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IVF and ART: Philosophical Problems


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.

The now rather widespread use of things like in vitro fertilization 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 recognized that one person could not use another to fulfill 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 fulfill 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 depersonalizing 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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