But wait there’s more . . .

In a fit of what some Troppodillians will now know to be rather typical hot headed enthusiasm, I recently pontificated about the best blog post I’d seen in the year. Well it has a sequel, which is also worth reading.  And I laughed out loud when I got to this part of the argument the author is having in an email exchange with Peter Singer – essentially about whether his Down syndrome child should be regarded as fully human.

The third goes to the premise of your argument.  Youre looking for things people with Down syndrome cant do, and Im looking for things they can.  We each have our reasons, of course.  But I dont accept the premise that cognitive capacity is a useful criterion for reading some people out of the human community, any more than you would accept the premise that we should grant rights to animals on the basis of whether humans think they do or dont taste good with barbeque sauce.

And here’s how the author concludes the email.

Oh yes, evidence that might change your mind if the above paragraphs wont.  The National Down Syndrome Society is full of useful information about what we can and cant expect, and online, the Riverbend Down Syndrome Parent Support Group is an amazing resource for everything from research on language and math skills of people with DS.  Finally, theres the book Count Us In by Jason Kingsley and Mitchell Levitz (1994).  The book includes, among many other things, one of Jasons high-school essays, written when he was seventeen; the topic is his mothers obstetrician, who in 1974 had advised the Kingsley family to institutionalize Jason because he would never grow up to have a meaningful thought.  Of this obstetrician Jason writes:

He never imagined how I could write a book!  I will send him a copy . . . so hell know.  I will tell him that I play the violin, that I make relationships with other people, I make oil paintings, I play the piano, I can sing, I am competing in sports, in the drama group, that I have many friends and I have a full life.So I want the obstetrician will never say that to any parent to have a baby with a disability any more.  If you send a baby with a disability to an institution, the baby will miss all the opportunities to grow and to learn . . . and also to receive a diploma.  The baby will miss relationships and love and independent living skills. . . .

I am glad that we didnt listen to the obstetrician. . . .  He will never discriminate with people with disabilities again.

And then he will be a better doctor.

Anecdotal evidence, sure.  But good to think with, all the same.

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Tony Harris
15 years ago

One of the factors which has helped to force a revised view of handicapped people (sorry, people with handicaps) is the increased survival of children since antibiotics (circa 1945). Kids with various kinds of disabilities, especially Downs, went off in droves from respiratory tract infections and other illnesses that ceased to be life-threatening in the new era and since 1945 whole cohorts of additional kids have reached adult years.

The first impact was a demand for special primary school classes, then secondary, then sheltered workshops and residentials as the parents aged and sought alternatives to the psych hospitals. A whole movement of parents rose to deliver and demand additional services, especially under the influence of the “normalization” movement to provde a life as close to normal as possible for handicapped people of all kinds.

Tom N.
Tom N.
15 years ago

What frustrates me with this sort of anecdotal argument is the shift from the one-off success story to general rule. “I can do it, so anyone can”, or, in this case, “If one person can do it, we should act as if everyone may be able to.”
Actually, in a resource-constrained world, we shouldn’t.

There is a parallel here with the value of a life versus the value of a statistical life. You can’t readily argue with someone who has just been saved by a safety measure that the measure wasn’t worth it. But the saving of one life does not mean the measure was worth it – that depends on whether the expenditure would have generated more benefits (perhaps include more lives saved) if deployed elsewhere. Likewise, and harsh though it may sound, the fact that one, or some, people with DS could flourish does not of itself invalidate policies that effectively deny them that opportunity.

15 years ago

Tom, the opposite problem is worse though: if you assume that because we live in a resource-constrained world, then there is a moral obligation to ensure those resources are used as efficiently as possible, then the resulting conclusion is that those who are unable to fend for themselves should be left to die.
Now, sure, that’s how natural selection has worked for the last 4 billion years, and it’s hard to argue too much with the impressive results. However one those results is, ironically, human empathy and our need for cohesive cooperative societies, which is completely incompatible with “leaving the weak to die”. So while it’s almost certainly the case that putting large amounts of resources into helping the weak and disabled lowers our overall material standard of living, and even conceivably slows down the rate at which our overall genetic fitness would otherwise improve, I for one consider that a perfectly reasonable price to pay considering the alternative.

Tom N.
Tom N.
15 years ago

Likewise accepted, Nick. Not much more I can say, other than to acknowledge that while to specific-to-general aspect of the argument irked me, I too was somewhat moved – and that I learned something about the capabilities of some people with DS that I hitherto was unaware of. Thanks for the post.


That conclusion does not follow, NPOV. One can introduce equity, empathy and similar considerations into one’s take on how resources should be utilised, but nonetheless believe that resources devoted to equity and fellow-feeling etc should themselves be used efficiently in pursuit of that goal.

15 years ago

Tom, sure, but exactly how do you measure the most efficient way of putting resources towards helping the weak?

And the specific example in question was whether to put someone with Down’s Syndrome into an institution, before they’d even had a chance to develop into an adult. It might well have been a more “efficient” use of resources, and when resources were significantly scarcer it may have been (barely) justifiable, but personally I can’t imagine any doctor recommending such a course these days. But likewise I would hate to think that any parent would make such a decision (or perhaps the similar decision to abort a pregnancy because of likely disability) simply because they couldn’t afford financially to raise such a child, which even today, given the nature of disability payments in Australia, is a very real possibility for some struggling families.