Adrienne Asch–RIP

Adrienne Asch

by Rob Wilson. 

Many of us have been saddened today to learn of the death of prominent disability rights scholar and activist Adrienne Asch.  Some obituaries tributes have started to appear, and we will gather those we find in the coming days and add them to this one.  Please feel free to add your own in the comments to this post.

Adrienne was the Edward and Robin Milstein Professor of Bioethics, and Director of the Center for Ethics at Yeshiva University in New York.  She wrote on ethical issues in reproduction, death and dying, and justice for disadvantaged minorities in American society, and is perhaps best-known amongst philosophers for her powerful articulations of core arguments in the disability rights critique of the busy-as-usual practices utilizing prenatal diagnosis and testing.

Adrienne had been supportive of the What Sorts Network in its early days,

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The ethics of exclusion, the morality of abortion, and animals

[This post is the fourth in our new series of Thinking in Action posts, the series being devoted initially at least to discussion of talks at the Cognitive Disability conference in NYC in September.]

Here is a question from Adrienne Asch, together with a response from Jeff McMahan, following Jeff’s talk at the Cognitive Disability conference; Adrienne’s question followed directly on the heels of Naomi Scheman’s question, the subject of the previous post in this series.

[A full, unofficial transcript for this video clip, as well as a poll for you to participate in, are available beneath the fold. If you are having trouble playing the video above, the full transcript is provided at the end of the post, and you can also try Youtube directly by clicking right here, which for some will be more accessible.]

So does simply asking questions like “In virtue of what does human life have moral value and significance?” somehow express an ethics of exclusion? Asch seems to imply so, in part because it is asking us to draw a line between those that have some property, and those who lack it. Above the line are those with full moral status, and below it are The Rest, others who are thus excluded from full moral consideration, at least insofar as we consider them in and of themselves. If that is right, then even those who give very different kinds of answer to the question–such as those, like Naomi Scheman, who appeal to the relationships that people form a part of in their answers–still express this ethics of exclusion, at least at some level, even if they deliver an answer to the question that is more inclusive.

Asking the question as Asch has asked it—“Jeff, what is the purpose of this effort? If it is not the ethics of exclusion, I don’t know what it is.”—invites the personal response that McMahan gives to it. That response comes only after audience members are reminded that pro-choice views about abortion, popular with the politically liberal, express a kind of ethics of exclusion. I suspect that many of the disability theorists and activists in the room, perhaps influenced by Asch’s own work, don’t need reminding about this, at least when it comes to selective abortion on the basis of the results of genetic screening for “defects”. (See, for example, Adrienne Asch, 2003, “Disability Equality and Prenatal Testing: Contradictory of Compatible?”, Florida State University Law Review 315: 318-346–get this and thematically-related articles right here). McMahan got into this, he tells us, through thinking about the morality of abortion, and what it was about fetuses that made some people think that they should not be killed, while those same people were perfectly happy allowing all sorts of animals to be killed, and in some cases, eating them. McMahan’s answer is meant to provide an alternative to the answer that Asch herself seems to proffer. Where Asch sees an ethics of exclusion, McMahan sees the pursuit of abstract philosophical inquiry–albeit inquiry with real-world oomph–wherever it leads.

While one might see Asch and McMahan’s answer as alternatives, one need not; there is more than a grain of truth in each answer. Continue reading