How not to save the world
By Charles Foster
Y chromosomes are on the way out, thinks Aarathi Prasad, a geneticist from Imperial College, London: they’re degenerating. If they go, then so do humans – unless an alternative method of reproduction can be devised. It can, says Prasad. In fact the basic technology is already here, and is bound to get better. In 2004 a mouse was conceived using synthetic sperm made by modifying ova. Technological virgin birth (I’ll call it TVB) might be the salvation of the human race.
This is all very interesting. But Prasad isn’t content merely to describe the science. She seems to think that we ought to drop all our taboos against the idea. ‘By all reasonable estimates, in the near future we will conquer the tyranny of the womb. The question remains if we can also conquer the tyranny of human prejudice….’
It’s not clear from this whether she is advising us to conquer our tyrannous prejudice on simply practical grounds - (because, if we don’t overcome our squeamishness, we won’t develop or embrace the technology, so dooming humanity) or whether she thinks that there is something philosophically wrong with a distaste for TVB. I suspect the latter.
If this suspicion is right, why might she (or anyone else) think that?
There are typically, and very broadly, two types of reasons given:
1. ‘Why not?’
This is not a reason for doing something, unless doing it can be justified as scientific inquiry. If there is a prima facie basis for characterising an action as scientific inquiry, then it might be possible to characterise the reason for the action as ethical if either; (a) scientific advance is of itself a good thing; and/or (b) there is reason to believe that from the action other good things might spring (such as a cure for disease).
Contention (a) is problematic. The problems are for another day. Contention (b) is better. And of course often wholly unexpected practical benefits result from scientific inquiry that seem, at the start, to be of purely theoretical interest. TVB technologies might have unforeseeably good spin-offs other than TVB. But it seems unlikely.
In the case of TVB itself there’s a potential future ‘good thing’ – the survival of the human race. That itself might be a reason for allowing TVB. But it’s not a reason to revise our distaste. If it’s needed in the future we can sensibly say then: ‘This is abhorrent, but it is less abhorrent than the elimination of the human race’.
For the most part, ‘Why not?’ type rejoinders are not arguments at all, but simple invitations to an opponent to provide a response. The response ‘Why?’, to ‘Why not?’ is a better attempt at an argument, since ‘better the devil you know’ has at least some force. ‘Why not?’ assumes, illogically, that if you can do something, you should. It gets what force it has from an unreasoned prejudice against the status quo.
2. ‘If you don’t accept this, you’re being inconsistent’
In the context of TVB, it is likely to be suggested that to oppose TVB means that one must, to be consistent, oppose (for instance), a single woman conceiving a child by anonymous semen donation. Since most of us won’t oppose such conception, this type of argument is supposed to embarrass us into acknowledging that there is no good reason to oppose TVB.
Each such argument has to be considered on its own merits, but all the cases that one can imagine being deployed in the TVB context can be distinguished easily from TVB. Few single women conceiving by donor insemination will contend that that’s the way they would like it to be. It’s better than not having a child at all, but it’s not the ideal. Most would prefer the context of a relationship. And even if they wouldn’t, most people would agree that, other things being equal, the child would be better off being brought up by a couple (gay or otherwise – this isn’t a ‘traditional family’ point).
If ‘normal’ conception were possible (by the conjunction of an egg from X and a sperm from Y – whether ‘donated’ or otherwise), it is hard to argue convincingly, in most foreseeable circumstances, that TVB would be better. TVB is a repudiation (strident if it’s unnecessary) of the usual benign contexts of human reproduction: a systematic denial of the relationality that is at the heart of so much that we are. This isn’t to say that because something happens naturally in a particular way, it’s unethical for it to happen in any other. It is merely to acknowledge that most of us were conceived in a relationship of sorts, and all of us are at least partly constituted of the relationships in which we have been joyfully or joylessly entangled ever since. To adopt TVB when we’re not forced to do so would legitimatize a selfish, atomistic, non-relational practice. There would be ethical fall-out in territory a long way from synthetic sperms.