Friday, May 9, 2008

Free Will: Too Much of A Good Thing?

by Lucy Puryear, M.D.

As a teenager I struggled with authority. Yeah, me and every other
adolescent who's walked this earth. I balked against anyone telling me what to do, when to do it, or what I ought to think about it. It's my body, my hair, my education . . . so leave me the hell alone. I swore when I had my own children I would never repeat the "sins" of my parents.

And then of course I had my own kids and I knew they needed guidance and gentle influence, and sometimes even some not so popular rules. "No, you can't stay up until two on a school night, no you can't go to a party where there are no parents, no you may not speak to me that way. . . ." And their response to me is the same one I gave my parents: "I can't wait until I'm eighteen and you can't tell me what to do anymore."

What you realize as an adult is that it's not so simple. There are not automatically unrestricted freedoms that come with adulthood. There are still rules, and expectations, and societal norms, and even laws that must be followed. And as I tell my children, "No, you don't have to do what I say, but there are consequences to not doing so." If you break my household rules you may get grounded or lose your allowance. If you break societal laws you may do jail time or worse.

The dilemma comes in our society where the government was founded on individual
rights of free speech, freedom of religion, the right to bear arms (rights currently being hotly debated), versus the needs of the larger group to be protected from someone's individual rights. Is it okay for you to threaten me with bodily harm as an expression of your right to free speech? Is it okay not to wear a helmet when you ride your motorcycle, if after you squash your brain on the highway, my tax dollars are used to take care of you?

Nowhere is the tension between freedom of religion--an individual's right to choose--and societal laws and norms greater than in the case of the polygamists in Eldorado, Texas. (Women and children after being removed from the compound pictured below.)

So what's so wrong with polygamy? If a woman chooses to be one of five wives, shouldn't she have that right? Not my choice to do so but then no one is asking me to. I assume the FLDS church is just fine with my decision to stay away from them. They're not knocking on my door trying to recruit me as wife number six. So why don't we just leave them alone to practice their religion in peace?

I can think of a lot of religious practices that seem very strange to me. How about taking communion on a Sunday and believing that it is truly the body and blood of Christ? (I actually do believe in that as a practicing
Episcopalian, but I'm also willing to admit others might think that practice quite odd and non-sensical.) How about the Jewish practice of circumcision, which is a religious ritual but practiced now by Jews and non-Jews alike? You don't think cutting the foreskin off of a baby's penis a little barbaric?

Where do we draw the line between free will and the safety and well-being of others? The FLDS group from Eldorado believes that they are upholding God's prophetic vision for them to live their lives in plural relationships. The United States has laws that make polygamy illegal. However these groups have been practicing polygamy for decades and mostly have been left alone to practice their religion. But this case hinges on the well-being and protection of minor children. And that's where the issue of free will becomes very important.

We do not believe that children under the age of eighteen (a somewhat arbitrary cut off) have the right to free will. I think mostly because we think they're not mature enough or wise enough to exercise their rights using good judgement. And that's often true. Ask any child whether they thought going to school was a good idea and you'd get many who'd opt for the "only if I feel like it and there weren't any tests" track. So as a society we have chosen to subsume the rights of the child under the rights of the parents. And in the Eldorado case the parents have chosen to allow their underage young girls to be married to much older men and to participate in sexual activity, often against their will. Most of society calls this child abuse, and this is why the children were removed from the compound. Child abuse trumped the right to practice your religion without obstruction from the government.

It will be interesting to see how this case turns out. I think many will be surprised to see that most of the women and children will be allowed to return to the compound. It could be a worse fate for some of these children to be taken away from their mothers and sent to foster care. That can't be the answer for what's in the best interest of these children. And it may be astonishing to many that if given the choice, most of the women would choose to take their children and return to what they consider a safe and nurturing home.

There will be much argument over whether or not these women from Eldorado are acting freely. They have been raised in this environment and some would say "brainwashed" to believe that they are subservient to men and that it is their duty to practice plural marriage. Most of all of us have been "brainwashed" by the way we are raised. I'm an Episcopalian, my next door neighbor is a republican, my best friend was raised to believe in astrology and the power of crystals. But I would say we have free will because we have the freedom to choose whether or not we want to continue the practices of our parents. They may be disappointed or even angry if we choose to vote for a democrat, but we won't be banned from contact with the family.

Adults should be allowed to practice whatever religion, or be in whatever relationship configuration they choose, as long as minor children are not abused, coerced, or denied the right to choose another lifestyle in adulthood. When someone who does not have the right to exercise their own free will is hurt, the law needs to intervene. This is true for children, the elderly, and those with serious and persistent mental illnesses. Thirteen-year-old little girls should not be having intimate relationships with men. That is not religious freedom. That is child abuse.


Diane Fanning said...

I also think it is child abuse for little girls to be raised believing that they are the slaves to men--sexual and otherwise. And it is child abuse for little boys to be raised believing that it is their right to subjegate women.

Rae said...

Great article! And you raise some interesting points to chew on.

Polygamy, in my opinion, is wrong. God created Adam and Eve. He didn't create Adam and Eve, Barbie, Joan, and Susan. To me, that's always been His message in itself. But, I hope I would never step on another person's right to feel differently, and make a different choice for themselves.

That said, I agree, select practices of the FLDS cross the line, and that suspends any consideration of freedom of choice/religion.

Kathryn Casey said...

Beautifully written and well said, Lucy. I agree, the abuse of the children overrides the religious freedom of the adults. I have a hard time understanding those who argue otherwise.

What if a religion springs up in Rhode Island based on pagan beliefs that include human sacrifice? Should we look the other way if the members slaughter a young boy or an old woman this spring in honor of Zeus?

Isn't this the same thing?

Donna Pendergast said...

Great post Lucy. I too consider forcing a 13 year old into an intimate relationship to be child abuse not freedom of religion or freedom of choice. How sad that most of them are "brainwashed" into accepting it as normal.

A. said...

Lol Rae...Adam and Eve and Barbie and Joan and Susan.

The gray area is that these "wives" and mothers, were once the children that at 14 (or so) were abused in the same way. I can't help but assume that this has severely
stunted their mental capacity to make un-coerced choices for themselves, even as adults.

I've also read that if a woman wants to get out, she generally has to leave her children behind. Another abuse.

These men are all powerful in this society. I don't see a lot of "free will and choice" decisions going on here. But it's a tough thing, within our laws, to offer real legal recourse...given that they are adults.

Leah said...

LOL Rae.

A, I think you are onto something re: stunted mental capacity.

jolynna said...

Sex with children is abuse, period.Violators should be punished to the full extent of the law.

I don't believe polygamous relationship should be prosecuted because "God created Adam and Eve" or for any reason based upon religious beliefs.

We all aren't Christian. Other beliefs should be respected.

The number of Polygamous Islamics in the U.S. is rumored to be in the tens of thousands. Israel has confronted the problem of polygamy among jewish sects. Canada and the U.K. recognize polygamous unions if the couples are married in a country where the marriage is legal. Second and third wives are entitled to benefits in those countries just like the first wife.

I am not promoting polygamy. But, I do respect the choices of other adults.

The laws and the church need to stay separate. I think sometimes views of what is right and wrong are influenced by our religious background.

I don't think that is fair to those who don't believe the same.

Jan said...

I find it ironic that the FLDS funds their polygamist lifestyle with our tax dollars.

They go on welfare and call it "bleeding the beast." They find it amusing that Satan is supporting God’s work.

I am not amused.

Abuse begets abuse. Enough already.

Leah said...

Jolynna, if they are going to be prosecuted it will be for weldare fraud, sexual abuse, physical abuse and things of that nature. This didn't happen because of polygamy in and of itself.

I respect the choiced of others and I believe in separation of church and state. But I do not believe in hiding behind religion for evil purposes nor in taking away the innocence of children. Children have rights and they deserve protection.

Pat Brown said...

Lucy, you have brought up many interesting points. As I have lived in and visited other cultures, the question often comes to my mind as to what is "culture" and what is slavery/prostitution/child abuse, etc. For example, when blacks in South Africa were not allowed to travel about with a card and permission, the United States boycotted the country. But, do we have an issue with Saudi Arabia where women are not permitted to drive, work, wear clothes that allow them to see where they are walking, and not permitted to leave their home without the permission of a male? Apparently not, because this is called "culture," not racism or slavery. On the other hand, we also call "culture" the early sexualization of our children through lack of parenting, overly permissive schools and families, sex in the media, etc. I call this child abuse and child neglect.

It seems that the labels we put on behavior and human situations does much depend on group consensus especially of those in economic and political power. I guess this is the way it has always been, but it is often sad to see the abuse or control of those downtrodden within such a system. It is the story of humans on earth, I suppose, and I guess all we can do is continue as individuals to push for the most hopeful and healthy society we can envision.


Patty Beeken said...

I think the bottom line here is that these are children. Thirteen year old girls are still children no matter what anyone's religious beliefs are.
Grown women are able to make their own decisions but probably some of the grown women were sexually abused and made to "Marry" when they were that young also. I feel sad to think that they have continued to allow the same thing to happen to their children. No matter what happens this is still a huge mess with years of therapy ahead for many kids.

Diane Fanning said...

I have a problem with Saudi Arabia. It might be their "culture" but any culture that enslaves and restricts the freedoms of anyone based on their gender or their race is flat out wrong. There is no justification for the subjegation of women--not ever, not anywhere, not any time.
Cultural mores be damned.

Rae said...

Jolynna, they can't be prosecuted for polygamy. Spiritual polygamy is not against the law.

I did NOT say that they should be prosecuted because "God created Adam and Eve". I SAID I believe that God's message is inherent in the fact that He created Adam and Eve, not Adam and several women. That's my belief, and my interpretation. And nowhere did I say that I don't respect other people's beliefs. But, I am certainly entitled to state my own, and just because I believe polygamy to be wrong doesn't mean that I feel other people should be prosecuted for practicing spiritual polygamy.

Kindly don't quote what I said out of context.

A. said...

Like Diane, I also have a problem with the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia Pat, and many other nations.
I don't think we "accept" this because it's there culture. There's simply not much we can do about it.

Pat Brown said...

Actually, A., when I have discussed the issue of women who are enslaved within certain countries, I have quite often gotten the "culture" argument, that we shouldn't inflict our western thinking on thenm, and that they like their way of life and we shouldn't judge.

This is my whole point: other countries might look at our sexually active thirteen-year-olds with their myspace pages full of sex and think these children are being neglected or abused OR they may just say, well, it is the culture of America and we can't impose our Eastern thinking on them. So, the question of culture or cruelty is always a problem within and without a society. What to do about certain issues and if we can even agree on those issues is always in flux. It is a problem that all human societies have to live with and deal with.


A. said...

Pat, I can see your point.
I'm sure it depends on the audience you're speaking to. On a true-crime site, where the demographic is the activist type of female, it stands to reason that the general consensus will be that terrible abuses of women are perpetrated (and excused) around the globe, and that it's never ok.

Imo, the standard of measure is: is there coercion involved, and for those that say "no", then what is the barometer for free will and choice?
Those markers, plus a general respect of each and every human being, is my baseline, which is clearly and regularly violated in every pocket of society, with some giving more justification that others.

Lucy Puryear MD said...

Hi all. Thanks for the wonderful comments to my post. Sorry I've been absent, my internet is down at home.

I appreciate that you all "get" the ultimate dilemma; when does the rights of the individual take precedence over the rights of the whole. Not ever an easily answered question.

Take for instance the rights of the mentally ill. For years they were locked up in state hospitals and not allowed to leave. Then in the sixties the civil rights movement included the rights of the mentally ill to be housed in the least restrictive environment. Thousands were released to the community and cared for in half way houses and community mental health centers.

However there are still those who have chronic and severe mental illnesses who are wandering our streets and make up 50% of our homeless. Unless they are in imminent danger of hurting themselves or others we are not allowed to force them into treatment where many would recover and be able to lead some semblance of a normal life.

As a society, in this case, we have chosen the individual right to liberty to take precendence over involuntary treatment that would be of benefit to both the "patient" and the community.

I agree in these cases. Too often the hospitalization of individuals against their will has been used to control political dissent and to get rid of troublesome family members.

It is hard though to watch some one suffer with voices on the side of the road, when I know medication might make their life much better.

Leah said...

I think the answer to a lot of the abuse [pertaining to this post] is that it is done in the name of God. If it weren't for individuals believing they are doing [or not] certain things for God and a higher purpose, they wouldn't tolerate it. To a large degree Americans have separated church and state and therefore liberated themselves in others areas and decision making. People can tolerate a lot when they believe they are living God's purpose and they will receive eternal rewards for persevering [sp] on earth.

Anonymous said...

and lets not forget The Labiancas
as well