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October 24, 2002 Margaret Sommerville looks into the future




by Sylvain Comeau

“We are the first humans in history who have been faced with these kinds of questions.”

In a lecture at Concordia on March 27, McGill ethicist and author Margaret Somerville made that bold statement in reference to the ethical quandaries raised by new medical technology. Today, ethicists like Somerville are forced to play catch-up with rapid advances in technology.

“Why is it that we are talking about and debating euthanasia today?” she asked. “It’s not a new issue. I think it’s because of the genetics revolution. The definitions of life and death are being revisited.”

Somerville, founding director of McGill’s Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, examined medical technologies and how they are changing life, death, and birth. These are interrelated issues with fundamental importance for humans, but their parameters are shifting. Somerville said that in response to inherent moral ambiguities, the prevalent views in North America and Europe diverge widely.

“In North America, technology is often greeted with intense moral individualism. People say it’s no one’s business but my own what I do with technology. There’s an adult-centered view in North America, but a child-centred view in Europe, where the state is focused on protecting children, the weaker or helpless members of society.”

The most radical shifts in reproduction have occurred in the past 50 years. Somerville pointed out that 50 years ago, there was little control of when reproduction occurred (contraceptive methods were unreliable); couples could not choose the sex of their baby, and transmitting life was always the purpose of sexual reproduction, if not always the intention.

“Today, contraception allows couples to choose when they will reproduce, they can choose the sex of their baby, and reproduction isn’t always the purpose of transmitting life. In the case of stem cells, life is transmitted for the purpose of ending it. That creates enormous ethical problems.”

Somerville put on her futurist cap to take a look into an ethically hazardous future.

“In the future, human reproduction could theoretically be done without human intervention. The only thing missing would be an artificial uterus, and there is research underway on creating that,” she said.

“Some thinkers say that a class of ‘gene-rich’ kids will create a growing gap between them and ‘gene-poor’ people. We might even have to deliberately create a kind of underclass who would be genetically predetermined for ordinary, mundane tasks we need done, which they wouldn’t find boring at all.”

Somerville has been known not only for raising important ethical questions, but also providing her own answers at times. She pointed out that sex selection has already raised the problem in many countries of descrimination against girls, because of a continued preference for male offspring.

“Pre-natal screening could end up wiping out certain groups which we value in many ways; for example, if you do genetic screening for manic depression, we could lose 99 per cent of our most artistic, creative people.”

Much of the debate around these issues have been polarized. The ‘pure science” group views humans as ‘gene machines’ and takes a utilitarian view of issues like using stem cells from human fetuses. They are vehemently opposed by those who take spiritual view, often (but not always) religious groups who contend that there is something special about humans which makes it unacceptable to use stem cells.

However, a mid-point between those opposing philosophies is emerging, a “science-spirit [group] “which is excited by the new science, and sees it as increasing our awe and wonder, but still believes that there is more to humans than our genes.

“This is a view that is comfortable with uncertainty, believing that a lot of the decisions we as humans make will necessarily require drawing lines in gray areas.”
Applying this philosophy to help us dodge ethical land mines will require balance and restraint.

“It’s essential to understand that in choosing the values that will govern the new science, we must consider much more than immediate benefits or the thrill of scientific discovery. These values will affect how we see the essence of our humanness, and that is not indestructible; indeed, it can be very fragile.

“We must choose what we will do, and even more importantly, what we will not do. This will require the recognition that sometimes saying no will be much harder than saying yes.”

Somerville’s lecture was presented by the Montreal Interuni-versity Seminar on the History and Philosophy of Science.