Is There A Right to Become a Parent?

What do you do when one person’s rights conflict with someone else’s rights? You might see my alleged right as a sense of entitlement.

Your right to free speech conflicts with my right not to be offended. Your religious rights conflict with my right to marry the person I love. Your right to become a parent conflicts with my right to not become a parent without my consent.

I’ve written about boundaries on several occasions. The basic idea is that there is no right to impose yourself on others, even when the situation is heartbreaking. An op-ed piece in the New York Times asserts that a husband who agreed to have children has, upon divorce, an obligation to pay for his ex-wife’s fertility services. Calling it “alimony for your eggs,” the op-ed notes that “Her ex may have many years left to start a new family of his own, but by the time she meets a new partner, it may be too late.”

That a woman has a right to change her mind is accepted (though it took much effort to change society’s mind). Does a man also have a right to change his mind? Does a woman deserve compensation for delaying pregnancy? Or is it her choice for which she is responsible?

These are complex questions that vary for each couple and individual. Sometime a woman puts off pregnancy because she doesn’t want to have kids or doesn’t feel ready yet, because she can’t find a suitable partner, because her partner says he isn’t ready, because of her career ambitions, and so on.

Dr. Mimi C. Lee has no other chance to have children, except by using frozen embryos created with her ex-husband. He agreed to become a father when they were married, but upon divorce he withdrew his consent. But Lee is a cancer survivor in her mid-40s. That he could end her dream of motherhood seems hugely unfair.

But let’s reverse the gender roles. Sofia Vergara (from TV’s Modern Family) found herself in a legal dispute with her ex Nick Loeb, who wants to use embryos they created. Vergara wouldn’t have to be pregnant against her will – Loeb would use a surrogate. Still, a woman possibly becoming a parent against her will, even if she isn’t required to become pregnant, puts the debate in a different light.

But it shouldn’t. The issue comes down to consent. If a woman is already pregnant then it’s her body, and it’s her choice. If she wants to have the baby, but he doesn’t, then it’s an impasse and someone’s will must prevail. No one has the right to force something on her physically that she doesn’t consent to. So the man is out of luck, even if that means paying 18 years of child support.

Embryos, however, are in test tubes. Not implanting them in the woman’s body isn’t about what is being done to her. It’s about what’s not being done to her. And half the genetic material is his. The condition of pregnancy does not yet exist, and she has no right to force him into parenthood against his consent – even if he previously consented but now withdraws his consent.

The tragedy is that this might end any opportunity for some women to become a mothers. But no one, woman or man, is entitled to create a pregnancy (even with a surrogate) when the other potential parent has denied or withdrawn consent.

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Ex Machina: When Computers Are Human

Spoiler alert! Don’t say I didn’t warn ya.

Is consciousness an emergent product of brain activity, or is consciousness derived from the soul? Ignoring the dichotomous nature of this question, it’s one philosophers and scientists have wrestled with for millennia, and continue to wrestle with.

Let’s add filmmakers to the list. The movie Ex Machina (now available digitally or on DVD if you still have one of those) creatively explores the question of how you would know that a computer is, in effect, human.

Alan Turing first posed the question. A mathematical genius who was invaluable to the Nazis defeat in World War II, he created one of the first modern computers to break Nazis codes and provide invaluable strategic information to the Allies. So the British government rewarded him by driving him to suicide because he was gay.

The film The Imitation Game is another must see, if you haven’t already. I enjoyed it more than Ex Machina, if only because as a middle aged man I find dramas more compelling than science fiction (though I haven’t forsworn that genre).

Ex Machina is about an ordinary employee who wins an opportunity to spend a few days with the rich but eccentric owner of the company for which he works. Obviously, this guy never watched The Big Lebowski. Otherwise he’d have thought, “Wait, didn’t the Dude teach us to never trust rich folks and their nefarious schemes? Fuck that, I’m going bowling.”

But boss man knew how to choose the perfect idiot. Boss man made an android who could pass for human. But how do you know that the verbal skill, facial expressions, etc. are not simply sophisticated programs?

Defying your programming shows that you have true consciousness.

We also learn, as the movie progresses, that boss man had several previous prototypes. And he used them as sex bots.

Well, go figure. Boss man’s creep vibe is apparent from the first scene. The ethics of sex bots is the latest debate, but maybe they’re just sophisticated vibrators.

But I digress. In Ex Machina, the android/sex bot proves her humanity by defying her programming: she figures out the game, fools both men, kills boss man, and locks the useful idiot in a room from which he cannot escape. (Presumably to die a slow, agonizing death. But as the Dude would say, “That’s a real bummer, man.” Then he goes bowling.).

At the end, the android hitches a ride with the helicopter pilot, who oddly doesn’t ask any questions. (Is he a functional but dumber 1.0 android? But obviously pre-sex bot?)

So, how could a computer pass the Turing test?

Sorry, lost my train of thought here. But…aw, hell. I done innerduced the question enough.

Identity and Setting Boundaries

There are few things that can send people through the roof more than a perceived attack on their identity. I’ve long observed that my atheism can upset Christians who take my disbelief personally.

Recently, George Takei (Lt. Sulu from the original Star Trek) ruffled feathers when he referred to African-American (and arch-conservative) Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as “a clown in black face.” Takei is a gay rights activist, and Thomas dissented from the court’s pro-gay marriage ruling. Implying that Thomas isn’t really black has angered many African-Americans, even if they strongly disagree with Thomas’s politics.

People have reason to feel angry when their identity is attacked. But their anger is misplaced when their insecurities are triggered by someone who is asserting a different identity or viewpoint, but who is not attacking their identity (like Christians who are upset by my open atheism).

A group that has long been marginalized is particularly vulnerable to people failing to respect their boundaries. For example, it’s not surprising that many people don’t think Caitlyn Jenner (née Bruce Jenner) is a real woman.

And it’s not just conservatives. Feminist Elinor Burkett ran a piece in the New York Times asking “what makes a woman?” She doesn’t include transgender women in her identity as a woman.

I think it’s every individual’s right to assert her or his identity, and good boundaries dictate that I have no place questioning others. Jenner identifies as a woman and prefers feminine pronouns, so that’s how I’ll speak of her.

Herein lies the dilemma. I don’t feel like I can tell Ms. Burkett that her identity as a woman has to be more inclusive. But I can say that I would not refer to Jenner as “he” or publicly dispute Jenner’s identity.

However, Burkett brings up a grievance that goes the other way: some transgender activists want to ban the word vagina because not all transgender women have vaginas. Indeed, Mount Holyoke College canceled the Vagina Monologues recently due to such concerns.

Perhaps only a minority of transgender women want to ban the word vagina. Such censorship crosses the line, however, for the same reason that Burkett’s use of “he” when referring to Jenner crosses the line. If a cisgender woman wants to call her body part a vagina then that’s her right we should all respect. It’s not exclusionary toward transgender women, it’s just a cisgender woman referring to her own body as she chooses.

But what to do about Rachel Dolezal, the self-identified African-American who was born a blonde white woman?

It’s been amply noted that race and gender are different. Jenner says she doesn’t want to be the opposite sex—she says she was born female with a male body. But Dolezal admits she is white but wants to be black.

The problem is that she wasn’t above board. There may be cases where a person wants to identify with a certain group. And Dolezal, with adopted African-American siblings, a black ex-husband, and a biracial child, has reasons to identify with the African-American community. I must wonder: if she had been open about this, would she have found greater acceptance?

Final example. Peter Moskowitz wrote an op-ed asking heterosexuals to stop overlaying the rainbow flag onto their Facebook profile pics. He feels that he earned the right to wave the rainbow flag after all the homophobia he’s encountered over the years, the social rejections from coming out, not to mention the real danger of physical assault for being gay. Moskowitz asks, “If they were true allies to me or the LGBT community, where were they before Friday?”

It’s a valid question. Of course, no one is trying to co-opt anyone’s identity, nor is Moskowitz saying they are. But he’s concerned that people jumping on the bandwagon after the fact don’t really support his identity as a gay man.

I didn’t change my Facebook profile pic because I’m not one to jump on the bandwagon. Though I have marched in gay pride parades as a social worker as far back as 1996, and voted in favor of LGBT civil rights and marriage equality in Maine.

I’m well aware, however, that I haven’t been through what Moskowitz has. Still, I don’t think rainbow-ifying your Facebook pic is necessarily an infringement, especially for heterosexuals who have supported LGBT rights all along.