Where should babies come from?: John Habgood considers the implications of a dead foetus becoming a genetic mother

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THE PHRASE 'designer babies' is a gross exaggeration. Yet medicine is introducing us to babies which are 'produced' rather than 'given'. This notion has become entertainable because the use of donors as a means of treating infertility has already moved us a long way towards it. From the choice about whether to have a baby by means of a donor, it is a small step to choices about what kind of baby, and from there, as experience in the United States has indicated, to litigation if the 'product' is not up to specification.

Doctors quite rightly have as their main concern the needs of individual patients. They are not to be blamed for wanting to push out the frontiers of medicine in the hope of bringing relief to those whose desperation confronts them daily.

But these concerns must also be examined from a broader ethical and theological perspective. The penalty for not doing so is to create a society in which the highly personal values people are expressing in their desire to have children could be progressively eroded by subtle changes in the concepts of procreation and parenthood themselves.

There is an irony, for instance, in the proposal to use ova from aborted foetuses, when it is the high rate of abortion for social reasons which has to a large extent reduced the number of babies available for adoption and so led to the present pressures on the medical profession to find new answers to the problem of infertility. What kind of a society is it which first kills its unwanted foetuses and then seeks to turn them into parents?

Analogies from transplant surgery, even that using foetal material, are not relevant when the use of germ cells is at issue. The moral difference between repairing people by using available tissues, and creating them from discarded germ cells, is enormous.

In trying recently to draw attention to the use of donors in infertility treatment as the root moral issue, I have not been so unrealistic as to suppose that it could at this stage be discontinued entirely. But to see where it has led us, and so be aware of the increasingly bizarre scenarios which might have to be faced, may encourage the search for alternative ways of tackling infertility.

A change in social attitudes - for instance, a positive recognition of the contribution made by childless couples - might remove some of the sense of isolation from the mainstream of society which feeds their desperation. So might a more restrictive attitude towards abortion, and less restrictive attitudes toward adoption. So might research directed even more urgently towards helping couples to procreate their own children, rather than children which are at least half someone else's.

The sad truth is that infertility treatment by the use of donors does not in fact cure infertility. It circumvents it by the introduction of a third party. The key moral and theological objections to it spring from this third party involvement. What recent and projected advances have done is to highlight the consequences of regarding human germ cells as no longer essentially and personally connected with the people in whom they originate. In other words, the division of the human body into transferable parts has been extended to that which carries the biological core of identity.

It is at this point that the public debate about infertility treatment needs to be linked with the debate about genetic engineering, in which issues of human identity are also at stake. How important is our genetic identity in forming the basis of our personal identity? From a theological perspective I would want to claim that our identity lies in the mind of God. But the givenness of our genetic inheritance is also basic to what we are, just as our bodies are, and our parents. There are, therefore, limits to the changes which can properly be made without threatening the very things which make us this person rather than that one.

When an adopted child wants to know his or her true parents, this is not an aberration but the pursuit of a basic instinct. For children conceived by the use of a donor there are additional uncertainties about who their true parents are. Which matters most, the womb that bore them, the genes that constituted them or the family that brought them up? The necessary secrecy surrounding the use of donors has vitiated the possibility of any well-founded research on the subsequent development of such children. The possibility of having a dead foetus as a genetic mother has merely sharpened a question which has always been there: is it right deliberately to bring children into the world who in this deep biological sense do not know who they are?

General information currently registered about the donors themselves can meet only part of the problem. It is perhaps significant that in the regulations governing the nature and extent of information about donors the emphasis is on the avoidance of marriage between offspring from the same donor. Little attention is paid to satisfying the search for personal identity.

Proposals to lift the secrecy on donors run into a different range of problems, centred on the visible intrusion of a third party into the marriage relationship. No doubt it can be argued that there are strong marriage relationships and altruistic donors mature enough to cope with the difficulties. It can also be argued that there are plenty of marriages into which third parties have intruded anyway. But to approve new regulations concerning parenthood in which the relational and the procreative functions have been divided between different people, with the added possibility that one of them may be dead, or not even born, seems to me to cut at the root of its meaning.

We have already produced a society in which the word 'parent' is ambivalent, and in which children may in the course of their development have to relate to a series of parent figures. We need to face the social and personal cost of further muddying the waters by official action.

From a Christian perspective the procreation of children is literally a participation in the creative activity of God. But it is not creation by any means or at any price. Its basis is love. Its means is a sharing by two people of their whole selves. And its result is an intimate relationship between parents and their children, which is a given fact, and in which biology and shared experience both play their part. One does not have to be a Christian believer to see that such a concept of the family has a strength and solidity about it which provides a secure basis for personal identity. There is good reason, therefore, to be worried by public policies which might further complicate or erode it. In particular there are dangers in introducing elements of consumerism into a set of relationships so intimate and so personal.

The opportunity given us by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to discuss such matters is welcome. But I hope discussion will include the broader issues I have tried to indicate. The long-term implications for a proper evaluation of our own humanity are profound.

The writer is Archbishop of York.

(Photograph omitted)