Inglourious Basters

Katrina Voss

The story goes like this: a woman wants a healthy, attractive baby, so she finds a man with the proper specifications and takes him home. The man, perhaps sensing his paramour’s ulterior motive, insists upon an alternative (read, oral) method of sexual congress in order to protect himself from undesired fatherhood.

After the man completes his transfer, the woman slips quickly and casually into the bathroom, whereupon she transfers the man’s genetic contribution to a turkey baster and proceeds to inseminate herself with the instrument.

Her plan to thwart her lover’s protective effort works. She becomes pregnant and sues him for child support. Although the man argues that the woman engaged in sexual subterfuge, the court orders him to pay nonetheless, reasoning that the genetic material he surrendered was a “gift” and that the woman could do with that gift what she wanted. Now I know there’s a joke in there about the tedium of writing all those thank-you letters. . . .

The turkey-baster tale—mostly true excepting this author’s creative flourishes—is certainly not the most important contribution in the DNA-ownership debate, although it may well be the most salacious. From “DNA Theft” laws preventing unauthorized testing of one’s spouse’s underpants for signs of infidelity to legal battles involving custody of frozen sperm, the assumption is the same throughout: genetic material, whatever its provenance and form, belongs to someone, whether or not we agree on who that someone is.

Now here is where we might expect religious folk to weigh in, and yet on the issue of DNA ownership (to say nothing of DNA gift-giving), they have remained surprisingly reticent. In fact, the last time we heard any significant religious contribution to the debate was in 1995 when Jeremy Rifkin organized a petition of religious leaders calling for the ban of biological patenting. Now more than ten years later, and with much more fuel in the fire of genetic science, where are the priests, preachers, and other anointed watchdogs informing courts and scientists that the real “owner” of renegade gametes and frozen cell clumps is God? Where are the pious protectors of righteousness, shaking their fists and reminding us that neither unwitting men nor shifty women can own what God hath wrought?

On the one hand, religion may have met with insurmountable complications where this particular debate is concerned—and these may be the same complications that make religious vetting of new science so tricky in the first place. We have already seen such a complication with regard to what Sam Harris so aptly calls “the arithmetic of souls”: if soul assignment occurs at the moment of conception, what becomes of monozygotic twins (two individuals who began life as a single fertilized egg that split during development)? What becomes of a chimera (a person with two complete genomes who began life as two zygotes that fused somewhere along the way)? Since there is no obvious way to get all this soul business straightened out, no biblical reference to soul-splitting or soul-condensing, silence is the only refuge for the devout.

Perhaps we are witnessing a similar retreat into silence with the question of DNA ownership. Provided believers can get past both the science and ickiness of DNA’s inclusion in certain bodily fluids, what are they to do without the Bible’s direction on matters of genetic science? Where in any holy text does God claim ownership—specifically—of base pairs and mitochondria? Where does he take credit for authoring single nucleotide polymorphisms and copy number variations?

On the other hand, something else might be going on: something creepier, if that is possible. After all, if we have learned anything about religious priorities with regard to science, it is that we should expect to be surprised (and disturbed). Perhaps religious silence on the matter of DNA-as-property is altogether matter-of-fact. Divine ownership of genetic material may be simply taken for granted, and the God-fearing may have bigger fish to fry. That is to say, how religion deals with the question of DNA ownership may be less important than how religion deals with DNA itself.

In some ways, scientists have become the street conjurers losing their own shell game. As genomic investigation becomes more intricate, as reproductive technology becomes more complex, an unmistakably secular debate about DNA ownership has surfaced, understandably so. But at the same time, amidst all the scientific complication, the reaction of many religious people is to become looser about the definition of human life and stricter about what should be done to protect it. Dr. Laura has told callers that if an entity has its own genome, it is “a life” with a soul and rights (which incidentally means that were it to reach the age of majority, a retinoblastoma tumor would have to be allowed to vote). Protectors of surplus pre-implantation embryos have insisted that the tiny be-souled masses of cells be adopted. Some Christians have even called for the defense of unfertilized frozen eggs. As if redefining life weren’t enough, how gooey does a DNA-containing substance have to be before it is no longer (or not yet) a “baby”? Zygote? Baby. Fetus? Baby. Stem cell? Close enough. Baby it is. Blood, semen, buccal swabs? Uh-oh.

As the religious definition of human life backs toward the primordial ooze, there is no reason to assume that “moment of conception” will remain an unfuzzy boundary demarking a baby’s (or a soul’s) miraculous inauguration. The disturbing image of turkey-baster technology notwithstanding, will a sneaky self-inseminator soon have no need for the “finders-keepers” legal defense, using instead the “heroic rescuer” defense? Could it be a matter of time before a precious 5 cc’s of potential life is deemed worthy of protection? Probably not. Sheer absurdity aside, if nothing else, the sun would burn out before all those “killers” could be prosecuted.

Still, the science-friendly should stay vigilant as long as what constitutes life remains a better-safe-than-sorry operation. If we are not careful, “slippery slope” could soon take on a whole new meaning.

Katrina Voss

Katrina Voss works as a bilingual broadcast metrologist and holds the AMS Seal. She is collaborating with her husband, a Pennsylvania State University physical anthropologist, on a book about evolution, genetic ancestry, and society.

The story goes like this: a woman wants a healthy, attractive baby, so she finds a man with the proper specifications and takes him home. The man, perhaps sensing his paramour’s ulterior motive, insists upon an alternative (read, oral) method of sexual congress in order to protect himself from undesired fatherhood. After the man completes …

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