Genetic orphans

The Ethical Imagination: Journeys of the Human Spirit
Published on April 1, 2007

The Ethical Imagination: Journeys Of The Human Spirit
Margaret Somerville

House of Anansi Press

Margaret Somerville, Founding Director of the McGill Centre for Ethics, Medicine and Law, among other positions, has long been engaged in the contentious ethical questions raised by the new sciences-bioengineering in particular. The various perceptions of what it is to be human – the being that Nietzsche termed the “unfinished animal” – have shifted dramatically over the centuries, exposing gaps in our primary intuitions about life that scientific knowledge has enlarged.

In this book, which comprises the 2006 Massey Lectures, Somerville addresses, in the chapters ‘Old Nature, New Science’ and ‘From Homo sapiens to Techno sapiens’ such questions as the genetic manipulation of embryos, human face transplants, human-animal combinations (chimera) and human-machine combinations (cyborgs), clones, and euthanasia. Her formidable reasoning powers operate on ethical subtleties with great dexterity, as when she confronts the issue of ‘designing’ humans genetically:

…as (…)Habermas argues, designed persons no longer own themselves…and they are not equal to their designer. This affects the humanness of all of us because…tampering with someone’s origins destroys a necessary condition for establishing a moral base for a secular society.

Her examination of the ethics of privatized eugenics is lucid and astute; where parents choose what qualities they want their children to have:

…reprogenetic technology and prenatal screening (…) involve treating the embryo or fetus as an object-if it is not of acceptable quality (…) it will be discarded (…).Our understanding of parental love-as the parents’ unconditional acceptance of the child born to them (…) is drastically altered.

One is also reminded that some of the grotesque consequences of reproductive technologies are already upon us. The situation starts innocently enough: infertile women having babies through in vitro fertilization by sperm donors. Somerville remarks that:

…it has been readily assumed that no major ethical or other problems arise in creating children from donated gametes (…) Such assumptions have been dramatically challenged in the last two years as the first people born through these technologies reach adulthood (…) They describe powerful feelings of loss of identity through not knowing one or both biological parents (..) .and describe themselves as ‘genetic orphans.’

The new technologies appear to function like consumer products of adult desire: their availability creates a need, the need becomes a right, and suddenly social norms are overturned. Same-sex couples have the right to marry in Canada, which for some includes by definition the right to found a family. Where will the kids come from? In the melee over adult rights, those of children were overlooked. Says Somerville:

…children have a right to be born with a natural biological heritage (…) that is, to have untampered-with biological origins-in particular, to be conceived from one untampered-with, natural sperm from an identified and living adult man, and one, untampered-with, natural ovum from an identified and living adult woman.

During these lectures, Somerville articulates her vision of respect for nature and for human life. But the same crispness of analysis that is so effective when confronting ethical issues is less convincing in the chapters in which she develops her idea of a “secular sacred” as a ground for a universal shared ethics. Somerville, a disciple of Kantian thought, argues for the value of ways of knowing other than that of reason. Blake’s now obscure war against Newton and Locke, with the example of the Romantics seeking inspiration in the secular sacred of nature, should be remembered. None of these movements (and there were many others) could deter the juggernaut of Western domination in its drive to pan-profanity. But in a social world increasingly organized according to ‘objective’ truths, one must admire her effort. A voice, one might say, speaking out intelligently for all of us. mRb

Mark Heffernan is a Montreal writer.



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