My previous post on the effects of fasting on the long-term health of a fetus drew a strong response. It’s exactly the sort of reaction I was trying to defuse with my post, so I thought I would give it another try. “Why give up when you can dig deeper?” will be carved on my tombstone someday. So, the questions I would ask of Mr. Mehoff are as follows:
1. How common do you think awareness of this issue is?
2. Do you think it’s fair to demand that culture instantly change to accommodate the results of a single relatively obscure study that has yet to be vetted and re-evaluated by medical professionals?
3. Are you comfortable with the balancing act as it currently stands in the US and other similar countries in terms of where they draw the line for intervening in child-rearing and women’s lives while they are pregnant?
I think the answer to 1 is self-evident. You can’t call it a failure on the part of individuals if they don’t even know the problem exists. Again, it’s a problem that is easiest to track thanks to Ramadan’s consistent scheduling, but since dieting is hardly an uncommon practice (as it says, 40% of women of child-rearing age) it’s not a uniquely Muslim problem. What I think is unique about the Ramadan indicator in this case is that it has the potentially to be hijacked by culture warriors and people with agendas outside of the medical problem at hand in a manner that is going to be make it needlessly confrontational; it is often hard to change culture in response to scientific evidence, but it can be done most ethically by not turning it into a political football preemptively.
The answer to 2 is similarly straightforward. This seems like a pretty sound study, but it’s unclear what a medical approach to the question might reveal. It could be that even a marginal nutritional upgrade could make a significant difference in improving the odds. With the help of spiritual leaders acting in good faith (and, more broadly, women’s health advocates advertising the risks of dieting that most women probably don’t think of), you could probably get a compromise solution where they are providing the necessary nutrition while still participating in the performance of their cultural rituals. At the very least, you could ensure that women are making an informed choice and perhaps employing contraception more aggressively during reduced diets might be the path of least resistance to reducing the magnitude of the problem. Point is there are a lot of different ways to skin this cat *if* it’s not turned into a team-building exercise by cultural bigots.
Number 3 is a lot harder. There are a lot of potentially questionable things that lawful societies allow parents and prospective parents to do, and a fair number that we provide legal penalties and incentives around. I don’t know enough about what the tipping point is for one practice that is harmful on the statistical level vs another to where it makes sense for the government to intrude. I think the best way to reduce drinking and smoking during pregnancy, for instance, was the education process and social pressures that engendered; it still happens and it’s tragic, but in general people are pretty good about self-policing these things as compared to before it was universally known. The alternatives, for example a zero tolerance legal approach, seems to me like they could be tremendously intrusive and risk criminalizing prospective mothers with very unclear outcomes for overall child and family welfare. There are many practices all over the risk and suffering spectrum that people use with children; some we find it straightforward to proscribe (ie female genital mutilation, infibulation, and female circumcision generally) and some we tolerate or even apply thoughtlessly just as a matter of habit and the risks/impacts seem low enough that there’s no need for an emergency countermeasure to cultural norms (male circumcision).
What I’m getting at here is that I understand your anger and discomfort with the role religion plays in public life, but I just don’t think this has to be a confrontation between secularism/science and faith if it’s handled the right way. In many cases, I feel it plays right into the hands of extremists if you attack the beliefs of moderates and radicals without distinction, and that’s what a lot of your post reads like. I don’t have to agree with someone at the epistemological level if I can find a way to compromise in practical matters, and it seems to me that I have a much better shot at that compromise if I don’t start by attacking their core beliefs when they aren’t directly relevant. If someone’s core beliefs are fundamentally incompatible with good solutions to the issue at hand, then that might be the case, but I don’t think it’s where you want to start with most things.