Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Keeping up with The Times

Just read philosopher Peter Singer's contribution to the Opinionator, "Should This Be the Last Generation?"

Which on the one hand brought to mind a joke that StraightMan likes to make about teaching and parenting: That had he known in advance what they both involved, he might have reconsidered one of them.

The exact wording, the brevity, the delivery, and with them, the impact, might be lost, but I think you get more or less the idea.

On the other hand. I found Singer's piece interestingly provocative, as it clearly is intended to be, but I admit that I also thought: Written like a man.

I mean that without essentializing either "man" or "woman." Of course. Mindful of the gendered existences and experiences that "we" have. That said, I think men and women build their relationships to / with a child rather differently. Having a child, or not having a child, becomes attached with importances and meanings. How we feel about having children and what we do about it, in fact, genders us.

It might be just my disciplinarily-bred defensiveness or my crankiness with the field of "ethics" - I has less problem with ethics themselves - but I disagree with Singer's contention that "very few ask whether coming into existence is a good thing for the child itself. Most of those who consider that question probably do so because they have some reason to fear that the child’s life would be especially difficult — for example, if they have a family history of a devastating illness, physical or mental, that cannot yet be detected prenatally."

Given that at least some kind of testing has become routine in the medical management of pregnancy in the United States - and this includes fetal ultrasound imaging, which has become more or less a ritual for "seeing" the baby - I suggest that the question of coming into existence haunts a lot of women in the family way.

Anthropologist Rayna Rapp wrote a compelling ethnography, Testing Women, Testing the Fetus, documenting women's decisions to have or not have an amniocentesis performed to test for chromosomal anomalies. Again, given the common use of the test, which is strongly recommended, almost required, for women over age 35, I think it is not unfair to say that a lot of American women face the dilemmas of do I test or not, do I want to know or not, what will I do with this information, what will I decide? Their, or I should say our choices might have been "either / or," but their / our questions and answers were far more complicated, including not only notions about the child's own "good," but also the good of their other children, who would be the siblings and possibly eventual caregivers of children with disabilities.

There is no "bracketing" or leaving aside "for the sake of argument" their experiences, expectations, and identities as women and particularly as mothers making choices for their children. I almost feel as though Singer were asking me, as a woman and mother, to inhabit his perspective without his making a similar attempt to challenge his own imagination. At risk of sounding like a stark raving feminist, I confess: I have begun to see this storied philosophic strategy of "just supposing" as an important means of universalizing a particular gendered perspective. Women constantly are asked, persuaded, pressured, and forced to accommodate men's arguments, ideas, and perspectives. Try asking men to "take on" women's ways of seeing: Become accused of being political or worse - soft, subjective, unscientific, not so smart.

The questions that Singer poses to readers are intended to be provocatively interesting, but I do not find them exactly that. I mean, are they not the questions that guide the ideas and practices of women and men across cultures and societies, in the past and in the present?

If a child is likely to have a life full of pain and suffering is that a reason against bringing the child into existence?

If a child is likely to have a happy, healthy life, is that a reason for bringing the child into existence?

Like so many other decisions that we as human people make in our lives, the "choice" to have (or not have) a child is itself constrained and conditioned and culturally mediated and socially policed and historically and politically / economically situated and gendered.

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