SEX AND THE SINGLE PLANET
Rev. Kit Ketcham, May 10, 2009
Rev. Kit Ketcham, May 10, 2009
A few weeks ago, our local newspaper, the South Whidbey Record, published the information that The Hub, Langley’s youth connection after-school hangout at the Methodist Church, was making condoms and prevention information about pregnancy and STD’s available free to its teenage visitors. I noted this with approval and thought, “Good for them! And good for the Methodists to have The Hub in their basement!”
It was just one more reminder that this island is a pretty progressive place and I felt pleased once again with my happy landing here on Whidbey.
A week later, a letter appeared in the opinion section of the paper responding with polite horror to the very idea that young people should be taught anything but abstinence when it came to sexual behavior. She felt that to offer information about prevention was to encourage sexual activity.
The writer was genuinely concerned about teens’ future and how too-early sexual behavior can negatively affect their lives. And I agreed with her on that point but couldn’t resist writing a letter of disagreement in response, particularly when she launched into a diatribe about Planned Parenthood and a litany of accusations about one of my favorite organizations, a humanitarian organization that was started by a courageous woman, Margaret Sanger, who saw the anguish of women whose bodies were worn out by pregnancy and who were dying in childbirth and from illegal abortions sought out of desperation.
In my letter of response, I mentioned the ineffectiveness of abstinence-only sex education, as documented in government studies, and I described the sex education curriculum developed jointly by the UUA and the UCof C, entitled Our Whole Lives.
OWL, as it is called, has segments for all age groups, from pre-school to adult, and we intend to offer the middle-school-age curriculum here during the next year.
But our topic today is not abstinence only sex education nor the rate of American teen pregnancies and STD’s. It’s not abortion or contraception, per se, but rather the larger issue of too many people on this planet, too many pregnancies across the planet, too few ways of controlling population ethically.
Mavis Cauffman, our administrator, often sends me articles and web links on upcoming topics and I’m particularly grateful to her for sending me this one, for, in an article for Scientific American entitled “10 Myths of Sustainability”, writer Michael D. Lemonick offers this observation:
Myth 9: Sustainability is ultimately a population problem.
This is not a myth, but it represents a false solution. Every environmental problem is ultimately a population problem.
If the world’s population were only 100 million people, we would be hard-pressed to generate enough waste to overwhelm nature’s cleanup systems. We could dump all our trash in a landfill in some remote area, and nobody would notice.
Population experts agree that the best way to limit population is to educate women and raise the standard of living generally in developing countries. But that strategy cannot possibly happen quickly enough to put a dent in the population on any useful timescale. The U.N. projects that the planet will have to sustain another 2.6 billion people by 2050. But even at the current population level of 6.5 billion, we’re using up resources at an unsustainable rate. There is no way to reduce the population significantly without trampling egregiously on individual rights (as China has done with its one-child policy), encouraging mass suicide or worse. None of those proposals seems preferable to focusing directly on less wasteful use of resources.
Linda and Leonard Good, who purchased the right to choose a sermon topic at our annual auction, have requested that I preach about overpopulation and its effect on the resources of the earth. Linda wrote me a list of possible questions to consider: why do people have large families? How come we don’t hear more about the effects of overpopulation on the environment?
How does it relate to our first principle, of the worth and dignity of every person? Is UUSC doing anything about population issues? What about Planned Parenthood? Have things changed with a new administration? What are the statistics about contraception, abortion, sex ed, that sort of thing? How does social engineering figure into the issue? Would we end up with designer babies? Would the wealthy be favored? How about the relationship between education and birth control? And, finally, what can and should we as UUs do?
Quite the daunting list of questions and more than enough to cover in a 20 minute sermon!
And when I began to dig into the topic and to consider my own personal response to it, I had to dig down through the layers of consequences, possible solutions to those consequences, to see what lay at the bottom of the issue.
Why do we have an overpopulation problem on this planet? It’s a two part answer and, put most bluntly, it’s partly because we humans keep having babies. And why do we keep having babies? Because, aside from the basic human need for air, water, and food, we humans have an innate need to reproduce ourselves; most of us are drawn physically and emotionally into relationships which create babies.
Sexual desire, a lovely and nearly irresistible force in human life, causes human beings to mate and, if the two participants are fertile, to produce offspring. Many, perhaps most of us are susceptible to sexual desire and want to have children.
There was a time in human history when this was not a problem. There were real reasons to have many children: rural families needed many hands to manage farms and homesteads; in areas without health care, many children died and did not become self-sufficient adults; large families were the norm, not the exception, for these reasons.
Ancient religious laws mandated certain behaviors which led to procreation and forbade sexual relationships that did not lead to reproduction.
Even today, there is encouragement from religious traditions to continue to have large families. For Catholics, it is a sin to use contraception. For Mormons, it has been the desire to create human bodies for celestial spirits, though this practice is changing in latter-day church policy. Some strict Christian sects also tend to encourage large families.
One such Christian group is the Quiverfull movement, which takes the Biblical mandate “to be fruitful and multiply” quite literally. It is based on Psalm 127 which says, “like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.”
Those in the Quiverfull movement shun birth control, believing that God will give them the right number of children. It turns out that’s a lot of kids, in most cases, despite the realities of raising many children, educating them well and providing adequate supervision, health care, and physical and emotional nourishment, to say nothing of what it does to a woman’s body and spirit to have 10 or even more pregnancies.
For Quiverfull families, the motivation to have many children is a not-so-secret desire to preserve Christian patriarchy and to change society.
Author Kathryn Joyce quotes a leader in the movement who says: “If everyone starts having eight or 12 children, imagine in three generations what we’ll be able to do. We’ll be able to take over both halls of Congress, we’ll be able to reclaim sinful cities like San Francisco for the faithful, and we’ll be able to wage very effective boycotts against companies that are going against God’s will.”
Quiverfull is one example of a culture of fecundity, the idea of more is better, children are wealth, fertility should be uncontrolled, dominion over the earth is desirable, and a husband has marital rights over his wife.
It has long been considered an inviolable human right to determine one’s own family size and efforts to regulate the exercise of this right have had mostly negative results.
In China, whose culture inflates the importance and value of male children, a one-child rule has led to abandonment and even infanticide of female babies. It has also led to a surplus of marriageable young men and a scarcity of marriageable young women. It has been blamed for an increase in violence among young men who are unable to marry and raise families.
In polygamous Mormon families, a related dynamic has resulted from the early marriage of multiple young women to adult men who wish to have more than one wife. Young men who cannot find mates because of this practice are effectively excluded from the community where they grew up.
Unwanted pregnancies, if not prevented by contraception, may be ended by legal abortion in this country, but this is not an acceptable practice for many. Even if women believe that abortion is a legitimate option, many are uncomfortable seeking an abortion, for a variety of reasons.
Looking at the other side of the coin, the second reason for overpopulation, we, in our scientific and medically-motivated zeal, are also prolonging human life, learning to thwart disease, to slow down the aging process, to save the lives of premature and desperately ill or handicapped children. Our human instinct to survive has produced in us a need to do all we can to stave off death, in addition to our drive to reproduce.
But what are the effects of too many people on too small a planet?
Here are just a few in random order: overcrowded cities, lack of animal habitat, restrictions of personal freedom, deforestation, neglected children, loss of soil nutrients from overused farm land, solid waste, human waste, social effects of crowding such as violence and disease, proliferation of pests because of an imbalance in ecosystems, insufficient food, insufficient water, insufficient energy resources, land erosion, poverty, pollution, massive numbers of refugees from famine-ravaged and war-torn countries.
Nature has its own solutions to the problems of overpopulation---they are called pandemics, famine, war, violence. The earth will survive but human beings may not. We are proliferating ourselves beyond the capacity of our species to survive under the conditions we have created.
There are some indications that birthrates across the planet are falling or leveling off in some places. But China, by the year 2050, will no longer be the most populous country in the world. India will have beat them. And there is no possibility that birthrates will decline quickly enough to prevent many of the drastic consequences attributable to overpopulation.
In the United States, overconsumption of resources adds to the global crisis of overpopulation. We ourselves average 2.1 children per family, yet we consume 25% of the available resources, compared to other countries.
We have declined to support United Nations efforts to educate other human beings across the planet about how to prevent unwanted pregnancy.
And it’s not just how much we consume but the technology we use to produce all that we consume----and the waste we create as we produce and consume it.
So what are the solutions? The ethical, practical, do-able solutions? And what happens when they come up against the emotional reasons we humans have for wanting children and to live a long and healthy life?
The solutions put forth by most experts on population issues tend to be educational in nature: raise women’s awareness and give them the tools to prevent pregnancy and to protect themselves from sexual assault; raise men’s awareness and give them the tools to prevent pregnancy and to treat women as equal partners, not as a means for sexual gratification; teach people to manage their resources sustainably; educate developing nations about agriculture; help developing countries to offer incentives for voluntarily reducing the birth rate; educate people about the effects of overpopulation on their own nation; teach people to manage their waste products, both garbage and sewage.
But all of these well-meaning efforts inevitably come up against human nature and our instinctive drives to reproduce ourselves, to nurture new lives and to prolong each life. Our compassion for human life clashes with the hard-headed, rational view that we must eliminate drains on our resources, that we must let people die sooner or force people not to have more than one or two children.
Our insistence on religious freedom clashes with our disagreement with those religious leaders who preach dominion of the earth and forbid use of contraception or abortion.
On Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, we celebrate the parental roles we’ve enjoyed and these moments of pleasure clash with our uneasy feeling that we have brought children into this troubled, overcrowded world.
Our awareness of the effect of overcrowding on the resources of this earth clashes with our primal need to be in relationship, to offer the best we have to the younger beings in our lives and our drive to live as long as possible.
I’d like to stop at this moment for a time of silence, to consider the welter of conflicting desires, needs, and hopes inherent in the condition of overpopulation. And then I am going to invite you to share your own thoughts about your experience as a parent, as a child, as a human being torn between the clear need for restraint and conservation of our resources and the deep, inherent human desire for adding something/someone worthwhile to this world. (Silence) What would you like to say?
I don’t know that there is a perfectly clear answer to the huge dilemma of overpopulation and its effect on the environment. The reality of not enough resources to support the growing population is clear. There are few ethical ways of reducing the population other than voluntarily.
And so it seems to me that we are faced, on Mother’s Day, with that oldest of motherly dilemmas----how to get the kids to clean up their rooms, to do their homework, and to choose friends who won’t get them into trouble, all the while giving them a certain amount of freedom to make mistakes. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
We know what needs to be done. We need to model appropriate behavior, offer incentives, require certain standards to be met, and hope and pray a lot that the kids will get the message and not screw up their lives.
We need to make sure they have the information they need to stay safe while taking on the tasks of adulthood. We need to offer real help as they are learning, not just yell at them for their mistakes.
And, in the end, there is no guarantee that they will do what we want them to do. We can only do our own work of cleaning up, of doing our homework, of communicating the needs of the planet clearly and thoroughly. We can’t stand still and do nothing, whether or not the rest of the world agrees.
It’s hard to know how to bring a discussion like this to a close. The problem is so vast and the solutions seem so puny, so slow, so difficult to achieve. We want quicker action! We want to be able to point a finger---cut that out, you prolific parents! But so much of human life is like this---that there is really only slow, dogged, painstaking work to be done and there is no guarantee of the outcome.
So our work as Unitarian Universalists, as human beings, really, is to find the patience to do what we can on our own doorsteps, accomplishing what we can locally, giving support to faraway efforts to educate and raise the standard of living, speaking out for education, for self-control, for an end to poverty and oppression.
All of this will make a difference, however slowly. It may not be accomplished in our lifetime; it may never be accomplished. The human race may well die out because of our own foolishness.
All we can do is seize the day, do what we can today, raise our children and our grandchildren and our students with the knowledge they need to continue our work, letting go of the eventual outcome, since we cannot control it, and trust that our work today is not in vain.
Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that no act of conscience, however small, is wasted, that no helping hand to a struggling child is in vain. May we offer our love and our guidance to all the children, those nearby and those faraway, knowing that they hope for the same thing we do: a planet that is livable and beautiful, a community that is supportive and sustainable, a life that is satisfying and productive. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.