Thursday, October 20, 2016

Unexpected educations from math professors...

Some people are just born to teach.  I was blessed to go to college at a place where there were many wonderful teachers, even if the school wasn't the best known or prestigious university on the block.  Twenty-two years after my graduation, I still get to interact with a couple of old professors.  Thanks to Facebook, I have gotten to know a few of my former teachers more personally, even if communicating online may actually be less personal than talking to someone face to face.

This morning, I woke up to a Facebook argument.  It was between a friend of mine from college and a math professor from our school.  I didn't know the math professor when I was a Longwood student, but after watching her argue with my friend and her apparently very religious family, I wish I'd had her as a teacher.  She makes a lot of sense.  I have a feeling if I'd had her as a teacher, I might be able to understand math better.

The argument that I woke up to was over the very contentious topic of abortion.  I did not see last night's presidential debates, but apparently Hillary Clinton took Donald Trump to task over late term abortion rights.  My friend from college posted a bold status update about Hillary Clinton's belief that women have the right to late term abortions.

My friend has a young son.  When she was six months pregnant with her one and only child, she was diagnosed with stage three melanoma.  She chose not to have treatment while she was pregnant because of the risk that her son would be harmed.  My friend explains that her decisions were focused on her son's welfare.  It never occurred to her to have a late term abortion.  I commend her for making those decisions.  Fortunately, it worked out for the best in her situation.  Or, at least that's what it looks like at this point.  My friend used her situation to make the statement that other women should be legally compelled to do as she did.

Naturally, since my friend called out Hillary Clinton about her stance on late term abortions, a whole lot of people decided to comment.  Most of the comments were supportive; my friend and I come from Virginia, where many people are God fearing red voters.  Quite a few of my friends are Christians who have conservative ideals based on their religious beliefs.  They see nothing wrong with making laws based solely on their beliefs and their world view of what is wrong or right.

One of the commenters to my friend's bold Hillary Clinton call out was the aforementioned math professor.  The professor is clearly someone who supports a woman's choice to have an abortion and/or make that decision privately with her doctor.  After reading my friend's statement about not terminating her pregnancy, the professor wrote:

I am glad you had that choice- would you deny it to others?

My friend responded that she'd made her "choice" when she decided to have unprotected sex.  It was a very quick, simple statement.  I'm sure she thought it would shut up the professor.  Given that the professor makes her living challenging people to think, I must say that very decisive, simple comment was short-sighted.  Did she really not expect the professor to take her on in an argument?

Sure enough, the professor pressed by reminding my friend that she had been free to make a choice.  The professor does not judge my friend for making that choice.  And she wrote that she also does not judge other women who might make a different choice in that situation.  The professor then asked my friend if she would deny the right to make a choice to other women.

That comment prompted a response from my friend's dad, who asked about the baby's "choice" to live.  My friend's mother made a comment about how children are "blessings from God".  My friend also responded, with a lengthy comment about God.  She used very scholarly, high-falutin', correct language, which told me that the professor had indeed challenged her.  But though my friend's command of an affected writing style is very much intact, I don't think she really stopped to think about what the professor was asking her.

My friend wanted to talk about God and God's will.  It didn't seem to occur to her that not everyone believes in God.  Moreover, my friend is blessed with a loving husband, a supportive family, a job, health insurance (presumably), excellent medical care at the University of Virginia, and other means to take care of herself.  Not every woman faced with abortion has those benefits.  Not every woman considering a late term abortion (which are really pretty rare, anyway) is in the same situation my friend was in when she was pregnant.  She was apparently healthy enough to delay treatment.  Not all women can do that and expect to survive.  Should we really expect all pregnant women to die for their unborn children?  Especially if there is no one ready to take care of the child?  Or if there was a good chance child would not be viable when the mother's life ended?

I happen to mostly agree with the professor's points.  Her stance is that people should have the right to make the decisions that work for them with little interference from uninvolved parties.  Although I am personally against abortion in most situations, the truth is, I could never say I wouldn't choose to have one (for as long as my reproductive system is still functioning).  There are situations where abortion, as gruesome as it is to me, might make sense.  I think that choice should be private between the people involved, and not require input from the government.

My friend and her parents, obviously very much pro-life and clearly very religious, were arguing about God's will and their faith.  They made emotional pleas-- all in caps, mind you-- about how abortion is murder and unborn babies have a right to live.  When the professor calmly responded to them, albeit with a gratuitous use of smilies, my friend and her family accused her of "lumping them into a group", "telling them they're wrong for standing up for their convictions", and "insulting their intelligence".

In fairness to my friend and her family, in the face of the professor's calm, logical, and fair minded arguments, I probably would have gotten pissed, too.  They probably felt condescended to, which almost always prompts people to respond emotionally rather than logically.  I am also guilty of getting pissed when people condescend to me.  But I recognize that the key to winning an argument is staying rational and calm, responding to what's being said rather than how it's being said.  The professor was staying calm.  My friend and her supporters were not.

The professor then went beyond arguing about abortion.  She asked my friend and her family what they were doing for the babies who were being born to people who weren't prepared to take care of them.  She asked if they would support making birth control more accessible and affordable to sexually active adults.  She acknowledged that most people are hardwired to have sex and outlawing abortion will not stop them from having unprotected intercourse, sometimes outside the bonds of marriage.  So she wanted to know what my right winged friend and her family were doing in support of another choice besides abortion.  Were they adopting special needs children who needed homes?  Did they support better access to birth control and decent healthcare?  What about education for those unborn souls?  Were they onboard with providing that once the babies were born?

I noticed that my friend, her family, and other supporters had no answers to the professor's very good questions about how they would handle the babies who were born from unintended pregnancies.  In fact, I doubt they even gave much thought to what should be done for those babies.  They probably hadn't considered what to do for the unfortunate babies who might have been aborted late term due to a catastrophic medical problem.  Who takes care of those babies, should they survive birth?  Who pays for their care and gives them what they need from cradle to grave (whenever it is that they actually reach the grave once they've been born)?

I noticed that my friend's dad only comment addressing this is that women who don't want to have babies should "keep their legs closed".  Yeah, that works.  If every woman did that and never fell victim to rape or incest, we'd have no issues with abortion, right?  And every baby conceived would be healthy and wanted.  Keep dreaming, pops.

Many of the same people who are opposed to abortions are also against mandatory health insurance coverage and welfare assistance.  It takes a lot of resources to raise children.  While abortion costs money, it's a lot less expensive than feeding, educating, and otherwise supporting a child until adulthood.

That being said, although many of the women who are considering early abortion are poor, those who are considering late term abortion generally aren't poor; they are often women who have discovered that their unborn child has a medical problem that would either cause them to die in utero or be faced with incredible pain and suffering upon birth.  Late term abortions are very expensive and very few doctors will do them.  While I suppose there could be bloodthirsty, monstrous women out there who have late term abortions out of convenience, common sense tells me that it's probably not a typical phenomenon.  For many women who are considering an abortion beyond 20 weeks of gestation, the decision is heartbreaking, inconvenient, and just plain gruesome.

In my opinion, the professor made some very sound arguments that were based on logic.  She respected my friend's right to believe in God and refuse to have an abortion.  She also respected another woman's right to not make decisions based on a belief in God.  To me, that seemed like a fair and reasonable approach for everyone, not just people who happen to be Christians.

My friend wanted to make a bold statement about abortion, something that could affect any woman, and declare it immoral based on her religious beliefs.  She seems to believe that the American government should be creating laws based on her Christian world view and not based on fairness to everyone, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof.  I'm sure my friend, who is a very good person, would deny this; I truly believe she thinks she's being fair.  But, as someone who has seen the perspectives of people who aren't necessarily devout Christians and/or aren't in a situation where pregnancy is feasible, I can't agree that forcing women to be pregnant when they don't want to be is fair.  Not when so many of them don't have access to decent and affordable medical care or all the other things that babies and their parents need in order to survive.

I'm sure some people reading this might say-- "Aha!  But what about adoption?"  And I would agree that carrying a baby to full term and giving it up for adoption is a very selfless thing to do.  But adoption comes with its own issues for everyone involved.  It's not so easy to ask someone to give up his or her child.  It's admirable when parents do surrender their baby to adoptive parents; but again, it's not always that simple.  Sometimes, there are other issues at play that make the choice for adoption more complicated.  And again, sometimes it's not simply about a woman being inconvenienced by a baby.  Sometimes there are private medical issues at hand that are just plain no one else's business.

I firmly believe that the law needs to be separate from religion as much as possible, especially as our society evolves.  Not everyone believes in God.  Not everyone subscribes to Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or any of the other religions out there.  For that reason, in fairness, laws that affect everyone can't lean in the direction of any one set of religious beliefs.  Moreover, while many people want to talk about a "baby's right to live", I have yet to meet a single person who has any memories of life within the womb.  No one I know was conscious of being alive while in a fetal state.  A fetus has no concept of rights, no matter how emotionally certain people want to advocate for them.

Until a baby is born, he or she is part of the mother.  At the point when the baby is born, he or she is a separate being who has personhood and rights.  Yes, we have laws that will put someone in prison an extra long time for murdering a pregnant woman or causing a pregnant woman to miscarry.  I'm not sure I agree with those laws, to be honest.  I think they needlessly complicate issues surrounding personhood.  But even as I write that, I empathize with women who have lost their unborn babies to violence and I understand the reasoning behind those laws.

Anyway... this is an issue that will probably not be solved in my lifetime.  I just thought it was refreshing to see my pre-life friend's math professor friend very logically taking her on in a Facebook argument.  I was moved enough that I had to leave the professor a comment.  I wrote that she was making an awful lot of sense and I wished she'd been my prof at Longwood.  Perhaps she really could have explained math to me, once and for all.

This is an oldie but a goodie...  I know not everyone who is pro-life feels this way, but in my experience, a whole lot of them do.


  1. So very interesting . . . I would have liked that professor. I understand math even when it isn't expressed using English or another verbal language (for me, it would have to be English; Spanish and French never "took" for me, though I haven't yet totally given upon Spanish and may give it one more REALLY good try). Still, so many math teachers and profs I had were so one-dimensional where math was concerned that it was s though they were monolingual, with math being their only language and also the only thing about which they really cared. They were like a bunch of Sheldons. This professor you describe seems to get math as a means to an end and as a part of a bigger picture, as in life didn't begin and end with the quadratic formula. People such as this professor are what teaching math and other single subjects is all about. Every single subject should fit into a bigger picture somewhere down the line. As I said earlier, I "got" math, but perhaps I would have understood how it fit into something larger at an earlier age with a teacher such as her. My brother didn't so easily 'get' math, and had it not been for my parents, who did, he might never have gotten it. Still, while my parents were good mathematicians and patients teachers with Matthew, they, as non math professors, couldn't so easily help Matthew to put what he learned into the larger perspective. As it was, he was fortunate that they were even able to help him understand math. Matthew understands math but will never love it.

    For me, what really made the difference was grasping, early in life, the connection between mathematics and music theory. This allowed me to see that there were also connections between math and other domains - even formal structure of a verbal (English for me) langauge - the whole balance and equality thing - the idea that to create equality, anything done to one side (whether an equation or a linguisitic operation) had to be done to the other.

    Your math professor also had the ability to communicate where issues such the sanctity of human life, and when it actually began, et al, as opposed to a woman's right to chose. I don't like abortion, as I know you don't. Still, when you think of it, if life begins at conception, and unless a person is a hard-core pre-Vatican II Catholic, a person who took the extremes in theology could look past the obvious to see that, in reality, the most selfless thing a parent could do if one were really hard-core religious, would be to risk his own salvation to in order guarantee the salvation of her offspring by taking the fetus' life while she was still innocent and thus guaranteed eternal life in heaven. It's a warped way of looking at things, but if one were an extremist, it makes sense in its own sick way. It's what Andrea Yates was thinking when she drowned her children in the family bathtub before they could be corrupted by the evils of the world.

    1. Unfortunately, she wasn't my math professor. I don't know if she was my friend's math professor, either. But she communicated very well in writing and made a lot of logical sense. That makes me think she's probably a very good teacher.

  2. In my anti-abortion -yet-pro-choice-stance, I tend to think "the earlier, the better" if an abortion is necessary. Yet still, I think the mother's life has to come first, particularly if the mother has other children to raise. The idea of leaving her other children without a mother by delaying cancer treatment so that some first-trimester fetus might possibly survive is unthinkable (to me; I respect the rights of others to differ). It gets into more of a gray area when a melanoma is discovered approaching week 22 of a fetus' gestation. Perhaps the mother could wait another four weeks before beginning treatment, giving the offspring much better chance at survival and quality of life, although a melanoma is nothing with which to trifle, nor is 26 weeks a guaranteed gestational age of survival, much less of quality of life. Still, I can understand a woman choosing to take the chance to give a baby four extra weeks in utero to maximize the baby's chance of life and of a decent quality of life. Say, on the other hand, the melanoma is determined to be at such a stage and aggressive to the extent that every hour the woman waits for treatment is placing her life in peril. The twenty-two-week fetus has virtually no chance of survival even with intense intervention, much less of any quality of life. I personally wouldn't use partial birth abortion. I would choose to deliver the baby by caesarean if induction were not successful and to allow nature to take its course. I wouldn't allow any extreme measures to save the baby, but if the baby managed to survive with just oxygen, so be it, and I would live with the consequences of whatever state of health the baby had if it survived, but it's incredibly unlikely that it would survive. If a right-to-lifer wanted to brand me as one who didn't choose life, I could either argue with the person or ignore him depending upon my state of mind, but I could live with myself with no pangs whatsoever to my conscience.

    I agree that the laws concerning how violence creating death to a fetus by an outside party complicate matters. The closest analogy I can come up with in relation to the fetus being part of the mother and therefore her decision as to whether it receives a chance at life would compare to that of a kidney donation. I can donate my kidney if I wish. If someone else forcibly removes my kidney, he is guilty of mayhem, among other things, especially if he tries to remove my kidney without the medical expertise to do so, killing me in the process. It's mY kidney, just as the baby would be MY baby.

    The fetus is the mother's and is a living being as long as medical science indicates it still lives inside her. The pregnancy is hers to continue or to terminate. The whole thing may be a bit muddy, but if a person wishes to stay out of the mud, he or she would be wise not to mess with the survival either of a pregnant woman or of her unborn child. If it seems unfair that she has the right to terminate the life of the baby, while, if a third party commits an action of aggression that results in the same, he or she faces murder charges as a result, perhaps he or she should have considered keeping his or her hands off the woman's body, and, if she happens to be pregnant, that of her unborn child as well. And rot prison until you rot in hell, Scott Peterson.

    1. To make one more analogy that is a bit of a stretch . . .
      Let us say I have an aging dog. The dog is nearly blind and isn't moving all that well, but can walk outside to relieve himself and can make it back inside. He shows excitement each time I walk into the room where he is. He eats enthusiastically. I have decided that, for the time being, I shall allow the dog to continue to live as long as his pleasure appears to outweigh his discomfort, and I choose to continue his life until his situation changes noticeably. '

      I have an uncle who disagrees with me concerning the dog. He feels that the dog is suffering needlessly. One day when I am grocery shopping and picking up a few items the dog needs, my uncle slips into my home with an extra key he has taken from my mother's house. He takes my dog, drives it to a veterinarian, and, passing the dog off as his own, explains why he thinks it is time for the dog to be euthanized. The vet, not being privy to the full story, euthanizes my dog. The dog was not my uncle's to euthanize, just as an attacker had no right to take the life of an unborn child that was inside a body that was not his or her own. My uncle was guilty of dog murder, just as the attacker was guilty o murder of an unborn child.

      If that makes any sense . . .

    2. Sure, that makes sense, as does your kidney analogy. But to assign personhood to a fetus and convict someone of murder if a fetus dies in an attack seems very contradictory in a country where abortion is still legal. It's illegal for everyone but the doctor performing the abortion to kill the fetus, right? Because ultimately, it's not the mother who actually does the killing-- it's the doctor. It seems a bit like weird ethics to me.

      I am very much pro-choice and I think abortion should be safe and legal. I don't "like" abortion, but I do think it's important for women to have a choice. I don't like the idea of pregnant women ending up with different rights than the rest of us. It's too close to a slippery slope for me.

      Fortunately, I doubt abortion is an issue that will ever affect me personally.

    3. I hope never to be personally affected by abortion, either.

      I understand the slippery slope thing. I'm willing to concede that it a manslaughter sort of situation - perhaps a drunk-driving death - were to happen, while the person shouldn't have been driving drunk, her or she was probably not out to kill anyone. The fact that a pregnant woman was involved probably shouldn't cause him to incur greater penalties then he or she otherwise would have.

      Where outright murders are concerned, since people shouldn't go around killing others anyway, however, perhaps they're taking the double burden upon themselves when they kill a pregnant woman (I don't know where it should start; THAT's a tough one; not necessarily at conception.)

      And then there are those cases where a person is deliberately trying to kill another person's baby while not necessarily killing the mother. When I was a kid, in our town we had a situation where a man and woman split up but didn't yet divorce. The mother moved on to another relationship in which she got pregnant. (None of this is my idea of how to conduct one's life, but that's neither here nor there.) The man met up with his estranged wife when she was maybe six months along, ostensibly intentionally, in a public place, where she was with two friends. He said something to her to the effect of, "I heard you were pregnant, and now that I can see it's true, i'm gonna kick it out of you." He proceeded to kick her in the abdomen a few times, eventually knocking her to the ground, then continued to kick her until any pregnancy was no longer an issue. Her friends tried to intervene, but he had friends there, too, so no one was able to effectively come to her defense. That's close enough to murder for my comfort.

    4. One would hope such violence would put him in the clink for a long time regardless.


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