The Inspiration Conundrum- The Heart of Oaks’ “Protect the Children”

Posted by on November 23, 2012 in Family, feminism, personal notes, women | 17 comments

Christmas is for children. Bright lights, decorations, toys, sweets and the humble start to Christ’s life all inspire the child in us, and the children around us. In this conference past, Elder Dallin H. Oaks presented his “Protect the Children” talk wherein he encouraged us to unite in protection of children. The funny thing is, at the end of his talk, I didn’t feel inspired to protect children. I have pondered this, and come to a conclusion as to why I did not feel edified or inspired to protect children. Here it is:

 

I have seen children living in poverty. Real poverty is shocking. On a trip to India a few years ago, my husband and I chose to unofficially “adopt” one family during the time we were there. The poverty was overwhelming, and we coped with it by focusing on this one family. They literally lived on a specific section of sidewalk, used the gutter as a toilet, and relied on hand outs for food. There were three children and I guessed them to all be under the age of five. The eldest was partly toothless, as were the younger siblings. The toothlessness was caused by malnutrition, so we chose soft foods such as bananas to give to them to eat.  Between the three children were 2 pairs of underwear. I knew this because the undies, a skirt and a shirt were the only clothes they had in combination. In this, the children took turns being naked for a day. I cried when we left India, fearing what would become of these children. This memory will always be with me.

 

So, when Elder Oaks began speaking, acknowledging United Nations statistics regarding children in significant duress, I wanted to like his talk. I wanted to be inspired and directed to do more, feel more, and to save children. I sought peace and reconciliation for the children who have been wronged. But instead, I only heard an affluent man sitting in judgment, and who absolved himself of accountability by declaring that his only duty was to “witness” Christ:

I speak from the perspective of the gospel of Jesus Christ, including His plan of salvation. That is my calling. Local Church leaders have responsibility for a single jurisdiction, like a ward or stake, but an Apostle is responsible to witness to the entire world. In every nation, of every race and creed, all children are children of God.

Although I do not speak in terms of politics or public policy, like other Church leaders, I cannot speak for the welfare of children without implications for the choices being made by citizens, public officials, and workers in private organizations. We are all under the Savior’s command to love and care for each other and especially for the weak and defenseless.

 

This confused me. He is declaring that we need to do more to help children, but acquitted himself of actually doing anything at the start of his talk. In doing this, he became a judge, rather than someone who was engaged in rectifying an issue. But aren’t we, as witnesses of Christ, supposed to be actively engaged in His work? Why is Oaks free of this duty? Because of his calling?

 

Further, after citing the statistical number of children worldwide who are “victimized each year through prostitution and pornography,” he chooses to declare that “From the perspective of the plan of salvation, one of the most serious abuses of children is to deny them birth,” and cited global declining birth rates. Birth control is a greater sin than child prostitution? And abortion is a greater sin than child pornography? This is what Oaks is telling us. Rather than addressing methods or organizations and groups wherein we can enlist to defend, protect, or save children who are victims, Oaks demonises women who make personal, reproductive choices, alluding to birth-control using women as just as damnable as those who engage in child prostitution and child pornography.

 

To be reasonable, Oaks did not specifically mention birth control. However, he did note that it was a sin to not allow children to be born, and only “one” cause for the declining birth rate abortion. This suggests that he finds more than one factor in birth rate declination, and given the church’s historical (i.e., Oaks era) stance on birth control, it is easy to presume that at least one other factor is the use of the birth control pill. Although the official stance of the church is that “The decision of how many children to have and when to have them is a private matter for the husband and wife,” it seems that Oaks is unwelcome to the formal declaration, and thus, he paired birth control with child prostitution.

Specific to abortion, Oaks made a fair statement that abortion is sometimes promoted as a matter of government policy. China’s one-child policy is famous for this, but other countries burdened with unemployable masses make it policy to suggest abortion. But this is also where Oaks’ reasoning goes astray. He states: “Other abuses of children that occur during pregnancy are the fetal impairments that result from the mother’s inadequate nutrition or drug use.”

 

I concede that illicit and irresponsible drug use during pregnancy is sometimes negligent, reckless, even selfish. But I find it equally careless of Oaks to presume that a pregnant mother’s diet, especially a woman in a third world country, should be ranked as an abuse. I can’t help but envision the family in India. Was the mother married to the father? Probably not, if only because if you can’t feed yourself you probably can’t afford a marriage license. I am okay with poverty-ridden people choosing food over a government marriage license. In this East Indian family, there was a father, a mother and the three children. All hungry, all united. Powerfully, they all smiled constantly. They were grateful for everything. She treated her children lovingly. The children were clean, and she sometimes asked for soap, to wash themselves and their clothes. I refuse to label her as a child abuser simply because she could not afford to eat consistent, medically-inspired foods, pregnant or not. Shame on Oaks for suggesting poverty in and of itself as a kind of personal, insidious child abuse.

 

Lastly, Oaks does the same routine we have all heard before about abortion. In following his anti-aborton stance, he added: “There is a tragic irony in the multitude of children eliminated or injured before birth while throngs of infertile couples long for and seek babies to adopt.”

 

This paragraph is more telling than at first glance. Consider “or injured before birth.” It seems with this short phrase, Oaks is stating that “injured” children are undesirable to infertile, adoptive couples.  Though this is partnered with his anti-abortion (“eliminated”) stance, there is room for an interpretation wherein Oaks finds abortion acceptable when there is a chance that the child is “injured,” because the child is labelled as undesirable to  -otherwise-  adoption-friendly couples. Regardless, it just doesn’t sit right, any way you look at it.

 

Better still is the tired pairing of abortion shame with infertile couples. This is such an old argument that I cannot understand why it is still being made. Consider kmillecam’s post, My Choice . She highlighted genetic issues that are exceptionally emotionally and economically draining on any couple, including adoptive couples. So here’s the thing: It is exceptionally expensive to care for children with chromosome abnormalities.  Whilst a birth mother may have medical insurance that may (or may not) cover her natural child, for chromosomal abnormalities, an adoptive couple gains no insurance benefit for adopting newborn children with “pre-existing” medical conditions which are inevitably discovered within weeks of birth, and before most adoptions can be finalized. This means that most adoptive couples, no matter how keen they are to become parents, can’t afford the medical costs, and can’t gain medical insurance in association with developmentally challenged children who have been adopted.

Infertile couples aren’t stupid enough to assume that making abortion illegal will solve all of our parenting woes because of excessive medical costs in association with the adotpion of a child with any pre-exsisting medical condition. Many of us are pro-choice because we understand this. Many more of us are pro-choice simply because we respect women and understand the frusteration of fertility-related issues, infertile or otherwise.  We understand that adoption is about women helping women, and that adoptions do not increase as a result of institutional decisions regarding other women’s bodies. Likewise, it would be easy to jump on a socialized medicine bandwagon here and assume that socialised medicine covers every medical need. But it does not. Hence, the policy as noted by Oaks, of some countries with socialized medicine to suggest abortion in place of adoption, because the cost of treatment is not covered or is too much of a financial burden even for the government.

 

I no longer wonder why this talk did not edify me, did not inspire me to align myself with Oaks in declaration of protecting children. The talk really had very little to do with protecting children. Oaks ignored obvious financial obligations of adoptive couples, labeled infertile couples,  unfairly ranked all infertile couples as the primary victims of abortion, judged women in committed relationships who live in proverty, paired birth control with child prostitution and matched abortion with child pornography, whist sitting on a stand declaring himself only as a “witness.” In short, Oaks labelled women who are poor, infertile, use birth control or consider abortion to be just as evil as people who engage in child prostition and child pornography.

 

I find that offensive. And it has nothing to do with protecting children.

 

P.S. This talk has already been addressed at the Exponent with a post by Jessica F., wherein she highlighted some institutional issues in regard to the church’s international policy regarding children. It is worth a read if you seek for suggestions on preventing child trafficking.

Anything still nagging you about last October Conference, for good or for bad?

 

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17 Comments

  1. I extrapolated very different things from this talk than you did.

    In a nutshell:
    “Local Church leaders have responsibility for a single jurisdiction, like a ward or stake, but an Apostle is responsible to witness to the entire world. In every nation, of every race and creed, all children are children of God.
    Although I do not speak in terms of politics or public policy, like other Church leaders, I cannot speak for the welfare of children without implications for the choices being made by citizens, public officials, and workers in private organizations. We are all under the Savior’s command to love and care for each other and especially for the weak and defenseless.”
    My take: Your bishop may not be able to address worldwide poverty but I will, and I speak not only to church members but to every person all over the world. Every person needs to get his or her act together and love and care for their fellow men, particularly the weak and defenseless.

    “From the perspective of the plan of salvation, one of the most serious abuses of children is to deny them birth,”
    My take: There are many abuses of children going on, sexual, physical and emotional. As we combat all abuses of children we should not ignore one that is often overlooked: the protection of children who are killed before they are born.

    “Other abuses of children that occur during pregnancy are the fetal impairments that result from the mother’s inadequate nutrition or drug use.”
    My take: If we are going to protect children we cannot just focus on them. We are also responsible to assist their mothers to get adequate nutrition and to deal with drug abuse issues. Taking care of children means we are responsible also for caring about and for their mothers.

    “There is a tragic irony in the multitude of children eliminated or injured before birth while throngs of infertile couples long for and seek babies to adopt.”
    My take: It is wrong to assume that a child that is handicapped before birth, and that a mother does not wish to carry full term, must be aborted since “no one would ever want to adopt a child that is not perfect”. That is not the case. There are parents who would feel honored and grateful to raise that child.

    And I would take issue with your assertion that there is no financial recourse for parents who adopt children with serious medical needs as I have two friends who are raising two such children who receive much aid from the state in which we live to help provide the medical care that they need. If you live in a state where this is not the case, this could be a call to action to work for change.

    I sense your anguish and concern about how little one individual can do in the face of the magnitude of the needs of children and their parents all over the world. You have a sense of how real those needs are that many others do not. And I think your deep and real concern and frustration at the situation faced by mothers and children all over the world, a concern which is admirable and worthwhile and likely spurs you on to do and act, rather than sit and wring your hands, has colored your analysis of this short address.

    I just wanted to point out that your assumptions are not the only logical ones. What Oaks said could be extrapolated into other, more compassionate, interpretations equally well. Ones that, if listened to, would spur the rest of us to take action and do what we can to help, rather than ignore.

    • Thanks MB. These are more the impressions I got from Elder Oaks’ talk as well. He said ONE of the most serious abuses of children is to deny them birth, he didn’t say “THE most serious abuse is etc” so I think it is misrepresentation to say that he asserted abortion is worse than child prostitution.

    • MB- Well put. I agree with you and I was inspired by Elder Oaks’ talk.

    • MB,

      I appreciate your interpretation in regard to the talk, but I disagree. If Oaks meant those things, he would have spoken them clearly and deliberately.

      If nothing else, Christ taught by example. Oaks is teaching by declaring wrongs, yet stating it isn’t his job to do anything else but declare wrongs. This is a huge issue. To be blunt, what has this talk motivated you to do? What actions have you taken? It is my sense that this talk invites us to judge as Oaks does, then to sit down and congratulate ourselves because we aren’t doing any of the wrongs. I do not find the talk to be motivational to action.

      I agree that it is wrong to assume that a child is handicapped before birth. But that alone is not the reason behind every very weighty and emotional decision to have an abortion. I agree that there are some adoptive parents who would be grateful to raise a mildly disabled child. But you cannot argue with the fact that there are thousands of children ready for adoption in the US who are autistic, have cerebral palsy, or other very challenging conditions. At the same time, there are hundreds of couples on just the LDS adoption website who are seeking to adopt—usually a baby. Oaks does not address this issue, and rather takes aim at abortion. If it is fair for us to assume that an infertile couple can seek for an ideal adoption, then it is equally fair to suggest that a woman has a right to choose an ideal pregnancy, whether she keeps the child or not.

      I think you mistake me for living in the United States as you recommended that I take advantage or challenge state funded medical options in my state. I do not live in the United States. It is a mistake to think that all countries off such generous help to adoptive children with disabilities. This is a worldwide church, and the majority of members live OUTSIDE the United States. Your answer will help no one.

      I also have an issue with your claim of “two friends.” In my experience, church culture seems to fuel a desire for church members to presume a mythological experience of “friends” whom they do not know well enough to offer true insight. I also believe that church members speak less openly about situations, or speak about personal trials in edited and cryptic terms which disguise the emotionally debilitating reality of long-term challenges. Unless you have been through the situation of seeking for adoption, choosing to adopt a disabled child, and organizing the constant drain of time and costs in addition to the paperwork associated with such an adoption, and the burden that all of this places on your marriage, do not speak on behalf of those who are climbing that formidable mountain on a daily basis.

      • Perhaps there are people who invent mythological friends, but I am not one of them. My two friends are dear, known and I have been involved in the care of both the children involved. Your assumption that my honesty is instead a ploy is unkind.

      • I am sorry, I did not mean to be unkind.

        Nor did I mean to say that your friends are non-existent.

        My intent was to address the superficial level at which many people present, then others perceive and re-tell of a challenging situation, making the situation much more holy, or less burdened that the daily reality of the situation. I believe your friends exist. But. I do not trust that your perception and retelling of their situation is as rosy as what you perceive it to be. You are a secondary source, and I believe wholeheartedly that you love and admire your friends. I just believe that most people –myself included– keep many trials private, even from the closest of friends and family. Some of the requisite personal invasiveness associated with adoption and government assistance is humiliating enough to simply not speak about. I have experienced this first hand, hence my take on your retelling. It was not meant as unkind, but rather as suspect to secondary source.

    • I initially felt excited that Elder Oaks’ talk was addressing serious global problems that rarely get air time in General Conference, but in the end I did not feel inspired by his talk either. I do hope his meaning was more along the lines of MB’s interpretation – it’s possible, and I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt. But I thought switching from poverty and child abuse to abortion really undermined what he said about the former because it shifted the focus back to something that is familiar and comfortable for Mormons, which is taking a mental stand against abortion. That is not challenging, or a call to action.

      Speakers in General Conference like to note that they are speaking to the whole world, and I suppose in an Old Testament prophet sort of way they are, but really they must know that their audience is almost entirely Mormon. Oaks was preaching to the choir on abortion, and his talk was a missed opportunity to inspire people to help in concrete ways. Some Monson-style anecdotes on helping individuals would have been better, or even a Presiding Bishop-style overview of what the Church does with fast offerings. As it was, the lead-in on global poverty struck me as a foil for his real intent, which was to rant about abortion. I hope that’s not true, but that’s the feeling I got.

  2. I think what jumped out at me in Dahlins’ talk is the fact that he would rather see children live in a contentious house rather than be a child of divorce, because in his mind set divorce is just to easy. Anyone who has been thru a divorce know this is not the case, neither is staying in a marriage that is no longer working for whatever the reason. Current thinking in Psychology all say that it is better to be in a “broken Home’ than one where there is constant fighting back and forth.

    Bob Scheifer from CBS news “Face the Nation” put it best, there aren’t enough white haired old men who think like Romney does and that’s why he lost the election and I’m going to stretch out the the thought to include Dahlins’ remark about divorce. There just aren’t enough white haired old man who think the same as they do on any particular issue

  3. My impression of his “my calling” statement was that he didn’t want to be seen as criticizing local leaders or government policies. He certainly isn’t excusing himself for doing nothing, because the church does a lot around the globe:

    http://ldscharities.org/?lang=eng

    I personally enjoyed clicking on the map and confirming that we still do humanitarian work in both Israel and the Palestinian territories, something that I had wondered about recently.

    • I like that link, Naismith, thank you.

      But Oaks is not the church, and he was stating that he was a witness, and it was his calling to call people out. I see what you mean about him not wanting to be seen as critical, but I think it is imperative to be critical of policies and governments in order to protect children.

  4. I really liked your thoughts. My heart broke when he talked about the mother with starving children. I still want to know why he did not feed them or help that family. Why why why?

  5. Well if aborting a child isn’t so bad, that is killing an unborn child isn’t so bad, then why not kill all the impoverished children? Killing a child is far worse than child pornography and child prostitution I think.

    • I really can’t tell from your response if your being sincere, or funny(ironic). But, at any rate, many of the situations the women particularly those in third world nations find them selves in have a great deal to with women’s health care and the lack thereof. Unwanted pregnancy could easily be prevented, if condoms/ birth control pills were made available. However, being a heavily christian nation the Catholic Church strictly prohibits the use of condoms/ birth control pills thereby forcing women to bear children, when they already have to many mouths to feed. In addition, Abortion, which would be another viable option for women to help control family size could also be made available, but, isn’t because again, its seen as being evil, so women/girls are left to go to butchers to seek care, instead of going to hospital and seeking professional care.

      As it is, the government of these nations who refuse to provide care for the mothers of these children(indeed for the children themselves) are already “killing” them by not providing a safety net.

  6. A thorough critique that gave me a lot to ponder. Thanks for sharing these thoughts, Spunky.

  7. At the beginning of this talk, I was so excited because Elder Oaks got off to such a strong start but then it horribly veered off course with the tangent on abortion. Spunky, I think you have done an excellent analysis of his talk and really underscored how he missed the mark in talking about problems facing the human family. There are so few (can anyone remember/cite any?) talks about the global issues he brought up so the suggestion that he was attempting to divert attention to lesser known issues does not seem viable (pun only slightly intended). Before this talk was given, talks on church member’s responsibility towards people experiencing global poverty, abuse, exploitation, malnutrition are needed to highlight the new mission of the church to “care for the poor and the needy.” Focusing on the unborn when there are so many in need barely living today seems a bit like someone does not understand the meaning of, “Take therefore no thought for the morrow, for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient is the day unto the evil thereof.”

  8. I finally read the talk MONTHS after it was given. I loved the beginning and thought that the thrust of the talk would be a nice satisfying exploration of the whole “better that a millstone be hung about neck and cast into sea than to offend little ones.” Possibly even a hint or two about the seeming senselessness of so much suffering.

    No such luck.

    I did NOT think that Oaks was implying that malnourished mothers are villains, that “injured” children are unadoptable, or that birth control was considered on par with child pornography (really..he wasn’t saying those things…it’s way too far a stretch to say he did.)

    A tangent I always like to go down is the way he phrased his abortion/birth control part. Denying life. They never actually call it murder because LDS doctrine doesn’t consider abortion to be murder. Just something “like unto it” whatever that means.

    That said, I felt like he WAS saying that the institution of marriage is the best way to protect children. Cue my inward sigh of resignation.

    I didnt appreciate his vague statistics about how awful it is to be raised by unmarried parents. Or his one liner about how we should “assume the same disadvantages” for kids with gay parents.

    Likewise, all kudos was directed at the INSTITUTION of marriage saving our vulnerable children. Nothing was said about how the official ceremony, certificate, whathaveyou are worth nothing if the partners are not committed.

    In a nutshell, the talk left me feeling as I felt before. We hurt children the most when we deny women TWO things: opportunity to achieve financial self-sufficiency, and birth control.

    Virtually every form of child suffering (all over the world) would be alleviated if these children’s mothers were able to support themselves and become mothers when THEY choose to.

    • I am pro choice for women when we remember when the choice comes ie. before having sex not after fertilization.

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