Bioethics News

Doin’ what comes natur’lly

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A new medical technology encounters the most resistance when Joe Bloggs thinks it is “unnatural”. If you nailed a placard to a door with the words “plague within”, politicians could not run away fast enough. So the approval of challenging new technologies often depends on reframing the debate either to make them appear natural or to whisk the word away.

After decades of experience with debates about the “naturalness” of IVF, mitochondrial donation, homosexuality, hybrid embryos, GM foods, animal experimentation, cloning, surrogacy, gamete donation and so on, the UK’s Nuffield Council on Bioethics has taken the bull by the horns and written a position paper on “naturalness”. (Summary here. Full report here.)

Since the philosophical debate over naturalness is at least 2,400 years old, a committee of British panjandrums is unlikely to come up with new ideas, but it could give the government an arsenal of arguments to justify controversial policies.

The idea of naturalness is never far from the centre of bioethical discourse. “How dare you refer to my beautiful children as ‘synthetic’?” tweeted Elton John in March 2015 in an argument with Dolce and Gabbana. Bishop Keenan of Paisley argued that a technique to prevent mitochondrial DNA disorders “distorts the natural process of fertility” when it was being debated in Parliament in February.

As the Council’s report points out, the word is susceptible to many interpretations and often people talk at cross purposes.

The report sets out five understandings of naturalness that show the different ways in which the terms “natural” and “unnatural” are used:

Neutral: a neutral/sceptical view that does not equate naturalness with goodness.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.