Wednesday, January 31, 2007

No sympathy for the minority

Slate's Will Saletan is not quite pro-life, but he's definitely anti pro-choice, given his belief that they have somehow gone "too far" in their advocacy of abortion rights. One might think therefore that such a position would translate into a serious analysis of the issues facing parents of a severely handicapped child, given that one choice facing parents of such a child might be instead to have an abortion.

One would be wrong. In a bizarrely overlooked article in the Washington Post last Sunday week (overlooked at least according to technorati and Google's blogsearch), Saletan poured scorn on the decision of Seattle parents to prevent their severely handicapped child Ashley, who has a mental age of 3 months, from developing the physical features of puberty or adulthood. Now it takes about 10 seconds of reflection to see why the parents considered this: contemplate the care issues involved with a completely helpless teenager who has no idea what is going on. But for Saletan, it's just a lifestyle choice like others that ugly Americans might make --

We don't have to make the world fit people anymore. We can shrink people to fit the world ... In the long run, however, economic and ecological forces are going Ashley's way. Smaller people consume fewer resources, live longer and are cheaper to transport. They can fit in a Hyundai. Forty-five years ago, if you were six feet tall, you couldn't fly in a NASA space capsule. Now you can barely fly coach. Blessed are the short, for they shall inherit the Earth.

He even has the nerve to complain that Ashley's parents used criteria that were "not cognitive, [but] moral" when the key issue is her lack of cognitive development to match her physical growth. And it goes on --

Everywhere you turn, people are engineering their bodies to fit in. Chinese are lengthening their legs with surgery to raise their status and career prospects. American men are bulking up on steroids to look good at the gym. In the United States, 300,000 women receive breast implants each year. Some are having toes trimmed to fit fashionable shoes ... But if those are good arguments for shrinking people, or at least for removing some of their tissue, why stop with Ashley? We're facing an epidemic of patients who are physically and cognitively incapacitated, hard to lift, cancer-prone, extremely uncomfortable and incapable of bearing children. They're called old people ...

.... "The only additional care givers entrusted to Ashley's care are her two Grandmothers, who find Ashley's weight even more difficult to manage," the parents plead. But once you start changing people's bodies to make them easier to bear, it's that much easier to look at their caregivers the same way. So the bearers became burdens, and we lightened them. And they lived happily ever after.

Thus is constructed the worst slippery slope argument ever, on a foundation of a pathological lack of empathy. He'd make a fine loony pro-lifer.

[Some additional links: A similar version of the article was published in Slate, and did attract some commentary, but not much; Peter Singer had a much more sensible take on the case in the New York Times]

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