<< . .

. 3
( : 27)

. . >>

far off beam to say that in Melanesian ways of thinking, relationships are the
equivalent of legal subjects, insofar as they are embodied in persons subject
to politico-ritual protocols and public attention.
Together the chapters in Part I comment on a particular Euro-American
appropriation of the capacity to manage two kinds of relations, two modes of
relating, at once. I have ventured in turn to discriminate between the diver-
gences offered by science™s relation and by anthropology™s relation. Of course
we can only see this process refracted through the very knowledge practices
that are built on it. Here we become particularly conscious of the creative
and productive, that is, generative operations summoned by science™s rela-
tion. So, for example, the difference between discovery and invention is not
just a scienti¬c (or as we shall see a legal) distinction but is axiomatic to a
view interested in knowledge about the world that sets up relations between
the given and the made. This key relational nexus is replicated in similar if
not identical fashion across diverse arenas, which is why it is so hard to get
away (despite best efforts) from its speci¬c location in nature and culture, bi-
ology and society, that seems to speak for everything else, including kinship.
Highly productive in advancing knowledge of the world, enabling of anthropo-
logy among many other disciplines, it remains the case that every insight
about (knowledge about) such relationality also obscures. The theoretically
more generative, and in this case more creative of systemic thinking, the more
knowledge must insist there are things beyond its ken.

Social anthropology has pointed out some of the force of such conceptual
or categorical thinking, while its interest in situations where people are simul-
taneously dealing with interpersonal relations draws it in other directions.
Can its own management of relations (conceptual and interpersonal) in fact
hold up outside the Euro-American world that anthropology indigenously
inhabits? Sometimes it likes to think its practices have origins elsewhere, too.

I am grateful to Christina Toren for her encouragement at the 2001 confer-
ence on Children in their Places, convened at Brunel University by Suzette
Heald, Ian Robinson and Christina Toren; parts of both Introductions were,
to my considerable bene¬t, aired there under the panel rubric ˜Children in an
information age™.

Relatives Are Always a Surprise: Biotechnology
in an Age of Individualism

We are living in an era of intense individualism.
Margaret Somerville, on stem cell research, in conversation
with Peter Singer. ABC TV Dateline, 16 August 2001

W hat kind of people is biotechnology turning us into? ˜we™
are no more or less than the users of it, who might be anywhere, al-
though the attendant issues discussed here re¬‚ect speci¬cally Euro-American
aspirations and concerns. Over the past twenty-¬ve years, biotechnology has
provided some powerful food for thought, challenges to how we users of it
imagine society and how we imagine our relations to one another. Public opin-
ion has, for example, seized on the idea that the new genetics is making new
kinds of persons out of us.1 Some see these new persons as ultra-individuals.
But the new genetics also makes new connections, and here there are some
surprises “ people ¬nd themselves related in unexpected ways. Then again, the
kind of people we might be becoming will depend a bit on what we already are,
and we are not always quite what we seem.2 If ours is an age of individualism,
as we constantly tell ourselves, and biotechnology feeds into that, then what
exactly is biotechnology feeding? Let me start with a case.

an age of individualism
Here is a slice of ˜ordinary life™ (after Edwards 2000), even if the circumstances
that bring it into public view are not ordinary. It concerns grandparents and
grandchildren “ two girls “ and how much they see of one another. The parents
separated just before the birth of the second girl, and the father lived at home
with his parents, so these grandparents used to see a lot of the two girls.


Grandparents are not the kind of relatives expected to frequent the law
courts.3 But it was as grandparents that the couple petitioned for visiting
rights to their grandchildren (Dolgin 2002). Some 18 months after the girls™
parents separated, their father died. The girls continued to spend time with
their father™s parents, but the mother thought it was excessive and wanted to
limit it and not allow overnight visits. This is what brought the grandparents
to court. The trial court ruled that although the children would bene¬t from
spending quality time with the grandparents, it should be balanced with time
spent with the children™s ˜nuclear family™. The case went to several appeals (the
mother appealed, and then the grandparents appealed against the reversal of
the trial court™s decision).
At the ¬nal appeal, the conclusion followed the common law assumption
that the courts should not interfere in a parent™s right to raise children as he
or she wishes.4 The ˜nuclear family™ was invoked, and the grandparents were
outside it. The U.S. Supreme Court (ultimate court of appeal) ˜found wanting
the trial court decision that favored a family of extended kin because that choice
failed to defer adequately to the decision of a ¬t mother about her children™s
familial relationships™ (Dolgin 2002: 383). Although observations were made
about extra-familial support being important in situations in which there
was only one parent “ statistics were quoted by the appeals court judges (in
1996, 28% children under 18 lived in single parent households [population not
noted]) “ the ¬nal ruling found in favour of the mother and her authority
over her daughters. This did not just mean that the mother™s wishes took
precedence over the grandparents™ but that her individual right to be the kind
of parent she wished to be was endorsed.
The judges rejected an atomistic view of family life,5 but they did endorse
parental determination. Many see ˜biotechnology™ doing what the law did.
Primarily in the form of assisted conception techniques, advances in re-
productive medicine have enhanced parental freedom of action. In vitro fer-
tilisation (IVF) and associated procedures have been offered in the name
of the nuclear family, enabling couples to have the children who will com-
plete it (see especially Haimes 1990; 1992); in the name of single parents,
allowing them to have children without entering into partnerships; and in
the name of reproductive choice, recognizing the very determination to have
children as possible grounds for claiming parentage. The kind of parenting
involved in the court case involving the grandparents is all about social ar-
rangements, whereas biotechnology attends to biology and the body™s capac-
ities. One is about rearing children, the other is about having them in the ¬rst
place “ nurture and nature, if you like, or rather nurture-helped-by-the-law

and nature-helped-by-technology. But either can be seen as encouraging an
individualism of a kind.
This individualism may involve other people, but it is the individualism
that refers to the self as the source of choice-making and to the virtues of
autonomous action.6 Parental determination is also parental autonomy. From
some points of view, this may look sel¬sh. Actually, the daughter-in-law read
sel¬shness into her in-laws™ motives. She thought that the grandparents were
thinking of themselves ¬rst and trying to turn the girls into some kind of
substitute for their lost son.

adding debate
What is interesting about adding biotechnology to such ordinary situations,
if I can put it like that, is that one adds debate. Debate has become part of the
changing social environment in which the new genetics ¬nds itself (Franklin
2001 b: 337). A doctor talking about the world™s thirteenth IVF baby, born in
Victoria, Australia, now turned 21, said:

The issues have also changed. Twenty-one years ago doctors were concentrating
on women™s early morning dash to the hospital for the collection of eggs. Now
they are debating the ethical and moral dilemmas of stem-cell research and single
women™s rights to IVF.
The Age (Melbourne), 24 July 2002

Because of the visibility of the ˜new™ techniques and the problems they pose
for decisionmaking, little is left unquestioned. Indeed, the media constantly
draw attention to the circumstances under which people choose reproduc-
tive interventions, for these appear test cases for the validity not just of this
technology but sometimes (it seems) of all technology.
Among other things, biotechnology has turned us into people who are not
surprised if intimate medical matters concerning third parties are debated in
public and who in an arena heavily dependent on the expertise of the clinician
or scientist see the need to weigh different values, bringing together public
and private moralities. After all, ˜even if one considers a union a private affair,
not necessitating [registry] papers, the birth of a child is always a public event™
(Segalen 2001 : 259). The role of the expert here has turned quite complex.
It is not just a case of science producing dilemmas for society to solve;
biotechnology has become an arena in which society speaks back (Nowotny,
Scott and Gibbons 2001 ; cf. Franklin 2001 b) and in which the public takes

an interest in experts™ agendas, including their research agendas. Of course,
scientists are not the only experts in the ¬eld; biotechnology is making us into
people who listen to ethicists and philosophers and lawyers as well. And that
is not just because their interventions affect individual lives at the points at
which people have to make dif¬cult decisions but also because of what often
makes those decisions dif¬cult. This includes the very fact that we imagine
these interventions will affect the kinds of persons we are,7 for example, how
we choose to ˜be human™. What is remarkable about the arena of biotechnology
is that such a question does not, on the face of it, have to do with excessive
violence, greed or the violation of rights but with applications that can lead
to advances in medicine. In truth, violence, greed and violation have all been
read into the development of biotechnology, but as the obverse of what we
are assured are bound to be bene¬ts, both in terms of medical treatment and
in keeping at the forefront of research. What emerged as a contentious issue
from the outset (at least in the United Kingdom with the Warnock Report in
1985[Warnock 1985]), the question of limits and where to impose them, is still
In a lesser register, if Euro-Americans do not ask the question (What kind
of people are we turning into?) about humanity then they may ask it about
society; what consequences do people™s decisions have for the kind of soci-
ety they would like to live in? Here individual self-interest emerges as the
contentious issue. Techniques welcomed to solve the problems of potential
nuclear families may be regarded as suspicious if their end result is more
single parent families. Although the desire to have a baby may be taken pos-
itively as thoroughly natural, the desire to have a child of a particular kind
or for a particular purpose can be taken negatively as an example of parental
sel¬shness.8 Contemplating the implications for Humanity or for Society is
unlikely to be where those closely involved ¬nd most dif¬culty but, fanned by
the zeal of the press, which constantly puts these cases into the public eye, it
does make dif¬cult how everyone else is to think about the phenomena.
The year 2002 brought reports of a deaf couple who intentionally had a deaf
child to match their own condition, their second, the ¬rst being four years old.
This was by sperm donation and need not have involved any ˜biotechnology™
at all, but the story ¬ts into the genre of stories about ˜genetic manipulation™.
It also was about same-sex parenthood because the partners were women.
˜Babies, deaf by design™ was one headline, to echo debate over designer babies
raised by the new genetics (The Australian, 16 April 2002).9 ˜Being [born] deaf
is just a way of life. We feel whole as deaf people and we want to share the
wonderful aspects of our deaf community™.

Commenting on these words from one of them, The Australian™s reporter
observed that the parents turned deafness from disability into cultural dif-
ference. Their decision thus highlighted the enigma of autonomous choice.
What for the couple was design for perfection for others was design for dis-
ability. Note that the couple™s design for perfection was not to have themselves
reproduced, which would have been dependent on the vagaries of genetic
recombination, but to create children who replicated their shared elective
characteristic of deafness. It was the one characteristic that they wanted to see
in their child. They said they felt they could nurture a deaf child with more
understanding than a child with normal hearing.
The couple was portrayed as sel¬sh for not thinking of the child. Where
they stressed the sense of belonging and sharing that came from being with
members of their ˜deaf community™, the newspaper stressed the fact that the
deaf are cut off from mainstream society. ˜Sooner or later their children will
have to face up to the hearing world™, observed the journalist who described
the huge technical backup system that assists them to communicate (for ex-
ample, over telephone). Interests in common at once unite and divide, and
mainstream society has suf¬cient interest in these children to pass highly
evaluative judgements on the parents™ decisions.
The case, from Maryland (United States), was reported in the Australian
press as it was across the world. The question it raises for the public “ how we
are to think about the parents™ decision? “ is seemingly ubiquitous. Although
these types of questions are debated with local issues in mind and although
the regulatory regimes are different, they strike similar chords. The dilem-
mas travel with the technology, that is, the debates crop up in surprisingly
similar forms in many otherwise different contexts.10 I already have in mind
that, based on her study of couples trying to create families through assisted
conception, Bonaccorso (2000) had come to this conclusion about Italian
practices. Procedures of litigation may differ, but the way in which values are
weighed in favour of certain kinds of family arrangements seems very famil-
iar, amid a general consensus about the causes for both congratulation and
Now the plight of the deaf couple might lead one to pit individual choice
against general public values. However, I would put it rather that we see an
interplay between what are in effect two sets of public values, which in turn
may either chime together or clash. On the one hand lies autonomy and the
individualism it promotes, and on the other hand lies altruism and interests
in common.11 Both values are written into public reactions to biotechnology;
either can be taken in a positive or a negative direction.

individual and common interests
By way of example, I focus brie¬‚y on issues concerning genetic make-up.
Western (Euro-American) imagery routinely represents individuality through
people™s unique and singular bodies, echoed in understandings of the unique
genetic template. No one else has quite the same combination of genes, bar
identical twins. The perception of individuality and the value of individualism
go together, and the signi¬cance of the unique genetic template is repeated over
and again, a twentieth century discovery so easily absorbed into pre-existing
notions about individuality that it is “ among other things “ the possibility of
compromising that uniqueness that makes cloning so threatening.12
Bodily uniqueness is a sign as much as a Euro-American symbol of auto-
nomy and of respect for the person as an individual (for recent discussion,
see Davies and Naf¬ne 2001 ; James and Palmer 2002). Indeed, the integrity of
the body is itself the subject of rights. Thus much current questioning over
embryo stem cells recalls earlier anguish over embryo research. Paradoxically,
the biotechnology that in the eyes of some destroys individual beings also
becomes one of the vehicles through which the very ˜individuality™ of em-
bryonic features become apparent. And it is the interventionist character of
biotechnology that has us formulate obligations: how to treat others.13 Here
the embryo may be depicted as a fragile and vulnerable member of the species
who needs special protection.
The individuality of a person™s make-up is also made visible through his
or her pro¬le of likely health, with an interesting quali¬cation. That genetic
diagnosis offers the possibility of being able to make sense of the person™s own
genome has at the same time stimulated great interest in the role that heredity “
inheritance from others “ plays in the transmission of disease. Nonetheless,
it is what comes together in the individual genome that will count for the pa-
tient, which can be seen as both positive and negative. Chapter Three touches
on people™s urge to seek out relatives beyond the nuclear family in order to
recover information about themselves and their medical prospects. There is
also evidence, largely from the United States (Dolgin 2000; Finkler 2000), to
suggest that some people trace relatives simply to gain this vital informa-
tion and give little regard to the possibilities of starting up relationships with
them.14 This creates (the phrase is Dolgin™s) ˜genetic families™, whose members
are ¬rst and foremost linked through the information their bodies hold about
one another. Individualism ¬‚ourishes to the extent to which these genetic ties
can be disarticulated “ severed “ from social ones.15
On the other side, of course, genes are not unique at all. Again, we ¬nd both
positive and negative values. The combinations might be unique, but the genes

themselves are replicas. People share the same range with everyone else on the
planet, and the same basic genetic mechanism with all living things “ even as
they share the genetic make-up found in millions of human bodies built in
similar ways, almost but not quite identical to one another. For however long
this has been true, it is biotechnology that moves people to make declarations
about genetic solidarity. Heredity become heritage, and the appeal is to the
macro community this creates:

The concept of genetic solidarity and altruism might be summarised as follows: We
all share the same basic human genome, although there are individual variations
which distinguish us from other people. Most of our genetic characteristics will
be present in others. This sharing of our genetic constitution not only gives rise
to opportunities to help others but it also highlights our common interests in the
fruits of medically-based genetic research.
HGC 2002: 38

What comes to mind are objections to ˜patenting genes™ (DNA), which,
some argue, puts common resources into private hands.16 The argument was
heard over the decoding of the human genome and the spectre of patent-
ing, a race fuelled by visions of public against private property, the common
interests of humankind against capital accumulation by a few. There are in
fact two rather different positions here. Membership of the human species
confers belonging, common membership arousing a sense of identity with
other human beings. The notion of common interests, however, starts rais-
ing questions of ownership of a quasi-property kind.17 That is, insofar as the
features of a common humanity can be made to yield a resource, there is
some competition as to who should enjoy its fruits: what disabilities should
be treated, who has access to the information it yields, who can bene¬t from
the development of pharmaceuticals. It also makes clearer what is implicit in
the model of common humanity, that a sense of inclusiveness at one level (we
all have [more or less] the same genome) is exclusiveness at another (other
species do not count).
Now the case of heredity concerns people working out the consequences
of discovering genetic connection, whereas the case of heritage amounts to
abstract justi¬cations for ethical behaviour. Despite these differences, I suggest
that both prompt attitudes that are thoroughly familiar from Western (Euro-
American) images of the ˜nuclear family. Now on the face of it nothing could
seem further apart than the dispersed network of relatives in which ties are
treated instrumentally (the so-called genetic families) with only the tiniest
units coming together to form (nuclear) families, and the inclusive body
of human beings that form a unity18 at a fundamental level no one should

tamper with. Yet shift perspective a bit, and if the exclusive family appears
like an individual writ large, then the community of humankind “ in this
view internally undifferentiated “ appears like an exclusive family writ large.
Whether, as in the instance of the Washington grandparents, close relatives
do not count, or whether protection extends only to the notion of what we
share with other human beings, the family looks after its own.
Some of the hold that biotechnology exercises over the imagination is its
power to intervene in realities that already play a role in the way people think
about themselves. Heredity or heritage, one can think of genes in narrower
or broader contexts in human affairs. And the boundary images of ˜family™
do their job twice over. At the same time this particular imagery is highly
selective. There are many other things we know about families. So let us not
assume what they are; let us stand back a second time, then, and return to the
ordinary family we have already encountered.

recombinant families
Here lies a surprise. The Washington grandparents who petitioned for visita-
tion rights found that the courts put different weight on the nuclear family.
But what was this nuclear family?19 By the time of the ¬rst hearing, the mother
had already remarried. The family household in which the girls were now liv-
ing included their mother, her new husband who subsequently adopted them,
a child from the new marriage, three children from an earlier marriage of hers,
and two children from the new husband™s previous marriage: eight offspring
in all, although none of the couples had had more than two or three together.
In fact, a British anthropologist, Simpson, punned of similar kinds of ar-
rangements in the United Kingdom that the resulting constellations produce
families that are ˜unclear™ rather than ˜nuclear™.
Simpson (1994; 1998) was commenting on a phenomenon that appears
in many post-divorce arrangements in Britain. There does not immediately
seem anything untoward about such family arrangements “ similar ones can
be found in many times and places, as for instance in the French example of re-
peated divorces over three generations given by Segalen (2001 : 262“3) “ except
that it does not ¬t into the model of the ˜family™ we have been considering. It
is neither narrow nor wide, it has no clear boundary. Rather, bits originating
in other families have come together to make a new one. The surprise is in
seeing what is happening: dissolution often leads to recombination (cf. Bell
2001 : 386).
The background is familiar enough. Britain has the highest divorce rate
in Europe20 ; with more than half of divorced couples in 1990 having a child

under sixteen, it may now have reached a plateau, but it is a plateau with a
distinctive con¬guration. Despite the break-ups, both families and marriage
remain popular (one in three marriages is a remarriage) (Simpson 1998: viii).
That same ¬gure is true of Australia (roughly a third of all marriages is a
remarriage).21 ˜Ten things you didn™t know about Australian families™ is how
the Sun Herald (Sydney) (23 January 2000) greeted a swathe of statistics, dating
to 1996“1998, intended to provoke surprise both at how traditional Australian
family arrangements persist and how prone to change they are. The changes
are, for instance, in the direction of rising divorce rates (40% of all marriages
after 30 years, edging to the United Kingdom™s 50%) and a rising age of women
having children, yet tradition is evident in the fact that most children are born
to parents who are married (70%), and over 70% of children under 18 who
currently live with their parents live in a nuclear family (mum, dad and the
children they had together).22 However, a sense of change is introduced by
the projection that 30% children under four will be in single parent families
by 2021 (the present ¬gure is 20%, of which the majority are single mother
families). The traditional and non-traditional exist side by side.
It is nothing new to observe that there seems as much value put on marriages
and families as ever; how they are made up is another matter. In Australia,
a high proportion of children live with both ˜biological™ parents, but there
are also many who live with only one. It may be in a single parent family, or
it may be in a recomposed one. ˜Recomposed™ is Segalen™s (2001 : 259) word
for families, as in the Washington instance, that form after the break-up of
previous ones.23 The high degree of divorce in present times throws those

<< . .

. 3
( : 27)

. . >>