23 January 2014

Another hypothetical debate on ethics.

This question came up in the context of the usual trolling of how crazy Christians are that atheists often engage in for fun (I suppose we do need to blow off some steam once in a while).

But basically the question would be this:
Suppose we can test neonatal fetal development for all manner of genetically disposed conditions or behaviors. So anything from Down's Syndrome as we can already, to autism, to homosexuality, to psychopathy, to alcohol dependency. Anything with a genetic marker and some level of biological natural determinism to it, that somebody might find undesirable. It could be as simple as tall or short children for that matter. (Note: I would not regard the argument that autism is supposedly caused by vaccines as legitimate and sensible or established science, nor apparently do most of the people who advanced that claim in the first place, but this variety of testing were it to be available would likely finally end most of that at least).

What are our ethical defences for justifying and reconciling the legal and moral status of abortion in the scenario where lots of people have this kind of information and begin genetically weeding out undesirable conditions (subjectively determined).

This isn't that far-fetched. Down's Syndrome once detected is nearly universally aborted. Something like Tay Sachs probably should be. On the other end of the spectrum we have already the ability to determine the sex of the developing fetus with some precision. It hasn't been far fetched for some male-dominated societies to terminate female pregnancies in favor of having more sons (or to practice infanticide for the same reasons). The problem ethically speaking already exists. We are already confronting it and many are discomforted by the notion of various issues being, in a sense, eugenically cleansed from society.

My general contention ethically would be that we have no obligation to make our moral revulsion into laws binding everyone to the same conventions of moral revulsion herein, and that attempts to do so would be fraught with the problems of what we might allow but what we might reject as a morally acceptable decision with the same outcomes. Abortion for this basis, but not for this basis eventually resembles abortion for me but not for thee. If somebody really, really wants a son and not a daughter, I'm not about to be able to talk them out of it, I'm not also prepared to prevent them from seeking and conducting the necessary procedures. Similarly with dealing with various mental disorders when raising a child, not every parent seems prepared for that if they could have a "healthy" child instead that I would be inclined to provide legal restrictions for any intense feelings of discomfort at their decisions. I already experience intense feelings of discomfort for many adults as they raise children. I'm not moved to provide significant obstacles to that process either out of some obligation to the species or our modern societies more specifically.

What we can have as an obligation is to try to talk someone out of it who seems inclined to use these kinds of "designer" preferences on their child, to amend or abort. We can try talking to them reasonably and without force or malicious intention at least. That obligation can already exist along side pro-choice attitudes even to the extreme of allowing any abortion at any time legally. We can find that we disagree with or (hopefully) want to understand further the motivations of this other human being as regards their actions. We might even be persuasive enough in our arguments that their fears on some matters are overblown and unjustified; psychopathy for example seems to need an environmental trigger, not just the genetic triggers, while autism is understood as a spectrum disorder with some modestly interesting effects at the low end. Or that their fears can be allayed in some other way; adoption, ease of medical care, cure, or advice for dealing with some more dreadful genetic condition. Coercion is not only a power of the state to apply and we as individuals by alternative to this power can seek to raise objections and concerns with the actions of other people without compelling their compliance through force and penalties of law. This would be like saying that a particular drug or narcotic should be more freely available by law, with few or no penalties for use or sale, but that people still probably shouldn't be high while at work (depending on their work perhaps) or while driving a car or operating heavy machinery or giving the drug to children without some medical reason.

I am not certain I find that all of these objections against abortion or genetic "meddling" are necessarily persuasive, and that there are many such designer preferences that I might have no obvious rebuttals to; where there are physical and severe mental impairments say that could be treated and removed on the more optimistic side of genetic capacities or detected and the potential child eliminated on the more probable end. I do think that our understanding, at least in my lifetime, of genetics is apt to remain limited enough such that some of these will not be conditions of a future child that we could identify accurately and with relative certainty, much less easily change or otherwise improve upon. There are others that will be in that realm of possibility. It behooves us to ask these questions of our ethical responsibilities in a relatively free society, what will we allow, what won't we.

There are already arguments prepared that we should heavily restrict the availability of some kinds of genetic information, not just for these neonatal purposes but for adults seeking knowledge of risks of cancer or other maladies as they advance in age. And that the basis for this restriction is in part to protect us from overcompensating our present wants over our future selves, or to prevent us from making decisions that are too broad and sweeping judgments. In other words, we are apt to make decisions that we would potentially regret later. This is, in some sense, the most powerful of pro-life arguments, though it lacks the certainty that it would be true in all or even very many cases to make it into some legal formulation.

As an example. Autistic children could very easily grow up to be modestly functional adults just as anyone else might, but with peculiar abilities or unique perspectives. We, as a set of prospective parents to this next generation we wish to see and raise, might find a great deal of joy and pride in that. Or we might be nightmarishly tormented by the inabilities of a child to communicate and connect and the resulting physical symptoms of internal anguish. Or both. In this case, I am not persuaded that the average person would, in the time that it would take to establish such testing, view their prospective child's diagnosis as a probable autistic as some variety of hateful and vengeful deity acting upon them and requiring extreme measures to prevent. Perhaps some would. But this does not strike me as the kind of information that would greatly alter many people's choices. My own suspicion is that it would be more like the kind of information that people already inclined to abort or give up a child for adoption would simply mark on the form as their reason. Perhaps I am blinded to the level of bile and hatred available for autism however and in this case this would be a more serious problem for neurodiversity issues. If so, I would submit that this is probably suggestive that we'd have a much bigger problem for biodiversity generally in such an environment where such information is available, and that we would probably want to be careful and restrictive on how available it is or how often it is used.

A similar example: homosexuals, in a society with improving legal recognition and improving social recognition would also be modestly flourishing adults, capable of engaging in relationships, and playing and working among others with decreasing levels of animosity tolerated publicly. The experience of many parents and friends or family members of such children as they mature into adults is to take the same pride and joy in those relationships, achievements, and progressions as they do with any other child, friend, or family member and this has, in time, shifted public opinion away from intolerance and toward a position of modest acceptance. A testing regime would probably disclose to us several things
1) There are more homosexuals genetically than are open in their relationship orientations, though it's also not very common other than as part of a spectrum.
2) This would include some people that we'd probably never have thought were homosexuals, sometimes including family members of virulently anti-homosexual individuals. Sometimes including virulently anti-homosexual persons themselves.
3) Whether pro-life persons are more interested in being anti-homosexual, and anti-human sexuality in general, or whether they are more interested in being pro-life. For some, if not many, this might be a difficult conflict to resolve philosophically and morally.
4) Whether many pro-gay-rights persons are also not all that tolerant and are mostly pro-gay rights because there are gay persons now, but if they could be gotten rid of, they'd be happy with that too. I suspect this too is also possible. Many people find the prospect of homosexual relationships disgusting or repellent personally and have considerable difficulty not transferring the prospect of that disgust onto other people who find it sexually appealing instead or onto others who are more indifferent to the likes and dislikes of other people.

Again, my estimation is that this kind of information will probably not move the needle very much toward more abortions. In a society where homosexuality is more fully shunned, with restrictive rights or even penalties, perhaps it would. And again, my estimation would be this might be suggestive of a larger biodiversity issue within the human population. I'm not aware of many eugenics based reasons that homosexuals would need to be prevented from even existing (for example, homosexuals can still reproduce, even naturally, though it takes some complexities if individually they never take opposing sex partners, those complexities apply also to kinds of infertility that we have overcome scientifically to some extent) and there are genetic and evolutionary reasons that are available in favor of their existence.

We would be on much shaker ground on topics like height or skin tone, at least as a basis for abortion. And we eventually end up back where we are now, where there are a small number of conditions for which genetic testing is available or will be soon and for which abortions are much more likely as a choice taken. The overwhelming preference of potential mothers and parents under circumstances of genetic results pushing into abortions suggests there's a widespread fear of particular conditions. Some of that fear is easily understood (Tay Sachs is universally pretty awful). A whole range of debilitating to devastating conditions are involved here alongside more prosaic concerns like "I'm too young to be a mom", or "I already have a kid and am a single mom" and so on. These reasons of fitness are a little more understood by the public to be "okay" than something like "This is a parasite feeding off my body" but I am inclined to think both are legitimate enough concerns. What is problematic is the near universality of reaction for some conditions implies that other lesser conditions or genetic tinkering would also be near universality.

I do not think that this concern absolves us of the questions of autonomy for women and families in decisions of parenting and parentage such that the appropriate response is to prevent testing or to prevent the abortions from being performed to respond to this aspect of abortion and its ethical quandaries. I do think the question becomes less complicated if we were ever to develop a gene therapy preventing such conditions but remains equally murky in how it might be resolved at a social level. What seems the direction out is to continue to give people better options and information to deal with what are perceived at present to be very complicated if not insurmountable problems rather than to obscure those options and deny access to information. The short answer here is that we want fewer abortions, for these kinds of reasons at least, then the answer is to overcome the social fears that are acting to constrict the public's reactions toward particular outcomes. On some of these conditions and concerns, that will be a modest but manageable task, on others, it could be monumentally difficult. On these latter, it might become preferable to allow other approaches entirely to enter the field in a socially accepted way if the desired goal is to prevent the abortions from being likely and occurring (say gene therapy, if available, adoption or increased social resources for parenting and education, if not).
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