The Single Most Important Issue Facing the UK?
I completed the survey and found, as always with surveys of this kind, some questions easier to answer than others. Perhaps the most interesting question, from my perspective, was this: “What would you say is the single most important issue facing the UK today?” The fourteen tick-box options then given were all fairly obvious – the kinds of issues that tend to take up time in the daily news, and which feature regularly in the comments of politicians. However, I wasn’t sure that any of these fourteen are really the most important issue we face, and to be honest I’d find it difficult to untangle one from the other anyway. Things like education and crime and housing and benefits are all so intertwined I really couldn’t single one out over another – but that’s the limitation of surveys I guess.
Instead, I ticked the ‘Other’ box, and specified, ‘Sexual and reproductive ethics’.
This wasn’t just me wanting to buck the survey system (though I must admit surveys do tend to produce that response in me). I really do think sexual and reproductive ethics are a big issue, and bigger than many of the items given in the EA’s list, because these are issues that strike at the very core of what it means to be human. The way in which the economy is steered is important, as is the UK’s relationship with the EU, and how we handle immigration – but these important political issues will always be up for political debate, and a range of legitimate responses. Current developments in sexual and reproductive ethics are in a different category because they are so much more literally ‘flesh and blood’ to us.
The legalisation of same-sex marriage this year has, of course, been the headline grabber in the area of sexual ethics, but really that is just the tip of the iceberg. Now that battle has been won, the fight to normalise transgenderism is ratcheting up, using many of the same tactics that were used in the SSM debate – personal rights and autonomy (rather than community considerations), the plasticity of sexuality (rather than seeing sex as biologically and creationally grounded), an appeal to tolerance (in a totalitarian tone), and so on. Already the climate is being created in which any critique of transgenderism will come to be perceived as hostility towards people. (Here is an interesting example from my local paper)
But it is not only in terms of campaigning tactics that something like SSM and transgenderism are linked – the whole framework for the way we perceive sexual and reproductive ethics is shifting. We can stitch it together something like this:
The assumption that sex is not restricted to marriage, and is primarily for the purposes of recreation rather than reproduction renders any unwanted by-products of sex disposable rather than valuable. The assumption of personal autonomy over a woman’s body makes abortion a right. The ubiquity of abortion makes embryo experimentation appear less obnoxious than it might otherwise – a trend also encouraged by the number of ‘spare’ embryos created as a by-product of IVF. IVF renders the sexual act obsolescent as a means of reproduction thus tangentially giving greater legitimacy to same-sex relationships. The legitimizing of same-sex marriage also means that the provision of IVF or surrogacy for same-sex couples becomes a matter of rights. The reality of same-sex marriage logically means the replacement of the terms ‘mother’ and ‘father’ with the un-gendered (and less personal) ‘parent a’ and ‘parent b’. When the sex of the parents is removed as an item from birth certificates and other documentation, it naturally follows that the sex of the child should also be removed (rather than ‘assigned’) from such documents. This depersonalizing of parenthood means that mitochondrial replacement technologies that create children with three biological parents becomes thinkable. The plasticity of sexuality witnessed in same-sex relationships and embryo experimentation means transgenderism becomes something that identifies a problem with the body, which science can attempt to fix, rather than an issue of psychology, or soul. And so on.
It is the interconnectedness of these issues that for me grants them their significance – the sum is greater than the parts, and the sum works towards a diminution of human personhood as it breaks the links between man and woman, parents and children, individuals and community. And that is why, for me, it is sexual and reproductive ethics that are the single most important issue facing the UK today.