Molding, Beholding, Procreating

More on controlling the traits of children, before they're born.  Michael Sandel disapproves of enhancing children prenatally on grounds that he believes this manifests an attitude that's pernicious--constantly seeking mastery instead of being "open to the unbidden."  Selective parents mold their children instead of beholding them, he says.  I wonder about these contrasts.  How much "openness to the unbidden" does the natural, non-selective parent really have? It is not as if we get awarded just any child, through a lottery. If we willingly received newborns by some random method of distribution, you could say parents were truly open to the unbidden.  But no, the low-tech parent accepts the child who comes from her own and her spouse's body.  She is willing to "behold" her offspring not out of an attitude of openness, but because that child is actually half hers and half her partner's.  Parents take the step to adoption very reluctantly, and only after years of "trying" and intervention, because (I suspect) "ours" has such enormous significance to them.  That doesn't sound like "openness to the unbidden" to me!

It's also questionable whether people who pursue enhancement generally do so in order to have "mastery" or for the sake of "molding" their children.  These are typically people who were not able to conceive naturally.   Some are using donor eggs or donor sperm, so cannot have the usual control over who their offspring will be.  It's under those conditions that prospective parents start to care about getting sperm from tall guys with high SAT scores and eggs from beautiful women (yes, the gendered stuff is a reality--look at sperm and egg donation websites!).  I suspect the feeling is "If we couldn't have the most perfect baby, ours, then we'll accept second best--a baby with stellar traits!"  People using their own sperm and eggs at an infertility clinic may be tempted to enhance as well, but I think, again, the psychology of this needs to be examined. These are people who have far less power over the future than usual--they're plopping down vast sums of money with no guarantee of winding up with any child at all, let alone a perfect child.  All sorts of things are out of their control. If they want to tinker with embryonic DNA, it probably isn't because they have any special desire to mold or master their children, but because of the precarious position they're in.

So--people who procreate naturally aren't so terribly open to the unbidden--they're just prepared to see any offspring of theirs as good enough. In fact, as perfect--which is what people say all the time about their newborn children.  "She's perfect!  He's perfect!"   And people who procreate with technical assistance are contending with special uncertainties and pressures, so aren't unusually desirous of mastery and control.  So much for Sandel's character analysis, at least in the real world!

But now we need a thought experiment.  Suppose there were someone who could reproduce naturally, but chose IVF in order to enhance embryos?  Imagine for their second child, Kim and Kanye decide to go that route, just to be sure little South West (get it?) will have every possible advantage in life.  Suppose, for example, they implant the new Gratitude Gene (sold for a million dollars a pop by a Cambridge biotech business in the year 2016), because positive psychologists say grateful people are happier.  Is there anything at all bad about giving up the thought "Any child of ours has got to be perfect!" and taking technical steps to make a child a little better off?

In my opinion, there is something bad about it.  The thought that our child is bound to be perfect, and not in need of improvement, is a salutary thought.  It's a strengthener of love and commitment.  It's not worth weakening that sentiment for small gains. It's a different matter if Kim and Kanye have been to a genetic counselor and have discovered their offspring stand a 50% of having some serious, life-limiting abnormality.  In that case, it makes sense to screen embryos.  But no, in the situation I'm imagining, little South's parents will have an attitudinal problem that probably won't be offset by South's extra gratitude.  Enhancing messes with salutary parental prejudice--the thought that our child, just by virtue of being ours, is perfect, or at least perfectly loveable.  In a world where people standardly made kids in laboratories, using all the latest ingredients, that sentiment would be lost.  Our kids wouldn't simply come from us, so feel like second selves (as Aristotle describes children).  They'd be our products, creating a different set of feelings and expectations.  So:  ugh, but not for Sandel's reasons.  I don't see that natural parents are "open to the unbidden" or that high tech parents are guilty of "molding, not beholding."


David Duffy said...

Then you have similar doubts about attachment of adoptive parents?

Wayne said...

I think Sandel makes a similar argument to your point too. I don't remember where though. I'll see if I can find it.

But I'm not sure I buy it. And I know I'm not a parent myself, but I'm pretty sure if I had a child, naturally or not, that I would love the child, but that love doesn't make me uncritical of the child. I wouldn't necessarily accept their failing grades in school uncritically, simply because I love my child. I might have to accept certain traits as true, I have a short child, or I have an unattractive child, since I can't really do anything about those traits. I probably wouldn't go out of my way to point these traits out to the child. But being my child, even if just in guardianship,

I think I'd still be prejudiced towards my child. I feel prejudiced towards my pets, over other people's pets. Sure other people's cats are cute and soft, but mine are cuter, and softer.

If I had a child that I've engineered, lets say to be attractive, and s/he grows up to be less attractive than I expected to be, then I might be a little more disappointed, but I'm not sure how that would change my parenting attitudes.

If widespread engineering of children took place, no doubt there would be a re-adjustment of attitudes that would be necessary on all sorts of levels of society, but I'm not sure if parental attitude adjustments would need to be changed. People are disappointed already in their children for being a boy or a girl, and not the desired sex. People are disappointed by genetic disorders, and both sex and disorders have been, at least for some people, grounds for abortion.

Being disappointed in a child for things that they cannot control, like their genetics, happens, but we still love them. Why would we suddenly love them less when it can be changed?