Headmaster’s Thoughts — April 2016

One of my favorite times of the school week is when I teach our seniors. There are a variety of reasons for this, not the least of which is the freedom I have to teach almost anything. The seniors often set the subject to be discussed with their ideas and questions. They ask, and we all explore. If I am lucky, they argue fiercely with each other. Lots of fun!

The title of the senior course, “Ethics,” is deliberately vague. Clearly, there are philosophers whose work needs to be understood by students before we immerse ourselves deeply into ethical dilemmas. But the subsequent subjects we look at (apart from my love of “trolleyology,” which I have discussed before in these thoughts) change with the particular issues raised by each senior class. This year, a discussion about whether or not human kidneys should be sold (currently in the United States it is illegal, which has resulted in an unregulated black market), has led to long discussions on in vitro fertilization (IVF). Should there be limits on who gets insurance to pay for IVF or how old or young should you have to be for the procedure? Should you be allowed to have a baby by IVF specifically to harvest its organs or bone marrow for other members of your family? This conversation quickly turns to genetic engineering of humans and crops. In other words, sex, drugs, and rock and roll without the rock and roll.

If you want to see how science has been welcomed into the world of childbirth, you might want to look up IVF in that modern mine of advertising, misinformation, and useful knowledge; namely, the Internet. The very first listing for IVF on Google is headed, “Choose your Perfect Donor,” and directs you to a center on East 69th Street. They might as well write, “You want a baby with dimples, we give you a baby with dimples!” Frightening!  Soon, and the science is very close to this, if you want a baby with greater speed, memory, height, or weight-lifting ability than the average baby, then they will be able to offer that too.  We already have doping in the Olympics; what will happen when we have these scientifically-enhanced babies competing against the rest of us?   I can see children asking their parents, “Why didn’t you get me the gene for running faster that my friends got?”  I am not sure how to answer that. “You want a baby with dimples, we give you a baby with dimples!”

I fear that in all sports, modern science has the potential to give competitors an advantage. (I was going to say “huge” advantage, but since Mr. Trump has started his campaign, I cannot in good conscience write the word “huge” without flinching.)  While I totally agree with genetic engineering for health reasons (for example, to prevent muscular dystrophy), I am frightened by the potential creation of super people who have enhanced faculties.  And I well recognize that this is a gray area; should we allow genetic engineering to prevent crooked teeth or a crooked nose?  Goodbye to nose jobs, in come the dimples again.  There is a line that demarcates good enough “health reasons” that will someday have to be explored but has not yet completely been defined.

The future “Olympics of Genetically-Improved Humans” would be rather like NASCAR racing, something that I cannot express how little interest I have in watching.  What is there about fast cars going round and round a track that makes it the largest spectacle sport in America?  Of course the drivers are very skillful, but in the end, the best engineered (by which I mean the fastest) car wins the race. Round and round they roar, round and round, round and…wake up!  It would be just the same with genetically-engineered human/robots; round and round, round and round, and the best genetically engineered one wins the race.  And, rarely but it happens, there is in NASCAR racing a crash, an explosion, and a tragedy.  Could that happen in the “Engineered Olympics”?  Announcer:  “He is going too fast; he is out of control; he is running into the crowd; he is mowing them down!  Yuck!”

Of course we already have the winning of races via the use of technology in the example of Rosy Ruiz, the lady who claimed victory in the Boston Marathon in 1980.  Further investigation revealed that after she started off with everyone else, she then took the Boston Subway system for the course of the race, and emerged later, joining the pack of runners and winning because she had a surprisingly strong (at least if she had run 25 miles) finishing kick.  Her story reminds me of my close friend from high school, Bruce, who had a taxi waiting near the start of the mandatory, yearly school cross country run on Hampstead Heath in London. The taxi would take him to Kenwood House (a visit that, if you are in London, is well worth it), where he had a cream tea (by which I mean scones loaded with whipped cream and strawberries) and then got back into the waiting taxi and joined the rest of us as we staggered towards the finish.  In the three years that he did this, not one student gave his secret away.  I think we were just so impressed by his imagination and “Chutzpah.”  I can translate that last word for any of my readers who hail from Mississippi.

I may be going into all of this in detail because at last year’s graduation, one of the Masters of Ceremonies introduced me as the teacher who always discussed sex in his class.  Let me admit that I try to capture the interest of my students, and sex is always interesting to 17-year-olds. (I am not talking about the plumbing which they know already.)  IVF is an example of sex in a different context, and here there are multiple, complex questions that are not easily answered. For example, if we do not ask parents who have children “the old-fashioned way” if they are having children for the sole reason of harvesting available kidneys or bone marrow, why ask those who use modern science to do the same thing?  We may be totally appalled by the challenges facing 13-year-old mothers, but we should not force them to abort.  Jayme and I know mothers who have had IVF when they are close to 60 and fathers who have given sperm for their partner’s IVF when they are in their 70’s.  With money, I am sure these things are easily arranged (as is an “illegal” kidney”), but should it be allowed?  “We can get you dimples!”

As I began, so much fun!


Ronald. P. Stewart


York Prep School