Monday, September 12, 2011

The Depressed Person's Special Duty Not To Breed

The heritable component of depression is large. Depending on the nature of the study, the heritability of depression is estimated at anywhere from 29% (for men, in a Swedish twin study) to 75% (in a British twin study). Heritability of bipolar affective disorder is even greater (85% in another British twin study). All told, a child with a parent who has depression has double or triple the risk of an average child of developing major depressive disorder.

Imagine the suffering that could be prevented if all of us with severe depression - especially of the endogenous type particularly likely to be heritable - avoided reproducing. It is not the case that every person who has suffered depression wishes she hadn't been born. But it need not be a 1:1 correlation to imply a duty to avoid reproducing.

A woman in her 40s who conceives a child with her own egg is rightly considered to be irresponsible, because of the risk of mental retardation to her child. But that risk (one in a hundred at maternal age 40) is nothing compared to the risk of severe depression in the child of a severely depressed person.

Many of us who are explicitly not glad to be here have parents who suffered from depression, diagnosed or not. Thirty-three years ago, when my own mother made the awful decision to have a child, the heritability of depression was not well understood.

But now it is undeniable.

If you have been depressed, the chances that your child will experience depression are high, especially if your depression is severe. Reproduction by a depressed person is at best irresponsible, at worst cruel. (This is true even though depressed and bipolar people make all the art.)

Please don't make more of us! Thanks!



Science says new parents have a higher risk of developing depression; perky blonde disagrees.

37 comments:

  1. Are you taking the piss? We all breed, and the mad ones often more so. Many of us don't even know we're 'mad' until after we've bred either. It's an offensive post. I'm not going to say eugenics. Nor nazi - I meant nasty.... :-) atb D

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  2. Interesting thought.

    That's a bit of a lie. I've heard this kind of statement before from people, especially mothers and I still have the same reaction. I feel it's denying yourself for the sake of thinking that you're saving someone from the hell that those who have been through the teeth of the black dog have felt.

    I take offense to the concept not because it reeks of the same eugenics that thought that says people with any genetic ailment shouldn't breed, but for one simple thing.

    Parental feelings come to one thing, the desire to protect at all costs.

    How is having a child who would most likely share the same condition as I protecting? I would do anything and everything in my power to make things better for them, this means I'd do what's necessary to stay well and to get the system better, much better than it currently is.

    Maybe I'm unusual. maybe I'm dreaming, but I'm not gonna let it stop me from having kids (should anyone be THAT desperate to share my genetic code, but hey, that's a story for another day)

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  3. btw your stats are pernicious. x

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  4. Hi! How is it offensive? Depression is horrible; no one knows that like someone who has experienced it. The only way to protect children from it is not to have them.

    Of course, I also think non-depressed people have a duty not to breed, but I am dealing with a special duty here because, as depressed people, our children are more likely to suffer than those of non-depressed people.

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  5. btw your stats are pernicious. x

    That may be a bit true, in that I can see about 10 ways to misunderstand heritability %.

    But the upshot is still true: depression has a large heritable component.

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  6. My dear, I had my vas on the 1st of June. Night. I need sleep or I'll go mad. Three fine sons though. And I'm still young and frisky. But need to be up in five hours for them. x

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  7. An alternative to not breeding would be to test the embryos for known genetic markers of depression and select them accordingly. Of course, that's not a surefire way to ensure a life worth living, but it could reduce the "upshot".

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  8. Excellent post, Sister Y. Apart from the many infallible philosophical reasons for not breeding, the thought of creating a new consciousness that would go through the same shit and misery as I have makes me ill. I'd sooner take my own life than commit such a heinous crime.

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  9. HOW SELFISHLY people think!

    "Having a personal and a family history of depression increases your risk... There was no way I would have put off having children because I was afraid that it might get worse."

    She KNOWS the "family history" thing. But she's only bothered about HER OWN depression's getting worse by having kids!

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  10. "Parental feelings come to one thing, the desire to protect at all costs"

    I guess i'm the ultimate dad in the universe, the unborn don't even need protection. Man i'm awesome.

    "Maybe I'm unusual. maybe I'm dreaming, but I'm not gonna let it stop me from having kids"

    You're doing what you are supposed to be doing, you are functioning at 100%!Bzzzz babies want bzzzz get.

    "Three fine sons though."

    Congratulations, let's hope they are smarter and do the vasectomy before having children.

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  11. Depression doesn't really seem to have a large heritable component, if you look at the opposing studies on rates of depression and mh problems in those who have experienced childhood abuse and other trauma it tells a different story (rates are particularly high for those experiencing childhood abuse). Read on those and the criticisms on twin studies if you haven't. If there is a 2-3x chance children of depressed parents will develop depression themselves, this doesn't say anything about genetic influence itself, in fact common sense would tell you a lot of that may be to do with parenting, learned behaviour, attitudes and beliefs passed down. The stanford article misuses heritability as well in saying x% is caused by genes.

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  12. Yes, there is such a thing as gene-environment interaction; here's some interesting research on that.

    No, this does not mean depressed folks' children are as likely to be happy as anyone's.

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  13. An alternative to not breeding would be to test the embryos for known genetic markers of depression and select them accordingly.

    Then you'd have to find those markers.

    And if you did, you make it easy to say, "Oh, while you're at it, can you be on the lookout for gay/short/dark-skinned/introverted markers, too?"

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  14. Jason, yes, that is a problem. It's already a problem with gender selection. But is it really a more radical solution than, "You must never breed, humanity must go extinct"?

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  15. Well, the narrowest choice is between depressed people having a special duty not to breed and depressed people having a special duty to select for embryos with particular genetic properties. I find it hard to imagine that once this selectional apparatus is instituted for depressed parents-to-be, it won't become used generally. So the choice may really become one of depressed people not breeding versus everyone who can afford it selectively aborting embryos with markers for being gay/short/dark-skinned/introverted.

    You may think that we'll be at routine selective abortion based on genetic markers anyway within a generation, but it's possible we'll manage to avoid it, either for social reasons or because the genetic contribution to most traits parents would want to select against are spread too diffusely over the genome to make the expense worth the small change in probability of getting those traits.

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  16. It really depends on how it's used. If it's used to select for low pain sensitivity, high reward function etc., these benefits could easily outweigh all the loss of gays and introverted people. As for short and dark-skinned, I know it has high social relevance now, but it's more or less cosmetics, and a world filled with only white people would be boring after a while. People will choose cosmetic diversity at some point, one way or another.

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  17. How I feel about accusations of being a Nazi is explained here: Political Metonymy.

    I am talking about not having people for their own good, not for the good of already-existing or future-existing people. The fact that bipolars and depressives contribute disproportionately to society (and I think there's a strong argument that they do) does not make up for the fact that they suffer disproportionately.

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  18. Sister Y, I hope my comment didn't come across as accusing you of being a Nazi. An anonymous suggested an anti-dysgenic alternative to depressed people not breeding, and I presented some problems with that approach.

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  19. Ha ha - no, I was referring to the first comment in which the N-bomb is explicitly dropped. <3

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  20. Oh, right -- missed it. I think I've developed a mechanism in the course of participating in comment forums wherein my preconsciousness filters out accusations of being a Nazi and I don't even realize they're there.

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  21. Actually, when I said: "It's an offensive post. I'm not going to say eugenics. Nor nazi - I meant nasty..." I meant exactly what is written on the tin. To parse: I don't think your post comes from the eugenicist mindset, nor the (heavens forfend) nazi viewpoint, although some people might. I just found it personally offensive. Is that clear, before I explain why?

    Good. Ok.

    I had my children before I got diagnosed with manic depression. I spent most of my life refusing to bring them into the world, and then I agreed to one with my long-term partner. The other two were fait accompli: although I love them dearly, they were the obverse side of the 'woman's right to choose'.

    The attitude expressed in your post implies that all these things are known before we choose to take a particular road. Life is rarely like that.

    The statistics irritated me: I cannot remember what was originally there, but your revised stats are still misleading. Twin studies are not the same as chance of inheriting. (I don't need to spell that out, do I?)

    Most stats vary for bipolar: for one parent with the diagnosis, the figures cited are between 5% - 20% for the child, with most studies rather towards the lower end. For two parents, it leaps up somewhat, but not anywhere near 85%. That figure is the likelihood of an identical twin developing the same diagnosis as their sib with bipolar.

    If I waded in somewhat tetchily, it was simply because I did not like your tone.

    I hope that clears up my input to this sorry debate.

    atb David

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  22. My father has been suffering from severe depression for 35 years, on/off. It runs on his side of the family - two of the uncles, at least one of the cousins. I have, up to now, not shown any symptoms at 38. If my husband's family had also shown a pattern of depression I don't think we would have had children. Perhaps for selfish reasons; I wouldn't be able to bear seeing the pain of depression in someone I love so much.

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  23. I wonder what is the ethics behind denying someone the chance of existance based upon how poorly we may have dealt with our own problems.

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  24. My thinking is that (a) it's always better not to be born, but that (b) a person who has fucked up his/her own life is very likely to make any of his/her spawn miserable as well.

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  25. In other words, I don't see "denying someone a chance at existence" to be any kind of harm at all. Who will suffer? No one. Who is deprived? No one.

    But I tend to look closely at e.g. homeless people's feet. People who spend more time looking at puppies and sunsets, and ignoring humanity, seem to come to different conclusions.

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  26. 'In other words, I don't see "denying someone a chance at existence" to be any kind of harm at all. Who will suffer? No one. Who is deprived? No one.'

    It's an opportunity cost of creating pleasure though.

    'puppies and sunsets'

    That's a misrepresentation. Seeing puppies and sunsets are nice, but no where near the peak experiences of pleasure I've had in my life.

    You are right about the homeless people's feet, and the general conclusion about suffering. There's too much of it to defend life as a whole, at least currently. But that's a quantitative statement only.

    I once asked anonymous people on 4chan if they would torture one baby if it could create 10 trillion happy people who live for 10 trillion years each. Almost everyone said yes, and I have to say that I agree.

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  27. Also, give good suicide methods to the homeless.

    I know of homeless people who have no social ties, own shotguns (i.e. relatively good suicide method) and who still carry on instead of shooting themselves.

    Since I have prepared my own helium suicide method, I see each day as a 'bonus' day. Some of them are not worthwhile, but most of them are. Knowing I can kill myself has increases my quality of life. If I ever find that most of my days are not worth experiencing, and that this will not likely change even if I make the best choices I can make, then I will kill myself without too much inhibition.

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  28. Sister Y: In other words, I don't see "denying someone a chance at existence" to be any kind of harm at all. Who will suffer? No one. Who is deprived? No one.

    Anon: It's an opportunity cost of creating pleasure though.

    Anonymous, I take your statement to mean that you agree that the expected utility of a life is positive, and that positive utility is impersonally good -- that is, what matters is that there is utility in the world, not that anyone experiences it. If you see a child tied to train tracks and see a train approaching in the distance, do you think you're obliged to untie the child and save them? It seems that you are -- if you don't, a lifetime of positive utility is forgone.

    How is this different from creating a new person? If you don't conceive as many children as you are able to care for, then you're similarly causing a lifetime (or many lifetimes!) of positive utility to go unrealized. So if you're obliged to save the child on the tracks, you're similarly obliged to have as many children as you can support.

    If you can't stomach letting the child on the tracks die, but you don't want to be committed to having as many children as you can support, then you have to reject some part of your premise. You can maintain the belief that the expected utility of a life is positive if you make the utility that matters *personal*. That is, we should improve the utility of persons. Killing people is wrong because it deprives *someone* of utility. Creating miserable people is wrong because it imposes disutility on *someone*. But not creating happy people is not wrong, as it doesn't deprive anyone of anything. It's fine to create happy people if you want to, and once you create someone you have a responsibility to do what you can to make their life a happy one.

    I myself am not at all confident that the expected utility of a life is positive, but even if I were, then all that would change would be to make it acceptable to create someone rather than unacceptable. It wouldn't change how I ought to act toward people who are already here.

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  29. 'I take your statement to mean that you agree that the expected utility of a life is positive'

    No. That depends on circumstance. A life may contain more suffering than pleasure, so its expected utility can be negative, but there is still an opportunity cost in not creating them (not creating additional pleasure). I reject the part where this is supposed to be neutral, instead of a loss of utility.

    'If you see a child tied to train tracks and see a train approaching in the distance, do you think you're obliged to untie the child and save them?'

    Legally, yes, under the legal system in which I live. Morally, no. I don't believe in intrinsic moral obligations. They're essentially fictional.

    'that positive utility is impersonally good'

    Yes. A person is not an essence, it's a pattern. Update on non-identity, and it all reduces to value patterns being created/copied or not created/copied. To 'save a life' doesn't mean 'to save an essence' as many intuitively believe. It means 'to create additional lossy copies of a person pattern'. Of course, with 7 billion human patterns on the planet, the general rundandancy is high. This is why I have less of an intrinsic problem with individual human deaths than most people, which often puts me in a socially detrimental position in debates, as my position triggers aversive emotions in others and the inferential distance is usually to big to cover.

    'So if you're obliged to save the child on the tracks, you're similarly obliged to have as many children as you can support.'

    I think we both know that a 'child chained to tracks' situation has confounding aspects that muddle the similarity to procreation quite strongly, such as grieving parents and the state's legal pre-commitment against chaining people to train tracks etc. But I agree with one thing: If additional lives increased expected net utility, we should create additional lives instead of just saving existing ones.

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  30. I was thinking about the moral problem of breeding couples with heritable diseases, specifically bipolar disorder (since I have it), and I came upon a nice little analogy that is pretty damning to those who think it's ever OK for two genetically-impaired parents to have a kid:

    First of all (this isn't very well-researched, just Wiki, but it's a start), bipolar disorder has a 0.4% lifetime suicide rate among all patients, and a full third of them attempt suicide at some point. Those numbers compare well with the mortality rate and general seriousness of West Nile Virus. For those who don't know, West Nile Virus has to be handled in level 3 biosafety labs, right along with a bunch of shit the Pentagon tried to turn into biological weapons. You Do Not Want West Nile Virus.

    So let's think of a couple where there is a decent chance of passing on bipolar disorder to their child. They have it, everyone comes to the baby shower, and they wish them well and give them lots of nice presents. It's a joyous occasion, and the parents may even be praised for their decision to reproduce. People might know about the parents' heritable genetic problem, but surely they would smile and nod anyway.

    Now think of a genetic supercouple with no possibility of passing on a hereditary illness to their offspring. They go to the hospital, the child is delivered, and just as it comes out of the mother, the father sprays it in the face with a spray bottle full of West Nile Virus. Wanna know what happens?

    Go to jail. Go directly to jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.

    Oh, and also, you're going to be on the news for months, you will never live down your infamy, and you are never going to see your kid again, ever, regardless of whether or not it manifests symptoms.

    I just don't see how willingly conceiving a child with a known risk of severe lifetime disease differs from willingly conceiving a child with no risk of severe disease, then willingly exposing it to such a risk later. You're deliberately gambling with someone's life in a way that goes far above and beyond the usual case for philanthropic antinatalism. I think this shows just how far toxic cheeriness infects our society. It warps all our perceptions and allows us to get away with assault/manslaughter/criminal negligence, as long as *our* genes do the hurting and not genes from some mosquito virus.

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  31. I definitely have my depressed periods. Friends and family notice that I overthink stuff and I notice that I get sucked into an all consuming thought process that spirals on and on in an inevitable downward direction. I'm 30 and have suffered with depression a long time . But despite this I'm going to have kids if I meet someone special. I think 'depression' is term that gets thrown around too loosely. So many brilliant people over the years have been sufferers of what we now label as depression. Some of these people may have an emotional sensitivity that functions to keep the world in check. Some ancient spiritual texts seem to suggest that intense suffering is often the thing that's needed for a person to awaken and to see the illusion that nearly every human lives in, their own egoic drama.

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  32. "Some ancient spiritual texts seem to suggest that intense suffering is often the thing that's needed for a person to awaken and to see the illusion that nearly every human lives in, their own egoic drama."
    The problem here is that this doesn't imply human lives themselves are needed, or that to "awaken and see the illusion" is needed. Or beneficial, over non-life or non-awakening.

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  33. How about if a bipolar/depressive gets pregnant accidentally? Is it more ethical in that case to have an abortion? What about the happiness that child will provide to its parents? Wouldn't that balance it out? Two parents at shorter life span/one child at (hopefully) full life span...this is assuming the child brings happiness to the parents. Also, in regards to bipolar/depressives contributing more to society, would you not say that in fact they are the greatest trolls of society (and I am including myself)? And is this impetus to troll a good thing--that is, does it push society to become better while providing untold entertainment to all the "normals"--or does it merely manage to breed further chaos in an otherwise stable system, a system in which the "normals" could probably find pleasure without all the great entertainment provided by the depressed and bipolar (you know, the entertainment of a nice bike ride or a happy moment with the family)? Do people need to experience the highs and lows of the long-suffering vicariously in order to feel alive themselves?

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  34. I think abortion is always morally required when a woman becomes pregnant, whether she has a mental illness or not - but especially if it is likely that the child will be depressed.

    I am not sure that people get happiness from children, but it does seem that they get a sense of meaning from them. The kind of utility-tallying consequentialism we do when we balance the happiness of some against the suffering of others gives strange results - like, what if the rapist gets more enjoyment from the rape than the victim feels pain? Does that make it okay? I push a more rights-based approach to ethics, and look at the parents' situation more holistically: what could they do, other than have a baby, that WOULDN'T hurt anybody, but would make them happier?

    It's hard to even venture a guess as to what society would be like without us - but I certainly don't see a strong duty to breed more of us on the speculation that they might need us.

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  35. What a dark little corner of the internet... I love it!

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