The following is a guest post from Holly Taylor Coolman, Assistant Professor of Theology at Providence College.
Last week, the New York Times addressed an issue in the world of reproductive ethics that many readers had probably never even considered: selective abortion in the case of twins, allowing parents the possibility of a giving birth to a single live baby.
In a brief post over at Commonweal.com, Fr. Joseph Komonchak cited the article, listing with almost no additional comment some of the most telling quotations, including this from a mother who had chosen the procedure:
“Things would have been different if we were 15 years younger or if we hadn’t had children already or if we were more financially secure,” she said later. “If I had conceived these twins naturally, I wouldn’t have reduced this pregnancy, because you feel like if there’s a natural order, then you don’t want to disturb it. But we created this child in such an artificial manner — in a test tube, choosing an egg donor, having the embryo placed in me — and somehow, making a decision about how many to carry seemed to be just another choice. The pregnancy was all so consumerish to begin with, and this became yet another thing we could control.”
Unintentionally and unselfconsciously, this mother highlights the greatest fear of many who are trying to understand these issues: the increasing possibilities for controlling reproduction have led to the frank commodification of children, the treatment of these smaller, weaker creatures as simply the expression of their parents’ desire. In the article itself, and in commentary elsewhere, a deep-seated discomfort attends reflection on this practice, as Patrick Clark has already noted.
I would argue that it is important, though, to go a step further than that. We have to ask, given the technological control offered to them, what moves people to make the kind of calculations described in this piece.
Here, I have to confess: at least two of the dynamics explored in this article are very, very familiar to me. As someone who lived through the unexpectedly wrenching grief of infertility, I understand what it means to long for a child. That desire is one the keenest I have ever known, and artificial technologies offer the promise of resolving that bone-deep pain.
On the other hand, I also went on to the realities of mothering three young children. Living in a two-bedroom home and struggling to complete a demanding PhD program while navigating fussy babies, sleepless nights, and the cost of childcare changed me. More than anything, perhaps, it taught me to empathize with those who feel stretched to—and beyond—their limits. (This was only one of the reasons that another New York Times article, introduced to CMT by Jana Bennett here was also hard for me to read.)
For my purposes here, I am drawn especially to thinking about this second reality, the very real challenges of childrearing. Children do in fact need an awful lot of care, especially when they are small, and especially when they come bunched together. They require strollers and car seats and a number of other things. They tend not to be very good sleepers or conversationalists. They are demanding, they are messy, and they sometimes get sick in alarming ways. It is an undertaking, to be honest, in which marriages can suffer and individuals can drown.
I want to point out, though, that the description I have just given assumes, fundamentally, that couples are alone. One of the most painful elements of the New York Times piece was the absence of any larger community. Of one couple, the reporter says directly, “She and her husband worked out this moral calculation on their own, and they intend to never tell anyone about it.” Another woman cited isolation as one of the most important factors in her decision: “We don’t have family just sitting around waiting to get called to help me with a baby” (although, perhaps somewhat ironically, her mother is described as accompanying her to the appointment for her abortion). Both in the decision-making and in the demanding task ahead of them, these couples clearly understand themselves to be on their own. At the very least, we should note that if that is the case, they are right to be fearful. They are taking on a task that is heroic and also possibly tragic, in proportion.
Of course, neither discernment nor childrearing are things couples are meant to undertake alone. Catholic teaching offers a rich vision of individual families as embedded in a larger community, as both contributing to, and relying on, that community in profound ways. I know that for me, surviving the challenges of my children’s younger years required community in immediate and concrete ways. My husband and I depended on friends who brought us dinners, who watched our kids, who reflected to us that this difficult work was worth it. Because our family was far away and only present for occasional visits, it was friends whom we had to call for middle-of-the night emergencies, and we did. We gave one another hand-me-downs, we organized shared childcare, and—because we did not have a lot of money—our primary socializing consisted of simple dinners at one another’s not-very-fancy homes. There, we could talk and laugh for hours, a fussy toddler could be gently teased by someone not his mother, and a fussy baby could be rocked and hummed to sleep by someone not her father. Strikingly, single and childless friends also came to eat and rock and hum, and they reported themselves richer for having done it.
There are many aspects of an alternative vision of family, of children, and of childrearing, but I would argue a rich sharing of everyday life is indispensable. One of the real responses to the reality described by the New York Times is a Church living as a community on the ground. And the Church, of course, is us.