By Francis M. Miller
Shortly after I was born at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Billings, Montana, the doctor who delivered me approached my father to schedule the circumcision. This created, I believe, the first cross-cultural crisis in Montana since the Battle of the Little Bighorn when Custer made his last stand against the Sioux and Cheyenne.
My father was Catholic, a WWII veteran and working class. Most of the landowning aristocracy of Montana were protestant. It was a divide that resulted in Montana having two hospitals in each major city. In Butte, the home of Anaconda Copper, the miners went to the catholic hospital. In Missoula, the loggers did likewise and it was a pervasive pattern that I did not acknowledge until I was older. In looking back at it, I now understand why my sisters and I had to go out to the oil refinery and get our polio vaccinations. The “Protestant” hospital did not provide them to people who lived on “the Bench”.
A triangle between this unspoken conflict was the Jewish doctors. They were a small group, not even large enough to have a synagogue and they observed in a private home. But, when they practiced medicine, their cultural beliefs emerged and both Protestant and Catholic had to figure out what to make of it all. I won’t tell you the outcome of this particular argument.
When I came to Denver in 1972, there were multiple hospitals that today have Exempla, Health One and Centura logos. Back then there was a Swedish, Lutheran, Jewish(Rose), Veterans, University, Denver General(the poor), St. Anthony and St. Joseph, and Presbyterian. The entire system was a mosaic where the pieces of the market grinded as they collided. There was a multi-faith task force to reduce tensions. Even as late as three years ago, a firestorm erupted when the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth offered to buy Lutheran Medical Center with the stipulation that abortions and birth control follow the guidelines of the Catholic Church. Just a year ago, litigation was initiated by Hobby Lobby and the Catholic Church went ballistic when Obamacare tried to ensure employees would have equal access to birth control and new drugs like the morning after pill.
The United States is well on its way to becoming a pluralistic culture. There have already been killings of children by parents who object to their children adopting Western secular culture.
Throughout the World there are practices such as genital mutilation and there are wide variations in attitudes towards abortion, birth control and other practices. These differences are not so great and the population of Muslims large enough to build an Islamic Hospital, but I fully expect it will happen. When Jewish doctors in Denver faced obstacles getting admitted to Christian hospitals, they pooled their resources and built Rose Medical Center. When I consulted with them as late as the 1980s many of their original board members were still writing checks to keep the place afloat.
The differences between cultures can be a difficult chasm to cross. When a Christian Science parent seeks to prevent a child from being provided care it often ends up in the Courts. And, make no mistake about it, abortion is an issue so great it divides us politically and occasionally results in violence. Will the day come when Islamic beliefs, Asian treatment protocols, and a whole host of differences shatter our systems.
Government and corporations typically scale up their size and introduce uniformity of practice to achieve efficiency. They are not a good job shop. And, when it comes to spending money there is an insistence that everyone be treated equally under the law. That leads to systems of control that prevent, detect and correct deviations from the norm.
The desire to achieve unlimited and consistent access as a universal right is only one step away from mandatory participation and universal treatment. If government funds circumcisions, isn’t it a small step to impose circumcision on every young man. Can a parent resort to Catholic doctrine or personal preference? Religious doctrine often fails to speak crisply on certain matters and it becomes a matter of folklore and common belief. Most societal systems cringe at the thought of individual determinations on such matters. Will we eventually have health care Courts to make such determinations. What is the cost to society of lawyers and experts facing off against each other to determine whether little Fran should be circumcised to ensure his personal hygiene. The next step is to provide vaccinations and then engage in existential arguments about whether the side effects lead to autism or other disorders.
We threw Jack Kervorkian in jail because he was helping people off themselves. And, yet, in spite of federal laws against it, Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana and created a new tourism industry. What would the local papers have to write about if weed had not been legalized? After all, you can only talk about gun control and civil unions so long.
All of this leads to the conclusion that institutions cannot make these determinations. They necessitate the individual, the family, the clan and the tribe hammer out a consensus opinion that is respected by the rest of society. If these smaller units are not to be subject to the tyranny of the majority, decisions must be based on a spiritual, ethical, moral set of values and beliefs centered in the individual. That level of respect, given our most recent history of genocide against Indians, enslavement of Blacks, and poor treatment of 1st generation immigrants seems difficult to achieve. Why? The reason lies in our intense desire to protect individuals from the consequences of personal decision making. If someone refuses health care altogether and pockets the savings we are outraged. And if a child isn’t vaccinated or a mother wants to use a midwife, we are uncomfortable. Our sociology and politics tends to break down rapidly when personal liberty and psychology seek to trump the wisdom of the crowd and the herd. Enforcement of prohibition has proven to be very difficult.