I recently attended a small conference in Washington, DC, co–sponsored by the New America Foundation (NAF), a think tank that describes itself as “dedicated to the renewal of American politics, prosperity, and purpose in the digital age, through big ideas, technological innovation, next generation politics, and creative engagement with broad audiences.” The conference was entitled “The Future of Reproduction” and was troubling in all manner of ways, not least because it was unclear whether I was witnessing a naïve attempt to really speak about the renewal of American culture, or a cynical undertaking to destroy the whole enterprise from within.
At this conference, the “technological innovation” part of the NAF’s mission statement took the lead. We were told about the revolutionary breakthroughs of IVF, what it’s done for families—of every persuasion—and that we’re now experimenting with “mitochondrial therapy,” which has recently been approved in Great Britain. At the end of one of the panel discussions, when an audience member expressed some concern about making DNA–level changes to the human germ-line, we were told in no uncertain terms that these fears are irrational, and worse, cruel. The new world of diseaselessness and fertility for all was a utopia toward which we should all be striving. Anyone with questions about the appropriateness of such a goal would not be heard.
Let’s put aside perhaps well–known bioethical critiques. I’d like here to point out that despite the NAF’s mission statement, there were no “big ideas” to be found. Though new technologies and procedures to weed out genetically unfeasible or unfavorable individuals may seem “big,” in fact they are not new, and are premised upon a worldview we have been dealing with since at least the 18th century. And that worldview, whether one calls it modernism or scientificism, has at its root the belief that nature has no intrinsic form or limit, that it is our plaything to be opened up and pulled apart and put back together as we wish. We are the engineers, dealing with parts that are completely indifferent to the whole of which they are a part. We are the engineers, and humans are now our greatest structural feat.
Human engineering is not really all that new. In fact, it has been around in some form or another in almost all of human history, though we continue to develop technology to do it in perhaps more efficacious ways all the time. The practice was first named in the 1880s by Sir Francis Galton and became quite popular beginning around the 1920s in the US. I’m speaking, of course, about eugenics.
To their ambiguous credit, the conference participants did not hedge at all about what they were proposing: eugenics is what this is, it’s just that we need to practice it a little better and more judiciously than in the past. Obviously there are limits to what they are proposing, and no one is suggesting another Eugenics Board á la North Carolina circa 1920s-1970s.
Except it was not so obvious. According to various scientists who presented during the conference, everything that is technologically feasible should be permissible. Scientists don’t control the data, they go where the data takes them—they should not be limited in this pursuit of knowledge. The qualifier “within limits” was added occasionally, but there was never a discussion about what that meant. In fact, the only limits that were ever hesitantly pointed to throughout the day were regulations given by the FDA. The FDA was, interestingly, a special sort of punching bag during the conference, taking flak from both sides. Almost in the same breath, the administration was criticized for not being permissive enough about things like experimentation on ova and germ-line gene manipulation, as it was also criticized for not coming up with enough regulation for procedures involving precisely these kinds of technologies. At one moment, the cry of “more regulation,” at the next, a plea that no limits should be set on a doctor’s ability to practice medicine, and at the next, a warning that patients should always keep themselves informed. Not only did it seem that intrinsic limits did or could not exist, but there was no one willing to take responsibility for thinking about limits, intrinsic or otherwise.
The problem is, intrinsic to the notion of responsibility is an understanding of wholeness or limit. How do we know that we have failed? Because the end—the whole towards which we were striving—is not achieved, or achieved badly. But the techno–engineering logic upon which eugenics and its ilk is premised presumes no natural limit, no natural whole. Nature is just material that can be manipulated. This kind of eugenical logic, then, has no proper end, and therefore no proper limit. We go where our eugenical whims take us; there is no prior thought given to possibly disastrous results.
The difference, then, between proper dominion and (eugenical) manipulation, is responsibility. Can I bear the consequences of my actions? Do my actions take consequences into account at all? If not, then it would seem I do not think of the natural whole and its intrinsic limits—whatever they are—and therefore cannot think of any violence that could be done unto it. There is here no desire for a “renewed culture,” to refer to the NAF’s mission statement once more, only to bring all of nature under an irresponsible control.
Rachel Coleman is a PhD Candidate in Theology at the John Paul II Institute, Washington DC and manuscript editor of Communio: International Catholic Review, North American Edition.