Is a familial genetic legacy the right reason not to have a baby? No! *UPDATED*

PJ Media has had two interesting posts about whether familial genetic legacies are the right reason not to have a baby.  David Swindle passes on an article about the fact that well-known “comedienne” Sarah Silverman (I use the scare quotes because I don’t think she’s funny) announced recently that she will not have children because she and her family have a history of depression.  Silverman can’t bear the thought that any children she has might suffer the same fate.  Conservative blogger Kathy Shaidle also thinks that her family’s genetic possibilities — in her case, shortness — makes having babies a bad deal for the babies.  (Shaidle offers up a number of other reasons why she wouldn’t have a baby, all of which make it clear that she’s thought the subject through carefully and really isn’t the maternal type.)

Neither woman is concerned about a life-threatening genetic problem, the kind that mandates that the child will suffer terribly and die young.  Both are concerned, though, about traits that have affected the quality of their otherwise successful lives.  Within this framework, Silverman and Shaidle are both wrong.  There are many reasons not to have children, but their genetic concerns aren’t the right reasons.

To begin with, there’s no guarantee that a child will inherit whatever genetic problem exists in the family.  Keep in mind that babies aren’t clones.  They are, instead, the end result of thousands of years of genetic mix-ups.  My great-grandmother had fraternal twin girls.  One was six feet tall, the other five feet tall.  They represented the two genetic extremes in just one family line.  I’m five feet tall.  My (male) cousins on the maternal side hover around 6’7″.  They married short women; I married a tall man.  All of our children are clocking in at average.  Nature does what nature does.  We can make some educated Mendelian guesses about the probable outcome when a couple have a baby, but those are just that — guesses.

Things get scary when we take those guesses out of the hypothetical realm (“I’ll never get pregnant because of this-or-that possibility”) and into the realm of making affirmative decisions about those little fetuses (“I’m pregnant and I know what’s wrong.”).  On the Today Show, Nancy Snyderman, the science correspondent, waxed enthusiastic about plucking “defective” babies out of the womb:

SNYDERMAN: Well, you might learn that a child has a severe genetic problem. It gives parents a chance to decide whether they’re going to continue that pregnancy or not. This is the science of today. It is running fast into the future. And I think the future will be such that you’ll find out that your child may have a genetic hit. You can fix that genetic problem, and improve your chance, a child’s chance of having a healthier –

STAR JONES: When will you know about this?

SNYDERMAN: Well, it’s out there now but it’s too expensive.

DONNY DEUTSCH: But obviously there’s another flip side guys, there’s another flip — Look, I’m a pro-choice guy, but at the end of the day what’s stopping people, “Oh, my son is going to be blond, I want — ” You’ve got to do it for the reasons you’re talking about, but –

SNYDERMAN: I get the genetic-engineering issue. But the reality is we’ve already jumped out of that with amniocentesis.

JONES: Correct.

SNYDERMAN: So, the science is there. The problem is that science goes faster than we have these societal questions. And that’s exactly why we should have these societal questions now.

Donny Deutsch may be a liberal, but he honed in like a laser-guided missile with his question which, rephrased, is “who’s to decide what constitutes a defect sufficient to justify terminating a nascent life?”  Snyderman pretty much brushed him off.  Her answer, rephrased, was “with knowledge comes power.”

Snyderman is obviously an acolyte of the Peter Singer school of ethics/eugenics.  Peter Singer holds an endowed chair at Princeton, which means that he daily gets the opportunity to sell his views to the best and the brightest, young people who move on from Princeton to positions of power and responsibility.  This matters, because his academic output includes such books as Should the Baby Live?: The Problem of Handicapped Infants (Studies in Bioethics), Animal Liberation and In Defense of Animals: The Second Wave.  The title of that first-listed book — Should the Baby Live? — pretty much sums up the man’s philosophy:  he advocates euthanizing handicapped infants.  He is, of course, reviled by the handicapped community (and rightly so).

The moral abyss Singer creates with his euthanasia musings is highlighted by the fact that his animal liberation writings make him a founding father of the animal rights movement — a movement that’s come to full flower in PETA insanity (which analogizes the death of chickens to the death of Jews in Hitler’s gas chambers). Singer explicitly believes that a healthy animal has greater rights than a sick person.  If you need a further insight into Singer’s warped world — and let me remind you that this warped world gives him tremendous status in academia, not to mention worldwide accolades — Singer has no moral problem with bestiality, provided that the animal consents, an attitude that places him at odds with the same animal rights movement he was so instrumental in creating.

I recognize that there’s a difference between refraining from pregnancy because you, the potential parent, are concerned about a hypothetical birth defect, and aborting a baby that is actually proven to have that defect.  The problem is defining “defect,” which leads me to the second reason Silverman and Shaidle are wrong in deciding not to have babies because of family genetic histories.

The fact is that one person’s “defect” is another person’s opportunity.  For example, the Time article to which PJ Media links makes clear that there’s a connection between depression and creativity:

But what the commenters didn’t mention is that the same genes that can cause depression may also encourage the sensitivity and sensibility that gives Silverman her creative talent. Indeed, some research suggests that the same exact genetics that might lead to depression can also lead to mental superhealth, depending on whether a person endured high stress in early childhood or had a calmer, more nurturing environment.

I can actually speak to that point.  Some of you may have noticed that my blogging has dropped off in the past six weeks.  I don’t believe that the timing is random.  Six weeks ago, I started taking tricyclics to deal with chronic, aggressive, and debilitating migraines.  I’m happy to report that the medicine has worked.  My migraines haven’t dropped to zero, but having two mild headaches in six weeks is an extraordinary reprieve from the pain and sickness that was dogging me.

That’s the up side.  The down side is that I’m having a much harder time writing.  The sizzling connections that use to race across my brain and come pouring out onto my keyboard are gone.  I sense them, but I can’t grasp them.  You see, tricyclics are antidepressants.  Although I’m taking a fraction of the clinical dose for depression (about 0.1 of the clinical dose), the medicine is still working on those parts of the brain that would have produced depression and that apparently do produce creativity.  I’m flattened out.  Not completely, but significantly.

I’m currently making the choice to lose some of my creativity in favor of freedom from pain and sickness.  But it’s my choice.  I’m a sentient being and I can make these decisions.  I’m neither a “never was” that never even got conceived or, worse, an “almost was” that got aborted.  In a year or so, I’ll try going off the medicine and see whether my brain has stopped being hysterical, so that I can be both pain free or creative.  Again, it will be my choice.  I live in hope.

Oh, and that bit about hope — it’s the third reason that Silverman and Shaidle are wrong to make genetics a reason not to have children.  Medical advances mean that the same problem that debilitated grandma, and inconvenienced mom, may be nothing to the child.  Having a baby is always a gamble.  We gamble that we’ll stay healthy, that they’ll stay healthy, and that the world will stay healthy.  We gamble that, when we read a horrible headline about a school bus accident, that this type of accident will never happen to our family.  There are no certainties in life.  Just as there’s no way of knowing whether a pregnancy will result in a child with a genetic problem, there’s also no way of knowing whether, in that child’s life, there won’t be a solution.

Anyway, some things don’t need a solution.  I’m only an inch taller than Shaidle, but I’ve found it a problem only when buying a car.  I’ve ended up buying Japanese cars, not only because I like their suspension and reliability, but also because they’re the only cars that have seats that raise up enough that I don’t need to sit on a pillow.  If there weren’t Japanese cars, then I guess I’d sit on a pillow.  Other than that, and the occasional frustration when a tall person sits in front of me at a show, I’ve never felt handicapped by being short.  Heck, I’ve never even felt short.  I have a large personality, which more than compensates for any height deficiencies.  Indeed, it’s so large that most people are quite surprised to learn that I’m “only” 5 feet tall.

Even if medical advances can’t help (or pillows aren’t available), what exists within a person may well be the determining factor in that person’s success.  My uncle was a genius with four fully operating limbs — and he was a complete failure in life, poisoned by a combination of Communism and his own character flaws.  At the other extreme is the amazing, inspirational Nick Vujicic, who was born with only a single little flipper.  Nick does more with that flipper, and with his incandescent personality, than most whole-bodied people can ever hope to do.  We wouldn’t have missed him if he’d been aborted.  That is, no one would have gone around saying, “Gosh, it’s a shame that Nick Vujicic was never born.”  However, his birth, and the message of hope that he shares, is something valuable and, knowing him and what he does, we can definitely say that the world would have been less light-filled without him.

If you don’t want to have babies, don’t have them.  On the down side, they’re hard work, messy, frustrating, and expensive.  (The up side, which all parents know, is for another post.)  Just don’t use your genetic weaknesses as the justification for your decision.

UPDATE:  A true update, regarding an event I attended the same evening I wrote this post.

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  • lee

    Domique Moceanu’s sister has been in the news. She was given up for adoption as a baby because she was born with no legs. She went on to become quite an athlete, and she is a very pretty young lady. Singer would’ve had her murdered becuase of her “defect.”

    I have also read that people with Down’s are the nicest people. I don’t know anyone with Down’s, nor do I know anyone who has someone in their family, but from what I have read, they are kind, nice, sweet individuals with a lot of warmth and love. I can’t imagine killing somone who promises to be like that.

    I saw many years ago a show on genetic issues concerning sickle-cell anemia, Tay-Sachs, and cystic fibrosis. Scientists, docotrs, parents, and in the case of sickle cell and CF, people living with the illnesses. The parents of children suffering from any one was asked if they had known that their child was going to be born with ——–, would they have had an abortion. Several parents were asked. All the parents of those children with sckle cell and CF said no, the parents of children who suffered from Tay-Sachs said yes. I cannot imagine watching a child suffer with Tay Sachs, and I can’t say as I blame those parents. 
     I have known people with CF, people who died young, people who have managed to get transplants and are still alive (in their forties).Research and treatment has come a long way for CF. It’s a terrible thing to suffer with, but I know the world has been a better place because of those people I have known with CF 
     As someone who has had issues on and off with depression  most of my life, it’s nothing compared to what my acquaintences with CF have gone through. Comparatively speaking, it’s a cakewalk. Something is always “wrong” with someone–thank goodness! It makes the world a more interesting place. I hate the idea that someone would think that a child born wth the ptential to suffer from depression is a child not worth havong. Howver, for totally different reasosn, I am very glad Sarah Silverman does not plan on having kids. 

  • Beth

    Just as there is no such thing as a free lunch, there are also no guarantees in life.  I cannot speak from the experience of having a child with genetic issues, but I can speak to the profound loneliness and sense of loss experienced by a woman who decided long ago that she was not going to poison the world with another child… about depression…
    Life is a risk so many are afraid to take.

  • Charles Martel

    More look-at-me! crap from the cheap grace brigade. Silverman’s statement is a self-serving ploy: “I have depression and have suffered terribly from it. Just look at my crappy successful career and the fact that every time I open my mouth, a fawning press reports on what comes out of it. Now see what a loving, big-hearted person I am: I will spare my child a life of depression by making sure she never comes into existence.” [Explaining how you can save a nothing from something is obviously beyond her pay grade.] 
    Snyderman is a primitive, wowed by the power of conscienceless science to run roughshod where it will, including in wombs. There are slack jaws like her everywhere, impressed by the argument that all the permission you need to do something is if you can.

  • Libby

    Time to re-watch Gattaca – a movie that addresses so many of the issues surrounding genetically engineering kids for a specific pursuit (i.e. Olympic swim champ) vs. the marginalization of flawed babies conceived the old fashioned way.
    I really hope that Shaidle & Silverman are just trying to provide some sort of rational reason for their just not wanting to procreate. Their reasoning entirely misses one of the greatest pleasures of having children: the thrill of watching them become their own person, a glorious combination traits and physical characteristics from parents and other relatives, and how they use these strengths and weaknesses in their own lives. 
    I have a child who was born with heart defects as well as a larger than life personality. Several of his most striking personality traits – tenacity and an incredible strength of will – are what got him through years of medical treatment. To deny him life “for his own good” was inconceivable, and in hindsight, laughable now that we’ve seen how well he’s handled his particular challenges. 

  • Caped Crusader

    Never dreamed you would be so unpatriotic as to refuse to sit on a pillow so you could drive an American car– (JOKING). Actually, a Toyota is more “American” than a Chevy  — read somewhere in past years, Toyota had 92% American parts and manufacture and Chevy 54%.

  • nathan

    Gattica is at once a frightening and inspiring movie.  Frightening because it shows how genetic selection can destroy respect for human life.  Inspiring because the main character, Vincent, has the strength of spirit and character to triumph in the end, despite having inferior genes.  This movie should be required viewing in every high school, but our liberal “educators” would never permit it.

  • Call me Lennie

    So you’re one of one five foot dynamo women, are you? Yeah, my older sister is just like that and I’ve basically lived in abject terror of her my entire life :-D.  Apparently she’s quite a bit like you — went to college at Stanford, practiced law in Southern Cal and has a personality so enormous that your personality would undoubtedly be sucked into the maw of hers as light is sucked into the maw of a super massive black hole.
    I also have a baby sister who’s quite a bit like you as well.   She went to Cal Berkeley right about the same time as you, I believe (1982-86).  Must be why I find you so intriguing.  Well that and the story of your parents (I’m a serious amateur historian of WWII)  Unfortunately, my sister got sucked into the maw of Berkeley leftism and the child that went to Catholic schools and whose tuition was paid by her devoutly Catholic father has never been seen from again

  • Danny Lemieux

    Once again, you nailed it, Hammer!

  • Ron19

    As Bruce dern said in some movie, “There’s nothing scarier than a short lawyer.”

  • Ron19

    Paraphrasing the Caesar Agustus comment about King Harrod:

    It’s safer being Peter Singer’s rat than it is being his child.

  • Earl

    Dittos on the Gattaca comments — GREAT movie, and every high-school student should see it.  Might really change the future a bit.
    I’ll disagree with you, BW, only to say that for someone who doesn’t really WANT a child, we ought not to argue with them, and to allow ANY excuse, even such transparently phony ones as these.  Because women of this sort, if “talked into” conceiving a child, would probably change their minds part-way through the pregnancy and have no qualms whatever about killing their baby before it had a chance to be born.

  • MacG

    OF course Rush nailed this years ago. Just wait until they prove homosexuality is genetic and a couple wants to abort it for being or in this case merely the probability of being gay and you’ll will see just how political an issue this right to abortion on demand really is.
    Come to think of it ‘they’ are working proving that religious people have smaller brains and we all know that bigger brains are smarter brains and therefore the smaller brains will become to be seen as a defect.  We of the faith have heard from the ‘educated’ people religion is a crutch intonating that we are crippled and what do ‘they’ want to do with cripples?
    “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”

  • Ron19

    These people need to read the Book of Job, all the way to the end.

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  • B Moe

    Well, you might learn that a child has a severe genetic problem. It gives parents a chance to decide whether they’re going to continue that pregnancy or not. This is the science of today. It is running fast into the future. And I think the future will be such that you’ll find out that your child may have a genetic hit.

    I don’t see a future without Stephen Hawkings as all that wonderful.

    Or particularly scientific.    

  • Earl

    It gives parents a chance to decide whether they’re going to continue that pregnancy or not.

    Right.  One of the early steps into the abyss is to bastardize the language.  Let’s SAY what we mean — it gives the parents a chance to decide whether they’re going to kill their child or not….