Responsibility, Caring, Interdependency and Contextual Reality
My friend just adopted two little boys: Daniel (age 6) and Thomas (age 5) with fetal alcohol effect. Their biological mother has two other children:* Marie (age 3) and Erik (age 2) with fetal alcohol syndrome. Both of those children have been placed for adoption. She received no prenatal care during her pregnancy with Daniel. Although on welfare, she received no prenatal care during the pregnancies with Marie and Erik. After Daniel's birth, she was visited by a community health nurse who discussed the effect of drinking during pregnancy. At her prenatal visits, she was encouraged to obtain alcohol addiction treatment. She is now pregnant with her fifth child.
The issue here is not one of "rights" but of responsibility, caring, interdependency, and contextual reality. When posing the problem as one of rights, that is rights of the fetus versus rights of the mother, a win-lose situation is necessarily being constructed. A focus on the rights of the fetus, for instance, completely ignores the responsibility that the society has for the mother's situation. The argument ignores society's responsibility for correcting the imbalance. The drug-abusing mother has been socially and sometimes biologically deprived. Without access to education, health care, housing, and good parenting, the mother is not solely responsible for her drug and alcohol abuse. Furthermore, there is a real and justified fear of how society may use the "rights of fetuses" to control women.
On the other hand, the "rights of the woman" argument ignores the biological interdependency of the unborn. It will be little comfort to a FAS girl to know that she has certain rights when she lacks the biological capabilities to make full use of those rights. As the saying goes, rights won't keep you warm. In this society, where merit is supposed to be the basis for all rewards, a person who is born either legally or biologically handicapped cannot make any significant achievement based on merit. Thus, there is an inherent hypocrisy in saying that a person has a fundamental right of privacy and liberty, that a person's rewards are determined on their ability, but that the society will not step in to prevent a known legal or biological disability.
"Responsibility" analysis provides an alternative to the "rights" analysis. Under this analysis, it is necessary not only to analyze the individual's responsibility but the society's and community's responsibilities. What are the society's responsibilities toward the drug/alcohol abusing woman? If we care for the woman, what is necessary for us to help her? At the same time, we acknowledge that the fetus has an interdependence on women and society. That interdependence requires us, individually as women and as a society, to do what we can to assure every child is born healthy. The ability of a person to succeed and lead a productive life is directly dependent on how well we meet our responsibilities. A sense of caring and interdependency dictates that we look beyond a win-lose "rights" analysis.
The rights issue historically and constitutionally, has been the framework on which we have to justify our decisions. However, it should not and cannot be the sole basis for continuing decision-making. Evidence that the rights analysis can be a bankrupted analysis is provided by the use of this analysis in the past to legally subject Blacks and women to White males. It is an analytic framework based on domination, hierarchy, and patriarchy. In the twenty-first century we must move to develop a legal framework based on responsibility, caring, interdependency, and contextual reality. In the case of fetal alcohol syndrome, we must recognize that the pregnant woman has a responsibility to the unborn fetus and the community to prevent harm; that the community has to care enough to assure complete access to the full range to preventive services; that the woman, the fetus and the community are interdependent; that you can't address the issues of one without addressing the issues of the others; and, finally, that the reality is that not all communities are the same and any solution has to be flexible enough to accommodate the full range of communities.