Why Use Close Genes?

Real life showing signs of coming back under control, it’s nice to be back blogging again.  Hopefully I’ll be up to speed soon.

To get back into the swing of things, there’s an interesting post from Ole Martin Moen on the Practical Ethics blog.  It’s only short, so I’ll reproduce almost fully here.

Today, if a gay couple wants to have a child, they have two main options: Either (1) they adopt a child or (2) they get an egg from a donor, have it fertilized in a laboratory, and have a surrogate mother carry and give birth to their child.

These are both good options. Imagine, however, that a certain gay couple – let us call them Albert and Mark – wants a child that genetically belongs to both of them. If they want this, then option (1) will not do the trick. Option (2) will be somewhat better, but the child will then carry genetic material from only one of the two.

This does not satisfy Albert and Mark.

Is their problem solvable? Can Albert and Mark have a child that, genetically, is truly theirs? The answer that first strikes one is no, since this seemingly requires technology beyond reach.

It is easily solvable, however, if we just think outside the box. The solution is that the egg fertilized by Albert’s sperm should come from Mark’s sister, or if still fertile, form Mark’s mother. This would not give a perfect genetic match, but a decent one – and it would be safe, affordable, and fully possible. Even legal, I assume, since it does not imply inbreeding.

Why should not gay couples do this? Or, for that matter: Why should not straight couples where one party is infertile?

 I can’t see any reason at all why couples shouldn’t do this.  In fact, I don’t see why infertility should matter: if people are concerned to have genetically related children, but one potential parent has a genetically transmitted characteristic that is undesirable but which is not shared by their sibling, then they might well have a moral reason to use a gamete from that sibling, on the grounds that the genes are pretty much the same.

But a lot rides on the first “if” clause: if people are concerned to have genetically related children.  And I’m not sure that, actually, they are, or that such a concern is all that morally weighty if they are.  That is: people talk about the importance of a genetic link, but it’s not obvious to me that that’s what they really mean, or that their belief in the importance is well-founded.

My hunch is that, if people want children, they want children.  A “conventional” genetically-related child may be one way to set about this project.  But it’s not the be-all and end-all, for several reasons.  First, since all humans are very close, genetically speaking, anyway, it’s not obvious why any old gamete would be so terrible; you’d still have a child that is overwhelmingly genetically related.  Second, there’s no obvious reason to suppose that adoptive parents are anything other than real parents, unless you beg the question in favour of the conventional genetic account of parenthood.  Albert and Mark could adopt, and be satisfied that they’re real parents, and could without implausibility believe that there is plenty by way of genetic proximity between then and their adopted child anyway.  This doesn’t mean that they must adopt – just that the “borrowed gamete” account mightn’t amount to all that much.

The third reason is that, as I’ve suggested before, parenthood is less likely to be about genes than it is to be about having a child with this or that other person.  Here’s what I wrote in December last year:

It’s not clear to me why genetic parenthood is all that important.

To see why, imagine that Bob has (a) a partner, Alice, with whom he wants to start a family, and (b) an identical twin brother, Fred.  If genetics are all that’s important, then Fred will have as much claim to be the father of any child of Bob and Alice, since clearly Bob and Fred would have an identical genetic output, and Alice ought to be indifferent between using Bob’s or Fred’s sperm.  It wouldn’t even matter that Alice and Fred had never had sex, because Alice could conceive without having had sex with Bob, too.  (Maybe Bob is HIV+ and Alice is so cautious that she won’t have sex with him, although she does still want his child.)  Clearly, this is absurd.

Of course, there is one big difference between Bob and Fred acting as genetic fathers – which is that the vector for Bob’s genetic material is generated in Bob’s testes, and the vector for Fred’s in Fred’s.  In a sense, that’s merely a matter of geography, though – after all, the genetic information encoded therein is identical; if we aren’t bothered whether the TV transmitter is in Yorkshire or Lancashire as long as the signal is clear, the same could well apply here – but it does point to what really makes the difference, which is that Alice wants Bob’s child, not his brother’s.  The genes, qua genes, seem to me not to make a lot of difference.  Alice likes Bob; Bob and Fred aren’t interchangeable.  Therefore genes are, at most, a minor consideration.

I think that the thought expressed there might well apply here.  Albert and Mark want a child together.  That has to do with Albert being Albert, and Mark being Mark.  Genetics might, for Dawkins-y (Dawkinsian?) reasons, be the motor for wanting a child, but it doesn’t follow from that that genetics is what really matters to people, or should really matter.  I do wonder whether we make genes out to be much more important than they actually are.

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