"Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger," writes Andrew Solomon in his often incisive and occasionally exasperating new book, "Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity." The arty gay son of pharmaceutical millionaires, Solomon is intrigued by the difference at the heart of parent-child relationships. Why, he asks, in several hundred interviews with exceptional families, "do parents devote themselves to raising children who are nothing at all like the ones they thought they could love?" Why do they commit their lives to kids with Down syndrome, dwarfism, deafness, autism, multiple disability syndrome, cerebral palsy and other "alien" features? And why, most puzzlingly, do they sometimes "end up grateful for experiences they would [once] have done anything to avoid?"
Not that many don't contrive to avoid these experiences: In his chapter on Down syndrome, Solomon reminds us that at least 70 percent of Americans with prenatal diagnoses of Down syndrome opt for abortion. (That number would, I admit, have included me if I'd had the diagnosis.) Another group — probably larger than anyone thinks — gives their newborns up to institutions. "I wish I could show you a list of the people who have given up their babies to me," Solomon is told by the head of an adoption agency for children with Down syndrome: "It would read like Who's Who in America."
And then there is the exit strategy still defended, rather improbably, by a couple of modern ethicists who, in the tall tradition of Adolf Hitler, continue to support the murder of live handicapped children. Parents who do not want their kids with a disability, argues Princeton scholar Peter Singer, should be allowed to kill them until around age 1. (You sense he could be talked into extending this grace period.) The logic behind this argument is as puerile as it is sinister: "Most women who eliminate an unwanted child will produce a wanted one," Singer claims, "and the loss of happiness of the one who is killed (whose life would have been unsatisfactory) is outweighed by the happiness of the healthy child who follows."