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Andrew Sullivan echoes Christopher Hitchens on IVF

Credit: CBS

June 22, 2024 - 4:00pm

Perhaps no journalist did more to normalise same-sex marriage than the iconoclastic conservative Andrew Sullivan. Now, the writer behind Barack Obama’s “favourite blog” is questioning the ethics of in vitro fertilisation just as establishment opinion consolidates in its favour.

In Friday’s edition of his Substack The Weekly Dish, Sullivan reiterated his support for abortion and affirmed that he disagrees with Catholic teaching on the “disassociation” of procreation from sexual intercourse. “So why has it always made me queasy?” Sullivan asked.

“A typical procedure might yield just one viable embryo from, say, 12 in vitro; or it might, in very rare cases, yield 12. But in almost every case, a handful of human embryos is left over. And that’s the rub for me,” he stated.

“In many cases, you’re creating new lives only to destroy them as waste,” Sullivan continued. “In many others, you don’t destroy them; you merely use them to beat the odds. They are quite simply a means to an end, violating a basic norm of inviolable human dignity.”

Interestingly, Sullivan’s friend Christopher Hitchens once also described feeling “queasy” over another sacred tenet of reproductive rights. In Hitchens’s case, it was abortion. “I had a queasy feeling about the disposability of the fetus. This queasy feeling has not gone away,” Hitchens told Crisis Magazine in 1988. Far from Sullivan’s Catholicism, Hitchens made his own argument in explicitly materialist terms. “As a materialist I hold that we don’t have bodies, we are bodies,” he explained.

“Dialectics,” according to Hitchens, “will tell you that you can’t be meaningfully inhuman unless you are actually or potentially human as well.” Fifteen years later, in a celebrated essay for Vanity Fair, he developed his argument further: “That the most partially formed human embryo is both human and alive has now been confirmed, in an especially vivid sense, by the new debate over stem-cell research and the bioethics of cloning.”

Presaging the current reckoning over IVF with logic similar to Sullivan’s, Hitchens concluded: “By rightly expanding our definition of what is alive and what is human, we have also accepted that there may be a conflict of rights between a potential human and an actual one.”

Hitchens’s thoughts on abortion were at the time positively subversive among secular intellectuals clawing to put increased distance between themselves and the religious Right. While Sullivan’s departure from the LGBT movement on IVF isn’t entirely surprising, his argument offers a reminder of what Hitchens wrote in 2003: “The only moral losers in this argument are those who say that there is no conflict, and nothing to argue about.”


Emily Jashinsky is UnHerd‘s Washington D.C. Correspondent.

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UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
28 days ago

I think Sullivan has been distasteful here. I dont think the frozen embryos are alive. Sure they have potential for life but every sperm and egg could be considered to have potential for life.
I think it is needlessly insulting towards couples who have availed of this technology and judgemental clickbait to be honest.

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
28 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

A frozen embryo already possesses in its DNA all the characteristics for a full human being, the egg or the sperm have only the potential to create an embryo.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
28 days ago

But it needs a woman in order for it to become a life.

Mustard Clementine
Mustard Clementine
28 days ago
Reply to  Clare Knight

Exactly. This is also why I often wonder if those who believe a woman should be required to allow a potential family member to use her uterus (because they can’t live without it) would also be happy if they were required to donate a kidney to any actual living family members who might need one (because they can’t live without it).

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
28 days ago

That’s not quite the full analogy.

The potential family member is there because of two deliberate decisions the adult woman has made (decisions she is assumed to have full agency over) unless a crime has been committed against her.

Likewise, if through her deliberate choices she caused a family member to need a kidney, being forced to make amends and provide a spare kidney so they can live is morally justifiable.

Mustard Clementine
Mustard Clementine
27 days ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Just as a smoker has the right to seek treatment for lung cancer despite making choices that contributed to their illness, a woman should have the right to control her body and reproductive choices, regardless of past decisions. Making a choice affecting one’s health doesn’t negate the right to medical intervention. If you believe a smoker should receive treatment despite their choices, you should also support a woman’s right to control her reproductive organs.

Betsy Arehart
Betsy Arehart
26 days ago

Once in awhile there is a distinction between rights and what is right.

Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
27 days ago

Bad analogy. At the end of the process the woman still has the uterus, which has served its purpose (and could do so again).
The kidney donor has lost the kidney.
None of which says what I think about abortion rights.

Mustard Clementine
Mustard Clementine
27 days ago
Reply to  Martin Johnson

This misses the fundamental point of the analogy. Both scenarios involve the principle that no one should be compelled to use their body to sustain another’s life without their explicit consent. Dismissing the analogy based on the duration of organ use ignores the broader ethical implications of forcing someone to sacrifice their bodily autonomy for another’s benefit.
Would it seem any more acceptable to you if you were forced to donate your blood to any blood relative, without having any say in the matter?
I would also point out that pregnancy involves significant physical changes and risks, which is why I thought comparing it to donating a kidney – an invasive operation with lasting consequences – made more sense than comparing it to donating blood, which is relatively low stakes (and I still wouldn’t be okay with forcing it anyway).

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
27 days ago
Reply to  Clare Knight

You don’t seem to know much about biology, if you don’t know the difference between a sperm/egg and an embryo. Maybe time to catch up on biology lessons. Also there might come a time when an embryo can be developed in an artificial uterus…

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
28 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Exactly. My upvote didn’t register.

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
28 days ago

The sad truth of all known life – including human life – is that it exists only by odds. Wastage of all life created, from immediately after fertilisation to maturation, is so vast as to be unquantifiable. If you believe, then that’s how God created it; if you don’t, then that’s how atheistic science finds it. There is no inviolable human dignity in an embryo failing to implant or self-aborting or being terminated by one of countless “natural” causes. Baked into the very nature of life is the creation of many new lives only to see most of them destroyed as “waste”.

No one feels queesy about the natural and unknown wasting of viable embryos that never even register as pregnancies. The reason we might feel queesy about doing so during IVF is because humans are making the decision, humans have given themselves the god-like choice to waste. The underlying ethical issue is one comparable to that underlying the trolley problem.

In the trolley problem there’s a railway track with a runaway trolley heading towards 5 people on the track. Before reaching the 5 people there is a switch you find yourself standing at. Pull the switch and you can divert the trolley onto another track with just 1 person on it and save 4 lives. The utilitarian choice is obvious: pull the switch. Yet ethically many people find this choice objectionable. Fundamentally, what they are objecting to is a human choosing one life over another. Like wasting IVF embryos, a part of many of us is more comfortable with reserving that choice only for nature or chance or a god.

The problem is we humans through our technology now have an exponentially expanding choice on life and lives. Where once our ethics had to confront the choice to kill a man or not, now our ethics must confront choices to waste IVF embryos, terminate unborn babies, and end the lives of those wanting assistance to die.

We keep taking bigger bites from the apple that fell from the metaphorical tree of knowledge, pushing ourselves deeper and deeper into an unforgiving landscape of ethical choices over each other and other species that once upon a time only nature or chance or a god had to deal with. It’s not surprising most people sometimes feel queesy.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
28 days ago

Sullivan states in defending the principle of legal abortion: “…If we do not have agency over our own body, we have no agency and thereby no freedom at all”. But the notion that we have agency over our own bodies is clearly untrue. Ultimately some part of our body will fail, and we will die. Hitchens was correct in pointing out that “we don’t have bodies, we are bodies”. Which makes Joan Smith’s article yesterday about the promotion of mastectomies to vulnerable young women so poignant.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
28 days ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

But surely the fact that parts of our body will fail doesn’t mean we have no agency over those parts that haven’t, and thereafter still constitute the body?
A person who has lost the use of their legs still has agency over their body.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
28 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

Nobody has complete agency over their bodies. Even an abortion or amputation is dependent on the agency of others, to for example develop the medical treatment and to execute the procedure. And a lot of “agency” requires having money.

T Bone
T Bone
28 days ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Genuine question- What is the implication of “we have bodies” vs “we are bodies.” It seems very abstract.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
28 days ago
Reply to  T Bone

It means that our personality and outlook (our “soul”) is a function of the physical processes of our body in exactly the same way as our heartbeat and breathing are. And it means that chopping off physical appendices of our body doesn’t change what we biologically are.

Martin M
Martin M
28 days ago
Reply to  T Bone

It is the distinction between the religious and the atheist. The religious contend that we are not just bodies – we have a “spiritual” component, which can continue beyond death, and go to whatever “afterlife” place the particular religion subscribes to. The atheists contend that the body is “all of us”.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
28 days ago
Reply to  T Bone

The self, the ‘i’, the ‘soul’, isn’t separate or distinct from my physical form. If it is separate, I have a body. If it isn’t, I am a body. It may seem to be separate, that ‘I’ exist inside my head, has a ‘will’ or agency. But in fact neither is true. There is no self not will. They are both manifestations of the activity of the body.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
28 days ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

I think it’s ok to have an opinion on things that don’t directly affect us, but when it comes to passing laws on things that don’t directly affect us it’s another matter.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
28 days ago
Reply to  Clare Knight

No doubt. The law is not necessarily the issue here. But if lawmakers applied that principle consistently, there would be far fewer laws.

Bird
Bird
26 days ago
Reply to  Clare Knight

I am not so sure about that. Sometimes laws that are being passed have a deep consequence to the community and place that you live, work and reside in. No matter what your sets of circumstances. Whilst I no longer am of an age to bear children, I have daughters. I have my first grandchild on the way. I am part of a community and what that community does has an indirect and direct affect on me – just by being a part-of.

Bird
Bird
26 days ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Yes, we seem to constantly fall prey to our own deception when we don’t recognize that we are all embodied creatures and beings.
“The only moral losers in this argument are those who say that there is no conflict, and nothing to argue about.”
As a woman, I concede to the above statement. I believe any woman considering or having an abortion, emotionally is put through the wringer on choice. In many ways she is damned if she does, and damned if she doesn’t. There are also so much nuanced content here. The actual well-being of the child is of ultimate importance. Also, is the mother in a viable position to raise this child in the first place? What are her circumstances and is she in a position to raise that child in a way that is demonstrably and unrefutably proven, to provide the enough of the essential elements for said child to thrive and grow in the world. This is a much bigger argument. We should never just speak in binary terms. This is way too big a discussion to be cancelled out by screaming ‘moralists’ from either side.
I am grateful for its inclusion here. I am also grateful for respectful dialogue.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
28 days ago

I love it when men argue against women and any control they have over their own bodies. Men play a part in IVF. Often it’s them who want a child with their DNA. Adoption is out of the question. Hitchens leaves out their role in creating the embryo. But that makes sense. Men can fornicate as much as they want, probably creating a few embryos.

Archibald Tennyson
Archibald Tennyson
28 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

This isn’t about men controlling women. This is about the plain and simple fact that a fetus is a human life. And to end that life is murder.
God help you. I will pray for you.

elaine chambers
elaine chambers
28 days ago

Good heavens Archibald I sincerely hope you never waste any semen.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
28 days ago

That isn’t actually the point he was making though, is it?

Semen isn’t a fetus and of itself can never be a human life and following that logic wasting it is not “murder”, as he puts it.

Mustard Clementine
Mustard Clementine
28 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

A fetus can’t ever, of itself, be a human life either. It requires a woman willing to provide the use of her uterus in order to become one. If you don’t think she should have control over whether her organs can be used to support the life of a potential family member, do you also think it would be okay if you had no choice but to give any living family member a kidney if they needed one?

Bird
Bird
26 days ago

Aaaah but this is a very important conversation – at the moment there are people who are actively trying to create a baby without the need for women. They are experiments for creating artificial wombs. One of the very wealthy leaders of this is in fact a gay married man who desperately wants a child with his partner – a biological one. These issues are desperately needed at the moment because we are in the fast lane toward this very dilemma. We must all play an active role in this.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
28 days ago

So why aren’t men held responsible for the life they create? I’m not sure about Britain, but in the United States many men run away. Sometimes it is the wealthiest men who skip out on childcare. They have the money to tie their cases up for years. Less wealthy men just move from state to state. The woman can’t afford the legal fees to chase him down. You need to be aware that no contraception is 100 percent of the time effective. My sister had been on the pill for a long time and got pregnant (she kept the baby).Until serious action is taken to force the fathers to pay up, anti-abortion laws just make more women desperately poor. Texas has one of the strictest anti-abortion laws, but it also has an infant mortality rate equal to El Salvador. It is just as bad for the mothers. Medicaid is difficult to get, and Texas has the largest , by far, number of uninsured people in the United States. Looks like Texas hates babies. I’ll pray for Texas.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
28 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Men are held responsible. It is enforcing that responsibility which is the difficulty

David Morley
David Morley
27 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Men are held responsible, even though they have no say in a the matter. Even when it’s only the woman’s choice to have a child or not.

If she chooses to keep the child, the man has to pay child support for 18 years. On the other hand, if a man’s wife chooses to abort a child that he wants, the man has no say.

To make matters worse, many countries limit the father’s ability to test if the child is even his. In France it is simply illegal. In the U.K. I believe he needs the mothers consent, which she will, of course, withhold if she risks losing child support.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
28 days ago

Cheers, and I’ll live a life of fun and debauchery for you

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
28 days ago

Don’t be silly.

John Murray
John Murray
28 days ago

My understanding is that most embryos conceived the old fashioned way fail to implant and, thus, “abort” anyway. So, losing a few fertilized embryos as part of the IVF process does not particularly bother me. Easy come, easy go.
I find abortion a lot more of a problem because after implantation the process is under way and the developing embryo is on a predictable pathway to becoming a full grown human being.

Michael Clarke
Michael Clarke
28 days ago

None of these debates are over – abortion, IVF, SSM, etc., etc. I detect a (very, very) slow turning of the tide. The people turning out to oppose abortion, surrogacy and other deeply troubling issues are just that – people. Mind you, the Archbishop of Armagh was on a recent anti-abortion demo I attended but mostly it was just people, not activists.

Martin M
Martin M
27 days ago
Reply to  Michael Clarke

Surely those people who oppose abortion and surrogacy are at liberty to not avail themselves of them? As to the “other deeply troubling issues”, I can’t comment, as I don’t know what they are.

Martin Goodfellow
Martin Goodfellow
27 days ago

The reasons to respect embryos and foetuses as fully human have been set out clearly time and again. Religion, science, and even the empathy of atheists have all had a part in this. Those who do not like the idea simply deny its validity or ignore it, and complain that any opposition is ‘trying to control’ them. Using reason to promote understanding and resolve the dilemma appears to be impossible without individual consent that is not easily won.

Martin M
Martin M
27 days ago

The reasons to respect embryos and foetuses as fully human have been set out clearly time and again. They have. Not all of us accept those reasons. You are going to have to accept the fact that there is more than one view on this.

Samantha Stevens
Samantha Stevens
26 days ago

I never had to have IVF. I was lucky. But I did have to go on fertility drugs to get pregnant, as a very bad case of endometriosis ignored by my GP had damaged my reproductive organs. My reproductive endocrinologist at the time was a wonderful man, and he refused to use the big gun drugs because you could develop up to 12 follicles and could potentially end up with 6 embryos, and have to have “selective reduction” – basically aborting the ones that look less viable. This was a procedure he did not perform nor endorse. So though my chances for getting pregnant were lower, I stuck with him because I agreed and knew he valued the lives he was creating. I have two beautiful daughters thanks to him, and never had to “reduce” any embryos.
The idea of creating fertilized embryos to destroy has always seemed sad and violent to me. My husband and I also started the adoption process while we were trying to conceive the first time. Being a parent isn’t about having a baby; it’s about raising a child.

Jae
Jae
26 days ago

So much of the discussion on here is such inhuman drivel I have a hard time understanding if there is any humanity left in society.