Saturday, September 27, 2014

Autism and The Sins of the Fathers

It's been ricocheting around the internets for a couple of weeks now: Catholic research biologist Theresa Deisher -- a rare example of a highly-skilled and -credentialed professional who makes no pretense of her faith, striving instead to use her gifts to glorify God --  published a widely-disseminated study that links the use of fetal DNA in certain vaccines to the increase in autism diagnoses. While the Catholic-blogging-and-commenting cohort have cheered her study, which seems to demonstrate something that they have been hoping for a long time to find, others -- including Simcha Fisher and the science moms at a new blog, Rational Catholic -- have picked apart Dr. Deisher's methodology and (cogently) undermined her conclusions. Other Catholics have tacitly accused these critics not only of making a shanda fur die goyim, but also of being bad Catholics in general, because, evidently, Catholics are supposed to support the work of other Catholics no matter what, and besides, Dr. Deisher's son is very ill, so they should lay off her.

I will not attempt to pick apart the science here; other have done that far better than I ever could. My discomfort with the praise Dr. Deisher's work has received from lay (meaning non-scientist) Catholics is not about the science, which I'm hardly qualified to speak about. It's rather about what I consider to be a disturbing moral and theological fallacy implicit in Deisher's work. Keep in mind that I'm about as much a moral theologian as I am a scientist; but, as we all know, having zero credentials has never been a deterrent to expressing one's opinion on the Catholic blogosphere, or anywhere else, for that matter.

I believe Dr. Deisher's work is based on a faulty theological premise, because it assumes autism to be the logical outcome of cooperation with intrinsic evil. The flaws in Deisher's assumption are twofold:

1. She subtly portrays autism as an evil outcome -- a thing to be feared; and

2. She ignores the revelation of Christ in the New Testament. I will address this flaw first.

The basis of Deisher's research is the fact that the rubella vaccine was derived from a fetal cell line taken from an aborted baby more than fifty years ago; ergo, cooperation with the evil of abortion, no matter how remote, will lead to a bad outcome. This is the doctrine of karma, which is not a teaching of our church.

Deisher appears to have based her assumption on Exodus 34:6-7 and other passages in the Old Testament, which caution that God "visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and fourth generation." (Since today's infant vaccinands are roughly the third generation from that aborted baby, perhaps this means that the evil power of the rubella vaccine will have worn off by the time their own children are born, and that no one, in that happy time, will need Fear The Autism.)

While it is true, of course, that sin, beginning with Original Sin, has ruined the world, we now have a Savior who is merciful and just; even the prophets of the Old Testament offer a perspective on sin and forgiveness that differs from the one in Exodus. Ezekiel, for example, say that

The person who sins is the one who will die. The child will not be punished for the parent's sins, and the parent will not be punished for the child's sins. Righteous people will be rewarded for their own righteous behavior, and wicked people will be punished for their own wickedness.

And while it is true that God does not change, and nor do His covenants or His promises, it is a central tenet of the Christian faith that Christ has fulfilled them, has been our proxy, and has taken the burden of that punishment -- including, I would guess, the punishment of the children's children for the sins of the fathers -- upon Himself.

One of the great mysteries of Christianity is the one that consistently challenges logic: God brings good out of evil. We expect Him to repay evil for evil; justice demands it. But God quite often confounds our expectations. The proof of this is quite simply in the cross itself, the instrument of brutal torture turned into a sign of salvation. In this fallen world we have to work with what we have, and what we have is half-broken, faulty, and tainted, as are we. But God can, and does, bring great good out of these inadequate means. 

Is it not possible that the aborted baby whose cell line has been used to save thousands, if not millions, of other babies from death in utero is a type of Christ him- or herself, a type of the seed that falls into the ground and  dies, bringing about an abundant harvest? The death of Christ was a scandal, but the result is the salvation of mankind. On a smaller scale, the death of a baby by abortion is likewise a scandal, but, in this case, the result has been the saving of many young lives. Deisher's work puts forth the idea that evil always brings forth evil, and, while this makes logical sense, we know that it is not invariably true.

What's more, the evil end that Deisher and her supporters envision as the logical result of evil means is . . .  autism. This conflation of the intrinsic evil of abortion with neurological difference is, to say the least, highly problematic; I would love to know what Christian autistic self-advocates -- and yes, they exist -- think about it. 

The takeaway from Deisher's study -- at least as it's being expressed throughout the Catholic blogosphere -- is that autism must be cured (if not eliminated), and that, in fact, autism can be avoided (if not eliminated) if the rubella vaccine, which was derived from the stem cell line of an aborted baby more than fifty years ago, is no longer used. This assumes that autism is a Very Bad Thing, devoutly to be un-wished for, and that it's worth risking the deaths of countless babies (other people's babies; it always is) in utero to avoid it. This is not just theologically faulty; it's morally faulty.

My own takeaway is that, as I've learned over and over again at great cost, evil usually doesn't appear evil. Evil cloaks itself in the trappings of good. Evil is pervasive; evil wants to destroy all that is good in the world. Life is good. Death is evil. The deaths of countless babies in utero from rubella is evil. Vaccination with the rubella vaccine, which prevents those deaths, is good. And God brings good out of evil.

Hysterical comments will be deleted.


Enbrethiliel said...



(Oh, Pentimento, I couldn't resist. =P)

Enbrethiliel said...


The issue of vaccines developed using the cells of aborted babies also came up recently on my blog. The commenter who brought it up said, "Sometimes you have to accept that the past is the past." (Interestingly, she and her husband have chosen not to vaccinate their children.)

The context was a discussion of a fictional trading game called Blood and Roses, in which the object is to make a better world by exchanging human achievements for human atrocities. (For instance, if the price of preventing the Holocaust were the loss of all the works by your favourite composer, would you make the trade?) As the conversation lengthened, we came to agree on two things. The first is what you've pointed out here--for we couldn't think of anything truly horrible that didn't result in some good later on. That is, every atrocity can follow the template of Calvary; or as you put it, the aborted baby can be seen as a type of Christ. The second involves the way that the Mystical Body works. Let me explain with a non-religious example . . .

I used to know a young woman who had been abused as a child. She went on to study Psychology and was fascinated by case studies of other abused children. I wouldn't say it was always a healthy fascination, but it helped her to deal with her own past: if she could see the pain of those children transformed into something that was really helping many psychologists and their patients, then she could believe that her own suffering could be transmuted into a net gain for the world. And that is how the Mystical Body works: as the sufferings of Christ belong to all of us, the sufferings of those whom He has saved can be united to His own and also belong to all of us. And that is why, in the end, we shouldn't trade the atrocities of the past for anything: it would be a denial of our oneness with those whom we supposedly care enough about to save. Salvation isn't an external transaction, but an action of and in a single body, like the circulation of blood.

Anyway, I hope that this makes up for my first "hysterical comment." =P

Pentimento said...

"And that is why, in the end, we shouldn't trade the atrocities of the past for anything."

And that is why, Enbrethiliel, published your hysterial comment. :)

Neurodivergent K said...

I'm an Autistic activist, though not religious (graduate of Catholic school & raised Eastern Orthodox, however).

The presentation of brains like mine as the result of evil is unconscionable, and is yet another thing that people use to justify hurting and killing us--I know of several murders of autistic children where the killer said things like "won't be autistic in heaven" or "sending to Jesus" as their defense. I did very well in my morality classes & I get the impression that this is not consistent with the pro life ethic we learned about--my life is not worth less than another life, is not evil, just because I am neurodivergent.

It's also inconsistent with the "God does not make mistakes/garbage" thing. A number of religious (mostly various denominations of Christians) parents of autistic people (never us ourselves...) say that in one moment & bemoan the punishment that we are on them the next. It's not logically consistent.

It's disappointing that someone is using the tenets of a faith that I grew up around to endanger people for being like me (as being dehumanized by being the personification of evil makes all of our lives less protected) and also to scare people out of possibly the greatest medical advance of all time. It's not ok. It isn't at all consistent with either what I learned in religion classes or what I discerned by thinking about what my ethics are and what is right.

It's ableist fearmongering.

Hala said...

A friend from self-advocate circles shared a link to this post on fb. This is really a conversation worth having… and yes, there are a number of Christian self-advocates to have it.

I have trouble engaging with remotely anti-vax arguments, but the rest is interesting and I will post more when I've thought about it.

Lastly, you are a wonderful writer!

CC said...

I am an autistic adult who converted to Judaism after growing up attending both Presbyterian and Catholic churches at intervals (mother and stepfather). I am beyond appalled by this hateful study.

Liz Ditz said...

Hi Pentimento

I posted an excerpt and a link to your blog, asking my autistic friends & allies-of-autistic friends to comment here, as I know a number of same who are Catholic or other Christian sects.

Facebook post

I gather there's been some difficulty in commenting.

Pentimento said...

Thank you all for coming here and weighing in. I very much value your input.

I heard that the captcha was acting up, so I removed it. I hope it doesn't cause any more problems.

Morénike said...

I am an Autistic adult, a non-denominational Christian, and a parent of Autistic and non-Autistic children. The idea that the neurology my children and I were born with is "sinful" thoroughly disgusts me, and the fact that an attempt to conflate Scripture, vaccination, etc in this manner is appalling. The Bible states that I am "fearfully and wonderfully made" and that God knew me as I was "knit together" in the womb. There is nothing sinful about being Autistic, and in fact when I read the accounts of certain Biblical characters (John the Baptist being one, but not the only), I see a great deal of characteristics of neurodivergence. This saddens me a great deal.

Pentimento said...

Thank you for your comment, Morénike. To be fair, I don't think that Deisher is saying that autism is a sinful state per se, but that it is the result of grave sin. Which is subtler, perhaps, but just as bad.

Unknown said...

Pentimento, Bravo! People equate any kind of suffering with evil and want to eliminate it, not accepting that the cross is not optional. I know that God made me the way I am and that sometimes it is a challenge for the people who love me, but that I am challenged in my love for them too, and God triumphs when I accept others and love them anyway. On a societal scale, I think of all the children aborted because they tested positive for Down's Syndrome. They would have been called simple. Caring for them may have seemed simple compared to caring for us non-neurotypicals. Is it a coincidence that we can't yet test for autism? If we did, and then tried to eliminate autistics, God would have to discipline us. I picture us as the answer to disobedience (God rolling up his sleeves--we can do this the easy way or we can do this the hard way). When people make a nasty comment that implies I'm a little retarded, I find myself chuckling and thinking, "No, I'm not simple, in fact, I'm really complicated!"

Pentimento said...

Thank you for your comment, Allan. I agree with you that, if there were biomarkers for autism that could be detected in utero, the result would be a holocaust even greater than that of unborn babies with Down. The bioethicist Gerard Nadal once wrote a piece in which he suggested that autism's purpose was to teach us, as a culture, how to truly love. Perhaps there's some truth to that.