Friday, March 27, 2009

"Who do we welcome? Who do we leave out?"

Jean Bethke Elshtain, a political philosopher who is on the faculty at the University of Chicago, is interviewed for Books & Culture about how we should think about those with physical and mental disabilities. Part of the interview:
.... Do you dismiss the claims of various would-be parents who report they decided to have an abortion not only out of concern for their own lives, but also out of concern for what the lives of their offspring would be like?

I think that's a very dangerous tender-heartedness, a misconstrued understanding of where compassion and empathy ought to lie. There's a wonderful discussion in Walker Percy's novel The Thanatos Syndrome of a Catholic priest's experiences in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, where he heard all the arguments put forward already then about how in the name of compassion we had to end the suffering of people with disabilities. "If you were them, you would want us to kill you," was the reasoning. The first Nazi programs to eliminate the "unfit" targeted people with disabilities rather than Jews.

The notion of aborting a Down syndrome pregnancy because of what the child would go through is an argument I'd strenuously resist. It suggests that one has no experience with or knowledge of people with Down syndrome who are brought up in families as participants in their communities. There was a story in The New York Times not long ago about a sister who spent her life with a brother with Down, whose parents were told he was a Mongoloid idiot who'd live to be ten. Well, he is now fifty. In the past, of course, children with Down often didn't live past ten, because they were put in horrible places and ignored.

People who live among us with multiple disabilities overwhelmingly are happy they're alive. If they didn't want to be here, you'd think there would be an unusually high rate of suicide among them, those who can think through that and are physically capable of it. But we don't see that. You can see mutual enrichment that comes from our encounters with them. And yet I think for some people there's a bit of a stigma attached: I'm not as perfect as I hope to be if the child I brought into this world has problems; it's embarrassing. I think some of that still lingers too.

What do you say to the argument that allowing people with disabilities onto this planet places an undue burden on society?

That's the old utilitarian calculation. It's entirely illegitimate because it suggests that the strong and able-bodied have more right to the things of the earth than those who are weak and not able-bodied. If you believe in the moral quality of persons, that's obviously not an argument you can credit. In practice, it's also a very dangerous argument because it's been made historically for warehousing people or euthanizing people. The Nazi programs had prudential utilitarian reasoning as well. Plus I suspect it's the powerful and the strong and the rich who use up more of the world's resources than the weak and the not-so-powerful. It's a matter of asking ourselves: Who do we welcome? Who do we leave out? Are we the kind of community whose members extend themselves in friendship and recognize the moral worth of beings who don't look like us and don't act like us and cannot achieve like us and who will have claims on our care for their entire lives? .... (more)
Who Counts? - Books & Culture

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