Well, things have been quiet around my house lately, except of course for the whole-house water filter that exploded two weeks ago while Janet and I were at the movies, drenching the basement with four inches of water (750 gallons, we learned from the nice young man whose powerful machines drained our house). The water had just gotten within reach of the bottom of the spines of the books in one bookcase (does a book have a coccyx?), leaving a row of thinkers from Marshall Berman to Harold Bloom shrieking for help and drawing their knees up to their chests. And of course Jamie lost a lot of stuff—Beatles books, art books, crayons, writing pads, pretty much anything that was on the floor (and there were many things on the floor). But at least it was clean water, not like last time. So there’s that.
And now that I’ve spent the weekend putting together new shelving and storage devices and tidying up in general, it’s time to pick a fight! This time I’m over at the National Humanities Center blog, On the Human, complaining about bioethicists. For example (from a discussion of Jonathan Glover’s book Choosing Children: Genes, Disability, and Design):
This then is yet another version of the classic “trolley problem,” in which we are asked to decide whether it is better that people with X disability not be born at all (because the prospective mothers wait two months and have different children altogether) while some people with X disability go “uncured” in utero, or better that people with X disability be “cured” in utero while others are born with the disability because their mothers went untreated.I suppose this is the stuff of which bioethical debates are made, but may I be so rude as to point out that there is no such trolley? This thought experiment may be all well and good if the object is to ask people about the moral difference between foregoing a pregnancy that will result in a fetus with disabilities and treating a disabled fetus in utero (and miraculously “curing” it!). But it does not correspond to any imaginable scenario in the world we inhabit. (And there’s more: because, perhaps, “a disability is harder to bear if you know that people could have prevented it but chose not to do so,” [Derek] Parfit adds that “we assume that those born with the disability do not know they could have been spared it” . Why not assume instead that those born with the disability are given a pony on their fifth birthday?) There simply are no known genetic conditions that present prospective parents with this kind of decision….
There is no scenario — I repeat, no scenario, none whatsoever — in which any woman knows that, if she foregoes conception now, she will have a normal child later on. Earlier in the chapter, in the course of demonstrating that some children’s disabilities truly do place crushing emotional burdens on parents, Glover had adduced the case of Julia Hollander, mother of a child with significant brain damage: “the cause of her problem was not genetic,” Glover notes. “When she was born, the placenta peeled away early, and this destroyed her cerebral cortex” (40). Yes, well: this is quite terrible, but it should at least give pause to bioethicists who concoct scenarios in which women decline to initiate a pregnancy now in the assurance that they will have a normal child if they only wait. The world in which bioethicists propose such things, the world in which [Frances] Kamm can chastise a woman who produces a “defective” child “when she could have easily (!) avoided it,” is a world without birth trauma, without conditions undiagnosable before birth (autism, pervasive developmental delay), without any sense of contingency — let alone an openness to the unbidden. Such trolley problems and what-if hypotheticals profoundly distort what it is like to contemplate having a child who may have a disability; indeed, they distort what it is like to have a child.
Just to be extra extra curmudgeonly, I’ll add that I don’t know why my contribution to the Forum is introduced by way of the opening statement “every life is sacred.” Those who know me well know that I cannot utter the word “sacred” without my tongue cleaving to the top of my mouth; besides, I believe that the proper expression is that every sperm is sacred. Seriously, folks, talking about the “sacredness” of life opens a hole in the argument big enough for Peter Singer and company to drive a bunch of trucks through. But that’s only one of the reasons I don’t talk that way.
In other news, I’m not really picking a fight in this comment thread on the recently-concluded convention of the Modern Language Association. I’m just noting that someone is wrong on the Internet.