Saturday, June 9, 2012


Learning from the Big Burn

In trying to turn the monster Gila forest fire to advantage—every disaster becomes his opportunity to advance a business-oriented agenda—Congressman Steven Pearce presents only one side of two sides of the continuing debate about forest management policy (“Responsible forest management is imperative,” LCS-N, 5 Jun 12). The debate boils down to a choice between lands denuded by lumbering or lands ripe for denuding by forest fires, between the cut-and-clear crowd and the save-our-trees-at-all-costs crowd. Between the business folk and the Bambi-lovers, there is little to choose.

For the forests suffer from the policies implemented by both sides because, for over a hundred years, both sides, exploiters and environmentalists, have defined forest fires as bad, bad, bad. But a moment’s reflection, if both sides would pause from fighting one another long enough to reflect, would show that forest fires are not bad in themselves. They result from a natural cause, lightning strikes; and. despite thousands of them over millennia, forests were robust until we promoted lumbering or protected them from it.

The benefit of naturally occurring fires is that they prevent understory build-up of brush. When humans protect this brush by putting out fires, it creates the excessive fuel for unnaturally intense fires. Such fires not only destroy brush and trees, but also sterilize the soil by overheating it or actually burning it off. The result is land slow to revegetate, with centuries required to make the transition from small plants and bushes to trees of any kind. Needless to say, the effects on wildlife are equally disastrous.

The best policy for forests is to return them to as close as possible to an approximation of an ecologically balanced, or “natural,” state. Today, because many forests are overgrown, the Forest Service should systematically prune undergrowth to natural densities, perhaps permit selective lumbering to help restore these forests to natural conditions, and build and maintain fire breaks to prevent the spread of fires to residential or commercial areas. Tomorrow, national policy should be to let nature tend to forests with the small, localized fires by which it has always tended them.

Pearce has it right without knowing why that present fire-fighting policy is wrong, because the Forest Service creates conditions for monster fires, which, once they occur, leave nothing to burn; he has it wrong without caring why that the timber industry’s clear-cutting practices are also wrong, because they leave nothing to burn.

Same-Sex Marriage

The Devil may quote Scripture, but even Christians who hate their enemies cannot cite the Bible as an unequivocal authority on monogamous marriage only. After all, Hebrews practiced polygamy for centuries, and procreation with family servants as well as wives. The importance of procreation—“be fruitful and multiply”—for economic and military purposes suggests clear reasons why these considerations prompted religious approval of these practices and religious sanctions against same-sex relationships.

Those considerations do not apply today, so ancient censures make no sense. As contemporary morality reflected historical circumstances to justify polygamy and reproduction by proxy, so modern morality reflects, or should reflect, present circumstances to justify alternatives to heterosexual marriage. In this sense, moral relativism is a fact of history recognizing and respecting an evolving cultural reality in a slow response to changing circumstances. Moral relativism does not mean no morals; it means that different people in different cultures or circumstances have different morals. In a free country, have your morals, let other have theirs, and debate, not dictate, them.

The definition of “marriage,” like that of “life,” is a cultural and traditional one, not an immutable, inherent one. In America, states define and sanction marriage. Although many marriage ceremonies occur under religious auspices and are presided over by religious leaders, officiants are acting as agents of the state in establishing the legal, marital relationship between two people, however sanctioned also by religious words and rites. Thus, any state’s definition of “marriage” based on religion violates the First Amendment’s provision against an establishment of religion and for freedom of religion.

Opposition to same-sex marriage has two main motives. One is fear and loathing of social change which energize the culture war between Christian fundamentalists, whether Protestant or Catholic, and other social conservatives; and everybody else. The other is a perceived threat to the opponents’ marriages, whereby they project their fears for their marriages and, in their opposition, may even be speaking indirectly to their spouses, for whom opposite-sex marriage covers their same-sex inclinations. The steady stream of revelations of same-sex proclivities in those most given to denouncing same-sex relationships is evidence of precisely this tension-fraught situation. In any event, opponents have never explained how a marriage between same-sex partners, usually strangers, can and does adversely affect their marriages.

I shall be happy, not hateful, if others can have committed, loving, and fulfilling relationships, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. More such relationships are better than fewer, and a society offering equality for all is better than a society divided between first- and second-class citizens.

Abortions for Gender Preferences

The House of Representatives—that means the Tea-Party-dominated Republican Party—is developing legislation to ban abortions based on a woman’s choice to have or not have a boy or a girl.

Some women face a dilemma: they favor woman’s freedom of choice respecting abortion, but they disapprove of abortions to avoid a child of a gender not preferred. A few days ago, one of them, a pro-choice, mainstream Christian, asked for my opinion.

Here it is. First, I clear the ground of prejudice against those who are developing this legislation. No one should care that it comes from the usual suspects who want to infringe upon a woman’s right to choose and whom many regard as both personally and political unsavory, for reasons which I need not elaborate.

Second, even though the legislation comes from virulent anti-abortionists I think that the dilemma should be resolved on its merits. Even stopped clocks are right twice a day.

Whether a woman believes that life begins at conception, at breach, or in days later, she must value and respect the fetus as potentially fully human. Her decision to abort must not made for frivolous reasons. To abort or not to abort—the question is not on a par with a mall shopper’s question to buy flats or heels, shorts or slacks. Worse, a woman wanting a choice based on her gender preference indicates a diminished regard for even the child meeting her specifications. For the choice discloses her self-centeredness; her child is all about her, for her—a perspective boding ill for the child. For, to her, a child not meeting her expectations will likely be a disappointment.

So I come down against this choice and for such legislation if it does not go beyond this limited purpose. For instance, I would oppose a specific piece of legislation which gave more weight to doctor’s opinion of the woman’s motives than to the woman’s statement of what they are—a likely abuse to be expected of many doctors in many states.

Whatever else may be argued about a woman’s right to choose, no rights are absolute. The right to free speech, say, is limited; treason, incitement, libel and slander, and the like are not constitutionally protected. Likewise, the right to an abortion has been limited in a variety of ways already, rightly in some instances, I think, and should rightly be limited in this instance.


  1. Interesting column, as usual. On the abortion issue, here you come up a bit short. A law is only half stated until implementation policy is specified. You touch on this briefly, but it deserves full attention.

    If the law says that it is illegal when a woman specifies that the abortion is gender motivated, most women will be savvy enough to pronounce some other reason. In this case the law has no effect, and we have plenty of ineffective laws. If the implementation policy is that someone else shall interpret her motives, then paranoia has a rational basis. Thus the bind: a fair rational implementation policy is disturbingly elusive. Yet without the implementation policy specified, such laws are either dangerous or pointless.

  2. I appreciate your position on abortion rights and your analogy that even a stopped clock (that would be the Tea Party) is right twice a day. I could also see myself as opposing sex-selective abortion if the legal restriction "does not go beyond this limited purpose." But in practice, wouldn't it be very hard to decide exactly why a woman is requesting an abortion?

    Some doctors will not screen fetuses for Down Syndrome or other diseases/abnormalities, fearing the woman will choose abortion if any deformity is discovered. One might imagine that these same doctors would not screen fetuses to determine the sex if they feared that this information, too, could result in an abortion. (To find doctors who make this objection, I'd first look in China and India, where abortion/infanticide of girls is extremely common.)

    When a woman has pre-natal screening to determine information about the fetus she's carrying and she subsequently requests an abortion, it is difficult to prove that her desire for the abortion is unrelated to the information that was revealed in the screening. Thus doctors resort to refusing the screenings in the first place, which I think is unfortunate.

  3. The preceding points are good ones but require some additional comment.

    I am for screening for fetal defects as they have been traditionally defined medically; I am for curing them, if possible. However, I draw the line at non-medical factors; lack of athletic or intellectual prowess or good looks is not a fetal defect. Moreover, what would be the standard for the first two features and how long would it remain the standard?

    I think that concealment of motive would be easy and enforcement of the law difficult, tricky, perhaps virtually impossible. But the law would establish a socially recognized norm, or standard of conduct, which would be commendable. Otherwise, we are going to go in the direction of tailored children. More whites, fewer blacks? More blond(e)s, fewer brunettes and redheads? More blue eyes, fewer brown eyes? Draw the line now.

    Nothing about the proposed law addresses the problem, which probably already exists, of doctors misleading or otherwise not serving their patients’ interests. Indeed, in some states, legislators are proposing or enacting laws which permit doctors to lie to their patients. The reputation of doctors lying without liability would eventually suffer and stigmatize all doctors (do we not look at all Catholic priests with some suspicion because some priests are child molesters?). In any event, I see that issue as largely separable from this one.