The Children We Should Avoid Having

from the New York Times, 10/16/11
In my procreative ethics class this week, the issue is whether there are children we should avoid creating, and what means of avoidance are ethically permissible.  We are talking about pre-conception counseling, pre-implantation diagnosis, and prenatal tests like amniocentesis (followed by abortion).  To make the issues vivid, we are also talking about specific diseases, disorders, and disabilities.  And to make all that vivid, we are watching short video clips--like this clip of conjoined twins and some clips from the show Little People, Big World

The clips make the whole issue of selective procreation very uncomfortable--but maybe in a useful way.   Who would want to say that any real, live person on screen has a life "not worth living," or has such dim prospects that their existence makes the world a worse place (to use an expression from Jonathan Glover's book Choosing Children).  Just watching these clips makes you feel the force of the expressivist objection to selective reproduction, the objection that says selectiveness denigrates those who actually have the conditions that selective people are trying to avoid.

But then, how does it denigrate them?  I avoid car accidents that might lead me or my family members to wind up with missing limbs, or blinded, or paralyzed. Nobody would think it was an insult to people in these conditions to try to prevent more people from being in the same condition.  If I showed a video of a quadruple amputee, so students could see what the condition is like, and then we talked about the ethics of war, nobody would take this to be insulting to amputees.  We can both want to avoid more people having a condition, and accept, respect, and accommodate people with the condition.

The question, though, is whether those two attitudes are compatible, if the means of avoidance is not conceiving a child to begin with, or disposing of an embryo, or having an abortion.  They are clearly in tension, but not (I suspect) really incompatible.  A moving editorial in today's New York Times makes that clear.  Emily Rapp writes movingly about her child Ronan, who has Tay Sachs disease (picture, above).  She treasures the child, who is expected to die of the condition by the age of three. But she writes openly of having had two prenatal tests for Tay Sachs (false negatives, both times).  You can want to prevent a certain kind of child from being born, but that doesn't at all mean rejecting or denigrating the child once he or she is born. This may be odd and hard to fathom, but it's true.


Anonymous said...

I think we're simply not able to have clear intuition about these situations. We cannot avoid thinking about possible people as if they were actual people. It is like the free will illusion. We can look at all the data and all the logic, but still can't shake the feeling away. I completely agree with you on the points you make. The tension we feel is an illusion, but a very persistent one

Wayne said...

Maybe there is a more fundamental problem about the nature of harm going on here. We're used to thinking of harm as being inflicted upon a subject, that the subject needs to be aware of the harm that is being done to it, etc.

But that's only the most obvious form of harm. Perhaps the other harm, can best be seen in some people's arguments about animals in captivity. Animals in captivity (I'm thinking pets here) aren't usually being harmed directly. But they are being deprived of wilderness, or their natural setting (assume that they can survive in this, and would be relatively happy).

So abortions deprive fetuses or potential people of life, but also prevent another kind of harm from eventuating, the harm of their disability or medical condition.

To argue that they have a life worth living, or not have a life worth living, I think is ultimately hopeless, since this is a subjective thing. I get to determine if my life is worth living, since it necessarily is a function of what I value. If I don't value being tall, then being a little person isn't particularly harmful... If I value playing basketball, and my life revolved around basketball completely and utterly, then it might make my life not worth living, if I were paralyzed from the waist down.

Anonymous said...

A very eloquent statement of a position I have argued many times in the past, with limited success. In every case, the threads broke down due to a few very emotional people who'd convinced themselves beyond any argument that I was claiming that their treasured, congenitally-disabled sibling didn't deserve to live. Probably my own fault in one case, because of my wording: i.e. nobody deserves to be disabled.

Personally, my wife and I had every possible test done before the birth of each of our two children. We agreed that if there was any serious defect, we'd abort immediately. My own rationale for this is that if I had knowingly brought a badly disabled child into the world, I'd feel just as responsible as if I'd inflicted that disability deliberately - because, in a way, I would have. Intellectually disabled? I'd feel just as culpable as if I'd taken a baseball bat to my newborn's head. Physically disabled? Same feeling, different body part.