On Culture and Diversity
This is not just an abstract or hypothetical question. Right now, wealthy supporters of eugenics are pouring large amounts of money into the development of a prenatal test for autism. They already have crude genetic tests that they are working to improve. Their goal is routine abortion of autistic babies, and they want to see it happen within the next few years.
Aspies for Freedom has asked bloggers and others who oppose eugenic abortion to take part in a protest against prenatal testing this weekend, by placing mourning banners on websites:
If we are to prevail in this fight, we need to understand how the enemy thinks. We need to analyze and deconstruct both their arguments and their unexamined assumptions.
One way of looking at the culture issue, as suggested by Estée, is that autism is intrinsically a culture because autistic people have a unique way of perceiving the world. But I don't think we're going to get very far if we try to use that argument in opposition to eugenics. People who have conditions that are currently being targeted for prenatal screening, such as Down Syndrome, also can be characterized as a minority group with a unique way of perceiving the world. That hasn't stopped doctors from routinely performing amniocentesis and giving referrals to abortion clinics.
In my opinion, there has been enough interaction among autistic people on the Internet and elsewhere so that it is reasonable to say an international culture has developed, in the more common usage of the word: a social minority group with shared experiences and values. But I don't believe that makes us any more worthy of life than if we did not have these shared experiences. When a minority culture has had many years to develop, it may indeed possess more artifacts of a common experience, and the loss of such a highly developed culture to genocide would be tragic indeed. However, it doesn't logically follow that a lack of shared custom and tradition justifies the destruction of a minority group.
Consider the diversity of wildlife in the world's rain forests and other nature preserves. If a subspecies of lemur, or frog, or parrot becomes endangered, conservationists will work tirelessly to save it from extinction. The lemur isn't expected to demonstrate that it has a culture before it is deemed worthy of life. The frog doesn't have to show that its behaviors are as productive and efficient as those of other frog species. The parrot may not have the speech abilities of other types of parrots, but it doesn't have to worry about being judged low-functioning and targeted for destruction on that basis. We take it for granted that all these creatures should be protected just because their existence adds to the diversity and complexity of our world.
There is a major controversy worldwide about genetically modified crops. Environmentalists are pointing out that we need to be very cautious about altering the genes of any species because we can't know what the long-term consequences might be. Many governments have restricted the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture for this reason, but autism research has not been similarly restricted, even though pro-eugenics groups such as Autism Speaks have made it very plain that they intend to permanently alter the composition of the human gene pool. Why are so many people less concerned about preserving the natural genetic diversity of our own human species than they are about preserving the genetic heritage of soybeans or corn?
I had planned to write something more about the beauty and value of human diversity, but Zilari posted a wonderfully poetic essay that leaves anything I could say in the dust. Go to her site and read it, if you haven't already. (Edit: The site mentioned has been taken down. This link now goes to the Wayback Machine.)