10/21/2009

How being pro-choice entails being pro-enhancement

This is an argument I've been toying with for a while, and I haven't yet seen it in print, but I imagine it's not entirely novel.

What is the strongest argument in favor of being pro-choice on abortion? In my mind, it's something like this: There is significant moral disagreement about the permissibility of abortion. Thus, it is inappropriate for the state to intervene and attempt to make the decision in place of the individual woman. Those who think abortion is unjustifiable can elect not to have abortions, while those who think it's permissible can choose otherwise if they so desire.

In other words, on issues for which there is significant moral disagreement (especially when the decisions predominantly affect only a single family), individuals should be given the right to decide for themselves whether to perform the action in question. (I'm setting aside here all of the other arguments for and against the permissibility of abortion, as well as many of the details about particular cases.)

Consider genetic engineering now. There is significant moral disagreement on this issue (the population is not as evenly split, but around a quarter of people in the US claim to have no problem with it generally, and even greater percentages are in favor of it in limited circumstances). It does not matter what the arguments provided on one side or the other happen to be. If reproductive freedom is something we wish to guarantee in the United States, then we must leave it up to individual parents to decide how to augment their future children.

In short, the cases are almost exactly analogous. Both are decisions that almost entirely affect only the parents and the potential child. In both cases, there is a hostile opposition to reproductive freedom that seeks to make controversial moral decisions for people, denying individuals the right to choose. If there's a difference, abortion is probably more morally suspect, because no one denies that (all other things being equal) it is better not to kill an animal or person, while genetic enhancement will, if safe and effective, only improve a person.

My suspicion is that the real opposition to biotechnological enhancement comes from emotions like disgust and fear. (Leon Kass, my arch-nemesis, actually admits this, with all his nonsense about the "wisdom" of the "yuck factor". Oh, so cleaning toilets is morally wrong, Mr. Kass?) I'll put it simply: if you're against enhancement of any particular sort, then don't do it. But you don't get to decide for me if I feel otherwise.

To summarize: abortion and genetic engineering (not to mention other technologies like in vitro fertilization, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, and genetic screening) are morally analogous cases. For someone who is pro-choice on abortion to be anti-choice on genetic engineering, they must demonstrate that there is a morally relevant difference between the two cases. Otherwise they are just hypocrites, like all those pro-lifers they are so averse to.

One possible difference is that, while abortion (at most) can remove genes from the gene pool, it cannot add new ones, like genetic engineering could. But, this is not a morally relevant difference. Mutations occur naturally all the time, and they can lead to novel genes as much as our intentional interventions could. Does that make mutation wrong?

Let me anticipate one final objection: "There is a morally relevant difference," claims my hypothetical adversary, "insofar as genetic engineering does not only affect one family. Genetic engineering could lead to lasting changes in the genetic make-up of humanity, while abortion could not."

There are many problems with such objections, but the biggest is a general ignorance of biology. I think it's a misunderstanding of at least three central concepts: evolution, species, and the relation between genotype and phenotype.

Wikipedia has a decent one sentence summary of the first: "evolution is change in the genetic material of a population of organisms from one generation to the next". Evolution has no direction, although we might (with a tremendous effort) be able to give it one. Evolution occurs whether a genetic change is "natural" or artificial. The only difference is that we have control over the artificial changes, but the "natural" ones are largely matters of chance (guided by selective forces, of course). Humanity is constantly evolving, whether we like it or not.

Second, species are not stable entities. Again, Wikipedia says this about species (while admitting that it is not universally agreed upon by biologists): "A common definition is that of a group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring of both genders, and separated from other such groups with which interbreeding does not (normally) happen." There is no stable core to a species by which it can be identified, because evolution is constantly altering the composition of a species' gene pool. Further, because there is so much variation within species, it would be hard to identify "human nature" or any animal nature even for a single point in time. To "change human nature" would require a large-scale, significant change. This is not something in the foreseeable future.

Lastly, far too many people are genetic determinists, even if they hate biology. In short, genes are only half the story. Throughout human history, we have been altering the phenotypes that appear in persons through environmental interventions like education. No one objects to these. But if we talk about altering genotype, which will have no guaranteed affect on phenotype, just as a person who attends school is by no means guaranteed to actually learn something.

So, to respond to our objector: It is unlikely that a species-level change could occur with these technologies, but even if such a thing is possible, it's not necessarily a bad thing. Species are constantly evolving, and so we're going to change one way or the other. Why not try to direct this change positively instead of leaving things up to Lady Luck and her cruel genetic lottery?

5 comments:

Dean Taylor said...

"her" child...

"their" child...

You're very hip and politically correct and savvy and you watch all the right movies and TV shows and the Right to Lifers are hard to stomach what with all that Catholic Church nonsense, etc.

However, how about this for a point you conveniently neglected to add to the equation:


1) "Mom" does not "own" the human being. For example, Mrs. Eggert NEVER owned little Dom.

2) Little Dom, in fact, had rights: first and foremost--and most immediately--the right to complete the period of gestation.


That's right! Each and every human being has a CATEGORICAL RIGHT to nine months gestation--pace Gloria Steinem.

The developing human fetus cannot, however, contact his/her attorney to hire an advocate for his/her cause, i.e., "Mom" is "an enlightened feminist" with better things to do than change fucking diapers--what with her career moves to negotiate, and males to compete with in the corporate sector, etc.

And what is the cause worth fighting for:

the right to life itself--ESPECIALLY when the individual has not the wherewithal to defend him/herself. This takes precedence over ANY power striving by Ms. Something.

Dom: women, i.e., feminists, have guilted you. Check yourself out.

Recover your balls--and your brains, while you're at it.

And thank God that Mrs. Eggert had more common sense than her son--otherwise you might not have had the opportunity to blog about...whatever it is that you're doing here.

Again: women, i.e., feminists, have guilted you. Check yourself out.

Once again--for the thick headed: WE DO NOT OWN CHILDREN. That mindset was current with "the peculiar institution," i.e., slavery. NO ONE OWNS A HUMAN BEING. Got it--finally?

http://empireglassdarkly.wordpress.com/

Dom E said...

Thank you, commenter. I appreciate the overly familiar and condescending tone. I also appreciate your method of arguing by spouting totally groundless assertions.

You make some truly astounding claims, like "Each and every human being has a CATEGORICAL RIGHT to nine months gestation". I was actually born a month late--did I go beyond my rights?

But seriously, what do you mean by "human being" here? I believe half or more of all fertilized zygotes fail to implant in the uterine wall, or suffer some other natural premature termination--all without a woman's knowledge that fertilization even took place. Should we be mourning these "losses" too? These are human cells, but not human beings, not persons.

Rights are legal constructs. An embryo or fetus has rights only to the extent that it lives in a nation that has instantiated such rights through legislation.

Now, you might say that there's a difference between the legal rights I'm talking about and the moral rights that you believe should be the basis for the law. You might say that a fetus has a moral right to life, like many pro-lifers suggest.

But here's the problem: not everyone believes that such rights exist, including me. Unless you can somehow show me where exactly these rights are, you're going to have to convince me that they even exist in the first place.

But why waste time doing that, when the real question is, what rights should be legally granted or recognized--and why?

You've given me very little why, but have instead used ad hominems to belittle my claims, rather than attack them in substance.

In no place do I assume that a person can own another person. However, to the extent that a person can be said to own their own body, that means a woman "owns" a fertilized egg gestating inside of her--this may be a "potential" person, but so is the very same ovum prior to conception, which is undoubtedly owned by her.

However, owning something does not mean that you have no responsibilities regarding it. We can own pets, but we must take care of them. As soon as a woman learns of her pregnancy, I think she has a responsibility to take care of herself and so forth, or to act quickly if she decides to abort it. But, I think such responsibilities are not the kinds of things that should be codified into law, any more than the law should make decisions for people on controversial ethical issues.

callumdray said...

Aptly put Dom. I quite liked your toilet line! Lol! As a male (and this will probably come across as extremely sexist) I haven't really put much thought into the whole abortion squabble. But just based on my moral intuition, I tend to go towards pro-choice. After reading your little blog, you have solidified my opinion (and for that I thank you). I must admit that your pro-lifer commenter did come across rather weakly in his argumentation and it read more like a verbal attack rather then a reasoned debate. News flash Dean! Sophistry and rhetoric don't get you very far in the debating world!

However, I would like to make a slight correction to your claim Dom, "rights are legal constructs". I tend to disagree with this partially, I was under the impression that rights were usually moral values, in addition of course to laws set down by cultures. The problem still remains however, that moral values are in their nature intrinsic, and as such can be hard to quantify.

Anyway, keep up with the blogging, it was a good read! And if you know any decent pro-life debates, chuck me a link! I don't want to get just one side of the argument after all!

werkshop said...

It's about the sovereignty of the individual over her body and NOTHING else. This is a relationship that must be based on trust, and the authority of the State has no say in the matter. A person's body is a world in which he or she alone is sovereign.

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