A review of Biotechnology and the Assault on Parenthood. By Donald De Marco.

Ignatius Press, 1991.

The family has faced assorted threats throughout history. The French and Russian revolutions come to mind as two especially hostile forces to the traditional family. More recently the sexual and feminist revolutions have also done their bit to undermine the family.

One recent development which has the potential to wreak just as much havoc on the family is the rise of new reproductive technologies. De Marco examines these new technologies in detail and shows how threatening they are to our understanding of parenthood and family.

De Marco, a Canadian Philosophy Professor, provides a careful assessment of such technologies as in vitro fertilization, surrogacy, embryo transfer and embryo freezing.

While these technologies may have been developed for beneficent purposes, De Marco points out the darker side: “A technology that remedies one problem sometimes creates another.” For example, super-ovulating drugs, used to remedy nature’s low rate of egg production, are traumatic to the reproductive system and can permanently reduce its capacity to achieve pregnancy.

Indeed, the new reproductive technologies are a chimera – they treat a desire instead of a disease. “Even successful interventions do not restore fertility. The man, woman, or couple have exactly the same fertility problem as they had prior to treatment.”

And the costs of reproductive technology are high – financially as well as psychologically and physiologically – and its success rates are very low.

One very good example of the dangers inherent in the new technology is the whole issue of surrogacy. Victoria is of course currently considering a proposal to allow “altruistic” surrogacy. De Marco makes it quite clear why such legislation should not go ahead.

As De Marco states, “The ‘ideal’ surrogate mother is a contradiction. She is motherly enough to conceive a child and carry it to term, but she is also willing to distance herself from her child-in-the-womb so that she can easily give it up.”

The contradictions become more clear when “pro-choice” arguments are used. “Pro-abortionists advanced their cause by insisting that the fetus was merely a part of the woman’s body. The same fetus, however, underwent a metamorphosis when it came time to endorse surrogate motherhood. Then, the fetus was regarded as a “tenant” or a “resident” in a rented womb. At the same time, the pregnant woman’s motherhood evaporated, leaving her as a mere “babysitter”, “incubator”, or “nest-watcher.””

Moreover, the surrogacy debate is usually based on emotional claims, like the desire of the couple to have a child. Now having a child is good and natural – so is the desire for a child. But we have no “right” to procreation. One cannot justify the use of artificial techniques to have a child on the basis of desire alone. Most people would think that in similar contexts, desire is insufficient reason for demanding something. What would one think, for example, of a suitor who proposes marriage to a prospective bride by saying, “You must marry me, I’m desperate!”

The whole concept of surrogacy is so fraught with problems that, as De Marco points out, most Western nations, with notable exceptions, have either banned or strictly curtailed surrogacy. Israel has declared surrogacy to be an “unacceptable practice.” The French have referred to surrogacy as a form of slavery. Spain has banned surrogacy both with and without payment. In England commercial surrogacy is a criminal offence, and Germany has some of the strictest laws in the world on surrogacy.

The new developments in biotechnology are a very real threat to the nature and meaning of personhood and parenthood. If human procreation is separated from the context of loving and mutually faithful relationships, then humankind is reduced to the level of plants and animals. Indeed, if personhood is reduced to a simple collection of atoms and DNA, then any sense of human dignity and human rights disappears, for it is senseless to talk of atoms having rights.

Human beings in this reductionistic perspective can all too easily be treated as means to an end. Human experimentation in Nazi death camps is one obvious example. Another example, just as threatening, is the cultivation of embryos for research purposes. One very crass example of this utilitarian approach is the recent practice of East Bloc countries to encourage women athletes to get pregnant (through artificial insemination) to better perform in athletic events. Since muscle power increases greatly during the early stages of pregnancy, such impregnated athletes could have a competitive edge in events such as track and field. And of course once the event is over, the pregnancy can be terminated through abortion.

The dangers of the new reproductive technologies are just too great to be allowed to continue unabated. Technology will never be able to replace the protective and loving environment which a father and mother give to a family. Concludes De Marco: “the family is still the basic and indispensable unit of society, the one inviolable human community for which there can be no surrogate.”

[821 words]

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