Wives (and Husbands): You Not Getting Beaten is a Luxury that Topeka, Kansas Just Can’t Afford

Like other local and state governments, Topeka, Kansas is in the grips of a dismal budget crisis. So this week, Topeka’s City Council did something desperate. They debated decriminalizing domestic violence--because the cost of prosecuting these cases, and other misdemeanors, is just too high. The county has already turned back 30 domestic violence cases since they stopped prosecuting them on September 8.

One of the problems with these stories is that it’s hard to believe that we’re actually hearing what we’re hearing. Sometimes I think the 20th century was all a dream, and we’ve awakened back in the 19th. Could civilization unravel so much that we rip up paved roads to save money—or revive wife-beating to save a buck? It sounds like a satirical Onion headline.

Meanwhile, as the Topeka City Council debates an open season on wife-beating, the conservative Kansas governor, Sam Brownback, has been working very aggressively to promote “marriage-friendly social policies.”  He’s instructed his Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services Secretary to do “what he can to reverse any policies that discourage marriage.”

I’m more of a libertarian about marriage. I think people marry when it makes their lives better, and don’t when it doesn’t.  It’s not the government’s place to incentivize types of intimacies between truly consenting adults. But I might not object so much to encouraging marriage—if anyone was encouraging a version that squares with marriage as a civil, secular contract in the United States—a country that is, after all, not a theocracy.

What if we had policies that supported a range of marital types, including dual-career couples, with maternity leave, family-friendly workplaces, career sabbatical and sharing possibilities, or better healthcare and daycare options? I’ve never seen these recommendations from a “defense of marriage” document. I have read arguments that we should support stay-at-home moms with better pensions and benefits. And I agree with that. But the dual-career marriage isn’t extended that same consideration. A favorite has been chosen.

Another principle of the loosely-confederated “marriage movement,” founded in 2001, was to support “marital interdependence” (meaning: a sort of “Me Tarzan-You Jane” division of labor in marriage, whereby the wife does one role and the husband another, to form one theoretically harmonious whole). What if instead, we supported marital flexibility in roles?

Ironically, in the classes and states today that have the very lowest divorces rates—the educated, affluent middle class, that is, and uber-liberal Massachusetts—it’s precisely this sort of gender role flexibility that you’re likely to see. The community welcomes stay-at-home dads as well as stay-at-home moms. Dads and moms are likely to perform a variety of roles in marriage, from breadwinning to breadbaking and childrearing and nurturing. These precisely aren’t marriages of interdependence, but of overlapping, multi-tasking competencies. Still, the defense of marriage tends to trash career moms for ruining the family, and privilege distinct husband and wife roles.

You see how it goes:  It’s not heterosexual marriage generically that’s promoted in Kansas and elsewhere. It’s marriage of a particular (patriarchal) brand and a particular (gender-typed) sort.

One more example: If we’re going to support marriage in policy, then I’d like to see us treat it as the most profound trust of any contract between people. That means, at the very least, that those who violate the sanctity of marriage by beating their spouses are treated with the utmost attention and concern. To support marriage, marriage needs to be a safe place physically, at the very least.

But that pro-marriage policy is not front and center in Topeka.  Evidently that sort of protection for spouses doesn’t count as a policy that would encourage marriage.

In a larger sense: Given how retro (to the 18th or 19th century) and didactic some social conservative extremists can sound about marriage (remember the Iowa marriage pledge from the summer?), there’s a tendency not to give their views much credence, or get too worried. Until, of course they re-center American politics, further to the right, and the “crazy” once again encroaches into “plausible.”

Last year, I was working with a copyeditor who was editing a piece in which I briefly discussed the attempt to revive 19th-century views of “traditional marriage” among social conservatives. “You’re way more concerned about what these people say than anyone I know,” she wrote in the margin. Her view was, it’s a bunch of radicals and it had nothing to do with her marriage, in her northeastern citadel. This kind of solipsism isn’t unusual: If a view doesn’t punch our own life in the face, then we think it can’t hurt us.

But marriage politics today aren’t just about opposition to same-sex marriage and homosexuality. No, they’re interested in your big, fat, straight wedding, too. Campaigns for traditional marriage support particular versions of heterosexual marriage. To paraphrase from Animal Farm, some marriages are more equal than others. 

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Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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