"Words are things; and a small drop of ink,
Falling like dew upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions think."
- Lord Byron (1788-1824), from "Don Juan"
Lord Byron never finished his masterpiece, the epic poem "Don Juan," but he might never have begun it had he been conceived today.
For Byron was born with a slight deformity - a clubfoot - that nonetheless left intact whatever degree of self-esteem is necessary to support a galloping libido. He further reduced his handicap to irrelevance by swimming the Hellespont (today's Dardanelles Strait) in tribute to Leander and Hero, the drowned lovers about whom he wrote a verse.
Clearly, Byron's flair for the poetic didn't stop at the water's edge.
So much, meanwhile, for the handicap of a clubfoot, which in those days sentenced one to a lifetime limp. Today, medical advances make it and other minor deformities a temporary inconvenience.
Yet also today, we have little tolerance for imperfection, especially when it comes to our children. If, that is, they're lucky enough to get born. Those who make it to the other side of the birth canal, a crossing no less challenging than Byron's Hellespont, face the pressures of extreme parenting, such as that described in Sunday's New York Times Magazine about parents hauling their would-be actor/children to crying lessons.
The week before, in what could have been a prequel to the child-actor story, Britain's Sunday Times reported that more than 20 babies had been aborted in advanced stages of gestation between 1996 and 2004 in England because scans showed they had clubfeet. Had these parents never heard of Dudley Moore, the British actor who also had a clubfoot?
Another four babies were aborted because they had extra digits or webbed fingers, according to the same story. In 2002, a baby was aborted at 28 weeks because of a cleft palate. Last year, a 6-month-old fetus was aborted when ultrasound revealed that part of a foot was missing, according to the Times.
One doesn't have to believe in the supernatural to wonder what might have been. Not only with the babies who were known to be slightly imperfect, but also with the millions of others worldwide who have been eliminated for reasons less vivid.
Since abortion was legalized in 1973, estimates are that some 50 million of them have been performed in the U.S. Of that number, relatively few have been owing to fetal defects as compared to lifestyle concerns, according to a 2004 Alan Guttmacher Institute study.
While it may be intellectually easier to justify aborting a fetus in cases of severe abnormalities, terminating a pregnancy because of easily corrected imperfections should disturb our sleep. If parents can be moved to abort their babies because of smallish flaws, how long before designer babies become the norm - or abortions are performed when babies have the wrong eye color or are the wrong sex?
These are not mere rhetorical questions. Already women shop sperm banks for idealized traits, from blond curls to blue eyes, the way we now design dream cars online. In such a commodified world, where hope is replaced by expectation, can disappointment and rejection be far behind?
The list of accomplished people with birth defects, meanwhile, is long. Two born with clubfeet are Kristi Yamaguchi, the 1992 Olympic champion figure skater, and U.S. Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868), who helped draft the 14th Amendment and the Reconstruction Act.
Imagine what our cultural conversation would have been without Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish existentialist philosopher - a hunchback with uneven legs. Or Juan Ruiz de Alarcon, the 17th century Mexican dramatist, who also was a hunchback and wrote some 20 dramas including "La Verdad Sospechosa."
Translated, "The Suspicious Truth" is an apt title for the argument that reproductive choice always trumps all other considerations, or that any and all birth defects conscribe a child to a life not worth living.
Obviously, no one wishes anything but perfect children for all mothers and fathers. Ask expectant parents what they want, meaning a boy or a girl, and they'll usually answer "ten fingers and ten toes." By which most mean they'll love whatever they get.
And most do. Even so, the slippery slope isn't a cliche for nothing. As we learn of these incremental forays into prenatal selectivity, we might pause to consider where such thinking leads.
If we don't want to grant life to those afflicted with small deformities, where do we set the bar for "good enough"? More important, perhaps, what is the cost to our humanity - not to mention the poet's soul - when the imperfect have no place among the living?