Friday, January 13, 2006

Discussion on my mind

In my first year writing course, I give a final research assignment that asks students to research a real life question they have. We do a number of activities in class (brainstorming, etc) to help students think of good questions; at about two thirds of the way through the assignment, each student has to do a short presentation on his/her research so far. The research doesn't have to be complete; rather, we use the session to help students see where they need more research, clarify their definitions, and refine their questioning or presentation, depending on how far along they are. (Yes, of course, the process activities also help me discourage paper-buying or plagiarism.)

[I also teach them the single most helpful thing I learned in graduate school about giving class/seminar presentations. Ready? This is SUPER SECRET! Don't tell anyone! Always try to set up two people in the class/seminar with a good question each, a question that you're eager and ready to answer. Two good questions. They look smart and attentive for asking good questions. Plus for them. The presenter looks smart and prepared for having good answers. And the prepared questions usually give the presenter a chance to loosen up and feel more at ease, and thus do better with other questions. Plus for the presenter. The questions give other people a nudge for asking more questions, as well as a few moments to formulate decent questions/comments. Plus for the whole class. Win/Win/Win all around. I actually set my first year class up in groups so that they prepare questions.]

A while ago now, one of my students researched Down Syndrome. Unless the whole class gets into asking good questions (sometimes, really!), I generally try to add one or two questions or ideas. At my best, I try to ask open questions which may get the class thinking. This particular student didn't give the best (nor worst) presentation I'd ever seen, but he did introduce the idea of pre-natal testing, and when one would do such tests.

However, he never thought about any of the implications of such tests, one of which (only ONE, there are many others) is that a woman could choose to terminate a pregnancy if she found out that her child would have Down syndrome or another disability. I usually pull away from questions related to abortion in my classes. To be honest, I don't want to hear that abortion should be illegal no matter what, and I don't think most of my students want to hear what I have to say. I'm tired of trite approaches to a complex question.

But, this time I asked about the ethical implications of a decision to have testing done, and perhaps to choose to terminate a pregnancy based on such tests. My students responded thoughtfully, more thoughtfully than in the past about more generalized questions about abortion related issues. There were, of course, students who said that it was totally unethical to abort just because the child would be disabled, but they said so thoughtfully and respectfully. Others were more hesitant. Some, of course, were silent (but then, the same people are silent when we discuss paragraph organization).

I said that a woman my age, according to the statistics our presenter had given, would have a rather high risk of her fetus having Down Syndrome or another serious disability. And, given that our presenter had told us that people with Down Syndrome now routinely live to their 50s, I pointed out that IF a woman my age had a child with Down Syndrome, she would probably expect that child to outlive her.

I said that worried me, as a potential parent, because I'd worry about who would be responsible for the child's care when I died. The state? A sibling? Another relative? My choice to have a child (assuming it was a choice because I had testing and access to abortion) would not impact only me and the child, or even my immediate family, but would likely impact other people, and not in easy ways.

Again, we had a thoughtful and interesting discussion, better even than at first.

After class, one of my other students came to my office. This student had told me that s/he had a relative who is seriously mentally and physically disabled, and had come to realize that s/he would likely be responsible for this relative's care at some point. Certainly, his/her life had been dramatically impacted already, and s/he had revealed that s/he'd had a lot of resentment toward the relative while younger, and claimed that s/he no longer felt any resentment. So I wasn't surprised that she wanted to follow up on our class discussion.

S/he asked me about the ethical issue; clearly, his/her relative was on his/her mind. I responded that I support a woman's right to choose in all circumstances, and would also support that right in this circumstance. She asked me about an abortion for "convenience," and I reiterated that I supported a woman's right to choose in all circumstances, and that I trust and respect women to make choices for themselves. She nodded quietly, and dropped the subject, turning instead to her own research paper.

It's NOT a simple issue, of course. I know women who've had abortions, and not one of them took the decision lightly, or danced into the clinic shouting with joy. Yet they were all grateful for the choice and for the medical care they got. Similarly, none of them would have had root canal and gone in dancing for joy, but again, they'd have been grateful for the choice to have appropriate dental care.

The simple part is that I trust women to make decisions about themselves. I know I won't agree with all those decisions, but I trust them to know more about their situations than I do, and to make those decisions.

I don't think it's necessary to look to extremes, incest, rape, or whatever. I think it's a basic issue of trusting women to make decisions about their bodies and lives.

Yes, there ARE ethical questions. What, one might ask, about abortions based on gender. (These abortions seem to target female fetuses, of course.) Is it ethical for someone to choose to abort because she's pregnant with a female fetus?

I have to answer yes. My answer is based on two issues, one individual, one cultural/societal.

First, if a woman wants to abort because her fetus is female, then (assuming no outside pressure), she's making that choice because her experience of being female in her culture/society is miserable. I trust her to choose not to subject her potential girl to such misery. I trust her to know her experience.

In a culture/society which doesn't value females highly, parents who choose to have female children are self-selected to value females more highly, take better care of their girls, and so forth.

Second, Malthus, simple economics and biology. A culture/society that values females so poorly as to abort a large percentage of female fetuses is going to come up with a shortage of adult women at some point in the not so distant future. At that point, women will become a relatively rare commodity, and maybe that culture/society will have to value women more highly. (Yeah, that could go all wrong, but there's at least potential that it will go right, and in the meantime, not as many girls/women are being treated horribly.)

Further, we simply don't need more people on the planet. Yes, one-child laws in China seem harsh, but we're over-populating ourselves into coming disaster, and at least that's a realistic attempt to avert that disaster in one nation. And if the number of adult women is artificially limited by abortion, that limit will likely help reduce the exponential population growth.

(At this point, perhaps, you're thinking I'm a cold-blooded so and so. Remember, I teach Titus regularly. You just may be right.)

It's Blog for Choice month, as BitchPhD points out, and January 22 is Blog for Choice Day (fittingly, the anniversary of the Roe V Wade Decision).

Be there.


  1. Thanks for some very thoughtful writing. Good food for thought, both for your students and for your readers. :)

    I'm going off on a slight tangent for a moment here: You wrote At that point, women will become a relatively rare commodity, and maybe that culture/society will have to value women more highly.

    We'd think so, wouldn't we? But the key word here is "commodity." Because there are now considerably fewer women in some parts of China than there are men, the men are resorting to kidnapping women, forcing them to marry, and then raping them. (Over 40 million women and girls are currently missing in China.) Prostitution is also on the rise. In other words, women are seen just as you described -- as a "commodity" or product for sale.

    You might find this article of interest:

  2. Wow, thanks for the link. Interesting article!

    As I read it, the "40-60 million missing women" refers to the women who haven't been born, rather than to women who've been kidnapped. The figure for women and children rescued from kidnapping given lower down is 42,000 (still an unacceptably large number!).

    And toward the end of the article, it talks about pro-female policies being implemented to make having girls more positive in families, including exemptions from school fees; in addition,

    [start quote]Under the program, couples who limit themselves to two girls would receive a combined annual pension of about $150 for the rest of their lives. Preferential treatment in health care, housing and employment would also be provided.[end quote]

    So as I read it, the article suggests that the government is changing things in response to the skewed sex ratio and trying to get people to value girls more.

    For example, it's criminalizing activities such as the drowning or abandoning of baby girls.

    It's not a perfect world, but it seems like the skewing of the sex ratio is making life better for girls somewhat?

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. I'm such a noob. I double posted my response. /sigh

  5. Ah. I may have read too quickly! But even 42,000, as you said, is too many.

    It's not a perfect world, but it seems like the skewing of the sex ratio is making life better for girls somewhat?

    Yes, and no. The weird part is that even though China is trying to get parents to keep their girls instead of aborting/abandoning them, the idea that "girls are good" is still a hard one of parents to accept, especially in the rural areas. Old mentalities die hard. (sigh.) Even for the more educated, younger, urban Chinese.

    Recently I told one of my Chinese high school students (who has been in the States just two years) that my cousin is going to go to China this summer to adopt a child. "Boy or girl?" my student immediately asked. "A girl," I replied. "Didn't she get to choose?" asked the student, bewildered that my cousin would willingly fly around the globe to adopt a female child. "Yes," I explained, "and she CHOSE a girl."

    My student's face lit up. "Cool," she said.

    What would be BEST for those little girls, of course, would be to stay with their own families, or to be adopted by Chinese parents in China. But an overseas adoption sure beats an institutional home for one's early life.

    Maybe there's hope (one person at a time...).

    Sorry to hijack your comments! :)

  6. I appreciate your feedback, TD :)

    "Hijack" away!

    I think your student's reaction ("cool") is great.