Tuesday, June 9, 2015

What's an Embryo and is it a Person?

I don't think "pre-embryos" are people for the same reason I don't think cake mix is the same as cake. There's all the ingredients, there's potential, but the fact that you still need a proper environment to develop, and that you can freeze embryos but not people (and expect them to survive), means there's a distinct difference between the seed and the seedling.

It needs to actually be clarified that fertility circles misuse the term embryo. Truth be told, I actually do believe real embryos are the tiniest beginning of people. But only when embryo is used correctly to refer to post implantation. Pre implantation, we have a fertilized egg, a morula, finally a blastocyst, depending on number of times cell division has taken place. Mere cell division doesn't turn a fertilized egg into a baby. For that, you need the womb. Only when planted in the lush uterine wall of a woman does a seed stand the chance to grow into a seedling.

Furthermore, the fact that before implantation, a blastocyst can split into two separate blastocysts, possibly resulting in the implantation of both and resulting in identical twins, this should tell us personhood doesn't begin until we are certain only one individual will result. Not only that, but two blasts can also fuse into one, forming a person known as a chamera, or an individual with two sets of DNA. This should prove that a singular unique DNA doesn't equal an individual, as is commonly thought.

This has little implication for the pro-life movement when it comes to abortion, since many women don't seek abortion until they miss their period, which means implantation has already taken place and - according to the above reasoning - there is a tiny baby at stake.  

But this reasoning does have implications for contraception-as-an-abortificant that is cited as one reason against contraception by the Catholic church.  Birth control pills can indeed prevent a fertilized egg from implanting, but if we were to accept implantation as the point of personhood, this should have no bearing. 

This reasoning also has implications for in-vitro fertilization.  Many people who complete their fertility treatment and are left with pre-embryos they do not plan on transferring in hopes of another baby are faced with a dilemma, at least those who believe that life begins at conception.  They don't want to keep the pre-embryos for themselves, either by transferring them or paying storage indefinitely.  But they don't want to destroy them or donate them to science either, since this would be synonymous with murder for those who believe a fertilized egg is a human person.  The third alternative is to allow the pre-embryos to be "adopted" into another family who will transfer them and hope to grow and raise their own baby. Sounds like the perfect solution, right?

Yes and no.  See, while pre-embryos are in the pre-implantation stage, it's one thing.  But once they are implanted and develop into a true embryo and later fetus, there is no going back - there won't be two out of one or one out of two.  However many implantations took place, that's how many babies are growing. And if those babies have DNA from a family other than the one they are being born into and raised by, then issues of identity and medical history and general access to the child's genetic relatives and ethnic heritage become issues.  These are not things that can easily be figured out after the fact, and yet many people don't think about the potential future child's sense of self when choosing fertility treatment options.  I'm not saying third party reproduction should or shouldn't happen.  I'm saying that when it does, the potential child's best interest needs to be paramount, both from the perspective of the donors (that they be willing to be known, at least when child turns 18), and from the parents (that they be open with child about their background and willing to support contact with genetic family).  

I don't expect us to all come to an agreement on when human personhood begins any time soon.  People make rationalizations for killing each other at all stages of growth and development, way past the in-the-womb stage, so there will always be those who simply don't care about the experiences of the in-utero fetus.

A side note, I used to cringe at the term "fetus", as I thought it belittled the humanity of the unborn baby. But I realize now that it's merely a stage of development, just like newborn, infant, toddler.... Interestingly, when I was at a store with my newborn daughter, a teenage girl approached us and with a squealing voice announced, "what a little fetus!"  I was horrified, but in retrospect I see that she clearly wasn't saying that my daughter wasn't a human being!  She was saying that she was so small she could easily still fit in the womb, which was true, as she was born weighing less than 6 pounds!

Brain and Heart Think as One

I forget what science film I watched on YouTube that said the brain and heart work together to think, but when I heard it, I instantly thought of how this relates to the concept of the Trinity.
The brain and the heart work together to think.
We’ve assumed that the brain is the sole source of intelligence, with the heart being subservient to the brain.
If the brain is God the Father, and the heart is God the Son, it makes sense when Jesus said that He and the Father are One. The Son does what the Father wants, yet it’s thanks to the heart that the brain can accomplish its goal.
The Holy Spirit is the neurotransmitters being released in the brain, the blood carrying oxygen to the heart, the flow that keeps communication running smoothly between the two.
Now if only I can get past the literal explanations given to the masses by theologians, and instead apply such science-based metaphors and analogies to Catholicism, I'll be well on my way to accepting the faith in good conscience again.

A Year Ago - Beginning of Questioning

Below is a reflection I wrote a year ago, in June of 2014, when I first started to reflect on what my postpartum lack of spirituality may mean.  I'm not sure where I am with this, but some of it still rings true.


Just because I am aware that the Jesus of Christianity is larger than life, the Santa Claus of religion for adults, does that mean I have any place to share this realization with those who believe I him? Would it be fruitless to try? Or maybe even damaging? Did it matter -to them, to me, to God/truth- what someone believes about Jesus/Santa Claus? They of course say yes from their perspective. 

What about from my perspective? There is no room for conversion or proselytizing. Every individual must walk this path herself, discover truth for herself, be courageous in accepting what is revealed by herself. What does matter from my new perspective is what do I do with this knowledge? Do I allow it to shape my ethics and self esteem, image? Can I grow from it, truly following the teaching of the would-be Jesus? Does it change anything for me to no longer believe that Jesus is a historical person? Is there any harm in believing in Santa Claus? No. The message is more important than the vehicle by which it arrives. 

The Santa Claus myth teaches reward for good behavior and punishment (actually, disappointment at worst) for bad behavior. It includes fun traditions, rituals, being a family together. It's a handy excuse for costume, story telling, caroling, gifts, decorations. Is the Santa myth necessary for all of this? No. But it's not harmful, so why burst the bubble of children who believe? Why take away the magic they experience thanks to the myth? 

The same applies to Jesus. I can continue to keep him in my life the way a child keeps Santa in her life. Or I can try to experience all the Christmas season wonder without the myth.

As a mother, my conundrum now is to figure out how to present the story of Jesus to my daughter, so that she can benefit from his "magic" (sense of community, meaning/purpose of life) without programming her to believe something much more difficult to outgrow than the myth of Santa Claus

Monday, June 8, 2015

Identity Outside of Spirituality

I've been writing a lot about my spiritual and philosophical musings lately.  But sometimes I find that there are aspects of my identity that really push spirituality into the background.  I've been learning a lot about race lately, participating in #mywhiteprivilege Facebook status updates every day in June.  At first I resisted, arguing that as a non-English speaking immigrant to the US, White privilege somehow didn't apply to me.  But I soon realized that while I experienced my own share of prejudice for being "a foreigner", I nonetheless could "pass for White American", and hence I benefited from White privilege.  And so I began the challenge, because I realized that there are multiple prejudices in society, race being only one, and just because one applies to me doesn't mean another doesn't, or vice versa.

I've been learning new terminology such as microaggressions, small comments or actions, often unintentional and not necessarily "a big deal" on their own, that collectively serve to be a constant reminder to racial/ethnic minorities of their "non-standard status" in society.  I'm reminded of a friend, White American, who takes great interest in people who show "interesting" physical features. She approaches total strangers to ask where their heritage is from.  She considers this a neutral expression of her appreciation of their looks.  Apparently, the fact that people who are the recipients of such inquiries from her are having to deal with multiple such comments and questions only adds to their sense of "otherness".  My friend means well, but she is coming from a place of her own White privilege, where the reason she asks these questions is because she considers people with seemingly mixed heritage as out of the norm.  I can see that getting old real quick if I can't go anywhere without having to have my racial identity questioned.  And what about adoptees or donor conceived people who may not even know their full racial/ethnic heritage?  This sort of question not only reminds them that they look different from the norm, it reminds them of the loss of their genetic relatives and the associated heritage.

Another phrase I'm trying to wrap my mind around is "people of color", which refers to anyone who is not fully White.  I question this phrase, as it seems to only perpetrate the idea that Whiteness is the norm, that it's "colorless".  My husband doesn't care for the phrase either.  While I understand that "racial/ethnic minority" may not roll of the tongue as easily, that's what I use.  Then again, I also realize that the term "minority" is problematic, because in terms of sheer numbers, Whites are outnumbered worldwide by the other races put together.  This conundrum reminds me of the issue of calling Native Americans... well, Native Americans.  I've heard some who do not like being grouped under this umbrella term, and prefer to go by their specific tribal association.  I lived this preference for a couple of decades.  I fought being grouped with White Americans because I considered myself specifically Polish.  But with time came assimilation, and since now I identify more closely with my adopted home, I likewise identify more closely with other White Americans.

And speaking of losing ties with my native Poland... I recently wrote an article about my experiences growing up bilingual and how I struggled with one aspect of Polish grammar - differentiating between the formal and informal "you" when addressing my mother.  Since I did not grow up hearing any child address an elder in an informal way, I struggled for years with this.  But the first comment I read from a reader was from a Pole who grew up in Poland who never had this struggle, yet found it appropriate to call my experience "funny".  This stung, but only a little.  Since I have already distanced myself from so-called "fellow Poles", this comment only served to confirm my decision to self-identify more closely with Americans.

My final observation has to do with the idea of color-blindness when it comes to race.  Some people think this is the solution to racial prejudice.  I see this sort of thinking as similar to one flavor of feminism which encouraged women to be more like men, instead of valuing women's uniqueness in its own right.  Why should we pretend that race doesn't exist?  No, it exists.  It just doesn't need to come with all the associated baggage of stereotypes, phobias, privilege, bigotry, power struggles, etc. But people should be able to celebrate their racial/ethnic heritage, just without it being turned against them.  Diversity, not color-blindness, is the solution to racism.  IMHO

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

A Catholic by Any Other Name...

Alas, I think I am destined to struggle with my spirituality forever.  Yet again, I thought I was finally on to something when I declared to my hubby with gusto that "I want to become a Quaker".  For a week, I began sitting in waiting worship daily, which quickly started to help me gather my thoughts.  I've attended the meeting that would be closest to where we hope to move twice now, and last Sunday I participated in a faith sharing meeting there, where I heard from multiple former Catholics about their journey, and I heard myself sharing that what brought me there was the testimony of integrity.  In other words, I felt that continuing to call myself a Catholic when I do not subscribe to the creed or many of the Catholic teachings was being dishonest with myself.  I've allowed strict Catholics to define for me what purpose that label has.

Today, while still interested in Quaker spirituality, I'm wanting to give Catholicism yet another try.  I've realized through my daily waiting worship that I've been looking to outsource my spirituality instead of taking it on myself.  I thought that by associating myself with the right group, their spirituality and values would just rub off on me.  I have been avoiding doing the hard work myself.

It's occurred to me that even Mother Theresa went through years of questioning the existence of God, yet never ceased to call herself a Catholic.  Likewise, she didn't stop receiving Communion because of her temporary lack of faith.  I took note that the difference was that she wanted to believe, while I had made up my mind that I simply don't.  But was this really true?

After reading some Deepak Chopra, I'm quite comfortable with the idea that God is not a superhuman divinity made in our image.  God is beyond anything that language could describe him as.  Instead, when we learn that we are made in God's image, that's to say that we are currently just having a human experience.  When we die, we rejoin our Source, God, and thereby live forever.  I don't know the details, and I'm comfortable without the details.  I'm comforted knowing that death is not the end of existence, and that it will all make sense and be good.

With that said, I started to think about what it means to have a human experience.  How plants are limited to experience God through physical means only - photosynthesis, roots drinking up water and nutrients, branches and leaves waving in the wind.  Animals have a bit more ways in which they experience God.  They are able to move around physically, yet they are limited by their instinct.  They feel, they think, but they experience the current moment.  They don't dwell on the past or future.

Humans, in addition, do have the virtual domain - we can think of alternate universes, experience God creatively, but unfortunately many of us let our ability dominate the simplicity with which God can be experienced.  Religion generally attempts to put God in a framework that is readily understood, even at the cost of putting proverbial words into God's mouth.  I've let my intellect convince me that the theology taught by my - or any - religion is "not true".  But in this line of reasoning, I've completely missed the point.

I'm having a human experience in this lifetime.  Religion is part of that experience.  Saying I can't affiliate myself with a religion because I don't believe it's true is sort of like saying that I can't wear clothing because I don't think it's "true."  Clothing is neither true or false.  It's not meant to be factual. It's meant to keep us safe from the elements, perhaps to help us express our inner feelings, to help us feel as though we belong with a group by wearing a similar style... Some people have let clothing take on way more meaning than necessary.  Some use it to make others feel left out, perhaps by wearing clothes others can't afford; others abuse clothing - or worse, others - by utilizing sweat shops or wasting natural resources for the sake of getting certain clothes.  Clothing has taken on a life of its own, way beyond its useful purpose.  I think the same is the case with religion.

People who waste time telling me whether or not I can call myself Catholic are missing the point. My relationship with God is what's "true".  The religion with which I associate is merely a convenient, cultural convention.  The religion is not God.  My religious affiliation is not my relationship with God.  My relationship with God can only be guided by the wisdom of others, based solely on their own personal relationship with God, thanks to time spent in prayer/silence/meditation.  To give up my own direct link to God for the sake of taking on what others tell me has been their experience is to avoid a relationship with God altogether.

Why should I take someone else's word for what God is like, instead of going straight to the source? Why should I assume that what God asks of one person, He asks of everyone?  I believe He has a different task for each of us, and no religion can teach us what that is.  Only personal discernment can reveal it to us.

My religion is not about God but about me.  Religion is a human experience.  Animals and plants - and presumably every creation in the universe - experiences God in the manner in which they were created.  There's no reason for me to get rid of religion altogether from my life.  I should be able to reap the benefits of religion without losing myself in it.  It's not the religion that is the source of my being.  Religion is not God.

I've allowed people to make me feel as though I am disrespecting God by not agreeing with any one religion, or worse (they say), disagreeing but going about my worship time as if I did, disagreeing but continuing to affiliate myself with those who do.  Well, I have news for you scrupulous nit-pickers! The church is not God, so stop treating it as if it is.  Just like I shouldn't outsource my spirituality to a religion in order to experience God and listen to His leadings in my life, so too, I don't believe that God outsourced His desire to be personally in relationship with each one of us, regardless of the manner in which we turn to Him.

Evangelical Christians would agree with me about the personal relationship with God, but instead of church hierarchy, they have their interpretation of the Bible that nonetheless serves as a go-between. I strongly disagree that only Christians have a relationship with God.  Frankly, I think many if not most who self-identify as Christian actually do not have any kind of relationship with God.   I'm referring to a very intimate surrender of one's being - unhindered by cultural assumptions or what we've read in the Bible or other scripture - and simply allowing God to show Himself to us directly.  For some of us, this will indeed be in the words of scripture.  For some, it will indeed be inside the walls of a church.  But for others, it will be in the relaxed gazing out at the stars, or surrounded by the laughter of a child, or in feeling the sunshine or rain on our skin.  (I think this last one - feeling the rain on her skin - is one way my 18 month old daughter experiences God the best.)

So where does that put me on the religious spectrum?  While I don't believe in most Catholic theology and a few of the church's social teachings, that's not the point.  The point is, Catholic spirituality is full of opportunities to experience God, to draw closer to His will for my life.  My job is not to please fellow Catholics.  I'm tired of trying to respect everyone but myself when it comes to my spirituality.  God wants me to turn to Him, and I can't do that if I'm distracted with technicalities about other people's interpretations of God's nature.  I value Quaker testimonies and silent worship a lot, but I've realized that I can find these within Catholicism as well.  Perhaps I have to dig a little deeper, but they're all there.  Among the candles, incense, and stained glass.