All wired up: the contraceptive chip

An MIT spinoff called MicroCHIPS has announced plans to market an implantable contraceptive chip that can be turned on and off remotely, and lasts for as long as sixteen years. Funded by the (Bill) Gates Foundation to the tune of $5 million, the chip contains enough of the contraceptive drug levonorgestrel to provide contraception for the major part of a woman's fertile years. Once implanted, the device will automatically melt a seal to release a few micrograms of the drug every month until it receives a wireless command to stop, or to start again if desired.
When developers were questioned about hacking concerns, they said the device will incorporate such precautions as individual password-protected remote controls and the need for an external transmitter to be held within a few inches of the device, which will be implanted in a region of fatty tissue. MicroCHIPS hopes to market the device in some regions of the world starting in 2018.
This announcement raises two distinct ethical issues.
One is the question of security relating to any kind of medical chip implanted in the human body. One of the news reports on the contraceptive device noted that former US Vice President Dick Cheney asked his doctors to disable his heart pacemaker's wireless interface out of concerns that someone might hack into it and zap him into eternity.
Such fears are not without foundation. For example, password protection is notably weak in many cases, and short-range low-power RF links can be manipulated from greater distances by (illegal) high-power transmitters.
It is a sign of a narrow mindset to consider only technical means of hacking. In the developing-world environments where the Gates Foundation intends the contraceptive chip to be used, there is often a strong animus against any method of birth control on the part of husbands and boyfriends. Why should a man bother with sophisticated technical hacking when he can threaten to beat the stuffing out of the woman if she doesn't tell him her password? No one has figured out a foolproof way to prevent that kind of hack.
The second ethical issue, and the one that will probably get me into hot water shortly, is the question of contraception in general. Contraception is an existential question for the human race as a whole, and thus goes to the very heart of what you think humanity is about.
Until the mid-20th century, the consensus of both learned and popular opinion was that engaging in sexual intercourse while intentionally preventing the conception of a child was wrong. Here is what none other than the great psychologist (and atheist) Sigmund Freud said in a lecture delivered in 1915:
"We actually describe a sexual activity as perverse if it has given up the aim of reproduction and pursues the attainment of pleasure as an aim independent of it. So, as you will see, the breach and turning-point in the development of sexual life lies in its becoming subordinate to the purposes of reproduction."
While he said this in the context of the subject of infantile sexuality, Freud is essentially making the distinction between the animal type of intercourse, in which creatures such as dogs and cats simply follow their instinctive sexual urges wherever they lead, and the mature human type of intercourse, in which the main reproductive function of sex is recognized by the rational animal known as a human being, and used with that function fully in mind.
Now this is an ideal, obviously, and many people have fallen short of the ideal since prehistoric times. But when pharmaceutical contraceptives became available in the 1950s, moral authorities in Western societies gradually abandoned the ideal, with one notable exception: the Roman Catholic Church. Since then, nearly everyone has adopted a model of the human being that views sexuality as independent of reproduction.
If you believe that human beings arose by means of mindless undirected evolution and no God was ever in the picture, it's hard for me to understand how you can also believe sexuality should be independent of reproduction. Isn't that how we got here, by means of sexual attraction between opposite-sex fertile men and women?
Oh, but now we're beyond all that, you say. We've taken control of our own evolution and can do anything we like, implant chips to turn our women into sex robots or what have you. Reproducing is somebody else's job—seems like we will never run out of people.
To that I would say, ask Japan.
Japan is the incredible shrinking country. For the last four years in a row, Japan's population has suffered a net decline, even with immigration taken into account. In 2013 there were about 238,000 more deaths than births in the famously insular island nation. While not all of this decline can be attributed to contraceptive technologies, those means go together with a cultural mindset that focuses people on careers and individual success to the detriment of families, marriage, and (in Japan) even between-sex relationships, which many Japanese have given up on altogether. The future for Japan looks grim, as it does to a greater or lesser degree for many European countries whose birth rates are not much better than Japan's.
I was going to bring religion into this argument, but I don't think there is a need to. Plain lunkheaded observation of simple statistics shows that cultures and countries that discourage reproduction, whether by abortion, birth control, or a mindset that disses family life, will tend to grow smaller, will experience widespread economic and social dislocations, and possibly disappear altogether. And in the course of time they will be replaced, if at all, by other cultures that encourage reproduction and promote stable family structures that produce mature, competent people who have the long-term interests of their societies at heart. And that is a totally Darwinist secular evolutionary argument.
Excuse me, but DUH.
One of my favorite Eudora Welty short stories ends up with a small boy being punished for a minor infraction in a hair salon. He breaks loose from his mother and runs out the door, but as he leaves he stops to get in the last word: "If you're so smart, why ain't you rich?" I would turn it around and ask Mr Gates, "If you're so rich, why ain't you smart enough to realize that contraceptive technology is not in the best interests of humanity?"
Mr Gates is not going to pay any attention to me, and I expect that many of my readers will not see eye-to-eye with my position on this either. Though not a Catholic myself, after many years of experience, both personal and second-hand, I have come to the conclusion that the Roman Catholic Church has the most philosophically and theologically sound positions on human sexuality of any institution around—scientific, cultural, religious, political, or otherwise. But that is a story for another time and place. Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site.  Readers interested in knowing more about the Roman Catholic Church's position on sexuality in a highly readable and useful form can consult Christopher West's Good News About Sex & Marriage (Cincinnati, OH:  St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2004).  This book is especially recommended for young people who have most of their lifetimes ahead of them in which to avoid the mistakes of an older generation.


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