Comments on the bizarre opposition to "unnatural" reproductive assistance

(Was for a short bioethics essay last year, September 2010)

During the last few decades we have witnessed exponential progress in scientific development and watched it grow, sprout new branches, and grow still further – although, in many cases, perhaps somewhat out of proportion.

Although there have been enormous advances in just about every field of scientific study, from botany to zoology, from engineering to medicine, ... few areas have caused as much controversy as that of reproductive engineering. Whether it be cloning or IVF treatment, it seems humanity is playing God, creating lives that couldn't have taken place in nature – and not everybody is happy about it. But are we really playing God, or should such progress not be seen as part of our evolutionary path? Could it not therefore be within our right as a species to try and survive and thrive as successfully as possible?

Genetically modified crops, cloned livestock, in vitro fertilisation; just a few of many controversial issues racking the minds of both scientists and members of the non-scientific community. Some have strong views for and against the individual issues, and others are uncertain where to stand on such unstable terrain. But behind all the scientific arguments lurks a very basic ethical question: Do we have the right to disrupt natural processes in this way?

In order to attempt answering this question it is important to decide whether or not we consider humanity’s actions as natural or not, where we draw the boundaries between what’s natural and what we consider an unnatural intervention. Intervention implies an exterior agent affecting the course of something to which it does not belong. Some may argue that, since humans are part of nature, we are not intervening in natural processes since our actions must be seen as such. However, it is perhaps important to note that the natural world is based on a net of interrelated cycles: everything that comes from nature is transformed and reabsorbed. This can happen quickly and relatively simply, or it can be slow and after many, many complex processes, but a cycle is completed and recommenced nonetheless. Now, humanity’s actions can take just about anything from nature, be it matter or an alteration in one of its processes, and change it so much it cannot be reabsorbed or compared in any way to natural forces. That is where we cross a line between natural evolutionary progress and artificial manipulation.

Having established a boundary between natural and unnatural, we are left with the same question of whether we have the right to intervene to such an extreme degree. After all, who’s to say we’re not? Who is to decide whether we are right or wrong? Should we, for example, turn down the request of an infertile couple to be able to have a child when it is in the very core of human nature? What is more, having the technology at hand to give them that chance, how can we deny them such a service on the grounds that it would be unnatural to help them answer the most basic of instincts, to procreate?
In nature, the genes of infertile individuals simply wouldn’t be passed on to the next generation, so governs the process of natural selection. However, it is important to remember that with all the health care and commodities of our society, we have in every other aspect of life virtually eradicated the effect of natural selection – and not only on our own species; it would be hard to argue that we cannot (and I am of course talking in ethical terms, since we evidently have the means) do the same for the reproductive process.

We have the ability to alter the very essence of life by intervening in it’s processes and playing with some of its defining aspects, but there is no real body to dictate whether or not we have the right to do so, other than the law – and the individual conscience of each and every one of us.


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