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Prof Somerville discusses the ethics of medic -

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Prof Somerville discusses the ethics of medical breakthroughs

Broadcast: 28/05/2007

Reporter: Kerry O'Brien

Margaret Somerville is a world renowned Australian ethicist who founded the centre for Medicine,
Ethics and Law at McGill University in Montreal, and she is as controversial as the field she works
in. While hailing many of the scientific breakthroughs that have opened up some astounding medical
possibilities, Professor Somerville has published a book of lectures which argue that some of those
breakthroughs are setting up dangerous ethical dilemmas for society.


KERRY O'BRIEN: And now the science of medicine and the frontiers of research that just keep
changing as more and more momentous breakthroughs are achieved. None more than so than the related
fields of genetics and the new reproductive technologies. Margaret Somerville is a well renowned
Australian ethicist who founded the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at Montreal's McGill
University and she's as controversial as the field she works in. While hailing many of the
scientific breakthroughs that have opened astounding medical possibilities, Professor Sommerville
has published a book called of lectures called "The Ethical Imagination", which argues that some
breakthroughs are setting up dangerous ethical dilemmas for society. And while supporting civil
union for homosexual couples, she opposes same sex marriage because she says it legally recognises
a right for gay couples to have children. Margaret or Margot Somerville is here for the Sydney
Writers' Festival and I spoke to her today.

Margot Somerville, you've spent decades trying to define the ethical pros and cons thrown up by new
reproductive technologies, apart from other things. But is it a simple truth that the technology is
advancing too rapidly for society to actually keep up with the ethical dilemmas?

I think we have to try to keep up and sometimes it's hard and I think we also have to take into
account the very fact that maybe we're not keeping up. I describe it as we being the first
generation of humans ever who've held life itself in the palm of our collective human hand. We can
do things to life that no other humans have ever been able to do and when we realise the enormity
of that power and how unprecedented it is, all that I ask for is what I'd call "wise ethical
restraint", that we stand back, we sort of appreciate that and we try to be wise about what we do.
And also wise in not doing certain things that we could do. And that's hard, you know, it's hard to
make those decisions.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Let's look at some specific examples to try and tease out your arguments. What about
the woman about to undergo chemotherapy for cancer who has her eggs frozen to keep her hopes alive
of one day being able to bear a child?

MARGARET SOMERVILLE: I think that's perfectly acceptable and wonderful that we can now do that. In
fact it's a colleague of mine at McGill who successfully did that a few weeks ago. And I think
that's marvellous. That's a very good example of science solving an ethical problem rather than
creating one.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Take the woman who's frozen her eggs so her 7 year old daughter with future
fertility problems, because of a disease, can maintain the family's genetic line. If the daughter
ultimately has the mother's child which is brought up in a loving environment, where's the ethical

MARGARET SOMERVILLE: I've written an article on this as you probably know and that's actually a
case from Montreal that I'm involved in. Let's have a look.

First of all, the woman who gives birth to the baby, the gestational mother, is actually the half
sister. This child will be that woman's half sister or half brother. Secondly, it involves a
situation in which this daughter is having the child of her mother and the girl's husband. So what
do we think about that? Also, what about the child in terms of its genetic and family and
relationship identity? What does it mean that your grandmother is also your mother, and that your
father has had you with your grandmother?

Humans haven't, we could have done that naturally which is interesting and yet we've stringently
prohibited over huge periods of time, I think mainly because, well first of all for genetic
reasons. But secondly, I think because we've had this intuition that there's something wrong for
the child in that situation.

KERRY O'BRIEN: In fact the rights of the child seem to dominate your thinking?

MARGARET SOMERVILLE: They do, because for a whole lot of ethical reasons. Children are the only
ones who are not asked what they want to do in this situation. Secondly, children are the only ones
who don't give consent to this. Third, there's a doctrine emerging in ethics called anticipated
consent. Can we reasonably anticipate that what we're doing would be consented to by the people
most affected by it?

Now it's very interesting because coming out of Australia is a group of young people who contact me
constantly and they're the children from the original IVF done at Monash University because
Australia led the world in that at that time. They're now what they call themselves
"donor-conceived adults". They've got a website called Tangled Webs. And what they're doing is
they're lobbying that children should not be brought into the world in ways that deprive them of
certain rights and those rights are first of all a right to know who their biological parents are.

I believe they also include a right to a mother and a father which I think is going to prove to be
genetically important in their upbringing. It's a right to be reared in their own biological
family, both their immediate and extended one and most importantly - and this is what I'm working
on at the moment, which is extremely controversial and two years ago would have been thought as
science fiction - is making a shared genetic baby between two men or between two women.

And this is why I've got into awful trouble over my opposition to same sex marriage. Marriage gives
adults the right to do that. That's the problem with it.

KERRY O'BRIEN: When you talk about the growing evidence and you talk about that group of Australian
children who are now young adults - the so-called test tube babies - resent the circumstances of
their birth. But do they resent being alive?

MARGARET SOMERVILLE: Yeah I know, that's always the case isn't it. No, they don't, but they think
they could have been alive without this. There's an extraordinary new...

KERRY O'BRIEN: But in many instances they couldn't have been?

KERRY O'BRIEN: They wouldn't have been them probably, no. But when you read what they write. I read
this every other day practically. They write things like, "I get up in the morning and I look in
the mirror and half of me is missing, I walk down the street and look at men and think, maybe could
he have been my father?" We've just had in Canada a group of young people who contacted each other
on the Internet and all found out from their single mothers that they had all been born from the
same fertility clinic in Vancouver. They got together and got themselves genetically tested to see
if they were related. Two were a half brother and a half sister and the rest of them weren't. Kids
want to know this, and do you know when they most want to know it? They want to know it when
they're going to have a child of their own.

And hat they say is that "I feel this was done to me and now I'm going to do it in a way to my
child because my child won't know any further back than me."

KERRY O'BRIEN: Aren't there ways around that? Aren't there counselling programs now that is coming
to the fore, isn't it likely that better counselling processes will be developed to help those
children through childhood to come to grips with those questions?

MARGARET SOMERVILLE: But to deliberately create them knowing they're going to have a problem that
needs counselling, needs ethical justification.

KERRY O'BRIEN: But then by the same token you're not ethically opposed to an IVF birth for a
married couple?

MARGARET SOMERVILLE: I'm not opposed to man and a woman having a child whether naturally or through
IVF provided what we're doing - and the phrase I use is "repairing nature when it fails" - and most
IVF is you've got blocked fallopian tubes and what you're doing is you're getting around that, and
repairing nature when it fails.

What I've got a problem with, for example, to take an extreme example, would be making a sperm from
a woman's stem cell which is now possible, and using that to fertilise another woman's ovum. That
child has got no natural biological origins. That's what worries me.

KERRY O'BRIEN: You support the right of homosexual couples to have a civil union that protects
their various human rights but not gay marriage. Why isn't that, though, an exercise in semantics
in terms of whether it's a civil union or you call it a marriage?

MARGARET SOMERVILLE: Well, under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 23, it actually
says men and women have the right to marry and to found a family. So it's the "and to found a
family" that comes explicitly with marriage.

KERRY O'BRIEN: But you do acknowledge that a couple could be in a civil union and have a child
without the marriage anyway?

MARGARET SOMERVILLE: They could, but the point is that whether you want to give them the right to
have that family. That's the only argument I've got against same-sex marriage, that it gives same
sex couples a right, but it simultaneously takes away the right of children to have a mother and a
father, to know who their biological parents are and to be reared by them.

KERRY O'BRIEN: You've raised the possibility of genetic tampering to create a soldier class by
removing the gene that produces fear?

MARGARET SOMERVILLE: I'm not a geneticist, I just work with the geneticists. There's a possibility
that we could insert a hyperaggressivity gene. The Canadian scientists have done that with fish.
They found a fish that was hyperaggressive, they found the gene and they put it in nice kind of
mild sweet fish, and those mild fish became nasty and aggressive fish.

One thing we worry about is what if some kind of terrorist organisation decided it wanted a bunch
of really hyperaggressive soldiers or terrorists, you know. That's the sort of thing that we are
thinking about. One of the other big areas where we're looking at this and where I've been doing
some work is in bioterrorism. What about if we could design a weapon that would be specific to a
certain gene that only a given ethnic group had and we could go into a city and wipe out that
ethnic group and not affect anybody else.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Those are real issues?

MARGARET SOMERVILLE: Those are real things we're thinking about, yes.

KERRY O'BRIEN: You've said that "we", that is civilisation, "have made a mistake disconnecting
ourselves from nature". You talk about kids growing up by never climbing a tree, what does a kid
lose by never climbing a tree?

MARGARET SOMERVILLE: You see I think the more extraordinary our knowledge... and I like to talk in
images we understand. Like a tree, the higher a tree grows, the further its roots have go down in
order to be stable and survive. That's a good image with what is happening with science. Our new
science is spectacular, amazing, wondrous. I think of it as being like a laser beam going out into
the darkness of our own knowing.

The Japanese have a lovely saying, "As the radius of knowledge expands the circumference of
ignorance increases". So if you imagine it like a laser beam, here's our knowledge and here's this
huge circumference of ignorance. In order to first of all live with a certain degree of equanimity
with that, I think we've got to have one hand what I'd call "deep in the earth" to sort of know
those natural origins from which we come. To have profound respect for them so that we don't think
that doesn't matter, which is one of the danger of science that, we now think we've got all the
power in our hands and we can just use it without understanding what we might be doing.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Margot Somerville, thank you very much for talking with us.

MARGARET SOMERVILLE: It's been my great pleasure Kerry, lovely to meet you.