Saturday, May 09, 2009

A begging of misery or a borrowing of misery

I've been spending the morning trying to figure out how to say what I want to say, how to post something that would make sense and not simply ramble.  Because what I wrote about Ayelet Waldman and her book and her personal story told within continues to reverberate.  It's the problem of women and disabled children.  Or women and disabled children and their feelings about them.  Or women and disabled children and abortion.

And I thought, naturally (well, naturally for me, but perhaps not for the typical person) of Virginia Woolf being asked to write (although I have not been asked, I have merely presumed) about the problem of women and fiction.  And how she "began to wonder what the words meant" and how "at second sight the words seemed not so simple" and how she foresaw she might "never be able to come to a conclusion."  

One thought that surfaced cleanly through the mist and fog in my brain was a sense that these occasional stories of the decision, hypothetical or real, to abort a fetus with disabilities are not tales of personal courage.  Which is not to say they represent cowardice; they do not.  Neither are they 'cautionary' tales--no one has erred or strayed the path.  And they are not tales of the triumph of 'choice'--not if their tellers are to be believed in terms of their emotional struggles.

Rather, I believe these tales to be those of Aristotelian tragedy, or hamartia.  My memory of the translation of Aristotle's discussion of hamartia (a particularly contested and complex term, btw, see here for the basics) is that he suggests that the most powerful tragedy occurs when a person of typical morality makes a choice, an error, a decision that leads to disastrous consequences.  

What I have just written sounds laden with judgement.  Trust me, it is not.  One problem with using the word "tragedy" to describe abortion is that it has been so co-opted and oversimplified by politicians and pundits.  I will get back to hamartia, but bear with me as I note that tragedy is the condition that arises when the complexity of the situation is beyond our ability to render judgement.

All along the road of my journey with Robert, I am acutely aware that the problem of his personhood is always on the table.  Whether it is people in all of their innate goodness, reaching beyond the low shelves of bias to show me that, despite social barriers, they can see, do see, are trying to see and show that they believe Robert is a person.  Whether it is someone addressing to me something they should say to Robert as though I am his translator.  Whether it is someone bluntly asking me in front of Robert, does he understand things?  Or, what's wrong with him?  Whether it is a well-intentioned member of the medical community slipping up and looking past Robert and directly at me to say something about Robert's condition, something that he or she would never say in front of a non-disabled child for fear of upsetting that child.

The crux of the problem with women and disabled children and abortion is the matter of personhood.  When the above mentioned things happen, my response is to assert that Robert is a person.  But I live in a world where disability is a reasonable justification for aborting a fetus.  And, like the researcher/mother in Ayelet Waldman's tale, the mother of the disabled child who tells Ayelet that it's OK to have an abortion because living with disability is so difficult, I'd probably say something similar to anyone who asked.  How could I wish on someone else the impossibility of the life that has been handed to me?  How could I tell someone else they should be forced to live it?  

Yet, despite the moral absolution I would grant my fellow mothers, I have to suffer the indignity of a tone-deaf pro-choice rhetoric, which asserts that a fetus is not a person.  But a fetus with disabilities is aborted because one knows one doesn't have the emotional or financial resources to nurture such a person, the person the fetus will become.  Or, perhaps some feel the fetus is aborted because a 'defective' fetus is not going to be a person anyway. 

And this is tragedy and an expression of hamartia.  Because if I grant another mother absolution, and other women make the decision to put first themselves and their other duties and commitments before giving birth to someone with disabilities, and there are people out there who simply feel that some people with disabilities are not persons at all--what results from all of this?  A slippage in the definition of personhood.  Moth-holes in the fabric of community that give rise to the logic of denying healthcare and education to children with disabilities because their amelioration serves no clearly defined political or policy purpose.  And many worse things.  

And that's tragedy because there is nowhere to point the finger of blame.  No man is an island, right?


Maggie May said...

I enjoyed reading the carefully thought out and explained steps in your process through this. I have been wanting to read Ayelet's book since I read she was bipolar, as is my husband. You have a great heart and mind, and although I cannot in my pregnant fog offer opinions, I'm glad I read yours.

Elizabeth said...

i am, as always, hanging on your every word because all of them are helping to clarify inside of me what is inchoate -- this idea of personhood, primarily, and how to define and why should we define it when it's self-evident,

jeneva said...

Thanks, Maggie and Elizabeth. Ayelet's book sounds really interesting. I didn't mean to be overly critical of her--I hope I didn't come across that way. I just keep looking for some kind of third way through the abortion morass.

Congratulations, too, Maggie May! When are you due?