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Following the devaluation of babies in Western culture in the 1970s and '80s, babies became relatively scarce and, consequently, desirable once again. Now, most see any means used to make a wished-for baby as good, as long as the pregnancy is brought about at a convenient time. The prevailing view is that those who cannot conceive naturally should be able to purchase gametes (i.e., sperm and eggs) and that they should have easy access to such reproductive technologies as in vitro fertilization (IVF).
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Yet many do not know what actually occurs in IVF labs, and others do not care, as long as the desired offspring result. Most people view reproductive technology, or "repro-tech," as a fundamentally personal matter, but seeing the issue solely through the prism of individual desires obscures the profound social problems that repro-tech both reflects and causes.
For example, the growing demand for IVF is, in large measure, a response to Western cultural changes. As birth control and abortion became widely available, many people came to regard sex as separate from procreation. This shift has led many to postpone childbearing into their mid-thirties and beyond, when women's natural fertility is declining. It has also left many feeling free to have multiple sex partners and thus increased the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI)—there are over ten million new cases each year—that scars the reproductive organs and impairs fertility. When such individuals later seek to have a child and can't do so naturally, IVF is often used to bypass the obstacles.
Both Exaggerated & Understated Concerns
A number of commentators, including Leon Kass, Francis Fukuyama, and Bill McKibben, have observed the potential of such technologies as human genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and robotics to demoralize individuals and damage human community. They envision, for instance, futuristic, highly skilled classical pianists or athletes becoming aware that their parents purchased their strong musical or athletic genes for them, and suffering existential crises in consequence regarding the source of, and credit for, their accomplishments. These commentators also envision democracy itself becoming untenable as genetically privileged individuals create a master socioeconomic and political class. While acknowledging that threats like these are prospective, the commentators also regard them as imminent, given that gene sequencing and gene-manipulation research continue in earnest.
Such warnings are at once an exaggeration and an understatement. They are an exaggeration because, although genomic research has enabled scientists to identify the effects of some DNA sequences, the effects of many other sequences are still years away from being discovered. In addition, as many have observed, gene-manipulation efforts to date reveal that genes cannot often simply be cut and pasted, one for another, in an individual without causing serious, unanticipated side effects.
The commentators' warnings are also an understatement in the sense that IVF enables the research that may clear these technological hurdles. It uses the same lab equipment that genomic researchers use, and it provides cumulating knowledge, techniques, and the oversupply of embryos needed to advance genetic engineering. IVF is to genetic engineering what nuclear power plants are to nuclear weapons proliferation.
The commentators' concerns are understated in another, more important way. The same ethic of reproductive control that animates IVF also allows for egg and sperm shopping, genetic screening, and embryo selection—and their companions, sex-selective and eugenic abortion. One might maintain that the embryo is not a "person," but one cannot dispute that an embryo at seven days tells us much about what the person will be like at 27 years. With its production of multiple embryos, IVF already enables parents to select between disposable embryos for numerous lifelong traits, including sex and disability. Sperm and egg shoppers manifest distinct preferences for gametes from tall, conventionally attractive gamete sellers who have a lot of formal education. These are clearly design choices, and they are not futuristic ones that may never become available; these choices are made every day.
The Eugenic Age Is upon Us
Thus, even if genetic manipulation never becomes possible, the "eugenic age" is already well underway and largely accepted by our consumer-oriented society. If parents have their unborn baby's genes tested and don't like the results, they can, and often do, have that baby's life ended. For example, over 90 percent of fetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted. Not in some fictional, futuristic hell, but today, in real life, we are working to end disability by purging the disabled—carrying out Jonathan Swift's Modest Proposal by medical means.
In a society that increasingly declines to execute even serial killers, it seems contradictory to effectively impose prenatal capital punishment on the disabled. But genetic screening also has profound effects on the self-perception of the able-bodied. How would it feel to know you were allowed to be born only because you met the standards of a quality-control inspector and your parents? In place of unconditional love, repro-tech allows parents to discriminate against their own children on the basis of health or performance-related factors. It provides an entrance exam for the human race.
Some have suggested that eugenic abortion or embryo selection could be valid if limited by law to those with genes for "life-or-death" diseases. But that proposal is also unjust.
First, who can say that a disabled or relatively brief life—even one with much suffering—is not worth living? As Pope John Paul II stated,
The courage and serenity with which so many of our brothers and sisters suffering from serious disabilities lead their lives when they are shown acceptance and love bears eloquent witness to what gives authentic value to life, and makes it, even in difficult conditions, something precious for them and for others.
Second, many parents de-select embryos or abort fetuses whose genes suggest they will someday have MS, ALS, breast cancer, or Huntington's disease. But these conditions seldom kill, or even afflict, the young, so these nascent human lives are terminated on the basis of what might happen to them in middle or old age.
Third, many have observed that the lines between disease and trait, or between cure and enhancement, are often quite blurry. What would be the status of embryos that have genes for schizophrenia? Deafness? Depression? Below-average intelligence or height, or above-average weight?
Finally, given the strong support for reproductive choice in our current legal and cultural climate, it would be nearly impossible even to proscribe genetic manipulation or embryo selection for purely aesthetic purposes. And with reproductive choice as the guiding principle, how will we prohibit cloning, artificial wombs, or chimeras?
An Advancing Dystopia
The majority of parents put in the position of choosing between having a fully capable (or perhaps ultra-capable) child on the one hand, and casting a nebulous vote for an already attenuated democracy on the other, will serve their personal and concrete interests, not those of the larger, amorphous society. As genomic knowledge and repro-tech options increase, the pressure to have "perfect" kids will only intensify. And as the proportion of people with imperfections decreases, so will the larger society's acceptance of and support for such individuals.
Stanford law professor Hank Greely has predicted that, given these competitive pressures, in 50 years' time most Americans will be the product of IVF. Even allowing for some incorrect predictions in individual cases, we can foresee that genetic screening will cause the kind of social stratification and sense of personal alienation that Leon Kass and his fellow commentators fear, even if the genetic manipulation they foresee never comes to pass.
All that is needed to advance this dystopia is more of what is already being done: the embrace of repro-tech, the screening of gametes and embryos, and the selection of only those with the traits the parents want. Even if we could agree on what -constituted abuses of these practices, it would be impracticable to proscribe them, because that would require regulation of micro-scale technologies that occur behind closed doors in hundreds of office parks across the country, in a highly competitive, high-stakes environment.
IVF also facilitates human exploitation in that it allows childbearing to be outsourced to surrogates, often to low-income women in both the U.S. and abroad. It also facilitates the use of eggs that have not been produced by the prospective mother but instead have been harvested from well-pedigreed college students, who, in undergoing the procedure that significantly depletes their own egg supply, risk their health and future fertility. Thus, IVF enables what progressive commentator Andrew Kimbrell calls "technological adultery."
Effects on Human Identity & Community
Apart from creating a genetically privileged class, repro-tech already affects people's perception of other individuals as well as their sense of kinship and solidarity. Until about thirty years ago, all human beings, despite their vast demographic, ideological, and personality differences, shared a common, mysterious origin in the union of a man and a woman. This is no longer universally the case. Thanks to repro-tech, we now have among us human beings whose origins reflect a manufacturing model more than the awesome mystery of procreation.
Repro-tech, like other businesses, follows a corporate model, not only in its technical practices, but also in its advertising and its competition for market share. Increasingly, as lives are manufactured and sold, they come to be regarded more like ordinary possessions than like subjects of profound mystery and innate dignity.
While repro-tech is the ultimate reductionist activity—sperm plus egg plus gestation equals human—it cannot be reduced to its component parts; as with all things, we must take its benefits and its harms together as a unitary whole. As more and more children become products of subjective desires and commercial laboratories, the understanding of human life itself becomes radically altered in ways that go unreported on the TV news. Relativism and utilitarianism have taken firm hold in large segments of society. God has been removed—and sometimes explicitly banished—from much public discourse. Many churches are nearly empty.
Many adults are postponing marriage or eschewing it altogether, and are increasingly separating it from the bearing and rearing of children: more adults live alone and more children live with only one parent than has ever previously been the case. A hook-up culture on college campuses has supplanted the mutual affection, respect, and true intimacy of traditional courtship.
The perception and treatment of children have also changed. Instead of being born in the fullness of time, many are prenatally frozen or their births are scheduled. Once born, many of them are formula-fed, placed in day care, over-managed, and over--scheduled.
The Tragedy of Modern Man
Social scientists have reported numerous indicia of sharply diminishing social cohesion since the 1970s. Are contraception, abortion, and repro-tech solely responsible for this decline? No, but they fit squarely within a cultural context that makes everything, even human life, bend to individual sovereignty, engineering principles, and commerce—with more to follow, skids greased. As Vaclav Havel wrote, "The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his life but that it bothers him less and less."
Fundamentally, repro-tech places the interests of individual adults above those of children and the community. Using it is like building one's home on the beach at Normandy or in Yosemite Valley. It pleases the individuals who use it, and perhaps their immediate circle of family and friends. But it costs the culture something precious and universal, namely, a sense of the sacred and the continuation of a society in which genetic advantage cannot be purchased. Repro-tech has generated many offspring. But, given its effects on human understanding and community, its users should not expect the emerging world to resemble the one their parents grew up in, or to be much of a place in which to raise kids. •
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