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Mameli defends reproductive technologies

A recent Journal of Medical Ethics article by Matteo Mameli challenges two versions of the popular argument that human reproductive cloning and genetic engineering should be prohibited because they would undermine the autonomy of children. The reference is M. Mameli, “Reproductive cloning, genetic engineering and the autonomy of the child”, Journal of Medical Ethics 33 (2007): 87-93.

Mameli notes that one argument against these technologies is that they are not safe and could result in developmental abnormalities. However, as he points out, this argument will cease to have application if a point is reached when cloning and genetic engineering are as reliable as other reproductive technologies (page 87). He gives only a brief discussion of how this could be done (and it is not entirely satisfactory, in my opinion), but he is surely right that technological advances could, in principle, undermine the argument. This means that we need to look at what other arguments are on the table.

Arguments relating to the autonomy of children are, of course, popular among bioconservatives, notably Jurgen Habermas, who essentially bases his case against genetic reproductive technologies on this point.

The two versions of the argument that Mameli identifies are: first, that the autonomy of the children concerned will be undermined because knowledge of how they were conceived will render them unable to take full responsibility for their actions (he attributes this claim to Habermas); and second, that such technologies will violate the children’s supposed right to an open future (he mentions a couple of references, including the revered From Chance to Choice, by Buchanan, et. al.) (page 87).

In this blog post, I’ll confine myself to the first argument, that pursued by Habermas, just to save some time and space. I’ll get to the second argument in a follow-up post.

As Mameli describes the argument pursued by Habermas, it is along these lines: to be a full member of a moral community, one must be able to conceive of oneself as such; for this to happen, one must be able to assume full responsibility for one’s actions in the same way as others. But the children who have been created by reproductive cloning or genetic engineering would be unable to conceive of themselves in this way, perhaps because they really would not be fully responsible for their actions like the rest of us. It follows that these children could not become full members of their moral communities (page 88).

I find the argument attributed to Habermas initially implausible - partly because it connotes a spooky and unreal concept of taking full responsibility for our actions: we are all products of our heredity and environment (including upbringing) and none of us can ever be responsible for what we do all the way down below the events that shaped us. We can be responsible in lesser senses, of course, e.g. our actions can reflect our beliefs and values, and that is (I’d argue) all we require. But the same applies to people who have been born from reproductive cloning or genetic engineering.

Mameli makes a similar point - we cannot choose the psychological makeup that we find ourselves with at the time we first start reflecting on our own desires and other aspects of our psychological makeup, so our reflections are always shaped by something beyond our control (page 88). However, he says, Habermas believes that we do not need to have full responsibility for our psychological makeup, in order to be fully responsible as moral agents, but only that we need to be in a position where “our basic psychological makeup is not the desired outcome of someone else’s choice.” According to Habermas, I cannot be fully responsible in the required sense if my psychological makeup is partly the result of parental choice of my genes (page 88).

There is some shifting here between being fully and partly a product of parental choice, and if it is supposed to be “partly” it sounds like a very arbitrary principle. All children’s personalities are shaped partly by the conscious choices of the adults around them. Surely we accept this, even approve of it.

Mameli’s response is to point out that people’s dispositions are typically the result, in part, of parental choices to control their childrens’ environments in various ways, e.g. by teaching kids to be altruistic, so why should it matter if the means used are partly genetic? (pages 88-89)

Habermas has anticipated this point, however - he argues that children can rid themselves of the effect of their parents’ environmental decisions, whereas genetic effects are irreversible - but Mameli cites research showing that the opposite is often true, that environmental effects on psychological development are often not reversible, while many genetic effects are (page 89). Indeed, the claim by Habermas is simply implausible on its face. No one can ever step entirely out of her existing values, however they were shaped, at the time she reflects on her values. This would be a spooky kind of autonomy all the way down, once again.

To some extent, Habermas seems to argue that what matters is not the truth of all this, but how it would be perceived by the children themselves (perhaps even mistakenly); to this Mameli points out that the children would be very unlikely to perceive themselves as other than fully responsible (in the qualified, non-spooky sense that is actually possible), since to do so would involve seeing themselves as outside of society. People actually want to held accountable for their actions, because of the great social advantages this brings them. Admittedly, some people do try to blame their parents for how they turned out, but that does not inspire us to prohibit parents from, for example, deciding how to educate their kids. If necessary, we can make a social decision to teach children to accept responsibility for their actions and not devalue themselves mistakenly (page 89). I add that of course some ways we educate kids might need to change in a society with genetic engineering, but why should that be surprising or alarming?

Mameli next considers whether the kind of self-devaluation postulated by Habermas would be almost ineradicable by reasoning, like some kinds of depression, but he points out that the self-devaluation would arise from a reasoning process, not from an organic cause in the functioning of brain. Of course, some kinds of depression begin with feelings of life going badly, which may then cause an organic effect. With cloning and genetic engineering cases, however, we could avoid children forming the wrong thoughts in the first place, by teaching them at an early age that they have responsibility for their own lives; we could tell them the disavantages and irrationality of the kind of self-devaluation that Habermas postulates (pages 89-90).

As Mameli states, none of this denies that some parents could make decisions that would undermine the moral agency of their children, e.g. they could choose genes to disable their children intellectually. This would be analogous to abusive environmental choices by parents, but the remote chance of parents acting in this way would not be a reason to prohibit genetic reproductive technologies (page 90).

All right, then, who has the better of this argument, out of Habermas and Mameli - who is being more realistic? I suspect that the picture painted by Mameli is slightly too rosy if we are discussing genetic choices that relate directly to the personality of the child. In those cases, perhaps, the child could end up confused and resentful, and it does, in any event, seem like a foolish kind of micro-management for psrents to try to indulge in.

But Mameli neglects, at this stage of his article, to mention two apects that would tend to strengthen his position. First, the whole argument developed by Habermas is weak in its application to reproductive cloning, which is not the focus of the case that Habermas builds. Knowing that I have received the same genes as my “father” - i.e. the random assortment that my nuclear DNA donor received from his parents - is quite different from knowing that my whole personality has been designed in advance.

Second, parental choices relating to genetic engineering might sometimes involve attempts to control personality traits, but they are perhaps more likely to involve the enhancement of intelligence, strength, coordination, perceptual powers (keen eyesight, for example), energy, health, longevity, and the physical components of beauty (such as facial and bodily symmetry). Possessing any or all of these would certainly have an influence on a child’s developing personality, but that also applies if those traits are influenced by environmental interventions (e.g. by teaching a child to read, or to play sport, or by giving the child good nutrition). These look more like gifts than attempts at a kind of genetic brainwashing, and they are likely to be experienced as such rather than as attempts at personality control.

At a minimum, then, the psychological and social risks discussed by Habermas seem exaggerated, and any downside has to be weighed against the individual and social goods that might be gained. We should not use genetic technologies foolishly (e.g. before they are safe, or in an attempt to control too much detail of how our children’s personalities turn out), but there is every reason to believe that the benefits would outweigh the harm if we could actually develop and use safe techniques of reproductive cloning and human genetic engineering.

Bioconservatives often argue that a child born from reproductive cloning, or after being genetically engineered to alter its potential, will not have an “open future”. This has always seemed to me a ludicrous argument because it misunderstands what Joel Feinberg had in mind - and expressed clearly - when he originally employed the open future argument to criticise the US Supreme Court’s decision to allow Amish families to withdraw their children early from the education system.

The argument is really about the alleged value of certain kinds of communities surviving into the future (I dispute that we should value this at all; if certain religiously deluded cultures eventually die out, with no violence against them, surely this is a good thing!), and the value of children growing to adulthood with a wide range of skills and capacities to fit them for a range of possible life plans and social roles.

Matteo Mameli is alert to this in his article “Reproductive cloning, genetic engineering and the autonomy of the child: the moral agent and the open future.” He makes the point by quoting the key passage from Feinberg, in which the latter defined what he meant by an open future (Mameli, page 90).

Buchanan et. al., in From Chance to Choice, argue that we should ban genetic interventions with a similar effect to cutting short education, i.e. interventions that restrict kids’ options later in life (Mameli, page 90). Mameli comments that parents already shape kids for certain plans of life, which will tend to reduce their fitness for other plans, and that this is considered morally legitimate; however, there must be some moral limit to it. Mameli is inclined to think that the threshold below which we criticise parents is (socially) set quite low, i.e. we are prepared to accept a considerable squeezing down of kids’ options before we criticise parents (page 91).

While Mameli is surely right about this, and there is, indeed, some point to acknowledging that parents are not required to sacrifice everything else to equipping their children with a huge array of skills and opportunities, I sometimes wonder whether we are too lenient towards parents. I’m horrified when I think about kids being brought up to believe that they are fundamentally sinners, or that sexual pleasure is somehow “dirty” or nasty, or that the findings of science are comprehensively, massively wrong - since modern biology, geology, and just about every other scientific field, contain findings that conflict with the literal claims of the Christian Bible. Indoctrination into a miserable, medieval worldview enormously restricts children’s rational understanding of their universe and themselves; I believe that secular intellectuals should be appalled by this, but it’s the elephant in the living room that (it seems) we don’t want to see.

Be that as it may, Mameli is correct to note that some genetic interventions might expand, rather than diminish, the options available to children. However, some might reduce options in ways similar to those that are accepted now (such as encouragement to play a lot of tennis), and some in ways similar to those not currently accepted (such as not sending a child to school). The latter should be constrained (page 91).

Mameli also discusses the possibility that someone would be constrained in her array of life plans if she knew that she had the same genes as an earlier twin or that her genes had been chosen for a purpose by her parents (pages 91-92). He argues that in the case of reproductive cloning it would be open to children to rebel against any thought that they must follow a pre-existing life pattern, and we could teach kids from an early age that having the same genes as someone else does not destine you to leading a simlar life. The same applies mutatis mutandis to genetic engineering. Moreover, children can and do rebel against (some) parental expectations, and this would continue to be the case (arguably, to much the same extent as now). Finally, we already accept situations where childrens’ future lives are shaped within severely narrow boundaries, as with the children of royalty - but no one suggests that royal couples be prohibited from having children (page 92).

I broadly agree with Mameli on these points, though I am less sanguine than he seems to be about the extent to which we already shape childrens’ lives, and about the possibilty that genetic technology could be used in a way that would worsen an already unsatisfactory situation. Perhaps we need to exert more moral pressure on parents to open their childrens’ futures, particularly by not brainwashing them with damaging ideas about themselves or the world - children should learn how to reason and think critically, not about feeling a burden of sin and guilt. To be blunt, we should be more critical of parents who inflict traditional religious teachings on children who are too young to understand, let alone criticise, what they are being told. If genetic technology were used, in some way, to make children more credulous of the miserable views inherent in the literal teachings of traditional Christianity and Islam, we would have every reason to be appalled.

But it looks to me as if the availability of reproductive cloning and genetic engineering would not make the situation worse. Once again, my emphasis is slightly different from that of Mameli: in my view, we should encourage forms of genetic engineering that will enhance childrens’ capacities in ways that are likely to broaden their understanding of the world and themselves, and/or to increase their options in life - this would be so with many interventions designed to increase cognitive capacities, health, or longevity. To some extent, it would apply to other enhancements, such as improved strength or perceptual abiliities: these might not directly increase the capacity for understanding, or the opportunities to acquire it, but they would be of benefit in a myriad of ways, pervading somebody’s life.

Properly used, genetic reproductive technologies would not close kids’ futures. Their net effect would be to make the future more open.

Russell Blackford Ph.D. is a fellow of the IEET, an attorney, science fiction author and critic, philosopher, and public intellectual. Dr. Blackford serves as editor-in-chief of the IEET's Journal of Evolution and Technology. He lives in Newcastle, Australia, where he is a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle.

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