Prominent Montreal bioethicist opposes cloning,

but aims for elusive balance on abortion

The Ethical Canary: Science, Society and the Human Spirit
by Margaret Somerville
(Toronto: Viking, 2000). 344 pages, $33.99 CAD.

Margaret Somerville, founding director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University, says in The Ethical Canary: Science, Society and the Human Spirit that it is time for the discussion of ethics to catch up with the scientific and technological developments of recent years. Ever since the 1997 announcement that scientists had cloned Dolly the sheep, it seems that not a week goes by without some morally troubling announcement about the latest scientific breakthrough.

Somerville says the absence of an ethical discussion is analogous to the canary used to warn of the buildup of dangerous gases in coal mines. The absence of such a discussion and thus sufficient laws, protocols and professional standards is a danger to society. The public needs time, she says, “to become familiar with the benefits, potential benefits, risks and harms of a new scientific development, not only at the physical level, but also at the level of its potential impact on values, norms, traditions, customs, culture, belief and attitudes.”

Somerville calls for an ethical Third Way between religious morality and an unfettered belief in scientific progress as a good in itself. She says such a “secular-sacred” ethic would respect life and protect the human spirit.

Pro-lifers will be happy with many of her arguments. While she seems to support the use of new reproductive technologies (NRTs) with specific limitations, she opposes human cloning altogether. She provides clear reasons for opposing cloning: it commodifies human beings (especially therapeutic cloning which turns people into a means to an end), robs individuals of their uniqueness, turns the transmission of life into a “manufacturing process” instead of a mystery, opens the door to the practice of genetic enhancement or disenhancement, and most importantly, the (inevitable) destruction of excess embryos “could seriously damage important values and the ‘ethical tone’ of our society.”

That said, she should be stronger here, recognizing that the destruction of embryos – the tiniest human beings – is wrong because it kills an unborn child.

One of the pleasantly surprising aspects of The Ethical Canary is the recognition that society, not just individuals, has a right to assert its self-interest in an ethical debate. Somerville finds that the ethical conclusions society seems to be making are made by default, simply accepting what science allows. But looking beyond a narrow concept of individual rights, Somerville asks in the context of NRTs, what if we consider the ethical obligations owed to the future child? She rightly concludes the obligations owed to the future child are great and thus NRTs must be limited in use to those who require them for medical infertility “resulting from some disorder” and not for “social infertility” (such as not having a partner of the opposite sex) or “narcissistic” reasons.

Somerville concludes that a respect for life entails appreciating the mystery of both life and death and thus requires placing limits on what we allow in the areas of NRTs and euthanasia. So one would expect that she would oppose abortion, right? She does – a little bit – but not nearly enough.

Her position on this crucial bio ethics issue will make neither side of the abortion debate happy. Somerville does not support the status quo of abortion on demand, but she does support abortion in the first trimester and afterward for “genuine health protection reasons,” because she believes a woman’s “right to self-determination” is greater than the right to life of the unborn child in these situations.

Somerville’s support for abortion clearly contradicts her of ethic of respecting and protecting life. Moreover, she offers no explanation why she thinks the unborn child’s rights supersede its mother’s beginning in the fourth month. Why does the moral status of the fetus suddenly change?

Clearly, Somerville is uneasy about abortion. She finds that the fetus has moral value (as discussed in the section on NRTs); she says that couples who “take the risk of conceiving a child they would abort if pregnancy resulted” are acting unethically; she deplores the fact abortion is not seen as raising ethical issues to be addressed by women, their partners and society. But she plays a semantic game when she says that abortion when “focused on the fetus and a desire to eliminate it” is wrong, but that abortion when “focused on the pregnant woman and a desire to respect her right to self-determination” is acceptable. The result is the same, the death of the unborn child.

Somerville has an academic’s eye for nuance within ethical debates and while subtleties do sometimes exist, her failure to see abortion for what it is – the murder of a unique person which cannot be justified by semantic legerdemain – exposes the limitations of the “secular-sacred” ethic. Still, The Ethical Canary is worthwhile reading because it serves as a useful reminder that there is a dangerous gap between what we are able to do and what we ought to do, both as a society and as individuals.