On Nature and its Expressions

As I flipped mindlessly through the channels after a busy day, a reality show chronicling the pregnancy and birth story of a couple caught my attention somewhat. At first I thought it was the “regular” (though nothing is quite “regular” on television, is it?) incredible story about a mystery pregnancy or multiple-births story, but soon I became more engrossed as I realized that the couple in question were anything but your average John and Jane Doe… or were they??

Well, the story went like this. A transgendered man met a transgendered woman, the two fell in love and moved in together. Both were taking hormones to facilitate the transition to the other sex, but neither had undergone sex-reassignment surgery. The result was unexpected, but warmly embraced by the young couple. The man became pregnant, and while there were clear signs that his partner experienced mixed emotions of joy and envy, the compromise was that she would definitely be the mummy—going so far as to take hormones to promote lactation. The show ended with daddy giving birth successfully, the new mummy attempting to breastfeed the infant with a nursing aid, and grandparents overlooking the little family completely elated. Picture perfect normality.

Or was it? I paused and took a deep breath before attempting some strenuous mental gymnastics to sort this one out. The question that boggled my mind was not why some of us might feel a deep split between the biological and psychological self on the central question of gender identity, but rather why something as “natural” as bearing children could, in this case, stop me to wonder precisely what is “nature”—or more specifically, why some human actions and behaviours might be perceived by some or many as “unnatural.”

The Jesuit media ecologist Walter Ong has famously put it that “what is natural to the human being is the artificial.” Ong’s context for the comment was his wonder at the human gift for ingenuity and innovation. If we take “nature” to be biological determinism, then it is quite obvious that in contrast to “natural” actions performed by humans, (like breathing etc.), no truly “human” action is “natural” in this narrow sense. On the contrary, what makes us human is precisely that we are reasonable creatures empowered to choose freely how to act. Hence, through our ingenuity and skills, we shape and recreate our environment as we deem fit. Even more crucially, through our prudential judgment, we are responsible for shaping and forming our behaviour according to personally and communally discerned (for no wo/man is an island!) standards or virtues. What is more, there is also a reciprocal relationship between the way we shape our environment and the kind of “culture”—and thus expectations for how to behave as a human being. As we discover newer ways of expressing our artisanry, so we are called to greater responsibility in mastering not only our creations, but ourselves. Human reason, and therefore what behaviours are properly “natural” to the human are not simply fixed once and for all, but continue being discovered in new cultural situations.

Periods of cultural upheaval are particularly difficult, precisely because we become poignantly aware of the conflict between emerging and conventional values. The understanding of gender, sexuality, reproduction and marriage is going through such upheaval in our times. Not only do we today hold sacrosanct the belief that human freedom itself is “indifferent”, that is, open to anything, rather than inherently oriented to an objective “good” that, through common sense, we all appreciate as being ultimate or ideal, but we also have the technologies to mould not only our environment, but ourselves, according to our wildest desires. In the words of N. Katherine Hayles, biological embodiment is becoming a mere “accident of history rather than a fact of life.” Today, our body, and therefore, also our sexual organs, their purpose and use, can be chosen or altered at will and not merely accepted as a biological inevitability. Even human life itself has been broken down to its constitutive components to the extent that Frankenstein, the “fear” or “wonder” that human beings could be synthesized and not “born” is increasingly conceivable.

Analogous to this bio-technological revolution is the effect it has on society and identity. If marriage was traditionally the socially-mandated institution for the propagation of the species (the birthing and raising of children was deemed equally, if not more important than the relational fulfillment of the couple), today marriage connotes primarily companionship, or friendship, and hence, through the sexual revolution is increasingly a separate choice from parenthood. It is not surprising, therefore, that as sexual companionship and reproduction become separate and both a matter of personal choice, just as hetereosexual couples are choosing to limit the number of children they conceive—or to not have any at all—so are homosexual couples demanding a legal right to marry, including the associated right to choose to become parents through adoption or assisted reproduction. The argument goes that if marriage is about love and companionship, one can hardly deny that love and companionship can also flourish between two men or two women. Indeed, in classical culture it was precisely friendship as the love between equals—and hence between men, since women were deemed to be socially inferior—that was lauded as the perfect human love.

So where does this reflection leave us? It leaves us with a deep challenge—a double-edged challenge for us deeply relativistic postmodern selves—that is, the challenge of what is (or should be) the standard or ideal of the fully human; and in consequence, whether there are reasonable limits to the malleability of human transformation—of technology, culture, body and mind—that would (or should) be considered “unnatural” by contradicting this standard of humanity.

For instance, is it unnatural for humans to contradict the biological and social desire to bear children as fruit of a stable relationship—at particular times, and/or throughout their “married” life? Is it unnatural for same-sex partners in a stable relationship to act on their biologically “natural” desire to form a “family” they cannot “naturally” conceive, by resorting to technological means or even more conventional ones like adoption? In the example above, is it unnatural to eradicate the most foundational biological difference between the sexes—to the extent that men or women (or at least men with functioning “female” sex organs) could bear children or lactate them at will? Would it make a difference if the woman in the example above were also born biologically a female—as is the case of the widely popularized story of the thrice-pregnant man, Thomas Beatie, legally married to Nancy, his infertile wife of nine years?

Even more crucially, if lines between “natural” and “unnatural” are to be drawn, on which criteria do we decide—not merely individually, but societally—where to do it? In a culture of individualism, relativism and freedom of indifference, could we even attempt such a conversation—let alone reach an amiable common vision? Or do we resort to choose “democratically”, that is, to play the power game of which lawgivers and laws are to legitimately control our actions?

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