Of Course a Deaf Couple Want a Deaf Child

Article excerpt

Few broadcasters convey astonishment with an undertone of outrage as skilfully as the BBC's John Humphrys. Over the years the Today programme presenter has had a lot of practice. Yesterday, however, it was not an equivocating politician who got Humphrys to hit his top note. It was a bloke called Tomato - Mr Tomato Lichy, to be precise. The programme's listeners never actually heard Mr Lichy speak: he responded to John Humphrys' questions in sign language, and someone else turned his answers into spoken English for the interviewer's - and our-benefit.

Tomato Lichy and his partner Paula are both deaf. They have a deaf child, Molly. Now Paula is in her 40s and the couple believe they might require IVF treatment to produce a second child. They very much want such a child also to be deaf.

Here's where it gets political: the Government is whipping through a new Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. Clause 14/4/ 9 states that, "Persons or embryos that are known to have a gene, chromosome or mitochondrion abnormality involving a significant risk that a person with the abnormality will have or develop a serious physical or mental disability, a serious illness or any other serious medical condition must not be preferred to those that are not known to have such an abnormality."

This, Tomato Lichy signed to Mr Humphrys, means that he and his partner would be compelled by law to discard the very embryos that they wished to have implanted: "I couldn't participate in any procedure which forced me to reject a deaf embryo in favour of a hearing embryo." Mr Lichy argued that this legislation was specifically designed to discriminate against deafness. As a matter of fact, he's quite right.

The explanatory notes to the clause inform legislators:"Outside the UK, the positive selection of deaf donors in order deliberately to result in a deaf child has been reported. This provision would prevent (embryo) selection for a similar purpose." This all stems from a single case in the US six years ago, when a lesbian couple, Sharon Duchesneau and Candace McCullough, both of whom were deaf, selected a sperm donor on the basis of his family history of deafness. It caused outrage - outrage which clearly filtered through to the British Health ministry.

The most revealing account of this most unusual conception appeared in an email interview in the Lancet. Duchesneau and McCullough wrote: "Most of the ethical issues that have been raised in regard to our story centre on the idea that being deaf is a negative thing. From there, people surmise that it is unethical to want to create deaf children, who are, in their view, disabled.

"Our view, on the other hand, is that being deaf is a positive thing, with many wonderful aspects. We don't view being deaf along the same lines as being blind or mentally retarded; we see it as paralleling being Jewish or black. We don't see members of those minority groups wanting to eliminate themselves."

This is as clear an exposition as you will see of the concept of "cultural deafness". Adherents of this philosophy refer not just to "deaf culture" - Mr Lichy said he felt "sorry for" John Humphrys for not being able to appreciate "deaf plays" - but to themselves as members of a "linguistic community". This idea of a separate language enables the proponents of cultural deafness to describe themselves as, in effect, an ethnic minority - and thus any legislative attempt to weed them out as embryos to be analogous with the most insidious racism. …