In my earlier entry “A Precarious Balance” I observed that, “One can also question whether it is the best plan to reduce pain and suffering by denying life to those whom we expect to experience it.”
Since then I’ve discovered a marvelous little book called Choosing Children: The Ethical Dilemmas of Genetic Intervention (2006). The author, Jonathan Glover, is a philosopher/bioethicist, but don’t let that fool you. He actually clarifies issues and I hope the effect of having read his book is evident in some of what follows.
Central to the question of denying life to those who might suffer is the need to really tie down who it is we are talking about. We must remember that people only come in unique models. We cannot choose between Child A with a disability and Child A without the disability. Who Child A is, genetically and as shaped by life experiences dependent upon a myriad of factors, is the only Child A that will ever exist. Yes, you could consider having Child B without the disability, but not Child A.
Consider the following situation. An acquaintance of mine sent me something that was making the rounds of cyberspace. It boiled down to the factoid that Ludwig van Beethoven was the 10th child of his parents or something like that. (He was actually the second of seven births, but it doesn’t matter.) It was supposed to show that had this poor woman (with several deaf, a couple blind, and one mentally retarded among her previous offspring) aborted this fetus, we would be without Beethoven and all his music.
But to me, it seemed to promote every woman having at least ten children. According to the scenario, had she not conceived, we would be without Beethoven. So what is our conclusion? That every woman should bear as many children as possible because at least one of them might be great? That idea actually used to be fairly common, but not, thank goodness, any longer.
For most of us, it is acceptable to limit the size of one’s family, and “deny life” to those who would experience it were we to continue bearing children as often, and for as long, as possible.
The point is that who is already living has nothing to do with potential, hypothetical beings. If one desires to avoid offspring with disabilities, it says nothing about our valuing the life of those who have already been brought into the world. Some persons experiencing the disorder might frame our thinking as “had we known, you would not have been born” and (not surprisingly) take that personally. But they already have been born. If they had not been, they would not be persons, so it would be impossible to mean anything about them “personally.” In other words, thinking one thing, A (that we would prefer to avoid conceiving or giving birth to a person with a disability), does not necessarily lead to a next thought, B (that we wish someone with that disorder who is alive were not alive, or that they contribute nothing to society). That might be the next thought of some people, but that does not mean that everyone who thinks A also thinks B. It does not necessarily follow. (Professor Glover discusses this in Chapter 2 of Choosing Children)
One reason individuals might choose to avoid the creation and birth of a disabled child is the fact that life is not lived in the abstract. Parents have the responsibility to care for, or provide care for, the children they do bring into the world. That will affect the parents, the new child’s siblings, the entire extended family, and of course the affected child. Just how is not known. It could be for the better, it might not be–but affect all it will, on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour basis. It is not theory; it is not philosophy; it is not principle.
But what if choosing is not allowed? Perhaps due to reproductive technology being unavailable, perhaps because of one’s moral convictions about conception. What then? I shall ponder that one next time.