Frankenstein at 200 Symposium: Professor Patrick Derr, “Frankenstein and Bioethics”

by Melanie Jennings, Clark University '19

At the Frankenstein at 200 Symposium, interdisciplinary student and faculty talks from the English, Philosophy, and Screen Studies departments spoke to the legacy of Mary Shelley’s iconic novel in honor of its 200th anniversary. During the two-day event, scholars addressed issues of social justice, the liminal subject, bioethics and film adaptations of the novel. Professor Derr, Professor and Chair, Philosophy, presented on “What is This Creature? Dignity, Justice, and Reproduction in the Age of Frankenstein,” which touched on his specializations in environmental ethics, the philosophy of science, and biomedical ethics. Specifically, he applied theological, biological, and philosophical perspectives to argue that the social and scientific age of Frankenstein is upon us.

According to Professor Derr, the first distinction we must establish when analyzing life is what is a “human” and what is a “person.” A human represents a member in our living species, whereas a person is an individual deserving of respect. Sperm cells are neither human beings nor a person, but a liminal figure lying in between the two. If Shelley intended to present both the Creature and Victor Frankenstein as human beings, then she tactically forces readers to question their own ethical values, which may reveal that they are more monstrous than the supposed “wretch” in the novel.

To do so, the first dynamic we must address is expanding fundamental rights and liberties of those recognized as a person, otherwise known as “Liberal Humanism.” This type of internal and external reflection is intended to reveal a constant and universal truth about our humanity; however, it does not amount to much when we fail to recognize humans as persons. In Dred Scott vs. Sandford, for instance, the 1857 decision by the US Supreme Court denied Virginian slave Dred Scott his freedom, determining that no one with African blood was or could ever be a citizen.  The verdict of the case suggests that the American Legal System, at the time, not only failed to recognize Dred Scott as a citizen, but also neglected to view him as a person worthy of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The unethical circumstances of the case also convey a sense of elitism in a legal system supposedly founded on and for justice. Elitism denies that all human beings deserve respect and, instead, only particular individuals, usually of superior race, socioeconomic status, and gender, are worthy of such rights. Elitists’ decision to draw a line between humans who do and do not deserve respect is hideously wrong; for all human beings are persons regardless of race, sexuality, and gender.

By analyzing the socially unethical binary that continues to divide the human race, Professor Derr instructs us to look at additional binaries in a broader context outside of our own society, and even our own species. Reproductive rights and research is a primary example where the giving and receiving of respect is pushed to its limits. Every reproductive technology that has been successfully done to animals will eventually be done to humans. Although some people may breathe a sigh of relief when they see that the cosmetic products, household cleaners, and medicines they use have not been tested on animals, a lot of information still remains silenced to protect human consumer contentment at the expense of animals’ quality of life. Thousands of animals are killed every day in the meat making industry, scientific laboratories, and unregulated institutions, using their bodies for modes of experimentation and/ or production in a manner that is not always legal and is certainly not ethical.

Professor Derr points out, though, that humans are also guilty of treating their own species in an animalistic way like that of Victor Frankenstein and society’s brutal behavior towards the Creature in Shelley’s novel. In one scenario, a Pakistani woman may be paid $500 from an American couple to be the surrogate for their baby, meanwhile the reproductive rights lawyer overseeing the case collects $75,000 in legal fees. One person sits at a desk and calculates how much money they are deserving of, while another gives the space of their body to let life grow and permanently alter its physical condition. However, if the couple decides to split up during the pregnancy, and the surrogate has already been impregnated, but they no longer want the baby since they are no longer a marital union, what should be done? Like sperm and egg cells, embryos are neither persons nor property, but something in between. Is this poor woman expected to let life keep growing inside her? Is her choice to get an abortion, in fact, her choice or subliminally that of the embryos parents’ since they have created it?  Like Shelley, Professor Derr confronts us with the happy stories and the horror stories of our existence, where it is up to our moral compass to determine to what extent our actions and attitudes are ethical or not.