For the Love of Children: Genetic Technology and the Future of the Family
By Ted Peters
Westminster/John Knox. 227 pp. $18
When seminary student Philip Holck got married, he exchanged two sets of vows: the first with his bride, the second with her five-year-old son. He knelt to face the boy and said, “I, Philip, take you Matthew to be my son, to join with you, to share my life with you, to play with you, to teach and love you until death parts us.” Ted Peters opens his latest book with this story to illustrate what he regards as the ideal form of parental commitment: an explicit, articulated covenant. As reproductive technology alters the relationship between parents and children, he says, the base of the family must shift from biology to choice.
As professor of theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (part of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley), Peters recently chaired a three-year, $300,000 study for the Human Genome Project on the ethics of genetic technology. His conclusion is that the procedures themselves are morally neutral. The danger lies in our response to them—in whether we value the children thus produced. Peters’ goal is to propose an ethics with enough moral muscle to prevent the devaluation of children, while sanctioning the ongoing development of genetic science.
Peters foresees two possible risks to children. The first is “commodification.” As technology offers greater choice and control over the reproductive process, the babies that result may come to be regarded as artifacts—as products we plan, create, modify, and improve. In addition, the costs of high-tech reproductive services may “make procreation look more and more like business deals and consumer purchasing,” where children are merchandise, “evaluated according to standards of quality control.” And “if the paying parents do not believe they are getting their money’s worth, they may reject the product.”
The second risk is that parents may fail to bond with children who do not share their genetic heritage. Today it is technically possible for a child to have only one genetic parent (through cloning), or as many as five “parents” (sperm donor, egg donor, surrogate mother, and the parents who raise the child). If traditional ethics grounds family responsibility in biological relationship, how will parents respond when biological lineages are mixed? Peters worries that parents who employ a donor father or surrogate mother might be dogged by “a sense of shame,” passing on to the children a sense of being “second best.” Parents might even reject children not genetically related to them.
To forestall these dangers, Peters proposes an ethics based on a straightforward principle: “God loves each of us regardless of our genetic make-up, and we should do likewise.” Whether a child is the result of designer genes, or of a genetic experiment gone tragically awry, God loves him and so should we. Whether a child is genetically related to us or unrelated, a result of donor eggs or sperm, God loves him and so should we.
So far so good. Peters’ concern for the well-being of children is almost palpable. But he makes several subsidiary assumptions that, in the end, undercut that goal. For one thing, his ethics is “consequentialist”: It “places the love of children first,” and judges new technologies solely by whether they lead to “this greater end.” This means he treats every procedure as morally neutral—in vitro fertilization, use of donor eggs or sperm, surrogate motherhood, frozen embryos, cloning, egg fusion, nuclear transplantation, genetic engineering. Any of these may become unethical if the child is reduced to an artifact, but any of them may also be an expression of love. Can’t we say, Peters asks, that “a family willing to spend its resources” on such costly procedures “is demonstrating its potential to love that child”? Similarly, abortion is unethical if “based solely on the desires of the parents without regard for the well-being of the child.” But in cases of severe genetic disorders, abortion is an “expression of [the parents’] love . . . an act of compassion.”
In short, Peters’ ethics draws no lines, places no act out of bounds. Every act receives its ethical content solely from the parents’ subjective intention. Peters’ consequentialism declines to do the hard work of morally evaluating the new reproductive and genetic technologies, optimistically assuming that any procedure can be bent to serve “the love of children.” It lacks the moral rigor to defend against technologies that may be intrinsically immoral.
Another problematic element is Peters’ proposal to transfer the foundation of the family from biology to choice. This has intense personal import for him, since he himself has several adopted children. To press the point, a photo on the book cover includes his entire family: It’s visually obvious that his five children represent four different races. Thus “the love of children,” including genetically unrelated children, is a personal motto for Peters. He believes it is broad enough to cover surrogacy, egg and sperm donors, genetic alteration of the embryo, etc. All are in principle like adoption, he argues, since all involve adults choosing to raise children who are genetically different from themselves. He urges even biological families to make explicit covenants, thereby importing “an element of adoption into every adult’s relationship to a child.”
Yet the elevation of choice into the defining feature of family relationship is much more radical than Peters seems to suppose. It means he must jettison historical forms of Christian ethics that define the family by biological relationship—an “outmoded,” “prescientific” definition based on what he calls “the inheritance myth.” He also abandons any notion of natural law, arguing that there is “no necessary connection . . . between the transcendent Creator’s will and our creaturely nature.” Indeed, he rejects “any premodern formalism based on divine dicta or traditional authority or natural law that would try to make an end run around choice.”
To construct a new ethics, Peters borrows themes from process theology, which teaches that humans are “cocreators” with God in an evolutionary process, helping to bring about an open and unpredictable eschatological future. He interprets this to mean we cannot invoke the past—neither creation (how God made us) nor history (universal human experience)—to ground ethical guidelines for the emerging technologies. Instead, his ethics is “proleptic,” shaped by a vision of the future Kingdom of God, which we help build through our creative efforts: “Rather than appeal to reactionary variants of biological essentialism to obstruct the creative use of reproductive technologies, proleptic ethics encourages their use” as a means toward “the love of children.”
Once again, however, Peters’ subsidiary assumptions undercut his goal. The flip side of the maxim that our moral obligation does not depend on biology is that biology itself imposes no obligation—that parents are not responsible in any special way for their own biological children unless they choose to be. Peters’ proposal would transform the family along the model of liberal individualism, turning it into a collection of what Michael Sandel calls “unencumbered selves,” bound by no attachments or obligations they do not choose for themselves. If this ideal were widely accepted, children would be cut adrift, without any moral claim on their own parents. Does Peters really believe parents would be more committed to their children if they thought they had no natural obligation to them?
As Sandel notes, many Americans have already absorbed the image of the unencumbered self, and the consequence has been a massive abandonment of children. Shocking numbers of fathers desert their families; millions of mothers abort their children. Taking a different angle, the majority of child abuse cases are at the hands of a genetically unrelated male—a stepfather or the mother’s boyfriend. In light of these grim facts, Peters’ optimism about adults relating to children by choice is, to put it gently, implausible.
These objections seem fairly obvious. Yet surprisingly, Peters does not deal with them, nor with others that might be raised. Much of the book is devoted to surveying and disputing other scholars (mostly Catholic ethicists who appeal to natural law); comparatively little space is given to developing and defending Peters’ own views. Often he merely declares them in manifesto-like statements: “Any attempt to bypass choice and construct our ethics on a foundation of now-outdated cultural or biological constraints is bound to fail us”; or, “Mutual love, not biology, creates true kinship.”
The most prominent argument Peters offers for his position is simply that choice is inevitable. Genetic science and reproductive technologies are expanding choice into areas once left to nature. Choice is also the dominant ideology: “Whether we like it or not, the end of the road for a disintegrating liberal society is individual choice. There is no escape.” It does Christians no good to “whimper about individual choice and decry the pursuit of self-fulfillment. These are simply the cultural givens of our epoch.”
Peters does make a half-hearted effort to garner biblical support as well, arguing that Jesus “gave no priority to one’s biological kin.” He quotes Matthew 12:50: “Whoever does the will of my Father who is in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” But, in apparent contradiction, he acknowledges that these words actually assume “a positive view of the family”—that “Jesus takes our positive experience of intrafamilial love [and] expands it beyond genetic kin limits.”
A comprehensive biblical ethics would begin not with Jesus but Genesis. Creation remains normative even for a “proleptic” ethics, for, as Peters’ own Lutheran tradition teaches, the “order of creation” is not abrogated by the “order of redemption.” Indeed, redemption is largely a reconciliation and restoration of the original creation, which God pronounced “very good.” Creation teaches that we are not merely disembodied wills, forming families by choice; we are biological creatures who procreate “after our kind.” Moreover, we are called to be thankful for these biological bonds: to honor the parents we have not chosen and to love the children we have not chosen, receiving them as from the hand of God. The family provides a rich metaphor for the Kingdom of God precisely because it is the primary experience we have of an obligation that transcends mere rational choice and is constitutive of our very nature.
Finally, Peters’ voluntarist model of the family has ominous political implications. If children must be chosen, if they do not belong to their own parents as gifts from God, whom do they belong to? Answer: the state. Peters does not say so outright but suggests as much in one telling sentence: “Society places its children in the care of rearing parents as a trust.” Society gives us children? Society gives us its children? This way lies the radical moral isolation of both parents and children, reducing them to atomistic dependence on the state. That is not where Peters wants to end up, but that is where his argument leads. I suggest we not follow—and not least “for the love of children.”
Nancy R. Pearcey is Fellow and Policy Director of the Wilberforce Forum.