Guess who is who?
The events in the U.K. ... not science fiction but the truth.
IF you didn't see them on the news pages of respected newspapers, you would think they were figments of a fevered imagination. But occasionally, truth is stranger than fiction as you will see from these two news stories both from England which appeared in the press last week.
The first came as a ruling from Britian's top family court. Mr. and Ms. A (the identities given by the court), are a childless White couple who decided to go in for fertility treatment at Leeds General Infirmary in the north of England. In the treatment, Mr. A's sperm was used to fertilise the eggs of Ms. A in the in vitro procedure which has become reasonably commonplace now in many parts of the world. The procedure succeeded and Ms. A carried the babies to term (multiple births are not uncommon in these procedures and Ms. A was pregnant with twins).
There was one little problem, though, which came to light when the twins were born. It was quite a big problem, actually: the twins weren't White. Investigation revealed that the fertility clinic had made a mistake and given Ms. A the sperm of not Mr. A, her husband, but Mr. B, who happened to be a Black man.
The family court had no choice but to decide that Mr. B was the legal father and thus could have visitation rights plus a say in the bringing up of the babies. If, however, Mr. A becomes the adoptive father, those rights would cease.
It's a happing ending, one supposes of a sort, especially considering the trauma everyone has gone through. It echoed a similar case in New York three years ago which had a different "happy" ending. There a 40-year-old White woman gave birth to two babies, one Black and one White. It was found that during fertility treatment, one of the embryos implanted in her was produced with the sperm and eggs of another couple who were both Black). The White woman agreed to give the Black infant to its biological parents even though she had gone through the pregnancy and given birth to the baby.
The second news item from last week is even more bizarre. A teenage girl in England, we are told, is to be given a face transplant. Yes, you read that right: a face transplant, the first ever to be attempted in the world. The girl, apparently was involved in a horrific car crash which wiped out her entire family. Although she survived, her face was burnt so completely that it was beyond repair even by the most sophisticated plastic surgeons. What the doctors plan to do now is to wait for a suitable person to die (presumably a young girl around the same age), and transplant her face onto the burnt girl's.
I suppose it was inevitable as science advances rapidly, there is a blurring of lines, and what might have been science fiction yesterday becomes science fact today. Human beings adapt to these changes very quickly: air travel was an outrageous concept before it became commonplace. So was the telephone or the television or the facsimile or the cellphone. In the field of medicine, a heart transplant no longer evokes wonder ("I have got someone else's heart?!"); the heart, for all its special place in poetry and romance, is now just another organ. Higher in the spare-parts-hierarchy than the kidney or the liver or the lung maybe, but a replaceable unit nevertheless.
In the same inevitable way, Nature's Grand Moment, when the meshing of bodies (occasionally accompanied by the meshing of minds and hearts), sends the seeds of creation racing down to propagate the species, and takes place in a laboratory petri dish. We shrug our shoulders, and move on.
But it's unlikely that we will shrug our shoulders so easily when faced with science-ordained situations like the ones outlined at the beginning of this column. Mr. A and Ms. A now have children which, for all purposes, are their own, yet they aren't. In fact, if Mr. B hadn't been Black, no one would have known the difference. As they grow up, the children will be faced with the question of identity common to adopted children, yet they aren't adopted, are they? The question of identity gets even more acute in the case of the teenage girl. All of us grow up with a face we call our own. Our mind, our heart, our soul may collectively make up our being, but they are well out of sight, and, therefore, nothing defines us more comprehensively than our face. Our face also changes with us, takes on crows feet and worry lines, takes on the joy of being loved and the slap of betrayal. In the end, like it or not, it's our face, one hundred per cent ours.
The girl's new face will be one hundred per cent not hers. She will now look in the mirror and see someone else: she will lift her hand and the glass will reflect her brushing someone else's hair. Perhaps, with time, she will learn to accept that the stranger she lives with is no stranger but herself, but that time will be a long time a-coming.
With every advance in science, with every tinkering with Nature, there will be more conflicts like these. After all, the world may have changed, but in many ways, human beings have remained the same: we may live in the 21st Century but we feel as loved or as cheated, as much happiness or as much rage as we did when we lived in a cave. So forgive me if for a while I don't look in the mirror just in case someone else is lurking there.
Anil Dharker is a noted journalist, media critic and writer.
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