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Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

IVF and ART: Philosophical Problems

Sep 15, 2014

The 1997 film Gattaca was a sci-fi thriller about a brave new world of genetic engineering and a two-tiered race. Most people were manufactured, created to be robust and fault-free specimens, while some were still born the old way, with all the imperfections that entailed.

This prophetic film actually highlighted how eugenics and genetic discrimination are part and parcel of the new reproductive technologies. Sadly the warnings contained in such a film are lost on most people, and when push comes to shove, plenty of desperate individuals and couples will avail themselves of the new biotech world without asking hardly any serious questions about just what they are getting themselves into.

gattaca-posterThe now rather widespread use of things like in vitro fertilisation and various assisted reproductive technologies raise a number of ethical concerns. Elsewhere I have documented some of these, including medical concerns, social concerns, family concerns, and financial concerns. Here I wish to look at these matters from a more philosophical perspective.

Many profound questions arise here. Do we have a right to children? What is the relation between parent and child? Does a parent own a child? The difficulties of such questions are highlighted with issues like surrogacy. Who is the parent? Who is the owner? Who does the child belong to?

It is worth quoting from ethicist Leon Kass in this regard:

The right to procreate is an ambiguous right, and certainly not an unqualified one. Whose right is it, a woman’s or a couple’s? Is it a right to carry and deliver (i.e., only a woman’s right) or is it a right to nurture and rear? Is it a right to have your own biological child? . . . Does infertility demand treatment wherever found? In women over seventy? In virgin girls? In men? Can these persons claim either a natural desire or natural right to have a child, which the new technologies might or must provide them? Does infertility demand treatment by any and all available means?

Or as Pete Moore explains, we have “a right to try for a baby whenever we want, but that is not the same as claiming the right to a baby. Slavery was abolished because we recognised that one person could not use another to fulfil their needs, and we need to be cautious before responding to the heart-rending pleas of couples who say that they need to have a child to fulfil their aspirations.”

Bioethicist Edwin Hui puts the matter in terms of negative and positive rights. Negative rights basically imply being left alone, while positive rights claim that others have an obligation to facilitate one’s right: “So while the right to procreate is a widely accepted negative right that should not be interfered with, the right to use assisted reproductive technologies to procreate as a positive right has yet to be established”.

Thus instead of speaking in terms of ownership, or a right to children, it is perhaps better to speak of the privilege of having children. No one, in this sense, has a right to children. Many of a religious persuasion would say they are a gift or a sacred trust. But just because technology can produce babies on demand does not mean that we have an inherent right to babies whenever and however we please.

As philosopher Donald De Marco argues, “No person should be regarded as the object of another person’s rights. The converse of this moral axiom states that no person should regard another person as an object of his rights, that is to say, no person has a right to another person.”

Along with the moral principle that the end does not justify the means, he elaborates further: the desire to have a child does not justify kidnapping another’s child. And if, as we have seen, the desire to have a baby results in a procedure that may in fact destroy many embryos along the way, then that desire must be reined in by the rights of the other.

All these concerns can be summed up in the reality that so much of ART is really about the commodification of life, and the manufacture of children. It is in so many ways a depersonalising and reductionist approach to human life and reproduction.

The end results of such processes are not gifts to be grateful for, but products to keep tweaking, models to keep upgrading, and manufactured goods that we keep seeking the latest and best version of. As Ryan Anderson and Christopher Tollefsen put it in an important article,

the world of assisted reproductive technology is shot through with the language of “spares,” with the grading of embryos A through D, with the elimination of the lesser in favor of the better, with selective reduction of some for the benefit of others. In all these ways parents manifest the depersonalizing mindset of a process that seeks to create children according to the parents’ own specifications. As with any process of manufacture, refractory material is eliminated, faulty attempts are scrapped, and the drive to mastery over what is made is allowed full reign.

They are worth citing a bit further:

Again, we have no doubt that parents who conceive children through the use of assisted reproductive technologies love the children they produce. Likewise, we believe that most parents who would use biotechnology to create so-called “designer babies” would, by and large, love their children. That said, there is evidence that these technologies do perpetuate the manufacturer-manufactured relationship. In addition to the indicators we have cited, we could point to the practices of hyper-ovulation, multiple-fertilization, sperm-sorting for sex selection, and preimplantation genetic diagnosis. Lastly, the entire industry that has sprung up around assisted reproductive technologies — the anonymous sperm “donors,” the laboratory technicians who create life in petri dishes, the thousands of embryonic humans suspended in frozen animation — demonstrates the impersonal way that artificially-produced humans are treated. All of these measures fail to treat the newly conceived child humanely as they replace the filial relationship between the generations with that of producer to product.

Children are a tremendous blessing, and the ache for a child by an infertile couple is always grievous and difficult. But the rush to avail ourselves of new technological means to produce children must always be done carefully, slowly and prayerfully. Certainly the greater social ramifications must be fully explored.

Individual couples may get some good outcomes by the use of such means, but may these new technologies not also be part of a much more worrying future, one in which more and more children become the result of manufacture and assembly lines, with plenty of negative social consequences as a result?

Films which look at and warn about possible biotech futures are often seen as just diversionary entertainment. But these films, such as Gattaca, raise some very real questions which we all must carefully consider before we allow even more open slather in the new reproductive revolution.

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10 Responses to IVF and ART: Philosophical Problems

  • Dear Bill,

    Please promote our next 40 Days for Life campaign through your life networks. We sorely need prayer warriors between the hours of 7am and 7pm from 24th September until 4th November. Registrations from representatives of your organisation for a 2 hour block per week would ensure that all our 480 hours are covered. What a great witness for life this would be!

    Every life is precious and for every precious life aborted at the Fertility Control Clinic, East Melbourne may there be a prayer warrior or more present so it will not perish alone and unloved!

    Our website will give more information and for hard copies of the fliers please reply with a mailing address and desired quantity.

    In hopeful anticipation,
    Yours for life,

    Trudi Aiashi
    Communications Co-ordinator
    40 Days for Life
    http://www.40daysforlife.com/melbourne

  • Bill…loved the film (own it) and agree that it raised some very serious issues regarding bio-engineering. I think of it often when considering life created apart from God. Another sci-fi that did it as well was, “Bladerunner”. Of course, you didn’t even need to mention the horrors of the Holocaust that provided so much of the experimentation that the technology has been built upon. Great article!

  • “…All of these measures fail to treat the newly conceived child humanely as they replace the filial relationship between the generations with that of producer to product…”

    That’s not very womanly. So this is the outcome of feminism – shopping? This entire medical industry has been driven by women delaying childbirth to it’s natural bitter end for ‘social reasons including work’. Delaying is dumb – and very expensive – and nothing a moral government should financially assist women with. Nor soon will most men as it’s too expensive, and it’s too emotional. They’ll look younger. Delaying pregnacy and finding out that you cannot concieve is not something you can take your boss or feminists to court on either.

    In over 50 years Liberalism hasn’t delivered anything that has been lasting positive – and they’ve now tried most things. And they needed socialism to pay for it all. Pathetic. Thanks Bill.

  • And you haven’t gone on to surrogacy yet.

    Commercial surrogacy smacks of the old slave trade – a price for a life, a higher price for the more desirable ones, and a lower price or even nothing for the unwanted (Downs Syndrome?).

    Amos 2:6 and 8:6

  • Great article Bill, really helped me to look deeper in to the whole procedure.

  • I find interesting the account in the Bible when Solomon was called upon to resolve a dispute between two women over a new born baby. I believe the wisdom which Solomon employed to determine who the real mother of the child was, is quite telling. When Solomon lifted his sword to cut the baby in half, giving one half to each of the women to settle the dispute, the woman who was not the biological mother was not moved to sacrifice her life to save the baby. Only the biological mother had that bond which prompted the natural response to protect the baby by self sacrifice.

    This leads me to ponder the probability of this bond never truly being there when the baby is not truly part of that God ordained process. Just a few thoughts.

  • Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World envisaged a totalitarian society where human reproduction by sexual intercourse was relegated to the “savage reservations” of the globe. “Offspring” in the civilised “brave new world” were entirely the product of specialised government “incubator” laboratories.

    Huxley’s dystopia was also a totalitarian society where pharmaceutically modulated recreational sex and recreational drugs were used to keep the masses under the control of the state…

  • Very well articulated article and responses. Thank you Bill, for again making us think “consequences”.

  • “Children are a tremendous blessing, and the ache for a child by an infertile couple is always grievous and difficult.”

    As a childless couple we have certainly had our share of this pain. Society and many churches believe doing whatever you need to do to get the life you want (deserve). Sometimes God, in His wisdom and sovereignty, simply says No.

  • Megan, thank you for your brave and mature response.

    Although we have a larger than average family, we are in a church where there are a number of couples who remain childless.

    It has given us an appreciation for the grace of God operating differently, even though we enjoy the blessings of the children God has given us.

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