Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Margaret Somerville's mystical twaddle

For those not in the know, Margaret Somerville is yet another would-be "public intellectual," getting in on the ground floor of the bioethics industry, and holding several positions at McGill University. She has a clutch of honorary degrees and other credentials. She is, in other words, highly regarded in academe. And for the life of me, I can't understand why.

The other day, she wrote yet another op-ed piece that was published in the Ottawa Citizen. This time she wasn't peddling her usual
covert theology dressed up as ethics--her social conservative, anti-choice and anti-same-sex-marriage agenda. Instead, she decided to take a shot at adoptive parents. And to do so, she invoked mystical notions of blood that echo (sorry, Mike Godwin) the discredited Nazi doctrine of Blutsgefühl (blood feeling). That takes a little explanation, and here it is.

The article, entitled "The rights of the unconceived," is primarily concerned with so-called "genetic orphans": the product of embryos donated to couples who wish to have children but for various reasons cannot conceive. Somerville argues that the rights of the pre-conceived are being violated: that "a growing number" of people conceived in this fashion have been "speaking out forcefully against the way in which they were brought into being." She offers no statistics or references, and only one actual quotation: from a person who refers to a "genetic bond" that one allegedly "can't annul." From there, she segues into the "loss of genetic kinship" felt by some adoptees. This sense of loss has led, as we all know, to the formation of find-your-real-parents lobby groups that were recently successful in obtaining changes to Ontario's adoption legislation, which now effectively allows all such unhappy adoptees to track down their birth mothers. (These changes were challenged in the courts under the Charter, and the challenge was upheld literally minutes ago--I'll be blogging on this shortly. --DD)

"Genetic relationship," Somerville asserts, "goes to our deepest roots of who we are and to whom we bond." "We have ethical obligations," she claims, "to heed these sentiments." And finally, "We have also 'known for a long time' that, in general, children do best when they know their biological mothers and fathers, and are reared by them within their own immediate and wider biological families."

Now, as an adopted child myself, I missed out, somehow, on the mysterious DNA-to-DNA yearning that, once satisfied, is supposed to tell me who I am. And as a stepfather, I have found it possible to raise children in a loving environment without a mystical bond of blood. On the issue of adoption, and not to argue for its superiority but merely to counter Somerville's unproven and unreferenced assertions, one might point out that adoptive parents spend more money on their kids, find more time for parent-child activities, are more likely to involve their kids in extracurricular activities, and also more likely to be involved with their children's school.

But there is more to this than poor argument and glib pseudo-science. Somerville's arguments are frankly dangerous.

The reduction of humanity to one's biology--sociobiology, now called evolutionary psychology in some quarters--is a suspect notion, used (among other things) to buttress the claims of racial supremists such as Phillippe Rushton and anti-Semites like Kevin McDonald (who argues that Jews are genetically programmed to subvert white Christian culture). I suggest, with the authors of an article that Somerville dishonestly dismisses as "politically correct," that we are far more than the prisoners of our genes, and that we can love and rear children without any biological connection whatsoever. I have seen no evidence to the contrary, and Somerville produces none in her article.

This would all seem self-evident, in fact--unless one attributes almost supernatural powers to blood and lineage, which Somerville seems to do.
Talk of "genetic relationships" that "go to our deepest roots of who we are" dismisses culture and society in one fell swoop, and offers instead a metaphysical (and hence unprovable) claim that who and what we are as individuals and as a society is reducible to sequences of amino acids. But at the same time, and perhaps paradoxically, underlying this reductionist scientism is a frankly mystical notion of blood bond. Somerville applies it in this instance to families, but it was, once upon a time, attributed to entire "races." Those who accept Somerville's arguments and assertions too readily, because they happen to conform to social conservative and theological prejudices, should pause and consider for a moment just where such "philosophy" has taken the world in the not-so-distant past.

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