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by Ken Myers

Sound thinking

Why not hatcheries?

Paul Ramsey on being N.I.C.E.

by Ken Myers

by Ken Myers

Why not hatcheries?

In 1972, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a two-part article by ethicist Paul Ramsey (1913–1988) titled “Shall we ‘reproduce’?” in which he articulated several significant moral problems raised by in vitro fertilization (IVF). At the time, IVF was an extremely controversial procedure within the medical community. The Ethics Advisory Board of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare eventually held hearings presenting arguments about the ethical issues involved. Paul Ramsey was one of those who gave testimony.

Ramsey was for many years the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University. He is often identified as having given birth to the originator of the field of bioethics, with the publication in 1970 of his book The Patient as Person: Explorations in Medical Ethics. Other books included Fabricated Man: the Ethics of Genetic Control (1970), The Ethics of Fetal Research (1975), and Ethics at the Edges of Life: Medical and Legal Intersections (1978).

In 1978, Louise Joy Brown was born, the first birth resulting from conception by IVF. Not long thereafter, Ramsey’s arguments were presented in a booklet titled “On In Vitro Fertilization,” which you may download here. Below are the closing paragraphs from Ramsey’s essay.

“Pope Pius XII once warned against reducing the cohabitation of married persons to the transmission of germ life. This would, he said, ‘convert the domestic hearth, sanctuary of the family, into nothing more than a biological laboratory.’ That quaint language was spoken about artificial insemination. The Pontiff feared the nemesis of humanity under the fluorescent light of laboratories. He warned of this in 1951 — ages ago in technological time. To the fluorescent light of the laboratory has been added the glare of media protection and copyrighted publicity.

“The first book to be printed entitled Test Tube Babies was published in 1934 — again ages ago in technological time. Its subject matter was not at all what we mean by this expression. The book’s subtitle was ‘A History of the Artificial Impregnation of Human Beings, Including a Detailed Account of its Technique, together with Personal Experiences, Clinical Cases, A Review of its Literature, and the Medical and Legal Aspects Involved.’

“Clearly ours is an age of galloping biomedical technology. Aldous Huxley and C. S. Lewis had the prescience to see already the future that comes ever closer. Not the abuse of political power by Hitler nor of nuclear power but the unchecked employment of powers the biological revolution places in human hands was for these authors the final threat of the ‘abolition of man.’

“The human womb is a half-way technology. It is replaceable by more ‘perfect’ artifices. Human life has been maintained in petri dishes for two weeks; and our National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects used 20–24 weeks as its definition of a ‘possibly viable’ infant. Only about 18 to 22 weeks remain to be conquered in which the human female must necessarily participate in procreation, except as the source of the ovum. Then ‘reproduction’ can replace procreation, and we will come to Huxley’s Hatcheries. His was a vision of society in which everyone was quite happy. The way there is also a happy one, and we go along that way always motivated by good ends, such as the relief of women’s infertility and salvaging ‘premies’ earlier and earlier. . . .

“Members of the Ethics Advisory Board may wish to perform the following experiment on themselves. Turn off the tube. Don’t pick up the newspaper for two days. Instead, read the third of C. S. Lewis’ space-science trilogy, That Hideous Strength. The final assault upon humanity is gathering in Edgestow, a fictional British college town. The forces of technology, limited no more by the Christian ages, are trying to combine with pre-Christian forces, represented by Merlin the Magician whose body is buried on the Bracton College grounds. Only the philologist Ransom can save humankind from the powers of the present age concentrated in the National Institute for Coordinated Experimentation (acronym NICE).

“It is NICE that the Browns have a wonderful baby girl; her middle name is Joy. Lewis need not have thought of his fictional college, Bracton. Cambridge University is NICE too. So is Vanderbilt. To give couples a baby sexed to their desires will be NICE. Every other step taken will certainly be NICE. Finally, Brave New World is entirely NICE. For everyone is happy in Huxley’s pharmacological, genetic and womb-free paradise. Only there is no poetry there. Nor does a baby have the right to be a surprise.