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Old Songs, New Tests, and Expensive Children

Posted by George Estreich, Biopolitical Times guest contributor on February 20th, 2014


The “distressed baby” Tim Armstrong blamed for benefit cuts. Photo by Deanna Fei

On Thursday, February 6th, Tim Armstrong, the CEO of AOL, justified a restructuring of the company’s 401(K) matching plan by citing the sick children of employees. Two sick children, to be exact. At an internal town hall meeting, Armstrong claimed, "We had two AOL-ers that had distressed babies . . . that we paid a million dollars each to make sure those babies were OK in general.” Unsurprisingly, the backlash was substantial. Tone-Deaf CEO is a tune we all know, and Armstrong’s improvisation on the theme, like others in the genre, was both memorable and inelegant. The complex discordance of Caring (“OK in general”), Slashing (the benefit cut), and personal wealth (Armstrong’s salary last year: twelve million dollars)—not to mention the blaming-the-infants thing—was answered by a disapproving choir, tweeting and talking and commenting, more or less in unison. Armstrong has since apologized and restored the matching plan to its previous form.

Rising above the other voices was a personal essay published in Slate, and written by Deanna Fei, the mother of one of the babies in question. Fei’s daughter was born months premature, weighing less than two pounds, and her narrative exposes the euphemism “distressed” for what it is:

We were too terrified to name her, to know her, to love her. In my lowest moments—when she suffered a brain hemorrhage, when her right lung collapsed, when she stopped breathing altogether one morning—I found myself wishing that I could simply mourn her loss and go home to take care of my strapping, exuberant, fat-cheeked son.

Since Armstrong’s announcement effectively compromised Fei’s privacy, she essentially had two options. She could remain silent, thereby accepting Armstrong’s characterization of her daughter as a “cost,” or she could out herself, then speak for her child.  She chose the latter, replying to his numbers with a story. In doing so, she makes clear that numbers are not enough, that cost and value are not the same.

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Posted in Bioethics, Biotech & Pharma, Civil Society, Disability, Eugenics, Genetic Selection, Human Rights, Personal genomics, Public Opinion, Reproductive Justice, Health & Rights, Sequencing & Genomics


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