1960. 1965. 1986. We could play a guessing game for the significance of those years - someone might suggest events in the Civil Rights movement or the famous year that there were no Olympic games. And though these years certainly contained a multitude of significant events, they also fit into a coherent, oft-untold story: the development of significant medical developments affecting reproduction. In 1960, the first birth control pill became widely available on the American market. By the later 1960s, millions of women were “on the pill” and the debate about contraception was off and running. In 1965, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in a landmark case, Griswold v. Connecticut, that there was a veil of privacy around matters of the bedroom - paving the way for the later ruling in 1973 striking down the Texas law that prohibited first-term abortions. The “sphere of privacy” from Griswold was invoked in Roe v. Wade, and has continued to shape the jurisprudence around family and its creation. Finally, in 1986, the first successful pregnancy and delivery by gestational surrogacy took place in Michigan.
Participate in a conversation about human dignity for a little while, and you’ll eventually stumble upon the question of human life—how to value it, where it begins, what it means to support and defend and protect it. Most of the time, that conversation has been dominated by the Roe v. Wade, images of abortion clinics or protests or both. But I want to think together about a different question, one that is connected intimately to our ideas about human dignity: assisted reproduction.
A recent Chicago Tribune article noted that surrogacy has become increasingly popular in Illinois, one of the most pro-surrogate states in the U.S. The number of children born via surrogacy have more than quadrupled in the past five to eight years, the report said. Meanwhile, New York currently bans compensated gestational carrier contracts - the legally binding agreements between a gestational surrogate and the parents who will assume parental responsibilities for the child after birth, according to The National Infertility Association, and policies vary widely in other states. In the 1980s and 90s, state courts heard several high-profile cases that asked them to determine legal parentage in situations where genetic material, gestation and child-rearing are split between different people? Roles that were once thought to be inextricably linked now are able to be medically segmented. With these new medical possibilities, new questions arise for our consideration: what does it mean to be a mother or a father? Can a contract between a surrogate and adoptive parents be the sole governing framework for determining parentage?
More broadly, assisted reproduction—from the egg and sperm donation to in vitro fertilization (IVF)—raises questions for human dignity regarding the way we come into being. We live now in a world of gamete donation and embryo selection, of genetic testing and diagnosis, of disputes over the compensation of international surrogates. We have advanced rapidly in our ability to create life outside the womb and to know and select more about the genetic makeup of our children.To take a specific example of how new technology raises questions about human dignity, Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), a technology made possible through IVF, gives the prospective parents a new level of control over the embryos selected. It becomes increasingly possible to select embryos for genetic traits beyond genetic health, such as sex, hair or eye color. And as we learn more about human genetics, we widen the possibilities of what we select—athletic ability or musical prowess. Such selection raises questions about those children’s freedom. Their coming into being is far more directly controlled by their parents than ever before. Does this impinge on their freedom, and by consequence, an aspect of their dignity? I would suggest yes: the level of control that we exercise over the genetic makeup of our children does impinge on their freedom. We make choices about their DNA with an intention for how they will develop - gender selection, eye or hair color - then our intention has been privileged over their natural development. But even as I continue to refine my own thinking about the relationship between human freedom and genetic selection, I am reminded that the conversation about biotechnology and human dignity now centers around these questions. In a new era of medical possibility, Christians must ask how such developments ought to be considered in light of our belief that we are created in God’s image.
Harvard professor Michael Sandel wrote in 2004 that when considering biotechnologies,
… they represent a kind of hyperagency—a Promethean aspiration to remake nature, including human nature, to serve our purposes and satisfy our desires. The problem is not the drift to mechanism but the drive to mastery. And what the drive to mastery misses and may even destroy is an appreciation of the gifted character of human powers and achievements.
We live in a culture that is driven toward choice and toward control. PGD, in IVF, in gestational surrogacy, place an unprecedented level of control in a place where Christians believe us to be co-participants with God: the creation of children. The doctrine of the imago dei dignifies the whole process of our coming into being, from conception to pregnancy to birth. Christians have long argued for a belief that life begins at conception - and have argued forcefully in the public realm for a respect for that life, for a protection of that life (and indeed, that process). Such respect ought to be extended into how that life is created - and that begins with a more intentional conversation as Christians about what it means to believe that we are made in God’s image when medicine has advanced us to a position where we can make decisions, not just about whether or not a life is brought to a full 39 week term, but how it is conceived.
And what of the public aspect of this set of questions? For at their root, questions about the uses of these various biotechnologies beg a broader community discussion of what it means to be human. Policymakers must engage in public dialogue about the regulation of the medical technologies now available. We must involve philosophers and parents, educators and biologists, legal experts and citizens alike. We do not create these choices as individuals - we create them as a community. It is therefore as a community that we must initiate a more public conversation about the relationship between human dignity and biotechnology.
-Hilary Sherratt is a recent graduate from Gordon College, where she majored in Religion, Ethics and Politics. She is currently working as a grant writer at Gordon, and loves all kinds of writing. She hopes to eventually get her PhD in theology or history. She blogs about everyday life at http://thewildlove.wordpress.com and tweets at @hilarysherratt