Worth Reading: on Prenatal Testing and the Meaning of Life and what they have to do with each other

Worth Reading: on Prenatal Testing and the Meaning of Life and what they have to do with each other February 1, 2013

Two articles worth reading. One, a Wired Magazine take on prenatal testing: This Simple Blood Test Reveals Birth Defects–And the Future of Pregnancy, and two, an Atlantic essay: There’s More to Life than Being Happy. The Wired article describes a woman’s decision to end her pregnancy after she discovered her baby had Down syndrome:

She says she needed to talk through the decision to end the pregnancy, but her husband never had any doubt. “His coping mechanism was just to be done with it,” Weiss says. But for her, it was a bit different. “You hear this news and you make your decision. But meanwhile you’re still pregnant. I mean, I was still nauseous.”

Weiss terminated the pregnancy last fall at 12 and a half weeks. She and her husband hadn’t told very many people that she was pregnant, and the procedure at that stage is mercifully swift and relatively simple. Some women do not find out their babies have serious medical problems until much later in their pregnancies. At that point, many doctors don’t even perform abortions, obliging patients to travel to distant cities to get one. “It’s huge to know early on,” Weiss says. “Not that what we went through wasn’t heartbreaking, but we were able to put it behind us faster. We get to start over sooner.”

 The article goes on to look at the history of prenatal testing, starting with x-rays over a century ago, and to discuss the vexing questions of how much information do we want about our children? It doesn’t go so far as to question why we want that information, though I wish more people writing about prenatal testing would question the assumptions embedded in the testing itself–assumptions that suffering is to be avoided at all costs, assumptions that because a life will probably be short or involve intellectual disability it might be better to avoid it altogether. I wonder if these assumptions have to do with how we understand the purpose of our lives. Which leads me to the second article, in which Emily Smith discusses the differences between people who pursue happiness and those who pursue meaning. She writes:

How do the happy life and the meaningful life differ? Happiness, they found, is about feeling good. Specifically, the researchers found that people who are happy tend to think that life is easy, they are in good physical health, and they are able to buy the things that they need and want. While not having enough money decreases how happy and meaningful you consider your life to be, it has a much greater impact on happiness. The happy life is also defined by a lack of stress or worry.

Most importantly from a social perspective, the pursuit of happiness is associated with selfish behavior — being, as mentioned, a “taker” rather than a “giver.” The psychologists give an evolutionary explanation for this: happiness is about drive reduction. If you have a need or a desire — like hunger — you satisfy it, and that makes you happy. People become happy, in other words, when they get what they want. Humans, then, are not the only ones who can feel happy. Animals have needs and drives, too, and when those drives are satisfied, animals also feel happy, the researchers point out.

“Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others,” explained Kathleen Vohs, one of the authors of the study, in a recent presentation at the University of Pennsylvania. In other words, meaning transcends the self while happiness is all about giving the self what it wants. People who have high meaning in their lives are more likely to help others in need. “If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need,” the researchers write.

For my part, I’d like a life that is meaningful and happy, though the former is more important to me. And having a daughter with Down syndrome, so far, has contributed to a sense of meaningfulness and happiness too.

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