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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.

Props

July 27th, 2010 1 comment

Since I posted yesterday on my puzzlement over Andrew Sullivan‘s unwillingness to support late-term abortions despite his obvious and eloquent empathy, he’s continued to post heart-stopping testimonials from readers about their own experiences. Then I was brought up short by his just-issued post:

“A reader writes:

The posts from real women who have had to ponder and in some cases have late-term abortions has really changed my thinking.  It may be the early term abortions that are most morally problematic, not the late term ones that arise under the most excruciating of circumstances.  My own feeling is that our moral duty is to agonize and struggle over the serious choices we make, not always to make the usually unknowable “right” choice.  By this standard, the women you have posted have more than done their duty.  I would not want to second guess them.

Thank you for posting these messages, and especially thanks to the people who wrote them and were willing to have them posted.  Just as gays coming out and being known destigmatizes you and them, getting these abortion stories out takes away the cartoon quality of the whole abortion debate.  There just is very little black and white in the world and loads of gray.

“My feelings entirely.”

The blogosphere is often seen — sometimes caricatured — as thousands of loud partisans screaming at each other, with few listening to what others are saying. Read over the last few days of the Daily Dish, especially on this abortion issue, and be heartened.

Originally published on June 3, 2010

Categories: abortion Tags: ,

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.

How Full the Glass?

May 28th, 2009 No comments

As I explained in my two posts on the Prop 8 decision (analyzing the majority and dissenting opinions), I was disheartened by the court’s retreat from the principle of equality it had so eloquently championed in In Re Marriage Cases. Dale Carpenter, among others, agrees with me on at least this point.

Not everyone sees the glass so empty, though. A regular reader invited me to comment on this reaction, from one of Andrew Sullivan’s readers:

“Have been through the Prop 8 opinion and dissents. It appears that this is a blockbuster pro-gay-rights decision, restricting the effect of Prop 8 to the effect of removing the designation of gay civil unions as ‘marriage,’ but upholding all equal rights previously declared by the Court; and, suggesting that if the opponents of gay rights were to try to restrict equal union rights for gays by constitutional change, such change would be an Amendment (not a revision) and thus would be procedurally much more difficult to accomplish.

“Being able to lay claim to the word ‘marriage’ is important, but in all other respects this appears to be a spectacular decision in favor of gay rights.

“The decision leaves intact the holding of the Marriage Cases that gays have the fundamental ‘right to marry’ under the California constitution, now and in the future; but unless and until the California constitution is again amended to the contrary, such unions cannot be called marriage.

“Opponents of gay civil union rights could try another ballot initiative to expressly amend the constitution to ban such rights, but under the Court’s ruling, that proposed amendment would have to ban such rights expressly to be effective. The Court’s opinion makes clear that generally, amendments will not be interpreted to repeal constitutional rights by implication. The disfavor of repeal by implication is a longstanding legal principle, and the Court’s use of it here is a deft way of sending this issue back to the political process while upholding gay civil union rights for the foreseeable future.  Under this approach by the Court, opponents of gay civil union rights would have to word any future proposed amendments in such a way as to expressly ban gay civil union rights, and as a result, their ability to secure a sufficient number of petition signatures to get the amendment on the ballot, and then a majority of votes at the polls, will be all the more difficult.

“This is a very, very good day for the cause of gay marriage rights.”

I think the nub of our disagreement is this: I’m concerned about the constitutional implications of the court’s willingness to jettison the principle of true equality based on a simple majority vote (even though, it must be said, there is some precedential support for its holding), while this reader sees things from a practical standpoint: All of the rights are still intact, and any effort to further limit them will have to be carefully crafted. Moreover, the court will read any restrictions very strictly, and might even be unwilling to support further compromises to equality.

This reader is probably right as to most of the above. But as I’ve stated, I don’t know (nor can anyone) how far the court would be willing to go in supporting more far-reaching restrictions on the rights of the GLBT community, including revoking domestic partnership protections. Indeed, the majority expressly stated that it was not going to decide that issue. The court is doubtless hoping it won’t have to deal with a “parade of horribles,” but hope is hardly a sound principle for constitutional decision-making. In my view, the court’s actions revealed principle to be rhetoric, expendable at the first sign of trouble (read: the prospect that the justices might not be retained when they next appear on the ballot).

Now comes the federal lawsuit. More on this presently.

Andrew Sullivan’s “Familiar Feeling” — and a Qualified Defense of Obama

May 14th, 2009 No comments

Well, we’re not even four months into the Obama Administration and already the LGBT community is frustrated at the pace of developments. And, really, who can blame us, after the betrayals of the Clinton Administration and the hostility of his successor who-must-not-be-named? Here’s Andrew Sullivan, in a sobering and angry piece on the Atlantic website (“The Fierce Urgency of Whenever”):

“I have a sickeningly familiar feeling in my stomach, and the feeling deepens with every interaction with the Obama team on these issues. They want them to go away. They want us to go away.

“Here we are, in the summer of 2009, with gay servicemembers still being fired for the fact of their orientation. Here we are, with marriage rights spreading through the country and world and a president who cannot bring himself even to acknowledge these breakthroughs in civil rights, and having no plan in any distant future to do anything about it at a federal level. Here I am, facing a looming deadline to be forced to leave my American husband for good, and relocate abroad because the HIV travel and immigration ban remains in force and I have slowly run out of options (unlike most non-Americans with HIV who have no options at all).

“And what is Obama doing about any of these things? What is he even intending at some point to do about these things? So far as I can read the administration, the answer is: nada. We’re firing Arab linguists? So sorry. We won’t recognize in any way a tiny minority of legally married couples in several states because they’re, ugh, gay? We had no idea. There’s a ban on HIV-positive tourists and immigrants? Really? Thanks for letting us know.”

Steve Sanders over at Sexual Orientation and the Law Blog expands on the point, noting that some of the things Obama’s promised to do might be accomplished without legislative action; arguably, he already has the executive authority to stop the discharges under the completely indefensible “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

These points are fair, and we’re right to be concerned about both the pace of change and, perhaps as important, the weakening or outright disappearance of rhetorical commitment on central issues, such as federal civil unions; the Employment Non-Discrimination Act; and the repeal of  DADT. But the story isn’t this simple.

Sullivan himself is of two minds on this, as are many of us. He prefaces the eviscerating remarks quoted above with the following:

“[I]t’s tedious to whine and jump up and down and complain when a wand isn’t waved and everything is made right by the first candidate who really seemed to get it, who was even able to address black church congregations about homophobia. And obviously patience is necessary; and legislative work takes time; and there are real challenges on so many fronts….No one expects a president to be grappling with all this early on, or, God help us, actually leading on civil rights. That’s our job, not his.”

So, where are we and how concerned should we be?

Let me start with Sullivan’s “familiar feeling.” I’m less concerned than he is (of course, I’m not about to get kicked out of the country, either), principally because Clinton and Obama are so different, tempermentally. Clinton, for all of his obvious intelligence, was in many ways an incautious, borderline reckless, man: “I’ll just issue an order allowing gays into the military. What could be hard about that?” Obama’s endlessly analyzed personality is that of the careful incrementalist, who listens to all parties, decides on a course of action (and sometimes reconsiders his position, as with yesterday’s about-face on the release of prisoner abuse photos), and then works patiently and tirelessly for consensus. Anyone who could herd the divas on the Harvard Law Review has some accomplishment to commend his approach.

So what looks the same from one perspective — the lack of progress on gays in the military — may be quite different in underlying significance. We don’t know what Obama is doing (or thinking) behind the scenes, but I’m willing to bet it’s…something.

Not exactly reassuring, is it? I don’t have any way of verifying my suspicion on this issue, and I might be totally off. (I really hope not. DADT is just nuts; made even more so now that same-sex couples can marry or civilly unite. That legal act is now a ground for discharge under the policy. My next post will be of a conversation I had with the unceremoniously brilliant Alex Nicholson, the founder of an organization dedicated to repealing the policy, Service Members United.)

But there is movement. Let’s put this into context. For approximately forever, the only traction gay issues had at the federal level had been as a wedge issue — against us. I’m talking about DADT and the Defense of Marriage Act, not to mention the Federal Marriage Amendment (which never had a chance of passage but was conveniently unsheathed whenever an election loomed), and of course the epidemiologically and ethically indefensible ban on HIV-positive immigrants.

Now we have a gay-inclusive hate crimes bill set to pass and be enacted into law, likely quite soon. (I don’t agree that this is entirely symbolic; but even if it were, symbols matter). “Sources” tell me that there is a place on the legislative agenda this year for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. (Whether it will be trans-inclusive is less certain, but vital: Who most needs this protection? Not me.) ENDA has been around since, if I’m remembering correctly, the Truman Administration. Neither Sullivan nor Sanders discusses this issue, on which progress looks quite likely.

Meanwhile, lifting of the HIV ban is moving along — albeit at the glacial pace of the federal regulatory process. Again, Sullivan (first quoting):

“’The Department of Health and Human Services has submitted for OMB review a notice of proposed rule-making to implement this change.’

“Translation: we’re doing the bare minimum to make us look no worse than Bush, but we have no real interest in this and are letting the bureaucracy handle it, and we guarantee nothing.”

I think that’s too critical. HHS Secretary Sebelius acted within one week of her confirmation to get this long-overdue repeal moving through the process. As this site reports, the bureaucrats are following standard procedure here, needed to put into practical effect the legislative repeal (changing the law meant that HIV was no longer required to be on the list of excludable diseases; now it must be removed).

Imagine it’s the end of 2009: The hate crimes bill is law, so is ENDA, and the HIV repeal is lifted (in time for Sullivan, I sincerely hope; but as he points out, there are many others for whom the ban leaves fewer, or no, options). DADT continues to be assaulted, relentlessly, from many perspectives, but is still in place. Civil unions, flowering all over the country, lie beneath still-frozen soil in D.C.

Would we regard this record as one of success? Let’s see if we get there, first. And let’s continue the relentless advocacy that is finally, I believe and dare to hope, beginning to push on the hinge of history.

Ho, Hum…. (Washington Passes Full Domestic Partnership Law)

April 17th, 2009 1 comment

In a story that attracted little attention outside of the state (except on gay news websites), the Washington State legislature on Wednesday gave final approval to a bill that expands the state’s existing domestic partnership registry to grant same-sex couples the same benefits as married couples. Opponents have sprung into action, but have little chance of undoing the legislation in a state that’s prepared to take at least this step.

What does it say about the state of the marriage equality movement when “virtual marriage” has become the compromise norm in a growing number of states? (New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon and California now have laws approximating marriage for same-sex couples.) And it’s a norm that elicits a collective “ho, hum” from all but the most apoplectic equality opponents. It’s still not true equality, of course. I recall hearing Andrew Sullivan say, a few years ago, that these “virtual equality” laws are really “pure” discrimination. That’s exactly right: Once equality of benefits is granted, all that separates the two “classes” is status, or a kind of legal caste. Here’s one opponent of the domestic partnership legislation, in a comment posted to the Seattle PI’s website:

“Your [sic] not equal. You’ll ALWAYS be two same sex people who THINK they have what I have being MARRIED to one man for 27 years. You will never be equal to me.”

She might have added: “So, there!” But she’s right, as long as the law continues this separation. Further, this verbal foot-stamp is in fact no different from that of more sophisticated equality opponents. Consider Maggie Gallagher’s statement, speaking of why civil unions were better (from her perspective) than marriage:

If the 15 words “Marriage in the United States is exclusively a union of one man and one woman” are placed in our Constitution, we can point to those who claim civil unions are marriages and say with confidence, “Not in the United States.”

So, there!

It’s likely for this reason that courts have started to look much more closely at arguments that civil unions and domestic partnerships don’t satisfy equality guarantees built into state constitutions. This is from the Connecticut Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision, Kerrigan v. Commissioner of Public Health: “Despite the truly laudable effort of the legislature in equalizing the legal rights afforded same sex and opposite sex couples, there is no doubt that civil unions enjoy a lesser status in our society  than marriage.”

To even more pointed effect, In Re Marriage Cases (from California): “[R]etaining the designation of marriage exclusively for opposite-sex couples and providing only a separate and distinct designation for same-sex couples may well have the effect of perpetuating a more general premise—now emphatically rejected by this state—that gay individuals and same-sex couples are in some respects   “second-class citizens” who may, under the law, be treated differently from, and less favorably than, heterosexual individuals or opposite-sex couples.”

Of course, these courts are correct. So are the civil union commissions in both Vermont and New Jersey, both of which came to a conclusion even Sarah Palin could understand (if not articulate): Civil unions don’t confer equality. Yet I’m starting to like civil unions and domestic partnerships. They’re training wheels, of a sort; not for the couples, but for the larger society. By granting formal recognition and the (state-conferred) benefits of marriage to gay couples, they bring us much closer to equality in the short term, and simultaneously give root to the idea that these couples pose no threat to marriage. Soon thereafter, the citizens become more confident; the training wheels are removed, and full marriage equality is achieved. It’s already happened in Vermont, and I expect it to happen in New Jersey and New Hampshire soon.

Civil unions? Domestic partnerships? Ho, hum… in the short run.

The End of Journalism

March 19th, 2009 No comments

Driving home last night, I heard the antepenultimate (there’s a word best avoided!) installment of the NPR show “News and Notes.” The show, which alone among the network’s shows features an African-American point of view, is a casualty of the economic crisis. And I don’t understand the decision to cancel the show, given that many of the network’s other shows have a remarkable sameness to them.

Not surprisingly, the guests — a roundtable of bloggers — were discussing future outlets for their work. This conversation reminded me that we in the blogosphere will do fine (for awhile) in the rapidly changing world of information. But we are essentially bottom feeders, remora fish (“aggregators” is apparently the approved euphemism) scrounging for tidbits that the mainstream news has introduced, relying for our nuggets on reporting from other sources. Even the best and most well-known blogs, such as the Huffington Post and Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish, largely rely on primary sources turned up by front-line journalists, usually of the print variety. But what will become of us when these sources disappear?

The question is hardly academic. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer just printed its final issue; the “paper” is now available only on-line. I recently received an e-mail from The Nation asking for a contribution so that the magazine can stay afloat,  and continue to do the kind of investigative reporting for which it’s become famous (or  infamous, depending on your politics). Even the venerable New York Times is in danger, as detailed in a perceptive article by Michael Hirschorn in the January/February issue of The Atlantic. (Since  that story, the Times has entered into a complex real estate transaction involving its building that provided a cash infusion and a temporary reprieve.)

It’s not as though these problems can be “solved” simply by moving these publications on-line. Advertising can’t be sold at high prices in cyberspace, meaning that the on-line versions of papers will be much thinner, economically. By way of dramatic example, the Seattle P-I is reducing its news staff dramatically, from about 150 to about 20. Under this  model, the kind of investigative reporting that the public has historically relied on newspapers to perform will not be possible.

The Philadelphia  Inquirer, Philly’s flagship paper, is also in very deep trouble.  The owner of the city’s two papers (the other is the Daily News)  recently filed for bankruptcy, culminating a downward spiral in circulation that has changed the paper in recent years from a significant national news source to an almost exclusively regional one, with news from other places (as exotic and far away as D.C.)  now furnished by the AP, the NY Times News Service, and others. Even with these compromises and concessions, though, the Inquirer has still been able to do good local, investigative reporting, such as its multi-part expose of the city’s dreadful Department of Human Services. (The series catalyzed change and brought accountability to an agency that had too long evaded it.) Such stories won’t be possible, or at least not  in any way that I can see, once papers stop rolling.

The Hirschorn article suggests that the Times and other “brands” can survive by combining the aggregation model of  blogs with “endorsed” reporting from other places, along with some (but  how  much?)  original reporting. Maybe. I’m not  concerned about coverage of events-as-they-happen, because here’s where citizen journalists and locals can continue to expand, excite, and define the “iPhone generation” of reporting. He cites examples of first-rate citizen reporting ranging from the terrorist attacks in Mumbai to Hurricane Katrina.

What happens after that on-the-ground reporting of events is done, though? Who will have the expertise, connections, resources and inclination to do the kind of in-depth reporting that makes sense of these events? Where will we bloggers get our grist? Less self-indulgently put, how can the probing analysis that has been journalism’s obligation to democracy — its “end” — thrive in the post-print world that is surely soon to come?

Categories: blogs, journalism Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,