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.