ES, that’s right, I’m wading into this one… however unwise that feels (especially since I’m still feeling a little raw!) Nonetheless. Courage, mes amis!
Ezra and his commenters have been tossing around the question of whether Ross Douthart is ‘fair’ when he uses the word ‘eugenics’ to describe the dramatic increase in pregnancy terminations in the presence of a ‘negative’ prenatal genetic diagnosis (PGD). I’ll be honest from the beginning and state that I haven’t read all the comments; there’s lots and from what I’ve seen, they’re tending towards the repetitive and liberal-American approach to this question, which I’ve seen elsewhere, specifically (well, recently-ish, anyway) on Feministe and Pandagon in response to Michael Berube’s article (ugh, if I’d known they’d paywall it, I’d have kept a copy! Sorry, kids!) I find the kinds of discussion that tend to circulate around this question of eugenics quite frustrating, for reasons I’ll sketch here.
Before I do that, I want to point out that I am solidly pro-choice, and the anti-eugenics argument is often used, as Amanda Marcotte points out, to try to catch liberals out (ooh, look, you say anyone can abort, but you’re killing off disabled people! Haha, you hypocrites!). At the same time, my pro-choice-ness doesn’t by any stretch mean I want to pretend that that means that terminations are thereby ethically and politically neutral (hey, I’m a cultural studies kid; nothing’s ethically and politically neutral!) I understand why this kind of rhetoric is often deployed: these choices are regularly demonised, and it’s often simplest to respond with an argument-ending ‘well, it’s up to the woman,’ not least given that the context within which these questions are raised tends to be hostile and frame the debate. (I mean, really, just as an aside, abortion still isn’t actually legal in NSW; the women who do have abortions slip in through the loophole of the (future) child posing a threat to their mental health. There are many problems with this: it keeps abortion illegal except where a particular condition is met so there’s always the possibility any given abortion could abruptly be ‘made’ illegal through a demonstrated failure to comply with the conditions, and it ensures that the condition upon which legality is conferred is self-pathologisation—the pathology of not ‘being able to be a mother’ which as we all know tends to be equated with successful womanhood. But I have no doubt that my students are correct and ‘we’re all just equal now.’ No doubt whatsoever. (Fuck!))
Okay, but on to the eugenics question. The argument seems to be that eugenics as it was deployed in earlier times (the Nazis are an easy—and absolutely justified, of course—target here, often raised; the fact that their massacre of people with disabilities (amongst very many other groups) was so intensely awful because they were attempting to play catch up to the USA’s longer-standing policies is usually forgotten) was state-based, an institutionalised set of attempts to improve the national stock through very basic genetic manipulations (based, interestingly, on animal husbandry which I gather got big around about the time of enclosure at least in the UK, which preceded and arguable contributed to the Industrial Revolution there.) Because the state doesn’t have a policy which requires termination in aid of eugenics, and because this intention to improve national stock is not the conscious intent of parents who decide to terminate fetuses diagnosed with (I’ll fall in with the bugbear) say, Down Syndrome, the claim is made that the use of the word ‘eugenics’ is ‘very unfair’. These are individual choices, the logic seems to go, the choices of individual parents that are made because really, raising a child with disabilities just is so very difficult as to be impossible. As such, the implication seems to be, the individuality of the choice ensures that it’s neutral, and thus that the individual (and no one else) can only be held responsible for their own choice, whatever the larger consequences may be. The fact that a tiny minority of parents of fetuses diagnosed with Down Syndrome refuse termination is irrelevant; all these choices are individual, and neutral, and apparently grapple with the again politically neutral ‘simple reality’. That seems to be the position.
This is part of why individualism is so very dangerous. It conceals the fact that whatever your position on abortion and the selective termination of fetuses diagnosed with disabilities, these choices are not neutral. They don’t occur in a vacuum. They occur in a context within which a child born with a disability is a ‘tragedy.’ They occur in a context, it would seem from the comments on Pandagon and Feministe, where individuals believe they have the right to the kind of child they want (seriously, the parenting style such an approach is going to engender worries me deeply, quite aside from these concerns!). The number of comments that say something along the lines of ‘well, it’s fine if someone wants to raise a kid with Down Syndrome, but for me, personally, there’s just no way I could do that.” (One of the most beautiful rejoinders to this style of individiaulising argument came from a person with a disability (I can’t find the comment, now, sorry!) who supposed that his/her parents probably assumed that they couldn’t raise him/her either, but had ended up doing a ‘fine job’.) The decision to terminate a pregnancy because the fetus will probably be disabled occurs in a context within which difference, always read as abnormalcy, of all kinds is increasingly rejected. This is partially, I would suggest, precisely because normalcy is becoming so much easier to achieve, so much easier to control via technologies just like this.
It astonishes me that people can read comment after comment of people arguing that they, personally, couldn’t raise a child with disabilities and not, finally, wonder why it is that almost everyone is expressing the same desire. Somehow the repetitive claim to individual choice demonstrates that this desire is neutral. The implication seems to be either that this is the only normal way to respond to this particular reality (which assumes a whole lot of things, as we’ll see) or that it’s a coincidence that almost everyone wants the same thing. Ah yes, the pure freedom of the unique individual is expressed in their absolutely free choice which just so happens to be the same as everyone else’s. Uh huh.
I don’t think it is. I think that the context which understands disability as tragedy, abnormalcy as requiring ‘fixing,’ difference as needing a cure is precisely responsible for the production of these kinds of desires. I hate to say it, but even basic Foucault allows us to see that power operates differently now: it no longer needs to be simply instituted by statewide policies that kill people off (though that too, of course, happens.) The discursive space within which subjects are produced as individuals is so heavily medicalised, heavily informed by the binary normal/abnormal (matched to worthy/not worthy of life) that our desires, our choices, our ‘unique’ individuality cannot help but be shaped by them. And of course, a context shaped by such discourses ensures that only the claims of all these individual commenters who talk about the disaster of disability make sense; the expressed incomprehensibility and censure of Deaf parents deliberately seeking a Deaf child, for example, demonstrate that the discursive space will only permit one kind of desire. The ‘normal’ desire, so different from the
different ‘abnormal’ desire for a child with disabilities.
What all of this means is that although the obvious forms of state-based institutionalised eugenics may be gone (or less obvious, given the documented pressure placed by medical practitioners on mothers to abort in the presence of a fetal abnormality), this doesn’t mean that the desires of individuals are somehow power-free and neutral. It just means that power has become more diffuse, circulating, as Foucault showed, in and through exactly those things we come to see as most neutral: science, discourse, institutions and most telling of all, through individual subjects. Instead of forcible terminations, which would be dangerously (for power) experienced as a restriction of freedom, it produces subjects who simply cannot imagine raising a child with a disability, and believe that the only right and true decision (“for me, personally”) is termination. It’s a more effective approach, not least because power doesn’t look oppressive; medical technology is merely offering the fulfillment of individual desires. The homogeneity of these desires, and the difficulty of actualising any other desires, is ensured by the refusal to offer sufficient support (social, financial, practical…) to those with disabilities and those who support them; there is little doubt that it is a socially and economically difficult situation, raising a child with disability, but this is represented as simply a neutral reality, rather than the result of a set of policies, procedures, funding and discursive and conceptual frameworks that could be (and occasionally are) done otherwise.
I am not by any stretch seeking to demonise women for their choices to terminate pregnancies; as I said before, I don’t think there is a ‘neutral’ decision to be made and I’m certainly not seeking to moralise. Nonetheless, to say ‘it’s not eugenics, it’s choice’ pretends that the mostly-just-asserted ‘individuality’ of choice somehow ensures that each decision has neither ethical or political consequences nor ethical and political antecedents; this is ludicrous, and incredibly damaging. It conceals the diffuse and complex techniques and technologies of normalising power behind the neutrality of the individualised subject, making them really hard to tackle. It suggests that because it’s not eugenics-like-in-the-good-old-days, it’s not systemic, or premised on the exclusion of people with disabilities (often from life). Quite aside from my concern about how difference is constituted in this context (namely as necessarily pathological), it becomes almost impossible to see how these kinds of decisions both produce and are produced through the increasingly slavish (but don’t worry, it’s individual! it’s neutral! no worries!) adherence to an increasingly narrow conception of the normal. And that has consequences for a whole variety of forms of difference, from Down Syndrome (ooh, so scary!) through to ‘bad’ accents (see Elliott’s Better than Well) through to the straightness of one’s nose. Reinforcing this normal/abnormal, happy/suffering, worth/unworthy set of binaries has really significant consequences for everyone: it shapes how we continue to think about and experience disability for example. But for me, personally, the most troubling one is perpetuation of a conceptual system shaped by the inability to imagine difference as something other than pathology, other than a tragedy, other than suffering, other than a drag to deal with. And that’s not just some differences, but, increasingly, all of them.