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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.

The Blame Game?

March 2nd, 2009 No comments

A reader (well known to your author) had some insightful comments on “The Name Game” post, which he graciously agreed to allow me to share with you.

Herewith:”For what it’s worth; I’ve always referred to you (the blogger) as [my fiance’s]’s cousin’s husband. It seems that aside from the negative connotation of “husbandry” it is the most fitting name. It’s the only name that adequately describes your relationship. Your ‘spouse’ is the person you list on insurance forms and tax documents – is lacks all emotion. ‘Partner’ leaves one wondering if you’re referring to your business or your tennis game. (Blogger’s note: My tennis partners would probably have a few other words to describe me.) It certainly doesn’t imply a committed, loving relationship.

“It seems to me that an important (the most important?) part of equality resides in the minds of people. People think in words so names are powerful. I guess what I’m saying is that equal rights may be a crucial part of this struggle but I think it all pivots on (and starts with) an idea. People need to say to themselves: ‘Why doesn’t his husband have the same rights as my wife?’

“Speaking of names: There has to be a name for what’s going on here. If you don’t believe in equal rights (and treatment) for another race you are a racist. So, what are you if you don’t believe in equal rights for gay people? Perhaps two can play the name game.”

OK, let’s play the Blame Game. Obviously the writer doesn’t think “homophobe” suffices — and neither do I. The term does capture something vital, because in many (most? all?) cases those opposing equality for the LGBT community are operating from a place of fear. But there’s also a kind of mean-spiritedness to some of it that can’t be fully explained by the “fear” trope.One colleague and I were discussing this very issue last week. He has recently been thinking about the ancient roots of this animus against homosexuality (as we discussed, the word “anima” itself is a primitive expression).

So what is the source of this anti-gay feeling? Is it nothing more than a socio-biological expression of the need to reproduce? And if so (piling speculation upon speculation now), why does it persist in the face if radically different circumstances? What would be required to extirpate it?Any suggestions for a new term? Please, no vulgarities.    

Categories: biology, Civil Rights, Gay Rights Tags: , , , , , , ,