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Mind

Is it OK to Adopt Kids and Perform Social Experiments On Them?

Science Not FictionBy Kyle MunkittrickJune 29, 2011 2:05 AM

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Ethics has a bizarre blind spot around parents and children. For no justifiable reason that I can discern, we deem it perfectly tolerable for a parent to decide unilaterally to raise their child genderless or under the Tiger Mother or laissez-faire method of parenting, but horror at the idea of someone "testing" one of these parental styles on a child. Recall, there is no test to become a parent, no minimum qualification or form of licensing. In fact, if you are so irresponsible as to unintentionally have a child you do not want and cannot support, you have more of a right (and obligation) to rear that child than a stranger with the means and desire to give that child a better life. We erroneously connect the ability to reproduce with the ability to rear in our social norms and in our laws. As adoption, IVF, sperm/egg donation and surrogate mothers along with new family structures challenge the concept that the person who provides the gametes or womb is also the person who will teach the child to ride a bicycle, we need to investigate the impact of perpetuating the idea that there is a link between reproducing and rearing. I would like to test this reproduce-rearing correlation with a thought experiment. The details of the thought experiment appear below the fold, but the conclusion is as follows: it would be ethically permissible for a scientist to adopt a large group of children and then perform specific, non-harmful, nature-vs-nurture social experiments on those children. My idea comes from an interview by Charles Q. Choi at Too Hard for Science? with Steven Pinker about just such an experiment:

There is one morally repugnant line of thought Pinker strenuously objects to that could resolve this question. "Basically, every nature-nurture debate could be settled for good if we could raise a group of children in a closed environment of our own design, they way we do with animals," he says. . . "The biological basis of sex differences could be tested by dressing babies identically, hiding their sex from the people they interact with, and treating them identically, or better still, dividing them into four groups — boys treated as boys, boys treated as girls, girls treated as girls, girls treated as boys," he notes. . . "There's no end to the ethical horrors that could be raised by this exercise," Pinker says. "In the sex-difference experiment, could we emasculate the boys at different ages, including in utero, and do sham operations on the girls as a control?" Pinker asks. "In the language experiment, could we 'sacrifice' the children at various ages, to use the common euphemism in animal research, and dissect their brains?" "This is a line of thought that is morally corrosive even in the contemplation, so your thought experiments can go only so far," he says.

So let's test the limits of Pinker's last line. Ethics is rife with and wrought by horrific thought experiments designed to out our biases and assumptions. And I intend to use a thought experiment to expose our bias that reproductive capacity equals rearing capacity. That is, merely because you can have a kid doesn't mean you should be allowed to decide how to raise it. Using three scenarios, I'll prove that a team of scientists adopting a large group of children with the dual intent of raising happy and healthy children while also conducting non-surgical or invasive sociological experiments would be ethically permissible. The immediate objection against social experimentation on children is that the children would be used as mere means, as objects upon which theories can be tested. That claim is false. Unlike Pinker, I believe you can draw a distinction between the "closed environment" and "sacrificial" kind of experimentation in which, for example, a child is killed and dissected to determine the impact of language on brain formation and social experimentation. "Sacrificial" experimentation shows no concern or respect for the child as a human being and would meet the conditions necessary to be described as being used as "mere means" as Kant intends it. But "sacrificial" experimentation is a gross and barbaric example. Pinker also cites examples of surgical genital alteration and in utero experimentation. These are unacceptable forms of experimentation on a child because, again, the child is treated as mere means and would suffer as a result of the experimentation. I argue that if and only if the experiments to not cause physical damage or severe suffering to the child and that the child is raised in a nurturing, safe, and supportive environment, then it would be acceptable to conduct nature-vs-nurture experiments on children. To defend my case, I ask you to consider the following three scenarios. We start with the least controversial, which I call the 100 Family Scenario:

  1. In a community, there are 100 couples of equal income and education level, each with one biological child. Half the families have a boy, half a girl.

  2. In this community, a third of families attempt to raise their children with current gender norms (i.e. boys play in pants with trucks, girls in dresses with dolls), a third attempt to reverse their child's gender norms (i.e. boys in dresses with dolls, girls in pants with trucks), and a third attempt to raise their children to be neutral (boys and girls wear the same outfits and play with similar toys). The children all live in nurturing, safe, and supportive households.

  3. There is no coordination among the families, these numbers are statistical happenstance. Furthermore, by coincidence the families are all vigilant about journaling, recording, and filming unbiased observations and data about their children as they grow up.

  4. After 20 years, a team of sociologists collects this data and, upon analysis, uses it to publish a paper about the impact of nurturing environment on gender expression and sexual preferences.

We have no outright ethical problems with this scenario. The data collection and child distribution are all happenstance. No one would find a fault in any one of the above steps. It is true that this isn't a "closed environment" the way Pinker described, but that would also be an incredibly harsh way to raise a child, raising all sorts of concerns about tainting the data. A controlled approximation of similar life-style among many families acts as a superior variable control than a highly unnatural, closed, laboratory environment. Now let's combine steps three and four, in the 100 Sociologist Biological Family Scenario:

  1. In a community, there are 100 couples of equal income and education level and within each couple in the community there is at least one parent who is a sociologist. Each family has one biological child. Half the families have a boy, half a girl.

  2. In this community, a third of families attempt to raise their children with current gender norms (i.e. boys play in pants with trucks, girls in dresses with dolls), a third attempt to reverse their child's gender norms (i.e. boys in dresses with dolls, girls in pants with trucks), and a third attempt to raise their children to be neutral (boys and girls wear the same outfits and play with similar toys). The children all live in nurturing, safe, and supportive households.

  3. There is no coordination among the families, these numbers are statistical happenstance. The sociologist parents are all vigilant about journaling, recording, and filming unbiased observations and data about their children as they grow up.

  4. After 20 years, these sociologists coordinate, collect the data and, upon analysis, use it to publish a paper about the impact of nurturing environment on gender expression and sexual preferences.

Again, there seems to be no major ethical breach in how the data was collected or how the children were raised. Having parents who are sociologists is not an ethical violation. Now consider the final scenario, which I call the 100 Sociologist Adopted Family Scenario:

  1. A group of sociologists who wish to start families

    coordinate to conduct a 20 year study in which they will collect data about children they raise and, upon analysis, use it to publish a paper about the impact of nurturing environment on gender expression and sexual preferences.

  2. The sociologists form a community, there are 100 couples of equal income and education level and within each couple in the community there is at least one parent who is a sociologist. Each family has one legally adopted child. The community coordinates to ensure that half the families adopt a boy, half a girl.

  3. In this community, a third of families attempt to raise their children with current gender norms (i.e. boys play in pants with trucks, girls in dresses with dolls), a third attempt to reverse their child's gender norms (i.e. boys in dresses with dolls, girls in pants with trucks), and a third attempt to raise their children to be neutral (boys and girls wear the same outfits and play with similar toys). The children all live in nurturing, safe, and supportive households.

  4. There is coordination among the families, the divisions among the children are the result of planning and adherence to scientific standards. The sociologist parents are all vigilant about journaling, recording, and filming unbiased observations and data about their children as they grow up.

  5. After 20 years, these sociologists coordinate, collect the data and, upon analysis, use it to publish a paper about the impact of nurturing environment on gender expression and sexual preferences.

My argument here is not that the final scenario is ethically permissible or impermissible, but to show there is no difference between the scenarios. The intent to study the children does not impact their quality of life, how they grow up, or whether or not a paper is published about their rearing. Though the children are a means to studying the nature-vs-nature debate, that is not the sole or primary purpose of the sociologist families adopting their respective children. The parents wish to start families and also wish to study gender norms. The parents in the first scenario have as much parental sovereignty as the parents in the last. Thus, there are no relevant ethical differences between the first and the third scenarios. We only perceive a difference because the children are adopted, which is no basis for a relevant ethical difference. Therefore, if it is morally permissible for parents to independently decide how to raise their children in regards to gender, it should be morally permissible for a team of scientists to conduct a rigorous experiment with their own adopted children on the impact of rearing on gender and sexual preferences. Follow Kyle on his personal blog, Pop Bioethics, and on facebook and twitter.

Image of a happy family with a "cloned" child (thank you photoshop) by madnzany under cc license via Flickr Creative Commons

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