Intergenerational Amnesia

Suppose a 10 year old child had a life-threatening illness that could only be cured at the cost of amnesia. She would lose all memory of her first 10 years, but go on living. It would be bad to forget her early years, but surely worth it to stay alive.  I think we should say roughly the same thing about the practice of saving babies' lives by placing "baby boxes" hear hospitals. When a desperate mother abandons her baby, the baby loses all chance of knowing her origins, but gets to go on living (infanticide is prevented), and will hopefully be adopted by a loving family.  There's a loss, but it's worth it.  Given that characterization, it makes sense to try to change attitudes, so that mothers don't feel compelled to furtively abandon their babies, but instead either keep them or relinquish them in open adoptions.  That would be better for the children, it seems to me.

Charlotte Witt takes a different position on baby boxes here.  She contests Article 8 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been invoked against baby boxes: "States Parties undertake to respect the right of the child to preserve his or her identity, including nationality, name and family relations." To my ear, "undertakes to respect" is rather mild.  You could "undertake to respect" the right in question, and still have a system of baby boxes, justifying it by saying in that particular case, saving lives takes priority.  But  Article 8 does postulate a right to know about one's origins (in so many words), and Witt objects.  The alleged ground of the right, she says, is that knowing your family of origin is "central to the healthy formation of identity." So (this is her gloss) one needs to know one's family of origin to form a health sense of identity.  But that's not so, she argues. To the extent that we gain a sense of identity by knowing what we got from our parents and grandparents, they could equally well be custodial, not genetic, parents and grandparents.

I don't know about the idea that there's a psychological need to know one's origins. Do mental health experts really think we're impaired by not knowing anything about our biological parents? But most people do deeply care about their origins.  This is not a matter of just caring about our genes. You couldn't get a genome map of yourself, and thereby dispense with the need to know who your parents and grandparents are.  In caring about our origins we care about our ... origins.  Where we came from, who our progenitors were. This is like wanting to know who created a painting, or who was the author of a novel.  Knowing origins can tell you more about the person, painting, or novel, but is also of independent interest. We want to know where things came from. Period. This seems like a fundamental and not irrational desire.

The person who starts life in a baby box will, like most of us, have a desire to know her own origins. Now "knowing my origins" is a sufficiently elastic concept that we could know a lot by knowing about our custodial parents, grandparents, teachers, nannies, or whoever was closely involved in our lives.  But most of us also want to know our origins in the strictly biological sense.  We'd be missing an important piece of the puzzle about ourselves if we didn't know who our biological parents (and grandparents) were.  It's unfortunate, then, to start life in a baby box--not worse than not living at all, but worse than starting life in a position to know about one's biological origins. Or so it seems to me.

Is this position "bionormative" in some pernicious sense? That seems to be Witt's view.  She seems to think attaching value to knowledge of origins gives some sort of special status to families formed in the standard, biology-based fashion.  But I think biology is normative in some ways.  We all really think so, as evidenced by our intuitions about the following two puzzles.
Puzzle #1 When a child is born, the biological parents are entitled to custody even if they have vastly worse potential to give her a good life than candidates for adoption. Imagine a refugee camp in Chad, where babies are born in abysmal conditions.  Child mortality rates are high.  People can easily live in the camps for decades.  International Rescue Committee workers visit the camp regularly and could take babies home with them, to raise in western health and affluence.  If it's "bionormative" to say refugees are entitled to keep their children, then bionormativity is not to be dispensed with. Biology does in fact enter into determining which adult is entitled to custody of which child.

Puzzle #2  Now imagine a biological parent in that refugee camp who does decide to give up her child for adoption to one of the visiting workers.  There are several candidates, and from a detached, objective standpoint, it's pretty clear who would be better able to provide the child with a good home.  Does the biological parent get to decide between them?  The answer, surely, is yes. And that's "bionormative"--again, the biological facts enter into who is entitled to decide between the candidates.  
Norms are sometimes rooted in biology, so it's not an automatic demerit for a position to be "bionormative".  Bionormative as this judgment may be, it does seem unfortunate to start off in life with "intergenerational amnesia"--permanently unable to know anything about our biological origins.


Craig Urias said...

Of all the sentences in Witt's article, the most wrong one was highlighted in big red letters!

"There is no evidence of serious harm to children who don't know their biological or genetic origins."

But it's obviously true that not knowing one's biological origins can cause serious harm. A genetic disease could go unrecognized and untreated. And almost every patient answers questions like, "Is there a history of [cancer, heart disease, depression, etc] in your family?" It's possible that not knowing the answers to those questions could lead to an incorrect or delayed diagnosis.

There are so many "bionormative" aspects of our ethical intuitions that are, at root, "unfair". Not just Riddles #1 and #2, but almost any situation involving biological parents and children.

Parents won't hesitate to pay tens of thousands of dollars for medical procedures when their child's life or well-being is at stake, while spending the same amount of money in the third world would likely save the lives of many children. According to rehydrate.org, a child dies of diarrhea every 26 seconds. On paper it's impossible to justify the parents' decision to save their child -- the decision is even absurd. But who wants to live in a world where parents don't save their children?

Craig Urias said...

Jean, this reminded me of the reaction you got to a post a while back, though the specific post eludes me. Anyway I thought you might relate.