Sunday, November 20, 2005

Political correctness run amuk (1)

The Week in Review section of the New York Times has a story about the dilemmas posed by prenatal testing and women increasingly choosing abortion when they find out that the fetus has severe disabilities. (It is estimated, for instance, that about 80% of Down's Syndrome fetuses are now aborted.) The article, by Amy Harmon, raises some valid and important questions: if children with serious mental and physical disabilities become increasingly rare and -- well -- preventable, then those who are born are likely to face far greater social isolation, as well as loss of public support for programs designed to help them. Harmon notes that even the search for cures for certain diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, may be seen as far less urgent and far less worthy of funding if, due to prenatal testing and abortion, very few babies with cystic fibrosis are born anymore.

So far, so good. But in the middle of this very interesting article, there is this line:

If no child is ever born again with the fatal childhood disease Tay-Sachs, many might see that as a medical triumph. But what about other conditions, including deafness, which some do not consider to be a disability .... ?

I can suggest some good lines for Ms. Harmon's future articles. For instance:

... sexual intercourse, which some consider to be inherently oppressive to women...


... Southern slavery, which some regard as a benevolent paternalistic institution...


... wife-beating, which some believe is a husband's rightful prerogative...

or maybe this:

the moon, which some believe is made of green cheese...

You get the picture.

Mind you, I am not denying that deaf people can and do lead rich and satisfying lives (as do people with many other kinds of disabilities). And I would certainly never argue that a woman who learns that her child will be born deaf should have an abortion. However, as I said in my post on identity politics the other day, I think that the "Deaf pride" movement -- which holds that deafness is a cultural identity to be cherished, and that wanting to cure deafness is akin to wanting to cure homosexuality or to turn black people white -- is an example of identity politics at its most grotesque and destructive. (I wrote a column on this topic in 2002.) It's pretty obvious that hearing is one of the basic human (and mammalian) faculties, and that the inability to hear is a serious disability, even if its effects can be largely alleviated by technological and social improvements. Can any sane person doubt that the eradication of deafness would be a medical triumph and a great boon for humanity?

Most deaf people don't subscribe to militant "Deaf" ideology. (Only a quarter of profoundly deaf people in the U.S., for instance, use American Sign Language.) The position that deafness is not a disability and should not be eliminated is held by a small group of hardcore extremists. Why, then, is their position dignified by the Times? As I said in my 2002 column: "There is no reason for the news media and other cultural institutions to be deferential toward crackpot beliefs that come with the cachet of 'diversity.'" The "paper of record" has just provided us with a striking example of such misguided deference.


thecobrasnose said...

Can the selective abortion of defective humans be considered "a medical triumph"? While I wouldn't presume to judge a parent who chose to abort a Tay-Sachs child, I would be more likely to think of a cure as a triumph and a super effective system of euthanasia as a bitter concession to tragedy.

Cathy Young said...

Hi shreeharsh,

Well, if that's the case, I think the New York Times writer should use her language with a little more precision.

I'm not at all sure that's what was meant, though. "Which some do not consider to be a disability" is pretty straightforward. She could have just as easily said, "which most would regard as a minor and manageable disability," or "which is a disability that does not preclude a full and productive life."

What's more, as I mention in my column, the Times does have a history of genuflecting to the radical Deaf movement. In 1994, the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story on "Deaf culture" by Andrew Solomon, which concluded with this mind-boggling statement:

Perhaps, like the search for a cure to gayness, the search for a cure for the deaf will be dropped by respectable institutions -- which would be both a bad and a good thing.

I believe the pro-deaf-culture documentary Sound and Fury received a positive review in the Times as well.

thecobrasnose - I agree with you that a "medical triumph" would be gene therapy, of course, and not selective abortion.

Anonymous said...

I think that any writer who uses one of those "last word" clunkers (that the Times and NPR are so very fond of) should be forced to admit they are no longer "reporting" or doing "journalism" - like the poor Indian folks who have to report on their physical location when you call Dell - "...and, actual facts aside, my small-liberal-arts-school-inthe-northeast education requires me to opine..."

Anonymous said...

I am in an English lesson now at my college and we're doing about political correctness. A lot of people have opinions on the subject and everyone feels that every person deserves equal rights!! power to the people, dudes!!

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Maria said...

What the writer means, of course, is -- what about other conditions, (like deafness), which some do not consider to be a disability worth aborting over.
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