The New York Times recently ran an op-ed titled “The Poly-Parent Households are Coming.” It is notable for its celebratory approach to two future prospects: that human children might be created from manufactured gametes (sperm and egg) through a process called in vitro gametogenesis (IVG), which could include the genetic material of more than two “parents”; and the destabilization of the “traditional family structure,” for since once we no longer need that structure for the creation of children, “our need for that traditional family is likely to fade as well.”
The op-ed’s author, Debora L. Spar, is certainly correct to link the two possibilities. Such a radical decoupling of child-production from sexual reproduction will quite likely lead to the waning of two-parent, husband-and-wife, mother-and-father parenting as the paradigmatic form of family life to an even greater extent than has already happened. But it is worth probing the ethics of such a venture. I argue that Spar’s future scenario involves the making of what should never be made and the unmaking of something that should be protected as an invaluable human good and cultural achievement.
IVG, which creates male and female gametes from stem cells, irrespective of the sex of the cell donor, currently works only in mice. “But,” as Spar notes, “with very few exceptions, recent history suggests that advances in reproductive technologies nearly always jump eventually from the animal world to humans. If we can figure out how to make babies, and to configure their creation in more precise ways, we do it.”
One might see in this merely descriptive and predictive passage the seeds of a convergence of criticisms from both the bioethical right and left. The right will (rightly, to my mind) critique the proposal to “make babies.” Making is, after all, a way of approaching the material stuff of nature by exercising creative control over it so as to bring about a product.
How could such a venture be respectful of the personal reality of human beings? An artificer is always superior to his or her (or their) product, since they possess a sovereignty over both its nature and its existence, bringing about each in accordance with his or her (or their) desires. That is, it is up to the artificer whether the thing shall come into existence, and what it shall come into existence as. In early stages of a technology, such control is wanting to some degree, but it is always the guiding aspiration of the artificer.
This attitude is incompatible with the fundamental equality of persons. As free and rational by nature, neither who a person is, nor whether that person exists, should be subject to another’s choice. Our cultural agreement on this lies behind our rejection of slavery, which treats a person as property, and to some extent behind the rejection of capital punishment, which gives some persons warrant to decide whether to end the lives of others.
Does IVG treat a human being in such a way? The evidence that it would is written all over Spar’s essay, and for her clarity in this regard we should be grateful. Spar begins her piece with a description of Anna and Nicole, non-romantic friends, tired of waiting for husbands, who “decide to have a baby.” She describes the effects of earlier assisted reproductive technologies, such as in vitro fertilization and surrogacy, as shifting our attention from the biological grounds of reproduction of children “to the contractual terms that had initiated their birth.” Or again, to repeat, “If we can figure out how to make babies, and to configure their creation in more precise ways, we do it.”
Is not sexual reproduction itself a form of baby making, though, just not as efficient as contemporary assisted reproductive technologies? No. Spouses seeking a baby do not decide either to have a baby, or to have this baby, the one that will result from this bit of genetic material matched with that. Rather, in sexual union, two persons engage in a human act that brings about the conditions under which a human being might come into existence through subsequent processes entirely out of the couple’s control. The appropriate attitude toward this possibility is hope.
The resulting child, when conceived as a result of a loving marital act, hoped for by the spouses, and accepted as a gift and not demanded as a satisfaction, can be said, as Jennifer Roback Morse has said many times, to be loved into existence.
So much for the familiar rightward criticism. But some left-leaning bioethicists will also object, arguing that bringing a child to term who has been conceived through IVG would constitute an immoral form of human experimentation. Liberal bioethicists have not objected much to recent advances in reproductive technologies (including cloning) as such, but they have often objected that such techniques should not be used to bring a human child to term, since we could not know in advance what medical pathologies such a child might be subject to.
This concern will be exacerbated by precisely the possibilities Spar considers: male stem cells used to create oocytes, female stem cells to create sperm cells, multiple rounds of gametogenesis combined with IVF to create children with four (or more) genetic parents. The full consequences of such interventions, visited upon children without their consent, simply cannot be known in advance.
As different as the left- and right-leaning critiques are, they find common ground precisely in the left’s characterization of what is happening as an (unconsented to) experiment. For this description captures very well the attitude of mastery and manipulation that is at the heart of the right’s criticism of baby-making. In a sense, every act of making is an experiment, an assay upon matter to see whether it will do as one wishes, and become what one wants.
This experimental approach toward children is also apparent in Spar’s predictions of how new family structures, or anti-structures, will emerge as a result of IVG. She imagines threesomes and foursomes of any combination of sex, age, and relationship: friends, lovers, multi-generational family members. She acknowledges that poly-parenting “will never become the norm for most families,” but goes on to say: “once we start imagining, and then living in, a world of fluid parenting, it becomes increasingly likely that we will also undo or at least revise our centuries’ old conviction that procreative unions—like Noah’s animals—come only in pairs.”
Can one say with certainty that a world of fluid parenting will be good for the children of such parents? One cannot. Here again, Spar is envisioning a massive social experiment in which the lives of non-consenting children—already literally begun in a test tube—are further subject to treatment in which the guiding concern is not their own flourishing, but the satisfaction of desire of those variously related to them.
Unmaking the Family
This brings me to my second point. Spar proposes that IVG should be a step—a giant step—in the unmaking of the “traditional family.” But the virtues of the traditional family can be seen by comparing it with the likely outcomes of poly-parenting.
In the “traditional family”—as is made clear in the book What Is Marriage?—spouses are united in both a moral reality and a social institution, marriage, that has these three characteristic features: the union is exclusive, it is permanent, and it finds its fruition in the coming to be, rearing, educating, and loving of children.
As an institution, marriage is, unlike the persons of the marriage, something “made.” In this regard, it is similar to the law. The law is made for moral purposes, and when it is made well and inhabited by persons of good and upright will, those purposes are realized in a community: justice and peace. Likewise, marriage, when institutionally made well and inhabited by persons of good and upright will, realizes the same purposes in families. Children are raised and educated knowing that their parents love them, and that they can be stably relied upon, barring tragedy, to see their own flourishing as linked to the flourishing of their offspring. They are treated with justice and live in domestic peace.
Marriage so understood, in both its moral and its institutional reality, is created by God. But as a (mere) social fact seen in historical context, we should acknowledge marriage so understood to be a cultural achievement. It replaced familial arrangements in which men of means could take multiple wives or concubines—hardly adequate to the equality of persons—and in which children were treated as property of their fathers.
What would it be reasonable to suspect would be the impact on children of having parents—say three or four of them—who are bound only by ties of affection, or perhaps even only by pragmatic reasons, lacking the commitments of exclusivity and permanence, and connected to their children to variable genetic extents and by contractual arrangement?
In thinking about this question, we might consider the impact of no-fault divorce on children. Was the weakening of permanence in the institution of marriage on balance good for children? We might likewise consider the many households in which children of multiple fathers are raised by single parents or step-parents. Has the demise of exclusivity been on balance good for children? Spar’s reference to the Baby M surrogacy case (in which the legal parentage of a child conceived and gestated by a surrogate was in question) suggests, as subsequent surrogacy cases also have, that multiple parents of the same child do not always have the same interests and do not always find the “contractual terms that had initiated [the child’s] birth” sufficient for the resolution of conflict. One can easily imagine IVG leading to similar difficulties.
My point, which cannot be adequately pursued in the space of a short essay, is again that the “traditional family,” which Spar treats mockingly, should be thought of as a tremendous cultural accomplishment, not a matter of historical indifference.
When a society moves from lawlessness to law, inducements to unmake that essential institution should be resisted. The same is true of inducements to unmake the “traditional family.” The fact that these specific technologies would be dehumanizing of and disrespectful to the children who would be subject to them only makes their rejection a matter of even graver urgency. The “new normal” projected by Spar is dystopian, making and unmaking contrary to the common good.