Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Tough Questions: On The Limits of Personal Freedom

Despite my extremely patchy posting, I found that I had to re-address one last aspect of the issues that I brought up surrounding Savita. As usual, thinking about the victims of backwards, brutal religions just gets me thinking about all of the ways that these religions infringe on the rights of human beings to be healthy. I think not only about people who die because of dangerous pregnancies, but about circumcision, acid being thrown in girls faces, AIDS because of a lack of access to condoms and children dying of preventable diseases because their parents were told not to believe in a certain medicine. 

When thinking about the horrors that many religious people impose on their own, especially their children, it is very easy to say things like "You know what asshole? If your adult self wants to be a dumbass and not take a blood transfusion to save your own life go right ahead, one less idiot on this planet, but don't let your child die because of your lunatic beliefs!" I am sorry (am I? I'm not sure yet) to say that I also have said this more than once, and am usually of this opinion, but this recent tragedy has really gotten me thinking. 

First of all, any regular reader of this blog will know that I am one HELL of an advocate for personal freedom. I feel that if you are an adult, are fully capable of making your own decisions and are not hurting anyone else in the process you can pretty much to whatever you like. I have taken this idea to some pretty dark extremes, defending even things that make my stomach turn in the utmost disgust. You can see my post on incest, for instance. When that story came out about that German guy that looked for a guy on the internet who loved the idea of being eaten, then killed and ate him, I said he shouldn't get life in prison because the guy not only volunteered, he really really wanted to be eaten - and shouldn't what happens to his own life be his choice and no one else's? I once even saw a documentary about these rare cases of voluntary amputation (if I find it again, I'll update and link it), where these people cannot live with a limb and try desperately to cut it off in any way possible, finding it of course very hard to find a doctor willing to amputate a perfectly healthy limb, and thinking that if I were a doctor I'd try to help these people out. Coming from this perspective, you'd think that my being OK with an adult doing something unhealthy because of their religious beliefs would be absolutely nothing, right?

And yet, there were two examples that stuck in my mind which made it very difficult for me to continue shrugging my shoulders in the face of weird choices that I will never understand but have no interest in shaking my finger over. One of them is the case of adult women electing to be fully circumsized, which a South African friend of mine tells me is the norm in the small town where he is from. The other is the idea of a woman getting a symphysiotomy despite knowing exactly what it is and what it will do to her (and yes I know that this was not the case in Ireland). Am I just being uber sexist, and only balk at these things because they involve women? 

I hope not, because there is a very fundemental difference between the two categories. The first category that I described is one in the absence of coercion. A person has a very strange fantasy, or has a rare illness that makes them need something desperately, who am I to tell them they can't have it, if they're not infringing on someone else's rights in the process? In the case of the latter, however, I don't think that is the case. If your community basically tells you you're an unmarriable slut if you elect to not be circumcised, that's not really a free adult making a free choice is it? If a woman is led to believe by her country steeped in patriarchal religion that her only worth on this planet is to make as many babies as possible no matter the cost or risk to her health, how can I possibly be in favor of that? 

The question thus becomes, would I be in favor of putting hard laws against these things that I despise? Just because I despise them, even though adults are (relatively) volutarily electing to have them?

I think that history has shown that laws are the wrong way to go about these things, especially when it comes to limiting adults. While I am in favor of laws preventing these things being done to children (as relatively powerless citizens they need extra protection), having only laws leads to one thing: back alley proceedures. I personally would invest my resources and energy into education, education, education, always. Let's talk about how these things are incredibly dangerous. Let's talk about changing our culture to something that is sex positive, not slut-shaming. Let's change people's minds.

I suppose the fundemental conclusion is this. When someone has an innate, psychological problem, such as the people who desperately want to become amputees, there's nothing you can do to remove that need inside them. They have it and they will be miserable for the rest of their lives if they are forced to keep that limb, and misery pushes people to do desperate and dangerous things. This means that we need to pick the better of two not-ideal situations: allow that person to sever that limb in the safest way possible.

On the other hand, if we have a person whose only reason for wanting something so dangerous and brutal is because they were unfortunate enough to be born into a society which tells them that they are worth less if they don't do it, well that's just not. fucking. fair. I don't want anyone to think that, and I will not want to stand idly by while the vicious cycle goes round and round. While legislation will probably do more harm than good - pushing an already unsafe proceedure underground - tackling the root, the source of the problem is the hardest but the best way to handle this unfairness. 

There's more to struggle with this, but this first part I hope is clear enough.

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