June 23rd 2007

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COVER STORY: Foiled terror attack on New York's JFK airport

EDITORIAL: Making sense of carbon-trading

GOVERNMENT: Political appointments: the unseen costs

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Keating rains on Kevin Rudd's parade

ECONOMIC AFFAIRS: Realistic emissions policy torpedoed by ideology

GLOBAL TRADE: Leading Americans force a rethink on globalism

STRAWS IN THE WIND: More backseat driving / Scenes from the rustic bootlickery / Who will rid us of this troublesome priest! / A hot time in the old town that night / The media slave market: American democracy at work

SPECIAL FEATURE: Personal web pages - the dark side of the internet

BIOTECHNOLOGY: Children's rights trampled by medical Dr Strangeloves

MEDICAL SCIENCE: 'Scientific' spin on cloning unravels

RUSSIA: Russia's slide back into tyranny

Danger of downplaying climate change (letter)

Undermining scientific truth (letter)

Housing prices - don't blame property investors (letter)

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BOOKS: A VERY RUDE AWAKENING: The night the Japanese midget subs came to Sydney Harbour

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Children's rights trampled by medical Dr Strangeloves

by Tim Cannon

News Weekly, June 23, 2007
Advocates of "new reproductive technologies" and same-sex marriage fail to consider the well-being of the children they set out to create, argues world-renowned ethicist Margaret Somerville, who visited Australia recently. Tim Cannon reports.

With the development and proliferation of "new reproductive technologies" (NRTs), the now commonplace practice of in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) by the use of donated ova or sperm - once considered ground-breaking and highly controversial - has been bumped from the spotlight.

But, according to world-renowned Canadian ethicist Margaret Somerville, the plight of the first generation of donor-conceived children, now adults in their late 20s, is bringing to the fore ethical considerations regarding their rights, with serious and timely implications for the ways in which artificial reproductive technologies should be applied.

The problem, says Professor Somerville, founder of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University in Montreal, is that the rights of children conceived by artificial means have never been given adequate consideration. Speaking to The Australian in recent weeks, she stressed the point: "It's all the rights of the parents, never the rights of the child, who really have no say in the way they were created or for what purpose".

Indeed, Professor Somerville cites the prevalence in contemporary culture of an "intense individualism", which equates personal preference with moral values, as being the driving force behind the growing demand for the "right" to bring children into the world, a demand which is coming from increasingly dysfunctional and often bizarre quarters.

Whether it be it single mothers, same-sex couples, or grandmothers wishing to bear their own grandchildren on behalf of their infertile daughters, the desire to procreate is being fulfilled by whatever means possible, on the basis of a perceived "right" to do so. What's more, wherever legislation impedes the fulfilment of such desires, it is being challenged, and in many cases, overturned on the basis that it discriminates unjustly.

What so far has been carelessly overlooked, says Professor Somerville, is the reality that children too have fundamental rights which must be considered before they are brought into the world. Such rights include the right to a biological mother and father, whose identity the child also has the right to know; and the right to be reared by these biological parents within the context of an extended family.

Intentionally denying a child these rights, as most NRTs necessarily do (for example, by concealing the identity of a sperm donor), Somerville argues, cannot be justified. In fact, she suggests that the satisfaction of such rights is integral to the healthy development of a child's identity.

It may seem redundant to note that a child's maligned sense of identity will have adverse repercussions in later life, but the fact that the welfare of children conceived through NRTs is being given serious ethical consideration only as a result of recent lobbying by the first generation of donor-conceived adults (as they refer to themselves) gives cause for alarm.

Professor Somerville, who is perhaps the most outspoken critic of abuse of children's rights resulting from NRTs, has been spurred on to greater advocacy in this area by groups such as Tangled Webs, an Australian-based (but internationally operative) collective of persons who have "personal and/or professional experience that relates to DC (donor conception) or adoption" and who maintain the view that "there are significant moral, social and legal issues that arise from DC practices that have intergenerational consequences for the wider community".

They therefore seek to address the absence of debate surrounding these issues by providing "an alternative voice to ART (artificial reproductive technology) through greater recognition of the complex, lifelong issues that affect the person created through DC".

That such groups should even exist is indicative of the grave failure of the proponents of NRTs to consider the wellbeing of the children they set out to create.

Yearning to know

Somerville's own encounters with these emerging adults tell of a tortuous yearning among donor-conceived adults to know the unknowable: to know simple truths regarding their genetic identity, such as the identity of one's father, which the rest of us simply take for granted.

(Readers may be interested to note that such repercussions were concisely predicted by one B.A. Santamaria, who voiced his concerns regarding the harmful effects of donor-conception and other artificial reproductive technologies in his 1987 book, Australia at the Crossroads, in a chapter entitled "Test Tube Babies").

From this perspective, it is apparent that the anonymous donation of sperm or eggs for IVF, the creation of children through synthetic gametes (developed from other human cells) and the creation of children through cloning - all of which are at least theoretically possible in the foreseeable future - should be abandoned on account of their being inherently damaging to children by denying them even the possibility of growing up in a traditional family.

At the same time, Professor Somerville is adamant that, since the natural mode of transmission of human life, whereby a child is conceived and raised by its biological mother and father, is the only manner in which the human race can produce children without violating their rights, then it should respected accordingly.

She notes that marriage is not merely the public recognition of a committed and loving relationship (as it is often characterised), but is also inherently purposed towards the transmission of human life (as is confirmed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 16). She therefore argues that marriage must remain the preserve of opposite-sex pairings, to the exclusion of same-sex pairings of either sex.

Rights violated

For if the right to marriage also confers the right to "found a family", and same-sex couples can only procreate by artificial means which violate the rights of the child, then in the interests of the child, marriage should be restricted to opposite-sex couples, who can freely found a family without violating the rights of the child.

She does not conclude that single parents or same-sex couples are necessarily incapable of adequately caring for children. Rather, she argues that children, as human persons, are entitled to more than just adequate care; they are equally entitled to certain fundamental family relationships, including those with their biological mother and father, which no one has the right to deny.

This is a sobering message for a society entranced by the possibilities of science, and heedless of ethical impediments to the self-serving wishes of the individual. It is fortunate, then, that we have such an affable and intellectually capable messenger in Professor Margaret Somerville.

- Tim Cannon works as a research officer with the Thomas More Centre, Melbourne.

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