Why some people don't think Down Syndrome is bad

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanJul 14, 2012 4:16 AM


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I often criticize Lefty readers for their lack of reality-basis. Specifically, they often want to align reality with their own normative preferences, even though normative preferences aren't necessarily contingent upon reality (e.g., sex differences). My post on Down Syndrome has elicited similar responses, but from people one might term social conservatives. So, for example, Ursula and Matthew Hennessey have taken to denouncing me on Twitter, albeit for statements that they no doubt find extremely objectionable. Not too surprising. But I found this post, A gift named Magdalena, particularly instructive:

But we aren’t victims. In fact, we’re the opposite. We are supremely lucky. Magdalena isn’t sick. Down syndrome is not a disease; it’s merely a collection of traits, all of which occur, though not all at once, in so-called “normal” people. But how could Down syndrome be a gift? Surely that’s taking it too far. How could a lifetime of likely dependency be a gift? How could impaired cognitive development be a gift? How could gastroesophageal reflux disease and its expensive, twice daily medicine be a gift? How could two full years of potty training with no end in sight be a gift?

The truth is that there is no objective bright line between trait and disease. In fact, nature does not know trait or disease, it only knows phenotypes. Being white skinned in a pre-modern world is a disease at the equator, and being black skinned in Scandinavia would also have been a disease. In theory you could argue that Down Syndrome is not a disease either. The Hennessey's are correct that the collection of traits of DS individuals can be found elsewhere. So imagine that a chemical exposure or some such thing functionally transformed a child with a normal karyotype into one with Down Syndrome. How would most people feel about this? Would parents view it as a gift? Unlike some people who support abortion rights I don't think that being pro-life is a malevolent anti-woman position. I think it is a sincerely held normative stance which has a basis in some straightforward logic. If you are pro-life, and you think abortion is the killing of a person, you don't need to outline to me how valuable a human life is. That is something we begin with

a priori

. As it is, the reaction of some social conservatives to the reality of the abortion of individuals with congenital defects seems to me to resemble the caricature of Leibniz's solution to theodicy. Instead of plainly stating why it is wrong, they seem to want to abolish the reasons which people give for having an abortion as reasons at all. The reasons may be valid even if the action is not right. In any case, the Hennessey's response is not that unusual in the specifics. Many people have had to take care of family members who are ill or infirm. They often state that these experiences build their character, and there is no doubt that their actions are the right, proper, and moral thing to do. But that does not entail that illness and infirmity are not things to be avoided if that possibility was available! More broadly my point is that as a society we don't have a good way to talk about human difference. We accept moral equality, but then implicitly go beyond that to destroy the distinctions between us, horizontal (e.g., male vs. female) and vertical (e.g., intelligent vs. not intelligent). The paradox is that in our choices we continue to acknowledge the power of difference, likely because our cognitive intuitions are keen toward detecting and sifting across differences.

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