The speaker was a proud father. To illustrate his comments about a piece of art that celebrated the wonders of modern medicine (and which he had just donated to a local hospital), he told a story about his adopted Asian daughter. He described her as a beautiful, happy child in whom he took much delight. Her life, he told the audience, had been improved dramatically by the miracle of modern medicine. When she joined her new Caucasian family, her eyes, like those of many people of Asian descent, lacked a fold in the upper eyelid, and that lack was problematic—in his view—because it made her eyes small and sleepy and caused them to shut completely when she smiled. A plastic surgeon himself, he knew she did not need to endure this hardship, so he arranged for her to have surgery to reshape her eyes. The procedure, he explained, was minimally invasive and maximally effective. His beautiful daughter now has big round eyes that stay open and shine even when she smiles.
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[T]wo things separate this case from the run-of-the-mill medical case. First, no medical, psychological, or physical impairment triggered the need for a parental decision; the father chose the surgery based on his aesthetic preference. Second, the intervention itself permanently altered a feature that is to some people an integral aspect of identity. These points make a moral difference. Most parental decisions to treat a child medically or surgically are a response to a physical or psychological impairment, illness, or injury in the child. In those cases, some need of the child triggers the decision to intervene, and the parent is the best person to sort through the medically appropriate choices for the child. But when a parent modifies features of a child that have nothing to do with physical impairment but can be integral to identity, and bases that decision on his own needs or aesthetic preferences, he asserts physical control over the child's body in the same way that he might assert control over a piece of property that he can modify to his specifications.
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The nature of the surgery makes the case especially troubling. For some people, the shape of the eye is an integral part of ethnicity, a component of identity. A change to it may, therefore, go deeper than the removal of a mole or the pinning of a child's ears. In choosing the surgery, the father took from his daughter the ability to make her own choice about her identity. His exercise of parental autonomy thus limited his daughter's potential autonomy in a critical way; it took away her right to make a decision central to her identity as an adult, a right that is, like others, central to an open future.
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The fact that the father was a new adoptive parent makes his decision feel particularly egregious. Perhaps because adoption already involves an exchange, worries about ownership seem closer to the surface. As a result, the adoptive parent seems to have a stronger obligation to accept the child's individuality, especially if the adoption is cross-cultural or cross-racial.
A friend of mine tells of her mother's reaction to her adoption of a child from China -- out of the blue, her mother leans over and says in a confiding tone, "You know, you can get her eyes fixed." Her response -- "Her eyes aren't broken. There's nothing to fix." Good answer!
But this father? I don't have words strong enough to describe him. How horrific for his child. Not only has he made the choice to strip her of her identity, he's made an affirmative statement that her perfectly normal Asian features are broken, and need to be fixed. Yes, as the article notes, some Asian parents have this surgery performed on their Asian children, but the meaning is completely different when a white parent has his daughter's Asian eyes "fixed."