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Anencephalics, Humanity, and Respect

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.

  1. cass
  2. Janet Singer
    June 6th, 2009 at 22:47 | #2

    I don’t know about the use of the word “soul” if it is intended to set us apart from the rest of life. As you point out,

    “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 reminds me that humans are part of a larger, teeming universe, and that we mostly do a terrible job of remembering and respecting that.”

    That’s beautifully put. That is the profound sense that I got from looking at those images. Not much more can be said.

  3. Philboyd Studge
    June 8th, 2009 at 16:54 | #3

    “…when babies without cognitive capacities appear, thinking of them as similar to other animals with lower cognition can lead to a cold place.”

    Wait! Does this mean I have to show respect for the writers in The Corner?

  4. Cheerful Iconoclast
    June 8th, 2009 at 17:54 | #4

    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.

  5. Russell
    June 8th, 2009 at 19:17 | #5

    With respect, I agree with Iconoclast, and 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.

  6. CLF
    June 8th, 2009 at 21:57 | #6

    I found your blog through Sullivan, who I read regularly. I found your original post refreshing and rational. (And the comments that I read were also. Haven’t checked the thread recently.)

    Anyway, it 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.

    As for the letters that Sullivan is posting about late term abortions, I ask: Where has he been for the last 30 years? These types of stories are nothing new. It amazes me that he is just now discovering that (surprise!) women who have late term abortions are not some evil monsters.

    The fact that Sullivan, while he has been moved by these tales, still can’t seem to bring himself to support a woman’s right to choose makes me think that perhaps it is he who lacks “soul.”

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