Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Procreation and Responsibility

The sticking point in most discussions of antinatalism that I've witnessed has been whether it is always a harm to bring a child into existence. Most people admit that it is sometimes a harm to bring a child into existence, at least once they are educated past the identity problem. Not so for so-called "religious conservatives," who generally refuse to engage in public reason at all, and use their supernatural beliefs as a shield against moral responsibility for their actions.

Americans are currently preparing for a presidential election. Revelations about the reproductive life of Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin have provoked discussion about procreation and hypocrisy (unfortunately, often at the expense of serious discussion of the real campaign issues).

One of the most morally blameworthy aspects of Palin's situation (though, of course, it is impolite to mention it) is her choice to have unprotected sex at the age of 45, resulting in a pregnancy which, at its outset, carried a 1/30 risk of Down Syndrome (trisomy 21). Palin has consistently been lauded for her "courage" in carrying a child she knew had Down Syndrome to term, rather than aborting; there is little, if any, discussion of her blind selfishness and refusal of responsibility in conceiving that child in the first place, knowing that she would not abort, much less about whether she committed a wrong against her son by not aborting. People of Palin's alleged religious beliefs generally frame children as "gifts from God" - in other words, they assert that people need take no responsibility toward conception or procreation.

I think this is appalling, and I am not alone - the California Court of Appeals agreed with me that a parent should be responsible in tort to a child born with a foreseeable defect (though the California legislature later changed the law to prevent such lawsuits):
One of the fears expressed in the decisional law is that, once it is determined that such infants have rights cognizable at law, nothing would prevent such a plaintiff from bringing suit against its own parents for allowing plaintiff to be born. . . . If a case arose where, despite due care by the medical profession in transmitting the necessary warnings, parents made a conscious choice to proceed with a pregnancy, with full knowledge that a seriously impaired infant would be born, that conscious choice would provide an intervening act of proximate cause to preclude liability insofar as defendants other than the parents were concerned. Under such circumstances, we see no sound public policy which should protect those parents from being answerable for the pain, suffering and misery which they have wrought upon their offspring. Curlender v. Bio-Science Labs, 106 Cal. App. 3d 811, 829 (1980). [Emphasis mine. Citations omitted.]

It is nauseating when religion is used as an excuse to avoid responsibility for processes that are well understood to be under human control.

6 comments:

  1. I agree with you in principle about pre-reproductive responsibility (even extrapolating to all births), but I'm not sure that it is clear that a child with Down Syndrome is likely to lead a more unhappy life than someone with a "normal" chromosomal constitution. I realize that DS tracks with other medical conditions (and shorter lifespans), but is there evidence that DS's subjective well-being is deficient in comparison with what might otherwise have been? Perhaps it is an unjustified stereotype, but the DS people with whom I have had contact certainly seem to have a relatively cheery disposition.

    This question seems particularly relevant since it goes to the problem of procreation and selfishness. Barring textbook ethical exceptions, I think having children is always indecently selfish. However, many pronatalists argue that NOT having children is selfish, often on the ostensible merit that voluntary childlessness must deny something to would-be children. But if it turns out that DS children lead cheerier and happier lives, those therapeutic abortion stats need some careful explaining.

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  2. I was hoping to talk about this - my experience also accords with the view that people with trisomy 12 are warm, loving, and seemingly happy (though my law school roommate's mother worked with institutionalized people with trisomy 12 and other forms of DD and had different ideas).

    Anyway, I don't think subjective feelings of happiness are the only measure of well-being. I certainly would not actively pursue brain damage that would make me happy but with the intellectual capacity of a 5 year old, and I doubt many others would, either. Clearly other things are valuable besides subjective happiness or unhappiness. However, as I've written before, I'm fairly uncomfortable with judgments about people with various disabilities living somehow less valuable lives than people with "normal" human capacities (I also think even "normal" human capacities often lead to pretty miserable lives).

    Though most people's reasons for reproduction are selfish, I think most people's reasons for aborting a trisomy 12 fetus are probably unselfish (concern for the child having a reasonably meaningful life in various dimensions), rather than just concern with the extra work and dashed parental hopes of Harvard. The problem is that not enough people make the same judgment for non-trisomy 12 babies, and, of course, it's just as valid in all cases.

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  3. "I certainly would not actively pursue brain damage that would make me happy but with the intellectual capacity of a 5 year old."

    I don't see myself actively pursuing such an option, but if I could make a clean trade, I don't think the downside is so obvious. If I know nothing different and am happy, how am I deprived?

    "Though most people's reasons for reproduction are selfish, I think most people's reasons for aborting a trisomy 12 fetus are probably unselfish (concern for the child having a reasonably meaningful life in various dimensions), rather than just concern with the extra work and dashed parental hopes of Harvard. The problem is that not enough people make the same judgment for non-trisomy 12 babies, and, of course, it's just as valid in all cases."

    I agree with your closing sentence, but I am intuitively skeptical of your claim regarding people's typically unselfish reasons for aborting a DS fetus. For one thing, I suspect that the concern for a "reasonably meaningful life in various dimensions" is the product of a peculiar intellectual bias, which might specifically be characterized as an "eudomaniacal bias" assigning greater meaning to multidimensional inner lives. I fear this is just the sort of out that might be expected of inner-life-laden folks like us, which is all the more reason to tread carefully.

    I see no clear reason to ascribe lesser value to the (arguably greater) subjective joy experienced by people who cannot play conceptual games or set long term goals or wallow in deeper shades of "meaning." However, I see plenty of tellingly selfish reasons why the potential parents of such a child might be predisposed to rationalize their decision to abort, and in terms that focus on the child's ostensibly limited life options. For the parents, there is not only the burden of foreseeable hardship; there is also the lack of grandchildren; there is morally tinged embarrassment, and conflicted disappointment.

    It would be interesting if there were a way to prenatally predict whether an otherwise normal person were likely to experience chronic depression. Something tells me that parents of those marked with such an affliction would be less inclined to make the "selfless" choice -- for the usual selfish reasons.

    Perhaps I am giving in to deeper cynicism than is justified, but I think parental agency is fraught with problems that this example helps to explain. If people with profound cognitive limits are happy, who are we to judge, on our own biased terms, the deeper quality and meaning of their happiness?

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  4. A related moral question is whether it is morally right for a pregnant woman to consume a fifth of Rebel Yell every day during her pregnancy.

    The main difference between getting blotto every night knowing you are pregnant, and having unprotected sex knowing you're 45 and are carrying mostly damaged eggs, is the so-called identity problem: the FAS baby "could have been born" with normal capacities, and his mother is knowingly taking his capacities away, whereas the baby at age 45 could not have been born other than with a high risk of genetic damage.

    Most people would agree that it is wrong to take away people's capacities. And people generally do not want to give up their capacities. Chip comments that if the trade-off of capacities for happiness were more straightforward, we might see more of it, but I think it would be rare. An example would be the side effects of certain prescription drugs - SSRI antidepressants, for instance, notoriously drop sex drive, while apparently (for some people) increasing happiness. But many, many people who experience the loss of sex drive find the effect intolerable and stop their meds. Some even stop over the loss of other capacities, such as the capacity for feeling (even negative feeling) and complex thought. There are studies on people valuing existing choices to irrational extremes - making choices that will preserve options, even if it will not benefit the person. (See this paper from Management Science in 2004; while it deals with discrete options, not capacities, I think the analogy holds.)

    But is it wrong to bring someone into existence with less-than-normal capacities, as distinct from removing the capacities of an existing person?

    Most people feel that it is morally acceptable to bring people into existence who will have normal capacities. I do not. So, of course, I find it perhaps extra-unacceptable to bring people into existence with less-than-normal capacities. Although I do think the person's likelihood of subjective suffering is an important part of the calculus, I don't think it's everything, and I certainly don't think it's true that people with developmental disability lead the kind of happy, pain-free lives that we should all aspire to.

    But let's say you're one of the people who thinks it's acceptable to bring normal people into existence. Are there any people it's immoral to bring into existence? (Is the Austrian basement rapist extra wrong for conceiving seven children with his daughter and forcing her to bear them, rather than merely raping her for decades?)

    I suppose ever non-antinatalist has to draw the line somewhere. It's interesting - when I discussed the issue with my non-antinatalist boyfriend, he thought it was fine to bring a baby into existence in an affluent household in the United States, but maybe not to bring a baby into a slum in Africa. Hmm.

    I would like to hear where more non-antinatalists draw the line on which babies it's acceptable to bring into existence.

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  5. and I certainly don't think it's true that people with developmental disability lead the kind of happy, pain-free lives that we should all aspire to.

    May I ask which people on the planet, disabled or not, lead pain-free lives?

    And should we aspire to pain-free lives? I don't, after all it's a goal I've already thoroughly missed.

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  6. Curator,

    I don't think your example of antidepressant usage provides clear support for your argument that capacity/happiness trade-offs would in fact be rare. Just look at the current numbers of people who use such drugs. It's staggering, especially when you consider the stigma and moral apprehension that was so strongly associated with the use of Prozac type drugs less than two decades ago. Sure, some people eventually decide that the sexual and curiosity-numbing side-effects aren't worth the trade, but MILLIONS of people stay with the program and claim to benefit. This is hardly rare. And I predict it will be even less so as better drugs are developed.

    This may be recursive, but the example of the pregnant binger makes me wonder about a counter-scenario in which a pregnant mother ingests a mutagenic drug cocktail known to improve, rather than damage, her brood's postnatal cognitive development. Is her child's chance at having "normal" capacities thereby deprived, even when the maternal intervention produces what most people would view as an enhancement rather than a deficit? Let's further assume that the prenatally tweaked cognitive enhancement said to benefit this child brings with it a higher probability that the child will lead a less subjectively peaceful life - that the child will be more likely than his FAS counterpart to experience lifelong emotional pain and depression. Granting for the moment pronatalist assumptions on the underlying issue, which mother acts more irresponsibly? To me, the answer is far from clear. Though of course I think they are both wrong.

    I don't want to get carried away with such hypotheticals. My point is simply that it seems very suspicious to devalue relative happiness (which I will provisionally define as a proportionately lower incidence of subjective suffering) for something more nebulous and rarefied that seems likely to me to be the product of a cognitive bias for...cognitive bias. If I could hop in the "tard transformer" and set the controls with every assurance that my future happy-dumb life would in no way impose on others or cause them to suffer, I would do it in a second. I'd have no compunction about signing on for Nozick's simulator, either -- especially if such a choice meant that I would never again experience paralyzing anxiety, or depression, or sexual jealousy, or inconsolable regret. The presumptive value of meaningful inner lives seems all the more questionable when you consider that objective meaning is in all likelihood a chimera.

    Your boyfriend's point about the value of starting comparatively impoverished versus affluent lives seems to come up against relativistic problems that I can never dismiss. Assuming that a comfortable and predictably contented life is worth starting, it would seem to follow that such a life is worth sustaining for as long as possible. But the question of what is possible, in this sense, is bound by our current (or sub specie humanitas) expectations. If it suddenly became technologically possible for people to live healthy and affluent lives for hundreds or thousands of years, people would quickly come to look upon the prospect of creating a mere centennarian with the same sense of pity that they now reserve for third world births. Is it better for a Progerian to be born in the modernized West?

    I'll leave your closing question for the non-antinatalists to consider. It's a good one.

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