Monday, September 1, 2014

Issues in Science: Genetics and Embryology

This ought to help get some more regular posts up on this wall. I gave up pretty much all online news stories as well as FB over Lent this year and found it so freeing that I pretty much have stayed off since then. I've read maybe a handful of articles in news journals here and there and I've strayed back to FB or drudge now and then but have for the most part steered clear of the 24 hours news cycle and insta-opinion fabricators. I don't feel like I've missed a thing. It's not that I don't care. In fact, I was talking to a friend this weekend about how we sometimes feel like our opinion doesn't matter so the temptation is to give up and  develop a fatalist "nothing I can do about it" response. It's not that it doesn't matter what we think about events near and far. It absolutely does. It's just that we have gotten conditioned to think that somehow change is always 2 or 3 mouse clicks away and if it's not well...all consideration is futile. This is not to say that moral outrage is never an appropriate response. It's just that it is not always the most productive response. Sometimes it takes a while to develop a mature thought and a well considered response. Not just seconds or hours, but days, weeks and months...even (gasp) years. And just because we can't immediately measure the impact of our opinions on say, Syria, Gaza or Christians in Iraq doesn't mean that it doesn't matter what we think. 

Anyway, I have to comment on a weekly hot news story for one of my class in the Biotechnology track at school. So my hiatus from the trumped up world wide drama machine is now officially over. Fortunately, it's a simple assignment. A few comments or questions in short form. I can even use bullets. 

And...the story of the week is The Atlantic's coverage of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney, Australia (FODI) written by associate editor Kathy Gilsinan.

  • What is a dangerous idea? In the academic tradition of free inquiry how do we discern between what is different, unconventional, alternative, jarring, offense and what is down right dangerous or destructive? Also, is an idea destructive just because it is dangerous? What about provocative ideas in areas in which we need to be provoked? Gilsinan writes that "offense is practically baked into the conceit of systematically challenging deeply held beliefs specifically because they are deeply held."  I like that. Particularly in light of the Enlightenment Tradition of rejecting all revealed knowledge, dogmas and um, traditions in favors of some supposedly neutral Baconian empiricism in which we will eradicate all idols of the tribe, cave, marketplace and theatre. Surely, that is something that only other people do. Conceit indeed. 
  • The keynote speaker at the inaugural event was Christopher Hitchens railing against religion and five years later, we have Feminist Activist Kajsa Ekis Ekman, who is speaking out against surrogacy. I appreciate Gilsinan questioning the claim that Hitchens and the New Atheists are really all that radical or unconventional considering the way those authors suffer for their work with periodic appearance on New York Times Best Seller Lists. 
  • "Ekman’s] main argument against commercial surrogacy is that it resembles prostitution; they are two industries, she says, 'that sell the female body in different ways.' Whereas prostitution promotes sex without reproduction, surrogacy promotes reproduction without sex, Ekman argues." Both employ large numbers of poor women. Full disclosure: I'm inclined to agree. There is my idol of the cave on display I suppose. 
  • The director of FODI explains that opposition to surrogacy is confrontational for those parents who have participated, (I guess they're still having a hard time figuring out if offensive and dangerous are synonymous). 

  • Cue the video coverage of Ekman as well as a surrogate and biological mom. Initially, Eckman seems to steer away from the question of whether surrogacy is permissible when no money is exchanged. Her response is that it would be nearly impossible to regulate and insure that that remains the case. However, dignity is not merely contingent on the absence of monetary exchange is it? Is it only the money and/or the likelihood of compulsory surrogacy that is problematic?
  • The surrogacy "fairytale ending" parents enter the video with tender music and scenes of middle class homes and cute babies being held. Who wants to incriminate or deny a family to these women?  
  • Later in the video however, Ekman does comment against “altruistic surrogacy” on the grounds that it promotes the idea that a women’s body exists for others and that she is supposed to sacrifice her body for the happiness of others. This seems to overlook the hard reality that motherhood inherently involves some sort of sacrifice, (9 months of pregnancy, gestation and labor as well as sleep deprivation to name just a few examples). It seems that we cannot neglect the possibility of any interior generosity that is involved in both normative or surrogate pregnancy.  This would speak to the level of gift that is embedded in the manner in which all human beings are brought into existence. It is a faulty argument to assert that sacrifice is always, (or ever) coincident with the loss of human dignity. In any case Ekman has an easier time making an argument in opposition to surrogacy when she is focusing on the concern of some external compulsion or outright violent force against women rather.
  • Later Eckman grants that motherhood does involve some sort of claim of the child upon her mother, (this may be more the more radical or culturally dangerous assertion). It may be a secondary concern of hers or just one that she is less comfortable asserting but she opposes the idea that “a child is something that you can exchange.” Eckman disputes the idea that as a mother you do not have certain obligations to the child that you give birth and also cites the UN convention that a child has a right to its parents.
  • Still, her argument is largely an "on balance" case of cons against pros in which case there some possible goods outweighed by the overwhelming likelihood of societal ills in which women are seen as breeders, a commodity, etc. This argument is a bit utilitarian and also requires some willing to accept the plausibility of risk, which can be quite difficult to achieve when the realities of trafficking are kept hidden and entitlement to the joys of children are touted as the overwhelming end. But this line of argument does an injustice to the supposed “healthy surrogacy” scenarios as well. We need to address the problematic concerns with the actual surrogacy itself. People deserve a reasonable answer as to why they should not pursue surrogacy even if all of the problematic elements of trafficking can be mitigated. This is more difficult because it delves into the areas that are in conflict with the traditionally liberal democratic definitions of personhood and rights. It is difficult for us to see the exploitation that is at work when you have consenting adults, (this is of course to overlook the child). Eckman strains to stay away from any relations having claims upon one another because the liberal democratic state exists to protect the individual against any claims that would violate autonomy, personal freedom or supposed neutrality. Yet, these are all hypotheticals and abstractions that ignore the reality that is the actual mother/child relationship.
  • The false premise that is embedded here is that to deny surrogacy is to somehow deny people of the right of parenthood. Yet, even in the video of the fairytale scenario we might wonder what the full story really is. The biological mother claims that “I would adopt but ‘they’ wouldn’t let me.” We can only assume "they" is the state. But why? Why did the state authorities, (presumably) refuse to grant this woman an adoption? She has now raised the question of her suitability. It could well be that there is a perfectly reasonably explanation. We just don't know.

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