More Junk Science from the NY Times

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For several decades, as women’s reproductive rights in the United States have come under frequent attack, the New York Times has been a staunch and consistent opponent of attempts to ban or drastically limit access to legal abortion. On 15 April 2014, the Times published an op-ed piece by Thomas B. Edsall titled “Abortion Endures as a Political Tripwire.” The essay expressed support for women’s right to abortion and asked why it is that abortion remains such a hot-button issue while certain other controversies that once seemed explosive — notably, gay marriage — have apparently lost political traction.

Unfortunately, in his efforts to find the answer to this question Edsall settles on an explanation that is peculiar, to say the least. He approvingly quotes two proponents of an evolutionary theory that suggests that vehement opposition to abortion is the inevitable result of (male) human nature. Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker and Nebraska political scientist John Hibbing opine that male attempts to limit access to abortion are understandable because, in Edsall’s words, “reproduction is both a core political issue and a core evolutionary one.” In evolutionary terms, males might want to restrict abortion as part of their attempt to, in Pinker’s words, “guarantee paternity, since a cuckolded man is in the worst imaginable evolutionary scenario…”

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Edsall appears to have fallen for this bit of pseudoscientific nonsense hook, line, and sinker. Like so many explanations grounded in sociobiology (which proponents now call “evolutionary psychology” in an effort to escape the tarnished reputation of the earlier term), this one fails on historical and cross-cultural grounds.

For one thing, until the 19th century, in most cultures of the world abortion before “quickening” (the first movement of the fetus in the womb at approximately three months gestation) was considered permissible. Indeed, in many places and time periods a woman was not deemed to be pregnant until she announced herself to be so; anything she did before that point to make herself not pregnant (“restore menses” or “restore herself to health” was the way it was often phrased) was her business and hers alone. (I discuss this further in the “A Little Bit Pregnant” chapter of Sex and Herbs and Birth Control.) It is bizarre to categorize current opposition to first-trimester abortion as part of the “evolutionary core” of human actions if this supposed core did not manifest itself in any systematic way until the 19th century.

For another thing, the U.S. is virtually unique in the abortion issue being, as Edsall rightly terms it, a “political tripwire.” Certain parts of the world — such as China, Japan, and most of south and southeast Asia, which together hold about half of the world’s population — have liberal abortion laws and no significant anti-abortion movement. In some places that still have restrictive laws on abortion the laws have been greatly liberalized over the last couple of decades (this is true of Mexico and certain South American countries). In Latin America most opposition to abortion has come from the Catholic Church (which, by the way, did not categorically forbid abortion before quickening until 1869) and Protestant fundamentalist organizations based in the U.S.

It is illogical and unscientific to attribute the strength of the anti-abortion movement in the U.S. to humanity’s “evolutionary core.” Why would evolution apply only to Americans and not to Asians? For all their good intentions, Edsall and the New York Times are doing a disservice by disseminating junk science. (For another example of faulty science related to abortion in the New York Times see the post “Well-Intentioned Junk Science Is Still Junk Science”.) A logical explanation of anti-abortion fanaticism in the U.S. should be based not on biology, but rather on historical, political, and sociological analysis of the peculiarities of American society.

Postscript (added 9 June 2014): After contacting Steven Pinker, my husband Neal learned that his views had not been accurately represented by Mr. Edsall. In Prof. Pinker’s email correspondence with Edsall he had written, “I don’t think there can be an evolutionary explanation of opposition to abortion per se.”

Further postscript (added 4 October 2014): The following quotation from the 2010 book Misframing Men by Michael Kimmel (who is founder and editor of the journal Men and Masculinities) was brought to my attention by Tiffany Lamoreaux:

“Evolutionary psychology is not a natural science, but a social science, which is to say it is an oxymoron. It cannot conform to the canons of a science like physics, in which falsifiability is its chief goal, and replication its chief method. It does not account for variations in its universalizing pronouncements, nor does it offer the most parsimonious explanations. It is speculative theory, often provocative and interesting, but no more than that. It is like–gasp!–sociology. And, as in sociology, there are some practitioners who will do virtually anything to be taken seriously as ‘science,’ despite the fact that individual human beings happily confound all predictions based on aggregate models of behavior.” (page 71)

Agent Orange and Abortion in Vietnam

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Vietnamese fetuses, deformed and stillborn as a result of Agent Orange.

VNM: Dealing With The Leagcy Of Agent Orange In Vietnam

A child at the Ba Vi orphanage, part of the third generation of Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange and other chemicals used by the U.S. military a half-century ago.

In my book Sex and Herbs and Birth Control I made a glancing reference to the risk of birth defects as a possible reason why women and their partners might decide to abort a fetus. But I did not touch upon the ethical issues surrounding such decisions.

Recently I read Tine Gammeltoft’s Haunting Images: A Cultural Account of Selective Reproduction in Vietnam. Vietnam has an exceedingly high incidence of fetuses with catastrophic abnormalities, a large proportion of which are the legacy of the use of Agent Orange and other toxic chemicals by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. These chemicals are still causing massive congenital defects three generations later. Many of the affected fetuses are stillborn (see illustration). But many abnormalities are detected in utero by the routine 3D and 4D ultrasounds that pregnant women, terrified by the possibility of bringing a malformed infant into the world, feel compelled to undergo. In her book Gammeltoft studies Vietnamese women, their extended families, and their health care providers as they deliberate whether to carry to term a fetus labeled by ultrasound experts as severely abnormal.

Gammeltoft’s interviewees overwhelmingly decide to abort their pregnancies for a complex set of reasons including confidence in the recommendation to abort given them by medical professionals; knowledge of the inability of their government to offer financial support for the disabled (and thus an awareness of the emotional distress and economic hardship the care for such a child would impose upon its entire extended family); and the fear that impaired offspring can never attain full personhood, since in Vietnam personhood is thought to entail responsibilities and reciprocal obligations that the severely handicapped are unable to fulfill. In deciding to abort, the women and their families are taking what they see as the only humane option.

It could also be argued that the Vietnamese women’s decision to abort their damaged fetuses is analogous to the decision of a rape victim to abort her pregnancy. Even in parts of the world with extremely restrictive abortion laws, termination of a pregnancy caused by rape is often legal because the woman in that case is a victim of violence and abuse. Analogously, in the Vietnamese case the woman’s desire to terminate her pregnancy is a result of the chemical bombardment of her family during the War — a form of abuse that is as barbaric as rape.

Interestingly, Vietnamese disability rights advocates do not oppose abortions performed under these circumstances, in part because they see the future of an Agent Orange victim as bleak indeed.

In late 2000, in my capacity as Director of the Kovalevskaia Fund (see http://kovfund.org), I met with then-Vice President of Vietnam Nguyễn Thị Bình. Outgoing U.S. President Bill Clinton had just visited Vietnam the previous month, and Vice-President Bình talked to me about the problems of the children born with birth defects and about her unsuccessful attempt to persuade President Clinton that the United States should take financial responsibility for those affected by Agent Orange and their families — who were, after all, victims of war crimes committed by the U.S. Without a massive infusion of support for cleanup of the toxic areas and improvement of the health care available for the severely disabled, Vietnamese women will continue to see abortion as their only rational option.

St. Bridget and Abortion

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This semester, students in my Women as Healers class at Arizona State University are reading Sex and Herbs and Birth Control. One young man, Brian Anderson, was so intrigued by the story behind the title of chapter 3, “Praying to St. Bridget,” that he decided to do further research on the saint for his first essay. (The chapter title comes from the St. Bridget amulet that some Irish women wear to protect themselves from pregnancy — see the post “Loss of Indigenous Knowledge in Veracruz, Mexico”.) Brian discovered a fascinating 2002 article by Judith Maas in the Irish Times. Titled “St. Bridget would vote No if faced with this referendum,” the article expressed opposition to a proposed amendment to Ireland’s anti-abortion law that would increase the punishment for anyone obtaining an abortion to twelve years’ imprisonment. The author pointed out that St. Bridget, though an abbess of the Catholic Church and a patron saint of fertility, was willing to help women in desperate circumstances:

“A symbol of motherhood, Bridget is also known as Muire na nGael — Mary of the Gael. However, if necessary, she did not hesitate to interfere with nature. In the first Life of Saint Bridget, written by Cogitatus around AD 650, a woman in crisis pregnancy came to her for help. ‘A certain woman who had taken the vow of chastity fell, through youthful desire and pleasure, and her womb swelled with child. Bridget, exercising with the most strength of her ineffable faith, blessed her, caused the foetus to disappear, without coming to birth, and without pain. She faithfully returned the woman to health and to penance.’ This account of an abortion cannot be found in current translations of the book. In the 19th century it vanished from the official version of St. Bridget’s life….

“In the early Middle Ages, abortion wasn’t considered a serious crime. The Penitential of St. Finnian states that ‘if a woman by her magic destroys the child she has conceived, she shall do penance for half a year.’ This is mild compared to other penalties and compared to the proposed 12 years’ jail in the current proposal for the abortion referendum.” (Irish Times, 5 March 2002)

It is not surprising that when the Church’s stance on abortion changed in the 19th century (see the post “Questions to Ask Your Priest”), the Church also changed the official biography of St. Bridget. Church authorities have consistently attempted to conceal the fact that earlier Catholic notables such as St. Bridget, Hildegarde of Bingen, Tomas Sanchez, and others had more flexible attitudes toward abortion.

Loss of Indigenous Knowledge in Veracruz, Mexico

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Veracruz State Map 775

In a chapter of Sex and Herbs and Birth Control titled “Praying to St. Bridget,” I commented on the numerous reasons why herbal folk knowledge of fertility regulation can become devalued, degraded, or lost over time. The chapter’s title comes from a notable example of this phenomenon: in their efforts to prevent pregnancy, some young Irish women of today wear a St. Bridget’s amulet containing a tiny piece of seaweed. As it happens, several kinds of seaweed, including kelp and sea lettuce, can act as a reasonably effective barrier-type contraceptive, especially if used in conjunction with a spermicide such as lemon juice or a motility reducer such as honey or oil. St. Bridget, a medieval midwife of great renown, probably knew this — in the Middle Ages midwives, even Catholic ones, often knew many folk methods of contraception and abortion. Over time, however, the knowledge of midwives such as St. Bridget was lost, and young Irish women are left with the absurd practice of putting bits of seaweed around their necks and praying to St. Bridget.

There are countless examples of this type. Some are alarming, some are amusing, but all represent an impoverishment of the cultural and ethnobotanical resources available to women of reproductive age. It is particularly distressing that the degradation of knowledge can happen surprisingly quickly, sometimes even in the span of one generation; I give several instances of this in Sex and Herbs and Birth Control.

Recently, Rachel Hughes, a student in my Women as Healers class at Arizona State University, brought to my attention a 2008 article in Economic Botany by Vania Smith-Oka which chronicles the rapid disappearance of knowledge of plants used for reproductive health among indigenous Nahua women of northern Veracruz, Mexico. The author notes several reasons for the precipitous decline in herbal use among Nahua women, including the tendency to have their babies at a clinic or hospital under the care of an allopathic physician rather than at home under the guidance of a midwife; globalization and the consequent identification of western biomedicine as “modern” while Nahua midwifery is stigmatized as backward; and the fact that young women generally do not wish to apprentice with indigenous midwives, but choose instead to go to the cities to take up “more prestigious careers such as accounting or law.”

In many parts of the world indigenous groups employ a mixture of allopathic and folk healing modalities. However, the incursions of Pentacostal religions into northern Veracruz have militated against this type of blending of the old and new. The Pentacostalists have condemned all plants used either in the Nahua pharmacopoeia or in Catholic ritual as sorcery or “of the devil.” As Smith-Oka dryly notes, by these criteria “the list of ‘harmless’ plants is quite short.”

Another factor contributing to the rapid decline of herbal use is the peculiar character of midwifery among these Nahua. Knowledge of herbs that induce sterility, prevent pregnancy, or cause abortion is jealously guarded by individual midwives as proprietary information and kept secret from both patients and rival midwives. This contrasts sharply with many indigeneous communities in Mexico and elsewhere — including ones not far from those studied by Smith-Oka — that have a collective, shared knowledge base. The bottom line is that, once the current generation of midwives in northern Veracruz ceases to practice, their knowledge of contraceptive, sterility-inducing, and abortifacient plants will likely be lost.

Tansy, St. John’s Wort, and Mint—Oh My! Misleading Herbal Advice to Women

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Tansy (from http://gardenology.org)

Tansy (from http://gardenology.org)

On the first day of my Women as Healers class in January 2013 an older student appeared shocked (and slightly scornful) because I did not recognize the name of someone she called “a renowned woman herbalist and healer.” I replied that there are so many women herbalists and healers with a large internet presence that there was no way that I could be familiar with them all. The student insisted that this woman was one of the best and knew enormous amounts of information about herbal remedies and tonics; she would forward the link to me so that I could judge for myself. A couple of days later I followed the link she sent and wandered through the delights of the website. In many ways it was impressive indeed: gorgeous photographs, empowering feminist phrases, and a nice piece on how to recognize early minor stroke signs. There was, however, a glaring red flag that appeared on the first page I perused. Namely, the healer waxed eloquent about the efficacy of “St. Joan’s wort” (known to most people as St. John’s wort or Hypericum perforatum) as a tonic and cure for the winter blues. She did not, however, note any counterindications or caveats in her recommendation.

Now St. John’s wort is a pervasive–and in some areas invasive–species, and so has found its way into the pharmacopoeia of many cultures, most often as a mood regulator or herbal anti-depressant. However–and this is extremely important–it is also known by many peoples as a uterine stimulant, that is, a substance that induces uterine contractions or brings on the menses. Consequently, if the reason why a person is depressed is because she cannot conceive, St. John’s wort is emphatically not a good thing to take. Moreover, the estrogenic properties of St. John’s wort can interfere with the action of modern contraceptives and even certain psychotropics. Yet this in many ways informative website (and countless others of the same ilk) says little or nothing about the possible side effects and dangers of the herbs it recommends.

In my teaching as well as in my research for Sex and Herbs and Birth Control, I have encountered a distressingly large number of similar examples. Some herbalists tout Queen Anne’s lace as a diet drink, though many women from Appalachia to Rajasthan know it as a contraceptive. Some commentators recommend spearmint or pennyroyal or catmint tea as a digestive aid, yet say nothing about the emmenagogic (menses-inducing) properties of many members of the mint family. Tansy (pictured above) is mentioned as an herbal insecticide or natural dyeing agent. But the use of the herb as an abortifacient is passed over in silence, as is the fact that tansy oil–as well as the oils of pennyroyal, juniper/savin, sage, and parsley/apiol, among others–can be lethal if injested.

Part of the problem is that in the U.S., allopathic medical professionals spent much of the 19th and early 20th centuries assiduously distancing themselves from older healing specialties such as herbalism and midwifery. Thus, on the one hand, herbalists rarely have sufficient scientific knowledge of the preparations they recommend to issue adequate warnings. On the other hand, allopathic physicians in the U.S. rarely know enough about naturopathic remedies to give useful advice about side effects of herbs or their possible interactions with other drugs their patients might be taking. An additional problem is that herbal preparations are classified as supplements and are not subject to Food and Drug Administration regulation, so scientific studies of herb-pharmaceutical interactions are pretty much non-existent.

The difficulties caused by this lack of regulation and the ignorance of both herbalists and allopaths in the U.S. do not necessarily arise in other countries. Cubans, for example, in part because of the continued economic embargo by the U.S., have needed to cultivate local herbal alternatives to expensive imported drugs. Modern pharmaceuticals and herbal remedies are combined in Cuban medical practice. Family doctors on the island are expected to be familiar with a whole range of substances they can recommend to their patients, and are thus more likely to be able to give the warnings that I have found conspicuously absent on herbal websites in the U.S.

Sex & Herbs & Birth Control

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Bromo Selzer douches, pregnancy protection amulets, pennyroyal teas, birch bark tampons, slippery elm sticks — these are but a few of the myriad methods women in different parts of the world have used in their efforts to prevent unwanted pregnancy. Meanwhile, the obstacles they have had to confront have included religious proscriptions, punitive law codes, persecution of midwives, and the devaluing of folk knowledge.

Sex and Herbs and Birth Control is a lively, provocative account of women’s attempts to provide themselves with as wide a range of reproductive options as possible. A more detailed description of the book and ordering information can be found here.

A review in Feminist Wire can be found here.

“fearlessly female-centric” — Publishers Weekly

Indian Princess

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Nineteenth-century patent medicines for fertility control often invoked some sort of (possibly fictitious) Native American origin to lend credence to their claims of efficacy. For example, this McElree’s Wine of Cardui advertisement featured a kneeling but regal-looking Native woman showing plants to a standing white woman; the caption is “take and be healed/ the Great Spirit planted it.” The advertisers of Cherokee Pills, another 19th-century patent medicine that billed itself as a first-trimester abortifacient, similarly alluded to Native American origins for their product with an illustration of a Native woman among plants.

Although the 19th century was a time of pervasive anti-Indian racism, and the U.S. government and Euro-ancestry settlers were engaged in genocidal actions against the indigenous occupants of the land, there was also a widespread belief that so-called “civilized” peoples had lost certain types of knowledge about nature that Native Americans still possessed.

But this illustration, while the white settlers would have viewed it as expressing a positive attitude toward Indians, should be understood as a precursor of the 20th- and 21st-century appropriation of Native American healing arts and spiritual practices by people of European descent. Present-day Native Americans often deeply resent these borrowings and the accompanying patronizing attitudes. For a discussion of this issue, see Chapter 6 (titled “Spiritual Appropriation as Sexual Violence”) of Andrea Smith’s widely acclaimed book Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. Resentment of cultural appropriation is also a theme of the poem “I Am Not Your Princess” by the Menominee activist and writer Chrystos. Here is an excerpt:

I’m not a means by which you can reach spiritual
understanding or even
learn to do beadwork…
I won’t chant for you
I admit no spirituality to you
I will not sweat with you or ease your guilt with fine
turtle tales
I will not wear dancing clothes to read poetry…
If you tell me one more time that I’m wise I’ll throw
up on you

(from Not Vanishing, Press Gang Publishers, 1988, used with permission)

Well-Intentioned Junk Science is Still Junk Science

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A few weeks ago I read an article in the New York Times titled “New Birth Control Label Counters Lawsuit Claims” (11/26/13).  The article reported that the Food and Drug Administration is studying whether to follow their counterparts in Europe and remove the requirement that manufacturers of emergency contraception (the Plan B “morning-after” pills) state on the label that the pills are believed to act by preventing implantation of the fertilized egg in the uterine wall.

The article noted that there has been opposition on religious grounds to insurance coverage of morning-after contraception because of the belief that it causes abortion.   These opponents of Plan B argue that a human being exists from the moment of fertilization, and so the destruction of a fertilized egg (in this case by blocking implantation) is tantamount to killing a human being.

Referring to an earlier article titled “Abortion Qualms on Morning-After Pill May Be Unfounded” (6/5/12), the Times cites evidence that purports to show that the pills actually act before fertilization to prevent ovulation or fertilization.  The newspaper quotes some medical specialists to the effect that the latest science has revealed that Plan B does not destroy fertilized eggs, and so the label requirement needs to be removed, at the same time removing any justification for anti-abortion lobbyists to classify the morning-after pills as abortifacients.  According to the June 2012 article, “It turns out that the politically charged debate about morning-after pills and abortion, a divisive issue in this election year, is probably rooted in outdated or incorrect scientific guesses about how the pills work.”

However, a careful reading of the two articles (and other sources that deal with the physiology of sex and pregnancy) makes it clear that the morning-after pill could not possibly be as effective as it is unless it blocks implantation of a fertilized egg.  For example, according to the Times, “scientists say the pills work up to five days after sex, primarily stalling an egg’s release until sperm can no longer fertilize it.”  This makes no sense, since sperm is viable on the average for only about two days after sex; if the egg has not been released as of five days after sex, then it is extremely unlikely that pregnancy could occur.  (This is the basis for calling the first seven days of a woman’s cycle a “pre-ovulatory safe period” for sex without pregnancy.)  In other words, if the morning-after pill taken five days after sex actually prevents a pregnancy, then in almost all cases it does so after fertilization, not before.

The June 2012 article goes on to say: “In one study using fertilized eggs that would have been discarded from fertility clinics, Dr. Gemzell-Danielsson found that adding Plan B in a dish did not prevent them from attaching to cells that line the uterus.”  But no one can seriously believe that cells in a petri dish can possibly replicate the complex physiological processes in human reproduction.  The interaction of morning-after pills with the chemistry of the womb is complex and occurs over a period of time, which is why taking the pills on the eve of implantation (which usually occurs a week-and-a-half or two weeks after sex) will not prevent pregnancy.  So the experiment proves nothing.

Clearly, the New York Times and the authorities cited have good intentions.  They support women’s right to have access to a full range of reproductive health options, and they wish to head off opposition to Plan B by anti-abortion zealots.  However, distorting the science is not the way to do this.  Rather, we should directly confront the notion that abortion is murder and that a sperm and egg become a human being at the moment of fertilization.   We should acknowledge that someone who accepts the extremist notion that prevention of implantation of a fertilized egg is murder is morally obliged to oppose not only Plan B, but also the use of contraceptive pills and IUDs as well.  Probably they should oppose the rhythm method, too (see my article
“Questions To Ask Your Priest”).

In reality, pregnancy is a process, not an absolute, and the dividing line between contraception and abortion is a slippery one.   No amount of junk science, however well-intentioned, can obscure this fact.