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Assisted reproductive technologies and consumerism: Considering the social impact of ARTs


No one should be surprised that Iran is in the technological position that Robert Tappan describes in the first paragraph of his recent post on The Use of Assisted Reproductive Technologies [ARTs] in Iran.  After all, when we compare the GDPs of Muslim countries in the Middle East during the last several decades, Iran trails only Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the 1980s and 1990s brought a new wave of consumerism to Iran—a wave which, in my view, was rightly protested by the more traditional members of that society.

In most cultures, this kind of consumerism leads to a significant drop in birth rates.  Though this trend has been a well-documented and serious problem for the economies and social welfare systems of Western Europe, Russia, and Japan for some time, in most recent years it has become true of the Muslim world in the Middle East—and even more dramatically true of Iran. Between 1975 and 2005, Iran’s fertility rate declined by a stunning 70%. Understandably, the Mullahs and government officials have worked overtime to try to curb this development, which many rightly connect with the arrival of Western style consumerism.

Tappan has expertly shown how part of the response of Iran’s religious leaders to infertility involved the unusual move to permit ARTs, even those involving third party egg and sperm donors, and also third party gestational carriers. He also highlighted many different serious problems with ART use in Iran, including problems related to the commodification of gametes and women’s bodies. My previous post for Contending Modernities attempted to show how our understanding of ARTs—along with many of our American ideas about reproduction more generally—have succumbed to the logic of commodification and consumerism, and how our culture is much worse for it.

Given the relatively recent arrival of Western style consumerism, the last thing that Iran needs to do to promote healthy population rates is fall into the trap of seeing re-production as just another kind of market transaction. Embedded within this understanding—which soon becomes a violent social structure of sin that exploits the vulnerable—are the very consumerist ideas which led to the dramatic fall in birth rates in the first place.  Children are understood to be mere tools of our will rather than welcomed into our lives (or not) as pure gifts from God.

Middle-Eastern Muslims, in general, have done a better job than most in highlighting the idolatrous dangers of Western market capitalism and consumerism. Many are hyper-aware of how this social structure exploits vulnerable populations (especially the poor and women—and even more so, poor women) and fast-tracks inequality. I have admired the willingness of many Muslim cultures to set up social structures of resistance to American-style consumer culture, and I hope Iran finds it within itself to resist the particularly nefarious aspect of consumerism which impacts understandings of reproduction.

Islam brings with it not only a powerful concern for the poor and those on the margins of society, but also a strong sense of the submission of the human will to the will of God, particularly when it comes to having children. The more that we insert the fallen human will into the picture—particularly when our choices take place within the social structure of sin we call consumerism—the more our reproductive and other social problems will multiply.

As the working group members of Contending Modernities think together how about Catholics and Muslims can work together on issues of bioethics—with particular reference to how social structures impact and shape these issues—the problem of consumerism looms large.  But it also provides us an opportunity: not just because this social structure impacts both Muslim and Western cultures are our deepest levels, but because our religious traditions have much to offer when it comes to resisting consumerism—especially given our common focus on vulnerable, marginal populations.

Charles C. Camosy is Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Fordham University. Camosy’s research engages with bioethics, Catholic social teaching, moral anthropology, and the intersection of Christian and secular ethics. Camosy is author of Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization (Cambridge University Press, 2012), and Too Expensive to Treat?: Finitude, Tragedy, and the Neonatal ICU (Eerdmans, 2010). His new book For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action (Franciscan Media, 2013) was released in October.

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