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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.

Certainties? If Only

July 26th, 2010 2 comments

Responding to my first post on the subject of late-term abortions, Andrew Sullivan takes issue with me on anencephalic fetuses (i.e., those whose brains will not develop to enable cognition, and most of whom will die shortly after birth). In the context of questioning his opposition to late-term abortions even in such cases, I had asked whether anencephalics are “human” in a morally relevant sense. After a long quote from me (see the earlier post), here’s his response:

“I am just aware that another human life is at stake here and I find describing such infants as “entities”, as Culhane does, misses an essential fact about them: their soul and their humanity. Our view of what is human “in the sense that matters to me” is where we differ. From reading the emails, it seems the mothers are actually closer to my conflicts than Culhane’s certainties.”

Yeah, I did describe them as “entities,” recognizing of course the response it would likely (and with some justification) elicit. But I did so because to have referred to them as “babies” or “humans” would have begged the very question I was seeking to raise, somewhat in the spirit of a thought experiment: What does it mean to be human? I don’t know, and I’m not even “certain” that even these most tragic figures shouldn’t have at least some rights. But why? What makes us human? Should we accord rights to anencephalics even if we decide, pace Sullivan, they’re not human in some morally relevant sense? If so, why? And, right to the point, should these rights outweigh those of the mother who makes the painful decision to terminate her pregnancy under such circumstances?

These complex issue vex moral philosophers, and I make no claim to certainty. So, to the extent that my point was presented syllogistically, I went further than I should have.

On the subject of certainty, though, what about Sullivan’s citing of the “fact” that humans have souls? And their humanity, while it would likely be debated by fewer people, isn’t a “fact” either, but a proposition in need of argument. Otherwise it’s an article of faith (yes, that kind) — take it or leave it.

Let me end this on a more conciliatory note: After yesterday’s post, I continued reading the many Dish entries on the issue; as I said earlier today, I was taken aback by the stories of the women who’d undergone late-term abortions and by Sullivan’s obviously  sympathetic view of their situation. That remains true. Whatever our disagreements about  abortion (in the abstract or otherwise), the Dish has contributed an important element to the often dispiriting debate: nuance.

Beginnings of Life, Impossible Issues

July 24th, 2010 4 comments

I’ve got two somewhat related topics to discuss today. Let’s start with the unpleasant subject of late-term abortions: On Keith Olbermann’s “Countdown” last night,1 Andrew Sullivan said that he was moved by the tragic testimonials of those who’d had such abortions when faced with the prospect of giving birth to seriously disabled children, some of whom were destined to live very short, painful lives. Yet virtually in the same sentence, he added that he opposes late-term abortions; he later reiterated that statement in the Daily Dish, in the most sympathetic way I’ve ever read:

“I am immensely grateful to those readers who have shared such personal, painful experiences with such candor and open hearts. I have to say that I remain somewhat shaken by the emails…. They reminded me of the human beings behind these tragedies, and forced me to reassess my own certainties and beliefs. I still cannot in good conscience support these abortions; but I can offer my profound gratitude for the readers who have forced this blogger to see things I had not fully grasped so keenly before; and to return to them respect and empathy in the particulars, even while we may disagree in the abstract.” (emphasis added)

I’m not clear as to whether he believes that such abortions should in all cases be illegal, or that he can’t support them morally. In either case, though: Why? Why doesn’t that empathy, so eloquently expressed, translate into a change in the “abstract”?

Let’s take the most extreme case, as the statement in opposition isn’t qualified in any way: A woman is to give birth to an anencephalic, a (human?) being without a functioning brain, or perhaps with nothing but a brain stem. What justifies the abstract position against abortion in this case? We’re talking about an entity that will live for only a few hours, often, and which isn’t human in the sense that matters to me from the point of view of moral philosophy: as a rights holder. Without any capacity for functioning beyond the most primitive, the anencephalic can’t be distinguished from other species to which we afford far less sympathetic (sentimental?) treatment.  I do think the cases are different, somehow, but it’s hard to say why. Is this tragic being one of us? Are we so clear about that to oppose a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy that will have this result, with the visual image of this unfortunate being likely to be seared into her brain forever?

To his credit, Sullivan acknowledged that in some of these cases the women’s lives will also be placed at risk. Yet his position was stated without an exception to cover such cases, thereby placing him beyond even those who favor legislation prohibiting late-term abortions, where such exceptions are routine. (I’d welcome a contrary clarification, of course.)

On the subject of tragic lives, what should the law do about a sperm bank that negligently fails to screen its donors for various kinds of genetic abnormalities, and then sells the “product” to a woman whose child then ends up seriously disabled? I’m about to be interviewed on this very subject (by WHYY, the local Philadelphia affiliate of NPR) later this afternoon. The woman’s claim, which likely would have focused on the increased expenses of raising and caring for such a child, was barred by the statute of limitations, but her daughter — now a teen with serious mental disabilities — is able to sue, as the statute doesn’t start to run against kids until they achieve majority.

But what are the child’s damages? Her “choices” were this life, or none. Can she sue for something called “wrongful life”? Most states say no, and go all metaphysical in the knees: “It’s impossible to weigh even an impaired life against the inky void of utter non-existence, only God knows, etc.” Is this child a “defective product”? What a horrible thing to say, to think. But if she can’t raise a claim, where’s the accountability?

As a parent of young twins with my own difficult story to tell (but I’m not going to), all of this makes me uneasy. How do we respect life without being (effectively, if not intentionally) punitive?

Originally published on June 2, 2009

  1. The link will take you to the video, too.