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.
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.