But Did I Ask the Right Question? Rethinking When Is ART Too Much?

I’ve been thinking about what I wrote  Friday,    This is in part spurred by the comment by Kisrita about Never Let Me Go:   It’s not cloning itself that is disturbing in the movie.  It’s the way the clones are treated.   

Thinking about this lead me to wonder whether there is really something inherent in the particular development that bothered me.   I felt like I needed to think more carefully about exactly what lead to my reaction.    For starters I have a couple of thoughts, though I’m not sure these are answers.    

First, the project seems rather silly to me.   Do we really need to be doing research into this?   Aren’t there better things to spend time, talent and treasure on?    Even as I say this, I have to concede that I do not know enough to know whether there are broader applications of this research than simply provide more ART that can be offered for purchase.  Perhaps there are, in which case I am at best offering an incomplete analysis. 

But even if the only importance of this research is for human ART, different people are bound to answer the question of whether this is worth it differently.    It’s clear that some people are willing to spend a great deal more time/trouble/money on ART than others.    People place different values on the worth of having a child with a genetic connection to both parents.  

I think here of lesbian couples where one partner provides an egg for IVF and the resulting pre-embryo is then transferred to the other partner .   This procedure, which is obviously far more complicated than simple insemination, might be chosen because of medical limitations of the two women, but sometimes I think it is chosen because the women involved are willing to do a great deal to give each partner some biological basis for the claim to parenthood.   

So maybe the fact that I think the two father mouse story is a bit ridiculous says as much about me as anything else?  It may even be a bit inconsistent–if I’m willing to have two men raise a child together (and I am) why not let them both be genetically related? 

While this may begin as an observation about individual  preferences, there’s more to it than that.   There are so many needs in the world and it is increasingly clear there are not adequate resources to meet them all.  Thus, we must consider how we allocate resources.  If we could cure malaria or produce children from two men, which is the greater good?   Just to be clear, I think the same thing about a huge number of the consumer products placed before us.   The NYT Style section makes me crazy, featuring $500 shirts and such like.   It seems to me only fair to ask whether this is something we need and can afford as a society, even though I do not know a systematic, objective way to answer the question.    (I’ve discussed  this in the past, but not for some time.   

All of those reservations are really quite general.   You could make the same points if someone was developing some particularly new spiffy stereo system, I think.  But I have a second set of concerns that are more specific to ART.   

The degree to which individuals value having a genetic link with their children varies–which is to say it is more important to some people than to others.  (I’m trying to start with an uncontroversial statement–surely we can agree this is one?)   It seems to me many things affect the individual calculus each of us performs.   I worry generally that all the rise of ART as an industry and the promotion of ART generally leads people to value genetic connection more highly.   (I should discuss this at more length in another post, but for the moment I want to just keep going to get to the point here.)  

I’m not at all sure that encouraging people to value genetic connections more highly is a good thing.   Here, too, I  can discuss at more length and there’s already a lot on the blog that already addresses this.   For now, I’ll just leave it here–I have misgivings about the way in which the technology drives demand for ART, which in many ways enhances belief in the primacy of genetics.

6 responses to “But Did I Ask the Right Question? Rethinking When Is ART Too Much?

  1. You might be interested in this book:
    by Bill McKibben


  2. I left a comment that didn’t post – it might still be in moderation because I included a web link and will post later but in case it doesn’t I’m trying again

    I don’t think the issue is with parenting. I think the issue is more about the “slippery slope” that these technologies might take us. This book goes into more detail (“Enough” by Bill McKibben)

    ht tp :// www . amazon. com /Enough-Staying-Human-Engineered-Age/dp/0805075194

  3. I think we have to divide the question between the genders.
    For males parenthood has always been about genetics. Throughout history males have wished to sire their own genetic progeny, and also been unwilling to invest in other people ‘s geneteic progeny. (Ok this is not universal, because human beings are never universal, but in general.) Hence the harsh control over female sexuality in many cultures, or the absolute inability for men- more so than women- to admit infertility. Siring a child is the sin qua non of masculinity. (did I get that word right????) ART feeds the need; it doesn’t create it.

    For women the picture is more nuanced. Genetics plays a role but pregnancy and actual child care offer stiff competition, in defining the essence of motherhood. And since insemination is low tech, convenient and relatively inexpensive compared to adoption, which is an extremely cumbersome and often expensive procedure which can take year, while insemination can achieve its goal in just one cycle… So I fear there is really no way to compare at this stage.

    • I agree that there’s much to be said about gender here, but I might make slightly different observations. Male parenthood has always been something we’ve had to construct. Even if genetics is the sine qua non (I think that’s right) of male parenthood (which I think we can discuss), until very recently there was no really good way to determine the genetic relationships. So throughout history societies have defined fatherhood in other ways–a father is the man married to a woman who gives birth, say. In some ways, I think we are accustomed (obviously to varying degrees) to the idea that fatherhood is a social construct. By contrast, motherhood has seemed much more real and concrete–a woman gives birth to a child, she is the mother. Indeed, it’s very difficult to imagine the marital presumption working the other way around (if a married man fathers a child, his wife is the mother?)

      This is not to disupte your discussion of the gender difference–I think it is valid as well. For me, the problem then becomes how far to carry the gender difference and what to make of it.

  4. I’m also not sure why it would be wrong for people to value a biological connection.
    Most sane and stable people can be decent parents, but much fewer are cut out to be adoptive parents. A person who is not cut out for adoption does not mean they are a bad person. A child- even a baby- is a person in its own right and many people are just not going to love any random child that’s plunked into their lap, same as they are not going to love any random adult they happen to meet. It requires building a relationship. Julie, as you have so often pointed out a pregnant woman has in a sense, spend the last nine months bonding, and then she’s flooded in a wave of beyond-orgasmic bonding hormones in the postpartum period.
    Could I spend day in day out waking up at nights without getting paid, wiping up spit up, changing dirty diapers, dealing with toddler and teen tantrums for a child who was a stranger to me? Even if I could, could everyone? Likely not, although they may be excellent parents to their own kids.

    • I don’t think I want to say that it is wrong to value a biological connection, though I see that what I wrote might do just that. But I do think it can be problematic for a society to over-value that connection. For instance, over-valuing the genetic connection can delegitmize adoptive parents and make adoptive kids feel that their families aren’t real. Additionally, I think some people (often women) go to extraordinary lengths to produce a genetically- related child. While the decision to pursue such a path is an individual one, the individual’s calculus is shaped in part by the societal value placed on raising a genetically related child. Over-valuing the genetic connection can lead some people to make individual choices that may not be healthy for them individually. And they may lead to an over-consumption of very pricey ART.

      I’m not saying there’s any easy way to figure out what the proper value to place on a genetic connection is. And I’m not saying I have any good way to determine when it has been over-valued.

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