Children of a confused society

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A SCENE in the Woody Allen film Everything you always wanted to know about sex depicts a group of sperm about to be ejaculated. Suddenly, among the all-white sperm, a single black one appears. Looking around in puzzlement, he exclaims: 'What the hell am I doing here?'

It is a moment of great comic invention. But it is just that - an invention. In reality, sperm, like eggs, do not come colour-coded. That is a point worth remembering in the controversy about whether black women should give birth to white children.

A black Italian woman gave birth to a white baby after being implanted with a fertilised egg that she had insisted come from a white woman. A black British woman may be implanted with an egg from a white donor because no suitable black donors are available. On the furore arising from these two cases, most commentators seem to have taken their understanding of the genetics of race from Woody Allen, rather than from any science textbook. To understand these cases better, it is worth looking more closely at what we mean by 'race'.

Most of us can distinguish between the physical characteristics of the major racial groups. This universal ability has given rise to the idea that 'races' are real entities. But humanity is not like a Dulux colour chart with everyone falling into discrete categories. Human beings are composed of a constellation of characteristics, physical and mental, which shade into each other.

Modern science has demonstrated that a 'race' has no objective existence. Differences between individuals are far greater than any differences between races: 85 per cent of all genetic variation is among individuals within the same local population. A further 8 per cent is between local populations or groups within what is considered to be a major 'race' - say between English and Italians, or Ibos and Zulus.

Just 7 per cent of all genetic variation is between the so-called major 'races', such as Europeans and Africans. Of the 100,000 or so genes that make up an individual, only a handful determine what we see as conspicuous racial differences, such as skin colour.

Genetic variation between one Englishman and another or between one Jamaican and another therefore can be six times as great as between a 'typical' Englishman and a 'typical' Jamaican. Put another way, it is quite possible for a black woman implanted with an egg from a white woman to have a child genetically closer to her than if she had been implanted with an egg from a black woman.

The distinction we make between different races is entirely subjective. There is nothing in human biology that suggests skin colour - or other physical characteristics - should be used to divide humanity into discrete groups. That we do so is a product of our society, not our biology.

While nature may not label eggs or sperm - or indeed human beings - as 'black' or 'white', society certainly labels its citizens that way. We live in a society that values white citizens more than black citizens. A society in which a former French prime minister describes Arabs as 'smelly', in which a British Conservative Party leader warns of our culture being 'swamped by aliens', and in which one of Italy's leading novelists, Umberto Eco, despairs that immigration will lead to an 'inexorable change in habits and unstoppable interbreeding that will change the colour of skin, hair and eyes'.

It is a society in which black people have less chance of jobs, are generally confined to poorer housing, are more likely to be arrested or abused by the police, and are increasingly likely to be the victims of racist attacks.

It is in this context that we need to understand the controversy over transracial implantation. When the Italian mother (and why, I wonder, is she referred to in the press as a 'Third World woman'?) decided to have a white child, she was only adopting the values that Western society has imposed. And she was doing so not out of racism, but to protect her child from it.

There is nothing new in this. Throughout history, oppressed people have often felt compelled to make similar decisions. Slaves in the US often allowed their children to grow up in white households, knowing they would have a better life. Many Jews in Nazi Germany tried to forge 'Aryan' papers to hide their backgrounds. Many Afro-Caribbeans today try to straighten their hair or lighten their complexion to look 'whiter'. Mothering a white child is just another way of trying to protect yourself or your family from the malign effects of racism.

The problem is not one of runaway science or technology. It is the artificial way our society grades people according to colour. If we lived in a non-racist society, it would be as immaterial whether a child was black or white as whether it had big or small feet. Yet the overwhelming response in this case has not been to condemn and take steps to eradicate the racism that led this woman to take such a desperate measure, but to condemn the scientific technique that allowed her to do so. Politicians seem quite happy to live with a society that grades people according to colour, but find it obscene that one black woman should do the same to protect her child. That in itself is an indication of how deeply racism runs in our society.

The British woman, unlike the Italian mother, has not chosen to have an egg from a white donor. The shortage of black donors has meant that her doctor is considering using a white donor instead. The British Medical Association, however, has expressed concern because 'every attempt should be made when employing these technologies to create as normal an outcome as possible'.

Yet why is a black woman giving birth to a white child any more abnormal than a blue-eyed woman giving birth to a green-eyed child, or a brunette giving birth to a blonde?

Over the years hundreds of babies have been born as a result of implantation techniques. All have been genetically dissimilar to the women in whose womb the egg was implanted. No one made a fuss about these differences. But a single case of a black woman who might be implanted with a 'white' egg has caused a national storm. Surely, what is abnormal is a society that decrees skin colour is of such importance.

The logical consequence of the argument for a ban on transracial implantation is a ban on transracial relationships. That used to be called apartheid.

(Photograph omitted)