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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Genetics, ethics, and the state - revisited

For the past decade, the public sphere has buzzed with arguments about real or imagined genetic technologies, such as embryonic sex selection, reproductive cloning, and human genetic enhancement - much of the noise prompted by the announcement, back in 1997, of Dolly the cloned sheep. How far have we come in that time?

Perhaps not far enough, when we still have priests and priestesses of the Endarkenment wanting to argue on the basis of yuck factor responses. It can, moreover, be disheartening to find that many of the same old arguments are brought up whenever a new group focuses on the issues, though this recent discussion over at Pharyngula, prompted by an article by John Harris (based on his new book), is heartening in some ways.

First, there is clearly a high degree of openness to new technology in this blog community; and second, some of the concerns raised are rational ones that I share (and do, I think, create some regulatory questions). In particular, contributors are raising the important point that some parents might attempt to use genetic modification in ways that the parents would see as morally good, but which secular rationalists would see as bad - such as trying to make their children more docile or credulous, or trying to control their childrens' sexuality (either by tuning it down in general, if sexual desire is seen as essentially nasty in the miserable tradition of St. Augustine, or by making sure that their children are heterosexual).

It seems to me that these are exactly the sorts of concerns that we should most worry about. I would see such uses of genetic engineering, if they were possible, as morally unacceptable. However, there is then a question as to whether they should be politically unacceptable. It's not good enough to argue that something is immoral and should therefore be prohibited - the state does not get to enforce the "right" morality, but must look for some sort of harm. For good reasons, its public morality is narrow ... and this has to be accepted by people from many ethical viewpoints, including mine.

How, after all, would such genetic interventions differ from things that we currently deprecate but tolerate, such as parents trying to get their children to be obedient, accepting of what they are told on authority, and sexually demure (as well as straight)? If we object to these things to the extent of wanting to prevent them by law - as opposed to arguing fiercely against them - we will need better arguments than I think any of us have made so far. (It's certainly not good enough for us to rely on our own yuck! feelings). This is a worthwhile area for further thinking by secular philosophers and bioethicists.

The discussion at Pharyngula raises some of the familiar arguments about a possible GATTACA divide and the alleged social disutility of embryonic sex selection. I'll ignore the former, as it's an issue that I've often discussed in the past and will return to in the future. But the latter point took me back to my 1999 article, "Genetics, Ethics and the State", where I discussed many of the relevant issues. Some of my reservations about genetic technologies have receded since then, and in particular I want to repudiate the mild opposition that I expressed to embryonic sex selection.

First, I can state in all modesty that the article contains much material that I'm proud of - written in opposition to the widespread consensus at the time that there's something deeply wrong about the relevant technologies, as evidenced (supposedly) by widespread feelings of fear or disgust. Referring to Brian Appleyard's then recently-published views, I wrote the following:

I object to this. If your personal choices and behaviours or mine became fair targets for legal prohibition merely because contemplating them caused fear and disgust to rise in others' throats, that would be the end of liberal society. Many people feel similar emotions when they contemplate homosexuality, for example, or interracial marriage, or many other practices. Appleyard is no homophobe or racist, but it is all too easy for people with irrational, bigoted reactions to imagine that there is some underlying truth, something sound and noble but difficult to articulate, which can "legitimize" their raw emotional responses.

Good for me!

Appleyard goes on to cite a geneticist, William Cookson, as saying that the possibility of parents being able to select the sex of their child "horrifies me . . . although I cannot say why."

My comment?

Thus, to fear and disgust at postulated technologies is added "horror" in a trifecta of unreason. "Cookson and others," we are told, "find themselves with doubts about where their work is leading, doubts that seem irrational and defy analysis." Indeed, such "doubts" do seem irrational, at least when expressed as lamely as this.

Good for me again!

But I would no longer write the following passage in this form:

When we move from the issue of cloning to that of parental sex selection, a more plausible argument can be put for prohibition or some lesser form of discouragement. This argument has nothing to do with the horror expressed by William Cookson and Bryan Appleyard, for it is not immoral or horrifying to attempt to influence the sex of planned child. But it is rational to fear that an inconvenient social outcome would eventuate if too many people did it successfully.

Many would-be parents have preferences about the baby's sex, and they will sometimes try to influence this by methods such as special diets or using acid or alkaline douches. Though none of that is wicked behaviour, its effectiveness for the purpose must be doubtful. Imagine, however, that we had a truly effective technology for parents to choose the sex of their children without going through the trauma of abortion. This might create a serious imbalance of the sexes in our society. It is quite possible that a sufficiently high proportion of parents would choose to have boys that the cumulative effect would create large-scale social problems.

The alleged undesirability of an aggregate result from many personal choices that seem individually legitimate is not usually a good justification to constrain individual choices, commitments and projects. Moreover, this is not like the imposition of broadly-based taxes, which do little, at least directly, to interfere with anyone's life plans. Instead, we are speaking about precisely about such interference and whether it can be justified. Against that, in the particular case of parental sex selection, the aggregate outcome could be so difficult and unanimously undesired that there might be justification on social coordination grounds for the state to interfere.

I'm not objecting to the method of analysis used here. This still seems like the correct way to address such a political issue, so I don't repudiate the passage in toto. However, I'd no longer give even this degree of cautiously-worded sympathy to prohibiting or discouraging embryonic sex selection.

I'll leave aside the situation in such countries as China and India - except to say that, even there, any argument for banning embryonic sex selection will be far from straightforward.

What should the policy be in the secular, liberal societies of the West? I think it is clear that when public policy is developed on the basis of long-term, cumulative, indirect harm (rather than on the basis of banning something that is directly harmful, such as rape or murder) the legislature in the jurisdiction must be held to account for why the relevant law (with its restriction of individual liberty) is needed in that jurisdiction. I don't believe that any Western country could do that with embryonic sex selection. I've been persuaded of this beyond any real doubt by the work of Edgar Dahl, in particular. The research is tending to show that there's no real likelihood of embryonic sex selection leading to a massively inconvenient distortion of sex ratios.

What has been happening in some Western countries is that embryonic sex selection is being banned, not on the basis that it is able to meet a rational public policy test, but on the basis that it shows some lack of moral virtue if you even care about the sex of your kids (perhaps, I suppose ... but I'm sceptical, and in any event it's none of the state's business), or that it is intrinsically wrong, or that it will start us on a slippery slope, or simply because of good old-fashioned yuck factor reactions such as that of Cookson quoted above.

Needless to say, I think these are all very weak arguments.

While embryonic sex selection may not be the most important issue in the world, its recent prohibition by such countries as the UK and Australia is a dreadful precedent. It is a case of governments stopping a practice in the absence of any compelling case that the practice is harmful, and essentially for improper moralistic reasons. It's difficult to imagine a clearer breach of the Millian harm principle (and any plausible principles of indirect harm needed to supplement it).

I now urge anyone reading this to oppose such bans if they are mooted in the jurisdiction where you live. Shine a little light into the Endarkenment.

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