Nurturing Justice 24 (2007) - rewritten August 2008
We have to try to find a way to confront the burgeoning problems that are unfolding before our eyes - our God-given responsibility to care is in the balance. Caring for our bodily life is not just a private issue; it is part of our responsibility to promote public justice. It can't be any other way. Previously, I have invited readers to reflect upon the bizarre complexity that now confronts us and compare that with the Christian responsibility of William Wilberforce, so perceptively depicted for us in the recent feature film Amazing Grace. We need to learn how to think hard about these issues if our efforts are going to encourage a persistent and humble push for justice for as long as it takes. The exchange between Wilberforce and John Newton in the film - whatever its actual historical basis - reminds us that we can't start anywhere else than where we are now.
And that adds to, rather than subtracts from, to our problems. Why? Because the reigning public definitions of "where we are" in moral and ethical terms is an integral part of the nexus of problems unfolding before our very eyes. Authentically Christian news outlets need to be developed. Sight Magazine is a good example of what can be done simply be beginning from "where we are now".
Recently, an interview with the newly elected PM became the basis of an article published in Sydney's Daily Telegraph, with the headline "Public servants will advise me, not God, says Rudd".
A reporter asked the new PM whether he would "consult God" for advice about his legislative programme. Kevin Rudd's reply not only showed that showed he understood our political system and that the journalist did not. It also showed that he was aware of the public-political consequences of his utterances. As Prime Minister, he will be taking advice from the Government's public servants. This is simply what his office requires of him. But this insightful reply only incited the ignorant newspaper to make a sensational headline, outrageously suggesting that now Rudd was in office he could ignore God's claims upon his Government. The implication, shared by Radio talk-back shock-jocks and some Christian fundamentalists, was that this proved that Rudd had given voice to his faith merely to gain office. Once elected God could be forgotten.
It was scandalous when leaders of some Christian groups pounced on this deceitful head-line, and used it to sneer at Kevin Rudd's attempts to explain how he understands Christian discipleship. Christians wanting to patiently push for justice can only lament when self-serving spin (look at me I'm God's contemporary Elijah denouncing today's Ahab!) receives prominence in our public life. It confirms again, if we needed to be convinced, that Christian journalistic norms need to flower into genuine Christian news service. And let the emphasis of our efforts, as with our hopes and all our lives be just that: humble service.
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Let us then consider some examples of how the issues of "body politics" are presented in the mass media. Legislative initiatives to human IVF have been foreshadowed by the NSW and Victorian Governments. These issues go to the heart of "body politics" and they add a layer of bio-ethical complexity to any search for policies that will truly promote public justice.
But then, if we are going to discuss the issues to which the newspapers consistently call attention, we really have to be prepared to do the necessary research.
Let's briefly look at two newspaper articles from 2007. The Sydney Morning Herald of 28 November, "Sperm donors to veto recipients" http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2007/11/27/1196036893154.html begins this way:
Reproductive donors will be able to demand their sperm or eggs only go to certain religious, ethnic or cultural groups or be reserved for heterosexual couples … women who receive donations now can have a say on the background of the donor but donors will for the first time have the right under law to whom they donate. The office of the Health Minister, Reba Meagher, said yesterday the law was being changed because it was "in the best interests of the child for the genetic parent to have given consent to the circumstances surrounding the child's birth and upbringing … To put this in another way, it will not be in the child's best interests to discover later in life that their genetic parent has a fundamental objection to their existence or the social and cultural circumstances in which they were raised.
The Greens, not unexpectedly, have called for changes. Their MP, Dr John Kaye, objected on the grounds that this provision "gave egg and sperm donors the ability to specifically discriminate against single mothers, lesbian and ethnic and religious groups." Claiming that this would be a legal sanction for bigotry and prejudice, Dr Kaye is reported as saying: "[It] sends an appalling message that it is acceptable to discriminate on grounds that are irrelevant. It will also reduce the availability of donor sperm to single mothers, thus increasing the amount of self-insemination. This can have negative health consequences in some cases." A Melbourne University medical ethicist, Dr Cannold, claims that the NSW legislative proposal is offensive. She is quoted as saying that "The whole idea of donating is giving and I don't think you give gifts with those sort of conditions attached."
So we can ask: do the criticisms of Dr Kaye and Dr Cannold as here reported, address the rationale, the complex attempt to balance rights, as explained by the NSW Health Minister? I do not think that they do. The Minister says her concern is with a just recognition of the best interests of the child (later in life). These critics, on the other hand, complain that the needs of those who wish to avail themselves of publicly available seed will not only be disadvantaged, but their "reproductive rights" violated.
Even in that brief comparative contrast, based on a newspaper article, we meet a nest of problems. Is it appropriate for legislation to respect the rights of a future person? I would think so. On a wider scale, this is simply what "sustainability" is all about. The critics try to trump the Minister's view by an appeal to the needs of those whose "reproductive rights" must be respected. Is this appeal a valid basis for a criticism of the Minister's rationale? I don't think it is. But then my answers here are based upon what I have read in the press and a full examination of the legislation, the Minister and the elaborated arguments of these and other critics, may bring other issues to light.
For instance, from what we know of the legislation, and the reported comments of Dr Kaye, there are good grounds for viewing this as an attempt to counter the practise of self-insemination. Such practises must also involve serious health considerations. But as we consider this, we meet again the concept of "need" which is attached to those women who want to become pregnant and so proceed to collect male sperm in order to conceive a child. They are presented here in terms that suggest no only that they "need" the seed, but that they "need" any resultant fertilisation to be dissociated from the males who have donated. The question has to be asked, at this point, whether a women's need to conceive on the basis of a dissociation from the "male supplier" can be viewed as a valid (indeed a just) need. It may be true that such "concrete dissociation" takes place outside a context of normal medical oversight, supposedly with intermediaries providing a conduit. But the legislation, on the other hand, seems to be suggesting that the "needs" of sperm donors who do not want to be completely dissociated from what they give up will also be respected.
One begins to sense the a-normative path on which our society has been travelling for some decades. The path travelled to reach this juncture also requires our careful investigation. How did it ever get to this? We need careful historical analysis of how our public morality has been formed, and that will tell us a lot about the "core values" which make a claim in the contested arena of "body politics". The "situation itself" is not above criticism. For instance, how is it that we, as a society, have come to a situation where the Parliament is being asked to resolve complex legal problems that arise when males presume that can dissociate themselves from their own seed. Previously, a future father could walk away from his pregnant girl-friend; but now this dissociation has seemingly become a matter of donation, if it isn't a straight out commercial sale. What are the consequences for males to be legally dissociated from the seed their bodies have produced? What are we dealing with here? What will the outcome be?
The issues thus facing the NSW legislature can't be properly addressed without also reckoning with the further development of "body politics" (i.e. abortion, IVF, embryonic stem-cell research, euthanasia etc) in our public lives. And we come to the question of how we can justly define needs. What are the true needs in this situation that have to be protected by legislation?
I would suggest that in this context Dr Kaye and Dr Cannold are implicitly suggesting that the Parliament should consider the seed as a harvest from a non-personal source, as if it had grown on a terra nullius, or more accurately a personae nullius. They suggest that the only just way for Parliament to regulate IVF is to do so in ways that meet the needs of women who want to bear children by providing seed that must be legally dissociated from the males who supply it.
What does this mean? Does it not suggest that our society, via assisted reproductive technology legislation, is on the verge of accepting that the Parliament should legislate to validate the right of any adult woman who claims a need to bear a child? If so, the legislation is taking a path that assumes that the Christian viewpoint is no longer relevant, let alone normative, for the way in which we understand our bodies, our families, marriage and having children? But what is that Christian viewpoint from which this legislation so decisively diverges? That is a part of the complexity which we, as Christians seeking to promote public justice, cannot afford to ignore.
From a biblical standpoint the need to bear a child is not the burden of an individual woman who has come to an autonomous self-definition that she should be a mother. Neither is it the burden of an individual male who similarly decides that this woman should become a mother because he autonomously wishes to become a father. The need to bear a child should never be viewed as a self-creating instinct out of an autonomous goal-seeking individual. It is always a human response Coram Deo. And the biblical teaching concerning family is inextricably bound to what it reveals about marriage. The efforts to form normative family life is one side of a complex historical process, the other side of which is the necessary formation of a normative marital relationship based on mutual self-giving love. The "need" to have children is one that arises within marriage, between the future mother and father, and the wife who wants to bear a child does so not by giving her body as some kind of erotic sacrifice, but by presenting herself to her husband. That, in outline, is indicative of a biblically-directed view, and it is also to be noted that such a view is actually integral to the Christian understanding of the Kingdom of God in a very intimate way (Ephesians 5:21-33). In this view the marriage-family tapestry is integral to a way of life that tends to all our bodily cares in a gentle way, just as Christ has tended the needs of His Bride.
This can only be a normative orientation for the pathway our analysis should take as we investigate what is going on in our society. Clearly, we confront other religious impulses (in particular those of human autonomy) and as a result our legislature is now being petitioned with an alleged need to supply seed to all women who may request it. But that is where the legal question arises as to whether the distribution of the seed is to completely dissociate the "seed" from the "donor". Parliaments are being confronted with a need to legislate and this need is often interpreted as a way of meeting the child-bearing needs of women (ie in general) whether they are married, whatever their domestic circumstances and even if it arises from those who simply develop a craving to be a (single) mother.
At this point of the political debate, Minister Meagher, the communitarian, has drawn fire from the libertarians Dr Kaye and Dr Cannold who advocate a radical "freeing up" of human seed availability. Here we see the view that seeks recognition for the innate rights to expand the realm of a consumer's freedom. Such a libertarian view is evident in the second example from the Melbourne Herald Sun's December 14 front page headline: "Gays in historic IVF win".
Mr Hulls, the Victorian Attorney General, approves the "social progressive" label that is persistently applied to him. But what is so progressive, we might ask, about legislation that regulates non-marital human seed commerce? Dr Kaye appeals to allegedly widespread "unregulated" self-insemination in NSW, but Dr Hulls explains the Victorian legislation in this way: "The reality is that many Victorian children are already born to same-sex couples and to single women and yet those children don't enjoy the same legal protections as others. In most other states, same-sex couples and single women have had access to assisted reproductive technology for years but Victoria is lagging behind."
We should not let this pass. Such statements need to be explained. How is it that any child does not enjoy equal protection under the law? How has this situation arisen? The statement of Mr Hulls might help explain why he gives this legislation the "social progressive" label, but the subsequent statement does not elucidate the lack of legal protection for children born to same-sex couples and to single women. That is, it simply takes as its criterion for political progress what the wider "society", in this case the other state and federal Parliaments, via their legislation, have deemed fair and just. "Our laws in this area are out of date and have been found to breach federal discrimination laws." (BCW: He means "anti-discrimination laws").
At this point the article notes that the Law Reform Commission handed down its report in June, recommending "sweeping changes that would allow gay couples to adopt children and free up IVF for single women and lesbians." But these recommendations are not about the rights of children but of the rights of those who state they have a need for children.
You will notice that the word 'free up' is used in the Sun-Herald article. It is an interpretation of the law reform commission's recommendations that assumes human seed can now quite validly be viewed as a commodity for human commerce. Usually the phrase "free up" is used in terms of "free trade" and the dismantling of tariffs and other barriers. Here it is joined with "progressive" to imply that an exclusive connection with reproduction within (heterosexual) marriage would make IVF into a conservative violation of human rights. So, according to Mr Hulls, IVF "resources" should not be exclusively associated with "conventional" marriage (the "non-progressive" view of human relationships), but as a means for "innovative" use and so the barriers to "progressive" scientific research, surrogacy and IVF for all women who may wish to bear a child, are simply being removed.
Let me emphasize that what I am trying to do here is to take two newspaper articles and consider what they tell us about the moral complexity (and perplexity) that our society now confronts. In this debate we note a continual shift between alleged reproductive rights for all adults and the stated needs of some adult individuals to bear children. Usually this refers to women although you will note how the language is contorted through efforts to employ a non-gender specific legal nomenclature (i.e same-sex parenting) and hence it all become very ambiguous at a basic level.
Of course, at this point, we cannot avoid coming slap-bang into the middle of another contentious debate about our bodies, concerning the legal definition of marriage and human sexuality. It seems that no definitive resolution is in sight. The impact is seen with legislation which would accommodate child-bearing within a re-definition of human sexuality. And so we note the ongoing effort to legislate for, and thus (re)make child-bearing compatible with, "same-sex marriage". In this country the charge is being led by Justice Michael Kirby who says that the legal definition of marriage has to be re-defined in order to ensure "equal justice under the law for all". The problem, once more, is with the view of "equal justice under the law for all". Presumably such equality simply has to be ascribed on the basis of those who have a recognisable "need" to be seen to be married. The legal argument here confuses marriage with something else, a same-sex friendship nurtured by the mutual development of a committed long-term sexual bond. But it is not so much a desire for marriage as a desire to be viewed as married and a call for "equality" for those who want to view their same-sex friendship as a substitute for a married relationship between a husband and wife. And so, when it comes to child-bearing we see a transition from same-sex couples as responsible adults in a family (i.e. a lesbian couple rearing a child) which then becomes merged with same-sex marriage. The Herald Sun headline "Gays in historic IVF win" completes the cycle of confusion; the term "gay" is now used in a (neo-politically correct?) androgynous way.
Where will this debate now "turn"? Will the alleged "progressive" label that Minister Hulls affixes to his legislative proposals be maintained in the light of ongoing public and media scrutiny? The public moral debate will have to turn, sooner or later, to other questions: What is progressive legislation? And how does such a progressive attitude construe "needs" and how are they to be distinguished from pure market "demands"? Throughout this discussion, it has surely become evident, that our society has absorbed the "core values" of a materialistic and consumerist society at a very deep spiritual level. Are we not, in principle, dealing with a multi-dimensional realisation of consumerism applied to our own bodies? Is it any less human enslavement because we enslave ourselves to our needs?
The problems that emerge in all the media hype, and in all the political debate, show us that politicians are under intense pressure to simply accept human seed as a commodity of "use", which is somehow detachable from human responsibility. What does the implied detachment mean?
It might pay us to reflect upon the level of detachedness within our society? Are we really willing to accept that the role of biological father is a take it or leave it responsibility? There are big questions here which relate to questions about male and female accountability, but they are also about the way in which we seem to progressively tolerate the sustained objectifying of fellow human subjects.
But then, the NSW effort to re-attach a degree of accountability to those donating seed, has only emerged after decades in which sperm banks have been employing their combine-harvesters to fill their barns with male seed "no strings attached". The issues here are far-reaching and we should not under-estimate the degree to which we, by the public practises we have been condoning, have emptied ourselves of our own responsibility for each and all the resources that have been given to us (natural, social, personal). That God-given accountability remains with us until the one known as Emmanuel returns. His rule will prevail despite the whirl-winds of media spin, the manipulation of our instincts by rapacious commercial interest, the no-where land of gendered phobias and the deeply regressive "progressivism" of libertarian legislative agendas that know no bounds other than what they can legislatively impose.
December 2007, August 2008 © The contents of this email are copyright. Documents may be photocopied or retransmitted in their entirety but not otherwise reprinted or transmitted without permission. "Nurturing Justice" is a project to encourage Christian political reflection based upon wise and loving civic participation. Comments are welcome and should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org