Male and female soldiers putting their sperm and eggs in cold storage for future use. It’s a program that seems straight out of the pages of Aldous Huxley’s science fiction classic, Brave New World.
Certainly, the irony of preserving their gametes while sending soldiers to be slaughtered in war wouldn’t be lost on Mr. Huxley, a writer with a sharp eye for paradox. Just as certainly, the Defense Department’s announcement last week that it will offer a new benefit to soldiers—freezing their sperm and eggs should they be injured and unable to have children, or simply wish to put off child-bearing till later—will be welcomed by some as a measure that mitigates the undesirable consequences of war and time. Others, myself included, find the idea bizarre and creepy, but an informal poll suggests I am in the minority.
The decision has the Defense Department, one of the country’s largest employers, leading the way in extending a benefit that comes with all sorts of ethical issues attached to it and is currently offered by only a handful of companies, most notably Facebook and Apple. With the cost of freezing eggs at $10,000 or more, it is not an inexpensive benefit. The Defense Department estimates its pilot program will cost around $1.5 million. One of many questions that arise is, do Americans want their tax dollars to be used in this way? And should the Pentagon be playing a leading role in making assisted reproduction more available?
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said the new benefit is intended to help recruit and retain soldiers and to make the Defense Department a more attractive, family-friendly employer. Some of the other measures being taken to this end such as longer maternity leave and better childcare appear irreproachable. But freezing sperm and eggs opens a Pandora’s Box of ethical issues. If a soldier dies, does his or her surviving spouse or family members have the right to the deceased’s genetic material? Some disabled soldiers could undoubtedly make fine parents, but are there some injuries so incapacitating that parenting is inadvisable? Under normal circumstances, people who become parents are not tested on how fit they are to raise children; at the point where government funds are being used to extend people’s child-bearing years or to assist infertile or injured individuals, should beneficiaries undergo screening much as adoptive parents do? What happens to the sperm and embryos that are stored but never used?
These questions go to some of the reasons for the Catholic Church’s longstanding opposition to new reproductive technologies that create children through laboratory procedures. Theologians have articulated the arguments against artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, cloning and other technologies more ably than I can, but many Americans are unaware of the arguments or simply indifferent to them. A couple considering in vitro fertilization are apt to see it only in terms of the child they want, not the society we’re becoming.
We don’t live in the World State Huxley described in Brave New World, nor in the society which his fellow futurist George Orwell limned in his novel 1984, yet the parallels between those fictional worlds and our own are closer today than they ever were. In the surveillance state that is now America, we are ready to accept the government perusing our phone records, tracking our emails and examining our Internet searches if it will make us feel safe. We are focused on answers to the immediate problems we face, not the future we’re creating with our solutions. Our individual desires for security, for children, for material prosperity take precedence over the collective stewardship of our liberty, our ethical norms, our environment.
It is the work of philosophers, theologians, ethicists, writers and artists to draw attention to problems. Published in 1949, Orwell’s 1984 warns of totalitarian government and the destruction of privacy by the state; Huxley’s dystopian novel depicts science and technology being used to alter, entertain and emotionally anesthetize people. In the consumerist, dehumanized society he describes, people’s every desire—for food, sex, drugs, clothing, entertainment—is fulfilled. The pleasure principle rules, and most of what is natural in life has disappeared, including passion, parenting and pregnancy. Embryos created in hatcheries and conditioning centers are genetically designed to belong to one of several economic castes, with everyone in the state accepting their place in the social order without question. There’s an intellectual and spiritual cost to their conformism, yet it is one which few of those living in the society can perceive and those who do only dimly.
These days it is no longer in fiction that we learn of science altering conditions we used to think inalterable; we read about such changes almost daily in the news. Embryos growing in petri dishes, surrogate mothers, children born to same-sex couples are all part of the once-unthinkable reality that assisted reproduction is establishing. The Defense Department’s new pilot program shows how assisted reproduction is becoming normalized, incorporated into the workaday world and used to recruit women especially.
Some will say that the research into creating human life can not be stopped, and should not be if it could. But society has erected firewalls around some scientific innovations, nuclear weapons for example. Such firewalls are fragile and not immutable. A dip into American history brings up some frightening instances of military leaders advocating to breach them. But there has been a recognition, not always and not by everyone, that atomic weapons pose a danger to human civilization. The same is true of chemical weapons, which only a few countries have failed to ban. Slowly—too slowly—people are increasingly recognizing the danger of climate change.
The risks to society posed by assisted reproductive technologies are less obvious or immediate. Certainly, there will be healthy, happy children born from such technologies, but there will also be profound ethical issues (and lawsuits), and, in cases where third parties are involved, quandaries over whose child is whose. Efforts to edit genes in embryo for health purposes already exist; the temptation to genetically engineer babies for other reasons is likely to be overwhelming, not only in countries where a clear preference for male children exists but also in the United States, where reproductive technologies are largely unregulated.
To experiment with such ground-breaking reproductive technologies without public oversight or discussion of the long-term consequences is crazy, irresponsible. If our biology no longer governs who has children and when, what is the impact on society, and on the children involved, of extending reproduction beyond the age and gender limits that naturally condition it? Are individuals’ desire for children subject only to their having the financial resources necessary to fund the required medical interventions? With over six billion people on the planet, large numbers of them in need, should resources be put at the disposal of people wishing to use expensive reproductive technology or go for more essential needs?
Once societies begin to substitute science and human judgment for nature, there is no end to the questions that arise. You begin to wonder, do human beings really want the power to engender life we are taking on? Nothing in human history suggests we will use it wisely.