Begotten, Not Made: The Dangers of Reproductive Technology

By Kane, Francis | Commonweal, February 15, 2008 | Go to article overview

Begotten, Not Made: The Dangers of Reproductive Technology


Kane, Francis, Commonweal


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.

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