Male pregnancy, fetal parenthood, human chimeras, genetic engineering, cloning, two genetically-differentiated kinds of human beings, cybernetics, nanotechnology, perhaps nano-epidemics, even a post-body human existence –- how do we decide whether any of these should be pursued? How do we decide if science and biotechnology should be permitted (by we citizens, under the laws our representatives pass) to proceed to do every thing that can be done? Some scientists argue that they should be allowed to do whatever they can. Professor Lee Silver, in fact [sic], says there are no ethical reasons to fail to do any of the things I have mentioned. Is he right?
I submit he is clearly wrong. And, further, that anyone who knows the history of the 20th Century should immediately recognize he is wrong. After World War II, the allies held the famous Nuremberg Trials. Those trials resulted in the issuance of the Nuremberg Code. The Nuremberg Code set forth principles to be followed in all human experimentation. As we all know, the Nazi doctors had undertaken gruesome experiments with prisoners. The Nuremberg Code was intended, in fact, merely to set forth as a code those ethical principles that the civilized world already agreed to.
It is difficult to know where to begin to respond to a "man of faith" who claims to be troubled by the idea of a "post-body human existence" (perhaps Christian faith has changed a bit since the days when I outgrew it?), just as it is inevitably difficult to know how to talk to "voices of compassion" who endlessly devote themselves to fighting made-up medical procedures like "partial-birth abortion" (there's no such thing) and fictional scourges like "clone armies" and "designer babies" (ditto, don't exist) as they intone solemnly about "genocide" and "crimes against humanity" all the while yawning in apparent indifference while thousands upon thousands of actually existing human beings die in actually existing genocides and crimes against humanity in actually existing Iraq, Darfur, and on and on and on...
It is also curious to observe literally in action the kind of hysterical paranoid technophobic slide into outright panic conjured up in Dr. Saunders' laundry list of technodevelopmental derangements. These diabolical developments will take "us" -- that is to say, those carefully selected exemplars whom the Family Research Council deems appropriately representative of humanity -- down, down, down, no doubt ineluctably, down that slippery slope from the quaintly homophobic oh so proximate threat of "[m]ale pregnancy" to George Bush's own nightmare preoccupation, centaurs and other "human chimeras," and thence to the enormously more broad "genetic engineering" (all bad, always and everywhere, apparently -- no need for distinctions when what is at stake is purity of essence!), then on to "cloning" (get thee hence, all ye satanic twins!), and then still onward to, in something of a surprise move, "cybernetics" (don't ask), whereupon we skip onward to "nanotechnology" for some reason, and then, rather hilariously, to "perhaps nano-epidemics" (as if "nano-epidemics," too, have their "adherents" among the godless scientifically-literate throng. Paging Dr. Evil!)...
Whatever else you might want to say of the technodevelopmental threats that appear to bedevil Dr. Saunders in this episode of personal distress, it is quite clear that his stormcloud conjuration is scarcely designed to recommend thoughtfulness in his listeners in the face of the enormously complex problems and promises of emerging, disruptive technological change that confront them and us all in this moment of real quandary and real hope. Saunders is seeking to elicit panic and rage and, hence, no doubt elicit thereby the dollars and the votes that conservatives can always count upon most from the panic-stricken and the enraged.
The fact is that of course there are real difficulties and conspicuous injustices that inhere in the ways in which people are taking up the fledgling knowledges and techniques available in this moment, whether we are talking about emerging and disruptive technoscientific practices associated with genetic medicine, neuroceutical medicine, digital networked media, nanoscale manipulation, or what have you. Any sensible moral or policy discourse worthy of the name would want to take these difficulties into account. But what does it mean to invoke a faux-populist resentment of "scientists," mobilized to "stop them" from doing "whatever they want" and then proposing to stop... "genetic engineering" or "cybernetics"? What on earth would such a campaign even entail?
It's all very well to decide, say, that human reproductive cloning isn't safe in any contemporary setting and so should be forbidden for now, but do we really want to ascend to a level of generality for which this sensible recommendation also entails a repudiation of stem-cell research into a cure for Parkinson's Disease or closes the door to any possible future reproductive cloning techniques?
Let's leave nanotechnology and uploading and space elevators and such to the side for the moment, and focus more specifically on the fraught question of reprogenetic medicine.
I assume that what we want is to secure the best and most equitable standard of care as well as the widest proper latitude for informed parental choice in the matter of assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs). To manage this, we will always be weighing a number of already complex factors: On the one hand we will be struggling to do justice to democratic social norms that are already in tension with one another (like universality and diversity, for example). And on the other hand we will be struggling to keep track of a constantly, rapidly, radically changing medical state of the art.
Now, it seems to me that this is just about the worst possible moment to invoke some static nostalgic fantasy of "normal reproduction" testifying to what are in fact utterly parochial values and contingently prevailing conditions, and then decrying the violation of "nature" or "dignity" whenever conditions change the least bit or whenever different values emerge on the scene of decision. Nevertheless, this is precisely the move that is afoot whenever bioconservatives invoke Nuremberg in the context of the fraught assessment of costs, risks, and benefits of reprogrenetic medicine among serious bioethicists.
It should go without saying that the difficulties that confront this particular moment in the technodevelopmental trajectory of genetic medicine are different from the difficulties that will confront subsequent moments in that development. This is not to suggest that we should deny present difficulties, risks, and costs in some perverse dedication to a faith in their "inevitable" future remedy. Such a denial would amount in practice to nothing more than a deeply unjust imposition of those real costs onto those who simply are too vulnerable to resist otherwise. But it is crucial that when we admit of the actually existing difficulties and calculate the actually existing risks and costs of emerging techniques we take care not to naturalize as bioconservative discourse always does the specific conditions that prevail at a particular technodevelopmental moment as if they represent a more deeply "normal" and "proper" state of affairs against which variations will be deemed irresponsible or perverse deviations against this pseudo-sanctified familiar condition.
The uncritical technophilia of corporate-futurism and the uncritical technophobia of bioconservatism offer up a clash of antidemocratic naturalisms, one taking up the mantle of a priesthood to "progress" imagined as a natural and irresistable force shepherded along by multinational corporate-militarist elites, the other taking up the mantle of a priesthood to "nostalgia" imagined as an ordained natural order protected by social and religious elites. What I want to see is more democracy and less "nature" in the habitual responses we make to the dilemmas of radical disruptive technodevelopmental transformation.
Let us turn the tables for a moment. Undertaking risky medical procedures has always been a part of the human condition, surely, and has never been of all things a crime against humanity. But to the extent that humanity has been engaged throughout its history in an ongoing cultural struggle to create itself in the changing image of its aspirations then it seems to me that an effort to curtail that ongoing cultural experimentation (which emphatically must include prosthetic tinkering) might indeed qualify as precisely such a crime against humanity.
Again, none of this is to deny the very real difficulties that beset us. The last thing I would mean to advocate is some facile neoliberal voluntarism, or, worse, a reductive market libertarian contractarianism here. Flawed as it is as an instrument, it seems to me that what is wanted in these circumstances is as much informed consent as is possible for these procedures. And, despite some caveats, I also believe that we can generally count on parents or legal partners to make reasonably good decisions on behalf of their preconsensual children or unexpectedly vegetative postconsensual partners, so long as they have access to the best and most trustworthy factual information available -- a belief I would expect, probably incorrectly, would be shared by an organization that called itself the "Family Research Council."
It seems to me that a robust commitment to "informed consent" in these and comparable matters would entail, in actual fact, among other things, urgent and immediate demands for reform in matters of relations between those who regulate industries and those who lobby for them (especially, say, pharmaceutical companies), demands for reform in what should be taken to represent fraudulent advertising claims for medical products and nutritional supplements, demands for extensive reforms of the public funding and grant-making apparatus and especially in the intellectual property regime currently in force regarding medicines, medical techniques, genetic information, and such, demands for new protections of the privacy that governs consultation between doctors and patients in matters of treatment, and demands for a radical extension of access to trusted sources of consensus science information via digital networked media. Eventually, I expect a commitment to the value of informed consent might also inspire a demand for the subsidization of neuroceutical interventions in mood and memory -- as certainly it should now justify a comparable subsidization of universal web access.
Bioconservatives keenly and unkindly seem to trivialize what are surely the earnest efforts of parents who would make recourse to whatever fledgling scientific knowledges and technologies are available to them to ensure the best possible lives for their children, decrying these efforts as, at best, "reckless tinkering" or, at worst, surreally as a kind of resurgent Nazi eugenicism. I would hope we can all agree that parents deserve better protection from corporate fraud and hype, that parents should have assured access to the accurate information on the basis of which the best most informed decisions can be made, and that, most important of all, we must secure universal health care coverage to minimize the duress under which irrational healthcare decisions are undertaken too often in contemporary America. It is unclear how the specter of "crimes against humanity" helps anybody think more clearly about the unprecedented quandaries with which emerging genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive medicine are beginning to confront us.
When all is said and done, the sad truth is that it is the conservative elites themselves who have long been engaged in the only eugenicist breeding program I can think of to date, an ongoing, relentless, self-selecting experiment in racist patriarchal crony-capitalism that has proceeded now for generations. We can judge its success in such stunning results as George W. Bush. One suspects that the bioconservatives fear far less that we are embarking upon an era of parental experimentation so much as that we are shifting from an aristocratic to a democratic moment in what has been a very old game of experimental parentage, a shift they are quite right to suspect will not likely bode well for their own hopes to cling much longer to their dear but unearned privileges.