Two stories that I received in my Inbox on the same recent weekend turned my thoughts to the ethics of reproduction and the lengths to which we might go to generate offspring. One story involved birds; the other humans. Both stories are about loss – in the case of the birds, loss of their species; in the case of the humans, loss of the values and norms governing our most intimate relationships.

The birds are not aware, as far as we know, of the danger their species is facing. It also seems that the current generation of young humans, through no fault of their own, are likewise not aware of the dangers they and future generations are facing. They seem to be completely unaware of what previous generations have deprived them with respect to the norms and culture governing their most intimate and important relationships. For them, becoming aware of that loss would be a first step – a step towards deciding whether to try to find a contemporary approach that will help to remedy the harm done by the loss.

Now to the stories.

An article by Science Editor, John Elder, in the March 28 online publication, The New Daily, is headlined “First the love song, then the species: How an Australian bird might be lost. Here is an abridged version of the story:

New generations of critically endangered regent honeyeaters aren’t learning the love song that helps win a mate. The fate of Australia’s critically endangered regent honeyeater might hinge on how many young birds learn the species’s particular love song – and the other melodies that have been handed down from generation to generation.

Australian National University (ANU) research has found that the regent honeyeater – with an estimated 200 to 400 remaining in the wild – is losing its ‘song culture’ by which it communicates….

If young male birds don’t meet older males, then they have no one to teach them the songs they need for maintaining a territory or courtship. If there’s no successful courtship, there’s no new generation of honeyeaters.

The ANU researchers … found that in places that supported a relatively healthy number of regent honeyeaters “males sang rich and complex songs”. But in places where the birds were rare, males sang ‘simplified’ or ‘totally incorrect’ songs.

Researcher Dr Ross Crates said, “Loss of song culture is a major warning sign the regent honeyeater is on the brink of extinction and we still have a lot to learn about how to help them.” … Regent honeyeaters, like many songbird species, have a limited song-learning time, such that once they’re a certain age they can’t learn new songs. Captive birds “were found to be singing songs different from those sung in the wild – which won’t help boost the population” as, when they are released, they could be unattractive to wild birds.

So the researchers “devised a new strategy to teach young captive regent honeyeaters to sing the same song as the wild birds by playing them audio recordings.” Dr Crates said, “the first cohort of males has been exposed to the treatment for about three months… We should know if it has worked in about 5 months.”

My first thoughts on reading this story were whether it held any relevance or could provide any insights in relation to human reproduction, and, in particular, the decline in marriage and increase in divorce in post-modern Western societies.

Have men in post-modern Western societies forgotten or, perhaps, have never been taught, the “songs” they need to sing to attract a female mate and to keep her? Like the honeyeaters, are they lacking fathers who can teach them? Are their songs communicative and attractive to other men but not to women?

Or have women just decided to close their ears to men’s “songs”? Have women chosen to do this because the traditional male song is so implicated in female disempowerment and supports misogynistic social norms and behaviour?

Or has the subject matter of the songs, intimate sexual relationships, been so devalued that the songs are of no importance or impact?

A long time ago, I was told an Aboriginal story that made a great impression on me. The women had gathered to decide what to do, because the men had discovered the cave in which the “secret women’s business” was hidden. They decided not to prevent the men from stealing it, because they knew that if they did, there would never be peace in the mob. The Aboriginal women could have stopped the men, but they chose not to do so in order to achieve a greater good. Was this a wise decision on their part?

At the time I heard this story, I was writing on the ethics of what were then “New Reproductive Technologies”, in particular, in vitro fertilization (IVF). Was IVF the equivalent in Western societies of the Aboriginal men stealing the knowledge? Most and possibly all of the early IVF research scientists were men.

In the early days of Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ARTs), a strong cohort of contemporary feminists from around the world came together. One such group was called FINRRAGE (Feminist International Network of Resistance to Reproductive and Genetic Engineering), “an international network of feminists who are concerned with the development of reproductive and genetic technologies and their effects on women”. This group included Australian and Canadian feminists, many of them academics whom I knew.

Unlike the Aboriginal women, they protested vociferously against reproductive technologies and practices such as surrogate motherhood, claiming they denigrated women and constituted manufacturing babies. An unlikely alliance was formed between them and people with conservative social or religious values, on some values on which they were all ad idem. This alliance can still be seen operating in the public square today. One example is both groups’ opposition to allowing women to be surrogate mothers, that is, “uteruses for hire”.

It was once suggested to me that societies have two spheres in which power can be exercised, one is Nature, the other Culture. Traditionally, Nature belonged to women, because they could perform the miracle of giving birth; and Culture (which included religion) belonged to men. To maintain a peaceful society in which reasonable people would want to live, the power exercised in each of the two spheres needs to be balanced. Men accruing power in relation to reproduction — a, and arguably the, central element of the Nature sphere — required women to take power in the culture sphere, if that balance were to be maintained. Women moved en masse into previously almost exclusive male domains – workplaces, historically “male only” sports, the clergy, and so on.

As we have seen over the last 50 years, these power shifts are unavoidably and massively disruptive. Like most momentous changes, they have resulted in good and harmful outcomes. The good outcomes include, for example, laws prohibiting discrimination against women, recognition and condemnation of domestic violence, the opening up of career opportunities for women and attempts to close the “pay gap” that seriously disadvantages women.

The harmful outcomes occur at both a societal and individual level. Societally, it has often meant the loss of the extended family, and the care it provided for vulnerable people such as the fragile elderly people and those with disabilities. At an individual level, we have seen a loss of male identity in young men, and discrimination against them.

There is an old saying in human rights law: “Nowhere is respect for human rights more threatened than when we act purporting to do only good”. Our sole focus on the good we hope to achieve blinds us to the harm unavoidably resulting. If we are to act ethically, it is essential that we recognise the harms and, as both individuals and societies, work to eliminate or, at the least, ameliorate them.

In short, our societal structure and shared values have undergone a massive upheaval since the 1960s. We must ask ourselves what we need to do to ensure human flourishing and to hand on a fairer, more just, more peaceful, more sustainable world to future generations – which leads me to the second story.

The second story, “Mum and dad lite: parenting without sex, romance, co-habitation or marriage” in the BioEdge newsletter of March 27, by Michael Cook. Here is an abridged version of that:

Amongst the myriad new family forms springing up as traditional marriage loses popularity is platonic co-parenting. This is not co-parenting after divorce, with all of its acrimony and competition for a child’s affection. Instead this involves two strangers making plans to conceive children (naturally or artificially) and taking joint responsibility for raising them — but without marriage or living together….

[T]his is a “new phenomenon picking up speed”. Of which one straw in the wind is a new reality TV show on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom, “Strangers Making Babies”. In Episode 1, … “[a] group of single, would-be parents look for a platonic partner to have a baby with, without the complication of finding love first”….

[I]n the past few years, there has been a huge rise in the number of internet sites and forums claiming to match potential co-parents. An estimated 70,000 people in the UK are signed up to such sites, seeking platonic parenting partners.

Channel 4’s professional matchmakers have paired up three men with three women deafened by the ticking of their biological clock. First, there’s a getting-to-know-you over drinks, then a weekend together, then a contract, then an attempt at conception….

There are a number of websites which cater for people … interested in co-parenting arrangements. Their clients want to become parents and have a family, but unencumbered by romance and commitment.

Dr [Susan] Golombok [director of the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Family Research] says that social scientists still have very little data on platonic co-parenting. “We don’t yet know how children will feel about their family situation, and how it will play out over time,” she writes in her book. But, as she told The Guardian last year, “It is possible, though, that taking away romantic baggage could even make for a more stable environment.” 

So, like the regent honeyeaters, have we humans lost our mating love songs? If so, is this beneficial or harmful and to whom? This is a difficult topic to discuss because it involves raising many sensitive issues and asking questions to which adherents of “woke” and “cancel” cultures will object.

However, we fail to ask necessary questions at our ethical peril regarding our obligations, both as individuals and societies, to future generations of children, including the risk of leaving them a depersonalised, dehumanised world, which has lost some of its most important shared values.

Some of the questions we need to ask are: do the benefits and harms of the governance of the procreative relationship between a man and a woman depend on the cultural rituals and traditions with which we surround it? Arranged marriages do not primarily focus on romantic love, but they do embody a lifetime commitment of the spouses to each other and any resulting children, and they usually have strong family and community support. Might this platonic co-parenting be a post-modern version of, or reversion to, arranged marriages for hereditary purposes? 

Extra-marital sex in not a new phenomenon, but since the ‘sexual revolution’ of the 1960s/70s many people’s attitudes to it have changed, especially the attitudes of young people. As a colleague whom I asked to comment on an early draft of this article wrote: “Before the ‘sexual revolution’, sex outside wedlock was covert, disavowed and scorned, but thereafter it was ‘overt, desired and celebrated’. Nothing wrong with that. Clearly there have been loses and gains with the new order. One of the gains may have been more honesty”.

Another relevant factor in changing sexual values is that many people in Western democracies have abandoned marriage to follow their heart’s desire for romance. The advent of the contraceptive pill allowed this quest to gradually morph into a “hook-up” culture in which some people accepted casual or “recreational” sexual relationships as a norm. The central purpose of sexual relationships went from promoting lifelong bonding between a man and a woman and the birth of children, to a purely recreational casual activity.

Might this have resulted, in part, from lost moral language regarding human sexuality and might this loss be the human analogue to the honeyeaters’ lost mating song? Words matter. Words like modesty or chastity, or even commitment and faithfulness, and the concepts they embody are regarded as quaint relics of a bygone era. “Progressive” values adherents reject them as “so 19th century or Victorian” and regard their content as irrelevant to sexual values in the 21st century.

A huge gap has opened between people with more traditional sexual moral values and those who reject these values. The two sides cannot converse with each other, because they have no shared ground. The people in the “progressive” group have little to guide them except their own conscience. Important as that is, sometimes some further guidance – dare we say wisdom? – is needed. For them, the old order has been abolished, but it has not given way to a viable new order, at least not yet. That said, many of these people are still looking and longing for a committed, faithful sexual partner. My anecdotal observation is that this is true, in particular, of women.

Expressive or radical individualism in relation to having a child translates to “I” or “we” want a baby and will obtain one using whatever means are necessary. The legitimacy of this view is supported by claiming it as a fundamental human right, an “absolute right to reproductive freedom”.

But what if the baby would have wanted to be raised in a family consisting of a mother and a father, to both of whom the baby was biologically related? An ethical doctrine called “anticipated consent” proposes that if a decision is to be made that affects in a serious way a person who cannot at the time be consulted, can we reasonably anticipate that if they could be consulted, they would consent? A notable feature of the discourse around the promotion and use of reproductive technologies is its exclusive focus on adults’ wants and needs and only rarely, if at all, are those of resulting children considered. The fertility industry is a multi-billion dollar international corporate endeavour: adults desperate to have a child can be eager customers; yet-to-be-conceived or unborn children cannot.

An Alberta (Canada) case throws some interesting light on the issues that can arise when adults seek to deal with children’s rights regarding their families.

The plaintiff woman and defendant man had been living together for around three years. The woman wanted to have a child the man did not. The plaintiff and defendant entered a contract that the woman would conceive by artificial insemination by donor and that the man would have no resulting liability for any form of support for the child.

Sometime after the birth of the child, the couple separated and the plaintiff woman sued the defendant man for child support. The defendant produced the contractual agreement that exempted him. The judge held it was null and void. The judge ruled that the defendant had already acted as a father to the child and the adult parties could not contract away the right of the child to have the support of two parents. He ordered the man to pay child support.

Might the desire for platonic-relationship parenting also have a link to wanting to reduce the likelihood of domestic violence or to make it easier to escape it if it occurs? Women are overwhelmingly the victims of domestic violence. Might violence be less likely in such a relationship or, if it does occur, would escape be easier? Or might platonic-relationship parenting be a way of adults avoiding commitment to a reproductive partner, but not to the child that results from that partnership? Is the separation of sex and parenting the final stage of the separation of sex and intimacy, which has already occurred in the hook-up culture?

The sexual revolution in combination with reproductive technologies has led to the fragmenting not only of the elements of reproduction and parenthood, but also of the unity of the values governing both of these undertakings. As a result, like the regent honeyeaters, are we — or perhaps the fundamental norms and value systems on which our post-modern Western societies are based — in danger of extinction?

Margaret Somerville AM, DSG, FRSC, FRSN, DCL is Professor of Bioethics at the University of Notre Dame Australia School of Medicine (Sydney campus). She is also Samuel Gale Professor of Law Emerita, Professor...