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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.

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?

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