Manufacturing people and reproductive technology

Our idea of unnaturalness is a product of myth, not science. Reproductive technology is represented and imagined today as playing God has been in ages past. A review of Philip Ball's "Unnatural: the heretical idea of making people" invites the question of whether these representations have any moral content?
Rachael Panizzo
1 April 2011

Technological interference with procreation – and human procreation in particular – is seen as a disturbing and inherently dangerous activity. Craig Venter’s announcement last year that he and his research team had created a synthetic life form was met with a mixture of alarm and awe; Venter was described variously as revolutionising biotechnology, playing god and opening Pandora’s box. Similar anxieties were voiced about the fate of ‘test tube babies’ in the early days of in vitro fertilisation (IVF) research, and are reiterated in more recent fears about the creation of designer babies through genetic engineering or human cloning.  

Our distaste for these technologies stems from the fact that they are regarded as unnatural, an idea that permeates contemporary debate about assisted reproductive technology, embryonic stem cell research and human genetics. But what exactly is meant by unnatural? Not simply the opposite of natural, ‘unnatural’ implies condemnation and moral judgement too.Our beliefs about the distinction between natural and artificial life are informed by a long history of myths surrounding anthropoeia – the creation of human life – the science writer Philip Ball says in his newest book Unnatural: the heretical idea of making people, which he introduced at a lecture at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in February.

The Greek myths of Prometheus and Daedalus form the template from which multiple versions proliferate. These are myths of the creator and his not-quite-human creation, of a hubristic quest for knowledge that invariably fails, with horrific consequences.  They are continually reinvented and revised to keep pace with the prevailing scientific theories about what life is.  The message is clear: a warning against scientific overreach, and a reminder of the inherent inferiority of technology to nature. Descartes’ clockwork universe and a new understanding of human anatomy inspired craftsmen to build human automata – like the “androides” made by Jacques de Vaucanson, mechanical men that could speak, write and play chess.

Ever-increasing mechanical complexity might lead to life itself, it seemed, although the resulting being would presumably lack a soul. Edgar Allan Poe’s satire The man that was used up played on this theme, telling the story of a retired war hero whose body has been almost entirely replaced with prosthetic limbs and organs so that he becomes indistinguishable from a machine, and loses his soul in the process.  Chemistry and electrical energy were candidates for the essence of life in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Galvanic forces were implicated in the creation of Frankenstein’s monster. In the hatcheries of Aldous Huxley’s Brave new world, life is manufactured on an industrial scale, supplied with the necessary chemical ingredients. In the information age, the genetic code is all that is needed to program an army of identical clones, in everything from Ira Levin’s The Boys from Brazil, to the 1996 comedy Multiplicity.

The beings that are created are unnatural, repulsive, and lack a soul. Venter’s achievements, although on a microbial scale, reflect an extension of this belief, and are portrayed as synthetic bacterial robots, distinct from natural bacteria. The anthropoeitic myth is adaptable and able to integrate new scientific theories into its narrative. The laboratory is used as a space for the manipulation of nature, where thought experiments can be performed.In the imagined futures where reproductive technologies have been pushed to their extremes, we can explore our preconceptions and unarticulated fears about mortality, materialism, and human uniqueness.

What would happen if childbearing and labour could be outsourced? Ectogenesis would enable conception, gestation and birth to occur in artificial wombs outside of the body. In the early twentieth century, the technology was believed to be on the horizon, and in widespread use by this millennium. The possibility of ectogenesis was attractive and threatening at the same time. Proponents of the eugenics movement saw ectogenesis as a means of controlling population growth and facilitating selective breeding. Many feared that it would be taken under state control and used for social engineering. It could be an emancipating technology for women, who would be divorced from their childbearing responsibilities; but in doing so it might make women, or men, redundant altogether.

The character of the human clone in anthropoeitic myth faces us with our own mortality, and invites us to test the limits of genetic determinism. We imagine that clones are identical to each other and their donors, instilled with their memories and knowledge, or able to communicate telepathically, as though a single unit. In doing so, we confuse who we are with what we are made of. We insist that clones are inferior, yet recognize ourselves in them. They are uncanny, unsettling, and “leave us uncertain about the nature of our own humanity”, Ball says. If the soul distinguishes us from artificial beings, what is it exactly?

Once conception could occur outside of the womb, as in IVF, the human embryo was transformed from an ephemeral and transient developmental stage, to a discrete entity that could be isolated and visualized, “there under the microscope, demanding an answer to the question: is this a person, or not?” Advances in stem cell research further complicate the question of personhood, finding that embryonic-like cells can be generated from almost any tissue in the body: our every cell is a potential person. More than two million children have been born from IVF since Louise Brown in 1978, and its pioneer Professor Robert Edwards was last year awarded the Nobel prize for his research into the technique. As reproductive technologies are incorporated into medical practice, the contribution of technology in conception is downplayed. Fertility treatment can now – no less fantastically – produce miracles and offer a “helping hand” to infertile couples. The novel Frankenstein (subtitled “the modern Prometheus”) is so familiar that the Frankenstein prefix now signifies unnatural procreation. Even when unacknowledged, “Frankenstein’s monster, that icon of scientific hubris, remains an absent presence lurking behind the various public culture representations of assisted reproduction as unnatural conception with potentially hazardous results,” Professor Karyn Valerius said.  

Anthropoeitic myths continue to influence ethical debates surrounding reproductive technologies. Frankenstein, Brave new world and their modern versions might be distracting us from more urgent questions of the present. Philip Ball suggests that what we should really be fearful of, rather than authoritarian states taking control of our reproductive functions, is the unregulated commercialization of baby-making. “This is the reality of today’s anthropoiea: making people is not magic, not demonology or perverted anatomy, nor industrialized totalitarianism, but commerce.”

It is not always clear how we should address these myths, once recognised, and Ball does not offer any satisfying answers to this question. Ethical arguments should focus on the intentions and outcomes of new technologies, rather than the means, he says. But this approach is undermined by his sympathy with the view of Leon Kass, Chair of the President’s Council on Bioethics under the Bush administration, who stated that “repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power to fully articulate it… shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder”. Ball echoes this sentiment, when he suspects “that instinctive repugnance and unease have something to tell us”.

Almost 175 years earlier at the Royal Institution, Michael Faraday dismissed “the mass of wonder-lovers” who revel in exaggerated claims of creating life and their far-fetched consequences. Philip Ball continues in this tradition by exposing the origins of our ideas about unnaturalness, and shows that they are located firmly in myth rather than science. It seems that the real function of the anthropoeitic myth is that of a library to collect and store these anxieties and fears. They should be seen not as prophecies of the consequences of playing god, but rather as exploring the boundaries and extremes of our relationship with reproductive technology.

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