Monday, October 31, 2011

Abortion and Politics

When I was living in Cleveland many years ago, I was modestly active in the women’s rights movement.  I joined the National Association for Women because I have never understood why some people believe women should not be treated on par with men.  There’s little difference between genders, especially in areas that count, such as the ability to think, take responsibility, work and make decisions.  Besides, disenfranchising half of all humans is downright idiotic, depriving the world of 50 percent of human brainpower and intelligence.

My efforts in Ohio, which included being the token male on a radio show about women’s rights, naturally, got me into the abortion issue, which may be even more controversial than religion, my usual bailiwick. I was introduced to the acrimonious discussion when a friend in college had to be smuggled to New York for an illegal abortion and was physically harmed by the procedure.

That was before the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that struck down state laws prohibiting abortions.  Now, 38 years later, the arguments continue.

Most recently, Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain has issued inconsistent comments on abortion: he’s seemingly pro-life and pro-choice at the same time.  In addition, he thinks abortion should be illegal, but if a woman and her family think an abortion is necessary, then nothing should stop them.  Moreover, only a few women are affected annually, so what’s the big deal?

Naturally, his opponents have fired back with lots of charges.  Former example, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, who also opposes contraceptives, immediately attacked Cain’s uneasy stance: “Herman Cain’s pro-choice position is similar to those held by John Kerry, Barack Obama and many others on the liberal left. You cannot be both personally against abortion while condoning it – you can’t have it both ways. We must defend the defenseless, period.”

His comments were muted by two factors: they were included in a fundraising letter, and he trails badly in the Republican preference polls while Cain and Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are battling for the lead.

The effort to hoist abortion as an issue in the presidential campaign is doomed to failure.  Although it remains part of the litmus test of a “true” conservative, candidates who have run solely on an anti-abortion stance have consistently lost elections around the country.

More importantly, it ignores the basic issue, one that I realized back in Cleveland. 

This is not a religious issue.  After all, according to published figures, “13 percent of abortion patients describe themselves as born-again or Evangelical Christians while 22 percent of U.S. women are Catholic.”  That’s an awful lot of people from usually pro-life groups that Santorum and his ilk are trying get votes from with an anti-abortion stance. 

It’s not a class or racial issue.  Women who get abortions come from all social levels and ethnic backgrounds.  About 57 percent have college degrees.

No, this issue is not even about babies; it’s about women.

They do not choose to have an abortion casually.  It is a difficult decision to undergo any kind of medical procedure, however safe the operation has become.  Studies of abortion patients show that the decision to have an abortion is based on various significant reasons.  Many lack the money or the ability to start a family or increase the size of an existing family.  About 66 percent actually plan “to have children when they are older, financially able to provide necessities for them, and/or in a supportive relationship with a partner so their children will have two parents.”

Another large group has decided to end their pregnancies because they face severe health issues if they continue or their fetus has severe abnormalities. 

In addition, “about 13,000 women each year have abortions because they have become pregnant as a result of rape or incest.”

Over all, about 1.3 million women a year make this difficult decision.  That’s almost identical the number of abortion performed annually before 1973.  The reality is that about 1.3 million women in this country a year will get abortions legally or illegally.  Should they undergo the procedure in the best possible conditions rather than be forced, like my friend, to trust her health to an unlicensed doctor whose interest was focused on income and avoiding legal problems and not on his patient?

Those opposing abortions focus on the babies.  They ignore the women.  That’s what was done before the women’s rights movement, too.  It’s not a good idea.  Women are intelligent enough, capable enough and responsible enough to make medical decisions affecting their own lives and bodies.

If that was not clear decades ago, it certainly should be by now.

Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  Many of his essays are posted at

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Right to Die

By William P. Lazarus

In a quiet corner of American life, the question of the right to die has continued to foment although the best-known advocate of suicide, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, has died and the best-known organization, the Hemlock Society, dissipated in 2003.

The movement itself is stronger than ever.   The Final Exit Network, for example, openly advocates the “human right to death with dignity” and is one of many such groups worldwide.

As former FEN medical director Dr. Lawrence Egbert wrote in a recent essay, “I solidly approve of the idea that competent individuals suffering unbearably should have the right to end their lives when their quality of life is personally unacceptable and their future holds only hopelessness and misery. Such a right should include when to die, where, and how.”

This year, Egbert, 83, was found “innocent of conspiring to assist in a suicide” in an Arizona case.  Other investigations are taking place in such diverse cities as Athens, Ohio; Lincoln, Nebraska; Mount Vernon, Washington; Middlebury, Connecticut; Washington, D.C.; and Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Apparently, the prosecutors know nothing of human history.  Assisted suicide has a long history.  Ancient Greek stoics made a virtue of suicide.  Doctors in the Greek and Roman societies supported ending lives rather than prolonging agony.  In Athens, anyone wanting to die could get poison from city officials.

In ancient countries, children who were born ill or deformed were often exposed to the elements.  Such efforts reduced chances that such defects would be passed along to future generations, although, sadly, some children died because of their gender or other non-medical reason.

Eskimos, for example, have long been noted for putting their infirm, elderly relatives on ice floes and sending them off to die.  Their reasoning was simple: in such harsh conditions, few could survive unless everyone contributes.  Those who could not would have to leave for the safety of the family.

On the other side, since the 1300s, Western nations have objected to suicide.  “Laws in some parts of Europe dictated that a suicide's corpse be dragged through the streets or nailed to a barrel and left to drift downriver. The medieval ethos was distinctly uncongenial to any kind of self-murder," according to Ian Dowbiggin, in his 2003 book, A Merciful End: The Euthanasia Movement in Modern America.

Opposition has thawed in the intervening years.  In 1980, the Catholic Church, under Pope John Paul 11, endorsed the right of patients to refuse “extraordinary means to sustain life.”  In 1988, the Unitarian Universalist Society approved a resolution supporting the right to die.

Within two years, public opinion polls show that about of Americans support physician-assisted death, up from around 30 percent six decades earlier.

Australia briefly legalized euthanasia in 1995.  The Netherlands and Switzerland eliminated criminal penalties for it soon after.  Colombia has allowed euthanasia since 1997.   Luxembourg followed suit in 2008.

This country, too, has seen a shift in attitudes. In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court turned the issue over to the states.  By then, Oregon had already approved the "Death With Dignity" law.  In 2007 alone, an estimated 46 people took advantage of the law there.  A year later, Washington state voters agreed to allow “patients with six or fewer months to live to self-administer lethal doses of medication,” according to published accounts.  A month after that, Montana approved the right of residents to request physician-aided suicides.

The change has come about because of improved medical treatment that has allowed people to live far longer and to die from chronic illnesses that debilitate and debase their existence.  As a result, many people now have living wills, which request that no extreme steps be taken to extend life.  In many states, patients can refuse medical treatment.  For example, baseball slugger Harmon Killebrew announced he had stopped fighting his cancer and moved into care of hospice before his death.  No one stepped up to protest his decision, or similar ones made by less-prominent individuals worldwide.

The moral questions entwined with euthanasia continue to bedevil onlookers, but increasing consensus seems to be moving toward an idea that once was commonplace thousands of years ago. 

Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  Many of his essays are posted at

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Digging Up the Bible

More than 38 years ago, former astronaut James Irwin began a search for Noah’s Ark by leading a small exhibition up Mount Ararat in Turkey.  That’s the mountain that believers in the Bible story about a great flood are sure that Noah’s floating zoo came to rest on.

Irwin went back several times in a vain effort, undeterred by the fact that the Bible says the Ark stopped in the mountains of Ararat, an otherwise unknown country.  He didn’t care that the Mount Ararat he climbed laboriously was named for the Bible story or that Bible translations are notoriously difficult and inaccurate.
Nor were his companions or the folks with deep pockets who funded his efforts and have backed similar unsuccessful expeditions looking for the Garden of Eden (the Bible says a garden east of Eden, meaning east of a known city), the Ark of the Covenant (which disappears from the Bible after the destruction of the Temple late in the 6th century B.C.E.) or any other significant artifact cited in the sacred text.

Their earnest, ongoing and extremely fruitless ventures have only contradicted biblical accounts.  However, they remain hopeful, sure that the next moment, confirmation of biblical accounts will be lying before them.
Optimism hasn’t had time to fade because the search started a relatively short time ago.

For centuries, deterred by religious sanctions and public belief in the sanctity of the Bible, few scholars actually cared about proving the truth of the Bible.  It’s true that Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena, journeyed to Jerusalem in the 4th century in an effort to pinpoint locales sacred to Christianity.  However, she used only “divine inspiration,” not any scientific method to “determine” where Jesus was crucified and so on. 

Historians know today that her intuition failed her.   

The next effort really didn’t take place until the mid-1800s.  Then, retired multimillionaire businessman Heinrich Schliemann, who morphed into an amateur archaeologist late in life, dug up the fabled city of Troy in what is now Turkey.  Prior to that, scholars thought the Iliad, the ancient Greek saga that recounts the fight between the Greeks and Trojans, was simply myth.  Instead, Schliemann proved there was a city, although the tales surrounding it were certainly exaggerated.

The German’s success encouraged others with a religious bent to begin to look for places and items mentioned in the Bible.  They were hoping to build a scientific dam that would hold back the rising flood of biblical criticism.  Led by German theologians, a budding school argued that much if not all of the New Testament was simply mythology.  Naturally, a lot of people were upset.  They figured that finding earlier, more authentic, documents would end the debate.

They set off in large numbers to spade through the Holy Land, uncovering ruins, libraries filled with stone tablets, various artifacts and much more.

They also discovered something very unsettling: nothing dug up despite the years of effort supported biblical accounts.

·         There was no invasion of Canaan by another culture, as described in the book of Joshua.

·         No one lived in the Sinai Desert for 40 years; nor does Mt. Sinai or any mountain as described in the Bible exist there.  

·         The city of Nazareth is not recorded as existing in Jesus’ day.

·         The census did not cause anyone to return to his or her hometown, despite the description in Luke.

Of course, there was no Ark on Mt. Ararat because there’s no evidence of a worldwide flood.  There was no Garden of Eden.  People like Abraham, Moses and other biblical patriarchs could have lived, but there’s no evidence of a particular person, only of life in the appropriate time period.  That’s true for Jesus and many of the figures in the New Testament.

Paul must have existed because several of his authentic letters were retained in the New Testament.  James did, too, although the religious leader who was stoned to death in 62 may not have been the person of the same name identified as Jesus’ brother.  Herod and Pontius Pilate also existed, but may have had no connection to Jesus despite the biblical claims.  Their records contain no mention of Jesus.  Actually, no one during that time period mentions the Son of God.

Undeterred, believers continue combing the past buried underground in hopes of locating the missing evidence.  Many are desperate to “prove” their faith is true.  Based on the findings to date, they can go up all the mountains they want, but they are doomed, as the Yalies sing, “from here to eternity” to search in vain.  

Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  Many of his essays are posted at

Friday, October 21, 2011

What Happened 2,000 Years Ago?

After a recent presentation on religious history at an area church, I was asked by an irate parishioner how I could possibly know the truth of what happened thousands of years ago.

That’s a great question, one I am asked after almost every presentation.  It’s understandable, too.  After all, thousands of years are a long time.  We are still debating who really assassinated President John Kennedy in 1963.  How can we possibly say what happened 2,000, or 12,000 years ago?

Actually, the question has two parts: how do we know what happened; and, how do we know what happened is being reported accurately?

The first part is easier.  A variety of existing tools, which are improving regularly, help researchers divine what took place and when it happened.

·         Carbon 14.  This is a naturally occurring version of carbon, but has two extra protons.  All living creatures breathe both carbon 12 and carbon 14.  When something dies, it stops inhaling carbon.  However, carbon 12 is stable and remains in the bones. In contrast, carbon 14 starts to break down.  As a result, by testing the gas resulting from the deterioration of carbon 14, researchers can determine how much carbon 14 remains.  Since the breakdown occurs at a known rate, it’s fairly easy to determine how many years were necessary to accumulate the resulting gas.

Using this method on anything with carbon, which includes ash residue on burned rocks,  scholars have been able to date a wide array of events in ancient history within a plus or minus of 50 years.  However, it is accurate to only 3,500 or so years.
Fortunately, other chemicals take far longer to break down, allowing scholars to date rocks dating back billions of years.

Nevertheless, no scholars rely solely on carbon-14 to determine the age of anything due to minute fluctuations in the chemistry.

·         Events.  Universal calendars are a modern invention, but certain events – such as eclipses – help scholars locate people and events in time.  They can place eclipses, which occur on a set schedule.  So, if an eclipse affected a particular battle, then we know the exact date of that battle.  That leads to identifying reigns of kings and the timing of more events.  One known eclipse in the 8th century B.C.E. has helped create an entire calendar covering thousands of years.

Equally, correspondence between rulers or mentions of a known individual help historians place people and events in juxtaposition.

·         Archaeology.  Much of the past is buried beneath us.  Since the 1800s, archaeologists have been digging it up.  Finds are datable both through carbon 14 as well as through designs.  All cultures developed their own styles of ceramics, weaving, living areas and so on.  They are instantly identifiable, and help show migration patterns and areas of domination.

·         Texts.  Ancient monarchs were happy to leave detailed accounts of the exploits on stone monuments, called stele.  They also created monuments, treaties and other documents , often on stone.  Once deciphered, they help historians place people and events in context with archaeological findings. 

Beginning in the 6th century B.C.E., historians also left us detailed accounts of events. Many of those reports have endured either in pieces or completely.    They often create multiple sources to help us understand what happened, why and when.

Unfortunately, they are not typically unbiased or completely accurate.  Monarchs often hired these people to record their “great” deeds, guaranteeing a slanted account.  Others are influenced by religious beliefs or simply created to match current ideas.

That is why the second aspect of the research is so important: how can anyone know a report is accurate?  We can trust empirical findings, such as Carbon 14.  Someone can blame the lab or say the sample was contaminated, but multiple tests with the same result reduce chances of a mistake.

On the other hand, all sources created by humans have to be examined carefully and compared to known facts to help garner an understanding of what happened.

For example, historians know that there was no invasion of Israel as described in the biblical book of Joshua.  In that text, Joshua led the Jewish descendants of Egyptian slaves on a rampage through the ancient land of Canaan.  However, cultural markers throughout the region remain unchanged for centuries, meaning that new people did not conquer existing residents and impose their way of life.  Carbon 14 shows the cities supposedly destroyed by Joshua and his army actually were overcome across hundreds of years, and that some were already in ruins during the time period or flourished before and after the time when Joshua must have lived.

At that point, historians begin to speculate what might have happened.  Those guesses are based on known facts, but suggest new ways of considering the evidence.  Later discoveries may back one of the guesses and make it the accepted paradigm.

For example, scholars are still debating who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, the ancient documents found in 1947 in caves near the ruins of Qumran.  Some researchers insist that an ancient sect wrote them; others think they might be the Temple library moved there for safety, among other suggestions.   We may never know.
Nevertheless, the research to date has given us a surprisingly clear window on what really happened almost any time in the past.  

People listening to me may want to silence the messenger.  However, they can’t muffle the facts, which are amazingly complete given the passage of time.

Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  Many of his essays are posted at