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Empathy for “Entities”?

July 29th, 2010 3 comments

The controversy continues, as it must. I recently explored the issue of late-term abortions through a sort of thought experiment, asking whether anencephalics were “human” in any meaningful sense. A couple of posts later, and after a discussion about the point here at home and an internet-mediated exchange with Andrew Sullivan (see here, here, here, and here), I answered my own question — they are human and entitled to respect.

My readers mostly disagreed. Here are some of their responses to my rethinking:

“I think your initial comment was correct, and that you are silly to back down to Andrew Sullivan’s emotional bleating. What makes us human is our brain. A “baby” with no brain isn’t human in any real or significant sense of the term.

“Aborting such an entity raises none of the moral questions raised by aborting a fetus that already has the cognitive equipment of a human, or which will have such cognitive equipment in the near future.

“Yeah, the entities look vaguely human, but they have no brain, dude. They’re not entitled to any respect or empathy, because there’s nothing there to empathize with. You might as well have empathy for your desk lamp.”

This next reader agreed, eloquently:

“[I]…disagree with Sullivan. It’s important to distinguish between empathy, which requires something similar enough that we can imagine what it is like to be that other, from the emotional response to something that is physically similar to us. People cry at funerals, but that corpse is not another person. People sometimes imagine what it is like to be dead and in a coffin, but that of course is a pretense. The fact that our animal brains are cued by a corpse’s appearance to the person who once was doesn’t change that fact. Nor is a brain-dead corpse a person, even if the heart and lung are kept beating by modern medical technology. For all it might look like the person who once was, it isn’t. Nor is an anencephalic infant a person. In all three cases, the appearance of another human organism can tug at our heartstrings and cause us to imagine there is someone there. But there isn’t.”

Finally, this reader, who expressed disappointment in my change of heart:

“I found your original post refreshing and rational….”

“[I]t seems like you’re backing down now. All I can say is I wish you wouldn’t. You shouldn’t have to back down from asking a thoughtful question.”

Thanks to these readers and to others for their comments. Just a few additional thoughts seem in order.

I’d like to think I didn’t “back down,” which suggests some kind of intimidation. (Is anyone really intimidated, short of a threat of litigation or violence, on the internet?) No, I had a change of heart, upon reflection. My earlier position was lifted, more or less intact, from my days as a philosophy student. But I’m no longer than person, and —  when pushed — I discovered that my views had changed, probably without my realizing it. I will confess that when I originally wrote that anencephalics weren’t human in the sense that mattered to me, it didn’t feel…right. There’s a difference in making a logically sound argument and believing it in your bones.

Nor did I — or do I — apologize for asking the question. Just because I ended up answering it differently than I or my readers expected doesn’t mean it was wrong to ask it. Judging from the intellectual firestorm this issue has generated, it seems that my raising it was a great thing.

Of course, I’ve gone back to read my “change of heart post” with Talmudic scrutiny. And I find that I never said that I had “empathy” for anencephalics; the readers’ comments suggest why that term isn’t descriptive. I did say that they are entitled to respect, and I’d say that whether or not I thought they were “human.” As I also stated in that later post (and with apology for quoting myself):

“[P]art of the problem is that we generally afford so little respect to other species that when babies without cognitive capacities appear, thinking of them as similar to other animals with lower cognition can lead to a cold place. For me, then, this conversation is a reminder that humans are part of a larger, teeming universe, and that we mostly do a terrible job of remembering and respecting that.”

Finally, I want to bring this conversation back to the women carrying these unfortunate offspring. I think we can agree that they are entitled to respect and empathy. (Here’s Sullivan’s collection of the stories, current as of about a week ago, just in case you need an empathy boost.) Their view of an anencephalic is entitled to respect, and to our deepest empathy: Can any of us really know how we’d feel (or act) in such a situation? And how might we want our own decisions treated in such a case?

As an staunch member of the pro-choice community, it’s important to keep in mind that some have made moving decisions not to abort, even in these cases. Most seem to do so for religious reasons, but…whatever. There should be enough respect go to around.

Anencephalics, Humanity, and Respect

July 28th, 2010 6 comments

For awhile, I wish I’d never written on anencephaly. My first clue should have been that I didn’t know how to describe these unfortunate children, born without most of their brains. Since one of my points was to raise the issue of what counts as humanity, I didn’t want to answer my own question by calling them “babies”; at one point, I used the clinical term entity, which drew a criticism from Andrew Sullivan (one that I now largely accept, as I’ll soon discuss).

Several WordinEdgewise readers commented on the issue, with most taking the position that anencephalics prove the point that “human” is really just a category that we use for our own purposes; by creating anencephalics, the universe is reminding us that it doesn’t care about our efforts at taxonomy. One reader invited me and others to take a look at some of the images of anencephalics, and I did. I had planned on posting a couple of these here, but decided that it could too easily be taken as a kind of pornography. Those who are curious about exactly what these tragic babies look like can go to Google images.

I’d really just wanted to raise the issue in the context of the late-term abortion controversy so respectfully unfolding over at the Daily Dish. But the whole discussion has been valuable to me, and I hope to others, as I sort through the intractable complexity of these issues that are so central to our humanity. One immediate result was a conversation with my spouse, David, who is the one in the family with true empathy. He was astonished that I’d even raised the question of the humanity of anencephalics, uninterested in the logical case I was able to build for that possible conclusion. Eschewing metaphysical terms like “soul,” he simply stated that these babies were entitled to respect.

It’s really impossible for me to argue with that. I realized that part of the problem is that we generally afford so little respect to other species that when babies without cognitive capacities appear, thinking of them as similar to other animals with lower cognition can lead to a cold place. For me, then, this conversation is a reminder that humans are part of a larger, teeming universe, and that we mostly do a terrible job of remembering and respecting that.

But there’s more to it than our connection with other species. Logic only gets one so far. I’m not religious, but perhaps the combination of being a bit older and having kids of my own makes me realize that membership in the human race, defined broadly enough to include anencephalics, is important — even if I can’t exactly say why. Maybe it’s just the way we’re wired. (Ask Edmund O. Wilson, or some other brilliant and delightfully controversial sociobiologist.)

And every one of us is entitled to respect, which is at least to say serious consideration in any moral decision. That doesn’t necessarily lead to any particular conclusion; it may be that respecting the interest of an anencephalic, or other grossly deformed fetus, is to abort. It seems to me that reasonable people can disagree here, and it also seems to me apparent that the humility of uncertainty requires giving the woman carrying this life — who, it should go without saying, is also entitled to respect — the right to resolve these impossible  questions according to her best judgment.

I still don’t believe in the “soul,” or any such dreamed-up construct. But there’s a kind of poetry of the shorthand in the term, as it captures something vital about our shared humanity. As long as it’s not used as a trump card, it can be used to express the ineffable.

2009: A Year of Blogging Obsessively (300 Posts and Counting)

December 31st, 2009 No comments

Well, I have a few minutes before family and friends return to sweep me away in a haze of New Year’s Eve partying. (Of course, with young children “a haze of partying” ends well before midnight. We can do a faux countdown with them.)

To all of the readers — regular and occasional — who have supported this blog over the past year: THANK YOU! And let me wish you all a Happy New Year several hours early (from my EST perspective, of course). When I began this blog almost a year ago (Jan. 6, 2009), I promised myself I’d give it one year and then decide whether it was something I wanted to continue. I’d expected it would be fun and engaging, and it has been. What I didn’t expect was how…obsessive it would become. This marks post 301! And it’s not like I don’t have anything else to do: a full-time teaching and writing job; an administrative position; and a busy family life. I haven’t even taken a week off.

So I’m still striving to find the right balance for the blog, and will be thinking about these issues in the upcoming days and weeks in my life. And I AM going to take next week off, at least mostly. While I’m doing that, I would welcome (as always) your thoughts on individual posts, yes, but also on the blog. What can I do to make it more interesting and engaging? Do you like the “all topics” approach? Should I add some regular or recurring features? Other ideas?

Apparently, the old year can’t end without some kind of list. And, hubristically, I’m going to list posts from this very blog — in part because some readers have “just come in,” and catching up is an investment most people haven’t the time or inclination to make. I wouldn’t either. But here are few, listed by category, that I think you might enjoy: Either because I’ve gotten good response to them, or because I just think they’re better than most of the others. So enjoy — or don’t!

Let’s start with the lighter stuff. Here are my favorites among the pieces that were mostly intended to be amusing (with or without a more serious point):

Ten Items or Fewer

The Mesh of the Edmund Fitzgerald (or, Substitutiary Locomotion)

Floating Like a (Meta)Butterfly

How Could He Say That?

This angry post generated many links and was commented on extensively throughout the net. I’d like to think (delusionally) that it played some small part in the Obama Administration’s decision to be less incendiary in subsequent briefs:

DOMA Defense? It’s Worse than You Think

And then:

DOJ Files Reply Brief (which, I think, showed that pressure works)

I was honored to be a guest-blogger on Michael Ginsborg’s invaluable site, Prop 8 and the Right to Marry, where I posted a four-part series on the issue of religious exemptions to recognizing same-sex marriages.  It also generated a post by Dale Carpenter (on the Volokh Conspiracy) analyzing my core proposal. The proposal generated well over 100 comments:

No Gay Couples Allowed

(You can also jump to my series on Michael’s site from this post.)

A great joy to me was the engagement by Andrew Sullivan over at the Atlantic’s Daily Dish, one of the most engaging and influential blogs out there. We had an especially animated exchange on the issue of late-term abortion. I found, to my pleasant surprise, that I’m still capable of changing my views in response to thoughtful consideration of an issue.

Empathy for Entities will allow you to walk back through the exchange. (Or just choose the “abortion” category from the left side of the home page.)

Finally, there were the posts that used episodes from my life to illuminate some larger point. Among those, these three were my favorites:

The Woozy Blogger (Questions the Entire Medical Profession)

Forms Over Substance

Three Stories About Swimming

Well, they’re at the door. Happy New Year to all!!

John Culhane