Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Samesex Reproduction

I know that it's never a good idea to feed the trolls, but I hope you can forgive my promotion from the Moot of this exchange with that perennial foe-of-blog, the homophobic bioconservative John Howard. For years and years and years he has been ranting and railing in a rarely-varying one-man crusade against the apparently horrifying specter of samesex reproduction technologies that do not exist and yet nonetheless menace the righteous hegemony of sacred straight male sperm. He has devoted thousands of words to this crusade on this blog and in other places foolish enough to provide a forum for his fever dreams. It's the holidays, and John Howard is back. Sometimes, as you see, I do try to use his posts as occasions to address wider points of interest, though at this point I am just as likely to delete his comments unread rather than encourage him, poor mite.

He writes:
I think most normal people are against genetic engineering and same-sex reproduction. Most are both against paying for them and against letting people break the barrier of sexual reproduction and putting people at risk. Don't you think it's interesting that the Vatican and her seem to hold out hope for germline genetic engineering to fix genetic defects, as long as it fixes the defect in the person's sperm and eggs, so they reproduce sexually with these improved eugenic gametes? I think it counts as transhumanism and violates people's natural rights and ability.
I don't know about "normal" people, John. I daresay you will disqualify from normalcy anybody who disagrees with you on these questions and so I don't find that argumentative gambit particularly compelling. Nevertheless, plenty of people support medical techniques that safely and affordably improve their lives and the lives of their fellow citizens on their own terms. And part of the way healthcare systems sustainably provide for what one citizen needs is by meeting the needs of others with whom we share the system and to whom we are beholden, even though few individuals over their lifetimes have exactly the same needs of the system other people do. No one is an island, although reactionaries often like to imagine otherwise, at least selectively when it comes to their hobby horses. I definitely agree that plenty of people don't like the idea of dangerous techniques that harm people, especially in ways that they are not informed about, nor do people generally seem to like the idea that potentially useful techniques to improve the lives of exploited or marginalized people are not developed just because corporations don't expect to profit from them or because cruel, bigoted reactionaries don't care about the unnecessary suffering or unfulfilled needs of exploited or marginalized people.

I advocate for equitable access to informed nonduressed consenting persons of safe, effective, wanted medical therapies, and I advocate for increased research and development of medical knowledge to expand the availability of such therapies. That is the general principle here for me. It applies to existing medical techniques and would apply to medical techniques that do not now exist only when they did. Would most "normal" people agree with this general principle? Whatever you say to the contrary, they certainly should, and I am quite sure plenty do.

I also have advocated taking great care interrogating the perspective from which eugenicists declare certain differences to be "defects," or proclaim lifeways "optimal" or "unliveable" -- indifferent to the actual wants and needs and values and realities of people whose lifeways they are. I would hope the Vatican, like other influential and authoritative formations, takes care in making such declarations. If germline genetic techniques were to arrive that could actually safely and accessibly prevent parents from having offspring with unwanted conditions or capacities I would generally approve of it. I might disapprove of the ideological construction of traits compatible with human flourishing as undesirable in ways that would invite campaigns of education. I might disapprove of the safety or fairness of a particular implementation or oversight regime for a technique that would invite campaigns of agitation and organization for better access or better regulation. As for loose "hopes" and "fears" here and now of outcomes that may or may not arrive in our lifetimes -- I don't much care about these except as symptoms. I care much more about the actual state of the art, the actual, qualified results of real research, and the practical institutional terrain through which people are informed about, find access to, and afford healthcare that actually exists.

There is indeed a "barrier," as you say, to samesex reproduction, you know -- the barrier of its non-existence. Because no such therapies exist I think you are wrong to pretend that even "normal" people disapprove of that non-thing any more than or in any different way than they might disapprove of leprechauns. And it may be that no safe, affordable samesex reproductive techniques will ever arrive. I for one would disapprove any unsafe techniques, or techniques the costs, risks, or benefits of which were inequitably distributed to their actual stakeholders. In any case, I have no real horse in this race since my partner and I don't want or even like kids. Adoption, surrogacy, in-vitro fertilization, fertility drugs all raise complicated issues of access, opportunities for abuse, questions of safety, and their practice is shaped in the context of societies stratified by racism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ageism, and extreme wealth concentration. These things matter enormously, but safer, accessible, well-regulated options are available and can readily be improved still more by progressive legislation and dedicated professionals and informed citizens. Reproductive cloning, designer babies, samesex reproduction don't seem to me as imminent as all that, the realities around the cutting-edges still seem rather unsafe and unaffordable to me, and maybe they always will be, maybe they eventually won't be, maybe some will safely and equitably arrive sooner than I think. To be frank, samesex reproductive techniques are something I only discuss when you and only you bring your personal obsession with them to my blog -- even though I have noticed that you like to declare in public places that bringing samesex reproduction to the world is some part of "my gay agenda." Presumably you say this because you have some personal problems triggered by this topic that you really should take up with a therapist.

I actually think providing safer, more accessible, actually existing abortion, contraception, and assistive reproductive techniques across the United States and to overexploited regions of the world is the urgent priority for reproductive medicine, and providing clean water, wholesome food, and basic healthcare for all human beings in the world is the more generally urgent medical priority. One way you can tell this is actually my "agenda" is that I say it all the time.

Anyway, I think the "transhumanist" pining to overcome all bodily limits, quite apart from the conceptual incoherence of such a wish, also tends to express an unhealthy fear of the ineradicable finitude of human life and a loathing of the vulnerable, aging, error-prone body and brain. Like you, I just described this pining as "transhumanist," but more diffuse forms of this fear and loathing suffuse our wasteful, irresponsible, narcissistic, techno-fetishizing consumer society more generally and in ways that are probably not best characterized as "transhumanism." "Transhumanism" seems to me a clarifying extremity of more prevailing pathologies.

That said, the norms of human capacity and expectations of health are mostly retroactive constructions reflecting historically contingent relationships of majorities to knowledge, representations, techniques, infrastructural affordances, customs, legal codes. These are always diverse and changing, whether you are comfortable with this reality or not.

A "bioconservative" valorization of present norms and pining for stasis is as incoherent as "transhumanist" declarations of smashing through all limits. I also tend to think obsessive idealization of present norms over possible differences usually expresses a bigoted fear of those who are different enough to want such differences. I put "bioconservative" in scare-quotes because like "transhumanism" I think these are clarifying extremities of more prevailing pathologies -- there are plenty of selective reactionary or ignorant fixations on parochially scary changes otherwise that provoke loose talk of threats and bans the authors of which probably aren't consistently "bioconservative" the way, say, certain socially conservative bioethicists are.

If we really are going to generalize this way, I do think transhumanoid and bioconservative temperaments are rather structurally similar in their assumptions and arguments -- and also, if I may say so, comparably unhealthy in the face of the basic role of chance and change in human lives as they are really lived: Transhumanists would pretend to control chance and change through compulsive pill-popping, fad diets, fetishistic consumption of flashy gizmos and cosmetic spectacles giving flesh to a more faith-based initiative of techno-transcendence and mastery through fairy-tale wish-fulfillment future technologies; while bioconservatives would pretend to control chance and change through selective excoriations as dangerous or undignified of some of the diversity of human subcultures and lifeways which they would limit with legal bans and boycotts of media representations and so on giving flesh to a more faith-based initiative of preservation of parochial normality through the absolute repudiation of fairy-tale nightmare future technologies. The fairy tales themselves are eerily similar on both sides, as is the intensity of their confusion with reality.

You seem to think even safe, affordable, accessible samesex reproductive techniques, whatever those might happen to be, if they arrive at all, should be banned on principle even if sane, informed, nonduressed people with whom you share the world differ from you in wanting access to them. If actually-existing techniques when they exist were actually safe and actually equitably accessible and wanted by actually informed, nonduressed citizens and you still want to ban them because they are "wrong" and "unnatural," I cannot say that your view makes much sense to me. You have repeated this over and over and over again over the years. We all know what you want and we all know what you are afraid of. It was never a very sensible thing to think, let alone obsess about in the way you do. Whatever fear or fancy is driving your crusading zeal is not really very interesting nor even really amusing anymore. I don't expect to change your mind, and I don't expect you to change anybody else's.


John Howard said...

You ignored my point about Rebecca Taylor. Don't you think it is interesting that she only opposes "enhancement" but not germline genetic engineering to fix defects? She feels "enhancement" is where medicine crosses the line into transhumanism, but I think it is enhancement itself to enable people to pass on genes that are better than their own.

Dale Carrico said...

You should read more carefully.

Presumably Taylor regards normalizing therapeutic outcomes as continuous with our intuitions about basic healthcare more generally already, even if a novel or imagined technique were to enable the normalization in a particular case.

And, no, I don't find this is more interesting than the things I talked about at greater length in responding to Taylor. The distinction is, after all, a bioethical commonplace.

Of course, in this piece I pointed out that all such norms are contingent over the longer term on expectations, customs, norms, and technical/infrastructural affordances. This calls that bioethical commonplace into question and responds to what you say I ignored, if you like.

You speak of "the line" that transhumanism crosses -- but there is no permanent line "nature" draws and there are no actually-existing transhumanist therapies that cross "the line." Health-qua-norm matters to me less than questions of safety, access, equitable distribution of costs, risks, and benefits, and the scene of informed, nonduressed consent to the enterprise.

My own focus has been to insist on the point that there is no neutral vantage from which to describe a non-normalizing prosthetic intervention as always-only a "correction" or "enhancement," of always-only a "defect" or "disability." And that point very much includes your own confident declarations about knowing what genes, traits, capacities are "better than their own." Better for what? According to whom?

You may want to pretend that "nature" is whatever is customary now, and then invest those parochial customs with sacredness or perfection, but it remains true nonetheless that the customary has been otherwise in times past, might be otherwise in times present, and will be otherwise in times to come.

Prenatal care and basic nutrition radically changes infant and child mortality, anti-inflammatories transform expectations of adult mortality associated with heart disease, anaesthetic and pain killers change quality of life profoundly -- these are not in-born to human species-being, though they have become normalized for many members of the human species.

Who knows what might become normal, and hence natural next? Are you a transhumanist if you are anesthetized before a root canal? Transhumanists have an interest in answering yes -- because to pretend healthcare is enhancement they can lend the coloration of legitimacy to their techno-immortalizing and techno-superhumanizing fancies.

You should think deeply about whether your objections to Taylor actually abet the techno-transcendental faith-based transhumanist pseudo-science you claim otherwise to abhor.