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Hand-in-glove with recent debates about marriage should be debates about artificial reproductive technologies, or ARTs. These have been largely unregulated in the US, resulting in a wild west of anonymous sperm donation, surrogacy, three party reproduction (egg, sperm and surrogate all from different people) and hundreds of thousands of frozen embryos awaiting….something.
Most Western countries regulate this industry. Though I’m generally against excessive regulation, I think we — as a nation — need to do the soul-searching and caution that the ART industry is seems so uninterested in doing for itself. In most Western countries, anonymous sperm donation is illegal, as is surrogacy. Many regulate the number of embryos that can be transferred per cycle, resulting in far fewer multiple births. These regulations arise from a great many legitimate ethical concerns. Most nations — and some U.S. states, to some degree — but not in America as a whole.
What are the problems with these under-regulated practices? Anonymous sperm donation means that the number of children conceived by sperm donors is unlimited. Donors are often medical students looking for a little extra cash. One young sperm donor passed on a serious genetic heart defect to 9 of his 24 children. Beyond such health concerns, imagine being the child of a sperm donor and wondering if everyone you meet might be your half-sibling. You could never even be sure about people who know their own two biological parents because the father might have been a sperm donor.
Not surprisingly, the incidence of drug and psychological problems is appreciably higher for children conceived in this way, and 50% report feeling sad when they observe biologically connected families. In countries that require that donor identity be attached to sperm, donation plummets. Many also severely limit the number of children that can be produced by any one donor. At a minimum, we should have both of these regulations.
Akin to sperm donation — though on a smaller scale for obvious reasons — is egg donation. Potential parents advertise for eggs at elite college campuses and on Facebook, often with emotional appeals about giving “the gift of life.” What they do not advertise is that stimulated egg production jeopardizes the reproductive health of the donor. And then there’s the commodity angle. It is obvious that parents are looking for high intelligence by seeking genetic material on elite college campuses, but many even seek other traits like ideal height and weight and attractive features. It is the ultimate commodification of children, short of the day (may it never come) when all traits can be specifically chosen. Methinks many purveyors of diversity don’t actually like the reality of diversity.
Surrogacy also carries with it multiple risks. Pregnancy is always a risk, many of these pregnancies result from multiple egg implantation, resulting in the birth of multiple children and far higher risk. In the U.S. and India, it is legal to pay women for surrogacy, so poor women can easily be manipulated. And of course, women’s bodies, hormones and natural human emotions prepare them to want and love the baby they carry, though they sign away all legal rights before this natural process begins. The cannot change their minds as they come to love the baby they carry, who is sometimes their own biological child. Very few women want to repeat the experience and many find it deeply damaging.
We all feel deep sympathy for people who want children and are unable to have them. But in all this ethical morass, the most important questions should always be about the children. People who pursue artificial reproduction are making a decision for a person — the resulting child or children — who will have to live with the consequences of that decision, which often means that they have been deliberately deprived of one or both biological parents. To those who say that the child would rather exist than not exist, I will just say that this is not how we think of children. By that logic, every time we pass up an opportunity to make a child, by rape or any other means, we have deprived a child of existence.
Many here have said in previous discussions that biological parentage doesn’t matter. I agree that the most important aspect of parenting is the emotional connection to the child. The adoptive parents I know are wonderful, and generally both parents and children are deeply grateful that they were brought together, the parents because they longed for children and were unable to have them, and the children because, though their biological parents were unable to care for them for some reason, they cared enough to find fine people who could give them a good, stable home.
But what about children who are deliberately created to be separated from their biological parents? This is a very troubling practice. Buying and selling humans has always been associated with slavery. Remunerative ART is not exactly the same, but it is not entirely different because it often deliberately breaks the parent/child bond that is understood to be so beneficial to children. Doing this risks changing the way we think about children.
Recently, an Australian couple went to Thailand to find a surrogate because surrogacy is illegal in Australia. The surrogate gave birth to twins, one of them with Down’s Syndrome. The parents refused to bring the Down’s child home, and the Thai mother, who wanted the child but had participated in surrogacy because she was poor, could not afford to raise him. Does anyone think for a moment that if that child had emerged from the body of the woman who contracted for his birth that she would have refused to take him home? Having a surrogate bear that child changed the way she thought about him.
All of this enters the philosophical territory about what it means to be human, to know who you are and have a place in the world. A child who is given to adoptive parents may not know the circumstances of his birth, but he surely knows that his birth parents made some kind of human mistake: most likely they were teenagers or college students who got carried away, and no doubt they suffered for that mistake and learned something in the process, as is so nicely illustrated in the movie Juno. But what about the child whose parents deliberately created him because they wanted a child, using a grab bag of genetic material? What does it mean to be deliberately deprived of your biological heritage, which connects us to a human chain that stretches behind us since the beginning of time and, if we have children, continues after us till the end of time?
This is deeply meaningful and integral to who we are. It gives us a place in the world. People can be adopted into biological chains, sure. In our family, there are 20+ cousins on each side, and both sides are happy to include an adopted child. Those children are every bit as much a part of the family as the other children. But our blood tie is strong because most of us share it. Like all families, we have our arguments and annoyances, but in the end we are family. Blood is thicker than water and we overcome our little tiffs because that’s what families do, partly in honor of those people we share who produced us. We often talk about them and speculate about the genesis of some of our traits. That’s what it means to be a family.
Years ago I read The Handmaid’s Tale, which I greatly disliked. The lefty author posited a silly fictional world where patriarchal religious leaders instituted a system of producing children that involved designated “handmaids” as child factories. No one who understood Christian reverence for life would ever write such a book, but change the background story to ART companies in search of profits, and that is exactly what we have today. It is a growing “industry” that it is time to regulate.