Ethics has a bizarre blind spot around parents and children. For no justifiable reason that I can discern, we deem it perfectly tolerable for a parent to decide unilaterally to raise their child genderless or under the Tiger Mother or laissez-faire method of parenting, but horror at the idea of someone “testing” one of these parental styles on a child. Recall, there is no test to become a parent, no minimum qualification or form of licensing. In fact, if you are so irresponsible as to unintentionally have a child you do not want and cannot support, you have more of a right (and obligation) to rear that child than a stranger with the means and desire to give that child a better life.
We erroneously connect the ability to reproduce with the ability to rear in our social norms and in our laws. As adoption, IVF, sperm/egg donation and surrogate mothers along with new family structures challenge the concept that the person who provides the gametes or womb is also the person who will teach the child to ride a bicycle, we need to investigate the impact of perpetuating the idea that there is a link between reproducing and rearing.
I would like to test this reproduce-rearing correlation with a thought experiment. The details of the thought experiment appear below the fold, but the conclusion is as follows: it would be ethically permissible for a scientist to adopt a large group of children and then perform specific, non-harmful, nature-vs-nurture social experiments on those children. My idea comes from an interview by Charles Q. Choi at Too Hard for Science? with Steven Pinker about just such an experiment:
There is one morally repugnant line of thought Pinker strenuously objects to that could resolve this question. “Basically, every nature-nurture debate could be settled for good if we could raise a group of children in a closed environment of our own design, they way we do with animals,” he says. . .
“The biological basis of sex differences could be tested by dressing babies identically, hiding their sex from the people they interact with, and treating them identically, or better still, dividing them into four groups — boys treated as boys, boys treated as girls, girls treated as girls, girls treated as boys,” he notes. . .
“There’s no end to the ethical horrors that could be raised by this exercise,” Pinker says.
“In the sex-difference experiment, could we emasculate the boys at different ages, including in utero, and do sham operations on the girls as a control?” Pinker asks. “In the language experiment, could we ‘sacrifice’ the children at various ages, to use the common euphemism in animal research, and dissect their brains?”
“This is a line of thought that is morally corrosive even in the contemplation, so your thought experiments can go only so far,” he says.
So let’s test the limits of Pinker’s last line. Ethics is rife with and wrought by horrific thought experiments designed to out our biases and assumptions. And I intend to use a thought experiment to expose our bias that reproductive capacity equals rearing capacity. That is, merely because you can have a kid doesn’t mean you should be allowed to decide how to raise it. Using three scenarios, I’ll prove that a team of scientists adopting a large group of children with the dual intent of raising happy and healthy children while also conducting non-surgical or invasive sociological experiments would be ethically permissible. Read More
The 50th Anniversary of the Pill was last year. Lots and lots of people mentioned how good, bad, unimportant, or essential the Pill has been. Our society changed the way it thought about sex, about reproduction, even about love and relationships. Women being able to take control of their reproductive abilities is one of the greatest advancements in the history of modern human biology. Even if it isn’t universally beloved, the Pill is worth defending and improving. It makes the world a better place. Female hormonal birth control is an exemplary form of human enhancement.
But, astonishingly, non-barrier birth control for men doesn’t yet exist. The current choices are condoms or vasectomies. That’s it. We are in want of a form of birth control that makes men temporarily and reversibly infertile. We don’t have it, we need it, and when it comes out, it’ll be as revolutionary as the Pill itself. It’s on my list of must-have forms of reproductive enhancement, along with artificial wombs.
Which brings us to the question at hand: where the hell is it already? Much like cold-fusion and flying cars, male birth control is always “just around the corner.” The “bright pill” is trying to inhibit the reproductive function of sperm. Ultrasound might be able to interrupt sperm production so that a man is temporarily sterile for six months at a time. Hormones might also be an option. If there are so many options, why don’t we have one that works? The problem seems to be the sheer number of sperm. Females ovulate once a month, meaning one, count ‘em, one egg is released. Men are, uh, different. To quote an expert:
“Men make 1,000 sperm every second,” said John Amory, a male reproductive specialist at the University of Washington, Seattle. “It’s proven to be a lot more difficult to turn that degree of production off compared to one egg a month.”
That is just way too many sperm. But pure biology doesn’t seem to capture the problem. Other problems include male willingness to take the pill, impact on libido, and other social and physiological side-effects.
Which brings up new questions about the male pill: Will men remember to take it? Will men want to take it? Will it emasculate men too much to be worth while? Or are men just too stupid and awful to ever be able to have that kind of responsibility? Just as all of the articles recounting the impact of the Pill on our society weren’t talking about chemical compositions or dosages, the reason male birth control is important is not the science. It’s the sociology. Male non-barrier birth control has the potential to change society as much as the female birth control pill. And that’s why we need it so badly. The male pill isn’t just about safe sex and birth control, oh no. It’s about the way we think about safe sex and birth control. Once you understand, you’ll want the male birth control pill too. Read More
Are designer babies a danger to the middle class? Should we, as a society, specially breed children for submission to the Achievatron to defeat Chinese mothers and live up to the genetic “Sputnik Moment” in which we find ourselves? Will designer babies be atheists? Peter Lawler, ostensible smart person, seems to think so! If I am translating his compassionate conservative gibberish properly, Lawler is under the distinct impression that the goal behind designer babies is to make a more productive populace and that doing so will wreak havoc upon our families and lives.
Some background on Peter Lawler. He writes for Big Think, loves The New Atlantis (their writers at Futurisms are great sparring partners) and was on the President’s Council on Bioethics (PCBE) . For those of you unfamiliar with Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics, they were the brilliant minds behind halting stem cell research, focusing on it-worked-for-Bristol-Palin abstinence-only sex education and being generally terrible philosophers and thinkers. Charles Krauthammer was asked his opinion of ethical issues, I kid you not. In short, the PCBE happily rubber-stamped the backwards and anti-science decrees of Bush and Cheney in an effort to supplicate the deranged Christian base of the Republican party. I tell you all of this lovely information so you have a working context for the luminary Big Think has decided to employ.
Thus, on to the question: will designer babies turn the USA into a culture of compulsory overachievement? Read More
The whole discussion about what we’ll find immoral in the future got me thinking about that little group often described as our collective “future”: children. We often hear about children as our future when someone says, “Think of the children!” or “We shouldn’t leave this problem for our children to solve!” Children of Men, Ender’s Game, and A Wrinkle In Time, to name a few sci-fi classics, all place the symbolic future in the hands of either children or a specific child. If children are our “future” then who gets to have and raise children in the future will probably be pretty important.
Why then are we so cavalier about who we let have and raise them? As technology enables more people to reproduce, environmental pressures make each new life a bigger burden, and our understanding of child psychology improves, it’ll become more and more evident that just because a person can have kids doesn’t mean they should have kids. My guess is that, decades down the road, future generations will require a license to reproduce and start a family. That sounds like a pretty good idea to me.
The thing is, we already have sort of a “family license” system. It’s called adoption. If you are adopting, or trying to use an assisted reproductive technique (ART), then you have to meet some requirements. Adoptive parents must meet not just minimal standards like “no history of violence” but also quite high standards of stability, concern for the child’s welfare, wealth, and other characteristics reviewed through applications and interviews. Those who would use ARTs are often given more than an eyebrow raise by their physicians if they’re over a certain age or have a given lifestyle choice. Regardless of what criteria must be met, the point is they are always stricter than the criteria a couple must meet to be able to reproduce in the, uh, standard fashion, because there are no criteria (besides the reproductive biology) for being able to have kids unassisted.
“Would you take a magic pill to make yourself straight?” asked an audience member at a GLBT forum at Winona State University in Minnesota. The concept is not pure fantasy: scientists have flipped a genetic switch to make female mice homosexual and rogue pediatric endocrinologist, Maria New, has been giving mothers dexamethasone to prevent lesbian daughters. Pre-implantation genetic diagnostics, combined with in-vitro fertilization, is making it possible to select out genetic defects and disorders, and to select for desirable traits. The science of sexuality is driving us towards a future in which we may have the option to choose our child’s sexual orientation. This scenario poses a few questions: