Birth, Death & Technoscience


Thematic : End of life / Unclassified


Published on : 01/01/2006

Author / Source : Margaret Somerville

Professor in the Faculty of Medicine
Founding Director of the Faculty of Law's Centre for Medicine,
Ethics and Law at McGill University

Searching for Values at the Margins of Life

The Changing Context of Birth and Death 

We humans have always formed our most important values and sought meaning in life by weaving a metaphorical fabric around the two marker events of every human life, birth and death.  Our perceptions of birth, and the values traditionally attached to it, are being challenged and changed, however, by the new technoscience.  The “new genetics” debate is the context in which that is occurring.  There is also a companion debate about euthanasia focusing on the values that should govern death.  While euthanasia is not a new issue, the current debate is of a different order (it is widespread in western democracies) and possibly different in kind (it is based on individual rights) from those in the past.  It is not an accident that we are presently debating both eu-genics (good at birth) and eu-thanasia (good at death), because the substance of these two debates is linked in many ways.  Consequently, what we decide in terms of ethics and law in one of them is likely to have an impact on the other.

Reprogenetics has faced us with unprecedented possibilities regarding “birth,” such as the passing on of human life through cloning. Such technologies challenge our traditional values and make us aware of a values void, at least at a societal level – whether that void exists because we no longer agree on the values that should apply, or because the situation is so novel that we do not have immediately apparent values to govern it.

Just twenty-five years ago, we were stunned by the birth of Louise Brown, the first test-tube baby.  Today in vitro fertilization (IVF) is routine medical practice.  Now we face the advent of technologies much more radical than IVF. They do not merely try, as IVF does, to repair nature when it fails, but to make possible what is impossible in nature.  As well as cloning, these technologies include:  creating embryos from three or more genetic parents or, in the future, from two ova or two sperm; using human embryos as repair kits for ourselves, for instance to make replacement organs or tissues; and choosing the characteristics of our children.  Should we just allow individuals and the market to decide which of these technologies will be used and how – an approach based on a combination of intense individualism and market-place ethics?  Or should we as a society draw lines that must not be crossed? If so, where should they be drawn?


 Birth, Death, and Technoscience: Searching for Values at the Margins of Life”, in Douglas Farrow (ed), Recognizing Religion in a Secular Society, McGill-Queen's University Press, Montreal, 2004, pp.99-115

  • embryo
  • euthanasia
  • genetics
  • religion
  • politics
  • physician-assisted suicide

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