Unit Three: Natural Law and Reproductive Ethics

In many countries, there is supposed to be a separation of Church and State. However, many societal norms, bioethical views, and, as a result, laws today are still intertwined with religion. It is difficult to separate the two since religion is used to guide people about what is morally acceptable.

Donum Vitae is a clear example of using religion to dictate what is morally acceptable. Shannon and Cahill have extreme views about what is moral and immoral. For example, children must be “the fruit of marriage,” so heterologous artificial fertilization and surrogate motherhood are not allowed because it goes against the unity of marriage (Shannon and Cahill 157). Homologous in vitro fertilization (IVF) is wrong because it separates procreation and the conjugal act. Homologous artificial insemination does not replace the conjugal act and can only be used to facilitate “the act [to attain] its natural purpose” (Shannon and Cahill 166). For those who are sterile and cannot use artificial fertilization, they recommend adoption or assisting other families and children.

Shannon and Cahill did present their arguments in a logical manner, and I understand their logic given their beliefs. However, I honestly disagree with most of this article because I do not agree with their beliefs. First, I do not agree that children must be a result of marriage or that procreation and the conjugal act must be connected. Additionally, I do not like some of their wording. For example, they discussed that researchers should work to find causes of sterility so that we can prevent it. I agree with this; however, I do not like that they then said that it will help sterile couples so that they can procreate “for their own personal dignity” (Shannon and Cahill 169). I do not think that one’s dignity should be equated to whether or not someone can or wants to have kids. However, if we need to have children for our own personal dignity, why would we not support using artificial fertilization to help people? If we are supposed to reproduce and we were given the knowledge and ability to create artificial reproductive technologies (ART) to help people reproduce, why should we not use it?

Unlike Donum Vitae, the role of religion is not as clear in regards to the laws and bioethical views towards ART in France, which Ball discusses in “The Reemergence of Enlightenment Ideas in the 1994 French Bioethics Debates.” Overall, I thought the timeline of the legality and morality of ART in France was intriguing because they kept shifting their stance. In most of the 19th and 20th centuries, ART was seen as “repugnant to natural law” (Ball 548). It was banned in hospitals until the first government-sponsored sperm bank was established in 1973. Then in 1978, ART became completely covered by the national health insurance system with an infertility diagnosis, whereas other medical procedures are normally reimbursed up to 80%. However, the motives behind this were to increase births after decreasing birthrates during the 1970s. However, in the 1980s public attention went to controversial cases, such as if a woman was allowed to use her deceased husband’s sperm to have a child. Finally, the French National Assembly passed laws in 1994 that only sterile, heterosexual couples of procreative age can use artificial insemination and IVF procedures.

This decision had clear political motives: to protect the traditional family structure. They saw this imminent disruption of the typical family structure via the use of ART as bad for two reasons. First, they viewed a nation as a combination of several families, so each individual family was the foundation of their society. As a result, they wanted to maintain the traditional family structure to keep a strong foundation of individual families to keep the nation stable. Second, they thought providing ART to those who were not heterosexual or not of reproductive age was unnatural because they cannot “naturally” have children. Ball presents Rosseau’s argument to counter this idea of what is natural. Using ART for those who are not heterosexual or of reproductive age is only unnatural if the concept of natural is static instead of dynamic. Rosseau argues that these static, “natural laws” may actually be subjective laws “developed from observations of their own society” (Ball 579). Therefore, we should not be keeping ART from most people who may benefit from it. This idea of what is natural being dynamic also may cause problems in Shannon and Cahill’s arguments of when ART should be used.

A question I had when reading the Ball article was how much of an influence did religion have in the formation of the traditional family structure? Although the Church and State separated in France before 1994, I would expect religion still influenced societal norms, like it does today, which can then influence the laws put in place. Was France still a relatively Catholic country during this time or did this idea of the traditional family structure persist even though France was no longer very religious? Or is the traditional family structure independent of religion altogether? Additionally, what were the stances in other countries about ART during this time?

One question I had throughout both of these readings is why do we tend to view things as static and resist change, especially regarding bioethical issues? It seems reasonable to me that our understanding of what is natural and moral would evolve as our understanding of the world develops over time. I think it may come back to the role of religion. In Genesis 2, God made the tree of life that has knowledge of good and evil. But does this mean that things are either good or evil or is it a spectrum of good to evil? If we view good and evil as two distinct categories, that could contribute to viewing things in a more static mindset. However, I think it is more realistic that good and evil is a spectrum and that many of these bioethical issues fall somewhere in between good and evil. If we consider it a spectrum, then it may be easier to adjust our view on an issue as we learn more about it and learn more about the world in general. This view that good and evil is more of a spectrum instead of a dichotomy could help remind us that what is natural is dynamic, not static.

Furthermore, I think these discussions about bioethical issues are important to have, especially in today’s society which is so polarized. However, I find it difficult when there are things that I simply do not agree with, such as the fact that a child needs to be born via “natural” measures to married man and woman. Is there a way for Shannon, Cahill and me to come to an agreement on what circumstances reproductive technology is moral even though we disagree that a child is the fruit of marriage?

Unit Two: Reproduction and Cosmology February 10

1. Clifford Geertz, “Thick Description” from The Interpretation of Cultures (Basic Books, 1973).

Geertz’s “Thick Description” opens by introducing the concept of the “new idea” as though the reader should have a firm grip on what concept he is referencing (Geertz 310). While a bit mysterious, this somewhat surprising introduction hooks the reader by appealing to a sense of curiosity. I wonder if this sense of mystery would have been absent had I read an associated prior work or chapter.

The first page declares that the “new idea” mentioned inevitably transitions from a thing of infinite potential to an importance that lacks the potential it once held (Geertz 310). Gertz argues that the anthropological works he will reference work to transition anthropological findings in this way to ensure long-held importance.

          The text reads as a critique of a good portion of anthropological thought. Some blatant examples of this critical tone include a critique of a work by describing the author’s similes as a result of «desperation” and framing “little stories” by Oxford scholars as things they “like to make up for themselves” (Geertz 311-312).

          He defines various terms through his own perspective, such as anthropology as the study of culture as “semiotic” or the study of symbols. He also labels ethnography as “an elaborate venture into”, or “thick description” (Geertz 312). In this instance, “thick” refers to the detailed why and what of an action, while “thin” refers to the more obvious facts of an action. This definition leads into extensive commentary on the purpose and means of cultural study. The commentary functions by citing schools of anthropological practice- for instance, the way that ethnoscience, cognitive anthropology, or componential analysis argues that culture is a symptom of psychological structure.

The text concludes with the author’s opinion of what anthropology should be used for. Geertz writes that anthropology, at least interpretive anthropology, does not exist to answer questions correctly per se but to find the way that others have answered.

2. Sherine F. Hamdy, “Does Submission to God’s Will Prevent Biotechnological Intervention?” In Jeremy Stolow editor, Deus In Machina: Religion, Technology and the Things In-between (Fordham University Press, 2013), 143-57.

Hamdy’s text asks the reader to consider the ties between religion and technology. She pushes against the notion that the two domains are separate and by addressing examples of their intertwining. The text opens with an anecdote, the story of an instance within a hospital in Egypt.  The anecdote describes a man refusing a kidney transplant for religious reasons. Within the second paragraph, the moralizing of individuals’ decisions based upon religious influence is brought into the conversation.

The author blatantly states her argument “against the dominant narrative: that religious fatalism obstructs people from pursuing biotechnological intervention. … people’s understandings of religion and biomedical efficacy are often inextricably enmeshed and together factor into their cost-benefit calculations about medical intervention,” (Hamdy 144). This clear thesis statement aided immensely in my understanding of the text as a whole. It is a powerful writing tactic.

The remainder of the text supports this argument through the employment of first-hand examples and other means of substantiated factual claims. Hamdy works to display the way in which an individual’s decision to receive a transplant is deeply complex. The text’s structure operates by following one narrative throughout. I found this somewhat narrative approach to be both extremely convincing and interesting.

3. Carol Delaney, “Father, State, Motherhood and the Birth of Modern Turkey.” In Sylvia Yanigasako and Carol Delaney editors, Naturalizing Power: Essays in Feminist Cultural Analysis (New York: Routledge, 1995), 177-200.

          From the paper’s very opening, Delaney critiques the work of anthropologists. She argues that the way in which “kinship” is used in Turkey is overlooked by many anthropologists because of the nature by which “kinship” is widely used in anthropology (Delaney 177). Having been a student in many Women’s Studies courses, it is my strong opinion that works of feminist theory often use language that is very difficult to understand. Unfortunately, this piece further supports that opinion of mine.

          The piece rests on the argument that that nationalism should be viewed through the lens that, in defining nationalism, it is most logical to define the term through ideas of cultural concepts. She emphasizes the importance of acknowledging the intersections of concepts such as family, religion, and nation. Like the prior work, Delaney explicitly states the purpose of her work. She writes that her goal is not merely to “highlight the differential placement of man and women in and to the nation” but to “show the role that symbolism of mother and father play in the conceptualization of the nation,” (Delaney 178).

          Delaney discusses the differences between “Father State” and “Motherland” in Turkey (Delaney 179). These differences are discussed through historical evidence. This historically-evidence based work provides abundant context to the work’s argument. Linguistic examination is used as evidence as well. Within the text, Delaney intertwines the position of women and the structure of language. This addressing of symbolic function is integral to the argument.

          The piece goes on to discuss the ways in which procreation and birth are used to discuss the nation of Turkey. Delaney argues that this use of language contributes to the way in which procreation and birth are framed as natural.

She discusses the notion of paternal role in citizenship and general identity. As she writes, “citizenship is not gender neutral” (Delaney 188). Gender in legality is added to prior evidence of the nation’s enactment of gender. The text closes in a summary of these ideas. Its argument points are weaved together in the conclusion.

Prospective Discussion Questions

-In what ways do the works employ evidence to very effectively drive their points home?

-Was there an argument tactic that really stood out to you? Was there one that really convinced you?

-Did anything about these articles really stand out to you as surprising?

What is Culture, and How Can We Best Understand It?

We hear the word all the time: culture. We ‘learn’ culture in the language classes we take. We are ‘taught’ our culture, whether that be by our parents, by our religious leaders, by our friends, by ourselves, but what is the definition of culture, and what constitutes culture? These are questions Clifford Geertz attempts to begin to examine in his first chapter, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture” in his book, The Interpretation of Cultures.

Geertz begins by scrutinizing definitions offered for words such as ethnography and anthropology and moves on to claim that anthropology, ethnography, and understanding culture all require what he describes as ‘thick description.’ To Geertz, thick description equates to analyzing, examining, and describing situations and observations in immense detail. He goes on to offer some definitions of culture from other sources; however, he arguably does not offer his own clear definition of the word culture, and instead, visits and revisits example after example in an attempt to prove his theory regarding thick description and validate the ideas of others in terms of how one can measure culture. 

As I read his work, I found myself disagreeing with many of his main points, especially when it came to his idea of ‘thick description.’ I do not believe that culture is measurable; of course, one may observe the actions of people within a cultural or religious context, but I believe that in order to truly understand a culture, and what culture is, one must immerse oneself in the culture. It is not enough to simply ‘thickly describe’ a culture, or even to live in a village and observe. To me, truly and fully understanding a culture requires becoming a part of that culture. Therefore, I do not believe that anthropology should be solely an observable science; it should be an immersive science. ‘Thick description’ and observation cannot begin to compare to physical, mental, and social immersion.

This brings me to the following reading by Sherine Hamdy, “Does Submission to God’s Will Preclude Biotechnological Intervention? Lessons from Muslim Dialysis Patients in Contemporary Egypt.” In her work, Hamdy argues against the idea that “religious fatalism obstructs people from pursuing biotechnological interventions;” however, I do not believe that she could have come to this conclusion without first immersing herself in the culture (144). Throughout the first portion of the work, Hamdy examines the laws and regulations in Egypt surrounding organ donation and transplantation, with the most surprising aspect, in my opinion, being that “brain-death is not recognized as legal death, hence all organ donors are living” (144). She then goes on to describe her experiences working with dialysis patients who have refused to undergo kidney transplants and how their religious beliefs affected their decisions.

One such patient, Muhammad, would often speak of the uncertainty regarding the outcome of such a surgery. He often claimed his decision to continue dialysis instead of receiving a transplant was due to his trust in God. As a psychology major, as well as someone who has not immersed myself in Muslim Egyptian culture, I would argue that his reluctance to undergo surgery is not truly due to his trust in God, but rather his innate, biological fear of death, and that if he trusted God to give him the option of surgery and ensure that he would live, he would accept the transplant. However, Hamdy views the situation differently and argues that the act of receiving dialysis treatment falsifies the claim that “religious fatalism obstructs people from pursuing biotechnological intervention” (144).

While she does describe how she initially spent a long period of time arguing with another patient, Ali, over his decision not to receive a transplant, despite the fact that he would not have to pay for it, Hamdy ultimately displays her understanding of his culture and beliefs towards the end of the piece. Although she does not agree with his decision and urges him to consider every option, she eventually accepts that “patients like Ali embody a religious tradition in which they struggle to cultivate within themselves the disposition of… contentment with God’s will”(154). Such acceptance displays, in my personal opinion, a true understanding of the culture. I  personally believe that in order to fully understand a culture, one must accept others’ practices and choices, even if one does not agree with their decision.

In the last reading, however, “Father State, Motherland, and the Birth of Modern Turkey” by Carol Delaney, the author arguably does not achieve such understanding of culture. While Delaney captures the overall history of Turkey, she does not, in my opinion, capture the culture of Turkey. She effectively summarizes a large portion of Turkey’s history and some of the aspects of the patriarchal society that exist within Turkey, but she seems to under analyze the actual culture that exists within Turkey because she focuses excessively on the rhetoric used in the culture and how it portrays women as being inferior to men. For example, Delaney highlights how “the system… construes nature as created by God, who is figured symbolically as masculine”  while “nature, which is created by God, is both inferior to and dependent upon God and is symbolically construed as female” (182). While she does make a valid point, I do not personally believe that this is the most important aspect of the culture to focus on while making a claim as to how the culture’s view of men as being superior negatively affects the women in this culture.

However, despite the excessive analysis of rhetoric, Delaney points out key aspects of Turkish-Muslim culture that support her argument. For example, she examines the focus on procreation and how it creates unfair expectations of women as opposed to men, as well as an imbalanced narrative regarding the roles of men and women in procreation. As described by Delaney, Muslim women in Turkey are expected to produce children for their husbands, but the “men, in their procreative function, are associated with divine creativity” and given credit as “the one who bestows life as well as essential identity via the soul” even though the woman is the one who carries the child inside her body is the one feeding it, keeping it alive, and housing it for nine months. (184). Such analysis of the cultural expectations and narrative is ultimately valid; however, the focus on the rhetoric used in Turkish-Muslim culture detracts from Delaney’s view.

I also believe that this key factor also displays Delaney’s failure to immerse herself in the culture prior to making judgements. I believe that her examination of Turkish-Muslim culture does not fully account for the culture itself, only the aspects that Delaney disagrees with. In ignoring much of the culture, Delaney’s argument, in my opinion, does not provide enough understanding of the true culture and the proposed reasoning behind such ideology and rhetoric.

Essentially, in my opinion, understanding culture requires immersing yourself in it. While anyone can judge a situation from afar, no one can truly understand the situation if one does not experience it. Therefore, while anyone can provide ‘thick description’ of a culture or circumstance, unless you do not immerse yourself in it, I do not believe you can ever truly understand it. You cannot understand a person’s motives solely by observing them; you have to put yourself in their shoes to be able to comprehend why they do what they do.

Hello world!

Dear Religion and Bioethics Students, Welcome! I look forward to sharing your thoughts and ideas this semester. Remember you blogs are visible to your classmates.

Don Seeman