Evangelicals Divided Over NYC’s Move Toward Government-Funded Rat Contraceptives

The National Institutes of Health has just given the company Senestech a grant of $1.1 million as its owner, Loretta Mayer, works to figure out a way to get New York City subway rats on the Pill. Subway rats, says Mayer, can find solid food easily, but are constantly on the search for liquids. Paul Jones, the manager of NYC transportation authority trash disposal, notes that rats, like most New Yorkers, crave caffeine; their favorite drinks, according to Jones, include Red Bull and (what else?) lattes. Soon there’ll be something else on the menu of the underground cafés that are the subway system: birth control smoothies. Mayer’s company is tweaking the formula to appeal to New York rats’ palates; while Asian rats have taken their birth control with shots of roasted coconut, dried fish, and beer, New York City rats seem to prefer pepperoni.

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It has set off a firestorm of controversy, coming in the wake of Mayor Bloomberg’s unsuccessful shame-campaign against underground rat pregnancies. One poster shows a hairless rat pup, its face contorted with grief, with the caption, “I’m six times more likely to get crushed by the 7 train because you had me in the subway!” Other rat constituents expressed frustration over the proposed bans on sweet beverages larger than 16 ounces. “That Bloomberg,” fumed one midtown rat, “does he even realize that by cutting into the humans’ freedom to super-size, he stops that trickle-down by which we rats survive?”

Handed down from City Hall, the rat contraceptive mandate has ignited even more ire from many different quarters. The Catholic Archdiocese of New York condemned the move, and many prominent evangelical rats have joined them–as Amy Frykholm points out in the Christian Century, evangelical rats appear to be “more in tune with Catholic teaching than Catholics rats are.” Many have declared it a question of religious liberty. “Health officials in China have been giving rats food-flavored birth control pills for years, and Joe Biden actually sympathizes with this campaign of forced sterilization,” says one evangelical leader who asked that he not be named. “Is this really the model we want to follow?”

“The effective separation of rat sex from rat procreation may be one of the most important defining marks of our age—and one of the most ominous,” says Albert Mohler, president of the flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention. The New York Times quoted Mohler warning evangelical rats to be wary of the “contraceptive culture,” which regards baby rats as “impositions to be avoided rather than as gifts to be received, loved, and nurtured.” Mohler insists that people and rats of conscience must protect the freedom of rats follow the command—or blessing—in Genesis: “be fruitful and multiply.”

Meanwhile, there’s another issue that many people of faith haven’t considered: the fact that the rat contraceptives may, in fact, prevent a fertilized egg—a tiny rat embryo—from implanting in the mother rat’s uterus, meaning that what’s happening looks to some more like an early abortion than contraception. This potentially ‘abortifacient’ effect bothers the consciences of many, who insist that the difference between contraception and abortifacient is crucial: “It’s an important distinction, both linguistically and scientifically,” says Karen Swallow Prior, professor of English at Liberty University and a contributor to both the Atlantic and Christianity Today, who also serves on the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States: “Whatever ambiguities persist around the rat birth control smoothie in its various flavors, it’s time to start facing them honestly,” she wrote in The Atlantic.

While most evangelicals are at least able to agree upon condoms as a morally licit choice in family planning, male rats are not eager to accept them, complaining that the barrier method interferes with intimacy. Enter Bill Gates, who recently announced a startup grant of $100,000 to the person who designs “the next generation rat condom that significantly preserves or enhances pleasure” and promotes “regular use.” If successful, the measure would not only prevent unintended rat pregnancies, but also help prevent the spread of infection.

Still, people of faith are divided. While some evangelicals are weighing the possible merits of making contraceptives available even to unmarried rats, others, like Matthew Lee Anderson, argue that the move would be a concession that evangelicals should simply not be willing to make, suggesting that it moves against a “consistent biblical ethic of sexuality”; this puts him at odds with the National Association of Evangelicals, which stated that “while we never want to promote or condone sexual immorality among rats [,] we are told that contraceptives can reduce abortions and we want to stop abortions.” Jenell Williams Paris, professor of anthropology at Messiah College, agrees: “Churches discussing contraception with single rats isn’t about giving up. It’s about being in a relationship with them.”

Tim Keller, of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, simply urges more Christian rats to move into the city in order to be a part of shaping rat culture. “We must love the rats of our cities,” he said, “because in the cities you can influence the rats that have the most impact on the world; the rats that shape culture.” Perhaps that is the most hopeful way forward—through loving engagement and honest dialogue over pepperoni (or coconut and dried fish) smoothies—whatever our various convictions on contraception, or the politics and policies surrounding it.

Reason, Compassion, and The Need for Darn Good Storytellers.

Some weeks ago the New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a piece praising the hardened, noir heros (like Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon) who were “moral realists,” who “assume[d] that everybody is dappled with virtue and vice, especially himself,” apparently in contrast to young enthusiastic activists who are

“bursting with enthusiasm for some social entrepreneurship project: making a cheap water-purification system, starting a company that will empower Rwandan women by selling their crafts in boutiques around the world.”

Bead for Life artisans.

They (and this is a hypothetical ‘they’ because he’s talking in general terms here) “think they can evade politics,” “have little faith in the political process” and “believe that real change happens on the ground beneath it.”

He calls this a delusion. Matthew Lee Anderson at Mere Orthodoxy appreciates this critique, adding to it a quote from the ethicist Oliver O’Donovan:

“Compassion is the virtue of being moved to action by the sight of suffering…it is a virtue that circumvents thought, since it prompts us immediately to action. […] it [requires no] independent thinking about the object of morality, only a very strong motivation to its practice.”

Of course it’s important to consider what means are most helpful to help. It’s true that ‘helping’ in unhelpful ways can hurt. But I feel that Brooks’ critique is insubstantial (not being rooted in an actual organization, only in imaginary groups of ‘activists’) and that we need compassion every bit as much as–or maybe even more than–reason.

not very rational.

After all we’re not the most reasonable creatures. We’re actually really unreasonable, most of us, which is why we find characters like Spock and Sherlock Holmes amusing oddities.

Here’s a specific example:

Not long ago Tim and I watched this documentary about HIV/AIDS. At one point, top virologists (folks who worked at NIH and WHO, for example) took a trip to South Africa where they spent some time on hospital wards–huge rooms full of dying people. They were already the world’s AIDS experts, but several of them pointed to that point as a turning point for them in their research: they saw people, and were resolved to help them. In the same documentary, former president Bill Clinton talked about walking along the AIDS quilt, seeing the blocks that represented a life lost to AIDS, and resolving to further efforts in the fight.

Something happens when we connect with a good story, and I fear that in denying the validity and importance of the visceral response, we deny an essential part of who God created us to be.

Why do you think organizations like Heifer International and World Vision have gift catalogs and sponsorship programs? Your $30 doesn’t really go straight into paying for some chickens or a child’s lunch program. But assigning that meaning to your money gives it a different quality. It calls out (rightly!) that quality of compassion, and the good folks at these good organizations use it as they see fit.

I don’t see that as a problem.

OK, compassion doesn’t stand alone. It isn’t the final goal.

But it’s a really good place to start.

Do we need people on the Spock end of the spectrum to see that relief and development are run effectively? Sure we do.

But just as much as we need them, we need people–good storytellers!–to help us give a darn.