Family Values

Book review of Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People by Philip Ball

Books Literature Technology

Brave new life: But are there unforseen negative consequences of new reproductive technologies? (Getty)

Forty years have passed since a human egg was first fertilised outside the womb and 30 since the birth of the first child so conceived. During this time, countless other children have been born and even more exotic ways of producing them have begun to be devised, such as by cloning. 

To champion the new reproductive technologies is the central purpose of Philip Ball’s book. He claims too much opposition to them stems from antiquated and outmoded notions about what is natural and about the value of conforming to nature’s ways of accomplishing things.  

As Ball rightly notes, initial resistance to these new technologies invariably abates as they become more widely adopted and their often heralded catastrophic consequences fail to materialise. However, he contends, too much unnecessary human suffering remains from their continued opposition. 

To demonstrate how baseless all such opposition is, Ball undertakes a cultural history of anthropoeia, a term he coins for the artificial production of humans. By recounting its portrayal in myth, religion, literature and science, Ball hopes to show how groundless are current scruples about the new reproductive technologies. In harbouring them, he claims, opponents of them remain victims of outmoded beliefs and values from which they should be liberated. 

To do this, Ball assembles a collection of legendary and fictional products of anthropoeia. Having exposed the misplaced anxieties he claims they express, he then assesses genuine reproductive technologies.

Ball rightly identifies as their primary opponents those who suppose nature the handiwork of a divine creator who has endowed it with intimations as to how best humans should live. According to this teleological conception of nature, its favoured way of making babies is that for which they should opt, provided they do so within marriage, an institution construed as equally natural to man’s estate. Among other reasons, nature’s way is considered best because it optimises children’s chances of receiving adequate care during the dependent years.

In all the purported grounds for resisting the new technologies, Ball sees only callous indifference to those who without recourse to their use must remain childless.  

Consider IVF, for example. When first introduced, it was intended only for otherwise infertile married couples. It is now routinely used to supply children to single mothers and gay and lesbian couples. The suggestion that such untraditional “families” might offer a less than ideal environment within which to raise children is now practically taboo. 

Ball shows himself in complete agreement with the new morality by vehemently disputing the suggestion that technologies such as IVF risk impairing the quality of care that children conceived by their means are likely to receive. Ball writes: 

“This is so astonishingly ignorant that one has to suspect it stemmed from some unvoiced fantasy. There is not […] any firm evidence that adopted children or stepchildren are less fostered and supported by their parents, despite in this case even the absence of genetic kinship. Nor is there any evidence that this is so for children born of IVF.”

Since, for all except married couples, IVF is still a very recent phenomenon, it is far too early to be able to tell what possible effects its use outside marriage might have upon children conceived by it. However, in denying there is any firm evidence that they might fare worse than those raised by both biological parents, Ball betrays astonishing ignorance, or else alarming indifference to due standards of scientific scholarship.

Is Ball truly unaware of the countless studies purporting to cite conclusive evidence that children in general fare best when raised by both parents? If he is, but thinks such studies flawed, why does he not explain where and why they are?  

To refuse even to consider them discredits Ball’s entire book. It renders it nothing better than elegant erudite propaganda in the ongoing cultural war against the traditional family and the values and beliefs that have traditionally sustained it.