Review of Martin Nowak's Super Cooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed

How can cooperation emerge in a world of selfish individuals ruled by a Darwinian competition for survival?

This is the question that Martin Nowak, Professor of Mathematics and Biology at Harvard University, discusses in Super Cooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed.

Nowak and his collaborators have published a series of articles in major scientific journals that give partial answers to this question. The book provides a gentle overview of the technical results, with frequent comments about the implications for politics and economics. For example, Nowak repeatedly mentions climate change as an example of something requiring cooperation among humans.

The hope is that if we understand, mathematically, how cooperation emerges, we can better design policies and structures to promote cooperation and deter selfishness.

I propose that “natural cooperation” be included as a fundamental principle to bolster those laid down by Darwin. Cooperation can draw living matter upwards to higher levels of organization… Cooperation makes evolution constructive and open-ended.

Super Cooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed

The book has a few simple mathematical formulas, but the educated layman should be able to understand the gist of the arguments, thanks to generous use of example, analogy and simplification. Indeed, the book’s readability benefits from the aid of Roger Highfield, an author of popular science books, who helped Nowak with the writing.

Darwinian evolution is based on competition for survival, for resources, and for mates. Winners reproduce, losers leave few offspring. Due to mutations, individuals vary in their fitness. Over many generations, fitter (configurations of) genes proliferate, while weaker ones disappear.

In fact, fitness is defined in terms of ability to reproduce, so the fact that fitter individuals reproduce is something of a tautology.

Similarly to evolution, in an economy, people often act selfishly, trying to get paid as much as possible for what they sell, whether goods or their services, and trying to pay as little as possible for what they buy.

It would appear that cooperation is difficult to explain in a pure, evolution-based model or in a selfish profit-based economy. You’d expect that selfishness would always win out. But it’s clear that cooperation is common, both among non-human animals and among humans.

The basic reason is that, in the long run being nice pays off, for you or for your children, kin, or neighbors.

In the context of this book, cooperation basically means: an individual is willing to sacrifice some short-term benefit in exchange for a longer-term reward, either for itself or for related individuals (e.g., children or kin or members of the same group). In other words, cooperation is a form of reciprocity, or reciprocal altruism. This sense of cooperation isn’t as pristine or as self-sacrificing as some religious traditions’ ideals of pure selfless love. But even Christianity relies on a promise of reward and punishment in the afterlife to motivate moral behavior.

Albert Einstein once said, “If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.”

Unfortunately, from the point of view of biology, all we seem to have is punishment and reward, where reward means reproductive fitness: produce descendants who survive and who likewise reproduce. (It is not sufficient to have children: if your kids are too weak to survive, or if they don’t reproduce, your reproductive fitness isn’t really high.)

Yet the bearer of fitness (the entity getting the reward or punishment and that gets to reproduce) isn’t necessarily the individual of a species. Richard Dawkins famously suggests that the unit of competition and survival may be the gene: animals exist to promote the interests of their genes, not the other way around. Moreover, genes, as well as gene networks, span individuals and species.

There are also theories which say the unit of the reward is the group: related kin, or cooperating subgroups, or (at a higher level) cooperating species who live in symbiosis with one another.

Indeed, group-based reciprocity seems to be the essence of cooperation.

We are all in it together.

We are interdependent.

Nowak thinks cooperation, and not just competition, is a fundamental force in evolution.

I have argued that evolution “needs” cooperation if she is to construct new levels of organization, driving genes to collaborate in chromosomes, chromosomes to collaborate in genomes, genomes to collaborate in cells, cells to collaborate in more complex cells, complex cells to collaborate in bodies, and bodies to collaborate in societies.

A set of genes working together is an example of cooperation. And in the primordial soup, sets of cooperating chemical reactions led to the origins of life.

Within biology, there have been attempts to explain cooperation in terms of kin selection (in which an individual is willing to sacrifice itself to aid close relatives who share many genes with it). The social insects are prime examples of cooperators; the worker ants who build and defend the nest are closely related to the queen.

A related notion is group selection (aka multi-level selection), according to which groups which are more fit (e.g., due to being better cooperators) out-compete groups which are less fit.

The idea of group selection seems intuitively correct, and Darwin was aware of the role of cooperation in evolution and of the apparent presence of group selection, both in biology and in culture (where ideas or what are now called “memes” reproduce).

But there are heated disagreements among professional biologists about whether the phenomenon of group selection really occurs and about the extent to which it occurs. Richard Dawkins has famously ridiculed both the idea and the biologists who support it. Nowak seems to be among the latter group.

Examples of cooperation among humans include: lending a cup of sugar to a neighbor, taking the bus instead of driving the car, paying taxes instead of cheating, contributing to the donation plate, bringing in your neighbors’ and garbage bins from the curb, as well as more dramatic examples such as risking your life to safe someone who has fallen onto train tracks. Most parents would instinctively risk their lives to save the lives of their (small) children.

In the mathematical and computer models of cooperation, various individuals interact with other individuals, either in a well-mixed pool; in a network of connections such as on social networks; in various sets of interests groups; or on a grid. Whenever you interact with another individual, each of you decides whether to cooperate or whether you will defect (be selfish). You are rewarded or punished accordingly.

Mathematically, cooperation is formalized in the form of such a two person game. The standard game of this sort is is called The Prisoner’s Dilemma.  It models the situation where two prisoners who have been arrested by the police and are being interrogated separately. Each prisoner gets to choose, independently, whether to cooperate (keep his mouth shut and deny the crime) or defect (accuse his partner of the crime). If they both cooperate they each get only one year in prison on a lesser charge, because the police have insufficient evidence. If they both defect, they each get two years in prison. If one person cooperates with his partner and the other person defects, then the first person (the cooperator) gets three years in prison and the second person (the defector) gets off free.

From the point of view of each prisoner, it seems the smartest thing to do is defect.

Suppose the other person cooperates and stays mum. Then you should defect, because you get off free.

On the other hand, suppose the other person defects and accuses you of the crime, then you better defect too. For if you cooperate with your partner, you get three years in prison, whereas if you defect you get just two years in prison.

What could prevent defection is loyalty, or the knowledge that in the future, after you’re both out of prison, the other person could punish you. Likewise, in a future similar situation, where cooperation might help he will remember your betrayal.

The tragedy of the commons is a similar scenario.

In the more general game, where rewards and punishments can take the form of money or some other outcome, there are likewise four possible outcomes: Cooperate-Cooperate, Cooperate-Defect, Defect-Cooperate, and Defect-Defect. Each outcome has a (possibly different) payoff for each of you. If you both cooperate, you both get the same reward R for cooperating. If one person cooperates but the other person defects, the first person is punished (S for Sucker) bad but the other person wins a big reward (T for Temptation) If you both defect, you’re both punished slightly (P). Depending on the relative values of P,R, S, and T, and on the structure of interactions — specifically, whether you can learn about the reputation of the person you’re interacting with — cooperation may or may not emerge.The standard Prisoner’s Dilemma game has

T > R > P > S.

Yet cooperation can emerge. This result is non-intuitive, because given the inequalities above, the values P, R, S, and T guarantee that in the short-term the smartest thing to do is to defect. Here’s why. Your opponent is either going to cooperate or defect (and you won’t know which he does til after you make your move).

Assume he cooperates. Then you can win big by defecting. Here’s why. If you cooperate, you get only R. But if you defect, you get T and T>R. So, it seems you should defect.

Likewise assume he defects. Then you better defect too, because if you cooperate, then you’ll get only S, but if you defect you’ll get P, and P>S.

So in either case, the best thing to do, in the short run, is to defect.

But in a community of people playing the game repeatedly, there are benefits from cooperation. A group of cooperating individuals will have a higher fitness (reward) than a group of turncoat defectors, because R>P.

If the last time I interacted with you, you cooperated, and if I remember that, I can try cooperating again, in the hopes that you will reciprocate.

So in the presence of repeated interactions, and memory, cooperation can emerge.

Cooperators are rewarded with help from other cooperators. Defectors are punished by future defection. If cooperators gain a benefit as a group that is unavailable to defectors, then cooperation can flourish. But cooperation is always susceptible to exploitation by defectors: a population of trusting cooperators can be taken advantage of by a few defectors.  Such invasions by defectors are visible in computer simulations.

Cancerous cells can be modeled as defectors.  So can tax dodgers and alleged welfare moms who drive Mercedes.

Using the formalization of Prisoner’s Dilemma, Nowak was able to prove mathematical theorems, and run computer simulations, that show under what conditions cooperation can flourish.

He showed that cooperation emerges if you meet the other person often enough in the future and can remember the previous interactions, so you can punish or reward him. It also helps if people have a reputation that is is public knowledge or that is shared between individuals (indirect reciprocity). Furthermore, it helps if people are organized into small groups; this allows cooperators to shield themselves from being taken of advantage of by nasty defectors; large groups are difficult to police. Finally, it helps if it’s possible to move between groups, to escape defectors.

Even if we can explain cooperation biologically, in terms of kin selection, or group selection, there is still a problem: how inclusive is the in-group?  Does it include people of a different race or nationality? How about individuals of a different species?

As indicated above, the biologically inspired notion of cooperation is somewhat unsatisfying, because it still relies on a form of reciprocity, albeit at the group level. If someone chooses not to identify with the group, then why should they cooperate?

Indeed, conservatives are the consummate defectors: individualists who detest and ridicule cooperation and community endeavors, at least by governments. Conservatives detest the United Nations. They detest the International Court of Law.  Conservatives avoid paying taxes,  but typically like spending money on wars, both domestic (e.g., the wasteful and disastrous war on drugs) and foreign.  Conservatives oppose laws and regulatory agencies that deter their antisocial behavior. They under-fund the IRS, encouraging tax cheats. And they under-fund Congressional staff, so that lawmakers are dependent on lobbyists and outside groups for information.

Like parasites, conservatives destroy the body politic, all in the name of “freedom.”

Conservatives and their ideology can be defeated only when enough people wake up to the lies and the half-truths behind their movement,  and when enough people realize that we’d be better off in the long run by cooperating on building a government that works for everyone, that makes sound environmental, health, and safety policies, and that makes sure tax cheats pay their fair share.

Highly educated people are liberal

Pew Research reports:

A Wider Ideological Gap Between More and Less Educated Adults

Political polarization update

Two years ago, Pew Research Center found that Republicans and Democrats were more divided along ideological lines than at any point in the previous two decades. But growing ideological distance is not confined to partisanship. There are also growing ideological divisions along educational and generational lines.

4-22-2016_01Highly educated adults – particularly those who have attended graduate school – are far more likely than those with less education to take predominantly liberal positions across a range of political values. And these differences have increased over the past two decades.

More than half of those with postgraduate experience (54%) have either consistently liberal political values (31%) or mostly liberal values (23%), based on an analysis of their opinions about the role and performance of government, social issues, the environment and other topics. Fewer than half as many postgrads – roughly 12% of the public in 2015– have either consistently conservative (10%) or mostly conservative (14%) values. About one-in-five (22%) express a mix of liberal and conservative opinions.

Among adults who have completed college but have not attended graduate school (approximately 16% of the public), 44% have consistently or mostly liberal political values, while 29% have at least mostly conservative values; 27% have mixed ideological views.

By contrast, among the majority of adults who do not have a college degree (72% of the public in 2015), far fewer express liberal opinions. About a third of those who have some college experience but do not have a bachelor’s degree (36%) have consistently liberal or mostly liberal political values, as do just 26% of those with no more than a high school degree. Roughly a quarter in each of these groups (28% of those with some college experience, 26% of those with no more than a high school education) have consistently conservative or mostly conservative values.

….. See http://www.people-press.org/2016/04/26/a-wider-ideological-gap-between-more-and-less-educated-adults/

Do liberals suffer more than conservatives?

I finished Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom.

All the relationships in the novel (between lovers, between parents and kids, between siblings, and between friends) were screwed up. People fought, competed, and betrayed each other. People yearned to be free of dysfunctional relationships.

Franzen showed how dysfunction was passed down through generations. He described the struggles and mistakes of the parents and grandparents of the main characters.

People made stupid choices when young (about school, about roommates, and about lovers) and had to live with the consequences for years afterwards.

Everyone was neurotic, selfish and greedy.

Just like real life, I thought.

I mentioned the open-eyed cynicism/realism of the novel to some coworkers. One coworker said, “Yeah, this world is fallen.” Another said, “I’m sick of my husband.” I responded, “Too much information!”

For many people, work is the sanest part of their lives. But some workplaces are war zones too, and many managers make bad decisions.

To some extent, the novel was a glorified soap opera. I cringed at the mistakes the characters made in their lives. But the central characters changed over time, and in the end love and friendship triumphed — sortof. The characters were imperfect but they weren’t sadistic and they did have some tender feelings.

A common theme in the novel is the differences in outlook between conservatives and liberals: how political views affect personal lives. Franzen — like the main characters in the novel — is clearly a liberal, but it seems that the liberals suffer more than the conservatives.

This leads me to suggest a research topic: do liberals suffer more than conservatives?

Perhaps liberals suffer more than conservatives because (1) liberals have a conscience; (2) Liberals live in reality, unlike conservatives who live in a fantasy land, and (3) liberals typically lack religious faith, which can be a solace. Perhaps liberals are more neurotic. Are they more often single?

Republican Talking Heads Claim Talk has no Power to Influence Beliefs and Behavior

Who incited Christian terrorism?  Not me.  Couldn’t be.

In what could be the greatest hypocrisy in a season of head-spinners, Christianist Republicans—from presidential candidates to congressmen to Fox News bimbos to sleazy video-splicers and wild-eyed sidewalk ranters-with-rosaries—are scrambling to deny that what they say actually matters.

Specifically they claim that they had nothing to do with a shooting rampage at Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs.

Never mind that conservative Christians in high places have been fanning flames for months, calling women and care providers murderers, pretending to believe Planned Parenthood kills big-eyed babies and sells body parts for profit. Never mind that we call such language “incendiary” because it is incendiary. They are shocked-shocked-I-say, that some wingnut in Colorado actually took their becking at face value and opened fire in a family planning clinic.  Who could have possibly known that all that posturing and lying for political gain might affect someone’s behavior?!  Uh, I mean, it didn’t! It couldn’t. It was just talk!

Did anyone other than the guilty parties themselves fail to notice the bizarre irony here?  The people now hastening to assure us that talk doesn’t matter are people who earn big salaries talking. We refer to them as talking heads because that’s what they do, day in and day out, month in and month out.  Talk, talk, talk. Why?  Because like all bullies they (and the folks who bankroll them) are betting that words actually can hurt you.

Those most carefully denying any relation between talk and murder are politicians who spend years speechifying in order to change voter behavior, assisted by well-paid communications experts who the big bucks because tweaking words slightly might affect what voters do. They are pulpit pounders who siphon off 10 percent of churchgoer earnings on the premise that by talking to and for God they can influence beliefs, attitudes and behavior. Talk can save souls. In fact, in the Iron Age mythology of the Bible, it can bring whole worlds into existence.  In the beginning was the word. 

But a bloodbath incited by mere words? Stochastic terrorism? A crazy lone wolf who reacts predictably to the fear and fury of the pack? Words erupting into violent action and reaction? Words shattering into the staccato of gun fire, into screams of terror and anguish? Words slurring into the soft gurgle of the dying? Couldn’t be.

Someone should tell America’s politicians, ad men, preachers and campaign consultants to pack up and get jobs where they actually have some influence. If, as they claim, they’re not capable of getting one crazed wingnut among millions to pick up a gun and open fire after months of professionally crafted goading and millions of dollars of airtime, they don’t deserve their big salaries.

Originally published at ValerieTarico.com

The Yuck Factor — What Planned Parenthood Smears, Homophobia, and Middle School Jokes Have in Common

Blood and GutsMedical procedures and research are yucky. Good healthcare means getting over it.

If religious conservatives have their way, reproductive healthcare will be dictated by the same psychology that drives middle school jokes about genitals, dead babies and poop—our instinctive squeamish reaction to things that are disgusting and shocking, especially if they relate to sex. Good thing public health advocates and medical providers have a higher set of priorities.

Each year in America, 650 women die from pregnancy, many leaving behind motherless children. Thousands more survive and thrive only because of “yucky” medical procedures like cesarean sections, hysterectomies, transfusions, and abortions. Given the latest deceptive smear campaign against Planned Parenthood, it appears that religious conservatives would rather some of those women died.

Blood, Guts, and the ‘Yuck Factor’

Most of us have little stomach for tasks, however important, that require cutting people open, removing body parts, or dealing with squishy tissue and bodily fluids. That’s why blood and guts are the stuff of horror movies. That is also why the Religious Right wants our national conversation about family planning to stay focused on “the yuck factor” of abortion surgeries rather than on the chosen lives and flourishing families empowered by well-timed, intentional childbearing.

Disgust evolved as a way to protect us against eating and touching things that might make us sick. Swamp water, decaying flesh, putrid food, feces . . . all of these carry pathogens that our ancestors needed to avoid long before people understood germs. Nature’s way of protecting our species was to make certain sights and smells disgusting. We have a similar instinctive revulsion for human forms that are damaged, disfigured, dying or dead. Our instinctive horror makes a mutilated body riveting.

An image or idea that triggers the yuck factor is “sticky” and viral, meaning it sticks in our brains and we are likely to describe or show it to others. The more disgusting something is, the more it rattles us out of the mindless routine of everyday living and creates a strong memory imprint. That is because paying attention to disgust had—and sometimes still has—survival value. As with every other sensation or emotion that grabs our attention, people have learned to take advantage of that.

Turning Instinct into Financial, Religious or Political Gain

Storytellers long ago figured out how to cash in on the yuck factor, turning disgust into gold at the bookseller or box office. From Homer’s Medusa, to Shakespeare’s witches and their brew, to Stoker’s Dracula, to modern zombie movies, the horror artist compels our attention by playing with gruesome details. Halloween merchants sell slime and goo for haunted houses or fake severed limbs and gashed faces because the instinctive disgust reaction is malleable and doesn’t differentiate between substances and situations that are truly dangerous and those that merely look so.

Religions capitalize on disgust by blurring the difference between cleanliness and godliness—in other words by giving disgust moral and spiritual significance. In the Bible, for example, a woman is spiritually unclean while she is menstruating or after delivering a baby, and people with handicaps including crushed testicles are banned from the holiest part of the temple. In Islam, dogs are spiritually, not just physically dirty. In the Hindu tradition, holy men wear white, and spotless clothes represent spiritual purity. In Western Christianity, white wedding dresses have similar significance.

When disgust gets triggered, people may build a cognitive rationale to explain to themselves or others why the disgusting something is bad for other reasons, layering a veneer of rationalizations on top of what is really a gut feeling.

The boundary between disgust and morality is particularly blurry for self-identified conservatives. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt studies cognitive differences between liberals and conservatives. He found that liberals tend to base moral judgments on questions of harm and equity. Is it fair? Does it hurt anybody? Conservatives value fairness and non-harm too, but they also give moral weight to three other factors: loyalty, purity, and authority. What does my tribe want? Is it disgusting? What do authority figures say? In other words, conservatives are more likely to think something that triggers the yuck feeling is morally wrong, independent of other factors.

Practical and Moral Limitations of Yuck

Disgust works as a reasonably good shortcut to protect us from the dangers it evolved to avert, meaning pathogens and toxins. But even there, it has some real limitations. For example, in Ebola-stricken Africa, culturally-prescribed burial rituals trumped the instinctive aversion to touching dead bodies, which caused the virus to spread. On the other side of the equation, people with non-contagious physical deformities, like the Elephant Man, may face horrible cruelties and rejection.

When it comes to modern medical procedures and emerging technologies like GMO’s, or potable water from sewage, disgust correlates badly or not at all with real risks.

Likewise, moral disgust can arise from religious taboo violations, like eating cheese and meat from the same plate, that have little rational relation to humanity’s shared moral core or threats against wellbeing.

Homophobia and the Yuck Factor

For decades, people seeking queer equality found themselves up against the power of the yuck reaction. Any kind of sex that we ourselves don’t find titillating tends to arouse disgust; and so as long as the thought of queer people evoked images of anal sex between two men, the yuck factor created an almost insurmountable barrier to equality. But as a critical mass of queer people came out of the closet and advocates made the fight about families and love, other moral emotions like empathy and a sense of Golden-Rule fairness moved to front and center, and culture shifted.

Some years back I got schooled on disgusting sex by my middle school daughters. I had broached a conversation about their gay uncle and evangelical relatives who would soon be visiting us. I explained the yuck factor and said, “I might think about gay sex and say it’s not my thing, but they might think that its gross and so morally wrong.” One of the girls responded, “First off, Mom, the word isn’t ‘gay’ it’s ‘queer,’ and secondly, you know what kind of sex we think is really disgusting? Parent sex. That’s why we’re so glad you and Dad haven’t had any in 13 years.”

I chose not to enlighten them.

Today when most Americans think about queer people they think about loving couples, two moms or two dads raising kids, extended families, “sweet” members of the church choir, brave young soldiers, elderly partners making medical care decisions, and more—or they think about their own beloved relatives and friends who are queer. Although some members of the Religious Right may alternate between disgust and arousal (and disgust at their own arousal), conservative sects like the Southern Baptists are struggling and failing to keep disgust front and center even for their own members.

Reproductive Empowerment and the Yuck Factor

The culture shift toward equality for queer people, stands in contrast to the stalled progress around reproductive rights and chosen childbearing.

When it comes to reproductive empowerment for women, the Religious Right has been able to make disgust the dominant emotion by keeping the focus on sexual shaming and on abortion procedures, which are medical and messy. Those of us who see well-timed childbearing as fundamental to gender equality and flourishing families have gotten suckered into fighting on their terms.

Consequently, we are not creating the culture shift needed to make intentional childbearing the new normal, with all of the individual and family and community benefits that would bring. Half of U.S. pregnancies are unsought—either mistimed or unwanted—which makes American rates of teen pregnancy and abortion the highest in the developed world. Chosen pregnancy has been stalled around fifty percent for almost fifty years.

Recently, women have been exhorting each other to come out of hiding and talk about their reproductive decisions including abortions. Like queer people, women and allies understand that a culture of secrecy reinforces shame and stigma. We understand that if mothers and grandmothers stay silent, religious conservatives will control the conversation and hence the options available to our daughters, nieces and granddaughters. Several storytelling projects have sprung up to help women or couplesdefy taboos and break the silence, and brave celebrities, including men, are leading the way as they did prior to Roe vs. Wade. High-integrity electeds like Lucy Flores in New Mexico and Wendy Davis in Texas have risked their political careers and told their abortion stories so that other women may one day do the same.

I honor their courage and think their candor is a step forward. And yet, the drama around abortion has so captured center stage that even brave personal stories may inadvertently reinforce the Religious Right’s framing. We talk about the circumstances of an unsought pregnancy and the medical procedure the rather than the life made possible by access to contraception and care. In doing so, we keep the focus right where the power of yuck is the greatest.

Surgery – What’s the moral story?

Through much of this year, I have been consulting with people who want to communicate more effectively about abortion care, and I sometimes use my experience with knee surgery to illustrate how we can move beyond the yuck factor:

Two years ago, I was using a brush mower to clear an overgrown trail. The mower got stuck on a root and, unthinking, I walked around in front of it and yanked without disengaging the three foot blade. As the wheels hit the root and the front of the mower tipped up, my leg slipped under it.

I will be forever grateful to the surgeons who reassembled my kneecap and sewed up the horror movie gashes.

So, what’s the story of my surgery? Well, certainly one could wax eloquent about the gruesome details of the accident or repair. But for me the real story is this: I can walk again, and even run. I can bicycle downtown. I can sit for long periods writing, and afterwards my knees don’t hurt any more than most do at my age. This winter I even got back on cross country skis with my two daughters and husband in Yellowstone and skied to a frozen waterfall.

Smart, kind doctors and allied health professionals gave me an unspeakable gift. Their day-to-day work may get their hands dirty. It may involve goo and guts and it may even produce human remains that get donated for further medical research. But that is the climax of the story only for juvenile thrill seekers. For me as the patient, my children, my husband, and even my community, the real story is the precious gift of a second chance. It is a story about grace and compassion, love and laughter, beauty, and dreams fulfilled.

The same can be said about my abortion and many others.

Far too often, the fight to protect abortion access focuses on the procedure itself or surrounding circumstances, rather than what comes after. As abortion counselor Charlotte Taft has put it, “I wish that we talked about ‘choices’ instead of ‘choice.’ Because when a woman has an abortion, she isn’t choosing the abortion itself, she is choosing an education, or military service, or her loyalty to the family she already has.” Or to the family she will have, when she’s ready.

Rising Above the Juvenile Fascination with Eew and Goo

In the coming months, with Hillary Clinton as the most viable female presidential candidate in American history, Democrats are queuing up a vigorous conversation about family friendly policies, policies that help children to flourish and that allow women to fully participate in our economy and our democracy. Their aspirations include paid maternity and family leave, more flexible work hours that accommodate parenting, affordable childcare, and better wages for working people at the bottom of the income spectrum (mostly women). But this policy agenda has a glaring omission: to fully participate in our economy and democracy, a woman must be able to manage her fertility.

I have said publicly that I am pro-abortion, not just pro-choice, but I also believe that when advocates think about reproductive empowerment, our minds too often jump to abortion. If we want a future in which children get created when couples feel ready, one in which empowered young women and men can invest in their dreams and stack the odds in favor of their kids, abortion care is just one small (and hopefully shrinking) part of the mix.

Abortion may be minor compared to many routine surgeries, but it is still an expensive, invasive medical procedure that can be emotionally and morally complex. Why mitigate harm if we can prevent it? For the price of one abortion, a woman can get a state-of-the-art IUD or implant that drops her annual pregnancy risk below 1 in 500 for up to 12 years. Access to top tier long acting contraceptives like these dramatically dropped the teen pregnancy and abortion rates in Colorado recently. But better birth control is also just one part of reproductive empowerment.

As I view it, people are trying to get from Point A to Point B in their lives; and abortion is like the guardrail that keeps them from going off the cliff when all else fails. Guardrails save lives. We definitely want them there when people need them. But we also want well-designed roads with lines down the middle, and cars with excellent brakes and steering, and well-trained drivers who have a clear idea of where they want to go and how to get there.

On the road of life, we all get by with a little help from our friends, and strangers, and sometimes even professionals. Most of us don’t need to be reminded how icky life can get when thing go wrong. What we do need is people who will be there regardless, who live by Planned Parenthood’s motto: Care. No matter what.

Originally posted at ValerieTarico.com