8/16/17

Think with Krys Boyd (podcast)



Here's the podcast of my interview on KERA today.  Krys Boyd and I are both big fans of using tiny post-its to mark pages! Our books looked like twins.


8/14/17

More About Gene Editing


I'm still thinking about that Time op-ed that objects to gene editing because, in so many words, if my parents had used it, my brother wouldn't have existed.  I went along with this assumption about existence in my last post on the subject, but only for the sake of argument.  It's actually quite debatable.

Suppose parents do want to avoid having a child with a gene for a serious disease, like the serious heart defect that was eliminated by researchers.  They can already do this, as long as both parents aren't carriers for the gene, by using PGD—pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. Using IVF, multiple embryos can be generated and five-day-old embryos can be biopsied.  An embryo without the gene could be implanted and the rest discarded.  If people used this method, it's certainly true that certain possible people wouldn't be born. Looking at an actual little brother (Harry, let's say) with a heart defect, it's true to say if my parents had used PGD, Harry wouldn't have existed. The embryo that led to Harry would have been discarded.  Larry, not Harry, would have been born.

It's much less clear that this is true, if gene editing is used.  Using gene editing, the embryo carrying the faulty gene is allowed to develop, but the gene is edited out of it on day one, at the zygote stage.  Would Harry have existed if one of 20,000 genes had been eliminated from the same embryo—the one that actually led to Harry?  I think it's true that if an embryo is radically edited, it will lead to a different child being born.  But minor editing?  Is our entire genome essential to us, so we can't exist if even one gene is edited out?

We're not used to thinking about this, since an individual's genes have always seemed unalterable. It seems to me that we could easily get used to the idea that the same person could have existed with somewhat different genes, and the idea wouldn't be incoherent.  If I had the serious heart defect the researchers focussed on, and my parents had been offered the option of gene editing, and had been able to afford it, I can imagine wishing they had created me without the heart defect.  That doesn't sound like a metaphysical impossibility.

If that's the right way of thinking about things, the Time magazine author really has things all wrong.  PGD, which is already available, is the technology that could potentially have made the author's little brother not exist.  But that horse is already out of the barn.   CRISPR-cas9 would have given his parents the option of having his little brother, but protecting him or her from the disease he was born with.

If that's the right way to look at it—the same people can be born, despite gene-editing—then gene editing starts to look not just permissible in certain cases, but possibly even obligatory.  Suppose you knew your child might be born with a serious heart-defect, and you also knew you could check in advance whether he or she had the relevant gene, and you could eliminate it.  Certainly if there was a drug that would fix the heart defect, and you could take it during pregnancy, it would be fair to say you should take it.  It's really not clear why gene editing is different.

OK--there are a bunch of other puzzles here, having to do with who winds up being born, if either PGD or gene editing is used, but I'll save that for another day.


8/13/17

Radio Interview, Time Change

They're wisely devoting Monday's show to the events in Virginia, so I'll be on Wednesday at 1:00 instead of Monday.

8/11/17

Reviews of The Philosophical Parent

Nice review from Library Journal!
Library Journal  08/01/2017  Kazez (philosophy, Southern Methodist Univ.; The Weight of Things) begins by summing up the relationship between parenting and philosophy perfectly when she writes "having children turns every parent and parent-to-be into a philosopher." For this reviewer, the parent of two small children, that claim is as valid. The questions that arise for parents and would-be parents are numerous and cover a wide range of topics such as "Is there anything special about having a child?" to "Should parents reinforce gender?" Kazez helps with finding answers or at least showing the complexity of these questions by arranging the topics chronologically by stages of parenting and looking at them through the lens of different philosophical views and parenting experience. Most importantly, these chapters are also short and can be read individually so that parents can focus on topics of interest and actually finish reading them. VERDICT Kazez's combination of philosophy and parenting experience makes this work recommended for parents who are searching for answers to meaningful questions surrounding child-rearing.—Scott Duimstra, Capital Area Dist. Lib., Lansing, MI
There's also this Publisher's Weekly review, which I appreciate, but I disagree with what the reviewer says about my decision not to cover abortion.
Publishers Weekly  06/05/2017  Philosophy professor Kazez (Animalkind: What We Owe to Animals) uses a mix of philosophical proofs and science to explore a mix of theoretical and practical parenting questions. Questions in the former category include whether babies are lucky to be born and what parents are for; questions in the latter include whether to circumcise or vaccinate and whether to raise children with religious beliefs. She appeals to new parents’ innate sense of logic and ethics as alternatives to parenting experts. Kazez grounds her ideas in the Aristotelian perspective that a biological child is “another self, but separate” in order to understand parents’ intense identification with their children and the obligations conferred by this unique relationship. She picks and chooses her controversies carefully. For example, she explores the idea of when personhood begins while opting out of any discussion of abortion because, in her words, her intended reader is “deliberately pregnant and eager to become a parent,” but then dives into equally irrelevant questions regarding adoption and population control. Sections about how we treat our children later in life fit more into the parent-as-philosopher mode Kazez promises. Though her conclusions are far from groundbreaking, soon-to-be-parents will find thinking through her arguments a good way to engage their minds beyond the immediate practicalities of child-rearing. (July)
Important clarification: the intended reader of the whole book is not "deliberately pregnant and eager to become a parent." Different chapters focus on imaginary readers at different stages of becoming and being parents. In chapter 1, for example, the imaginary reader just wants a child, whether through procreation or adoption. So adoption is relevant there and discussed. In chapters 2-3, the imaginary reader wants a child, but worries about whether it's right or wrong to have one, given various worries, including worries about population. So overpopulation is relevant to the imaginary reader there.

In chapter 5, the chapter this reviewer is quoting from, I do start with the conceit that the reader is finally pregnant and eager to have a child. The chapter is about the developing zygote-embryo-fetus and when it begins to be the individual who will later be born. Abortion could have had some relevance here, for people who want to be parents, but want to end a particular pregnancy, but the literature on the ethics of abortion is vast and complex. This didn't seem like the place to get into it.

8/10/17

Worrying about CRISPR

Scientists have developed a new technology, CRISPR-Cas9, for editing genes in day old human embryos. The technology (explained here with terrific graphics) was used to edit out a gene that leads to a severe heart detect, though the embryos were then discarded.

We won't be using this technology to create genetically modified people until there has been a lot more research. There's also going to have to be an ethical and legal debate. Is there something worrisome about editing an embryo's genes?  There might be, but we need to be careful to have the right worries.  It's very easy to have worries that just don't make sense.

Take this Time Magazine op-ed, by Joel Michael Reynolds.  The title says it all:  Gene Editing Might Mean My Brother Would've Never Existed. His brother Jason had muscle-eye-brain disease and had "muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, severe nearsightedness, hydrocephalus and intellectual disability." Jason was lovely and beloved, and so Reynolds questions a technology that would prevent Jason from ever existing.

It's no fun criticizing someone who reveals love and grief in the way Reynolds does, but this worry about a specific person not existing is the wrong worry to have.  There are many things we do to control who is born that are either neutral or mandatory, but would alter who exists.

  • Picture the debate that went on before contraceptives were available. An opponent of legalizing contraceptives could look at his unplanned little brother and say that if his parents had had access to contraceptive technology, the boy wouldn't have existed. That fact surely has no weight at all, however much it may be painful to imagine a world without a specific person. 
  • Imagine a woman being told by her dermatologist not to conceive a child while she's taking Accutane, because Accutane causes abnormalities. She ignores this advice and conceives a child with some abnormalities. Should she really feel good about her choice, because without it, her child wouldn't have been born? 

We are simply confused when we object to an action or practice because, if opted for, this lovely and beloved child wouldn't have been born.  At the time that we're choosing the action or practice, there are millions of possible children who could come into existence, and there's nothing that says that the one who actually will be born should be born.

Reynolds is concerned that Jason be born, but also that people like Jason be born.  He gives us this description of Jason's life, to convince us that that he wasn't worse off than other children.
He lived past his first year thanks to marvels of modern medicine. A shunt surgery to drain excess cerebrospinal fluid building up around his brain took six attempts, but the seventh succeeded. Aside from those surgeries’ complications and intermittent illnesses due to a less-than-robust immune system, Jason was healthy. Healthy and happy — very happy. His smile could light up a room. Yet, that didn’t stop people from thinking that his disability made him worse off. 
This reminds me of the old joke: "Aside from that, how was the play, Mrs Lincoln?" I don't see how a string of surgeries, complications, and illness, in someone who evidently died before the age of two, leaves very much to be good.  It's not ableist, but just realistic, to think Jason was worse off than other babies.

Reynolds chocks it up to ableism that many parents would like to avoid having a baby like Jason. But even he seems to admit there are health problems that ought to be avoided.
We, who are often still unable to distinguish between positive, world-creating forms of disability and negative, world-destroying forms — between Deafness, short stature or certain types of neurodiversity and chronic pain, Tay-Sachs or Alzheimer’s. It is with great responsibility that we as a society balance along the tightrope of biomedical progress. 
I don't know about putting muscle-eye-brain disease in the "positive, world-creating" list, as if babies could creatively construct their own distinctive way of life and identity, in the manner that some people with deafness and short stature say that they do.  The heart problem that was eliminated by the CRISPR research also doesn't seem to belong on the "positive, world-creating" list.

So what's the right worry to have? I do think gene editing could lead to far too much choosiness in prospective parents--too much constructing of the preferred child and too little receptiveness. It could be over-used. I don't think there's a good, coherent reason to think it should never be used.

8/5/17

The Page 99 Test

My book is featured today at The Page 99 Test.  I narrowly missed having to talk about a blank page.  Page 98 is one of those blanks you get when a chapter ends on an odd-numbered page.  Does page 99 reveal something about the whole book?  Yes, I think it does!  It reveals the way the book is scenario-driven instead of abstract, and some of the book's main themes and issues.  Thank you, Marshal Zeringue, for the invitation.

"Motherhood Isn't Sacrifice, It's Selfishness"

This New York Times op-ed by Karen Rinaldi has generated a huge number of comments, a lot of them negative. Goes to show that the way you say something is all important. Here's one of the more provocative paragraphs:
Motherhood is not a sacrifice, but a privilege — one that many of us choose selfishly. At its most atavistic, procreating ensures that our genes survive into the next generation. You could call this selfishness as biological imperative. On a personal level, when we bring into the world a being that is of us, someone we will protect and love and for whom we will do everything we can to help thrive and flourish, it begets the question, How is this selfless? Selflessness implies that we have no skin in the game. In motherhood, we’re all in.
Privilege? I have no idea why she says this. It's not as if we have to apply to become parents.  Everyone gets to become parents, if they're capable.  But "not a sacrifice" makes more sense to me and "selfish" makes some sense, but it's the wrong word. I think what she was really after, as a contrast with "selfless," is "self-interested." When we have a child "we bring into the world a being that is of us." Yes. Because my child is part of my extended identity, so to speak, when my child is better off, I'm better off. When my child is worse off, I'm worse off.  It's because we've enlarged ourself, thereby including our child as part of our extended identity, that caring for my child is self-interested.  But that doesn't mean it's "selfish." Selfish people don't enlarge themselves.

Since the self-interestedness of parenthood is really built in, and not just a feature of bad parents, she's off track when she writes that motherhood is a privilege (again, why a privilege?!) "that many of us choose selfishly."  But she gets back on track at the end of the op-ed.
If we start referring to motherhood as the beautiful, messy privilege that it is, and to tending to our children as the most loving yet selfish thing we do, perhaps we can change the biased language my mother used. Only when we stop talking about motherhood as sacrifice can we start talking about mothers the way that we deserve.
Again, there's the privilege talk, which I find bewildering.  But now the selfishness (no, self-interestedness!) is portrayed as built in.  It's not the bad mother who's selfish (no, self-interested), it's motherhood itself.  Much better!

8/4/17

Goodreads Giveaway

Enter the giveaway for my book!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Philosophical Parent by Jean Kazez

The Philosophical Parent

by Jean Kazez

Giveaway ends September 04, 2017.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

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