


I feel much safer now. Don't you?

Sunday, June 05, 2005

R. v. Morgentaler: a preliminary post

As promised, I am continuing our earlier discussion of the abortion issue. At the risk of trying everyone's patience, I've decided to provide some supporting detail from R. v. Morgentaler before addressing the core issue.

In my original post, I stated, "In the 1970s and 80s, Canada had a law which permitted abortion in hospitals, but only if certain criteria were met." At least one reader felt cheated because I didn't give any content to the phrase, "certain criteria". Aaron wrote, "I do note here that you didn't identify the criteria, so I have no idea whether I would consider them reasonable or overly restrictive."

I've decided to explain the criteria, partly to satisfy the appeal for full disclosure, but also because it will provide a concrete framework for our subsequent discussion.

Courts generally do not rule on abstract legal questions; with few exceptions, they address questions only as they arise within a specific fact situation. Abortion involves real women, plus real zygotefetusbabies, medical procedures and, potentially, laws and regulations.

I think the wisdom of this approach will become clear as we explore R. v. Morgentaler in more detail. For starters, we will consider two questions:  (1) What procedural hoops did a woman have to jump through to obtain a legal abortion in Canada in the 1970s and 80s?; and (2) Why did the Supreme Court of Canada object to those procedural steps and strike down the law?

We will also gather some informative data. The Supreme Court decision includes a brief description of the several techniques used to carry out abortions. And it illustrates the practical difficulties that stand in the way of any attempt to regulate women's access to abortion. (A point that Aaron directed us to in one of his comments.)

My next post on the subject will address the core question:  in Snaars' words, "At what point in its development does a fetus have moral rights, and what are those rights?" I'll get there, I promise. I'm just methodical (if not downright plodding) in my thought processes.

Prior to the 1988 Morgentaler decision, Canada had a law which permitted abortion in hospitals, but only if certain criteria were met.

The law, section 251 of the Criminal Code of Canada, was structured as follows. Subsection (1) made it an offence for anyone to perform an abortion. Subsection (2) made it an offence for a woman to procure an abortion. Subsection (4) exempted women and doctors from the law against abortion if they jumped through certain, specified procedural hoops. In the words of Chief Justice Dickson:

The crucial provision for the purposes of the present appeal is subs. (4) which states that the offences created in subss. (1) and (2) "do not apply" in certain circumstances.…

The procedure surrounding the defence is rather complex. A pregnant woman who desires to have an abortion must apply to the "therapeutic abortion committee" of an "accredited or approved hospital". Such a committee is empowered to issue a certificate in writing stating that in the opinion of a majority of the committee, the continuation of the pregnancy would be likely to endanger the pregnant woman's life or health. Once a copy of the certificate is given to a qualified medical practitioner who is not a member of the therapeutic abortion committee, he or she is permitted to perform an abortion on the pregnant woman and both the doctor and the woman are freed from any criminal liability.

Let's unpack this rather condensed account of the law. A woman learns that she is pregnant and, for whatever reason, the news is unwelcome to her. She wants an abortion. She goes to her local hospital, where she is told, "We'll convene our therapeutic abortion committee to consider your application". (The wheels of bureaucracy are grinding into motion. This shouldn't take long!)

The sharp reader will immediately note that the law is formulated so as to minimize access to abortion. The statute first declares abortion illegal. The default position is, no abortion; the onus is on the woman to demonstrate that she qualifies for an exemption. The statute could have been written the other way around:  the legislature could have declared abortion legal in most cases, with certain exceptions.

The law required four doctors to be involved in each abortion. According to subsection (6) of the statute, a minimum of three doctors had to serve on the therapeutic abortion committee; then the abortion was to be carried out by a fourth doctor, not on the committee. (Presumably so that the doctors who were deciding whether to approve the abortion did not stand to gain financially or in any other respect from the procedure.)

The word therapeutic hints at the criteria the committee would consider. The pregnancy did not have be a matter of life and death for the committee to approve an abortion. Therapeutic signifies that the effect of the pregnancy on the woman's health is also a relevant consideration. But this gives rise to further questions:  will a woman's emotional health be taken into consideration, or only her physical health? And how grave must the threat to her health be, before an abortion will be approved?

For now, I am only calling these issues to your attention, but we will return to them shortly. First, more of Chief Justice Dickson's comments.

At the most basic, physical and emotional level, every pregnant woman is told by the section [of the Criminal Code] that she cannot submit to a generally safe medical procedure that might be of clear benefit to her unless she meets criteria entirely unrelated to her own priorities and aspirations.

Not only does the removal of decision-making power threaten women in a physical sense; the indecision of knowing whether an abortion will be granted inflicts emotional stress.

In the court's judgement, this constituted a "profound" interference with a woman's body. The statute thus violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects the security of the person.

The court then noted an additional problem which we have already hinted at. Even for women who meet the criteria for an abortion, the bureaucratic process resulted in an unacceptable delay. In the province of Quebec, for example, the waiting time for a therapeutic abortion in hospital varied between one and six weeks.

In the context of abortion, any unnecessary delay can have profound consequences on the woman's physical and emotional well-being.

Different medical techniques are employed to perform abortions at different stages of pregnancy. The testimony of expert doctors at trial indicated that in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy, the relatively safe and simple suction dilation and curettage method of abortion is typically used in North America.

From the thirteenth to the sixteenth week, the more dangerous dilation and evacuation procedure is performed, although much less often in Canada than in the United States.

From the sixteenth week of pregnancy, the instillation method is commonly employed in Canada. This method requires the intra-amniotic introduction of prostaglandin, urea, or a saline solution, which causes a woman to go into labour, giving birth to a foetus which is usually dead, but not invariably so.

The uncontroverted evidence showed that each method of abortion progressively increases risks to the woman. Even within the periods appropriate to each method of abortion, the evidence indicated that the earlier the abortion was performed, the fewer the complications and the lower the risk of mortality.

…There is a world of difference, from the psychological point of view of the patient, between a reputedly safe technique of abortion performed under local anaesthetic requiring only a few hours in a hospital and an abortion procedure with a substantially higher complication rate performed under general anaesthetic requiring a longer period of hospitalization, and involving the trauma of induced labour and the delivery of a dead foetus.

We've addressed one of the issues I raised earlier:  the deleterious impact of bureaucratic delay. But the court had another reason for objecting to the statute:  it led to inequitable access to abortion for Canadian women. In some places, there was no local access to abortion except in life and death circumstances.

Of the 1,348 civilian hospitals in operation in 1976, at least 331 hospitals had less than four physicians on their medical staff. In other words, the seemingly neutral requirement of s. 251(4) that at least four physicians be available to authorize and to perform an abortion meant in practice that abortions would be absolutely unavailable in almost one quarter of all hospitals in Canada.…

A further flaw with the administrative system established in s. 251(4) is the failure to provide an adequate standard for therapeutic abortion committees which must determine when a therapeutic abortion should, as a matter of law, be granted.…

Various expert doctors testified at trial that therapeutic abortion committees apply widely differing definitions of health. For some committees, psychological health is a justification for therapeutic abortion; for others it is not. Some committees routinely refuse abortions to married women unless they are in physical danger, while for other committees it is possible for a married woman to show that she would suffer psychological harm if she continued with a pregnancy, thereby justifying an abortion. Some committees refuse to approve applications for second abortions unless the patient consents to sterilization [while] others require psychiatric assessment.

[The result, inevitably, was that women outside an urban setting were much less likely to obtain an abortion locally.]

[For example,] doctors from the Chedoke-McMaster Hospital in Hamilton testified that they received telephone calls from women throughout Ontario who had applied for therapeutic abortions at local hospitals and been refused. At one point, 80 per cent of abortion patients at Chedoke-McMaster were from outside Hamilton, and the hospital was forced to restrict access for women from outside its catchment area.

In sum:
  • The law which existed in Canada in 1988 required a therapeutic abortion committee to approve applications for abortion. Four doctors had to be involved in each procedure.

  • The process resulted in delays which could be injurious to a woman's physical and emotional well-being. Even if the delay was a matter of only a few weeks, it might become necessary to utilize a more invasive and risky procedure to carry out the abortion.

  • The law also resulted in inequitable access to abortion for Canadian women. Many hospitals did not have enough doctors on staff to meet the requirements of the law. Each committee put its own interpretation on the law, with the result that many women had no local access to abortion.

  • The above issues, delay and inequitable access, illustrate the kind of practical difficulties which are likely to arise with any alternative regulatory regimen we might propose. The instant we attempt to protect the fetus, we risk introducing unintended, harmful consequences for women.

A few concluding comments are in order, and here's why. A lawyer once said, "If you allow me to choose all the illustrations, I will win every case." (I apologize, but I don't know the lawyer's name; it's a tidbit I picked up in a first-year law course.)

The saying is certainly apt with respect to the abortion issue. Advocates of the pro-choice position describe every scenario from the woman's point of view, and their position seems unassailable. Advocates of the pro-life position similary skew the data by describing every scenario from the baby's point of view.

I have only summarized the first 20 pages of a 100-page court decision. In all of the excerpts I have provided, Chief Justice Dickson views the issue from the perspective of the pregnant woman.

This is particularly striking when the Chief Justice speaks of the occasional fetus which survives the instillation procedure and is born alive. His concern is solely for the woman — the emotional trauma this will cause her. I am filled with horror for the baby:  a healthy baby, whose safe and pleasant environment is suddenly flooded with a saline solution; expelled from the uterus prematurely, horribly burned, alive and suffering terribly.

If we consider only the data summarized above, Dr. Morgentaler appears in a heroic light. But this post explores the perspective of only one party to the abortion.

Next, we will consider other aspects of the Supreme Court decision, in which the fetus is presented for our consideration. We will ask the vexed question, when does a fertilized ovum become a human being? And we will consider a variety of ways to approach the issue:  ways which seek that elusive balance between the conflicting interests of the pregnant woman and the zygotefetusbaby inside her.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Mind Guerrilla

something to refresh the palate after our recent heavy discussions …

Mind-centered art

"One of Yoko Ono's most powerful childhood memories dates to the final months of World War II in Japan. The U.S. firebombings of Tokyo in March 1945 that left tens of thousands dead and the city a vast charred ruin had forced Yoko's mother to evacuate her family to the countryside for safety.

"Yoko remembers spending the afternoons hiding with her brother Keisuke from the irate and unbalanced world outside. "Lying on our backs, looking up at the sky through an opening in the roof, we exchanged menus in the air and used our powers of visualization to survive." The imaginary realm and the sky as a calling to vast, pale freedom would later become hallmarks of Ono's mind-centered art."

Alexandra Munroe
"Spirit of YES: The Art and Life of Yoko Ono"

Glass Keys to Open the Sky

Water Event:
Yoko Ono wishes to invite you to participate in a water event by requesting you to produce with her a water sculpture, by submitting a water container or idea of one which would form half of the sculpture. Yoko will supply the other half — water. The sculpture will be credited as Water Sculpture by Yoko Ono and yourself. The sculpture will be displayed lasting the duration of the show.

Yes Painting

The viewer looked through the magnifying glass (hanging at the top of the ladder) at a painting of the word "YES" on the ceiling.

This is a historic piece in the lore of John and Yoko. Lennon saw it the first day he met Yoko and immediately "got" it. He was relieved to discover that Yoko had a positive message.

Fountain Piece:

Go to Eros
fountain and
throw in all
your jewelleries.

London, Sept., 1966

Play By Trust

All the chess pieces and all the squares are white. Any piece can be moved to any square.

Sun Piece:
Watch the sun until it becomes square.
1962 winter

Cleaning Piece (Riverbed)

(In the background is Morning Beams)

Yoko allowed viewers to pick up and move the stones. Some installations had these instructions:
Make a numbered list of sadness in your life. Pile up stones corresponding to those numbers. Add a stone each time there is a sadness. Burn the list and appreciate the mound of stones for its beauty.
Make a numbered list of happiness in your life. Pile up the stones corresponding to those numbers. Add a stone each time there is a happiness. Compare the mound of stones to the one of sadness.

Painting to See the Skies:

Drill two holes into a canvas. Hang it where you can see the sky.
(Change the place of hanging. Try both the front and the rear windows, to see if the skies are different.)

1961 summer

Two Is One

("Two Is One" sketch by John Lennon)

If you're wondering about the title, it comes from the lyrics to the John Lennon song, "Mind Games":

We're playing those mind games together
Pushing the barriers, planting seeds
Playing the mind guerrilla
Chanting the Mantra, peace on earth.

John and Yoko believed in the power of ideas and mental images to change the world:  in particular, to conquer the world for peace. Hopelessly naive? Maybe, but name a better strategy. Changing institutions and structures will only take us so far. Ultimately, hope rests on changing how people think.

Glass keys to open the sky. Get it?