Mothers of intervention

The Future of Human Reproduction

January 22, 1999

John Harris, the editor of this book (who contributes the first essay), and his colleagues have given us a serious, and seriously expensive, well-produced book. Harris is his usual breezy, self-assured Utilitarian self. He exhorts us not to worry too much about a variety of related topics, from the donation of eggs to "post-menopausal mums". His essay forms a useful introduction to the topics that follow. His message, on the whole, is that we need not fear any global catastrophes from the new techniques of human reproduction, since the numbers involved are, and will remain, small compared with the numbers of children born without intervention.

There follow two extremely interesting and properly analytic essays. We are in danger of becoming over-familiar with the arguments, now endlessly rehearsed in books about the future, and not really bothering to think about them any more. Maurizio Mori, in his essay, "On the concept of pre-embryo", takes us back to the ten-year-old discussion of the status of the early embryo, and compels us to think again about the question, "When does human life begin?" In a comparable way, Jonathan Glover, in "Eugenics: some lessons from Nazi experience" makes us go beyond the easy road of citing the Nazi programme as in itself an argument against genetic manipulation. The book would be worth reading for these two essays alone.

There follow two feminist essays, the second of which, by Marie Fox, is conspicuously bad tempered. I suppose it is necessary that feminist writers should be so rude; but it is a deterrent to reading them. Then comes an article, concentrating on an actual case from France, dealing with problems about frozen embryos "from a social science perspective". This, I fear, was the essay least intelligible to me. Next comes an interesting and increasingly relevant discussion by Justine Burley on the political question of who pays for assisted-conception techniques. There follow two legal discussions, one on the ownership of sperm and body parts, the other on consent to the use of ovarian tissue from aborted foetuses and dead women. Both, though short, are useful contributions to an ongoing debate. The co-editor of the book, S?ren Holm, contributes a clear, though not particularly original discussion of pre-embryo diagnosis. This is followed by a simple statement, virtually free from supporting arguments, of the Muslim perspective on all these questions. And finally there are two contributions on post-menopausal assisted births, neither of which succeeded in persuading me of their desirability. But I agree with Harris: one should not lose much sleep about the issue.

All in all, this is a worthwhile collection of new essays. Unfortunately its price will mean it will be bought only by libraries. But it deserves, nevertheless, to be widely borrowed. For we are all medical ethicists now; and bioethics must be one of the largest growth subjects there has ever been. It is all the more useful, then, to have a collection of essays all written in the kind of style associated with the best scientific journalism: not too technical, nor scaremongering (the prophets of doom, mostly from across the Atlantic, soon become tedious), not facetious (again American scientific popularisers have a terrible record here), and on the whole (with the exception mentioned above) equable.

Baroness Warnock was formerly mistress, Girton College, Cambridge.

The Future of Human Reproduction: Ethics, Choice and Regulation

Editor - John Harris and Soren Holm
ISBN - 0 19 823761 8
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £35.00
Pages - 254

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