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June 01, 2021
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TODAY’S INTRO

A well-deserved retirement for hardworking pachyderms

Trudy Palmer
Deputy Daily Editor

Hiking, swimming, fruit buffets. It’s the latest in retirement living for former Ringling Bros. circus elephants at White Oak Conservation center, in Yulee, Florida, where a dozen Asian elephants recently arrived.

The 17,000-acre sanctuary, owned by Mark and Kimbra Walter, is “dedicated to the conservation and care of endangered and threatened species,” including rhinoceros, okapi, zebras, condors, and cheetahs, its website explains. 

Through their Walter Conservation philanthropy, the Walters primarily work to protect animals in their native habitats, “but for these elephants that can’t be released, we are pleased to give them a place where they can live comfortably for the rest of their lives,” the couple said in a press release.  

Ringling Bros. retired its elephants in 2016, about a year and a half before it ended circus operations entirely. The animals landed in a reserve in Polk City, Florida, owned and run by Feld Entertainment, Ringling’s parent company, until Walter Conservation took over the facility last year. A few elephants not able to make the move will remain there, but most will eventually enjoy water holes, grasslands, forests, and wetlands on the 2,500 acres set aside for them at White Oak.

Meanwhile, the first 12 elephants to arrive appear to be very much at home, enjoying dust baths and naps in the sun.

“It’s magnificent for these animals to get to experience a large and complex place like this in their lives,” Nick Newby, head of White Oak's elephant caretaker team, told The Washington Post.

After years of performing, these pachyderms have earned some time in a Sun Belt paradise.

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Why pandemic forced baby boomers to rethink retirement plans

For many Americans, one result of the pandemic is a changing calculus for retirement. Some boomers are exiting careers sooner than they expected, while others face a tougher climb to be financially ready. 

Trudy
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Wendy Northcross poses in the JFK Museum she co-founded and where she will work after she retires at the end of June, on May 24, 2021, in Hyannis, Massachusetts. She is currently the CEO of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. The pandemic has affected people’s thoughts about retirement.

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The pandemic’s economic effects on retirement are varied but straightforward: People who kept their jobs during the lockdowns have saved more money, and perhaps a fifth of those near retirement say they’ll retire early. A slightly larger group who lost jobs and income now face either diminished retirement savings or additional time working to recoup their losses.

The coronavirus also has had a social impact on retirees. It’s increased uncertainty and exaggerated the sense of isolation that many people feel when leaving the workforce. It’s also changed retirement goals. International travel? Many say that’s now less important than other things, such as time with friends and family, a recent survey by Fidelity Investments finds.

When college professor Katrine Pflanze of Upper St. Clair, Pennsylvania, retired last year, she planned to take several courses and throw herself into learning German. But those didn’t pan out and the volunteer political campaign work she did proved sterile. Now, “everything is much closer to home,” she says of her new life. Her favorite activity? “I just love being in the garden. ... It took me a while to learn to just allow myself to do the things that I enjoy without feeling super-guilty about things.”

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Why pandemic forced baby boomers to rethink retirement plans

When she turned 65, Wendy Northcross knew she wasn’t ready to retire. When the coronavirus hit a year later, she told the board of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce that she’d stay on as CEO until the pandemic was over.

Then came the 20-hour workdays as local business owners flooded in, looking for ways to stave off bankruptcy.

“It was like working a business emergency hospital,” she recalls. “Businesses would come in and you’d triage them. ... I’d be up at midnight to 2 in the morning looking for grants or resources.”

The economy rebounded quickly enough that many of those threatened firms survived. But by October Ms. Northcross was exhausted, and by then it was clear the pandemic would have a lasting effect on the business climate.

“It just gave me clarity that it is actually a good time to step down and hand off to someone with energy and new ideas,” she says.

So on June 30, Ms. Northcross will join the surging ranks of Americans calling it quits on paid full-time work. 

The pandemic has had a profound impact on retirement. For some, it has accelerated plans to leave the workforce. For others, it has delayed those plans. It has increased anxiety about finances for many. And it has forced many Americans to take a good long look at their working lives, their transition to the golden years, and what they want ultimately out of life.

“There are a lot of people who really don’t want to face retirement and sort of push it aside,” says Nancy K. Schlossberg, a retired professor and author of 10 books on retirement and other life transitions. “But now with the pandemic, we really can’t. It’s in our face.”

A surge in joblessness – and retirement

The economic effects are varied but straightforward: When the pandemic hit in March 2020, the economy plunged at a speed not seen since the Great Depression. In a single month – April – lockdowns knocked more than 3% of workers – some 6.2 million Americans – out of the workforce, more than three times the percentage loss in any month in the last 70 years of records. 

Many called it quits. By September 2020, more boomers (generally, those born between 1946 and 1964) had retired in the previous 12 months than in any year since the oldest boomer turned 65, according to a Pew Research report. In all, according to a survey by Fidelity Investments, a Boston-based financial services company, a fifth of those within 10 years of retirement accelerated their workforce departure date, an added deluge to a boomer retirement exodus already known as the silver tsunami.

Others who lost employment or income have had to delay retirement. Fidelity found that more than half of all Americans say they’ll need at least two years to get their retirement plans back on track.

One California entrepreneur was less than a year away from selling his company and retiring in his 50s when the pandemic turned his world upside down. Specializing in live corporate events, he saw sales plunge and had to trim his full-time workforce from 25 to one with a few part-timers to fill in. 

Now, business is starting to pick up again. But as is the case with many small businesses, the firm’s recovery is far more muted than headlines about the overall economy would suggest. “We are slowly starting to add staff back on,” he writes in an email. “Very slowly.”

“I’m excited to work on building the business back in 2022 and 2023,” adds the entrepreneur, who declined to identify himself in print because neither his employees nor his clients know of his plans to sell the business. “We’ll see where things go from there.” 

Courtesy of Jenny Schmidt
David Schmidt stands on a rock during a backpacking trip in Olympic National Park in Washington in 2020.

Right on the cusp between Gen Xer and boomer, he has experience that is far from unique. One of the surprises of the pandemic’s economic impact is that it appears to have disrupted younger generations’ retirement plans more than those of boomers. According to a survey for The Nationwide Retirement Institute, 62% of millennials and 51% of Gen Xers said the pandemic had complicated their finances versus only 27% of boomers.

A future harder to predict

For example, young workers may have to save more for retirement than boomers did. For years, retired boomers were told they could safely withdraw 4 % of their savings every year and not run out of money. “It is now widely agreed that the 4% rule is far too risky a withdrawal rate given rising longevity, exploding healthcare costs, and low market returns,” Olivia Mitchell, risk management professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, writes in an email. Instead, “3% is the new 4%.”

Such challenges have brought increased focus on planning. 

“As many negatives as the crisis had, there are some positives in getting people to really think hard about ‘What do I do if something like this happens again?’” says Eric Henderson, president of Nationwide Financial’s annuity business. “We’re really seeing this more in the millennials. ... They’ve been through in their short working life span two major retractions. [And] a lot of them are saying, ‘You know what? I’ve really got to do a better job of saving for retirement.”

The uncertainty brought on by the pandemic has affected all generations.

Before the pandemic, newly minted septuagenarian Tina Ferguson-Riffe had already lost one restaurant lease because the property owner wanted to develop the property and turn it into a car wash. Now, the barbecue chef and owner of SMOKE Berkeley in Berkeley, California, is worried it will happen again. So she and her son are scouting local properties they can buy, turn into a restaurant on the first floor, and have Ms. Ferguson-Riffe live on the second floor.

The pandemic has complicated that plan a bit, forcing her to switch her restaurant to online orders of takeout barbecue and killing her catering business, which is only now slowly coming back to life. But its biggest impacts were forcing her to confront the need for a sustainable retirement and add more uncertainty to the process. She has already handed over day-to-day operations to her son and is looking for investors to help her buy a property. 

“Everything is just a question of when I have to move,” she says.

Is meaning of retirement changing?

One social impact of the pandemic on new retirees is the isolation.

When college professor Katrine Pflanze of Upper St. Clair, Pennsylvania, retired from teaching on July 1 last year, she felt a giant weight lifted from her shoulders. “July comes around and I’m skating around just like I am on school holiday,” she recalls. “I’m so free. I’m free!”

Then the reality of the pandemic set in: no retirement reception because of the virus; no farewell get-together with her department except for something cobbled together on Zoom. Her plans to take several courses and throw herself into learning German didn’t pan out. This past fall she volunteered for the Biden campaign, but manning a phone bank while isolated at home proved sterile.

Now, “everything is much closer to home and far less out in the community,” she says of her new life. “The last thing that I want is to sit in front of a computer. [Instead], I just love being in the garden. Time can just really go by quickly. ... It took me a while to learn to just allow myself to do the things that I enjoy without feeling super-guilty about things.” 

Courtesy of Katrine Pflanze
Retired professor Katrine Pflanze stands in her home garden, which is one of her favorite retirement activities, in Upper St. Clair, Pennsylvania, a Pittsburgh suburb.

David Grinstein, a math, statistics, and physics tutor in Searsport, Maine, was already feeling a little isolated when he semiretired in 2018. He gave up his college teaching and in-person tutoring to concentrate on offering help online. When the pandemic hit, most of his other in-person contacts stopped, too. A men’s group at the local Methodist church stopped meeting, as did another group at the Congregational church. His synagogue stopped in-person services.

The pandemic “had a stronger impact than I thought it would,” he says. Looking ahead, “we’re not thinking of anything drastically different than: ‘Oh let’s get back to what we had.’”

Whether it’s possible to go back to a pre-pandemic lifestyle is still an open question.

Dave Schmidt, a Portland, Oregon, physician, had a retirement glide path all worked out. Having stopped working full time at 60, he kept volunteering to help improve the intensive care unit of a teaching hospital in northern Ethiopia. He helped set up a nonprofit to fund global health work. And locally he worked part time as a physician while volunteering at his church. 

“I wanted to make volunteering a big part of my retirement,” he says. “It was a good plan. It was working great until Covid cut it off.”

The pandemic brought all international travel to a screeching halt. Instead of globe-trotting, he and his wife, Jenny, ramped up their backpacking close to home. There were no more volunteering trips to Ethiopia and, anyway, fighting in the north had shut down the hospital program. Dr. Schmidt also had to hit the pause button on the global health nonprofit he helped found, making a hard pivot instead to try to help homeless people locally in Portland. And his church stopped in-person services, so he learned how to livestream its services on YouTube while Jenny became a Zoom master.

For many newly retired Americans, the pandemic has changed some priorities. “Folks are looking at retirement altogether differently,” says Ali Ahmed, director of thought leadership for Fidelity. “They’re looking for newer ways or different ways to fulfill themselves in retirement. And so one of the things that we’ve seen is spending time with friends and family has kind of shot up in terms of the ranking of priorities for a lot of folks. And … we’ve seen folks saying, ‘You know what? Traveling is not as important as it once was.”

The Schmidts remain eager to fly to Australia to see Jenny’s parents, who live there. For Professor Pflanze’s husband, globe-trotting may become more problematic. A biologist, he loved to give papers at international conferences because it allowed him to experience new cultures and food, she says. Now, reduced to talking to his computer where he makes his Zoom presentations from the kitchen, most of the fun has gone out of conferences. And given the convenience of such digital get-togethers, he anticipates fewer in-person conferences going forward.

That will be the challenge for post-pandemic retirees: finding new ways to grab the fun. It’s a work in progress.

A deeper look

Is Roe about to unravel? The view from Mississippi’s only abortion clinic.

Abortion has been a focal point of America’s culture wars for almost 50 years. Now the last clinic in Mississippi is at center stage as the Supreme Court considers a highly charged case.

Trudy

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The Jackson Women’s Health Center is an unobtrusive building in Mississippi’s capital city, situated next to a trendy neighborhood and newly built high-rise apartments.

It is also the last abortion clinic in the state, and now at the center of the nation’s wrestling with the issue. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments later this year in a Mississippi case with the potential to upend America’s five-decade status quo on abortion’s legality.

People like Laura Duran and Derenda Hancock – one advocating against abortion and the other volunteering to guide patients past protesters – are well aware of the stakes.

At issue, specifically, will be whether a state law can prohibit abortions as early as 15 weeks. Since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade almost 50 years ago, women have had the right to choose to have an abortion before viability, often considered to be around 22 to 24 weeks.

“I’d be a little surprised if the court overturns Roe in [this case],” says Mary Ziegler, a professor at Florida State University College of Law. But with the court’s conservative tilt recently expanded, she says, “certainly it seems to be a question of when they do it rather than if.”

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Is Roe about to unravel? The view from Mississippi’s only abortion clinic.

Rogelio V. Solis/AP
The Jackson Women's Health Center, locally known as "the pink house," is shrouded with a black tarp so that its clients may enter in privacy, May 19, 2021, in Jackson, Mississippi. The Supreme Court has agreed to take up a dispute over a Mississippi ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

In 1988, Laura Duran felt the spiritual call to advocate against abortion access for women, and to save the lives that, in her view, are being taken with each procedure. That same year, Derenda Hancock walked into a women’s health clinic, received an abortion, and hasn’t regretted it since. 

Although their decisions more than three decades ago helped send both women on divergent life trajectories, today they’re standing across the street from each other on a hot May afternoon in Jackson, Mississippi. As a woman walks into the Jackson Women’s Health Center, Ms. Duran walks after her, saying, “There are other choices.” Meanwhile, Ms. Hancock gently escorts the woman inside the building. “Ma’am,” Ms. Hancock calls out to the next woman to arrive. “Sweetheart,” to another. 

Ms. Duran is an anti-abortion activist with the group Pro-Life Mississippi. Every day the center is open, she says, she stands outside, at times on her own, waiting for an opportunity to give the women entering the building pamphlets with titles like “I regret my abortion” and “I’m glad I chose life for me and my baby.”

For the past eight years, Ms. Hancock has worked as a patient escort with the group the Pinkhouse Defenders, volunteers who wear rainbow-striped vests and guide each person through any protesters and into the facility. 

The Jackson Women’s Health Center is an unobtrusive building on Jackson’s State Street, situated next to a trendy neighborhood, newly built high-rise apartments, and a bustling downtown corridor. It’s painted pink, hence the center’s nickname, the “pink house.” 

It’s also the last abortion clinic in the state. And it is now at the center of a nation wrestling with the issue – as the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments later this year in a Mississippi case with the potential to dislodge America’s five-decade status quo on legal abortion.

A 2018 law in this state limits abortion access to the first 15 weeks of pregnancy. Currently blocked by lower courts, it will serve as a test for the newly expanded 6-3 conservative majority on the high court. 

Volunteers at the health center say they understand the weight of the moment. In many ways, they realize, the burden of this highly charged national issue has landed on their shoulders. 

“This is the place that everybody ignored and now it’s going to potentially overturn Roe v. Wade,” says Kim Gibson in a Mississippi twang. Ms. Gibson is the chair coordinator and a board member with the Pinkhouse Defenders. “Now,” she says, this case is “going to take away the rights of millions of people and possibly outlaw abortion in 24 or 25 states.”

 

Xander Peters
Anti-abortion advocate Laura Duran waits outside to speak with women entering the Jackson Women Health Center. She can be seen peering through the privacy panels the center installs each day.

She shakes her head at the thought. 

“We’ve said for a couple years now,” Ms. Gibson adds, “ignore Mississippi at your own peril.”  

A challenge to five decades under Roe

Mississippi’s 2018 Gestational Age Act prohibits abortions 15 weeks after gestation. That is considered to be before viability – the period between 22 and 24 weeks of development when a fetus is generally expected to be able to survive outside the womb. Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade almost 50 years ago, women have had the right to choose to have an abortion before viability.

Jackson Women’s Health challenged the law, and a federal judge and a federal appeals court blocked the state from implementing it, saying it violated Supreme Court precedents. 

Mississippi appealed those rulings to the U.S. Supreme Court in June last year, asking the justices to answer three questions. Two questions were relatively incremental – asking to clarify the standard federal courts should use in analyzing abortion restrictions, and whether abortion providers should be allowed to challenge abortion restrictions. One, however, went directly to the constitutionality of certain abortion regulations.

The petition sat all summer without any action from the court. When the justices returned for their next term in the fall, much had changed. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a leader of the court’s liberal minority, had died. Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative federal appeals court judge, had been nominated to replace her by President Donald Trump, who was a month away from an election.

The case continued to sit. The justices considered it in 12 straight private conferences before announcing last month that they will hear it in the term starting this October. And tellingly, the court has restricted the case – Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Org. – to the biggest question: whether all laws banning abortion pre-viability are unconstitutional.

Xander Peters
Volunteer patient escort Derenda Hancock at the end of the day outside the Jackson Women's Health Center. She is part of Pinkhouse Defenders, volunteers who guide each person visiting the abortion clinic through any protesters.

The fact the court put off taking the case for so long “suggests there was a lot of wrangling” about what should be done with it, says Mary Ziegler, a professor at Florida State University College of Law.

And the fact the court dispensed with the other two questions suggests that it has little interest in moving slowly.

“If the court wanted to get its feet wet on abortion without addressing the core framework they could have done that, but they didn’t,” adds Professor Ziegler, author of “Abortion and the Law in America: Roe v. Wade to the Present.”

“I’d be a little surprised if the court overturns Roe in Dobbs,” she adds. “But certainly it seems to be a question of when they do it rather than if.”

Mississippi stated clearly in its petition that it’s not asking the court to overturn Roe or Planned Parenthood v. Casey, a 1992 case that upheld the core ruling in Roe while establishing that a state has “legitimate interests” in protecting “the life of the fetus that may become a child.” The case “merely ask[s] the Court to reconcile a conflict in its own precedents,” the state wrote. (Though the state did add, in a footnote, that if the court determines it can’t reconcile Roe and Casey, it “should not retain erroneous precedent.”)

And while the court recently overturned a precedent despite not being asked to, it’s unlikely the justices would do the same for an issue as contentious as abortion. 

“Mississippi hasn’t asked for it, and the court hasn’t taken that issue,” says Clarke Forsythe, senior counsel at Americans United for Life.

The issue the court has taken – the so-called viability line – is, nevertheless, a significant one.

It’s a question that has vexed the justices since the early post-Roe years. In a 1983 case, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that the viability standard was unworkable, in part because the law cannot keep pace with medical advancements, forcing courts to “act as science review boards.”

In Dobbs, the Supreme Court will likely act that way again, this time weighing science that says viability begins around 23 weeks versus science saying it begins at 15 weeks.

“If the court is persuaded by [the latter] science I think they might well be prepared to abandon the viability timeline,” said Lyle Denniston, who has covered the court for over six decades, on the SCOTUStalk podcast last month.

“Viability has been a really, really thick line for 48 years. So abandoning that would be a huge deal,” he added. “Virtually anything might be possible under the new rubric of a fairly wide state power to limit abortion without the cutoff period of viability.”

 

Rogelio V. Solis/AP
Coleman Boyd, a Mississippi physician and anti-abortion advocate, calls out to people leaving the Jackson Womens Health Organization clinic on Thursday, May 20, 2021, in Jackson, Miss. The clinic is Mississippi's only state licensed abortion facility. The U.S. Supreme Court, with a newly expanded conservative majority, has agreed to take up a case focused on a Mississippi ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

What then? On that question, Dobbs will likely bring to boil a long-simmering debate in anti-abortion circles over how quickly and comprehensively the law should change.

Eight amicus briefs have already been filed in the case, and dozens more are expected before the case is argued next term. Some of them will probably make the case that all abortions are unconstitutional on the grounds that a fetus is legally a person entitled to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment – effectively turning Roe on its head.

No Supreme Court justice has embraced that argument yet, and it’s one that Mr. Forsythe and others in the anti-abortion movement criticize. Declaring all abortions unconstitutional would, in his view, represent a judicial fiat akin to Roe.

Roe “has made the justices in D.C. the center of abortion politics in American life, and that has been a disaster for the court, a disaster for the justices, a disaster for the judicial nomination and confirmation process,” says Mr. Forsythe.

“The court desperately needs to decentralize the issue and send it back to the states,” he adds. “Pro-life leaders need to think long and hard about overturning federalism and taking the issue away from the states.”

Public opinion – clear or complicated?

Public sentiment toward abortion access has remained consistent in recent years. 

Prior to the 2020 presidential general election, pollsters asked specific questions about the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion access at the federal level in 1973. In a Quinnipiac poll, 66% of voters agreed with the court’s decision. Some 69% of respondents said they also agreed with the decision in a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 62% in an ABC News-Washington Post poll, and 61% in a Fox News poll. 

Given that, the effort by some state legislators to ban abortion altogether suggests that lawmakers are out of step with the general public. But there may be more to it than that, says Dr. Brandon Crawford, an assistant professor in the School of Public Health at Indiana University, Bloomington, who’s working to better understand that nuance through a multiyear abortion attitudes project. 

In particular, Dr. Crawford says, it’s a matter of nuance in pollsters asking the question. 

“On the one hand, [abortion] laws, a lot of times they’re framed as protecting a woman’s health. On the surface, I think people like that idea,” Dr. Crawford says. “But where it gets complicated is, do those laws actually achieve that end? Depending on what news you watch and what you read, some would say absolutely, and some would say not really.” 

The polarization of the news cycle is, in part, likely to blame, Dr. Crawford says. 

“But also,” he adds, “it’s difficult to communicate the full nuance of some of these issues. We like to think of things as having a clear yes or no answer. Some of them very well might, but other ones, maybe it’s a more complicated thing to discuss.” 

For now, 2021 is shaping up to be a big year for the anti-abortion movement, especially in state level legislation. 

As of mid-May, 549 abortion restrictions – among them, at least 165 abortion bans – have been introduced in 47 states since January, according to the research and policy organization the Guttmacher Institute. Already, 69 of those restrictions – nine of which are bans – have been enacted in 14 states, leading abortion access researchers to label this year as the most openly hostile to women’s bodily autonomy to date. Most recently, Texas approved a ban on abortions as early as six weeks.

 

Xander Peters
Volunteer patient escort Asia Brown stands outside the Jackson Women's Health Center. “If this harassment happened at a regular clinic or any other medical facility, it would be national news,” she says of protests that occur here.

The campaign against abortion access is being led by a rebranded group of activists who fashion themselves as “abortion abolitionists,” echoing the 19th-century anti-slavery movement. They want anyone who participates in the termination of a pregnancy, whether the woman, doctor, or nurse, to be prosecuted for homicide. 

Ms. Duran, the lone anti-abortion advocate outside the Jackson Women’s Health Center last Thursday, is a soft-spoken woman whose long gray hair is tied in a bun. She frames her efforts around human rights. 

“That baby has a right to live,” Ms. Duran says. “We have killed generations of people in general – doctors, nurses, lawyers, all these that could have been – because of convenience. And I’m against that.” 

Ms. Duran then excuses herself to walk after a woman attempting to enter the center. 

Asked whether anti-abortion activists have become increasingly agitated in recent months, Ms. Hancock, the volunteer patient escort, laughs under her breath and asks, “Who? Laura?” 

The volunteers and protesters have become familiar with each other, Ms. Hancock says. 

At times in recent years, the volunteers say, protests outside the building have become heated.

A wall of concrete blocks and steel gates, blocked with paneling for privacy, separate the health center’s entrance from the public walkway. On many mornings, the volunteers say, anti-abortion activists will stand on ladders outside the building, shouting with bull-horns in hand, looking at patients in the health center’s waiting room. 

The harassment, volunteers say, has begun to weigh on them. 

“If this harassment happened at a regular clinic or any other medical facility, it would be national news,” says Asia Brown, a college student who volunteers as a patient escort. “But because it’s an abortion clinic, people don’t want to talk about it.” 

Meanwhile, the weight of the moment, Ms. Brown admits, “is on us.” 

The Jackson Women’s Health Center only performs abortions up to 16 weeks. Under the Mississippi law, the cutoff to terminate most pregnancies would be 15. 

“No big deal,” Ms. Hancock says. “It’s gonna affect maybe, at most, 2% of our patients.” 

However, Mississippi also has a “trigger law” in the books, meaning the moment Roe is potentially overturned, the state, like others, would be able to ban all abortions within 24 hours. 

Under those circumstances, the closest state for patients to travel to would be Georgia. 

“They will not be satisfied until, as they like to call it, abortion is abolished,” Ms. Hancock says. 

It’s just after noon, and the sun is hot and beaming. 

The center’s volunteers – Ms. Hancock, Ms. Brown, and Ms. Gibson – gather in the shade before they begin packing up the health center for the day, taking the protective panels down. 

“These different anti-choice groups, they come here, and they write their sample legislation and try to pass it here, because no one looks and no one cares,” Ms. Gibson says. “Then when it’s successful here and no one challenges, off they go to Alabama, to Georgia, to elsewhere.” 

Once the anti-abortion groups are successful in the states friendliest to their efforts, she figures, they’ll move on to the next nearest state, where women would travel if their state bans abortion. 

“It just crawls, but it starts here when Mississippi’s ignored,” Ms. Gibson says. 

In Namibia, same-sex parents pin hopes for change on courts

Laws that criminalize homosexuality are common across Africa. But change is happening all the same. The cases being challenged may seem narrow, but their significance is not.

Trudy
Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
Namibian citizen Phillip Lühl holds one of his twin daughters as his mother Frauke Lühl looks on while he speaks to his Mexican husband Guillermo Delgado via Zoom in Johannesburg, South Africa, April 13, 2021.

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When Phillip Lühl and Guillermo Delgado went to court in Namibia, they weren’t trying to become activists. The couple, who were married in South Africa, simply wanted to live together with their children, as a family, in Mr. Lühl’s native Namibia. 

But as their case and another similar one wind through the courts, they are drawing renewed focus to laws that criminalize LGBTQ people – such as lack of recognition for same-sex marriages. In recent years, similar restrictions have begun to topple across the region, and activists hope Namibia’s may be next. Those court challenges are, in many ways, a battleground of last resort, leapfrogging public opinion to secure legal rights.

“Courts are often the ultimate guarantor of human rights when a particular right or type of rights is not popular,” says Neela Ghoshal of Human Rights Watch. Politicians “often find it difficult to do the right thing because they don’t want to be voted out.”

For Mr. Lühl and Mr. Delgado, being in the spotlight was a difficult decision. But, Mr. Lühl says, “we decided we needed to humanize these stories and show that families can look like all kinds of things and still be good places for children to grow up.”

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In Namibia, same-sex parents pin hopes for change on courts

Daniel Digashu didn’t set out to become a symbol. When he brought his case to a Namibian court in 2017, he had a simple request. He wanted them to recognize his South African marriage to his Namibian husband Johann Potgieter, so that the couple and their son could stay together in Mr. Potgieter’s home country.

“One of us is from here,” Mr. Digashu reasoned, “so we should have the choice to live here, the same as any couple.”

Phillip Lühl and Guillermo Delgado weren’t trying to become activists either, when they asked a Namibian court earlier this year to grant citizenship to their infant twin daughters, who were born by a surrogate in neighboring South Africa. They, too, had been married in South Africa, and they too wanted to be together, as a family, in Namibia.

But as both families’ cases wind their way through the courts, they have drawn renewed focus to laws that discriminate against LGBTQ people in Namibia. In recent years, similar laws have begun to topple across the region, and activists hope Namibia’s may be next.

“There’s only so much people can take before they fight back and right now they’re fighting back through the courts,” says Uno Katjipuka, an attorney for the Lühl-Delgados, who also recently worked on a police brutality case whose victim was a transgender woman.

Those court challenges are, in many ways, a battleground of last resort, leapfrogging legislatures and public opinion to secure legal rights. But they can be powerful. In 2018, India’s Supreme Court overturned a British colonial law banning sex “against the order of nature.” Botswana followed the next year. Three cases challenging the criminalization of gay sex are currently being tried in Mauritius, an island nation in southeastern Africa.

The cases in Namibia are not challenging the criminalization of homosexuality directly, but activists hope that by chipping away at legal prohibitions, they could set the precedent for more wide-reaching challenges in the future.

“Courts are often the ultimate guarantor of human rights when a particular right or type of rights is not popular,” says Neela Ghoshal, an associate director in the LGBT Rights program at Human Rights Watch. “Governments know and legislatures know that they are not supposed to govern solely based on what’s popular. But they often find it difficult to do the right thing because they don’t want to be voted out.”

Namibia is wrestling with a particularly complicated history when it comes to its laws. Until 1990, the country of 2.5 million was ruled by apartheid South Africa. When it became independent, it wrote a new constitution, but it also inherited many of South Africa’s restrictive laws, including the criminalization of sodomy.

A government body was soon set up to reform those old laws, but three decades later, many, including several restricting the rights of LGBTQ Namibians, remain on the books.

“These laws are not our laws – they were not written by a democratically elected Namibian government,” says Omar van Reenen, co-founder of the Namibia Equal Rights Movement, a coalition of organizations advocating for LGBTQ rights.

“Bigger ... than just us”

When Mr. Digashu, who is South African, arrived in Namibia in 2016, with his husband, Mr. Potgieter, the couple wasn’t thinking about the historical origins of Namibia’s laws.

They just wanted a way for Mr. Digashu and their son to stay legally in Namibia. Initially, they thought they were eligible for permanent residency, Mr. Digashu says, since they were family members of a Namibian citizen.

“[Government] said no, that they didn’t want to open Pandora’s box” by recognizing a foreign same-sex marriage, he recalls. So the couple followed the government’s recommendation that Mr. Digashu apply for a work permit. Only when that too was rejected, he says, did he begin to see the barriers against them as discriminatory, and decided to challenge the non-recognition of their marriage in court.

As activists rallied around their case, “we realized then how much bigger this is than just us,” he says. “It’s about making a contribution, even a small one, to the rights of LGBT people here in Namibia.”

For Mr. Lühl and Mr. Delgado, too, being in the public spotlight was a decision they made reluctantly. Mr. Lühl is Namibian, Mr. Delgado is Mexican, and for several years, they have been fighting in court to stay together in Namibia as a couple, where they both work in architecture. Like Mr. Digashu, Mr. Delgado has struggled to obtain long-term residency in the country. (Heterosexual married couples, by contrast, can apply for residency for the non-Namibian spouse).

Then in 2019, the couple had a son by a surrogate in South Africa. Although both fathers’ names were on the birth certificate, the Namibian government demanded proof of a genetic link between Mr. Lühl and the child to grant him Namibian citizenship. The couple challenged the ruling in court, saying that heterosexual couples were not required to show the same proof. Earlier this year, they welcomed twin daughters, also by a South African surrogate. When the Namibian government denied the girls citizenship as well, the couple decided they had no choice but to go public.

“We decided we needed to humanize these stories and show that families can look like all kinds of things and still be good places for children to grow up,” Mr. Lühl says.

The girls were eventually granted emergency travel documents to leave South Africa, where they had been staying with Mr. Lühl since their birth, and travel back to Namibia, where Mr. Delgado and their 2-year-old son had been waiting. But their children’s citizenship will be decided by a court in August.

“The reality is, this is not just an individual story – it’s about the lack of full equality in Namibia,” Mr. Lühl says. “Now that has really been highlighted and put center stage.”

Small steps

In May, meanwhile, after hearing arguments in Mr. Digashu and Mr. Potgieter’s case and another challenge from a bi-national same-sex couple, the High Court in Namibia’s capital, Windhoek, announced that it would pass down a judgment in their case by early 2022.

Their attorney, Carli Schickerling, says that cases like this one could help set precedent for larger challenges – like decriminalizing homosexuality or allowing same-sex marriage.

“Right now we are fighting the smaller battles to eventually win that war,” she says.   

Part of the reason court challenges are significant is simply to show LGBTQ Namibians that the law can be on their side, says Ndiilokelwa Nthengwe, a Namibian activist: “The average LGBTQ+ person would not know how to access the courts, and they don’t know what goes on in court procedures.”

However, Ms. Katjipuka, the attorney, already sees signs in the courtroom that things are changing. When her client, a transgender woman named Mercedez Von Cloete, appeared in court earlier this year to lay a charge of police brutality, the defendant’s lawyers referred to Ms. Von Cloete as “he.”

But the judge, she says, corrected them.

Again and again, until finally they got it right.

The Respect Project

Bridging the conflicts that divide us

When a Twitter war gets ... respectful?

Twitter is not generally synonymous with civility. But when the Monitor brought together two partisans often locked in Twitter battles, it became clear that social media can accommodate not only passion but also respect.

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What happens when you take two people who spend most of their Twitter lives disagreeing with each other and invite them to a joint Zoom call? The Monitor’s Stephen Humphries noticed that the simmering Twitter war between journalists Conor Friedersdorf and Issac Bailey never got ugly. The sparring was vigorous, but the blows were never below the belt.

So he invited them to chat to see why they were able to disagree without descending into the rejection and anger that typifies so much of the political conversation these days – particularly on social media. The result was a 90-minute conversation that underscored something the two men had long aspired to: proving that thoughtful, respectful conversations are possible on social media, and that taking time to recognize the humanity of the person on the other side matters.

“Even when I actually disagree with you on these issues, I can still see that your goal really is to try to improve journalism and also discussions,” Mr. Bailey said to Mr. Friedersdorf.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bailey’s arguments might not have forced Mr. Friedersdorf to abandon his positions, but by nudging him “a little bit here and there ... over time, that means a big change.”

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When a Twitter war gets ... respectful?

From May 17 Zoom meeting
Issac Bailey (above), an author and journalist who teaches at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina, and Conor Friedersdorf, a staff writer for The Atlantic based in Los Angeles, met on Zoom with the Monitor on May 17 to discuss a range of topics, including how they agree to disagree.

Most days, Conor Friedersdorf and Issac Bailey throw punches at each other.

The two journalists take part in one of the most popular participation sports in America: arguing on Twitter. But unlike so many people who get into the ring of social media with the intention of beating up someone on “the other side,” Mr. Friedersdorf and Mr. Bailey engage in respectful sparring.

Their jabs never go below the belt. The gloves never come off. After each round, the two writers retreat to their respective corners – Mr. Friedersdorf leans libertarian; Mr. Bailey is a progressive – as sizable crowds of Twitter spectators score the fight in their own minds. The bouts never end with a knockout in which one of the two combatants blocks or unfollows the other.

Yet despite these battles, the two men had never met in real life. As someone who follows both Twitter accounts, I wondered what would happen if I invited the two ideological adversaries for a meeting on Zoom. What sort of conversation would they have in real life compared with their usual 280-character debates about issues related to race, cancel culture, and social justice? Why do they share a mutual respect that keeps their disagreements from devolving into the ad hominem attacks that are so common on social media?

Mr. Friedersdorf is a staff writer for The Atlantic and is based in Los Angeles. Mr. Bailey is a former senior writer for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. He teaches journalism at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina. 

On a recent weekday afternoon, the three of us met on Zoom. The conversation was wide-ranging, from their backgrounds to policy arguments to moments of agreement – some of them unexpected. They came to just be Conor and Issac. And in the end, the exchange underscored something the two men had long aspired to: proving that thoughtful, respectful conversations are possible on social media, and that taking time to recognize the humanity of the person on the other side matters.

What “woke” means

So what does it look like to respectfully disagree on a topic as fraught as race? I started out by asking how each felt about a push for racial equity by the Biden administration and private institutions.

The discussion soon turned to Issac’s past. He said he’d grown up poor in St. Stephen, South Carolina. His school was effectively segregated. It didn’t have AP classes, let alone a science lab. When his dad got drunk, he’d beat Issac’s mother. The family was also dealing with the murder conviction of one of Issac’s brothers for stabbing a white man – which Issac covered in his 2018 book, “My Brother Moochie.” The book explores why so many Black men end up in prison, and many of Issac’s other brothers also got in trouble with the law.

So he asked Conor: “How exactly would you propose actually creating an equality of opportunity for 9-year-old me and 9-year-old Conor?” 

His tone wasn’t angry or accusatory – it was an earnest query. The tone of Conor’s response was empathetic. 

“Equality of opportunity is a goal worth striving for,” Conor said, but believes that the equality of outcome can never be achieved given that everyone is dealing with unique and unpredictable circumstances – such as having a parent who’s abusive. Even so, he added, there are things that governments can do to improve the environment that children grow up in. 

“There’s a relationship between housing and school segregation,” said Conor. “If you changed everything from zoning laws, to how school districts are drawn, to where people can live, to how much you’re allowed to build and the relationship that that has to cost, you would pretty radically transform the amount of opportunity a lot of people have.”

From May 17 Zoom meeting
Conor Friedersdorf (above), a writer with The Atlantic, chats with author Issac Bailey and the Monitor on May 17, 2021.

Later, the conversation turned to the term “woke.” It’s a slang adjective that the Oxford English Dictionary describes as “alert to injustice in society, especially racism.” Many on the social justice left initially adopted the term to describe themselves. But Issac now views the term as derogatory. Republicans now invoke “woke” as an insult, he said. “As soon as you label us as ‘woke,’ what you have done is flatten us, slurred us, demeaned us.” 

Conor agreed that the term has been weaponized by some, but noted that even former President Barack Obama has used it. While terms such as “woke” or “political correctness” or “social justice warriors” can be imprecise, Conor said, they are trying to describe a real phenomenon of censoriousness and intolerance on the left. (He also decried the same for the Trumpian right.) Yet he also mentioned that Issac’s objection to the term is helpful to his writing because he wants to understand how others perceive the word.  

Agreeing to ... agree 

There were areas where the two dovetailed. On Twitter, Issac recently chastised a prosecutor in Georgia for seeking the death penalty for the Atlanta spa shootings suspect, despite the fact that she’d once campaigned with her opposition to it. Conor had retweeted Issac’s thoughts.

“The political event that shaped my life earliest was two things, actually, when I was about 11. The Rodney King beating and then the L.A. riots,” said Conor. “Before then my only interaction with police officers at all had probably been one police officer coming in [to school] and talking about ‘Say no to drugs.’ And it was just a kind of sudden awakening to like, ‘Oh, wow, people in power can abuse it horrifically and then lie about it and then get away with that.’”

It was one of several instances during the meeting in which each participant made a point of proactively pointing out where they agreed with each other.

“I, too, actually have this libertarian streak in me,” Issac piped up, pointing to his defenses of free speech for those with whom he disagrees. “I even sided with the Trump administration and [former Education Secretary] Betsy DeVos, for instance, in terms of how they revamped guidelines about how to deal with rape allegations, et cetera, in colleges and universities.”

“Real people on the other side of tweets”

The gracious and conciliatory in-person conversation was a stark contrast to the pointed repartee between the two on Twitter. Both men admitted having had moments when their language on social media was sharper than it should have been. But they also try to maintain a basic level of respect.

“On my best days, I would say that I am very cognizant about my tone and also that I actually tried to get myself into a good state of mind. At least in ways that I can have these sharp exchanges, disagreements, et cetera, but not go off into, like, the crazy,” said Issac.

Both men laughed.

Indeed, both said that, even through the veil of social media arguments, both could see the good in what the other was trying to accomplish. And that has helped sharpen their own views. “Even when I actually disagree with you on these issues, I can still see that your goal really is to try to improve journalism and also discussions,” Issac said to Conor. “Over the course of time with this, I have been either actually forced to clarify my own original thinking or rethink in a subtle but important way.”

“We’re often arguing on Twitter about pretty small micro examples of different things and kind of about a meta discourse almost,” responded Conor. “It’s never like, ‘Oh, I came in with opinion A. And by the end of this Twitter thread, I am of opinion B – now they’ve persuaded me.’ It’s more like they kind of nudged my priors a little bit here and there and maybe, over time, that means a big change.”

After 90 minutes, both men warmly said goodbye to each other. A few days later, I emailed each participant individually to ask them if the Zoom conversation had affected how they now viewed the other person.

Conor replied: “Long audio conversations lend themselves to different kinds of interactions, with broader parameters and more room for nuance and expansive understandings, than do exchanges on Twitter. I certainly felt empathy for Issac when he discussed the unimaginably difficult time that he went through due to his brother’s circumstances. I think it’s probably too early to tell if our Twitter exchanges will change due to the experience. But it’s always nice to put a face and a voice to an avatar, and I very much hope that the person that I got to know better thrives in life.”

A few days later, Issac emailed.

“It humanized him more for me, which is good,” Issac wrote. “I believe that has affected how I word some of my tweets, particularly when I’m reacting to something he posts. It hasn’t changed my willingness to challenge or ask follow-ups. But it has forced me to not give in to my knee-jerk [reactions] so easily with him and others, frankly. It’s kind of easier to visualize that there are real people on the other side of tweets now, not just his.” 

Books

Sebastian Junger: When freedom collides with collective good

In his latest book, “Freedom,” bestselling author Sebastian Junger explores that resonant, complicated concept through the lens of history and finds that freedom from oppression is not freedom from obligation.

Trudy
Guillermo Cervera/Simon & Schuster
Author Sebastian Junger (center) has written about his 400-mile trek from Washington, D.C., to western Pennsylvania in "Freedom." He was joined at various points by friends who included two recent veterans of the conflict in Afghanistan and a war photographer.

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American journalist and documentary filmmaker Sebastian Junger burst on the literary scene in 1997 with “The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea,” which vividly recounts the massive storm in which the crew of the Andrea Gail was lost. He went on to report from the war in Afghanistan and to cover exceptionally perilous occupations. In an interview, Mr. Junger discusses his latest book, “Freedom,” in which he ties together his past and present experiences, looking for the through-lines in what he has witnessed. 

“I think modern society gives you the illusion that you’re fully autonomous without owing anything back to the group,” he says. “But the thing you have a right to is freedom from oppression by a more powerful ruling class. You do not have freedom from obligation.”

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Sebastian Junger: When freedom collides with collective good

Those familiar with Sebastian Junger’s reporting on U.S. troops at war and what they experience after coming home might recall his 2014 documentary “The Last Patrol.” The film chronicled his 400-mile trek along railroad lines from Washington, D.C., to western Pennsylvania with two recent combat veterans and a war photographer. Burdened by heavy packs and battlefield memories, the four men trudged through small towns, suburbs, and quiet countryside, struggling against the elements and fatigue while ruminating out loud about war, purpose, and freedom.

Seven years later, Mr. Junger has returned to that epic journey and that last topic for his sixth book, “Freedom,” intercutting scenes from the walk with a far-ranging exploration of the resonant and complicated concept that supplies his title. He examines how countries and cultures define freedom – and who does the defining – through the lenses of anthropology, primatology, and history, roaming from ancient Persia to the Old West, from the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland to a 1912 mill strike in Massachusetts.

Mr. Junger, the bestselling author of “The Perfect Storm” and “Tribe,” spoke with the Monitor from his home in New York. He discussed the relationship between autonomy and interdependence, the Jan. 6 Capitol uprising, the U.S. military’s looming exit from Afghanistan, and the resilience of oppressed minorities crusading for freedom around the world. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: In describing a train thundering down the tracks, you write, “Our insignificance alongside so much energy even started to feel like its own form of freedom until we realized that everything we needed – food, clothes, gear – came from the very thing we thought we were outwitting.” Are we more dependent on others for our freedom than we realize or want to admit?

The less reliant you are on other people for your survival needs, the more free you are. When you live in a fully mechanized, technology-driven society – where you eat food and live in homes and drive cars, none of which were grown or built by yourself – you’re in this web of interdependency. That is a loss of freedom in some sense and a vast, incredible elevation of freedom in another sense – you’re elevated from the tasks of survival. But you are fully dependent on the society that you’re in. So it’s sort of pick your poison: I don’t think there’s a way to be safe and comfortable, and also completely autonomous. I just don’t think it’s possible.

Simon & Schuster
"Freedom" by Sebastian Junger, Simon & Schuster, 160 pp.

Q: You assert that “the idea that we can enjoy the benefits of society while owing nothing in return is literally infantile. Only children owe nothing.” Where is the line between individual independence and our responsibility to the greater good?

I think modern society gives you the illusion that you’re fully autonomous without owing anything back to the group. But the thing you have a right to is freedom from oppression by a more powerful ruling class. You do not have freedom from obligation. And that can take place on the most mundane levels: You have an obligation to drive on the right side of the road. You’re part of a collective that is trying to keep everyone safe. Is that an impingement on your freedom? No, it’s an impingement on your perceived rights.

Q: Differing definitions of “freedom” have added to a sense of polarization in America, particularly in the aftermath of the presidential election and the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6. What distinguishes a legitimate claim of freedom from a misguided one?

Often when people decide to try to abrogate other people’s rights, they call it their own “freedom.” But they’re misusing the word – it’s not freedom at all. They are undermining a democratic process, and there’s recourse in that process – the courts, the next election. But they’re not interested in that. They’re trying to seize power.

As far as freedom goes, one of the earmarks of it is that people don’t have the right to tell you to do something that they themselves don’t have to do. When people exempt themselves from the norms of society – like paying taxes or being accountable to the law or the electoral process – they’re reducing the freedom of this democracy. Those guys who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, they were the foot soldiers of that idea.

Q: The pursuit of freedom is a principle invoked by groups advocating for racial justice as well as by those who took part in the Capitol siege and ascribe to the “big lie” election theory. Is one side more right than the other?

There’s a difference between freedom and justice. What Black Lives Matter is asking for is justice. The people storming the Capitol – what they were asking for, as far as I can tell, was power. Power that they had lost in the democratic system and had lost democratically.

But what worries me is the idea of both sides giving up on the rules of the game, giving up on the ideals of democracy. Basically, what they have in common is that they believe they personally own the truth, and that without debate or concession or compromise or negotiation, they can decide what this country should be. By doing that, and by completely rejecting the legitimacy of the opposing side, they’ve poisoned the well of discourse in this country – and that discourse is the only thing that will save this country.  

Q: Your book briefly touches on Afghanistan, a country where you’ve spent considerable time as a reporter and documentary filmmaker. With the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops by Sept. 11, the Taliban are poised to regain power. How do you view their claim to freedom?

I loathe the Taliban like I loathe [Spanish dictator Francisco] Franco and [Chilean dictator Augusto] Pinochet and anyone who tramples human rights for their own benefit or their own ideology. But this is what’s so tricky about the word “freedom.” Who will enjoy freedom under the Taliban? The Taliban. They represent quite a swath of Afghan society – they represent probably the majority of the Pashtuns in Afghanistan – and for them, their definition of freedom is, “We don’t want somebody else telling us what to do and how to live and who to worship.” And I can’t dispute that with them; I just loathe their human values. 

I’m not going to tell Americans what policies they should ascribe to, but as a journalist, I can talk about the benefits and costs of different policies. The benefits of not being in Afghanistan is that there are 2,000 special ops forces that can’t possibly be killed because they won’t be there. That’s the upside, and we also won’t provide an easy excuse for the Taliban to justify their violence. The downside, of course, is that we pull out and Afghan society implodes and there’s tens of thousands of civilian deaths, and in all likelihood, the Taliban reclaim the country and impose their sharia law and rewind the beginnings of human rights and women’s rights. It makes me nauseous to think about it.

Q: You write about different groups seeking freedom from their oppressors throughout history – the Scythians from the Persians, Native Americans from European colonialists, the Irish from British rule. What unifying motives did you find in that struggle across time? 

When agriculture and industry and technology came along, it enabled a power pyramid with very few people on top, and it became very, very hard for a coalition of people below that to overthrow them. But [the coalition] keeps doing it – or trying to – because freedom and human dignity and the ability to think that our children are going to be OK and live autonomous, safe lives – those desires are so intertwined that it gives people the courage to face literally anything. They’ve done that in the Arab Spring, in the American Revolution, in Myanmar in recent months. At the end of the day, they are basically fighting for the lives of their children. The courage of people – if you think about it for a moment too long, you start crying.

Q: The book ends with you revealing that the trek was an escape from the divorce you were getting at the time. You’ve since remarried, and you’re now the father of two young daughters. How has the concept of freedom changed for you on a personal level? 

A very understandable definition of freedom – particularly for a young person – is the freedom to pursue your own goals and ambitions and agenda unfettered by anything else. Another totally reasonable definition is to be freed from those sort of crass, earthly ambitions and to really dwell in the moment and in your hopes for your children’s futures. You’re liberated from the ego-driven desires of youth and you’re just like, “Wow, it’s a beautiful day. My children are healthy. I’m free. There’s nothing more I want.” Right now, if I was compelled by the freedoms of youth – I’m 59 – I’d be sort of pathetic. Likewise, if I was 22 and all I wanted to do was appreciate the beautiful day and the company of my children, you could ask me, legitimately, “What are you going to do with your life, buddy?” So what it really comes down to is, there’s many different ways of understanding freedom. And they’re all legitimate, and a lot of them are actually quite contradictory.

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China’s bow to reproductive freedom

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On May 31, a massive experiment in social engineering got an update. China’s rulers raised the number of children that married couples are allowed to have to three. The Chinese people could not wait to debate this shift in social control. On the social media platform Weibo, the hashtag “three-child policy is here” drew 660 million views in one day.

The Chinese still have subtle ways to make sure their rights and interests are heard, especially about one of the most intimate decisions a person can make. Even after the Communist Party permitted two children per married couple in 2016, births in China have fallen over the past four years. And more women are outspoken about the party’s discriminatory policies that lead them to decide not to have children. “By refusing to address the challenges faced by women and denying them the ability to choose their own path, Beijing risks a future of lower GDP, lower birthrates, and greater societal conflict,” writes scholar Elizabeth Economy.

Few Chinese dare to openly protest these days. Yet glimpses of a desire for self-governance often break through. In asserting their reproductive rights, the people are making room for a free society someday.

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China’s bow to reproductive freedom

AP
People bring their children to a public park on International Children's Day in Beijing, June 1.

On May 31, one of the world’s most massive experiments in social engineering got an update. China’s rulers raised the number of children that married couples are allowed to have to three. The last change, only six years ago, increased the number to two, up from the one-child restriction imposed more than four decades ago.

The Chinese people could not wait to debate this shift in social control by the governing Communist Party. On the social media platform Weibo, the hashtag “three-child policy is here” drew 660 million views in one day, or twice the size of the U.S. population. And when a survey on the site asked if people were ready to have three children, more than 90% of 31,000 respondents said they would “never think of it.” The survey was quickly taken down.

The world’s most populous country does not have democracy, but its people still have subtle ways to make sure their rights and interests are heard, especially about one of the most intimate decisions a person can make. Even after the party permitted two children per married couple in 2016, births in China have fallen over the past four years. And more women are outspoken about the party’s discriminatory policies that lead them to decide not to have children, such as the lack of workplace advancement as well as the high cost of education and housing.

From fearing a population boom in 1980, the party now fears a population bust that could leave too few young workers to pay for an aging population. Some demographers say the new three-child policy will do little. Despite that, party leader Xi Jinping decided not to allow married couples to have as many children as they want. He may want to preserve both this tool of control and the party’s image of ideological infallibility.

Yet, writes scholar Elizabeth Economy in the latest Foreign Affairs publication, Mr. Xi’s success as party leader “depends on the intellectual and economic support of the very constituencies his policies are disenfranchising.” China, for example, ranks high on gender disparity compared with other countries. Only 27.9% of party members are women.

“By refusing to address the challenges faced by women and denying them the ability to choose their own path, Beijing risks a future of lower GDP, lower birthrates, and greater societal conflict,” she writes.

Few Chinese dare to openly protest over their grievances. The party’s technological surveillance over dissent has grown only stronger. Yet glimpses of a desire for self-governance often break through, forcing the party to make an about-face on draconian policies. In asserting their reproductive rights, the people are making room for a free society someday.

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

The mom in the SUV and the truck with the flag

We don’t need to let anger and self-righteousness get the better of us. Letting God, divine Love, inform what we think and do fosters wisdom, calm, and a spirit of respect instead of rashness.

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The mom in the SUV and the truck with the flag

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

“I’m going to call that school as soon as I get home,” I fumed. I was on my way to take my son to day care on a beautiful sunny day. For a moment, I glanced out the side window as we drove by the local high school.

That’s when I saw it. A vehicle with various flags on the back – one of which had a huge expletive on it, followed by the name of someone in public office. In the driver’s seat was a teenage boy.

Let me back up here. I’m not a big fan of telling people what they can and can’t say on their own lawns and vehicles. The variety of opinions in my own family is something I’m used to. And it’s helped me grow as a person.

But this felt like a bridge too far. The huge curse word, the sheer size of the flag, the fact that it was on school grounds. Maybe if I called the high school, the boy’s flag would get confiscated! I started to formulate my plan.

Then I realized the boy was probably looking for a reaction, so making an issue out of it might backfire. And while my thoughts did come from a place of concern, they were also fueled by self-righteousness, which wasn’t a good place to start.

It felt clear to me that in this particular case, getting involved wasn’t the right thing to do after all. But there was still something I could do beyond just letting it go in the “take a deep breath and move on” sense. During the political election season, my husband and I had placed a sign on our lawn that said “Love thy neighbor,” a core teaching of Christ Jesus. I could more actively put that into practice.

I wanted to feel that even if I saw this teenager from the truck in the grocery store or passed him on the street, I wouldn’t let a piece of cloth dictate how I was going to think about him. From my study of Christian Science, I knew that he was God’s child, and so just as deserving of love, respect, and mercy as I was. No one is innately better than another, because God doesn’t have favorites – God expresses pure goodness in all His children. While the tone of the flag the teen was displaying didn’t reflect that, it didn’t mean he didn’t have a lot of good to offer the world.

I thought of Christ Jesus, who didn’t go around loving others just so he could feel good about himself and move on. And he didn’t ignore societal strife, either. Instead, he cared enough to think about others in ways that healed, redeemed, and cured.

The textbook of Christian Science, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy, has helped me see that Jesus was actually correctly seeing each person for what they really were – exactly how God saw them. God created each of us full of spiritual qualities, complete, without anything that would limit, divide, or separate. And that perspective was freeing not only for Jesus, but for the people he was interacting with, too.

We might not always see the immediate impact of how thinking and acting from this basis changes lives. But we need to make an effort for the good of humanity.

With those simple, God-centered thoughts, my anger melted into what I can only describe as a softening in my heart. Sometimes prayer leads us to actively say something or raise an issue. In this case, prayer helped me realize that it wasn’t my job to teach this person how to act or think. My job was to eradicate from my own consciousness any thoughts that weren’t from God, Love itself, that would try to take root and grow – and replace them with pure, spiritual truth. I could do that!

By the time I dropped my son off at his day care and headed home past the local high school, I felt an expanded sense of purpose for my day and gratitude to God.

Can I claim that I’m never ever going to be offended again? Nope. But practicing walking the walk like Jesus is essential to healing division, pain, misunderstanding, and anger. Letting God, Love, guide our actions is how we exchange self-righteousness for self-knowledge, and, even better, gain spiritual understanding as we continue down the road.

For the Monitor’s focus on bridging the conflicts that divide us, see The Respect Project, which examines the graces and complexities of respect in a half-dozen stories being posted this month.

Viewfinder

Naomi Osaka takes a stand

Christophe Ena/AP
Japan's Naomi Osaka celebrates after defeating Romania's Patricia Maria Tig during their first-round match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium on May 30, 2021, in Paris. In keeping with her earlier announcement, Ms. Osaka skipped the press conference following her victory, which prompted tennis officials to fine her and threaten expulsion. The following day, Ms. Osaka withdrew from the tournament, indicating that she would be taking a break from tennis.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Trudy Palmer
Deputy Daily Editor

Thanks for joining us today. Come back tomorrow for a look at the growing – and bipartisan – interest in capturing carbon emissions. 

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