Twiblings: An Inside View of One ART Story

The New York Times magazine has given me a way to jumpstart the new year with this feature story that will, I am guessing, appear in print January 2.  It’s by Melanie Thernsrtom.

It’s a tale of how she and her husband Michael became parents of two children, Violet and Kiernan.       The kids were born from embryos created at the same time using Michael’s sperm and eggs provided by a woman who lives in California–a known egg provider.     The embryos were transferred to two different women–Melissa and Fe.   The babies were born five days apart.   The Times calls it a “futuristic insta-family” and you can see why the question “are they twins” causes some difficulty.  (The question of what makes kids twins was one I raised here in the abstract a while back, but this is the real thing.)  

The story itself is very much worth reading, and I commend it to you though it is long.   It’s a first-person account of the train of decisions and actions involved in creating these children.   It begins with Thernstrom facing her own inability to have children and follows through the search for surrogates and an egg provider and the birth of their children.   Apart from being a good story overall, there are some very interesting (to me, anyway) bits along the way.   I’ll pick on those here. 

First, Thernstrom is careful to offer her own experiences as only her own experiences.   Thus, she notes she has friends who were childless who were perfectly fine with that.   She, however, wasn’t.  I think her ability to avoid over-generalization is laudable.  Different people have different experiences in their lives as well as different wants and needs  and it’s great to keep that reality in the forefront.   It’s too easy to assume that what I feel must be what everyone feels.  

I also learned a term here which, while obvious once I saw it, seems very useful:  “involuntarily childless.”   In the same way that “single mother by choice”  distinguishes a group of single mothers from the larger category, “involuntarily childless” allows one to consider the group of people without children who do not wish to be in that category.  

But most of all,  I appreciate Thernstrom’s discussion of the process of finding and working with the surrogate mothers and the egg provider.    She and her husband are determined to have actual relationships with the women involved, not simply to bind them to contracts.   They find surrogates and an egg provider who are motivated by altruism as well as economic gain.    The critical nature of the role the additional three women play isn’t denied or diminished, but rather it is honored.  

 You may recall that the NYT magazine had a surrogacy piece a couple of years ago that sparked a great deal of discussion.   I wrote about it when it came out and then several times after that.  I haven’t gone back to read either my posts or the original article, but my recollection is that the older piece had a very different (and to my mind, far more troubling) flavor.   The images, which I do recall, raised concerns about surrogacy as a form of exploitation.   (I recall one photo of the surrogate literally barefoot and pregnant, though I find myself wondering if this exists.) 

It may be that this is more a reflection of how I have changed in my thinking than of a real difference between the two stories.  Still, I found Thernstrom’s to be illustrative of ART at its best.   It’s certainly complicated, but with good will and respect and careful deliberation, it seems an awful lot like a win all the way around.


14 responses to “Twiblings: An Inside View of One ART Story

  1. Parties to the commercial transaction are satisfied, and that’s all that counts in the moment; the the people qualified to determine whether or not the situation is a “win all the way around” won’t cast their votes for another 18 years.

    • I suppose the final votes may not be in for some time, but you can make some preliminary observations. It seems to me laudable that everyone knows everything and it’s all above board and in the open.

      It’s always possible that in twenty years one or more of the kids might be unhappy with their families. This sometimes happens in the most genetically conventional families. What do we make of that? There are so many reasons why parents and chlidren become unhappy with each other.

  2. I am still perplexed as to why a husband’s procreating with another woman is somehow less threatening to the relationship than if he has sex with another woman.

    • Hypothetically speaking, what if her husband would admit to being sexually attracted to any one (or all) of these three women? Seems like that would be the move that would destroy the equanimity of the situation.

    • This strikes me as a question where you have to think carefully about context. Sometimes (maybe even often) there is betrayal involved with sex. It isn’t done for the joint purpose of the couple. By contrast, when a husband provides sperm which is used to fertilze an egg from another woman for the purpose of creating a child that will be raised by husband and wife, there is a joint purpose.

      Even so, I’m sure there are issues sometimes. But it does seem to me that attention to the details of the context can help identify important differences.

      • I do not agree… with all the options being raised their is one option that never even makes it on to the table- having sex with another partner.

        You could attribute that to the fact that legally the wifes parental status would not be protected. But I think that’s only part of it. If it was just a legal thing, the idea would at least have been mentioned and rejected.
        But no, it is simply to unthinkable to entertain.

        I do not understand it.

        • Or looking at it from the other side- would Melissa or Fei’s husbands been cool with their wives carrying someone elses child if it involved sex? I think not!

          • I agree that the reason conception by sex is off the table is not concern about the law (though it might legally matter). You are seeing some sort of cultural taboo. I don’t think it really surprises me, though. Sex is about intimacy. (At least, I like to think of it that way.) And it is a unique sort of intimacy, often bound up with love and affection. It’s possible to be appreative of the roles the surrogates or a sperm donor will play without having any desire for that kind of intimacy. Making reproduction non-sexual takes away all that baggage and so makes it easier, no doubt.

            • Technically, if there is sexual intercourse, it becomes adultery, incest, etc. But the purpose of prohibiting sexual intercourse has always been clearly to prevent conceiving children, not just to jealously guard intimacy and pleasure. Even non-intimate, joyless sex was banned, while intimacy and pleasure that stopped short of intercourse was not illegal.

              I’ve actually encountered people who say that no law prohibits siblings from procreating using artificial insemination, since incest laws only prohibit sexual intercourse and other contact. Perhaps we need to update the laws to include procreating together, but I think it should be easy enough to interpret them that way as they are.

  3. What if she wasn’t even completely infertile, but the husband just didn’t think she was beautiful or intelligent enough for his kids, or perhaps she had a chance at some disease or another, could the husband demand that if he was going to have kids, it was going to be with a higher quality donor? It’s perhaps more likely now that the spouse with “bad genes” would volunteer to let the spouse choose a better donor, rather than ‘vainly’ force the spouse to give them biological offspring. (I’ve seen wanting biological described as vain and selfish, as though people should volunteer to use better gametes.)

    Seems to me we should not allow donor gametes, we should ward off the eugenic pressure and the option to use better genes. Marriage should always approve and affirm the right to use the couple’s own genes, it shouldn’t be equated to a couple that is forced to use third party genes. The rights of marriage are not satisfied by being forced to use third party genes, it should always be considered right and acceptable and indeed obligatory to use the couple’s own genes.

    • You’ve raised a serious of great (and hard) questions here. It seems to me that the husband’s judgment that the wife isn’t smart enough or beautiful enough is unacceptable. Though of course, some relationships probably founder on precisely this point.

      Indeed, the wife’s judgment that this is the case seems problematic, too. In Baby M (the old NJ surrogacy case) there is some suggestion that Elizabeth Stern didn’t want to be pregnant even though her concerns were not entirely rational. This colored how many people viewed the case. It’s certaintly tempting to say that third-party gamates or surrogates should only be available when there is real need. But I can tell that it would be very hard to draw those lines.

  4. Oh, and Kisarita, I’ve been cheering you on at FamilyScholars, where I have been blocked from commenting (some late night comments were a little too loose-cannoned).

    I hope you pursue the Civil Unions discussion, and get Barry and Elizabeth to join in. My proposal is that Civil Union should be defined as “marriage minus conception rights”, so that same-sex couples can get all the other protections and obligations but not be given the approval to procreate offspring together. Granted, this would have zero effect on sperm and egg donation and surrogacy and gay parenting, indeed it would not affect any stuff that is currently being done. But it would establish that marriages have a right to procreate, and it would allow us to stop genetic engineering and same-sex procreation and other experimental ways to create people that do not join the unmodified gametes of a living man and woman.

  5. Thanks for your support, however I’m sure there are many things we disagree about as well….

    • I am not so sure we disagree on much. Certainly, we agree that Civil Unions need to be better defined in order to have a more productive discussion. And I am right there with you when you say “Civil Unions CAN offer total legal equality when it comes to everything except children.”

      I think it should be “except conceiving children using the couple’s own genes”, because I don’t think using third party genes is a right of marriage anyhow, and it should be banned for married couples as well as CU’d and single people as well. But my CU proposal doesn’t address donor gametes, it leaves that fight for another day.

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