Ethical questions

The BBC have a fascinating story about a mother (35) who has had her own eggs frozen so that her 7-year old daughter has the option to use them, in the future, should she want. The daughter has Turner’s Syndrome, so cannot have children of her own. In the event of having a baby – with a future partner – the daughter will be giving birth to her half-sister and the baby will have two mothers – one genetic, and one birth.

There are many ethical issues here, which I am not going to attempt to go into in great depth, except to make one comment. Personally, I have no problem with loving mothers bringing up children that are not genetically their own. The main problem as I see it is that the child that may be born in these circumstances has an enormous, long-term, psychological weight to bear. She or he will be totally confused as to their identity. Secondly, it is just as possible for the daughter to take eggs from a source other than her own mother, which would at least make the complications less bewildering.

But my main point is this: the tendency to push ethical boundaries right to the edge of what’s possible is disturbing. I don’t have a very strong religious viewpoint on this: I am an atheist. But it still rankles with me. Why? I think it’s because I note a strong streak of selfishness in people’s reasoning on these issues. It always comes down to wants, needs, or desires. But no amount of wanting or needing makes it moral. Wanting your daughter to have a child is a legitimate desire: but acting on it may or may not be right. (who knows?)

Kant offered his contrast between a hypothetical imperative (an if-then statement with no moral basis) and a categorical imperative (“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”) I cannot see how many of these ethical issues around reproduction could be correctly turned from one-off cases to universal laws. They should at least have a form that sometimes contradicts our desires. For instance, to take an extreme example, I might desire to kill lots of people next week. But that desire, real though it might be, would not justify me acting on it!

In a sense, all moral laws and codes, stretching back to the Ten Commandments, are out of date. Moral injunctions only apply to possible situations. For example, there was never an explicit injunction on the lines of: “Thou shalt not enjoin your daughter to give birth to your own offspring” or whatever, because it was never possible before. But now, with genetic engineering, egg transplants, stem-cell research, and so on, lots of new things are possible. But our ethical thinking has not caught up with the new science. In the space of perhaps 30 years, all of these things have become possible. But it took thousands of years for our moral and ethical standards to be developed. How can they be readjusted in such a short time span?

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