Professor Discusses Bioethics Through Lens of Film

The film Gattaca provided the jumping-off point for Director of the Institute for Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University Michael Berube’s lecture on bioethics, part of the Lowell Humanities Series, last Wednesday night.

The protagonist of Gattaca, Vincent Freeman, dreams of working in a space station when he gets older but has numerous disabilities. Berube showed a clip from the film to the audiences in which Vincent’s parents talk to a geneticist about having another, more perfect child. He pointed out the comedy in the parents’ request of a child with fair skin to a geneticist who was himself black.

“I find this aspect of the movie’s premise fascinating for two reasons,” he said. “First of all, because, pardon the jargon, it counterintuitively and counterfactually disarticulates racism and geneticism. Imagine a society obsessed with genetics that doesn’t care at all about race.”

Berube also believed the film was interesting for its focus on employment-related disability. He focused on the other main character in the film, Jerome, a world-class athlete who stands in front of a car in a failed suicide attempt before killing himself at the end of the film.

Critiques of the film that Berube read aloud argued that it contributes to prejudice against those with disabilities. He argued against these critiques, citing the fact that Jerome was fully healthy when he first considered suicide.

Despite liking the film, Berube believed it challenged many of his deeply held notions. “The Gattaca scenario therefore presents a challenge as much to liberals like me, who have thus far combined… political support for reproductive rights, also a defense of the technologies of prenatal screening, the critique of cost-benefit analyses of human worth, the astringent skepticism about the worthiness of deeply egalitarian assurances in the health care system… [and] a defense of the social welfare state that provides an equally stringent process for children with disabilities,” he said.

Ultimately, Berube affirmed his support for reproductive rights and prenatal screening, but cautioned against allowing prenatal screening to factor into keeping or terminating a pregnancy. He cited the harsh words of two parents, “having a ‘tard’ is a bummer for life” and “I don’t want a kid if he has no chance of becoming president.” Berube elicited laughs from the audience by quoting from his blog that in both a “utilitarian and deontological sense, these parents are assholes.”

Still, Berube stated that in dissuading others from aborting fetuses with Down Syndrome, it is important not to allude to the joy that these children will provide, so as not to violate the Kantian imperative to view people as ends in themselves.Two other moral imperatives that Berube cited were the need to champion reproductive rights of women and health care rights for the children women bear.

He then offered a critique of liberal eugenics, which holds that genetic enhancement is okay if it is at the discretion of parents and not of the state. His response to liberal eugenics drew on the idea that disabilities do not always inhibit happiness. He cited the example of a blind man who regained his sight, found the world drabber than he had imagined, and then later killed himself.

The conflation of disabilities with disease was an especially significant idea which Berube attempted to debunk. He stated that species-wide eradication of autism and Down syndrome is not a species-wide good in the same way as eliminating cancer, malaria, and HIV. Berube continued, stating that most of his students found screening for qualities such as propensity for obesity repugnant, but students were generally supportive of screening for a propensity for violence.

Emilee Herringshaw, a student in professor Amy Boesky’s Medical Humanities class, gave her take on the lecture, having read Life as We Know It, a memoir about Berube’s son with Down syndrome.

She challenged the idea of a societal conception of normalcy. “I think there’s an inherent paradox [in the idea that] if we strive for perfection, it will make life better,” she said.

“I’m familiar with his work, having taught some of it in ethics course I taught at Mass Bay Community College,” Tish Allen said, a since retired professor. “My students enjoyed his work, especially what he did on disability rights.”