Tue | Jun 25, 2019

Martin Henry | Rights and freedom to remake identity

Published:Sunday | December 9, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Martin Henry
Emile Ratelband
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It had to come to this. And they're not done yet.

Riding on a dramatic expansion of 'human rights', a man has gone to court in The Netherlands to ask the Government to roll back his age by 20 years! Emile Ratelband argued before the court that he didn't feel like 69 and wished to be legally declared 49 years old. His request, he argued, was consistent with other forms of personal transformation that are gaining acceptance in The Netherlands and around the world such as the ability to change one's name or gender.

Tomorrow is International Human Rights Day. The United Nations, in 1948, promulgated a 30-article Universal Declaration of Human Rights that set out 26 rights among the 30 articles. Since then, the number of 'rights' has grown even further.

Changing a given name is one thing. Changing gender is quite another thing. The right of parents to name their children what they wish is restricted in law in every country in the world, some stricter than others. With 'rights' running amok, in various places, parents have been barred from naming their children Lucifer, Anus, Dickhead, Monkey, Spinach, Hitler, Messiah, Mafia No Fear, Christmas Day, Osama bin Laden, Superman, or Queen Victoria, to pick out a few.

The Dutch court rejected Mr Ratelband's application for a reduction of his age to match his feelings. But the judicial reasoning was rather light and purely utilitarian.

"Mr Ratelband," the court wrote in a press statement, "is at liberty to feel 20 years younger than his real age and to act accordingly. But amending his date of birth would cause 20 years of records to vanish from the register of births, deaths, marriages, and registered partnerships. This would have a variety of undesirable legal and societal implications."

The court rejected his argument, saying that unlike in the case of a name or gender change, Dutch law assigns rights and obligations based on age "such as the right to vote and the duty to attend school. If Mr Ratelband's request was allowed, those age requirements would become meaningless."

But this man is tampering with time itself, a fundamental of nature that is universally held to be irreversible by natural means. To satisfy his feelings, he is demanding that magisterial fiat reverse time. And the court can only argue that an age reduction will mess up the operations of the State!

We are now deep into gender change, with an entire category of people labelled 'transgender'. But gender is more than a social construct. Gender is built into genes. There may be aberrations, but maleness and femaleness are biological attributes visible in the very form of the X and Y chromosomes carrying the gender genes.

While the knife wielders for transgenderism are busy altering appearances with surgery and drugs, news has broken that a research team in China has produced 'gene-edited' babies.

 

LEAP OF ETHICS

 

The news report said: "A Chinese researcher claims that he helped make the world's first genetically edited babies - twin girls born this month - whose DNA he said he altered with a powerful new tool capable of rewriting the very blueprint of life. If true, it would be a profound leap of science and ethics."

A US scientist said he took part in the work in China, but this kind of gene editing is banned in the United States because the DNA changes can pass to future generations, and it risks harming other genes. Many mainstream scientists think it is too unsafe to try, and some denounced the Chinese report as human experimentation.

The Chinese researcher said that he altered embryos during fertility treatments, with one pregnancy resulting thus far. He said his goal was not to cure or prevent an inherited disease, but to try to bestow a trait that few people naturally have: an ability to resist possible future infection

Some scientists were astounded to hear of the claim and strongly condemned it. It is "unconscionable ... an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible", said Dr Kiran Musunuru, a University of Pennsylvania gene-editing expert and editor of a genetics journal.

"This is far too premature," said Dr Eric Topol, who heads the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California. "We're dealing with the operating instructions of a human being. It's a big deal."

Big deal, really? If it can be done, why shouldn't it be done? We are busy engineering a Brave New World on every front.

In recent years, the news report continued, scientists have discovered a relatively easy way to edit genes, the strands of DNA that govern the body. The tool makes it possible to operate on DNA to supply a needed gene or disable one that's causing problems. It has only recently been tried in adults to treat deadly diseases, and the changes are confined to that person. Editing sperm, eggs, or embryos is different - the changes can be inherited. In the US, it's not allowed, except for lab research. China outlaws human cloning, but not specifically gene editing.

The Chinese authorities were quick to condemn the experimentation for gene-edited babies and to shut down the work. The Government ordered a halt on work a news report only three days after the announcement said.

 

UNACCEPTABLE

 

Chinese Vice-Minister of Science and Technology Xu Nanping told state broadcaster CCTV that his ministry is strongly opposed to the research. Xu called the team's actions illegal and unacceptable and said an investigation had been ordered ... . The experiment "crossed the line of morality and ethics adhered to by the academic community and was shocking and unacceptable", he said.

But what is the basis of ethical objections outside of religious considerations of right and wrong? If it can be done and if it appears to be pragmatically useful, why not?

Many philosophers have long observed that if there is no divinely imposed moral order, it all boils down to the strong imposing their will on the weak and writing a moral code to justify their actions.

It is equally clear that if there is a Creator God, that God would have created more widely a Creation Order such as is seen in the laws of nature, which Mr Ratelband is seeking to have a human court overrule. He was undeterred by the court's rejection on flimsy premises and vowed to appeal. "The rejection of the court is great," he proclaimed, "because they give all kinds of angles where we can connect when we go to appeal," Ratelband declared triumphantly. And he is right.

In the same liberal and libertine Netherlands, a political party was formed in 2006 on a platform of legalising child pornography, child sex, and sex with animals, among other positions, "to maximise diversity and liberty". The courts refused to outlaw the Brotherly Love, Freedom and Diversity Party (PNVD) despite high levels of public disapproval. The judge who heard the case ruled that the party has the same right to exist as any other political party. "Freedom of expression ... including the freedom to set up a political party, can be seen as the basis for a democratic society ... . It is the right of the voter to judge the appeal of political parties," the judgment said.

The PNVD voluntarily disbanded in 2010, but you can be sure that its platform will wield and come again as obstacles are cleared. The world is on a pathway of sweeping demolition and reconstruction, but if there is a Creation Order with supra-human rules, there is bound to be a calamitous collision. This bold and radical human project, a new Babel, requires that God be dead, or at least absent. He may not oblige.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.