by John H. Evans
University of Chicago Press, 213 pages, $45
Is talking about controversial issues important just for the sake of talking? That question repeatedly popped into my mind as I read John H. Evans’ Contested Reproduction, a carefully researched and parsed book about how Christians can effectively debate reproductive genetic technologies (RGT) in the public square.
RGT is no small matter. With the exception of sperm sorting, most existing RGTs either directly destroy embryos and fetuses or lead to that result. Genetic engineering may one day eradicate potential diseases within the embryo, but, frighteningly, they may also be unleashed to enhance the eventual child’s capacities, such as for greater intelligence or beauty. Human cloning and other experimental methods of asexual embryo creation could result in reproduction becoming a part of the manufacturing sector.
Increasingly aggressive RGT technologies are moving into clinical use at clipper speed with few legal or social impediments. Part of the reason, Evans believes, is that people with different views on these matters talk past each other rather than converse. Evans, a professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego, sees this as cause for profound concern.
More to the point of his book, Evans notes correctly that “mainstream bioethics debates generally lack religious participants, particularly conservative religious participants,” and hence do not include religious citizens’ views. As a curative, he searches for common narratives and themes that those with religious views can employ when debating RGTs. He hopes that, by identifying and avoiding “conversation killers” and focusing instead on arguments that reflect shared values, a common way forward can be found.
Contested Reproduction focuses mostly on Evans’ original research into and analysis of the attitudes of believers about RGTs across the ideological spectrum of Christian faith. It is, at times, a disheartening read. Many believers have already abandoned the sanctity of human life ethic in the name of preventing suffering. It is stunning, for example, to read firsthand accounts of socially conservative Christians’ ready willingness to abort babies that test positive for cystic fibrosis. In this, they join a general society in which 90 percent of fetuses diagnosed with conditions such as Down syndrome or dwarfism never make it to birth.
More generally, only 40 percent of all the religious respondents to Evans’ surveys oppose prenatal testing for the purpose of avoiding bearing children who could experience adult-onset diseases. (Evangelical and conservative Catholic majorities opposed were more than offset by weak opposition among mainline Protestants and liberal Catholics.) More tellingly, no religious category was majority-opposed to prenatal testing and abortion “to avoid a fatal childhood disease,” with evangelicals and traditional Catholics each registering the highest opposition at 46 percent.
Evans next identifies various narratives that have the potential to either close the lines of communication—primarily because they invoke abortion—or open the possibility of true conversation among people of conflicting ethical beliefs by keeping that issue in the background. For this reason, Evans counsels Christians to avoid the “embryonic life” narrative, which holds innocent human life to be inviolable from conception to natural death, because invoking the value of unborn life pushes people into pugilistic abortion-rights corners.
Evans sees some promise, in contrast, in a broad category that he calls a “Nature, God, and Humanity” narrative that avoids “Promethean fatalism.” Simply stated, this involves a natural-law-type argument in which (quoting John Haldane) one advocates “that which ought to be, not merely that which happens to be.” By avoiding the claim that RGTs “play God” by “usurping God’s prerogatives,” Christian debaters can caution against the hubris unleashed by some RGTs as a way of “caring for the creation drawn from God.”
Evans identifies “human dignity” as another promising vein of shared values, and, indeed, one that circumvents the usual religious–secular divide. He is right that human equality is a shared social value. However, not everyone means the same thing by that term. Conservatives generally invoke human dignity as a matter of individual moral worth. Evans notes Gilbert Meilaender’s cogent observation that designing our descendents distorts the meaning of parenthood and that “selective abortion leads to conditional acceptance.” Liberals tend to focus more intensely on equality of outcomes. If RGTs “will not be available to everyone,” they warn, it could lead to a genetically unequal society. Evans believes these two different, but related, approaches are sufficiently “porous” to permit mutual deliberation and compromise.
The final narrative Evans explores involves “meaningful suffering.” Fear of suffering drives many of the “culture of death” agendas that are currently roiling society. It is also an area rife with misunderstanding, particularly around the concept of “redemptive suffering.” Still, many of the Christians whom Evans interviewed understand that tragedy can sometimes lead to substantial good. Thus, merging meaningful suffering with the dignity and anti-hubris arguments would allow for the creation of a broader issue domain accessible to all that he calls “opposition to genetic control.”
The above necessarily simplified overview does not do justice to the depth and nuance of Evans’ research, nor his analysis and reporting. His is an impressive effort driven by a sincere desire to keep RGT controversies from joining other social issues tearing at our already frayed comity, threatening “a total communication breakdown in the public sphere.”
Worse, Evans fears, issue polarization could ultimately lead to a “nightmare scenario” in which “pro-life and pro-choice would have no shared language with which to discuss any issue.” He warns that, “lacking anything that they had in common, they would come to see the other as totally foreign and as a potential threat to their worldview.” That, in turn, would lead to the kind of demonization of opponents “required before people can be convinced to kill them.”
That seems far too pessimistic. If the last sixty years teach us anything, it is that Americans wholeheartedly embrace the rule of law. That is why even the most bitterly disappointed losers in the most polarized public-policy debates only very rarely lash out with deadly violence. Shunning, yes. Severing friendships, sometimes. Serial litigation, to be sure. But murder and mayhem? Almost never. And when the unthinkable does happen, as in the slaying of late-term abortionist George Tiller, philosophical co-believers unequivocally condemn the criminal.
Evans concludes his call to find common ground with what he considers an obvious point: “We can all agree that an effective debate about RGTs would be healthy for the human future.”
No, we can’t—not if it requires diluting the discourse to the point that it amounts to forfeiting the game. We should hearken to the wisdom of the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus’ observation that bioethicists are too often advocates who “professionally guide the unthinkable on its passage through the debatable on its way to becoming the justifiable until it is finally established as the unexceptionable.” A debate sapped of first principles would likely result in RGTs becoming viewed as unexceptionable. In fact, given the thousands of IVF births each year that involve embryo selection and/or “selective reduction” abortion, one could plausibly argue that we are already there.
This is very dangerous territory. RGTs are, by definition, eugenic in their intent and effects. Evans acknowledges the peril but hopes that the new eugenics will differ from the original evil because it will be a matter of choice, not coercion. Such laissez-faire eugenics could actually be more destructive, given the primordial power available and the reality that peer pressure is often a far more powerful persuader than law. That point aside, once RGTs became popularly supported, state coercion would naturally follow. Indeed, that is precisely what happened the first time around. Which is precisely why a principled Christian unilateralism (if you will) opposing RGTs—both in word and personal life decisions—may be the only way to brake our current slouching toward Brave New World.
It would not be the first time that orthodox Christians estranged themselves from the greater society. Sometimes that is the call. For example, Christians sacrificially refusing to “fit in” became the target of pagan Rome’s persecution. But in the long run, such principled living—combined with peaceful civil disobedience—remade the empire. That epochal transformation would not—could not—have transpired had the early Church Fathers counseled believers to search for a common discourse around which to debate emperor worship or the propriety of attending the gladiator games.
John Evans clearly worked very hard researching and writing Contested Reproduction. It is a yeoman effort worthy of respect and applause. But his prescription is fundamentally misguided. Debate is not a goal: It is a means. This is not to say that finding ways effective to communicate across cultural differences is not worthwhile. However, what is communicated matters more. For in the end, whether we leap enthusiastically off the RGT eugenics cliff—or, by finding a feeble common discourse, cling for a brief time to the unreliable handhold of shallow-rooted grass before falling—we still hit bottom.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow for the Discovery Institute.