It is not atypical for me to be provincial, I am embarrassed to admit. I have been known to occasionally play the role of the “ugly American” when abroad. Nothing that reeks of an international incident, but I am likely to shun basic language lessons in favor of speaking English in a cartoonish local dialect (Russia and “Boris Badenov” from “Bullwinkle” come to mind). As I look at global bioethical issues, unfortunately, my provincialism again expresses itself. “Other countries” have policies and practices that undermine human dignity and commoditize their citizens. Corrupt governments in other countries ensure that resources will not truly reach those in need, or seek genuine justice, in the way my country would seek to do. The umbrella of “tourism” can now cover travel to have a gastric bypass performed at a fraction of the cost of the same procedure in the United States, to choose an impoverished surrogate or egg donor in the developing world, or to take a trip to have the organ of a political prisoner implanted by physicians in an Asian hospital. Never mind that it is often my own countrymen who are the “tourists.” I wouldn’t want to have to defend these practices if I lived there.
As hard as it is to know that people will travel to other countries to seemingly exploit their people, often with the apparent blessing of their hosts’ governments, it is harder still to learn about human trafficking that happens in my own city. Capitalism, which I still consider the best economic system in a world of fallen human beings, at least when tempered by the teachings of Christ and scriptural principles of justice, can also be the justification for human trafficking, and for a host of bioethical ignominies. It is painful to see articles like the one I saw last week, that speaks of affluent couples and individuals that come to the United States to choose male embryos that will become their much-desired sons. (The article, called “Boy Crazy,” is available on World magazine’s website.) It is not because our technology so outpaces their own. The technology to select male (or female, or blond, or tall) embryos exists throughout the world. No, my country is chosen because it sets the lowest ethical bar to doing so. Gender selection, illegal elsewhere, is very legal in the largely unregulated assisted reproduction industry, a bioethical “Wild, Wild West,” in the United States. This country, founded on principles of the equality of all human beings, can offer “tourists” the best babies that money can buy. It may be over $45,000 for a “package deal” that will include airfare, treatment, and hotel accommodations. But the 98 percent of Chinese or Indian parents who choose a boy feel that the money is well-spent.
I am no fan of intrusive government regulation. But democratic government exists to protect the liberty of its citizens and, particularly, to ensure the liberty of the weakest and most vulnerable. There will be a point of reckoning for my country, the one I still consider the world’s best, greatest hope among the political nations, to speak against a radical autonomy that actually makes some, in the words of Orwell, “more equal than others.” We can, and should, have a genuine debate on what liberty and autonomy in America should look like. But, even before we lose ourselves in the weeds of theory, we should decide if we want to be the country that is the “tourist destination” for those who wish to pick which humans are worth keeping. Will we be the country that instrumentalizes human beings, that effectively traffics nascent life? That is a conversation worth having.