05 10 / 2014
Those of you who are Catholic or grew up Catholic probably know that October is traditionally “Respect for Life Month”. When I was in high school this meant it was the month that we visited the capitol to “March for Life” and it was the month that we participated in poster and essay contest about what it meant to respect life. In retrospect I gained a few valuable things from these experiences but the most valuable thing I gained was not so positive. Through these events and activities I got to see the hypocrisy and fruitless malice of the pro-life movement. I heard a lot about “destroying life” and “killing babies”. Sometimes (especially around the time Terri Shivo was popular) I heard about “starving” people just because they were brain dead or “disabled”. I was taught that we should respect life from conception to natural death. We heard A LOT about the beginning of life and some about the end, but I NEVER remember this month being about any of the life in between these events. Why not?
Now, I was also lucky enough to have a great Social Justice class in high school where we learned about Catholic social teaching and the preferential option for the poor. So I know the Catholic Church is dedicated to life in the middle of the cycle. I know there are amazing people following these teachings all over the world, respecting the lives of the poor by giving them opportunity and medicine and hope. What if one year during October those infamous respect life posters didn’t have a picture of a baby’s foot, but instead depicted a child dying of a completely preventable or curable disease, like typhoid, or, I don’t, Ebola? What if instead of praying in front of Planned Parenthood or holding up nasty signs in front of the capitol building, we visited a homeless shelter or had a productive and open conversation with someone? What if instead of depicting a woman who chooses to get an abortion as sad and weak and confused, we showed that she is strong and beautiful, and deserves respect no matter what? What if we embraced feminism; fought against domestic violence, sexual abuse and unequal relationships? What if we actually respected women’s bodies and gave them the power to respect their own bodies; to have control over their own bodies. And I’m not just talking about birth control, I’m talking about something much more basic- for example, the power and confidence to say no and walk away if and when they want.
Catholics need to take a good hard look at what they mean when they say “respect for life”. I’m using this month to reach out to young girls; empower them and teach them that they deserve respect and an education. Hopefully this will give them the power to avoid HIV and other disease and get married and have a family on their own terms. I’m respecting life this October by showing girls how to respect themselves. What are you doing?
18 8 / 2014
"Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind."
18 11 / 2013
18 11 / 2013
So, I’m in the Peace Corps. I should understand what peace is, right? Actually, no. I had to put a lot of thought into this post and I’m still not sure if I’ve really gotten to the heart of the matter. I don’t think I am alone, though. Most people would have to think about what they really mean when they say they want peace.
The reason I started thinking about this topic recently is because the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded not too long ago. It was given to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. When I first read about this I was angry, but then I thought: Ok, Maybe I just don’t know enough about this organization. So, I did a little bit of reading (probably not enough), and I have to be honest, I and still angry. I find this awarding to be just so literal. This group is helping to stop war, so they are creating peace. Now, a world without war and a world that is safe is certainly one that is peaceful. The work of this group is amazing and useful and does deserve praise. But do that deserve the Nobel Peace Prize? And do they deserve it more that others who were up for the award?
I would like to see someone at the grassroots level receive this award. Last year it was given to Obama (not exactly grassroots) and this year it was given to a national organization. But there are plenty of people working very closely with the people who are affected by the issues that prevent peace. They are risking their lives every single day; and they are working for things like education, food security, and gender equality. These are the things that will truly create peace in the world; a lack of these things is at the root of most problems like war and terrorism. Fewer wars would start if more children were fed and went to school. And terrorism would lose its hold and its strength if more women were educated and empowered. It would be nice if the Nobel Peace Prize people would recognize this fact. It needs to be recognized by more influential people if we are going to move forward with creating a peaceful world; something I am still naïve enough to think is possible.
14 8 / 2013
"Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Love them. Start
with what they know. Build with what they have. With the best
leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will
say ‘We have done this ourselves’."
12 8 / 2013
I have been asked recently to reflect on how my Bioethics education has affected and influenced my current work and it got me thinking. I use my bioethics education everyday in small ways; mostly in analyzing and interpreting the problems I face. Bioethics taught me how to do this; how to look at every angle, look through every lens, and leave nothing out, because that one small thing could make all the difference. But there are some particular areas I have used my bioethics brain here in Africa:
1. Community-based aid
A constant and mind-boggling problem that anyone involved in providing foreign aid faces is what is the best way to deliver it. The Peace Corps attempts to use a full-on community-based approach. This means that people in the community identify problems, think of possible solutions, and then fix their problems. This is all done with only the assistance of the volunteer living in the community. The volunteer is there only as a partner and supporter to whatever the community members think is best. This is why we Peace Corp volunteers live in tiny villages with no electricity and running water; why we learn and speak the local language; and why we commit to living in one place for two years. All of these things help us to integrate fully in the community and gain the trust of community members, making a “partnership” more successful. This kind of community-based aid is something we learned about briefly in my bioethics courses. It seemed to be the general consensus and the conclusions of research that this kind of approach is best because it is so sustainable. With this kind of aid, community members feel empowered and want to continue the work in their community because the project is really their own. I do still agree with these conclusions but working in Africa for a year has made it clear just how difficult true community-based aid is. I remember in class we compared community-based aid and other kinds of aid. We concluded that community-based aid is far more sustainable but takes much longer and takes a lot more work. I can fully attest to this statement now. Truly sustainable aid is slow. Especially when you are working a culture that likes to takes its time anyways. It’s worth it; I know this. But in practice it is very hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I have also learned that some things do not require such an intense community-based approach. Education, for example, is sustainable in and of itself. When we plan and hold boys and girls educational conferences there is a lot of community involvement. The teachers and speakers are all local and amazing at their jobs. The venue owners, cooks, and cleaning staff are helpful and supportive. But it is really the volunteers who have created the idea of these conferences. The volunteers arrange travel, food, accommodations, lessons, and money. The volunteers really start these projects with a big push and then the local teachers and community members take over. This initial push is not the ideal community-based model. But these conferences are some of the best things we do. They inspire local teachers to educate and help their students in a way that encourages them and gives them a future. And a large group of students learns to be confident, to be healthy, and to be peer-educators. The education started by volunteers on these short weekends spreads. This makes it sustainable.
That was a lot of information but what I really want to say is this: Community-based foreign aid works. It is sustainable and ethical and worth the work. However, it is slow and extremely challenging. It is also not always needed as intensely as diehard community-based supporters would like you to think. This is something that is important for foreign aid workers to know and remember.
I have mostly been involved in HIV/AIDS education and not in treatment or clinical trials. I see this as an advantage because education, especially of young students is really the way to make an impact on the HIV/AIDS problem. In bioethical analysis of HIV/AIDS education, we debate what kind of education should be given. Should it be abstinence-only, condom education, or a combination? Most aid organizations now believe in a combination approach; ABC education (Abstinence, Being Faithful, and Condoms). This is used by most organizations because research shows that it works. End of story, right? Wrong. Being raised catholic automatically makes me nervous at the idea of discussing condom use and education. This has been ingrained in me. If you follow and believe in all of the tenants of the Catholic faith opposition makes sense. The problem is, the majority of people I work with here are not Catholic or do not follow all of these tenants. And I don’t think it is right to force these beliefs on people. Of course, condoms alone are not the answer. I truly believe this. But leaving the possibility of condoms out, especially when used in a loving and committed relationship, even in a marriage, by people who are not Catholic and do not understand or need to understand the ethics of the Catholic Church is not right.
Another things to remember in the context of HIV/AIDS education: sex is viewed differently here in Africa. It is difficult to explain or even grasp what this “view” actually is, but I can say that the view is predominantly male influenced. Until women receive the right to make their own decisions about sex and to influence the cultural norms on sex, it’s very difficult to even have this discussion.
3. Girls Empowerment
If you have read my previous posts you know what I have learned about this topic. Girls are oppressed in very obvious and very subtle ways all over the world. Stopping this is the answer to so many third world problems. If you do just a little reading, or experience just a little work in empowering young girls, this becomes so obvious. In our bioethics curriculum, we did discuss the gender issue at times. However, this was often done in the context of the first world situations. I do remember discussing female genital mutilation (FGM). I remember generally being against the practice, but also having a discussion about whether it was right to judge other people’s cultural practices in this way (a good discussion, I know). But, after living in Africa I am completely against FGM and I do not feel like I am judging cultures. I do not oppose this practice because I feel that my culture is superior; I oppose it because I fully support women’s rights in every part of the world. I feel like if we fight for women’s rights in Africa and “win”, this practice will quickly and rightfully disappear.
I also strongly believe that more of these third world gender equality issues should become a part of the mainstream bioethics discussion.
4. The importance of an expanded worldview
Above I said that bioethics has taught me the importance of looking at problems from every and any perspective you can. It is easier to do this if you have actually experienced the world and the lives of the people whose eyes you are looking through. Expanding your worldview makes you infinitely more aware and it makes you a better problem solver. It, therefore, makes you a much better bioethicist.