Friday, August 22, 2014

Is it Immoral to have a Baby with Downs Syndrome?

This is the question that is going around the internet thanks to Richard Dawkins' latest twitstorm:

Once again his flippant responses on Twitter have gotten an outsized amount of attention.  His claim: it's immoral to bring a Down Syndrome child into the world, so abort it and try again.  I agree with him (though I still disagree about the wisdom of discussing morality on twitter)

But... I'd like to use it as an example of how his earlier twitstorm over quantification of moral wrongness should be handled.  Is it more wrong to abort because of a genetic defect than for another reason?  In my opinion it's never wrong for any reason, (though India is now feeling the effects of the higher numbers of aborted female fetuses than male fetuses -- making it stupid rather than wrong)

Down Syndrome, a.k.a Trisomy 21, has been declining since abortion was legalized.  An extra copy of all or part of chromosome 21, causes all kinds of havoc in the affected body, including the brain.  It is more common when the parents are over 30, and since more parents delay childbearing, the decline of the condition indicates quite a few of them are choosing abortion.

So let's establish our sliding scale of moral rightness or wrongness:

One one side:  Abortion ewww  or My Down Syndrome child is a blessing and I love him/her

On the other side:  Down Syndrome children suffer so why bring them into the world? or I can't deal with a disabled child so I'd abort to prevent having a child that I would have to give up for adoption or would be a terrible failure as a parent

Let's eliminate "Abortion ewwww" because it's not rational.  Abortions don't cause suffering to the fetus, and the stain of original sin from Eve means they are not innocent.  Mere repugnance, which is in my opinion the true root of anti-abortion sentiment, is not a basis for a rational judgment.

Let's also eliminate "I can't deal with a disabled child" because that person shouldn't have a child at all.  In essence, an infant is disabled.  When they're first born all they can do is cry and shit and sometimes they have to be taught to eat.  (Okay, yes they can also pee and breathe...)  If someone can't deal with a disabled child they can't deal with a healthy child in infancy and they can't deal with that healthy child after it breaks its neck on the playground and becomes a quadraplegic.  That person should not be a parent for any reason whatsoever anyway.   At the very least they should do some volunteer work to see if they can rise to the occasion before jumping into it.

That leaves the question of whether the suffering the Down Syndrome child experiences is so extreme that fetal euthanasia is the more humane choice even for people who don't like abortion, or whether the child has a sufficiently rewarding life for it to be worth living.

There are other genetic diseases that can be diagnosed in utero, so the morality of abortion in those cases could be determined based on the same questions.

First, the question of suffering in the abortion itself:  does a fetus have a right not to suffer?   Since they can't really "suffer", the point is moot.  Abortion does not cause suffering except to the woman who may have some physical side-effects.... but these side effects are negligible compared to the side effects of pregnancy so that's also moot.

To what extent does the Down Syndrome person, their parents, their family and community suffer?  Are they a drag on those around them?

Besides the obvious facial features and intellectual disability, they do suffer medically.  Their organization's FAQs downplay these, as if the ability to treat heart conditions, leukemia and breathing problems obviates the question of life expectancy, but what quality of life is that?  Assuming they survive their multiple hospitalizations and have parents who are willing and able to play nurse at home, they can now live a normal lifespan.

This means that they will outlive their parents, who play a huge role in enabling them to have a somewhat normal life.  So ... the great news is that instead of suffering young and dying young, they now suffer young and die old.  In the meantime, they can sometimes experience joy of a sort, but who takes care of them after their parents die?   If the parents' funds haven't been sapped by the child's needs, there may be a trust fund ... that other siblings can kiss goodbye.  Or society cares for them.  Even if they can support themselves financially by working a menial job (as most who work do), they will still need help with life skills.

The DS organization has a series called "Great Story of the Week."  Most of the "great" stories are written by parents, and of course the parents are sure they've done the right thing by having that child.  This is classic cognitive dissonance -- I have invested a helluva lot into this child so it can't have been a mistake!   The organization itself has cognitive dissonance, or else it would also have a series called "Horrific story of the week."

There is a meme amongst parents of disabled children:  that the child brings them so much joy.  *barf*   This is downright selfish.  This gives the child a job in life beyond just learning how to tie his shoes.  He has to make his parents happy, too!  He's a hero!  With a helluva burden!  Here's a snippet of one "great" story:
I was walking across the yard today with Seth.  We were strolling more than walking as he had wrapped his arm around my waist, and was looking at me as if to say "this is nice."  I asked Seth, "Did you have a good day?"  I know he can't answer me with words.  So much of what Seth and I say to each other does not happen verbally.  We have a connection that transcends speech.  
I have this same kind of relationship with my dog.  Where is the humanity in this exchange, not to mention the morality?  You can believe your mute kid is "saying" anything to you.  It reminds me of Teri Schiavo's desperate mother imagining that the random movements of her brain-dead daughter's eyes actually meant something.  I don't have anything against people with Down syndrome - they do the best they can, but this kind of treacle does not help their cause.

Even if this mom is right about what her kid is feeling, her boastful final statement proves that the relationship is self-serving:
I owe so much to this child.  I am often told how lucky Seth is to have us.  I always reply with something like "We're the lucky ones."  ... Life is much more beautiful when I slow down and look at it with Seth.  I am so grateful that Seth has taught me to walk slowly.
Walking a chihuahua will do that for you too.  Why is this woman praising herself or her kid?  She only values walking slowly because she doesn't have to.  At one point she says her son walks slowly "probably because of his physical limitations."   She can rush through the grocery aisles at the last minute to get ready for a party if she has to.  Seth can't.  Seth will probably never have that choice, even if he develops the intellectual capacity to plan a party.

"Seth" can't tell us what he'd like in life.  Would he like to walk faster and not have to hold onto his mom for balance?   I bet he would.  Would he like to have a career in the future in something more financially rewarding than menial labor (assuming he can even do that).  Probably.  If he understands the concept.

Imagine "Seth" at age 50, still unable to walk normally, but now with arthritis from joints moving the wrong way, and no mummy to hold onto.   He has a very tiny 401k from his job sweeping the supermarket floor.  He tries to be the smiling happy retard he was as a child, but he is in pain and he's not in the mood for the happy face.  Making other people happy gets old after awhile.

I have known adults who developed debilitating physical and mental (which are really physical but I digress...)  limitations in adulthood.  Having known both conditions, they don't like their new circumstances one little bit.  They will hang onto normalcy with their fingertips, but not because they're heroes.  They do normal things because they want to be normal!   If they complete a triathlon by having a family member push them in a wheelchair the whole way (it recently happened in Indiana) are they doing it to teach us a lesson in perseverance?  No!  They just don't want to give up the trappings of a normal life.  Who would?

Suffering in others should be part of our moral equation, too.  What if there is already a disabled child in the family?  What if there's a disabled parent?  What if both parents have to work to sustain the family and they won't have time to give the child extra help learning?  Not to mention taking time off if the kid develops leukemia or needs open-heart surgery.  What about siblings?  The disabled child(ren) rob them of their parents' attention.  You never hear about these kids resenting their circumstances -- naturally they love their siblings -- but it's undeniable that they are neglected.

If we ever get to the point of allowing assisted self-euthanasia (a.k.a. suicide), it will probably still be illegal to help someone who lacks the intellectual capacity to understand it.  The average IQ of a person with Down syndrome is 50 (average for normal people is 100).  The definition of mentally disabled is an IQ of 70 or lower.  You can teach sign language to an ape, but apparently "Seth" can't learn it.  Chimps are smarter than kindergartners, but is Seth?  Could he be trusted to make a life-or-death decision for himself when his body breaks down at 50 or 60?  If he's below the average for Down syndrome definitely not.  Who decides that?  They are probably just as likely as anyone else to suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect.  They will think they're more competent than they are.

On the other side, adults with Down syndrome can be happy.  According to the Down Syndrome organization, they can also develop depression.  Just like anyone else, you can't predict who will be afflicted but for them it's just one more burden in a life that's already difficult.

So the gray area gets a bit grayer -- does one abort a fetus that will never be smarter than a chimp but let one with a lesser disorder come to term?   The amount of DNA damage can now be determined via amniocentesis.  If you can tell whether you're carrying a Seth or a high-functioning Chris Burke where would you draw the line?

This is why Dawkins has been getting crap from the Twitterverse.  Some people with Down Syndrome can manage relatively normal intellectual and emotional lives.  These above-average examples are used to shame people who envision a less bright future for their fetus.

Just once I would like to hear the parent of a disabled child say "I wish I had my child's disability."  They never do.  Deep down they know it's an unfair fact of life for their child and they wish it had been otherwise.

This brings us to another recent news item:  Robin Williams's self-euthanasia, a.k.a. suicide.  He was depressed, but he wasn't stupid.  His diagnosis of Parkinson's disease had to have been a huge blow, and he may have known people with the disease.  Most of us do.   After decades of a career based on quick-thinking did he see the disease take that away from him?  Did he fear losing that ability?   Did he decide to make a rational decision before dementia took even that away from him?  I was sad for him until I learned of his Parkinson's diagnosis.  He chose his time and place and he wanted to "leave them laughing."  Good for him!  If he didn't want people to see him as a cripple that was his choice.   If he didn't want to be a hero, that's okay.  Let Michael J Fox keep that title.   He may have responded to medication for depression and continued on with life for whatever years Parkinson's would give him, or he may not have.

Self-euthanasia is often considered a selfish act by those around the person who does it.  I lost one friend that way and I was very angry with her for a good while, but it was her life.  She didn't have to live it for the sake of other people if she didn't want to.  In another case, an elderly acquaintance (who was an atheist) took matters into her own hands when the pain of arthritis and osteoporosis became unbearable and untreatable.  She had all of her faculties, and made her choice, acting alone because our society is too backward to let her pick her time openly.

How often have we heard "When you have your health you have everything?"  Is the corollary that when you don't have your health you have nothing?  How can society send the message that health is important and then try to shame someone like Dawkins for advising termination of an unhealthy fetus?

My judgment on the continuum:  if you can prevent suffering, and especially if you can prevent suffering while the issues are simpler, then you should do it.  Robin Williams made his decision while he still had the mental and physical faculties to carry it out.  And in the case of fetal euthanasia, more suffering is prevented than created.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Let's Talk About Morality

The latest atheist community dust-up pits Richard Dawkins against a bunch of people who take exception to something he said about sex crimes.  He tried to clear it up on Twitter, which of course reaches only the people least likely to give serious thought to a subject.  If a person can't be bothered reading more than 140 characters, how thoughtful can s/he be?  (Remember, the first four letters of twitter spell "twit.") Then he tried to clear it up on his blog.

The essential facts:  He broached the topic of taboos in atheism then proposed a hypothetical discussion of two hot-button sexual topics: pedophilia and rape.  As if to prove his point and disprove it at the same time, the interwebs blew up in a hot second.  Here are the tweets that are being tweeted around the world:

He disproved his point when a jillion people (I wouldn't know - I don't follow twitter, tweets, twits, or interweb dust-ups closely enough to count) discussed pedophilia and rape, and why he was wrong to say those things.  With so much discussion, I think it's safe to say that those topics are not "taboo."   He proved his point that emotion rules the discussion, though.

Well, of course it does.  Sex is highly emotional, highly personal, and sexual offenses are attacks on basic human dignity.

Unfortunately instead of engaging in a rational discussion -- which is what he presumably wanted to do -- he has insulted the people who took issue with his examples.  This just fuels the fire against him and changes the topic.  It's trollish behavior, at the least.

On his blog he summed it up perfectly:  "I didn’t know quite how deeply those two sensitive issues had infiltrated the taboo zone"  Well, those are clearly not taboo or else nobody would have responded, and I'm surprised if he's surprised.  He followed up with his implicit definition of taboo as "off limits to reason and logic."  

He digs himself deeper here:
That, then, is why I chose rape and pedophilia for my hypothetical examples. I think rationalists should be free to discuss spectrums of nastiness, even if only to reject them. I had noticed indications that rape and pedophilia had moved out of the discussion zone into a no-go taboo area. I wanted to challenge the taboo, just as I want to challenge all taboos against free discussion.
Nothing should be off limits to discussion. No, let me amend that. If you think some things should be off limits, let’s sit down together and discuss that proposition itself.
I would love to discuss these things rationally.  Unfortunately Dawkins didn't set the tone for rationality.  He was accusatory, and mistook emotional response for irrational censorship.  In his follow-up blog post he mentions his revelation of an incident from his childhood.  Digging himself deeper, he sets up a straw man, and then suggests that "We need to look more carefully at exactly who is belittling what."

Well, let's not belittle anyone or anything.  Let's start fresh and be rational.  In a rational discussion of sex crimes or other "taboo" topics, there should be some elements of rational discussion, such as:
  • Definition of Terms
  • Definition of Goals
  • Research Findings about the Topic
  • Quotes from the World's Most Well-Respected Thinkers
  • A Few Proposed Solutions
  • Testing of the Solutions (with thought experiments)
  • Discussion of Results
  • Rational Decision of Best Conclusion
You can't do that in a tweet, or even a series of tweets.

Dawkins's proposed quantification (?) of the badness of sex crimes is only one way to come to a conclusion about sexual morality.  It's not even an original way, because the court systems of every country have done this.  Even sharia law has done this, in its perverted way.  The fact that they all disagree means it's fertile ground for discussion, but coming to an agreement will take a long, long time and requires open mindedness on all sides, including his.

In the old days of the Internet Infidels Discussion Board (iidb), there was a section devoted to "Moral Foundations and Principles" and I was one of the moderators.   I wasn't personally interested in the discussions about pedophilia (we had few discussions about rape or other sex acts) but I kept an eye on them.  So yes, I can say unequivocally that atheists can discuss difficult topics rationally because I have seen it happen.  For what it's worth, these were the foundations and principles that a rational person would bring up:

  • What should be the basis for judging morality of a sex act?  The consensus was that consent was an imperative.  Any sex act that was not consensual for both parties is immoral.
  • How does one determine consent?  The consensus was predictable:  adult, not mentally compromised
  • How old should someone be to consent?  There was no consensus here thanks to pedophile trolls, but there isn't any consensus in the world, either.  The trolls tried to make the case that because some children & teens are more mature they should be considered able to consent, just as some "retarded" people, i.e. people who mature more slowly, shouldn't be able to.  How do you test such a thing?  Well, my personal view is that someone who appears to be mature for his/her age is actually still maturing.  The pre-frontal cortex is not fully formed until about age 25.  A person who has a genius intellect at age 12 may still be socially and psychologically underdeveloped.  et cetera.  They are like a hamburger that's been browned in a fry pan before being put into the oven: still raw on the inside and should stay in the oven for awhile.
  • What about painful or injurious sex between consenting, mentally capable, adults?  That didn't come up much but I would question the mental competence of someone who would permit themselves to be hurt during sex or at any other time.
  • Are there exceptions to these "rules?"  What about necrophilia?  A dead person can't consent, but they don't really "own" their bodies and they won't suffer any repercussions.  My personal opinion is that the family generally owns the person's body, unless other arrangements have been made.  It could also be injurious to the person doing it, though I admit that I have not had the curiosity to investigate the details.
Dawkins wanted to create gradations of "wrongness" but he didn't offer much in the way of specifics, nor suggest the potential consequences (such as differences in sentencing).  One of the big problems with the penal system is inconsistency in the way crimes are handled:
  • Some miscreants don't get caught  
  • Their crimes are noticed but go unreported
  • They confess to someone who covers for them
  • Their crime is reported but the police and the victim don't pursue it
  • Charges are filed and then dropped
  • They are found innocent or found guilty of a lesser charge
  • They get released on a technicality, escape. or otherwise get out of jail
  • They commit their crime in a jurisdiction that doesn't consider it a crime
There is a large body of literature on criminal justice, and I haven't read much of it.  Neither has Dawkins, I would guess.  From cases I've followed, it seems that the theoretical underpinnings that create something like gradations of "badness" have to do with intention of the perpetrator and consequences suffered by the victim.  Sometimes there is also the factor of number of offenses together. I think the dichotomy that seems to offend Dawkins, in which all rape is rape and all pedophilia is pedophilia, is appropriate, based on the principles that I listed above.  If someone has not consented to penetration, penetration is a crime (or any other sex act).  "No" means "no."  Likewise, if you drive the wrong way on a one-way road it's the wrong way whether the speed limit is 30 or 60, or whether there are children in the vicinity, etc.  A cop has discretion whether to issue a ticket or a warning, based on whether the driver is white rational principles (we hope).  But the wrongness of driving the wrong way is not in dispute.  What might be in dispute would be the extent to which we are morally repulsed:  someone whose wrong-way driving results in a car wreck would be charged with a felony, while someone who happened to drive on the wrong way on a street with only a cop car on it might just get a ticket.  The crimes are the same, but the results are vastly different.

For an opposite take on gradations of badness, Atheist vlogger Joe Dixon, who is black, argues against hate crime laws in his stand-up act:  He points out that John Wilkes Booth killed Abraham Lincoln because he hated him.  Selena was killed by a fan because she loved her.  Which one is more dead?  Dead is dead.

Theft is one crime that I think has been graduated in the wrong ways and would make for a much more fruitful discussion.  It's a felony if you hold someone up at knifepoint on the street and rob them of $20.00.  The perpetrator may spend decades in a harsh prison, and in many states will be disenfranchised of his (or her) right to vote for life.   But if you steal someone's life savings of $250,000 in a Ponzi scheme, you'll go to club Fed if your lawyer isn't crooked clever enough.  The person who was held up at knifepoint may feel insecure about walking alone at night afterward, but the person who's lost his or her life savings may become homeless or commit suicide.  Bernie Madoff never used a knife or laid a hand on his victims, but he was sentenced to 150 years in prison.  His attorney asked for twelve years!  If he hadn't bilked NYU's Law School, Sandy Koufax and other high-profile investors he might have gotten off easier.   I hope that his case has set a precedent for other "white collar" criminals.

Note that this blog post has more than 140 characters.  I am a fan of brevity in Hemingway, but he couldn't have squeezed even his most brilliant work into a tweet or even a series of them.

If I were to compose a brief question posing a moral conundrum, I would choose two things that are more closely related and ask readers to comment (Have at it, readers!)  My thought experiment is this:

Which is worse, and why?  Raping a victim and then killing him/her?  or Killing him/her and then having sex with the corpse?


If I haven't bored you with my response to the twitstorm, here are some other responses from around the web (titles/summaries mine):

The Dawkins Disillusion:  young atheist disappointed in Dawkins, whom she admired greatly

Dawkins isn't as logical as he thinks he is

Dawkins is a troll, an ignorant wanker, and a moral coward, and he should be ashamed of himself

Studies show that in the U.K. attitudes toward rape affect victims

Dawkins is using his own experience as a yardstick for judging others' experiences.