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ARTs in a Warming World

25 Jul, 14 | by Iain Brassington

There are some people who disagree, but we can take some things as read: there is such a thing as global climate change, it is at least substantially anthropogenic, and there are moral reasons to try to minimise it.

With that in mind, how should we think about reproductive technologies?  These are techniques whose intent is to create humans, and – presumably – those humans will have an environmental impact.  This is a question that Christina Richie confronts in her paper in the JME:

The use of ART to produce more human-consumers in a time of climate change needs to be addressed.  Policymakers should ask carbon-emitting countries to change their habits to align with conservation.  And though all areas of life – from transportation, to food, to planned technological obsolescence – must be analysed for ecological impact, the offerings of the medical industry, especially reproductive technologies, must be considered as well.

One of her suggestions is of carbon-capping for the fertility industry; she’s more reluctant to suggest a moratorium on the use of ARTs.  But she does suggest thinking quite seriously about who should get access to fertility treatment.  After all, she points out, fertility treatment is unlike other medical treatments in a number of ways.  Not the least of these is that someone whose life is saved by medicine will go on to have a carbon footprint bigger than it might have been – but that’s not the intention.  The whole point of fertility treatment is to create new humans, though – and therefore the treatment has not just a footprint, but a long-lasting carbon legacy.

I wonder, actually, whether the argument could be radicalised.  Tacit in a lot of it is that there is a right to reproduce – that the starting point is that at least some ARTs ought to be available and provided.  I’m not sure whether that’s a given – it might be that there’s a duty to adopt, for example, that means that even those who want kids ought to look at other ways of having them.  (Adopted children would be almost as closely related genetically as non-adopted ones, so – as I’ve argued here before – I don’t think that the genetic relatedness argument carries much weight.)

Doubtless, there’ll be some who accuse this kind of argument of Malthusianism (although whenever I’ve seen that argument bandied about, an explanation of why that is a bad thing in principle is less forthcoming).  I don’t have any particular objection to that label, though neither do I think it has to be seen in those terms.  After all, as Richie points out, most ARTs are used in countries with low birthrates – so the overall impact on population is likely to be low.

That, in a way, is beside the point.  If an action can be shown to be morally problematic, the fact that the consequences will not be widespread may be a mitigation on certain accounts.  But even a little of a bad thing is still a bad thing.

When it comes to the crunch, it seems to me that while reproduction may be a good, it is not the only good at which persons or policies may or should aim; and there are times when two goods conflict.  Neither is it too strange to suggest that there are times when a person should abandon one good because of the greater moral gravity of some other, greater, good.  It’s possible that reproduction is one of those goods.

What goes for artificial reproductive technologies would go, in principle, to natural ones, too.  But they’re much harder to regulate.  In that sense, the argument is analogous to that surrounding procreative beneficence: even if you think that there’s a duty to have the best possible child where making a choice is feasible, that won’t tell us much about real life reproduction, which is going to be almost irreducibly haphazard – at least, it won’t without a lot more philosophical heavy lifting.

But, really, this kind of question can be put to one side, because I think that there are some important things that Richie touches simply in having written the paper.  One of these is her use of the term “industry” in relation to ART providers.  I guess that, in Europe, we’re not used to thinking of ARTs in those terms – we treat them as social goods.  But thinking about them as an industry – something that has certain inputs, and certain outputs – does seem like a reasonable move.  And, following from that, there’s a general point about the kind of moral question to which ARTs are amenable.  There’s lots of ink spilled over who should have access to infertility treatment, for sure – but there is a good deal less time devoted to the question of whether facilitating reproduction is always a good thing to begin with.  It might turn out that it is – I don’t know.  But the fact that there isn’t all that much attention given to the question of where ARTs fit in a more holistic account of what policy should be does seem important.  We’d ask it in relation to other industries – if I wanted to frack for shale gas under Manchester, there’d be questions about sustainability, and about whether we should be looking for more and cheaper hydrocarbons given what we know about the environment.  So why not ask analogous questions about reproduction, its environmental impact, and its legacy to the future?

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  • simona

    Just a question: why “infertility industry”, rather than “fertility industry”? A more substantial point: I wonder whether the argument should really be about reproduction more generally. Many in the West have, over the years, protested more or less vociferously against the 1 child policy established in other countries. Compulsory abortions and the impact of such a policy for families and especially for children born “unlawfully” obviously raises moral concerns. However, I tend to agree with Iain on this: isn’t there a general question about the alleged ‘right’ to have children, as many children as we want? How about those policies in countries like in Italy, that foresee “discounts” for, for example, nurseries and other services, for the second and third child? If the growing population is an issue, shouldn’t we rethink those policies to start with? The post also made me think about Immortality, by Milan Kundera. It’s a beautiful book, and at some point Kundera makes some considerations about “the age of rights”; he asks: are we mistaking desires with right? I think we should also on this line consider other forms of assisted reproduction, way less known but very popular – such as websites for private transactions. But I will leave this for another time…

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