Is There Something Wrong With Having Babies Without Having Sex?

There are perhaps a dozen tabs open in my browser just now, each of the holding something I’ve been meaning to write about/pass along.   But I’ve just gotten stuck on this one line:

Lahl, who admits to a having strong views against in-vitro fertilization, says  these advances in reproduction have resulted in poor medical care for donor  women and has produced a society OK with “babies without sex.” [emphasis added]

I don’t mean to brush aside the concerns about medical care–those are important and I have and will discuss those.  But I am afraid that until I go on about the words in bold a little, I won’t be able to do all the other things on my list, so here we go.

Context first:   The quote is from this article, which is about some of the controversies around money and those women who provide eggs for use in ART.    It’s from a Canadian paper covering a Canadian conference (one that has generated a lot of interesting stories), which is important because Canadian law is distinctive.    The speaker is Jennifer Lahl who is a film maker and, I think, the president of an organization called The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network.

Now as I understand that quote (and if you’re going to comment, you could tell me if you read it the same way) Lahl’s implication is that there is something wrong with a society that is okay with babies without sex.   I think that means that her view is that babies should be inextricably bound up with sex.   And while I’m well aware of this position, every time I run into it I am brought up short.

Here’s another article I’ve been meaning to get to about the Catholic Church’s rejection of IVF that is based on the same principle.   The children profiled in that article are being raised by people who are genetically related to them.   Their mothers gave birth to them–no surrogacy or anything.   You might think it would be hard to find an objection here, but the problem is that the egg and sperm from the mother and father were mixed in vitro rather than during sex.    (I don’t mean to suggest that the parents here never have sex.  The problem is we know that these kids did not result from sex.)

This position is one I really cannot fathom, and that’s actually frustrating for me.   Although I do not accept the position that those related by DNA are truly the parents of a child, I do understand it.   I can discuss it (and have, probably ad naseum as far as some of you are concerned.)   I can understand the health concerns around use of third-party gametes and the debate over anonymity.   But I  just cannot comprehend why society should care whether a child–is conceived via sex or in vitro.

My guess is that those who take this view also take the view that all contraception is wrong, perhaps even that all non-procreative sexual activities are wrong.  Thus, not only must conception be tied to sex, but sex must be (at least potentially) tied to conception.   And here I think I must be looking at some set of religious views–not necessarily exclusively those of the Catholic Church, but views rooted in some religious morality.

Anyone have any thoughts on this?   Can anyone help me understand?

Finally, if it does matter, do the following things matter:  Was the sex mutually gratifying, or was one participant barely tolerating it?   Was it for pure carnal pleasure, for love or for some other reason?   Was it fully consensual all around?

It seems to me bizarre to pose most of these questions, but I’m so at sea here that I don’t even know how to begin.


29 responses to “Is There Something Wrong With Having Babies Without Having Sex?

  1. You could say that children conceived through IVF are living experiments. While it is well known that they have epigenetic changes compared to children conceived naturally, it is not clear if this is due to the IVF procedure itself or to the parents infertility problems. For mice there is no question that gene expression can be altered by the process of growing embryos in a lab. It is suspected that the culture medium or ‘broth’used for the IVF procedure can cause epigenetic changes (for example lack of growth hormone)

    IVF children have a higher rate of birth defects, but most epigenetic changes may not become apparent until adulthood or old age. In about fifty years time we will know the result of this ‘experiment’. If it goes wrong, I suspect we will comfort them by telling them to be grateful that they were born. But, if such a statement makes any sense, so should we.

    • There’s a sort of recent (May 2011) Editor’s Corner piece from Fertility and Sterility that calls for increased study on this topic. I note it partly because this is the journal of the ASRM which sometimes gets accused of being deliberately blind to risks. It suggests that the strongest factor remains mulitiple births, but that there are other factors. The last paragraph includes this quote: It is a privilege to care for couples seeking assistance with conception. With privilege comes responsibility. It is paramount that, as a field, we be at the forefront of this investigation…”

  2. Nelly! What a fantastic point. I have wondered before about the whole freezing process because 1. I don’t understand how something can be frozen to death and reanimated (I guess the key is to not quite freeze it to death) and 2. Have you ever frozen an egg? They don’t fair as well as a loaf of bread or yesterday’s meet loaf. 3. It also had not occurred to me that eggs could be damaged during retrieval. I’m glad you made this comment you made me think.

    That said I still agree with Julie entirely as far as AI is concerned. The nature of reproduction is sexual even if it does not involve coitus: boy sperm still fertilizes girl egg. I have no problem with making babies without sex. I don’t see Ms Lahl’s point.

    Now I do see that taking the sex out of reproduction is havingsome unfortunate consequences – people can’t be sure who they are undertaking reproductive acts with and that is a situation previously only experienced when the crime of rape was committed. I mean even a mutually agreed upon one night stand the woman has some idea who he might be at least she knows he participated in coitus willingly. The same cannot be said for a woman inseminated with anonymous sperm, She has to trust the clinic did not give her another patients sperm.

    • The freezing/thawing process is tricky. It’s actually harder to freeze/thaw eggs than it is embryos. (Something to do with water content I believe.) And people do worry about possible ill effects and there’s lots of research that has been and is being done on that point.

      But beyond that, glad you raised assisted insemination. Perhaps that is the simplest instance of conception without sex.

  3. Julie there is a Family Scholars post about the same issue where i said I questioned that statement as well. The post is worth reading because she actually clears things up -she makes it seem not not nearly as loaded as it appears to be on the surface.

    “marilynn says:
    09.24.2011 at 11:36 PM
    Funny you honed in on that sentence about babies without sex. It rubbed me wrong and I was about to say that might be a nuance I’d part company with her on; How a kid got made is neither here nor there so long as all people who make kids are required to take care of them or relinquish them for adoption.”

  4. I appreciate your point that IVF is a relatively new technology. I am not as up on studies and what they show about epigentic changes. As you note, there are some variables (like infertility itself) one might like to work out. There are also issues with multiple births–because some clinics still transfer more than one embryo at at time.

    But I think the point you are making (which is a legitimate one) isn’t the same as the one being made in the quote. It’s not the absence of sex that concerns you–it’s the uncertainties of a still-young technology. If one day the technology could be refined and any risks that might exist reduced, that objection would be satisfied. But that kind of technological progress would do nothing to address the concern about babies without sex because, of course, there would still be no sex.

  5. I think all things being equal it is best to make babies without too much deliberate effort and investment. It could create baggage for the kid.

    • I have some real doubts about this on both sides. First and most importantly, it seems to me that people who casually and thoughtlessly have children are not as likely to be good parents as those who give it at least a bit of thought. And on the other side, I’m not sure what you mean by “baggage.” I mean, baggage is always pejorative, right? Is it baggage for a child to know that they were wanted and that their parents worked at becoming parents?

      • “people who casually and thoughtlessly have children are not as likely to be good parents”. This is most of humanity Julie. Since I view parenthood as a reliationship and not a job. If they are decent stable people they are likely to be good parents. If they are not decent stable people they are not likely to be good parents no matter how much they thought about it first.
        Most people have children as part of the natural progression of life, not a part of some major decision making process. The people who can’t, then have to make this big decision. What are the decision making criteria? Generally they are to serve the potential parents interests- relieve them of their pain of infertility, provide a sense of continuity and fulfillment, make them a normal family in society- the standard benefits that having kids offers to anyone. but since they were deliberately pursuied, its like the kid is born from the get go with a job to do in the family. (Of course, any parent even who conceived by accident can fall into this pitfall, but with the deliberate planners its nearly embedded into the sitaution.)

        • i would add that there is a big difference between 2 bio parents conceiving with thechnological assistance and use of an anonymous donor. One would hope that after the kid is born, the natural parent-child realtionship takes over, leaving whatever was thought about at the time of conception irrelevant to both the parent and the kid. Not guaranteed, but quite probable. Because there are no ongoing , practical effects so why even thinnk about it.? Anonymously conceived children however, do not have the luxury of forgetting all about their conception, because the absence of one parent is ongoing. Whatever theri conclusions about it may be, they can not help but be aware of it.

        • I don’t know whether it is true that most of humanity have children causually and thoughtlessly. Perhaps it is. And then perhaps it is a tribute to human capacity that most people do a decent job even so. But what I meant to suggest was that people who have made a deliberate decision to have kids are upping the odds that they’ll be good at it. I know there are no guarantees, but at least they’ve given it some thought. I think studies (comparing adoptive and IVF families to other families) actually do bear this out.

      • Julie in your opinion, can there be bad parents? If you are not a parent if you don’t do the job, could a person who no longer wanted to be a parent smply stop being one by being bad at it? On a side note, wont the woman that gives birth always have clout over the other parent in your view since she has 9 mos more caregiving and in your view the 2nd parent is only involves because she’s permitted them to participate, not because the child belongs eually to them

        • I’m quite sure there can be (and are) bad parents. I don’t think you can just walk away from being a parent. You can agree to some sort of voluntary termination of parental rights, though. Better for the child to do that.

          The woman who gives birth has clout (as you put it) at the beginning, but that clout diminishes over time. I’ve not worked this out exactly, but it seems to me that her advantage ought to diminsh fairly quickly–that is, if there is another person who is just waiting to become a parent to that child and acts accordingly, that the two people should end up on an equal legal footing pretty quickly. But as I say, I don’t have it worked out yet.

  6. I have thought a bit about your question: “Is There Something Wrong With Having Babies Without Having Sex?” Maybe the question should be reframed into: “Which kind of sex do we want to use for having babies?

    Sperm collection nearly always involves some kind of sex. It is obvious that the masturbation process itself is sexual, but it doesn’t stop there. It is difficult for most donors to ‘perform’ sexually in a clinical environment without any external stimulation. It is called ‘collection aid’ which is a circumscription for various kinds of pornography. In the UK at the moment there is a raging debate about this. A member of parliament is criticizing the government for buying pornography for public fertility clinics which is demeaning to women. Some female clients say that they don’t want pornography to be part of their family building.

    Whether we like it or not, sex is a necessary part of procreation. The real question is which kind of sex we prefer: sex between the gamete providers or sex which is being payed for?

    • You might be right about rephrasing the question, but I don’t think the dichotomous choice you pose at the end follows. A sperm provider could have sex with someone he knows/cares for but for the purpose of providing the sperm–so it’ isn’t paid, but it isn’t intercourse. So I guess I don’t agree with your statement of “the real question.”

      I suppose what the original quote meant was having babies without intercourse? There’s a point at which it seems so odd to me that people want to keep these two activities (intercourse and having kids) so linked–I’m thinking here of people who oppose the use of birth control and also sexual practices that aren’t procreative.

      • I was simply trying to address the issue that having kids without having intercourse usually involves ‘collection aid’ in the form of pornography (whether we like it or not). Pornographic material is produced by paying people for having sex.

        There are particular ethical and legal dilemmas for patients who bank their sperm before going into cancer therapy. Pornography is considered necessary, but to provide pornography for minors is legally questionable. On the other hand, not to aid patients in that situation could be a violation of their human rights as defined by UK law. Therefore the ‘reproduction-pornography’ debate in the UK has created a dilemma and the medical establishment have asked for an urgent clarification.

        My point is that in the great majority of cases the choice is not between intercourse and sperm popping out of the blue sky, but between intercourse and pornography (which is payed sex).

        • I imagine there are some men for whom the desired form of pornography might be text rather than photographic–and text needn’t involve any paid sex–just a good writer. And you’ve made me think about virtual pornography–pornography created via computer graphics without real people. Again, no paid sex. Finally, I think (though I am not sure) that it is actually possible to harvest sperm without ejactulation. Not very pleasent for the provider, but possible.

          All of which is to say the contention that somewhere in the process there must be actual sex (paid or otherwise) may be an overstatement.

          • Julie, you say “All of which is to say the contention that somewhere in the process there must be actual sex (paid or otherwise) may be an overstatement”.

            I don’t think it is an overstatement. Doctors in charge of cancer therapy don’t hand over graphic pornographic material in an envelope to minors because they think it is OK, but because it is necessary. If a pornographic novel was enough, I am sure they would prefer it.

            It is easy to understand why people would rather like to forget about what actually happens in the collection room. It is almost a taboo to talk about it (like sex education was in the old days). It is not very gratifying for a child to be told that it was created, not in an act of love, but with the help of a porn magazine.

            • I am not sure why this is important at this level of remove, but there are two instances getting sperm with no sex in sight–harvesting from the deceased and harvesting via needles. Not pleasant, I grant you, but the fact remains there isn’t always sex. And in case “sex” is ambiguous, I would say there isn’t even always masturbation.

              • I have not claimed that reproduction without sex is not possible, only that it rarely happens in the real world and only rarely is a realistic option. Reproduction not involving a sexual act is extremely rare. The use of needles or dead bodies make up a very small part of sperm donation (1 out of 10,000?) and the potential for expanding it is very limited. Like in the Victorian age there are things we would rather like not to discuss, but in the UK the issue can’t be avoided because they have public fertility clinics. When the government by porn it is obviously a public issue.

          • They take it from dead guys all the time and I’ll save the jokes…you dont laugh at my jokes anyway.

            needless to say sex is not the only way to get it

  7. I like Julie’s idea about reading pornographic novels, but I am not sure that the sperm banks (and the donors) have the patience for it. The idea of using dead guys is obvious and I wonder why nobody thought about it before. They are certainly not in a position to protest and they can’t be suspected of watching pornography.

  8. I don’t get why is pornography a problem? Pornography is legal.
    (and as for minors, do 16 year old boys really need those aides?)

    • You are right. Pornography is legal and therefore there should not be a
      legal issue. However, when the government byes porn, people see it
      differently. This a case of what is called ‘double standards’. We
      accept porn as legal but we don’t accept it when it is promoted
      officially or when it comes to close to our private lives. If you ask
      people if porn is acceptable the majority answers yes. If you ask them
      if it is acceptable that a close relative, say their own daughter, went
      into the porn industry, they answer no. If you ask people if so called
      anonymous sperm donation is acceptable, a significant part of them say
      yes. If you ask them if it is acceptable to make a reality TV program
      about it (like the planned program ‘make
      me a mum’
      they are disgusted and say no.
      It is a fact that boys in cancer treatment need those aids. Sperm
      production is sexual and a clinic is not a natural sexual environment.
      That is why the medical establishment in the UK is urgently asking for
      a clarification of the legal situation. Unfortunately you can’t say to
      the boys what you used to say to the girls getting married a century
      ago: “Shut your eyes and think of England!”.

      • “Porn” is a pretty broad category. I find the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated deeply offensive in the ways it objectifies women. I suspect it’s a bit of a turn on for some people though. Is it porn? I don’t really want to go there at the moment, because as that other comments notes, I’m not sure why this is important. Of course, in the US this is all privately funded anyway.

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