The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau (And What it Teaches Us About Abortion)
Last week, I watched a new documentary on the life of Jacques Cousteau, produced by his son Jean-Michel. Though I'm a generation behind the one that was so dramatically influenced by his underwater exploits, Captain Cousteau has had plenty of influence on me through my aunt, Margery Spielman. She is a world-class environmental artist who was first drawn to the ocean through Cousteau's pictures, long before she had the privilege of becoming his friend and colleague. Through her, I got to go on some underwater adventures of my own, even spending time with Jean-Michel as a boy. My aunt is featured in the documentary, along with many of the others who were so profoundly influenced by Cousteau's life and friendship.
How does this connect to Abort73? About 20 minutes into the film, a remarkable and completely unexpected statement is made by Ted Turner – who helped fund Cousteau's work during the 1980's. For me, it was one of those, Wait, what did he just say?! moments. Referring to Cousteau as one of his personal heros (whom he misses daily), Turner says:
I loved his message [about] the rights of the unborn, the next generation's rights… that's become part of my credo that we owe it to coming generations that have not gotten here yet to leave them an inhabitable, beautiful world – to leave it in as good a shape as we found it, or maybe better.
To hear Ted Turner speak about the rights of the unborn was a bizarre experience since Turner has a long and lamentable history of funding abortion-advocating organizations. He may be concerned about the next generation, but he has not been a friend to the unborn. As the movie continued, I was struck by the frequent references to Cousteau's advocacy for future generations. He even composed a Bill of Rights for Future Generations, which his granddaughter, Alexandria Cousteau, references in her on-camera remarks. She notes that "the future generations he spoke of… have already arrived, and we've done far too little to honor them as he would have wished." More than 9 million people have signed Cousteau's declaration since it was first published, and a reworked version was adopted by the UN in 1997.
According to its own language, the document exists "to reaffirm faith in the dignity and worth of the human person," and asserts that "the rights of future generations… with respect to the nurture and continuity of life… are seriously threatened," so that "the preservation and promotion of these rights has a claim on the conscience of all peoples and all nations." Think about those observations and objectives in the context of abortion. Does abortion reaffirm the worth of human beings? Does abortion respect the rights of future generations? Does abortion support the continuity of life?
With those questions in mind, I set out to find what Cousteau, himself, thought about abortion. And I did so with a fair bit of trepidation. Why? Because Jacques Cousteau was the "the first environmentalist of the ocean," and environmentalists don't always recognize the inhumanity of abortion. As it turns out, I could only find that Cousteau made one public remark about abortion, and though it's a bit ambiguous, it gives me hope that it's not a practice he endorsed. When asked in a 1996 interview why interest in the environment was fading, he replied:
People are still very much interested but seem to be turning their backs on the real problems. The monumental problem for the future is overpopulation. We had hoped that the Cairo Summit would help us find solutions, to send a clear message to people. The biggest obstacle was mixing abortion with overpopulation. These are two things that have nothing to do with each other.
Whether you believe overpopulation is a monumental problem or not, the implication of Cousteau's statement is that they shouldn't be tied together. Abortion is not a legitimate means of combatting overpopulation, and the threat of overpopulation is not a legitimate justification for abortion. Too often, the way we think about abortion entirely dictates the way we think about population issues. Those who oppose abortion won't even entertain the thought that overpopulation is a real danger (for fear that it will be used to justify more abortions) while those who support abortion won't question the general assumption that there are too many people in the world (for fear of losing their primary rationale for abortion). Just this week, Abort73 received an angry email that intrinsically linked these issues together. It reads:
[Abort73 is] an idiotic and childish piece of ----, full of fake "testimonies" and ridiculously stupid "reasons" for believing that abortion is wrong… People need to just shut up and accept that abortion will continue because it is necessary… it allows all the millions of people who have abortions to keep from adding many more children to the world's population every year, giving our species a little more time before we collapse our world's resources completely due to our over-populating of it.
I've encountered the overpopulation argument countless times, both in person and online, and I can't shake the impression that most of those who make it are being entirely disingenuous. I'd be curious to look at their consumption and spending habits to see how legitimately concerned they are about preserving the natural environment we live in. More times than not, it's fairly obvious that they have little commitment to environmental stewardship. Rather, they play the overpopulation card in an attempt to justify a practice that they haven't been able to justify on other grounds. To that I say with Cousteau, abortion and overpopulation have nothing to do with each other. If abortion is wrong, the threat of overpopulation doesn't make it right. And if abortion isn't wrong, the threat of overpopulation isn't needed to make it right.
One of the things I've come to appreciate about Cousteau, both in watching the documentary and reading through numerous online interviews, is that he didn't pit human beings and the environment against each other. As Jean Michel declares, his father's life was marked by a love for the sea and a love for people. Cousteau didn't see human beings as the enemy of the environment. Rather, human beings are the reason he devoted his life to preserving the environment – so that it would still be around for the enjoyment of future generations. In his own words, he was an environmentalist without the "exaggerated sentimentalism" that plagues so many others.
On the subject of animal rights he said:
[Animals] have a right to live when they are not killed for us to eat… "Baby seals... are slaughtered, it is awful." Yes, it is, but we have suppressed their predators so the scientists in Canada have to decide how many baby seals to kill to keep the population stable. It is not cruelty, it is a logical decision of scientists.
On the subject of giving more rights to "higher animals" like dolphins because of their "human-like empathy" he replied:
When we try to film the dolphins in the water, they fly away. It's very difficult to approach a gang of dolphins in freedom. Some dolphins that have been captured have been trained to be adorable pets, but that has nothing to do with their natural empathy.… young dolphins, when they are one or two or three years old, become terrible savages. They form gangs...it's like Atilla the Hun when they arrive somewhere. "Oh, poor little dolphin." (Humans are only drawn to them) because they have a built-in smile that has nothing to do with smiling.
On the subject of vivisection:
There are vivisection abuses but some of it is unavoidable. We have to test some. What about our search for an AIDS vaccine; are we going to stop that because of vivisection? C'mon... There should be an ethical group deciding when animal research is a must for the human species. When it is not a must, then we must suppress it.
On the subject of global warming :
[Global warming is] a very difficult problem to decide, because arguments are good both ways. It is probably true, the greenhouse effect syndrome… but let's be realistic. Seventeen-thousand years ago the water level of the sea was 170 meters lower than today. There was no man, no industry, and the greenhouse effect came from volcanic clouds. The cause of the warming up of the earth is not only human - it is geophysical. There are decimation periods and there are warming-up periods… I don't know what to say except we should be careful and not add to nature an additional bad factor. But to say we are responsible for the warming up, no.
One of Cousteau's most controversial remarks dates back to a 1991 interview with The UNESCO Courier where he said:
It's terrible to have to say this. World population must be stabilized and to do that we must eliminate 350,000 people per day. This is so horrible to contemplate that we shouldn't even say it. But the general situation in which we are involved is lamentable.
Though Cousteau may have been better off following his own advise and not saying what he said, I haven't found any evidence that he actually endorsed a public policy of euthanasia. Perhaps he was having a bad day. Perhaps he wanted to shock the world out of its stupor. Certainly, Cousteau was pro-contraception, but I think these later remarks more accurately reflect his position:
The population cannot be reduced until 50 years from now because the majority of people existing today in the third world, where populations have exploded, are less than 16 years old. Even if we reduced the fertility of people now to two kids per family, we would still reach 10 billion in 45 years. It's mathematical; there is nothing we can do… But we can do one big thing: Open our arms and say to these 10 billion people, "Welcome to this Earth." We have to prepare living space for them. We will have to modify our own way of living so that they can share the joy of living and the dignity of being a human being. It's a monumental task for us now!
Cousteau once estimated that the planet could only support 700 million people living "with the income, purchasing power, and amenities enjoyed by the average American." In light of continuing evidence that Americans are among the most depressed and discontented people on the planet, I find it a bit ironic that Cousteau held up the American standard of living as the global ideal. If conservation is the end goal, and the average American consumes 20 times the natural resources as the average Bangladeshi (as Cousteau asserts), why aspire to be like Americans at all? Wouldn't we Americans do better to learn from the more modest lifestyles of the world around us? And shouldn't Christians be the the ones setting an example of consuming less and giving more?
Returning to the Bill of Rights for Future Generations, I'd like to draw your attention to its final article. It reads:
Article 5. Governments, non-governmental organizations, and the individuals are urged, therefore, imaginatively to implement these principles (the preservation of earth as the ground of human history, culture, freedom & dignity), as if in the very presence of those future generations whose rights we seek to establish and perpetuate.
Do you see what's being said? Future generations have rights, even before they are born, and the decisions we make each day should be made as if those future generations were standing here in the flesh. We have a moral obligation to act in the best interest of the generations yet unborn. Without question, there are many preservationists in the world today who see no disconnect between their support of abortion and their commitment to preserving the planet for future generations. Abortion, to them, is a means of preserving the environment for future generations. But here's the problem with such thinking. Abortion is sold under the guise that it doesn't actually kill a person. It kills a pre-person. Such thinking is dubious on many levels, but even if you refuse to concede that abortion kills a person, you have to at least concede that it kills a member of the future generation – the very group of people that Ted Turner and others are ostensibly out to protect. And if the goal of environmental conservation is to preserve the planet for future generations, what an absurdity to suggest that abortion is a way of accomplishing that. Abortion either kills a living, human person or it kills a member of the future generation. There is no other option to choose from, and both of these groups have a legitimate claim on our protection.
For a time, Jacques Cousteau was the most recognizable man on the planet, but he was not without his detractors. He is to be commended, his grandson tells us, for his willingness to think differently and challenge the status quo. Hearing that, I couldn't help but think about the parallels that exist between Cousteau's work and our own. According to Jean-Michel, the great life-lesson he learned from his father is that people protect what they love. The Cousteaus fell in love with the sea and then devoted their lives to protecting it. "But you cannot protect what you don't understand," Jean-Michel reminds us, and so Cousteau invested countless hours into research and education. The reason Cousteau was so successful, according to one National Geographic researcher, is because he was able to distill what science knew and take it to the public. He exposed an entire world to unseen threats that few were aware of and few wanted to think about. But he did it in a way that was accessible and compelling. In the words of my aunt, Jacques Cousteau was able to "concentrate information" and "funnel it into our imagination" – which is precisely what Abort73 is trying to do in the context of abortion. Famed ocean photographer, Bob Talbot, suggests that if Cousteau were alive today, he would urge us to "move [beyond] what's comfortable to what's effective" – advice that opponents of abortion would also do well to heed. Former Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, is another of the public figures to be interviewed for the Cousteau documentary, and I'll close with his tribute to the captain. Cousteau's genius, Gorbachev tells us, is his recognition that, "if we don't have a peace for all, we're not going to have any peace at all."
Michael Spielman is the founder and director of Abort73.com. His book, Love the Least (A Lot), is available as a free download. You can also find him on Facebook and Google+. Abort73 is part of Loxafamosity Ministries, a 501c3, Christian education corporation. If you have been helped by the information available at Abort73.com, please consider making a donation.