Abstinence, Cord Blood Testing and Human Nature

My last post was about a new law in Mississippi that requires the collection of cord blood under specified circumstances.  (Read the post for details.)   I want to further develop some of the ideas there and actually tie it all back to a discussion of “human nature” that came up recently in a series of posts about putative father registries.   (I’ve linked to the first in the series.  You can read as many as you want and either read or skim the extensive comments, too.)

The proponents of the cord blood collection statute say that their primary concern is teen pregnancy.  I think that reducing the rate of teen pregnancy is then tied to increasing prosecution of men who commit statutory rape–which is to say older men who have sex with women who are 16 or under.    The way MS law is written, “older” there must mean men over 19.

Let’s assume for a moment that older men are deterred by the prospect that the cord blood DNA will serve as crucial evidence to support their prosecution.    (I think this is open to question for some of the same reasons I’m about to discuss in a different context.)  Will that significantly reduce the rate of teen pregnancy?   Only if a significant number of teen pregnancies are actually the result of intercourse between older men and 16 (0r younger) year olds.   Probably the statistic is out there sometime, but rather than go that way right now, I want to talk about the view of the world reflected by the assumption that this is the case.

Remember that this is proposed by the same folks who promote abstinence only sex ed?    It seems to me that the world view here is that young women–16 year olds, say–have no innate inclination to engage in sex.   They engage in sex only when 1) their will is overborne by the older man (that’s part of the concern in statutory rape) and/or 2) they are pressured to do so because of expectations set up by comprehensive and medically accurate sex ed.   If you accept this world view, then the two policies (abstinence only education and enhanced statutory rape prosecutions) advance the goal of fewer teen pregnancies.

In a cursory way, you could say that these policies are premised on the belief that young women are, by their nature, pure and non-sexual.   And this, it seems to me, is wrong.   Young women (like young men) are interested in sex.  I’m not particularly a fan of our hyper-sexualized commercial culture, but I do think teens’ interest in sex is in the nature of things.

If you accept that statement instead of the one about purity, then I think you would see the policies as doomed to failure.   All that abstinence-only education does is set girls up for pregnancy.  Same thing when you restrict access to birth control, which is almost always part of the same picture.   And reducing statutory rape doesn’t acknowledge that many (if not most) of the pregnancies are the result of two teenagers engaging in sex, and that’s typically not going to be statutory rape.

(I think I ought to make clear that I’m not saying that statutory rape is itself okay–I just don’t think it is a big part of the teen pregnancy problem.)

Now the reason this ties back to those other posts is that it seems to me this boils down to a debate about human nature:   Is it human nature that young women are sexual creatures or not?    And what follows from a statement that some behavior is “human nature?”

These are important questions that, as I mentioned earlier, have come up recently in a different context.   I cannot recall whether we’ve talked about them before.   The rest of what I do right now may just be set-up for later discussion.

The first question is what we mean when we say that something (a behavior, say) is human nature.   Is that an excuse?   (We shouldn’t blame a person for doing it because it is human nature.)  Or is it an observation that increases our understanding of what to expect generally? (Which is what it seems to be with regard to teenage girls and sex)

The second question is how we know (or how we think we know) what human nature is/is not.  Why do I think that I know that girls are, by their nature, interested in sex?  Is that just my own experience?   Is it based on research?  Is it just some self-serving assumption?

And the third question is what follows from something being “human nature?”  Does it mean that we just have to live with it, that we cannot try to change it?  This is the one I can most easily answer–I don’t think it does/should.  It may be human nature to just grab for what you want, but we teach children not to do that and, for the good of society, I think we do have to learn to restrain that grabby impulse.   But does it mean that we’ll have to work especially hard to change things, when those things are human nature?

I will come back to this next time because you can see I’m just getting started/just thinking it through.




15 responses to “Abstinence, Cord Blood Testing and Human Nature

  1. Dan in Tennessee

    I’ve mentioned human nature in response to some other posts (collection of cord blood for prevention of pregnancy or education of putative father registry as promoting the registry). I disagreed with the collection of cord blood scheme as running counter to human nature because I also do not believe that will promote abstinence. When people want to engage in sexual relations I do not believe they will do that kind of analysis: “Gosh if we have sex and conceive a child the gov’t is going to collect the cord blood.” I don’t see anyone actually having that thought process. It’s just not going to deter anyone but will lead to a massive bureaucratic nightmare.
    I am not a woman nor have I ever been a teenage girl, however; I tend to agree with your comments, Julie, about the false presumptions of teenage female sexuality. The idea of the cord-blood bank is premised on the false axiom that we will somehow influence these young women to exercise their, er, “better” judgment and not engage in sex because of the consequences. Abstinence education has not worked for the past thirty thousand years. Why do we suppose that throwing more money after this new idea (which is essentially the same old idea with a different bow) will make any difference? It won’t because fundamentally human beings remain the same.

    • It may be, as you say, that idea that cord blood collection will reduce teen pregnancy is based on some notion of deterrence of the young women–that they will choose not to have sex. But I think it is just as likely that it is based on a view in which young women lack agency–they don’t make the decision to have sex. Older men do. Or it is suggested to them via sex-ed. I think this is consistent with the historical origins of statutory rape laws, which treated women as chattels whose value had to be preserved.
      But whatever way you look at it, I don’t see how it can work.

  2. Julie, it’s natural human nature coupled with onset of puberty and raging hormones at a time when society deems they are still children (not saying that is bad), but society dealt with it differently years ago with early marriage, then marriage was later as society started recognising education, that women could be more than just housewives – the problem is that the physical side did not evolve to onset of puberty in the early twenties. I guess if you wanted to you could medically force a delay in puberty but at what cost to the future health. Society needs to take a step back and recognise they need to prepare teens better so they are equipped both with education and prevention. Pretending the elephant in the room does not exist is insane.

    Facts to that: The CDC provides reports dating back decades about unwed births by age range. No one looks back though. Society dealt with many back then through adoption. The only specific stat I have been able to come up with was from the transcript of the congressional inquiry in 1955 and in the fall the number of unwed mothers who had placed babies for adoption was 90,000 that year alone. That was the time everyone today (people who make those laws anyway) say we need to return to. It is estimated that between the late 40 – early 70’s – that at least 1.5 million mothers surrendered their babies. Other estimates is that there were 6 million babies adopted. Who knows which is correct, but it certainly proves unwed men and women were having sex. Those mothers were primarily middle class and white. Many others either kept their babies (primarily black women because there was no market for adoption), or got married quick and passed a full term babe off as a preemie, or had abortions – (I know this because dad talked about both delivering those babes, and, about the horror of how the girls who had abortions would come back in for him to patch up, or try to save them and that bothered him greatly until he died). Anyway long winded reply – you can come to three theories – either they want to increase adoptions due to the widespread infertility, they haven’t done their homework and learned that abstinence, lack of birth control, and, banning abortion doesn’t work (and they only had to the era they dream of today), or both and they just don’t care at what cost to the human beings directly impacted.

    • I think we agree on the human nature point, right? I don’t mean to suggest, though, that because interest in sex might be human nature, we should just let things go. I think whatever policies we put in place need to take the nature of teenagers/hormones, etc. into account. Which I why I’d say sex education and access to birth control are better ways to reduce teen pregnancies.

      I think you are right to remind us of history. Of course this isn’t a new problem and we might actually learn from what went before.

      • Yes we agree on human nature and putting proper well thought out policies in place.

        There’s a well known phrase that I won’t get right – If you don’t know your history you are bound to make the same mistakes again. It’s true, we all fail to reflect back.

  3. Humans are remarkably resistant to what nature prescribes. Humans make cognitive decisions every day that are counter to their immediate biological needs. Every time you hold in your pee for lack of a nearby restroom, you are going against human nature. Therefore I consider human nature irrelevant to most discussions.

    • (perhaps sex is an exception… we can assume that most humans will engage in sex sooner or later!)

      • Dan in Tennessee

        Your examples 1). peeing; and 2). sex are good examples in that they are biological imperatives. I think public policy should take into account the “sooner or later” principle.

    • In some instances I think you are right that human nature is irrelevant. But in others, it might be important to consider whether what we are trying to get people to do is consistent with basic impulses or inconsistent with basic impulses. I know that’s terribly vague, though.

      The peeing example is interesting. I agree that human nature (or perhaps animal nature?) is to just pee when you need to. Children are generally taught not to do this from an early age and most learn the lesson pretty well. It ends up being quite deeply ingrained, I think, and there are strong cultural reinforcing mechanisms–we probably all remember an instance where a child peed in class in grade school and was mortified.

      But not all our impulses are like that so I’m not sure how far I’d take the analogy. There are all sorts of rules of etiquette that are artificially imposed (don’t chew with your mouth open, don’t put your elbows on the table, etc.) We don’t reinforce these as widely or as consistently or as dramatically and I’d say that the extent to which people conform their behavior to the standard of etiquette varies a lot more. This is a trivial example, I know, but it seems to me it makes a point that we do need to keep in mind.

      I tend to think (and I’ll remind you I don’t know anything about this, really) that the average teenager’s impulse to explore sexuality is pretty strong. I don’t think we can ignore that impulse. This is why I think abstinence only education is a mistake. It’s not a strong enough counter to the nature of the beast.

      • actually the more i th ink about my example, the more it shows the primacy of biology. cuz no matter how much culturally influenced you are from early childhood, there is only so long you can hold your urine. but since in most cases it is a lot less clear on whether something is biologically determined, i still prefer to talk about culture than nature.

  4. Kisarita great analogy! I consider myself well trained by Julie herself to avoid the nature trap in these debates. Law is the cornerstone of organized society because we want people to take responsibility for their own actions and not take credit for the actions of others. Part of making people take responsibility for their own actions and not take responsibility for the actions of others is identification of the individual responsible for a thing in question.

    If the thing in question is rape of a child, we need to identify the person who forced a person to have intercourse.

    If the thing in question is who caused the existence of a dependent minor that now requires physical and financial support for a minimum of 18 years, then we need to identify the two individuals who reproduced to create the dependent minor so that they can be named as the minor’s parents and be held accountable for supporting that minor to adulthood

    There is no human nature. People as individuals view personal responsibility through different lenses based on their experiences and their preferences. Some people will be thrilled to take personal responsibility for the dependent minors they reproduce to create and some people will be indifferent or terrified or resentful of having to support the dependent minor they created. The point of law, the point of justice is to be blind to how someone feels about personal responsibility and simply hold people accountable for their own actions and not allow them to take responsibility for the actions of others. We don’t let people take the blame for something they did not do because justice is not served when the the person who is actually responsible is not identified and held accountable. We don’t let people take objects that other people earned etc.

    Justice for the dependent minor involves identifying the parents who reproduced to create them and holding those individuals responsible for taking care of them whether they like it or not. Whether they intended to create a dependent minor or not. Justice for a child who has been raped involves identifying her rapist whether she likes it or not whether she believes she gave her consent or not.

    We might want to consider revising statuatory rape laws so that the age span is broader and the relationship is not one that would be viewed as peer to peer. A 19 year old boy in high school and a 17 year old girl in high school is different than a 30 year old boss and his 16 year old employee for instance. Or 25 year old man and his friend’s 14 year old daughter.

    • It seems that the state in question already does that. ” To be a crime in Mississippi, the man has to be 1) 17 or over and 2) at least three years older than the woman.”

    • I’m not sure what you mean in saying that there is no human nature. I would agree that it isn’t always clear what we mean by it and maybe in some circumstances it isn’t useful. But not all our behaviors are culturally determined and to the extent they are not, they are natural, which is what I think we mean (sort of, generally) by human nature.

      When you stand in a room full of two-year olds I think you can see a bit of human nature. Lots of yelling and grabbing and pushing and all that. Two-year olds aren’t civilized yet and so they just act as they will. Indeed, I have often thought a parent’s job at that point is to teach children to suppress those impulses and substitute culturally acceptable ones–like sharing and waiting for a turn.

      Also, as someone else noted, too–modern statutory rape laws are keyed to the difference in power. Most do have what are called Romeo and Juliet exceptions of both people are young. And this was part of my point. I suspect most teen pregnancies are the result of this sort of coupling, in which case enforcing statutory rape laws won’t do much to reduce teen pregnancy. But I concede I am just guessing here. The thing is, the drafters of the statute were also (as far as I can tell) guessing.

      • I recall reading somewhere that the younger the mother of the baby is, the more likely it is to be a case of either statutory or actual rape. I suppose there could be a couple of reasons for this – on average, males do go through puberty slightly later than females do, and maybe younger girls (as opposed to say, girls around 14-15 or older) are less likely to have sex unless coerced by an older man?

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