Begotten, Not Made

The Dangers of Reproductive Technology

In the region where I live and teach on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the economy centers on a thriving poultry industry. On a number of occasions, when my boys were young, I would trot off with them on a school field trip to admire the wonders of the modern chicken industry. Those experiences in hatcheries and chicken houses came back to me as I was trying to sort through the meaning of some of the newfangled ways humans have devised for their own reproduction—everything from sperm banks to cloning.

As a bioethics teacher, I was familiar with these techniques but felt uneasy and dissatisfied when talking about issues like consent and confidentiality, benefits and costs, ownership and adoption. For what is at stake in the discussion is a great deal more than who owns a frozen embryo when couples divorce, or who will take responsibility for mistakes in human cloning. Far more troubling is the way these new technologies are altering the landscape of human begetting and human self-understanding.

To help get at this unease, more metaphysical than ethical, let’s go back to those field trips. What is clear from a cursory look at the poultry industry is that the whole operation is focused on one goal: producing a standardized chicken for the plates of the American consumer. We expect that the Perdue or Holly Farms chicken we buy will be just like the last one and the one before that. To accomplish that goal, the chicken industry (not unlike the automobile industry) has broken down each of the component parts of breeding, hatching, and rendering in an effort to control every variable. All this so that a standard bird arrives on every grocery shelf. Individuality in a chicken is of no value; uniformity is what matters. Thus as little as possible is left to chance, and every part of the production process is controlled and monitored by specialists.

It is not my intent to probe the efficacy of such practices, but I do want to point out that there is arguably a seamless technological line that extends from the production of things like automobiles and chickens to the production of human beings themselves.

Before taking a closer look, though, we need to deal with an all-too-common but rather naive view of technology. It is often argued that all technologies are neutral instruments that can be used as easily for good as for ill. So, the supposed ethical challenge facing any new technology, including a reproductive one, is how it is going to be used. But focusing on the use of technology—from nuclear power to PowerPoint—can distract us from the way technology can alter, unwittingly, the way we view the world.

To take a seemingly benign example, PowerPoint, in the academic setting, is the coin of the realm. Because of that, there seems to be little awareness of its corrosive effect on discursive thinking—the very kind of thinking we need in order to analyze the brave new worlds our technologies have created. When I talk with my students about the old-fashioned way of procreation, most of them seem bored and impatient. But when I mention the newfangled methods of reproduction (often called ART, for Assisted Reproductive Technologies), they become alert and attentive. Admittedly, there is something fascinating about the new, artificial ways to make babies. That fascination, however, can easily seduce us with its charms and distract us from the profound fact that, for good or ill, technology alters our way of being in the world.

For purposes of contrast, let us look at the two dominant paradigms of birth. In the old-fashioned way (at its best), children were conceived, carried in the womb, and born under the sheltering intimacy of marital love. In the newfangled way, technicians (at their best) break down the old process into its component parts: sperm and egg production; fertilization; implantation; fetal development. In doing so, the whole reproductive process falls under the harsh light of the laboratory. Note the reliance, even fascination, with technical jargon—ART, IVF (in vitro fertilization), AID (Artificial Insemination-Donor Sperm), ICSI (Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection). One need not believe that the old-fashioned way of having children is the only ethically acceptable one to understand that a real paradigm shift is taking place.

To demonstrate further this technological shift, we can begin with the most extreme example of reproductive technology, cloning, and then work our way back through the seemingly less obnoxious examples. Some years ago, an article in Time magazine (February 19, 2001) offered this prophetic thought about the birth of the first human clone:

At that moment, at least two things will happen—one public, one private. The meaning of what it is to be human—which until now has involved, at the very least, the mysterious melding of two different people’s DNA—will shift forever, along with our understanding of the relationship between parents and children, means and ends, ends and beginnings.

The shift that Time noted had actually been rumbling underground for years. Still, human cloning will occasion a dramatic transformation of ends and means, for cloning will make the child a means to someone else’s end.

In the same article, a Minneapolis marketing specialist spoke of his desire for a clone: “It would be the perfect child to have because I know exactly what I’m getting” (emphasis mine). If that sounds eerily like a supermarket shopper in the poultry section, that’s because the same logic is being applied. The shopper for a clone wants a familiar product, in this case a replica of himself. (The fact that I will never get exactly the “mini-me” I want hardly matters; the result may be imperfect, but the goal is clearly to produce the perfect clone.) A natural event, which guaranteed that our offspring would be unique, irreplaceable, and not totally under our control, is being replaced by a process that insures we get the product we ordered.

When parents wish to replace a dying or dead child, the case for cloning may seem more compelling. But even this is problematic. Either they are successful, and thus compromise the uniqueness of the first child, or they are unsuccessful because the newly cloned child can never fulfill the expectations for the lost child. In either case, what is insidious is the underlying expectation that we can produce a replacement for what has been lost. Unlike replacing a broken toy or an expired goldfish, a cloned replacement strikes at the very heart of our belief in the individuality of each person.

Human cloning is admittedly an extreme case. Could we not argue that other reproductive strategies are more benign? From the perspective of applied ethics, the answer may be yes; the effects of cloning are far more worrisome than the effects of artificial insemination. When viewed from the paradigmatic shift we have been exploring, however, the example of cloning serves as a reductio ad absurdum. Once we see the overarching goal of reproductive control in the extreme case of cloning, we find it lurking behind other, less alarming forms of ART.

Sex-selection technology is an instructive example. While there may be good therapeutic reasons for avoiding a gender-specific genetic disease like hemophilia, the use of sex selection might more normally be the expression of the desire to have a boy or a girl. (Having had five boys myself, I certainly understand the desire to have a girl!) It seems hardly consequential, this one little effort of control. But is gender a disease? If the child is to be accepted for the gift that she or he is, then might not this “getting what I want” be the first step toward transforming my progeny into my product?

A second example reveals how this trend gathers momentum. You can now go online to peruse egg-donor menus that will help you select the profile of your child’s genetic mother. You can select everything from hair color to tanning ability. These Web sites suggest that with the help of technology, you can now design your future child, the way you might design your living room.

Though it hardly raises an eyebrow anymore, even the older technology of sperm donation reveals the underlying moral dilemmas associated with such techniques, which tend to separate procreation from parenting. What does our willingness to create biological orphans really imply? What does it mean that we are now making human beings the way we make thoroughbred race horses? Are we not bothered by the idea of thoroughbred children? Such a technique changes the meaning of human natality, disrupting the whole process of conception, birth, nurturing, and rearing.

My purpose is not to condemn tout court the practices of reproductive technology. There are important ethical distinctions to be made about them—such as the distinction between technological interventions that eliminate a disease like hemophilia and technological enhancements that produce “designer babies.” There is clearly a difference between a technology that supports the natural processes of birth, like artificial insemination with the husband as donor, and those that do not, like sex selection. But the fact that the technology can be put to benign use does not alter the disturbing worldview behind its application. Concern about that worldview can be found on both sides of the conservative-liberal fault line. We see it in the work of C. S. Lewis, Paul Ramsey, and Leon Kass, but also in the work of William F. May, Hannah Arendt, and F. González-Crussi.

How can we think our way out of the technological box we have gotten ourselves into? Not easily. But we can make a start by recognizing the new-fangled way of birth for what it is and finding an appropriate response that does not claw away at the authentic meaning of birth and human individuality.

In his monitory essay “On Being Born and Other Difficulties,” F. Gonzáles-Crussi calls the new reproductive technologies “the evil flowers in the garden of biology.” His image, of course, harks back to the forbidden fruit in Genesis and the age-old temptation of wanting to escape our mortal coil: “you shall become like gods.” Today, we see this urge in the desire to clone. This desire tempts us to forget that procreation is, or should be, both a donative and a communal act. In Genesis, it is only after Adam and Eve forsake their deathless state—that is, after they are expelled from the garden—that Eve conceives and bears children. To bring a child into the world is to begin the process of making way for a succeeding generation. As Leon Kass has written, eros and thanatos are intimately related. Our acts of love and procreation acknowledge our mortality. We bring in new members of the human family to replace, not to repeat, the old ones. That is the significance of sexual as opposed to asexual reproduction. A child is the unique biological fusion of sperm and egg. In Trinitarian fashion, life is engendered from two; from the start, it is a communal act. To be, philosopher Gabriel Marcel reminded us, is always to be with. That first community is the basis for all subsequent community.

I do not mean to sentimentalize the old-fashioned way of sexual reproduction or to offer a paean to the so-called nuclear family. But the old way did give us moral coordinates. And if the ideal of the nuclear family was seldom achieved in practice, there is little doubt that its goal of engendering and caring for children is still what is called for. There has always been at birth a sense of the child as both “of us” and as “other.” The newborn is indeed the fruit of our loins and yet unique. Reproductive technologies tend to upset this delicate balance. In cloning, the “other” is reduced to “me,” and in sperm and egg donations, the part of the child that is “of me” is completely alienated from the part that is “other.”

Once we act like gods, saying “let us make man in our own image,” we begin to reverse the story of Genesis. In Eden, Adam and Eve were instructed not to eat of the tree in the center of the garden. It was the one area of nature not subject to their control. The purveyors of the new birth technologies tempt us to manipulate what we have traditionally let be: the procreative act. They argue they are only facilitating the age-old human desire to have children, that they are only making it easier for certain desired traits to be passed on or introduced in the next generation. After all, choosing a mate also has something to do with the desire to insure certain hoped-for traits in one’s progeny.

Clearly, the desire to have a child is one of the most fundamental human drives. But why do we want children, and why should we want them? Because it will keep my boyfriend with me...because it will carry on the family name...because someday I’ll have someone to hitchhike with (a reason actually given by one of my students)—these answers are at best problematic, at worst insidious. They turn the child into a means toward someone else’s satisfaction.

The realm of human motivation is a thicket, and I suspect that often we do not really understand what we are doing when we have a child—until afterward. What is truly frightening, however, is that what was once the superb surprise of birth, the wonder of a new beginning, is now being placed (as Hannah Arendt foretold) squarely under the control of homo faber, “man the maker.” Birth is no longer an act of procreation but a production. Rather than a miraculous, open-ended, divergent beginning, birth is being transformed into a convergent process similar to those we use to produce chickens for the grocery store or cars for the sales room. What we have concocted is not a free subject, but a “made” object—one designed according to our whim. To use William May’s evocative metaphor, parenting is more dirt farming than engineering. Letting our offspring be who they are is surely a higher calling than learning to make them exactly what we want them to be. That is what the phrase “the miracle of birth” meant: the unprecedented emergence of a unique person whose story would be unpredictable and unrepeatable. As the somewhat hackneyed expression “unconditional love” implies, in having a child we put aside our self-centered goals to welcome a new person who is an end in herself.

In The City of God, St. Augustine, reflecting on the book of Genesis, described the awesome power of Creation as the beginning of something wholly new, and he noted that God shared that power with humans: Initium ut esset, Deus creatus est homo (“So that there might be a beginning, God created humans”). The miracle is that each birth initiates a new beginning. What our reproductive technologies aim to produce are not true beginnings but predetermined ends. They do not promise unique, unpredictable human beings, only prefabricated images of ourselves as we would like to be. That alone should give us pause.

Published in the 2008-02-15 issue: 

Francis Kane is professor emeritus at Salisbury University and co-director of its Institute for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement. He is the author of Neither Beasts nor Gods (Southern Methodist University Press).

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