The Crisis in Embryo

The new forms of subordination and war are death at its most stark; embryonic stem cell research is presented as the opposite — the production of life as a raw material for scientific research that may save people from the living deaths of Parkinson’s, MS, motor neurone disease and many other conditions. Its proponents argue that any opposition to it can only come from a literal religious standpoint, and any attempt to argue for a general moratorium is thereby oppressive. The opposition — substantially but not wholly from religious groups — has by and large argued that possible negative consequences at the level of the social and cultural whole make a universal moratorium or ban on selected practices legitimate. Death and life, they argue, are not so easily separated.

The latter group have their work cut out for them because social transformation or culture death is difficult to point to, while the individual benefits of such procedures can end up on the front page of the newspaper, smiling from their hospital beds.

Yet the limited degree to which the public has taken these arguments on board — largely in the wake of animal cloning — should be cause for guarded optimism, if one remains cognizant of the long-time frame within which such battles may be fought. As human life becomes increasingly abstracted, commodified, manipulable and dehumanised, a wider sense of foreboding spreads. It remains a minority opinion, but it is a level of awareness far beyond any that could have been hoped for at the beginning of IVF or multiple organ transplants — the first practices to make visible the cultural and moral dilemmas that occur when ‘life’ can be isolated from ‘being’.

Doubtless many readers will disagree with the tenor of this note. From a materialist left perspective, biotechnology is simply a further march along the road to human freedom, and social and political control of it determines whether it will be an ‘alienated’ process or not. True, some of the opposition comes from a religious quarter that is essentially medieval and — at its root — anti-enlightenment and anti-science. But, as numerous writers in this magazine and our other publications have argued, developments such as biotechnology bust open the left-right spectrum absolutely, and are uninterpretable within it.

These technical developments prompt society to a process of reflection on the grounded and embodied nature of meaning, existence and ethics. That in turn should prompt us to a wider reflection on our relationship to science and technology, and the manner in which we will develop a relationship to them. Our understanding of the way in which they transform life must be joined to our knowledge of how to use them to transform living.

From these general observations, two particular strategic ones can be made. The first is that it is imperative to affirm that the debate, and continued struggle to foreground debate, more and other than politics as such — if politics be taken as conducting the matters of the polis, the community-state. It is a struggle over onte, being, the conditions for the possibility of politics. Nothing could be more foolish, or more arrogant than the Victorian and NSW Premiers’ militant and unreflective approach to such a matter. Yet if one confusedly sees this issue as bounded by the ‘political’ their conduct falls neatly into the category of the progressive enlightenment, and the long march against ignorance. The second is that discussion of the real and myriad technical problems of these processes can be counterproductive if it takes us away from the determination to foreground what this all means for the human beings we will become.

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