June 19th, 2008

There’s a view common in the modern world- especially in countries with a strong tradition of anti-intellectualism, such as New Zealand- that the humanities are a waste of time, that BA means Bugger All, and that people should focus on useful, practical things like commerce, science and technology, law and medicine- y’know, degrees that (allegedly) train you directly for a job in the real world. There are many, many things wrong with this view, but this morning, because I really should get into the office and tidy up some paperwork, I’ll just focus on this bit of scariness: New Zealand’s Bioethics Council has decided parents should be able to choose the sex of their babies. Well, not entirely, but here’s how it’s explained:

The report – titled Who Gets Born? – concludes that the sex of embryos created outside the mother’s body under programmes such as IVF (in vitro fertilisation) should be chosen by parents.

So, no, were not talking sex-selective abortion, just sex-selective implantation of embryos created ex utero, such as through IVF. Not so bad, huh?

That would mean mothers and fathers would be able to gender-balance their families – something critics have attacked as “designer babies”.

My problem with this statement is not so much that it reeks of the first step on the slippery slope towards “designer babies”, but that the real world shows us that in addition to allowing parents to “gender-balance” their families, it allows them to “gender-unbalance”- and not just families, but entire societies- anybody back home in Aotearoa familiar with the problems sex-selective abortions and female infanticide have created in societies such as South Korea, China and large parts of India? I’m not saying the same thing, or a Kiwi version of it, would happen in New Zealand, but allowing parents to select the gender of their children does open us up to some pretty big “unforeseen” consequences.

Now, let’s take this section:

Bioethics Council chairman Associate Professor Martin Wilkinson said most people thought of IVF as simply enabling people with fertility problems to have a child.

“But access to PGD means people who don’t necessarily have fertility problems may decide to use IVF for a different reason, namely to test for genetic conditions.

“But considerations in pre-birth testing are not only medical. They touch on cultural, spiritual and ethical issues.”

It would seem to me (although, to be fair, I only have the Herald’s report to go on and therefore don’t know the full content of the Council’s report) that they’ve completely ignored the cultural, spiritual and ethical issues and simply bowed to the petulant demands of modern people to be allowed to do whatever we want because “It’s my right!” Sadly, a lot of people’s ethics these days never grow beyond those of a spoiled three year old.

I think I’ve already alluded to at least one of the cultural issues raised by the possibility of sex selection: Some cultures traditionally prefer boys, and thanks to practices, such as doctors telling parents the sex of their baby, thereby allowing them to abort a girl and try again for a boy, or female infanticide, that have been rightly banned in their home countries, they now have massive gender imbalances. I don’t want to suggest that such a thing would happen in New Zealand, either among certain ethnic minorities or in society as a whole, but this does raise a possibility of serious abuse of the system that really needs to be taken fully into account.

And that “to test for genetic conditions”? Wow. Now we’re on a really slippery slope. I though eugenics went out of fashion with the Nazis (yes, I’m sorry, but it needs to be said). Sure, you could argue that it is better to reduce the incidence of such things as Downs Syndrome or Muscular Dystrophy or other serious genetic disorders, but where do you draw the line? Should my parents have aborted my youngest brother had they known in advance that he would have such severe asthma? No, that’s not a stupid question: My mother had to ressuscitate him several times and he spent quite some time in the ICU in an induced coma. It is quite literally a miracle that he is alive today to complete his paramedic training. And what next? The “designer baby” issue is a real one, assuming the technology ever gets that far. Will we allow parents to select for height or intelligence? Or skin colour? None of this is so far fetched as it may seem, as each culture and society has its ideals for beauty and goodness.

And we do have that historical example of the Nazis, who did have their ideals about what made the superior person and race, and did have at least the beginnings of a eugenics programme. The comparison is valid and necessary, because although nobody is suggesting there should be any governmental programme to improve the quality of New Zealand’s population, allowing gender selection does open up the possibility of society taking on that role, and the potential consequences are frightening.

You see, science is far too important to be left to scientists. This is a case where we need people trained in the humanities to look at the deeper ethical, cultural and spiritual issues raised by scientific and technological advances. Such people are being marginalised in this society that blindly worships scientific, technological and material progress. The results? Well, what’s happening to our climate? What has happened to gender ratios in China, South Korea and large parts of India?

We need people to look deeper into these issues than interviewing 700 people, collating their opinions, and blithely saying, “Well, it’s a sensitive issue and therefore we think it should be left to the parents to decide”, because it doesn’t take a BA in French Language and Literature to look around and see that the potential consequences could be utterly disastrous.

We also need to stop thinking of human rights in that selfish, childish baby-boomer “It’s my right to do what I want!” way and start looking again at deeper issues of ethics and human responsibilities- our responsibilities to ourselves, our families, our societies, and the world as a whole. These are issues not discussed in science, commerce, or medicine classes. These are issues that the humanities deal with- and no, law alone is not enough.

2 Responses to “scariness”

  1. Arctosia Says:

    the report can be found here:

  2. wangbo Says:

    Thanks Arctosia. That’ll make for some interesting reading.