Braving Our New World

by Russell Shaw

The famous, futuristic novel Brave New World by British writer Aldous Huxley opens with a horrifying scene: A tour of a laboratory-factory called the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Center where human beings are manufactured.

The reader passes row upon gleaming row of receptacles, described in graphic detail, where thousands of human embryos and fetuses, man of the genetically identical, are being scientifically nurtured. As we stroll, the author explains in an aside what it is that we are seeing: "The principle of mass production at last applied to biology."

"Ninety-six identical twins working ninety-six identical machines!" exclaims our tour guide, the center's director. He quotes the planetary motto: "Community, Identity, Stability."

When Brave New World first appeared in 1932, the book's nightmare vision of the future was taken for science fiction. Today the nightmare had become real life. Earlier this year, for instance, headlines announced that fertility clinics in the United States now contain 400,000 frozen human embryos.

Actually, the number is a good deal larger since some clinics did not respond to the survey by the society for Assisted Reproductive Technology on which the figure was based. Still, 400,000 is a good round number for our present purposes.

These human embryos are "surplus" products of the procedure called in vitro fertilization since it was introduced in the United States in 1986. About 100,000 children who began life this way have been born in the United States. Whenever the frozen embryos are thawed, it's said, at least 35 percent of them - 157,000 - will die in the thawing. If the rest are allowed to grow and be born, many of those children will have disabilities.

When news about the frozen embryos broke, the reaction, outside of pro-life circles, was pretty much ho-hum. People had more pressing matters to think about - Iraq, the NBA playoffs, the weather.

Here is an instance of what the late U.S. Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously called "defining deviancy down." He meant the process by which the standards for what counts as socially unacceptable behavior are lowered so as to confer legitimacy on behavior that previously was beyond the pale.

Abortion on demand and no-fault divorce are notable examples of the process. It is happening now on homosexual rights and same-sex "marriage."

Where artificial human reproduction is concerned, there's another familiar pattern also at work. People have a problem - in this case, infertility. Science offers a solution - in this case, in vitro fertilization. The solution works entirely too well, yet with perplexing side effects. The result is 400,000 frozen embryos with no place to go. One problem is solved by creating another , worse problem.

What will become of the frozen embryos? It isn't hard to guess. "None of us want to hang on to these embryos in perpetuity," a fertility specialist is quoted as saying. Expect voices also to be raised for getting some benefit for these tiny humans by experimenting on them before killing them. Already elements of the scientific community are eager to expand the embryonic sources of stem cell research beyond the limited supply allowed by President Bush in 2001.

Such thinking is helped along by irrational but convenient claims like that made not so long ago by the Connecticut Supreme Court that a human fetus is a body part, which eventually gets shed like hair and teeth. Remember defining deviancy down. If truth gets in the way of reaching a result that you want, say something else instead.

Aldous Huxley would have understood what's going on. As we tour the Hatchery and Conditioning Center we see human embryos along the way undergoing conditioning so that they will thrive in high temperatures. One day, as adult clones, they will be shipped off to the tropics to do productive work.

"And that,' put in the Director sententiously, 'that is the secret of happiness and virtue - liking what you've got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable social destiny.'"

Welcome to our brave new world.

Russell Shall writes from Washington for the Knights of Columbus and serves as consultor
to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.
Reprinted from Columbia magazine (November 2003) with permission.
Courtesy Knights of Columbus Supreme Council, New Haven, CT.