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The Limits of “the Natural”

More on The Ethical Imagination

Somerville exhibits a virtual reverence for “the natural” in her quest to argue for the “secular sacred” as a potential universal grounding for ethics. In situations of ethical ambiguity, our default position should always be to “the natural.” Let me give you an example.

The last chapter has been about new reproductive technologies (NRT’s). Somerville argues (refreshingly!) that individual human rights ought not to be the primary factor in determining how or if NRT’s are used; rather, the rights of children to know their genetic origins, to come into a “normal” situation, ought to be decisive. It is apparently now possible, for example, to create an embryo with the genetic heritage of two women or two men “by making a sperm or ovum from one of the adult’s stem cells and using a natural gamete [a specialized germ cell that fuses with another gamete during fertilization] from the other person; or by making an ‘ovum’ from an enucleated egg fused with a sperm and fertilizing it with another egg.” Reprogenetic technology has also, apparently, made it possible to use the gametes of aborted fetuses to produce babies, raising the almost incomprehensible possibility of children being born whose biological “parents” were never alive!

My understanding of the mechanics of NRT’s is pretty foggy (a gross understatement, if ever there was one), but suffice it to say that all sorts of truly shocking permutations and combinations are either already available, or on the not-too-distant horizon for those who cannot or do not wish to have children in the normal manner. And the existence of these technologies raises all sorts of ethical questions regarding what kind of biological heritage is “owed” to future children.

Somerville is, encouragingly, strongly opposed to the use of these technologies. But her reasons for opposing it are, in my opinion, inadequate. Earlier I mentioned that her concept of the “secular sacred” relies upon a “presumption in favour of the natural.” Somerville believes that human beings have intrinsic value, and that this value is grounded in natural reality (there are many questions that could be raised at this point, but I’m going to leave them alone for now). With respect to the use of NRT’s, every child’s right to have two adult biological parents, to not have their genetic material technologically manipulated must be preserved solely based on the intrinsic value of “the natural.”

I had suspicions about whether or not “the natural” was a concept capable of bearing the ethical weight that Somerville wants to place on it early on, and my suspicions were confirmed in this chapter. While I am in agreement with virtually everything she says about the ethics of NRT’s, I do not think that appealing to “the natural” is good enough—in fact, it leads her to make some statements that I find problematic, for logical, theological, and personal reasons:

Knowing who our biological relatives are and relating to them is central to how we form our human identity, relate to others and the world, and find meaning in life. Children—and their descendants—who don’t know their genetic origins cannot sense themselves as embedded in a web of people, past, present and future through whom they can trace the thread of life’s passage down the generations to them.

As an adoptive parent, I find this to be a deeply troubling passage. By placing so many of her ethical “eggs” in the basket of “the natural,” Somerville seems to be almost required to advocate a form of biological determinism with respect to human identity. I suspect that if people were to truly believe that biology is as central to personal identity as she seems to be claiming here, adoption would virtually never take place. Who would take on the task of providing children with a new, and hopefully healthier, “web of people” through whom they could “trace the thread of life’s passage” if “the natural” was as ultimate as Somerville claims here? Biology is important, certainly, but from my perspective, one of the most compelling elements of the adoption process is precisely that biology does not define our human identity. “The natural” is not an unqualified good; it, too, can and must be redeemed.

As one who has an awful lot personally invested in Somerville being wrong about this, I find Somerville’s loading up on “the natural” in her ethics to be worrisome. As an aspiring theologian I see in it an excellent example of what happens when you seek the ultimate justification for ethical foundations in the created order rather than the Creator. In my earlier musings I suggested that Somerville seems to simply be advocating a profoundly religious worldview without the language of religion or the appeal to God. But while calling nature “sacred” may be necessary or convenient in providing the justification for a particular ethical system, examples like the one cited above demonstrate, I think, that “the natural” cannot serve as a substitute for God.

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