Call them confessions of the barren. They are everywhere. The number of women and men who desire children but cannot conceive them or carry them to term is immense. Only recently, the tide of social conversation has changed to begin to reveal their stories. They are heartrending tales of pathetic desire, and I intimately know them.
For some the option is clear. Science and modem medicine have forged a strong alliance affording us numerous ways to by bypass the age old problem of infertility. From the sale of gametes marketed as charity towards the infertile, to the option of in-vitro fertilization (IVF), to the even ‘easier’ combination of in-vitro and surrogacy where the biological parents simply pay and wait for others to conceive and bring their children to term for them, there are multiple alternatives for women and men who want children they themselves cannot have. The price however is increasingly a high one: morally, financially, ethically, socially and spiritually, the balance sheet has been weighted with costs. Human desire being what it is disregards all this and propels an industry forward at seemingly intractable speed. We are willing to pay high prices for human life. And we are buying ourselves what we once received as gift: children are the latest hot product — high stakes for modern times.
As endless as the ways at our disposal, the reasons and conditions associated with Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) are likewise as numerous. The litany is quite impressive, if you ask me. None of the reasons people turn to ART’s can be said to be superficial. Every one, drawn back to its origin, points to one thing: human love is made to be generative, and it desires fruitfulness. Any frustration of this generativity is difficult to live with. And so, desperately blinded by desire, we proceed to take control and strategize the way around privation. We are good at strategy. Once we take matters into our hands, it is easy to lessen burden and increase output. We want the most for the least effort.
Last week, I read about this trend in a disturbing BBC article narrating the story of a British couple who had their embryos implanted into two Indian women they have never met. They came out saying that the Indian women ‘were performing a service’ for them. The couple wishes not to risk complicated pregnancy, and so ‘hired’ these two women to ensure the likelihood of success in multiple in-vitro trials. They now find themselves awaiting two sets of twins. They decided to keep the four ’embryos’ rather than proceed with ‘selective reduction’. These four children are currently being carried to term for them by two nameless women the couple does not wish to meet, and are due to be born in early 2014.
The details of this story amount to impressive effort on the part of this couple to achieve what their own bodies are tragically not capable of. I wondered in reading this story, how many more like it go unreported.
With the advent of ART’s, all around the world we have begun to see this utilitarian appropriation of other bodies or body parts, to ‘assist’ couples wanting to have children; consummate indication of the desperation of those wanting the children and the usually fiscal need/benefit of those offering their bodies for so particular a ‘service’. The irony is that in ‘assisting’ someone else, they are being used. And no, compensation is not commensurate with services rendered. A human life is not worth an average 25,000 dollars — it is priceless. And so is the woman who bears it for another, however poor she might be, as she often is.
I then came across a new study published by the American Society of Reproductive Medicine releasing data results indicating some five million children have been born from ART’s in the last decade data has been available. Five million. That is a lot of babies. Which also means there are a lot of parents of ART children out there. And millions more nameless human embryos, created, destroyed, implanted, reduced, bought, sold, surrogated or otherwise used to advance the science involved in ART and ‘perfect’ it.
Placing jolting anecdotes and data like this aside, I am struck by the fact that it is not just personally difficult to live with un-treatable infertility, it is nowadays becoming near impossible to defend this choice. For those of us who decide not to pursue assisted methods of reproductive technology, there is only one option: the road of experienced privation with no appeal to compassion and little to no related support. After all, there are medical ‘alternatives’. We simply choose against them. So it is our problem, and that is where the story ends.
The choice to opt against ART’s is indeed increasingly rare, as rare as the understanding of the ethical considerations one should carefully weigh in the decision. In the last decade I have been challenged on numerous occasions as to why we would not satisfy the natural and healthy desire for a family by appealing to the variety of means modern medicine makes available to us. Doctors, family and friends alike have been surprised. Fundamentally, yes, ART’s involve physical commitment to undergo medical intervention that is invasive, painful, life altering and very expensive. And yet, again and again I would encounter the questions: What is really so bad about it? Would not one do anything for a child? Why not you?
And my answer has consistently been a resounding ‘yes’.
Yes, desiring the greatest gift human love can bring forth, one would do the near impossible to have a child. Yes, one would submit to extraordinary medical intervention. I for one, have done all of it, stopping short of ART related procedures. Yes, one would invest in medical attention most do not need, to ensure a healthy pregnancy, or even the likelihood of one being possible to begin with. Yes, and yes, many times over and again.
The difference in this ‘yes’ is how far one goes, how one goes about achieving this desire, and the intention behind the choice.
In the natural order of things there are limits and defects to human reproduction. This is precisely what infertility related assisted reproduction technologies seek to defy. We think that we are invincible, that we are one scientific discovery away from effecting miracles of our own making. There comes a point, however, where the impossible is just that: not possible. The prospect of one more scientific discovery comes at a price, sometimes a very high price: that of life and death.
And it is here that the question shifts. One should not, cannot do the seemingly impossible, apart from taking on the very act of creation and, for lack of better words, messing with it. And this is why I choose not to buy myself a child in the manner offered me by the very highly specialized IVF clinics I have appealed to for necessary medical treatment.
I choose not to buy a child because I myself cannot create one, in my body or apart from it. Creation is not an act of sheer human agency, it is one we cooperate in. For all the desire, knowledge and potential at play in the world, nothing we have is something we have not first received. This includes the scientific capacity for ‘assisted reproduction’.
I choose not to buy myself a child because however strongly I may desire one, I do not think I am entitled or have the ‘right to a child’. I firmly believe a child, every child, is a gift, and that we do not give ourselves gifts, but rather receive them. So much so do I believe this, that it pains me deeply to see this gift abused, wasted, impoverished, defiled and broken, lost, bought, sold, manufactured, and bar-coded in our society.
I choose not buy myself a child because I do not believe children are a commodity to be traded in pristine clinics within some the world’s most advanced medical institutions. Nor are they boutique items one customizes to preference as one would a bag or a couture gown. No, Hermès Birkin’s and children are not the same thing, though a Hermès bag and an IVF trial can actually cost the same amount.
I choose not buy myself a child because I do not buy the idea that we can have whatever we want. I actually think that however painful, and indeed painful it is, it is likewise good to experience a bit of that agonizing privation that many know thorough abject misery in material poverty, by knowing what is is like to desire something truly good, and not be able to have it, and certainly not choose to purchase it at luxury good cost. Such is the possibility of solidarity infertility actually offers us — it is as visiting Kibera via a Park Avenue infertility clinic; poverty visited by the experience of privation amid the excess of entitlement.
I choose not to buy myself a child because I would not want to one day tell my child they were conceived in a lab, bar-coded under a microscope, needle point meeting gametes in a game of combinations one observes then divide and multiply: choreographed spectacle made of the marvel of human beginnings.
I choose not to buy a child because I think conception is imbued with an innocence we must respond to with awe and wonder. In the pristine hiddeness of the womb, the moment a new life comes to be is known only to God, and I like that about the way we come to be in the world. If this gift is given us in maternity and paternity, we have a singular and irreplaceable responsibility to protect, nurture, receive and care for an invisible miracle, one which is slowly revealed in a course of astonishing growth, and birth, and continued growth. And if this is not the way we are given to be parents, then it is not for us to devise alternative methods to recreate ourselves in a custom crafted baby.
I choose not to buy myself a child because as a woman, like all men and women, I am capable of love that is physical and love that is spiritual, and the two are not mutually exclusive. To not have a child, is not to not to miss out on the experience of maternal love.
I choose not buy myself a child because I will not choose between children. Creating embryos to select the best and most viable, and discard the remaining, is a modern discrimination played out on the level of souls. ‘Embryo parents’ as they are called, have told me they ‘fall in love’ with ‘their embryos’. Naturally they do. After all, they are loving themselves. So then, how is it possible to choose between Embryo 1 and Embryo 2, or ‘selectively reduce’ to create a ‘two minus one pregnancy’?
I choose not to buy myself a child because I believe human reproduction is not a transaction. I do not expect another to carry my child to term. I will not pay another to experience maternity and then have them deliver me a child they will not be able to know, so that I can have the privilege to love the fruit of their womb. I respect women enough not to turn them into my nameless child-bearing surrogates.
I will not buy myself a child because I have known the pain of women who have had to pick up the pieces when in-vitro fails them — as it tragically does, some seventy percent of the time — and sets them up for the addictive desire fueled need to try IVF again at great cost to their already damaged bodies and broken hearts. For all the widespread availability of assisted reproductive science, there is virtually no assistance for in-vitro related grief or medical repercussion. And this makes little sense to me.
I choose not to buy myself a child, because this might require a woman to sell me a part of her body and to incur pain and invasive procedures to do so, perhaps at the cost of her own fertility. It would be tragic to benefit from her loss. I would call that a loss on top of my own suffering. And I do not believe in compounding my own pain.
I will not buy myself a child because this is not one of those issues we can judge based on the premise that no one gets hurt. The modern contention that choices one makes are fine if there is consent and no one is harmed does not apply here, nor is it ever the basis on which to judge good from wrong. People get hurt and used ‘assisting reproduction’; compensation cannot heal them.
I choose not to buy myself a child because I don’t just listen to what the Church tells me, I actually believe it is true and rationally defensible. In fact, I think that what the Church teaches us in the area of assisted reproduction is intended to spare women and men the suffering upon suffering already known in infertility. For there is little worse than experiencing the agony of privation then compounded with the agony of invasive pre-IVF treatment, repeatedly failed IVF cycles, or child loss in pregnancy. There is wisdom in the ethical parameters set in the area of moral theology on human reproduction. And wisdom is its own consolation.
So yes, we would do very much — extraordinary things, in fact — to have a child, but I would not take it upon myself to bypass or outsmart nature, wounded and barren as it is, and make mine what is not or attempt to create it using others in the process. Claiming assistance in reproduction requires a prior choice to utilize. And I am of the conviction that persons are not to be used, because they are not replaceable products.
I prefer rather, to be in the company of the heroines of old who wept in temples and offered the full dignity of their desired fertility as incense rising towards the heavens. It is possible to imitate that nobility of desire and make of it a modern acceptable sacrifice in a time of wasted abundance. I think it is tragic that so many these days opt to intentionally curtail their fertility for no just cause, and simply as matter of convenience and control. I find each instance of such modern waste a brutal piercing of my own heart and my own maternal desire. It is an interesting paradox that in a culture with such widespread dependence on contraception, we have an equally desperate number of people who desire exactly what some have in abundance and yet intentionally repress.
Infertility is modern poverty. Its proposed antidote is assisted reproduction: fertility fiscally traded to impoverish still more who sell what others want.
Desired maternity (and paternity) is a force that overwhelms even the strongest women; it is relentless, and unwavering in its strength. Women are made for maternity, controversial as this is to the modern feminist ethos. In the normal course of things, maternity is sheer pleasure and sheer gift. Often, though, it remains a hidden miracle, known in the depths of the soul and never physically expressed or delighted in; hidden maternal love, powerful even beyond death in child loss. And it is this more difficult maternity that we ought to teach ourselves to love again, so then to appreciate our more common physical maternity more. For there is the real possibility that not everything precious in this world is physical, and that the greater gifts are those we may not yet see or accept or even know we desire.
The life of a child, another person, made in our image according to the Divine Image is not a commodity we can plan and pay for, but one we beg for, from the depths of our being, sometimes with Hannah’s tears and persevering prayer; awaiting it, perhaps for a lifetime, like Anna, that prophetess of old, who finally was given a vision of the One who was Himself the desire of the ages.
And should we be entrusted with a child in the normal course of natural maternity, then perhaps we might dispose our hearts to receive such a gift with that Marian largess of hope, which moved even God to act and bequeath that ancient grace of His Son to a woman in Nazareth, so that a barren humanity might again find Redemption, incarnate in the stirring of her womb.
For modern visitations are everywhere, and the Incarnation continues in every imago Dei we welcome to the world, or love maternally in the barren wastelands of desiring hearts.
Which is all the more reason not to buy ourselves children, but remain, expectant, for those visitations of beatitude, yet possible amid the privations of present passing days.
And here the confessions of the barren encounter the One who is the rest of their restless souls.
Let the children come to me, for to such as these belongs the Kingdom of God.
-cf. Luke 18.16
You may reach Maria Grizzetti at IncarnationandModernity@gmail.com