On Using Godwin’s Fake “Law” To Silence Ethical Debate

Godwin’s Law ought to be enshrined next to Newton’s Laws or Kepler’s Laws for all posterity. For the uninitiated, Godwin’s Law states, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” The concept was devised by Mike Godwin in 1990 and officially codified into law in a Wired article in 1994. Since then, the evidence for this law has only gotten stronger.

Because of the unquestioned veracity of Godwin’s Law, it is perhaps inevitable that a journalist will, eventually, be compared to a Nazi.

via RealClearScience

Let us start with what ought to be obvious: Godwin’s “law” is not a law. It is an Internet joke that was funny the first few times you heard it, then started getting kind of annoying.

If someone is comparing you to a Nazi for frivolous reasons, don’t “call Godwin’s Law”, the way a five year old “calls” the front seat as he and his sister race for the car. Confront them! Trivializing the Holocaust is a serious thing, and you should make that case forcefully.

But this is not an obviously frivolous comparison. It might or might not be correct or “right” or “valid” or “legitimate”, but the author absolutely intends to make the case that the new “good” eugenics is not different in kind from the old “bad” attempts to control that which is currently viewed as beyond mankind’s control.

It’s a serious argument. It raises valid questions. Are we prioritizing the “purity” or “health” of the race is prioritized over the rights of individuals? Are we overreaching, using, exploiting, seeking to take more than we’re actually able to handle? Do we know what we’re doing? Are some of us going to benefit at the expense of others?

Are we compromising ethics in the same way that Nazi scientists did – and for similar reasons?

That argument deserves better than playground taunts about Godwin cooties.

A man voices opposition to reckless human experimentation on ethical grounds, and the science guy spews forth a stream of emotive invective laced with ad hominem attacks. Raise a question about the proper use of an applied science, and you don’t have a legitimate avenue of discussion. You are anti-science. But are you?

from Celebrate Life Magazine

Really, what this is about is whether a parent has the right to a “perfect” child – or whether society has reason to demand that action be taken against the birth of imperfect children before birth – even if that means stealing something of value from the child in order to “give” something of value to the parents, or to the larger society – or to the scientists who have the most to gain (while of course they aren’t the ones taking any of the risks).

The stakeholders differ – parents, not “The State”, are viewed as the ones who can and should decide when it’s justifiable to experiment on one’s own descendents. But this distinction is not significant from a logical point of view. It is only significant – very significant – from an emotional point of view, because we idealize parents and we don’t like to think about even the possibility of a conflict of interest between what a parent wants and what a child might want or need or have reason to value.

And the language is changed; we use language that suggests the child is the beneficiary. This is how our culture handles the taboo regarding the conflict of interest between parent and child that isn’t supposed to exist.

The only way to honestly balance the rights of all stakeholders is to do just that: balance the rights of all stakeholders. After taking out the exaggerated promises of success, and the equally exaggerated tendency to minimize (or outright deny) risk, what would a child in such a situation want?

I was an IVF baby. Given this intimate connection with technology and test tubes, you might think I’d be a cheerleader for all developments in the field. But a new technique under consideration has broad and troubling implications, not only for hopeful parents-to-be and their potential future children, but for all of humanity.

This new technique, called mitochondrial replacement or “three-parent IVF,” would make genetic changes to IVF embryos and thus to every cell of the children born as a result of it. And these changes would be passed down to future generations. Human inheritable genetic modification of this kind is currently prohibited in over 40 countries and by several international agreements due to numerous problems and concerns. But proposals that would break this long-respected international consensus are now under consideration in the United Kingdom and the United States.

The goal of the new technique is, in one sense, the same as with all IVF procedures: to allow parents to have an (at least partially) genetically related child. But mitochondrial replacement requires genes from three people, and a biologically radical process to combine them. It is being proposed for a small number of women who suffer from a particular kind of severe mitochondrial disease (many kinds are actually caused by nuclear DNA, which this procedure would do nothing to help.) The idea is that replacing the unhealthy mitochondria in an affected woman’s egg with the healthy mitochondria of a donor’s egg could produce a disease-free child (that could have Dad’s eyes and Mom’s bone structure).

It’s an enticing story, and some insist that the technique should be made available as quickly as possible. Unfortunately for the families whose hopes have been raised, the feel-good story of a “life-saving treatment” covers up critical safety and efficacy problems, and hugely important social and ethical considerations.

On the safety front, there are a number of concerns for the women involved….

…There are also profoundly worrying safety and efficacy concerns for any resulting children, which a growing number of scientists are speaking up about.

This ethical dilemma would only be compounded by the fact that an effective, less invasive option already exists.

via Huffington Post (emphasis mine)

It cannot be argued that it is self-evident that any child would want to be experimented on in such a way.

And there is the conflict. Do we value some concept of scientific knowledge and/or genetic purity as a good in its own right, engineering perfect humans as an inherent good, or do we value the rights of people – all of whom are currently born imperfect, as measured against the current and future ideals of those who would “improve” us all?

Here is the quotation that caused all the trouble:

The empirical sciences don’t speak to principles of right and wrong. Those must be supplied by the human practitioners of science, or short of that, people of conscience with the moral clarity and will to hold them accountable. The conflict between Smith and Berezow, then, was not a case of anti-science versus science, but of science informed by conscience and directed for human good versus science barreling on, ignorant of good and evil. That kind of science was to novelist Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; to Lewis, The Abolition of Man; and to Jews in Nazi Germany, the death camps of Buchenwald and Auschwitz.

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A Step Forward in Mass-Manufactured Human Beings

Cutting-edge research around the world will soon launch a new era in human procreation – a world in which embryos can be ‘brought to term’ in artificial wombs, replacing traditional pregnancies.

via IEET

And rendering women superfluous. What was that about men being obsolete?

Babymaking will move further from being a human activity to being a mere manufacturing process – the Industrial Revolution meets “biological colonialism“.

The question of manufacturing human beings via industrial processes is addressed in the IEET article:

However, ethicists voice concerns that this technology could endanger the very meaning of life. Mother-child relationships, the nature of female bodies, and being ‘born’, not ‘made’ all play a role in defining how most people around the world view this magical state of existence called life. Artificial wombs will enable both men and women to reproduce entirely alone, removing intercourse from the reproductive equation.

But proponents believe people will reason, “Why risk gestating the baby in a biological womb, when this new science can produce a child with our exact genetic makeup, perfect personality, and zero flaws.

We are already seeing ethical questions coming from the use of surrogates – for instance, people who would not be able to find and marry an appropriate mate are using artificial reproduction technologies to bypass that problem, putting children into the hands of people such as the infamous case of the Israeli pedophile who contracted with an Indian surrogate mother (and the Israeli government has no power to remove the child, but must wait until there is evidence of harm).

We are already at the point where people are literally suing doctors who allow imperfect babies to be born. As we define what it means to have “perfect” personality and “zero” flaws, we will confront the question of whether there is in fact any difference at all between having “ideals” vs. merely “following fashion”.

When all the Down’s, autistic, and “sick” kids are removed from the gene pool, will that be enough? No – already there are those who define being too short, tall, skinny, fat, etc. as “flawed”.

Do we really want an entire planet full of people who look like Britt Ekland (circa 1978)? And when we have that, are we going to experience monocropping failures?

“9 Swedish Women Receive Womb Transplants, Will Try To Get Pregnant”

Nine Swedish women have successfully received transplanted wombs donated by family members, and will soon try to have children, the AP reports. There have been no major complications following the surgeries, and every woman left the hospital within days. The transplants are part of the largest effort yet to produce children from transplanted uteri…

[…]

…All of the women were either born without a uterus or lost it due to cervical cancer. Each had eggs removed and fertilized, and won’t be able to get pregnant the old-fashioned way

via Popular Science.

 

In a world where mixing up babies in test tubes now seems pretty old hat, picking and choosing your offspring’s genes is getting closer, and even 3D-printed organs aren’t that surprising, the idea of the transplant seems oddly old-fashioned, but it’s a potential answer to a problem we still haven’t solved. While there may be ever-more-efficient ways of combining eggs and sperm around various fertility problems, there’s nothing to be done for women who don’t have a womb—either because they’re born without one (a condition known as MRKH) or because they’ve had it removed, for instance due to cervical cancer.

The nine women in this new initiative, who all had the wombs transplanted in Sweden, won’t be able to get pregnant in the conventional way, as the transplanted uteruses aren’t connected to their fallopian tubes. But the hope is they could conceive via IVF and carry their own biological child.

via Motherboard.

“Build-A-Baby” Designer Baby System Patent

[C]onsumer genomics company 23andMe has developed a system for helping prospective parents choose the traits of their offspring, from disease risk to hair color. Put another way, it’s a designer baby-making system.

The company says it does not intend to use the technology this way…

The patent describes a technology that would take a customer’s preferences for a child’s traits, compute the likely genomic outcomes of combinations between a customer’s sperm or egg and other people’s sex cells, and describe which potential reproductive matches would most likely produce the desired baby.

Among the traits listed in the application as examples of possible choice are: height, weight, hair color, risks of colorectal cancer and congenital heart defects, expected life span, expected lifetime health care costs, and athleticism. The company, which has about 400,000 customers, offers genomic analysis of more than 240 traits altogether, from Alzheimer’s disease risk to breast shape and memory. Additional traits from this longer list could presumably be used the same way.

via Personal Genomics Firm 23andMe Patents Designer Baby System, Denies Plans to Use It – Wired Science.

If children are commodities, then it’s inevitable.

But are we really going to decide that children commodities?

I’ll ‘fess up…I don’t get what the big deal is. Granted, Build-a-Baby technology creeps me out when it comes to gender, because the societal implications are worrisome. But it makes more sense when applied to appearance and disease risk.

via PandoDaily.