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JAMES CARROLL

A procreation revolution

Abortion, marriage debates pale against the disagreements that await us

Joyce Hesselberth for the boston globe

The American heartland is confronting gay rights — and more. In Utah last month, and in Oklahoma last week, federal courts ruled against state-legislated bans on same-sex marriage. In Utah, the restriction of marriage to male and female had been defended in the name of “responsible procreation.” After the court ruling, the Mormon Church reiterated its opposition “regardless . . . of trends in society.”

Basic as the issues raised by gay marriage are, a deeper question runs below the surface. For well over a century, “trends in society” have been steadily but radically altering the meaning of “responsible procreation,” a mutation in human culture that is occurring without the approval of voters or the sanction of courts. Everything is changing, to paraphrase Einstein, except our way of thinking — which is why a historic alteration in the human situation can be mistaken for a mere trend.

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When masses of people moved from farms to factories in the 19th and 20th centuries, more changed than work habits. The shift sparked a demographic transformation that made large numbers of children a burden on material well-being, not a producer of it. Taking into account both the real needs of children in an altered economy and freshly perceived rights of women changed what it meant to be “responsible.”

That was one of two “trends” that allowed a radical change in how men and women procreated. At about the same time, reliable methods of contraception were emerging. This birth control revolution led to the separation of sex-for-fun from sex-for-babies — the first phase of the famous sexual revolution.

The great revolution of our time is not demographic but technological. Human reproduction is being separated altogether from male-female sexual intercourse. In vitro fertilization, surrogacy, and artificial insemination are by now well established parts of responsible procreation. Such methods readily enable gay couples, as well as single people, to become parents.

And this is no mere trend. The science of genetics is in its infancy. What happens to ideas of responsible procreation when — measured by the health and giftedness of offspring — reprogenetic technologies, in the lab, fully surpass “natural” reproduction tied to sexual intercourse, in bed?

It goes without saying that for now and into the foreseeable future, most conceptions will take place the old-fashioned way. But issues of human enhancement have already undercut traditional assumptions about reproduction. When babies of the affluent begin to routinely benefit from genetic enhancement, furthering the divide between rich and poor, questions of class may count for more than current arguments over gay rights and feminist demands. If the offspring of the privileged enjoy the physical and mental benefits of reprogenetics across several generations, will the age-old fantasy — a nightmare more than a dream — of a super-race come true?

Ethics has expanded to include bioethics, the consideration of moral implications embedded in medical technology. So far, though, society’s centers of authority seem ill-equipped to consider these profound shifts in what it means to be human. When it comes to reasoned reflection on unprecedented problems of right and wrong, churches that just say no to any deviation from traditional norms are useless. But so is our political realm — a wasteland where what bioethicists call “rational democratic deliberation” almost never occurs. As public furors over gay marriage, abortion, and even the once-settled question of contraception show, conflict over questions having anything to do with sex or gender is more polarized than ever.

The lack of ethical common ground on matters of sexuality, in fact, is itself what drives political paralysis. A vast majority of Americans quietly recognizes a gray area between, for instance, declaring that life begins at conception and viewing abortion as just another medical procedure. Yet the public debate reduces the issue to “life” versus “choice,” as if living and choosing are not universal values. Worse still, today’s hot-button arguments will pale in comparison with what new reproductive technologies inevitably provoke. By fixating on today’s seemingly unsolvable disputes, moralizing churches are sidelined from any discussion about reasonable guidelines for the future, thereby leaving regulation of reproductive innovation to markets — an ethical catastrophe.

Gay marriage is on the front burner now, but it is a subsidiary question when measured against those raised by the new biological sciences. Alas, whether the reproduction revolution is for good or ill in the long term depends on our capacity, in the short term, to seek the very moral consensus that our contemporary politics precludes.

James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.
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