Friday, January 19, 2007

Science, Morality and Playing G-d?

The unfortunate thing about science is that it can only tell us what it is possible to do. It can't tell us what we should do or not do. Science can help us build a bigger bomb but not tell us when or if we should use it. Science can make it possible to collect sperm from a dead man but not tell us whether it's morally acceptable to use it to impregnate a woman who was a stranger to him in life so that she may bear his child. So, the decision becomes a moral one.

Personally, the dead guy's sperm does hold a bit of an ick factor in and of itself. And we can never know if the guy's wishes included fatherhood after death. There's always questions as to whether the story would be different and our decision easier if his wife had collected his sperm rather than his mother. In the end, however, I don't think it's much of our business. This seems one of those grueling personal decisions that should be, well, personal.

Who are we to decide when, how, or if people reproduce? So many of the commenters ranted against bringing a fatherless child into this world, but do we then expect pregnant widows to abort or terminally single women to forego motherhood? What about lesbians who want to have children? Do those who argued against playing G-d in this instance condemn in vitro fertilization, sperm donorship, surrogacy, or many other technologies that make it possible for infertile couples to reproduce or fertile ones to refrain from doing so? Do they have a problem with the life-saving wonders of science that allow us to play G-d by reviving or keeping people alive who otherwise would have died?

I wonder how many of the commenters are pro-choice and how many pro-life. Is there a difference between how those two groups would react or are we in such new territory that the "all-important" distinction between pro-life and pro-choice becomes irrelevant?

I wonder also how it was so easy for many commenters to condemn a situation they obviously didn't understand. Many of them, within their comments, relied on "facts" that were just plain wrong. They got the dead soldier's nationality wrong as well as the prospective mother's. Some thought this was happening in the United States or that the Israeli court's decision would somehow be binding or accepted as legal precedent here. Many thought the grandmother would be raising the child as her own although that doesn't seem to be in evidence here. And let's not forget the many who managed to psychoanalyze this woman based on a single article or those who ripped her supposed motives out of thin air. (The "it must be about religion" comments are especially questionable. Although Judaism once required levirate marriages, that was a LONG time ago and never bound a mother to provide a child for her son through harvesting his sperm, freezing it, and interviewing prospective mothers.)

Too bad science can't tell us 1.)to actually READ something carefully before we run off at the mouth (keyboard?) 2.) when a moral decision is something we all must decide and when it's really a matter for the people involved and 3.) when to shut up and mind our own business.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

first of all, welcome back. :-) i'd just about given up on you. i'm glad you're feeling at least marginally better.

secondly, though you didn't say it explicitly, i'm assuming this post is about the "world have your say" program today that dealt, in part, with the issue of the dead israeli man's sperm. as usual, i was irritated by people's ignorance. what they lack in facts they make up for in opinions, which drives me nuts. lay opinions about law are just as annoying as lay opinions about science and i cringed through most of the program today. in america, we have decided against a man being made a father after his death because we don't believe a person should be *forced* to be a parent against his will. i posted a comment on the 'world have your say' blog today to that effect and then wondered if the analysis in another country might necessarily need focus on something other than the right of the individual (however deceased) not to be forced to be a parent. perhaps, in another culture, the value of maintaining bloodlines outweighs the individual interest, who knows? it's nearly impossible and more or less pointless to weigh-in on a "moral" issue in one culture while looking through the lens of your own culture. ultimately, who am *i* (a white american non-jew) to say what the parents of the dead israeli soldier should do with his sperm? i hardly even have the right to form an opinion.

11:04 PM  
Blogger Melinda Barton said...

Hey, rpp, I'm glad to be back. Trust me, not having daily chest pain and overwhelming exhaustion is really good. Still a bit tired and my heart will never be normal, but...

Anyway, the post is based on the article and discussion linked to in the title. I'm wondering (after reading a Time piece referencing the blogosphere) if the best part of the net is also its worst. Yes, millions of people can share their lives and create new connections unlimited by geography or culture. But... these same people then get the idea that they have a say in EVERYONE'S lives. Not good.

It's strange, so many people ask me my opinion on X subject that they read about and expect an instant or simple answer. If I dare say, "I haven't heard about that yet." or "I was running late, so I didn't read the paper this morning.", they look at me as if I've lost my mind. I guess I "should" be able to form an opinion based on a two-second, probably inaccurate description of an event but I can't.

So many over the years have asked me, "what's your source for that?" and I have to say it amuses me interminably that anyone thinks I've ever written anything or formed an opinion based on a single source. It would be so much easier if I could!

11:09 AM  
Anonymous dan from ideasandhowtheyspread.com said...

All human behaviors derive from human goals and beliefs. These goals include selfish desires as well as "goals for the workings of society" or "morality goals".
Some might have the "morality goal" to prevent the unborn from meeting a violent death. Some of these people may then decide that the only way to do this is to outlaw abortion, but that is not the only way, and it might not be the best way (outlawing marijuana hasn't worked).
Reaching a compromise between pro-lifers and pro-choicers relies on finding arrangements that will meet shared deeper goals, such as ensuring that as few abortions will occur as possible without outlawing it or restraining choice to an unacceptable level.
Morals, I have noticed, seem to be a rather vague concept whose very nature is disagreed upon. I now simply see them as goals, and see human behavior as a pure cause-effect process. This way, I no longer have to question whether I am doing the right thing or try to reach consensus (unless it serves me somehow).
This new perspective does not make me any more selfish, as my behavior is unchanged, and I still wish other the best (helping others is one of my goals). My deepest goals are the sum of my selfish desires, my desire for others to be maximally happy, my desire for any compromises to be stable and without cheating by any of the parties, so I don't have to create new compromises, and my desire that others are happy with me so that all my goals will be better met.
The benefits are simplicity and being able to recognize deeper goals (the goal of outlawing abortion derives from the goal of preventing abortion, so preventing abortion is a deeper goal of outlawing abortion). By recognizing deeper goals, I can reach compromises based on the evidence of which arrangement best suits my overall deepest goals.
In the case of this israeli sperm story, which I have not read by the way, I would simply ask: Is this situation hurting me? Is this situation hurting anyone else? Is it hurting them in unseen, unclear ways, such as psychologically or spiritually? Is this situation hurting the environment (indirectly hurting myself or others), including the social environment (through dangerous ideas)? Would the proposed intervention to reverse or prevent this situation cause more good or harm relative to the sum of my goals?
Based on the admittedly limited information I have at this moment, I see no reason to interfere in Israeli affairs. What others do with dead men's sperm is none of my business.

12:22 PM  
Blogger Melinda Barton said...

Dan,

Awesome comment. Thank you. I personally believe (on the abortion issue) that it's better to limit demand than supply. Oh if we could but eliminate rape/incest! But instead, perhaps better sex ed, readily available over-the-counter morning after/plan B meds for all (especially rape victims), and an overhaul of an economic system that makes childbirth/parenthood unsupportable for so many would go a long way towards decreasing the demand.

My personal opinion on the Israel situation is still that it's none of my business. BUT I was thinking about it recently and I realized that at any given sperm bank, many of the donors may already be dead. So, really, this isn't as unusual as it seems.

3:47 PM  

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