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Sex on Wednesdays | The Wrath of God

Seems Misdirected

by Martha Kempner 

This week there are two stories that everybody is talking about. Both should make us angry. One makes us cry. I don’t think these stories will be new to any readers, but I did want to talk about each of them as they represent two of the many ways in which our country is slipping dangerously backwards. 

Tragedy in Oklahoma, Lawmakers Should be Ashamed

Nex Benedict was a 16-year-old gender fluid high school student in Oklahoma. They died earlier this month after a physical altercation in the school bathroom. We don’t know the details yet and preliminary autopsy reports suggest that trauma was not the cause of death, but I for one am ready to blame Oklahoma politicians for this needless death of this child.

The past few years have been filled with attempts by legislators across the country to take rights away from transgender individuals, mostly kids. So far this year, there have been 496 bills introduced in 41 states.

It’s February.

Anti-trans bills fall into a few broad categories. There are bills banning any education on gender identity. There are bills banning transgender students from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity. There are bills preventing trans kids from using the names and pronouns of their choice. There are bills forcing teachers and administrators to out transgender kids to their parents. There are bills banning gender-affirming medical care.

Oklahoma has passed all of them.

Each time one of these bills is debated, the anti-trans rhetoric heats up. When they debate bathroom bills, politicians call transgender people pedophiles, groomers, and predators. When they debate sports teams, politicians accuse transgender people of lying for competitive advantage and make it clear that trans kids don’t belong on the soccer field or in the pool. When they debate gender affirming care, politicians spew junk science and accuse parents and doctors of child abuse for allowing teens to use puberty blockers or hormone therapy.

They pretend they’re protecting all children, but they’re doing it by calling the most vulnerable kids freaks and liars.

Oklahoma’s rhetoric is among the nastiest. Last year when he signed an executive order that reduced gender to what’s between one’s legs, Governor Kevin Stitt said, “Oklahomans are fed up with attempts to confuse the word ‘woman’ and turn it into some kind of ambiguous definition that harms real women.” Ryan Walters, the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction also claims to be protecting girls by banning what he calls “radical gender theory” in school. Walters has also accused the American Library Association of being pornographers and is trying to get rid of any book that mentions the existence of LGBTQ+ individuals.

Earlier this month, he invited Chaya Raichik, who runs Libs of TikTok, to sit on the Oklahoma Department of Education’s Library Media Advisory Committee even though she lives in New York. Walters praised Raichik, saying she was “… on the front lines showing the world exactly what the radical left is all about—lowering standards, porn in schools, and pushing woke indoctrination on our kids.”

Others would argue that it is Raichik who spews hate and incites violence in her videos in which she calls out specific schools, hospitals, libraries, teachers, and elected officials for their “woke” ideas. An NBC News investigation found 33 instances starting in November 2020 in which people or institutions singled out by Libs of TikTok reported bomb threats or other violent intimidation within days. In 2022, a teacher in the same school district as Nex Benedict was called out by Raichik for supporting LGBTQ+ kids. The teacher later resigned.  (Libs of TikTok has been banned from actual TikTok by the way but—surprise, surprise—is still active on X.)

The rhetoric of these debates—whether they start on social media or the House floor—spills over to dinner tables, social media, and hallways. The belief that trans kids are “other” and “less than” their cisgender counterparts spills over to classrooms, cafeterias, and bathrooms.

We don’t know what happened in the bathroom and if it is directly or indirectly responsible for Nex Benedict’s death, but I think we know who’s at fault. Republicans—who have no interest in making their constituents’ lives better—always need a political boogeyman that they can point a finger at and say, “It’s not our fault that your life sucks, it’s theirs.” They should be ashamed of themselves for pointing that finger at kids.

I am reminded of the time the governor of Utah showed us what compassion looked like by vetoing an anti-trans sports bill. The legislative process was a mess of complicated amendments and political games, but he realized it came down to kids. In a public letter he noted that this law applied to just four kids in his state.

Four kids and only one of them playing girls sports. That’s what all of this is about. Four kids who aren’t dominating or winning trophies or taking scholarships. Four kids who are just trying to find some friends and feel like they are a part of something. Four kids trying to get through each day. Rarely has so much fear and anger been directed at so few. I don’t understand what they are going through or why they feel the way they do. But I want them to live. And all the research shows that even a little acceptance and connection can reduce suicidality significantly. For that reason, as much as any other, I have taken this action in the hope that we can continue to work together and find a better way. If a veto override occurs, I hope we can work to find ways to show these four kids that we love them and they have a place in our state.

His fellow Republicans didn’t see it that way, and the legislature voted to override his veto. At least kids in that state got a glimpse of what it’s like to have elected officials look out for them. Nex and all the other LGBTQ+ kids in Oklahoma have never even had that.

Alabama Judge Declares Frozen Embryos People

My college honors thesis was on assisted reproductive technologies like IVF and surrogacy. While I set out to find legal cases in which couples argued over frozen embryos or surrogates refused to give up babies, my advisor pointed me toward a different academic debate about whether these technologies were good for women as whole. There was a group of feminist scholars who argued that emerging technologies took the power of procreation out of the hands of women and put it in the hands of the male-dominated medical field. Some went as far as to suggest that we ban these procedures altogether. Others argued that shutting them down would take even more power away from women by denying them the right to make their own reproductive choices.

Regardless of which side they fell on, I highly doubt any of these scholars thought the issue would one day be decided by the Alabama Supreme Court.

As you’ve all doubtlessly heard, last week the highest court in Alabama ruled that frozen embryos were people and that anyone who destroyed them could be held liable for wrongful death. The decision was the end of a lawsuit brought by three couples who wanted damages from a clinic that had accidentally dropped their embryos on the floor.

At least three fertility clinics in Alabama have already stopped offering IVF as a result because no one wants to be accused of murder (fine, wrongful death) and sued for millions because they dropped a Petri dish or their freezer broke.

The court ruled 8-1. Alabama Chief Justice Tom Parker—who clearly moonlights as a theologian and a doctor—wrote a concurring opinion in which he quoted scripture more than a dozen times. He cited the book of Genesis and the writings of a prominent 17th century religious scholar. His decision included this doozy:

Human life cannot be wrongfully destroyed without incurring the wrath of a holy God.

Oh Tom, that’s not how it f**king works. Your job is to interpret the Constitutions of Alabama and the United States, not scripture.

Even if it is true that God would be wrathful at the lab technician whose hand slipped, the question of whether an embryo is a life is one that has never been settled even among actual theologians. Some religions clearly believe life begins at fertilization. Others do not. In Jewish law, for example, the fetus isn’t considered a full person with the rights of a human until birth. The question seems to get more complicated when that embryo isn’t anywhere near a uterus given that it has no chance of developing further without one.

I fear that when we talk about frozen embryos, we all imagine something akin to the first pictures we see on an ultrasound which, thanks to heavy magnification, look at least vaguely like a baby (though possibly a baby alien). This isn’t even what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about a blastocyst which is a cluster of 100-120 cells that measure about a tenth of a millimeter. A tenth of a millimeter, by the way, is the smallest particle we could possibly see with the naked eye.

Calling this a person seems absurd and has far-reaching legal and medical implications that go beyond IVF, but let’s stay there for a minute.

Chief Justice Parker also said this ruling would not have to impact IVF services because the legislature could pass a law limiting how many embryos clinics could create at a time to avoid having/destroying extras.

Oh Tom, that’s also not how it f**king works.

The hardest part of IVF is harvesting eggs. Because it doesn’t make sense to go in and get just the one egg that is naturally released during ovulation each month, women using IVF take medication for a few weeks before their retrieval to help additional eggs mature. Then a doctor sticks a long needle through the vagina and into the follicles to retrieve as many eggs as possible. This procedure should be done under anesthesia (unless you’re at Yale), but it can be painful, and it does come with risk of infection in the pelvis and ovaries and injury to the bowel, bladder, uterus, ovaries, or major blood vessels.

The more eggs they get in one harvesting, the more embryos they can make (by adding sperm), and the more chances the person has of getting pregnant. Success rates vary by clinic and are dependent on the age of the mother and other health factors, but on average about 20-35% of initial IVF attempts are successful.

Having additional embryos means you don’t have to go through the full process to try again. Once IVF is successful, frozen embryos can be used for subsequent pregnancies as well. Leftover embryos that aren’t used can be destroyed, used in scientific research, or donated to someone who wants to get pregnant. This practice has given rise to (mostly Christian) adoption agencies that specialize in “snowflake” babies.

Parker seems to be suggesting that the Alabama legislature change IVF practice fundamentally, though it’s unclear exactly how (likely because he’s not a doctor). He might want us to harvest eggs for each IVF attempt, though this is obviously more dangerous to the woman. It’s possibly also less successful: one study found that frozen embryos were more likely than fresh embryos to result in a live birth. He might also want labs to stop testing the embryos for genetic issues before implanting them because this also ends in some—the ones that are unlikely to be viable—being discarded. Maybe he just wants us to freeze eggs in their unfertilized form (though this means more male masturbation, do we think he’s okay with that?). Whatever he had in mind is clearly not the currently accepted best practice of fertility care.

Though this embryonic personhood decision is a direct result of Republicans’ attack on abortion, most GOP politicians were quick to distance themselves from it. It’s one thing to shut down abortion clinics, but when you start shutting down fertility clinics it’s much harder to claim you are pro-family. Alabama Republicans have said they’re trying to fix this issue in legislation (but they’re not doctors either, so I’m expecting them to make a pig’s breakfast of the whole thing).

Many House Republicans—including Michelle Steel (CA), Nancy Mace (SC), Ashley Hinson (IA)—have come out against the decision and its impact on IVF. It should surprise no one, however, that all three of these women were co-sponsors of the Life at Conception Act which shared much of its sentiment with Parker’s decision. While a Senate version of this bill included language carving out an exception for IVF and birth control, the House version did not.

Declaring frozen embryos people may seem silly and irrelevant outside of an IVF lab, but fetal personhood is a dangerous precedent that can easily be used to support a nationwide abortion ban as well as a ban on any birth control method that could maybe, possibly work after fertilization. (Remember, the Hobby Lobby decision taught us that what matters isn’t the science of contraception, but rather the beliefs held by craft store owners about how contraception might work.) Under this scenario, we’d be left with sterilization, condoms, and the diaphragm that’s been in the back of your night table drawer for 20 years (no one uses diaphragms anymore). Barrier methods and strict abortion laws are a bad combination.

The only upside of this story is the memes. So many memes.  So funny. I leave you with a few because we’ve all cried enough this week

 

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