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A blog dedicated to the Source of everything good.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Claire Barshied on sex, part I (Contraception, Part VIII)

Claire Barshied has written a piece for Touchstone magazine (January/February 2005 issue) entitled “Novel Bioethics -- “How a Book Taught Her to Reimagine Sex.”

Who wouldn’t be intrigued by a subtitle like that? Barshied does indeed bring up some very good points in her article, but what surprised me was that her whole point of view comes from “just the beginning...of a long and unexpected journey.” This seems to characterize the entire tenor of, if not the bioethics debate, then the contraception debate among non-Catholics. Why, I wonder, is this “pioneer” perspective the only one, besides the Catholic one, we are hearing from? Is it because the Age of Contraceptives is doomed? Will it, in the long run, have no defense whatsoever? Will it be looked upon, a century or so down the road, as a huge historical mistake?

Says Barshied,
It is a good bet that many Americans view bioethics as the exclusive province of academic specialists with prestigious degrees in philosophy, law, cell biology, embryology, and similar fields. Their esoteric debates over stem-cell harvesting methods and clinical trial review procedures seem removed from the real-world experiences of most people.

She tells us that, according to Leon Kass, chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, “bioethics as currently conceived by professional bioethicists is much too narrow,” in that it ignores “the full range of human goods that we should be trying to promote or protect.” This is the goal of Being Human, a 600-page anthology of literature released by the PCOB. Says Barshied,
Guarding that fuller range of goods requires a better grasp of what it means to be human and what good things humans prize. Our best sources on these questions are not scientists, but the writers and thinkers of the aptly named humanities.

While I agree that a full range of perspective is necessary for proper apprehension of certain complex issues, I don’t believe that writers and thinkers necessarily have the corner on “what it means to be human and what good things humans prize.” Writers and thinkers can be just as confused or mistaken as anyone else. They can lead us astray as easily as the cool, clinical scientists can, and goodness knows they have: there is a mysterious “spiritual” appeal to literary esoterica.

Says Barshied:
Being Human’s editors hope that reading great literature can make bioethical arguments accessible. Stories embody the consequences of our choices, the tension between our aspirations and imperfections, what it means to love unconditionally, how we face sickness, loss, and death. And subjects such as these—“matters close to the core of our humanity,” as Kass puts it—can be profoundly changed by new technologies.

My comments above aside, I agree with these statements except for the last one – do new technologies really have the power to change matters close to the core of our humanity? Perhaps they may tempt us further from this core (or, as C. S. Lewis would say, from the Tao), but I question whether they would truly change these matters. Are technologies not simply tools in our hands, subservient to whatever philosophies determine their use? (There is nothing new under the sun – Ecclesiastes)

(For a different perspective on this question, see Joe Carter’s post, “Technopoly: Culture, Technology, and The New Atlantis")

To be cont... Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4


  • It may be that what he was saying is just that we have false assumptions about what it is to be human, and technologies may rid us of them. For instance, someone is human even if conceived in a test tube or even if constructed from the DNA of an already existing human. When Philip K. Dick wrote "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?", it was simply conceivable that people might think of genetically altered and artificially conceived people as robots without a soul. Maybe that was even still true when it was mde into Blade Runner. It's certainly not true today. The whole story seems so implausible now, that anyone might think of those people as not human.

    By Blogger Jeremy Pierce, at 8:02 AM  

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