Thursday, April 11, 2002

A pot where nothing melts
Lovely Lady Liberty
With her book of recipes
And the finest one she's got
Is the great American melting pot.

The words were sung in 1974, for Schoolhouse Rock, a fondly-remembered series of clever short animated "lessons" interspersed among ABC's Saturday morning cartoons.

Sometime since, and I haven't isolated exactly when, the very idea of a melting pot went out of style. The third century of the American experiment began with a very different set of huddled masses yearning to breathe free without losing any sense of their own cultural identity. The price of success, they felt, was heritage, and it was a price they didn't feel they should have to pay.

The melting pot faded from the lexicon of social studies, to be replaced by multiculturalism. To be sure, America has always been multicultural, and we have always had hyphenated-Americans -- many of whom were not well treated. Some of them, individually, have found their pieces of the American dream. Others are still looking.

The nature of America has always been derived from its variegated heritage. We pick and choose the best of what our citizens bring us, and those differences give us an unexpected strength and a unique national character.

I am uneasy at the continuing trend towards social balkanization, because it leads to... well, to situations like this. Two lesbians in Washington DC wish to have children. Specifically, they wish to have deaf children, because they are deaf themselves.

Several months before [the boy's] birth, Sharon and Candy -- both stylish and independent women in their mid-thirties, both college graduates, both holders of graduate degrees from Gallaudet University [defined elsewhere in the article as "the world's only liberal arts university for the deaf"], both professionals in the mental health field -- sat in their kitchen trying to envision life if their son turned out not to be deaf. It was something they had a hard time getting their minds around.

That is to say, it's very much the kind of issue they had been trained to deal with and resolve -- from the other direction. God forbid these two should permit some busybody like, well, themselves (only with hearing, and *shudder* probably straight besides) to interfere with the raising of their children.

When they were looking for a donor to inseminate Sharon, one thing they knew was that they wanted a deaf donor. So they contacted a local sperm bank and asked whether the bank would provide one. The sperm bank said no; congenital deafness is precisely the sort of condition that, in the world of commercial reproductive technology, gets a would-be donor eliminated.

As my daughter would say, no duh.

So Sharon and Candy asked a deaf friend to be the donor, and he agreed.

Though they have gone to all this trouble, Candy and Sharon take issue with the suggestion that they are "trying" to have a deaf baby. To put it this way, they worry, implies that they will not love their son if he can hear. And, they insist, they will. As Sharon puts it: "A hearing baby would be a blessing. A deaf baby would be a special blessing."

There's a distinction I don't get. They'll still love him if he can hear, but he'll be a "special" blessing if he cannot. I hope he reads this article.

"Mommy? Sis and I are the only children in the neighborhood who can't tell when the ice cream truck is coming. Why?"

Since the 1980s, many members of the deaf community have been galvanized by the idea that deafness is not a medical disability, but a cultural identity. ... Sharon and Candy share the fundamental view of this Deaf camp; they see deafness as an identity, not a medical affliction that needs to be fixed.

Oh, silly me. There's the answer to my snarky question. These deaf -- excuse me, Deaf -- kids are going to be raised in a Deaf community. Nobody will be able to hear the ice cream truck.

And because my wife and I wear glasses, we're going to have our daughter wear glasses that distort her vision so that she can see no better than we can. And I'm overweight, besides: Start eatin', girl, and don't stop if you can still see your feet.

I am not bothered by the desire, which technology is rapidly giving us the ability to enact, to produce the healthiest possible baby. I am not bothered by using that technology to produce a particular type of healthy baby.

But it is a perversion of medical science to set out deliberately to produce a deaf child.

I regret that the deaf feel separated from hearing society. I am delighted that they find a strength in community to replace that which a sometimes-insensitive hearing community unthinkingly denies them.

But deafness is not just another tile in the multicultural mosaic. It is an increasingly avoidable, often curable, almost always transcendable defect. We do no one any favors to pretend otherwise. Especially not Jehanne and Gauvin, children deaf by their mother's choice.

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