Guest Post: Transgressing nature? Ethics and artificial gametes

Authors: Anna Smajdor, Daniela Cutas and Tuija Takala
Article: Artificial gametes, the unnatural and the artefactual

Increasingly, science offers new ways for human beings to design, create and control living organisms. Among other avenues of research, work towards the creation of ‘artificial’ (or, as they used to be called, ‘synthetic’) gametes has attracted considerable media attention over recent decades. The very term ‘artificial gametes’ is negatively loaded. What is artificial deviates from what is natural, and is thus inauthentic, in some sense it is not real. When concerns about naturalness coincide with questions of reproductive ethics, the scene is set for disputes about how, if at all, such gametes should be used in reproduction.

For many years, it has been an accepted dogma in mainstream bioethics that nature has no role to play in moral reasoning. There are two key reasons for this. Firstly, it is very hard to define what is natural and what is not. Secondly, even supposing we could make such distinctions, to derive anything about the ethics of an act from its relation with the natural is regarded as logically unsound: it would be to commit what has been called “the naturalistic fallacy”. Those who make appeals to nature tend to hold conservative or religious convictions and to be widely dismissed by secular thinkers. Yet these dismissals are frequently based on ad hoc reformulations of arguments from nature. A common tactic is to nod towards the fact that some people would disapprove of x because it is unnatural, only to sweep aside this objection as being clearly fallacious.

However, it seems possible that the rejection of appeals to nature may itself be based on a form of fallacious reasoning. Nature is inescapable. It is around us and in us. For philosophers, concepts of nature are inherent in the way we think about what it means to be human, the ways that societies are or should be constructed, and the distinction between health and disease. Even moral theories themselves are inextricably entwined with concepts of nature. For example, virtue ethics draws on Aristotle’s ideas of human nature and what is required for human flourishing. Clearly, any divergence from human nature has significant moral implications. Utilitarianism may seem an unlikely candidate to have an affinity with nature; but even here, it is indisputable that what constitutes a good outcome for human beings is linked with their nature.

This pervasiveness of nature lends itself to the tendency in mainstream bioethics to assume that because it is difficult to construct clear boundaries between the natural and unnatural, there is nothing more to be said about nature. John Stuart Mill observed that either we construe nature as being simply everything there is or alternatively, everything except for that which is created, altered or affected by human beings. Neither of these interpretations lends itself to a useful understanding of how morality and nature might be interlinked. The first approach effectively renders the concept of nature redundant since everything is natural. The second is too sweeping for normative purposes. If we regard everything we touch or interact with as thereby being ‘unnatural’, it suggests that building houses, treating diseases, perhaps merely existing, is likewise unnatural.

These views of nature are problematic if we are looking for a simple, binary division between the natural and the unnatural. We suggest that this is too crude. Rather, we can think of naturalness as a spectrum: objects, artefacts or endeavours that are most closely connected with human intervention can be regarded as less natural than those that are not. On this view, we can say that artificial gametes are less natural than ‘normal’ gametes because they are more directly the product of intentional human processes. But what, if anything, does this tell us about their moral significance? In this context, the question of moral significance is particularly fraught because of the possibility of using artificial gametes to create offspring. While people do not usually regard gametes themselves as having moral status, embryos, foetuses and children are regarded as having or acquiring such status. Could artificial gametes give rise to artificial embryos, foetuses, or offspring? How would the moral status of such entities be perceived?

We suggest that to construe naturalness as a continuum rather than a simple yes/no division can help in showing how morality may be connected with naturalness in ways that avoid the pitfalls of the naturalistic fallacy. When we seek to intervene in areas that were previously beyond our control, we expand the sphere of our moral responsibility so that we become morally responsible for these new organisms in a way that does not apply so clearly to their natural counterparts. Not only this, but we alter our relationship with them. The element of design and deliberate control makes it more plausible to view the resulting organism as an object designed by humans to fulfil a particular purpose.

Competing interests: None declared.