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June 8, 2006 Edition

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Notes from The Gambia
A Culture of Life
Making Sense Out of Bioethics

Improving the lives of women and their families

photo of Tom Brodd

Notes from 
The Gambia 

Tom Brodd 

I just returned from a week long assessment of a literacy program that one of CRS' partners, NAWFA (National Women Farmers Association), is doing as part of its and CRS' outreach to improve the lives of women farmers and their families.

Most women in the literacy classes are in their early to mid-20s and have never been to school; this is their first time to learn to read, write, and understand math.

Coming from a place where everyone goes to school makes you appreciate how blessed you are to have education and not, as one normally does, take it for granted. It reminds one that you get much more out of doing this work than you can ever put into it.

Functional literacy

The main lessons that are taught are what is called "functional literacy," which is to give the women the knowledge to do and understand the day to day math and literacy problems that they encounter.

This includes reading prices on transport tickets, reading their and their children's names on their clinic records, being able to use a weigh scale to correctly measure the amount of crops they want to buy or sell so as not to be taken advantage of by market traders or as they are called here bana-bana.

These appear as mundane items but it is the mundane, the every day items, that the women need to be able to know and do, to help themselves and their families to improve their livelihoods.


The classes are taught in the villages where the women live, work, and raise their families but doing it there, in their remote villages, makes it somewhat difficult to find qualified people to be the teachers or as they are called, the facilitators.

Most facilitators are young men no older than the women and in many cases younger. In one particular case the facilitator is an orphan boy of 15, who was chosen because he had the ability to teach but also because he was orphaned and needed some type of income to be able to continue to pay his school fees, as the relatives who are taking care of him cannot afford them.

Despite the young age of the facilitators and that most if not all of them have only been to high school, or as it is called here senior secondary school, they are good and willing teachers. Many of them, during the assessment, said that by teaching they where able to learn much themselves.

Responses, results

Women talked about what taking the literacy classes has meant to them and their families.

Many said that they can now read and understand the weight card of their children used at the local clinic. One woman said that because she can now read and write her own name, she knew when she was given the wrong clinic card for her child.

Another woman said that because she can now read and understand numbers, she was able to help relatives navigate a hospital to find the room where their family member was being treated.

A number of women said that because they could now understand how a weigh scale worked, they were able to see if traders were trying to cheat them. In a number of cases they discovered that the traders were trying to shortchange them on the amount of food goods they bought and were either able to get the correct amount or, if the trader refused, they took their business elsewhere.

One woman said that because she can understand numbers and math, when she travels to Senegal to sell items, she makes more money now because she can understand and calculate the exchange rate being offered at the border and can shop around for the person giving the best rate.

The women appreciated being able to read phone numbers and make phone calls without help. This, they said, gave them a sense of privacy and independence.

These may seem like small everyday items that we in America take for granted, but here and with these women, being able to do these things gave them more freedom to control their own lives and also to improve and expand their income and livelihoods.

I repeat: you do not know the blessings you have until you go to a place without them.

Tom Brodd of Madison is living in The Gambia, West Africa, as one of 16 participants in the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) Volunteer Program, which provides U.S. Catholics with opportunities to share their skills through CRS and to live in solidarity with their brothers and sisters around the world.

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Mimicking: Youth imitate parents

photo of Fr. Eric Nielsen

A Culture 
of Life 

Fr. Eric Nielsen 

Have you ever noticed just how easily young people are influenced by the example of adults?

While I spent a year working in Germany at the age of 25, a young boy approached a friend and me while we played catch in a small park. Naturally, the boy wanted to play as well.

After a few misguided tosses, it became obvious that he had never held a baseball glove before, so I happily decided to provide him with a basic lesson. "Stand with the glove like this," I told him as I demonstrated the proper technique. I was amazed at what I saw, for not only did he mimic my glove hand rather well, but he was also perfectly mimicking my ungloved hand, which I had raised to scratch my nose!

Love is a virtue

How naturally children mimic the people around them, and how awesome, therefore, is the responsibility of parents to provide good examples to their children! Rare are the parents who do not realize that their children follow their example; however, few recognize that this example extends even to their most intimate behaviors.

The perfection of love is a supernatural virtue that requires a gift of the Holy Spirit, but love is first acquired within the family as a natural virtue. Love requires self-discipline and purity, and both of these virtues are first learned in the family where they should exist and be demonstrated within the bond of husband and wife. The more pure and wholesome the love between the parents, the more readily love will be reflected in their children.

How important it is, then, that marital relationships perfectly reflect the true gift of self that love requires in all aspects of the couples' lives, including in the realm of sexual relations. A couple's marital relations are not isolated events, but affect the whole marriage and thus permeate the lives of their children.

Children's free will

We can now begin to see an important distinction between Natural Family Planning (NFP) and artificial means of contraception. NFP, if done correctly, requires self-discipline, sacrifice, patience, and a wholesome affection for one's spouse. Artificial contraception requires none of these virtues; rather, it promotes the seeking of pleasure as a primary end and overrides the delicate balance of a couple's spiritual and emotional well being.

Just like all of us, children have free will, and evidence supports the fact that they - and not their parents - primarily determine who they will become by their own choices. Even Adam and Eve, who were created in human perfection and given the perfect environment, still freely chose to disobey God.

Thus not even parents bear complete responsibility for the vices and virtues their children adopt. Yet parents' influence and example play a huge role in the development of their children's character. It makes sense, then, that the virtues learned and practiced by couples using NFP will be passed on more easily to their children.

Parents' influence

Children who grow up with parents practicing NFP will find it easier to bring their feelings under control in order to sacrifice themselves for a higher good. They will tend to have a greater respect for their bodies, avoiding the notion that their bodies are simply tools for pleasure.

They will find it easier to love other people for who they are, rather than using others as objects of pleasure. Thus, these children will be better prepared to save the gift of their bodies for marriage, and experience the fuller measure of marital joy God has intended for them from all eternity.

There is no such thing as a private sin, or an insignificant act of virtue. Our character influences everyone we meet. How much more do the acts that define the character of parents influence their children's character!

Fr. Eric Nielsen is pastor of St. Mary Help of Christians Parish, Sullivan, and St. Mary Parish, Palmyra. This column is syndicated by www.OneMoreSoul.com

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Fetal Farming:
Slide down the slippery slope continues

photo of Fr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk

Making Sense 
Out of Bioethics 

Fr. Tad 

"Slippery slope" arguments in bioethics are fairly popular, reminding us how initial ethical violations have a way of leading to further violations and misdeeds, and ultimately, to undesirable places. Once you "give away the principle" and start sliding, it becomes difficult to return to the point from which you started.

What is genuinely striking is how far down the biotechnology slopes we have already come. In the 1960s, contraception, or sex without babies, became widely accepted. By 1978, the flip side, babies without sex, arrived on the scene with in vitro fertilization. Human embryos were created in the laboratory and implanted into women.

Soon this snowballed into the storage of "spare" embryos in the deep freeze, to the point of nearly a half-million humans "trapped" just in the United States (and still more being produced and frozen each hour, like an assembly line, at fertility clinics around the country).

The destruction of innocent human life in the womb also became commonplace after the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision. In the late 1980s researchers began using tissues derived from abortions to try to treat Parkinson's patients, with minimal public outcry or reaction, so that today abortion clinics have few qualms about providing freshly obtained "research material" to scientists at large universities or biotech companies.

Embryonic stem cells

In 1998, the next step was to sacrifice some of the previously frozen human embryos to procure their embryonic stem cells. Right on the heels of this development came an even more troubling proposal: making human embryos by cloning, matching them to sick patients, then destroying those embryos to get their stem cells.

Because those embryos would be clones, or identical twins of the patient, the stem cells could be implanted into the patient with minimal danger of rejection, since identical twins can exchange organs between each other without immune problems.

Thus, in the short space of a few years, we have arrived at the point of creating human life merely to destroy it, harvesting it as little more than raw material, a commodity, for exploitation. The confluence of these various ethical violations points to the next twist down the slippery and well-greased slopes of modern biotechnology.

Fetal farming

Although perhaps ominous sounding today, the prospect of fetal farming looms large, and may likewise become routine in our future if we continue to acquiesce to the coarsening of our moral sensitivities around these important bioethical questions.

Fetal farming is a method to obtain whole organs or other complex tissues. Currently, researchers speak about stem cells as the ideal, flexible cells that will let us make tissues, organs, and body parts in the future.

The difficulty is that we really don't have a clue how to make whole organs out of stem cells. Whole organs, like a kidney or a heart, are exceedingly complex structures with many different interacting cell types.

There are numerous unknown steps along the pathway of making, say, a kidney from a stem cell. Years, or even decades, of research must first be carried out before whole organs ready for human transplant will become widely available.

But a convenient shortcut may be possible. Instead of destroying a cloned, five-day-old human embryo to get his or her stem cells, why not simply implant that embryo, allow him or her to grow into a fetus, and schedule an abortion a little while before the baby's due date? Then mother nature will already have done all the hard work of making two kidneys, ready to be harvested from the aborted child, thereby saving a good deal of time and trouble in terms of scientific research.

These kinds of "fetal farming" experiments have already been done in mice and in cattle, and they provide usable tissues and organs. Scientists at a biotechnology company called Advanced Cell Technologies in Worcester, Mass., have published papers where, in one instance, stem cells were obtained by implanting the cloned mouse embryo and gestating it until the human equivalent of the fifth or sixth month. Then the fetal mouse was destroyed to procure its stem cells, which were used to treat the ailing hearts of other mice.

The next slope

So today we sanction the production of a five-day old human life to destroy it. Tomorrow it's a three-month-old, then an eight-month-old fetus. How far is it, really, from a five-day-old cloned embryo to fetal farming - manufacturing fetal humans to harvest their body parts? Not very far, when one recognizes how well the slippery slopes have already been greased.

This is why we must safeguard human life from its earliest beginnings, if we wish to avoid its destruction at any later stage.

As Charles Krauthammer, M.D., a syndicated columnist and member of the President's Council on Bioethics, has put it: "We will, slowly and by increments, have gone from stem cells to embryo farms to factories with fetuses hanging (metaphorically) on meat hooks waiting to be cut open and used by the already born."

Or, as Richard Doerflinger has perceptively noted, this is all about a new slavery, with biotech companies as the plantation owners.

Unless we take legal steps to assure that the rich, the powerful, and the self-interested are not allowed to run roughshod over embryonic and fetal humans, we will never be worthy of the claim that ours is a civilized society. Only if we are bold enough to challenge and alert our fellow Americans to the dangers of biotechnology without ethics can we avoid transitioning from the slippery slopes to outright downhill skiing.

Before ending up in an irreparable heap at the bottom of the hill, we would do well to respond decisively to those threats that arise whenever science becomes detached from a strong and robust moral vision.

Fr. Tadeusz Pacholczyk earned his doctorate in neuroscience from Yale and did post-doctoral work at Harvard. He is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., and serves as the director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, Pa.

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