Reproductive Rights in the Transhuman Future

I was recently asked to film a talk by David Pearce, philosopher and co-founder of international transhumanist organization Humanity+. The presentation, entitled “Towards the Abolition of Suffering,” outlined a future in which humans eliminate all sources of pain, including even carnivorous behavior in the animal kingdom. Transhumanism advocates the use of technology to develop humanity beyond its current physical and cognitive limitations, via such means as smart prosthetics and implants. In doing so, transhumanists seek to direct evolution towards a post-human state. This end goal is often framed in utopian terms: as alleviating suffering, prolonging life and allowing human beings greater control over their destinies. Most transhumanists are steadfast individualists, believing in the right to adapt their own bodies as they wish—not for medical purposes, but for life enhancement. The specific subject of Pearce’s talk was abolitionismin the sense of the term first coined by Lewis Mancini—within the transhuman context. For transhumanists, abolitionism refers to the use of biotechnology for the maximization of pleasure and minimization of suffering in all sentient life. It is a philosophy inspired by utilitarian ethics: if happiness equals value, then the elimination of suffering or maximization of value should be the main objective of humanity.

What stood out in the presentation was that proposed solutions to suffering often involve the control of reproductive systems in both humans and animals. Pearce outlined several areas of suffering: physical and psychological pain, animal slaughter in factory farming and the food chain in the natural world. The most common excruciating pain half the population are ever likely to face—that of childbirth—was not mentioned.

The proposals to alleviate both physical and psychological pain involved the genetic engineering of embryos, so that the future generations could have higher pain and emotional distress thresholds. There was some mention of how pre-implantation genetic diagnosis is currently most common in India and China. Whilst Pearce acknowledged that this has led to a massively skewed ratio of men to women, due to the mass abortion of female fetuses, this point was given no further consideration during the talk.

Pearce suggested genetic engineering solutions to change the aggressive characteristics of carnivores in the animal kingdom, and proposed the administration of contraceptives. He even argued that it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if carnivorous animals, such as lions, were to become extinct, backing up this argument by displaying the image of a lion attacking its prey alongside mugshots of several notorious serial killers. Religious allusions also abounded in the talk. The opening slide displayed a quote from the Buddha and, later, a photo of a lion lying down with a lamb. One of the final slides showed a stairway to heaven, accompanied by another uplifting quote, this time—rather surprisingly—from the nineteenth-century French epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin: “The limits of pleasures are as yet neither known nor fixed, and we have no idea what degree of bodily bliss we are capable of attaining.”

It would be easy to dismiss Pearce as a crank, but, since he is a prominent figure within transhumanism, it is important to shed light on his ideas. Transhumanists wield enormous power in Silicon Valley—counting entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk and Peter Thiel among their believers—and have established think tanks such as the Singularity University and the Future of Humanity Institute. The ideas proposed by the pioneers of the movement are not simply abstract theoretical musings, but are being embedded into emerging technologies at organizations such as Google, Apple, Tesla and SpaceX. Furthermore, the technological advances advocated by transhumanists—particularly artificial intelligence and genetic engineering—have great potential for misuse.

The development of new reproductive technologies raises a number of ethical dilemmas. The control of female reproductive systems is a perennial battleground—debates around prostitution, abortion and surrogacy are currently raging. Relevant medical interventions, which have produced varying degrees of harm and success, have included the introduction of forceps in the eighteenth century; a sometimes fatal combination of morphine and scopolamine; and enemas combined with dichloride of mercury douches. Obstetric violence recently became the subject of national protests in Croatia, after MP Ivana Nincevic-Lesandric’s revelations of the physical abuse she underwent during a miscarriage were met with cries of recognition on the part of her fellow countrywomen, who shared their own similar horror stories. The possibilities that new technologies bring, as suggested by Pearce, thus raise concerns about the extent to which women will be granted autonomy over their own bodies, and about who will get to decide which rights will be granted them.

Whilst commercial surrogacy is banned across the EU, it is legal in countries such as Russia, India, Ukraine and a number of US states. Some other countries—including Greece, the Netherlands, Portugal and the UK—allow altruistic surrogacy, but the legislation is often unclear. Some are supportive of commercial surrogacy, due to the opportunity for parenthood it provides for same-sex and other couples unable to conceive naturally. Conversely, some argue that treating women’s bodies as a resource to be bought is exploitation, and that it is the poorest women who are most likely to participate, for want of other employment possibilities.

For many, prostitution is very different from surrogacy, since the latter practice benefits from the image of woman as life-giver, committing the ultimate act of self-sacrifice. However, in both cases, women’s bodies are, to some extent, being treated as a commercial product. The risks a woman undergoes during pregnancy should not be underestimated, nor should the psychological impact of carrying a baby to term and birthing it, only to then have it taken away. Whilst some may argue that this is a matter of individual choice, there have been cases in which desperate women, who have broken the law by acting as illegal surrogates, have been forced to raise the resulting children themselves. After the discovery of an illegal surrogacy service in Cambodia, thirty-three pregnant women were released from jail on this condition. In another high-profile case, a surrogate in Thailand carried a baby boy for an Australian couple. The couple were initially accused of abandoning the child when the surrogate refused to have the abortion they requested after detecting Downs Syndrome, but they were later cleared of the charges. The case throws up some of the complex issues surrounding both surrogacy and the genetic testing of fetuses.

Womb transplants are at the current frontier of reproductive technology. The first successful birth to a woman who received a womb from a dead donor took place in Brazil in 2017. Prior to this, there had already been thirty-nine womb transplants using live donors, which resulted in eleven babies. These developments raise further questions, such as whether womb transplants may work for transwomen. Transhumanism’s mantra of better, not well would support such procedures, not on account of medical need, but for the sake of the pursuit of happiness. However, when the wellbeing of more than one life —in this case, those of donor, recipient and child—is at stake, things become more complex. Given the legislation and cultural practices that continue to dictate the reproductive rights of females across the globe, it seems prudent to consider the potential impact of new reproductive technologies on women’s rights. Further issues—such as whether such procedures should be funded by the state—arise if the law considers the conception and gestation of a child as not only as a personal choice, but a right.

While the genetic engineering of future offspring could be beneficial, it also poses a number of ethical questions. Genetic diversity plays an important role in the survival of a species, and it is virtually impossible to determine what impact tampering with natural genetic variations may have on this. Directing the evolution of living beings in this way could leave them open to the spread of epidemics, and may prevent the natural development of new and beneficial traits.

Although transhumanism attracts people with a diverse range of interests and political leanings, libertarians are disproportionately represented, as are atheists. Many transhumanists argue that their philosophy is based upon Enlightenment principles and grounded in reason, and reject accusations that they are playing god. The Transhumanist Bill of Rights states that “All sentient entities are hereby entitled to pursue any and all rights within this document to the degree that they deem desirable—including not at all.” Thus, any new reproductive technologies should remain a matter of choice. However, the personal choices of some have the potential to affect the rest of humanity and other life on the planet if, for example, those choices curtail genetic diversity. In addition, a new cultural hierarchy could arise due to the adoption of new reproductive methods—through no fault of the transhumanist principles themselves.

It is therefore essential that any new reproductive technologies be fully explored not only for their physical impacts, but also with a view to possible conflicts of rights. Some transhumanists are entrepreneurs at pharmaceutical and medical technology companies. The advisor to the board of Humanity+, for example, Martine Rothblatt, is a transwoman who has undergone bodily transformation. In her role as CEO of United Therapeutics, Rothblatt was the top earner among CEOs in the pharmaceutical branch in 2018. The company is known to be developing manufactured organs for transplantation. Rothblatt clearly has a commercial interest in the marketing of these products for recreational, as well as medical, purposes. In many ways, this is a tough sell. Dystopian sci fi and the specter of Frankenstein’s monster have stoked fears of emerging technologies. But such marketing is a whole lot easier with an ideological movement behind it, a movement which supports bodily adaptations as a route to happiness.

Within abolitionism, medical intervention is often proposed as a solution to suffering, and framed in pseudo-religious terms, in an attempt to normalize the concept of human beings at one with technology. For example, in the preamble to Pearce’s talk, he referred to human beings as “organic robots.” If we see bodies as little more than parts, to be artificially generated, assembled and disassembled, we need not associate them with human rights, nor should any biological process be viewed as exclusive to any particular group. Some transhumanists view a wish to obtain satisfaction from natural bodily functions, such as carrying a baby to term and experiencing the various associated biological and emotional sensations, as anti-progress. To be fair to Pearce, it was perhaps beyond the scope of his presentation to explore the consequences of new reproductive technologies, but, in our enthusiasm at the possibilities new technologies may bring, we should not overlook the potential cultural upheavals that may accompany them.

Some champions of transhumanism claim that it would be liberating to free women from responsibility for gestation and childbirth, but this assumes that the physical state of pregnancy is the only burden women face—rather than societal attitudes towards pregnant women and mothers. It would clearly raise many potential ethical dilemmas and conflicts of rights if, for example, to gestate naturally were eventually seen as inferior. Since women remain under-represented in STEM, new reproductive technologies and the theories surrounding them will largely be developed by those who will never carry a baby to term themselves. It is therefore especially important that the interests of women are represented, and their rights protected. As progressives, it is important to fully explore and embrace inevitable technological progress, with all the life-enhancing possibilities such new developments bring. However, we should also give full consideration to all the potential implications of these changes—and not allow them to be foisted upon us by the astroturfing of corporations or as a result of corrupt political interests.

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8 comments

  1. A human being is NOT a noun, it is a verb. You are a system, you are your genetics and their expression and your environment and your upbringing. You are every meal you have ever eaten, every conversation you have ever had, you are every act of love you have ever committed or been exposed to. You are every second of every minute of every day of your life since the moment of your conception. You are the expression of a series of interacting processes going back to the very moment of the formation of the multiverse and you expect to short-circuit all of that? You think you know better than billions of years of evolution? You think you can take all of what you are and download that and it will be the same as you? You think you can remove the chemical processes, the genetic operations, the microbiome and everything else that makes you human and it will somehow be just the same as you? The word for that is Hubris, at best.

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    1. Patrick, there are indeed some transhumanists who believe in “mind-uploading”. Like you, I’m personally sceptical that consciousness can emerge at some unspecified level of computational abstraction. Yet the project of getting rid of (involuntary) suffering throughout the living world doesn’t depend on mind-uploading or post-human superintelligence, just the use of recognisable extensions of existing technologies – not least preimplantation genetic screening, CRISPR genome-editing and synthetic gene drives. You talk of “hubris”. Maybe so! By temperament, I’m a super-pessimist. But recall that humans already interfere – massively – with Nature. So the question isn’t really whether we should interfere with natural selection, but rather what principles, if any, should guide our interventions. Thanks to biotech, the level of suffering in the biosphere is now an adjustable parameter. What level of suffering in the living world do you think is optimal?

  2. Dear Yvonne Lake!

    You forgot to mention that modern transhumanists are not pioneers. Hitler was. And he did his job very efficiently without any advanced technology.

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  3. Without carnivores there would be no plants left within a few months, as herbivores would have eaten them all. These transhumanists are extreme crackpots.

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