Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Politics of Choice and the Mystifications of "Enhancement" Discourse

There is an incredible amount of misinformation and mystification and pernicious wish-fulfillment that takes place especially when talk turns to "screening away" unwanted kinds of people or "selecting for" especially wanted kinds of people.

I think all too much of this discourse is enormously hurtful and relentlessly stupid, deeply disrespectful and insensitive to the actually viable, wanted, differently flourishing lifeways of any number of peers with whom the would be "optimizers" and "enhancers" are actually already sharing this world but apparently would not much want and do not much expect to share their stainless-steel star-spangled "future."

Nevertheless, I think it is crucial to distinguish the politics through which one would address this sort of hatefulness and irrationality from the politics through which one affirms the right of competent sane adults to informed, nonduressed consensual prosthetic self-determination where healthcare choices, cultural investment, and so on are concerned.

I have often reiterated, for example, that every woman makes the right choice, that is to say, the choice she has every right to make in respect to how she wants to end or facilitate a pregnancy in her own body, as far as I'm concerned. That is a conventional, if fairly strong, pro-Choice commitment.

This does not mean, however, that I am unaware of or approve the irrational prejudices in respect to race, gender, atypicality, different-enablement, and so on that perniciously influence many of the choices that are actually made about which pregnancies are wanted ones, every one of which I nonetheless defend absolutely.

For example, I'm a gay man whose own mother would very likely have aborted me had she known I was going to be gay -- as much because she didn't know she would become a person who could love a gay child as easily as a straight one, as because she was didn't know that society would afford a gay child a reasonable chance at a flourishing life rather than a miserable one. As a pro-choice person I fully defend the right of any woman to end an unwanted pregnancy for whatever reason makes it unwanted to her, even a person in an exactly analogous position as my Mother's in respect to the prospectively gay me.

Pregnancies can be unwanted for reasons that are hateful, irrational, or deeply ignorant (as would have been the case with my Mother at the time, as she would now be the first to agree).

And so it seems to me that the commitment to Choice requires at once the absolute defense and support of every woman's actual choices as to medical treatment of biological processes taking place in her own body, obviously including pregnancy, but also that we shame the purveyors of hatred, expose and address expressions of irrationality, and educate the ignorant (including those smug champions of "enhancement" who denigrate actually-viable actually-wanted atypical, differently-enabled, differently-incarnated lifeways in the name of parochial conceptions of personal or public "optimality") so that choices are better informed than not and as little duressed as may be.

It's tricky sometimes to hold all these demands together and reasonably prioritize them (which is why "enhancement" discourse seeks to simplify these quandaries in the first place through their depoliticizing neutralization of parochial value-judgments treated as already settled when they are under contest in fact) -- but it does seem to me that this is what democratic commitments to consent, equity, and diversity require here.


Anonymous said...

Women should have the right to terminate their pregnancies for whatever reason, I agree. I think it also follows that a woman should have the right to choose any and all characteristics of that fetus that are or will be within her ability to choose. If she is to carry the fetus, she gets to choose the fetus she wants to carry.

Normally she does this by hooking up with the right guy, and rolling the dice. But given certain medical technologies, she may someday have better control of certain characteristics. Doesn't it follow that we would support her right to customize the fetus she alone must carry?

I'm not sure from your post whether this is a position you would disapprove of. It sounds strange to some people, and others it sends into fits of rage.

Dale Carrico said...

No, I agree with you.

But, again, my point is that we need to distinguish on the one hand the uncompromising defense of women's right to choose to end or facilitate any pregnancy as they want for whatever reasons move them to so want, from an awareness on the other hand that people want wrongheaded things sometimes that demand better education, better support, better sensitivity, and so on.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I think our society has some utterly fucked up notions about what counts as a flourishing life, and that too much "enhancement" discourse reflects profoundly misguided and parochial valorizations of conventional beauty, conformism, aggressivity, competitiveness, and anti-intellectualism, and that these attitudes too readily play out in the determination of what kinds of people are wanted or not, and so which pregnancies are wanted or not both in prevailing mainstream discourse and in the "enhancement" discourse of futurological extremists.

There has to be some way of better registering this awareness, and insisting on the need for education to overcoming the deep impoverishment of such attitudes, but without allowing this to be commandeered by even worse even more reactionary anti-choice politics.

As a side note, I will also mention that speaking of "customizing" fetuses also makes me rather nervous -- not because I think it is "unnatural," but because I think it introduces profoundly unrealistic assumptions into the discussion in ways that cause both those who pine for, say, "designer babies" and those who abhor the idea to substitute hyperbole for facts and so skew sensible discussions of actual costs, risks, and benefit of actually-existing ARTs.

Anonymous said...


I think you're both getting way too far ahead of yourselves.

First, we're a loooooong way off from "designer babies" and true "enhancement" genetic engineering.

The phenotypical characteristics you refer to when discussing "enhancement" and "customizing" are a combination of many genetic factors that cannot so easily be engineered. It would be like trying to match up one segment of a rubik's cube made of billions of segments.

Yes, genetic engineering can address very specific issues through gene splicing/recombinant DNA (such as synthesizing insulin), but that is very different than what you're talking about.

Dale Carrico said...

I agree that talk of "designer babies" and comparably futurological hyperbole is a complete derangement of urgently necessary public deliberation about the actual costs, actual risks, actual benefits to the actual diversity of actually-real stakeholders to actually-possible medicine, both from those who seem to pine for that sort of thing among the so-called "transhumanist-types" and those who seem horrified by that sort of thing among the "bioconservative-types." I explicitly and actually rather insistently said as much in this very post, and also, incidentally, I do so endlessly on this blog and have done well over a decade at this point more generally. I'm curious to know what specific phrasing of mine in the above lead you to the contrary impression, since that is clearly phrasing that is not communicating what I mean for it to do.

Anonymous said...

Well maybe this will satisfy your curiosity over your "specific phrasing": your writing is extremely convoluted. Write more clearly and succinctly if you want people to properly understand what you are trying to say.

Anonymous said...

Dale, thanks for your response to my original question in the first comment here. I understand your point better.

To the other anonymous, it's not so much whether certain technologies are possible or probable or whatever. The point of my question was to understand Dale's concept of 'choice' better. It worked, I understand it better now than I did iyesterday.

Dale Carrico said...

your writing is extremely convoluted

If you want effortless writing try People magazine.