Remarks by Adrienne Asch

Remarks by Adrienne Asch
Grounding Our Concern

Selection, Markets and "Symbolic Harms"

Many of us here have spent considerable time trying to argue against what we see as dangers of extreme parental selectivity, or of markets in reproductive labor and genetic materials. Here I want to suggest three concerns for our group discussion: a concern about selection; a concern about markets even if those markets didn't include selection; and a concern about the frequent dismissal of what are termed "symbolic harms".

Most of the time, adoption, selecting egg and sperm "donors", and prenatal testing for health problems or disabilities are discussed as very different and separate topics. And although there are many reasons to examine the history and current state of each of them individually, it is also important to highlight one crucial way in which they resemble one another: they all permit or encourage prospective parents to try to learn about and to determine some characteristics of the child they hope to raise. I put all these cases -- adoption, gamete selection, and prenatal testing -- together to suggest their commonality: a concern about parental selection. Perhaps we, as a society, should rethink how we organize all of them. In each instance prospective parents are approaching parenthood by trying to ensure that the child they raise will possess some desired feature or lack an undesired one. Perhaps they want a child "like them" in looks or ethnicity, or one possessing a predisposition to intelligence or some talent. Perhaps they fear the complications of raising a child from a racial or ethnic minority; perhaps they do not wish themselves or their child to face the difficulties that disability can cause: medications, hospitalizations, equipment such as wheelchairs and lift-equipped vans, or arguments with school personnel or Scout troops about including a child considered "different" or "special needs".

By placing selection itself as the common denominator and area of concern, I am trying to avoid those arguments that primarily link the morality of choosing with the nature of the trait in question, or with the method used to select the particular trait. There certainly are commentators who worry primarily about the dangers of sex selection, or speculative futuristic scenarios of selecting the embryo or fetus who will have the "musicality gene." These commentators perceive adverse social consequences of sex selection or seeking a genetically superior or perfect child. When the trait in question shifts to one linked with "serious health concerns" or "diminished quality of life," we find that many of the same commentators who would oppose sex selection don't find anything problematic about selecting against the future child who will have Down syndrome or cystic fibrosis. But, to fairly address questions of prenatal selection we need to understand how the same issues are raised when a couple asks an adoption agency for a girl and not a boy, or for a child from Eastern Europe but not Latin America, Asia, or of African-American or of bi-racial origin. Similarly, we need to ask whether ideals of parent-child relationships are endangered when women and men specifically select gametes from people possessing traits they especially desire, whether or not those traits are ones they might reasonably have expected had they used their own genetic material to create a new child. In sum, we need to ask what the larger familial and social implications are when people who actively choose parenthood also actively choose the kinds of children they do and do not wish to have.

Let me now turn to markets in genes and gestation. Some people oppose commercial surrogacy but accept paying for eggs and sperm. Often discussions of the wrongs of markets are linked to the wrongs of differential pricing: more money for the egg from the Ivy League athlete who also plays chess and the cello; less money for eggs from someone who graduated from a state university or who plays only the cello, but not chess or tennis. But I think it's possible to see dangers in markets, even without differential pricing, even without the selection of particular characteristics. I think it's worth our struggling to articulate the dangers of paying people to help others to have children to raise, even if we paid the same prices regardless of what kinds of women provided the eggs or gestation or which men provided their sperm.

Last: the issue of articulating the harms or wrongs in question. We all know that to those who enthusiastically embrace current and future reproductive technologies, the concerns others here and I are raising are dismissed as merely speculative and "symbolic". Often these concerns are linked to religion, or are scoffed at as coming from people afraid of societal change. But I think many of us here are struggling to find a way to show that one can be a political progressive, a secular humanist, a card-carrying member of the ACLU, and still oppose at least some forms of parental selection and reproductive markets. To the extent you share at least some of my analysis, we have a difficult task: how to find the shared values and language to reach our philosophical and scientific opponents, or if we fail at that, how to find the values and language to reach the millions of people who haven't considered any of these questions. Why do we, and why should the rest of society, care about "symbolic harms", and why are they more than symbolic?