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Posts Tagged ‘anencephaly’

Empathy for “Entities”?

July 29th, 2010 3 comments

The controversy continues, as it must. I recently explored the issue of late-term abortions through a sort of thought experiment, asking whether anencephalics were “human” in any meaningful sense. A couple of posts later, and after a discussion about the point here at home and an internet-mediated exchange with Andrew Sullivan (see here, here, here, and here), I answered my own question — they are human and entitled to respect.

My readers mostly disagreed. Here are some of their responses to my rethinking:

“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.”

This next reader agreed, eloquently:

“[I]…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.”

Finally, this reader, who expressed disappointment in my change of heart:

“I found your original post refreshing and rational….”

“[I]t 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.”

Thanks to these readers and to others for their comments. Just a few additional thoughts seem in order.

I’d like to think I didn’t “back down,” which suggests some kind of intimidation. (Is anyone really intimidated, short of a threat of litigation or violence, on the internet?) No, I had a change of heart, upon reflection. My earlier position was lifted, more or less intact, from my days as a philosophy student. But I’m no longer than person, and —  when pushed — I discovered that my views had changed, probably without my realizing it. I will confess that when I originally wrote that anencephalics weren’t human in the sense that mattered to me, it didn’t feel…right. There’s a difference in making a logically sound argument and believing it in your bones.

Nor did I — or do I — apologize for asking the question. Just because I ended up answering it differently than I or my readers expected doesn’t mean it was wrong to ask it. Judging from the intellectual firestorm this issue has generated, it seems that my raising it was a great thing.

Of course, I’ve gone back to read my “change of heart post” with Talmudic scrutiny. And I find that I never said that I had “empathy” for anencephalics; the readers’ comments suggest why that term isn’t descriptive. I did say that they are entitled to respect, and I’d say that whether or not I thought they were “human.” As I also stated in that later post (and with apology for quoting myself):

“[P]art 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.”

Finally, I want to bring this conversation back to the women carrying these unfortunate offspring. I think we can agree that they are entitled to respect and empathy. (Here’s Sullivan’s collection of the stories, current as of about a week ago, just in case you need an empathy boost.) Their view of an anencephalic is entitled to respect, and to our deepest empathy: Can any of us really know how we’d feel (or act) in such a situation? And how might we want our own decisions treated in such a case?

As an staunch member of the pro-choice community, it’s important to keep in mind that some have made moving decisions not to abort, even in these cases. Most seem to do so for religious reasons, but…whatever. There should be enough respect go to around.