Here’s a fool-proof plan for spoiling an otherwise-delightful dinner with friends: Talk about the various ways one might build a family.
This I learned recently, after getting into a surprisingly heated exchange with a couple that we count among our very closest friends. I was reminded that everyone has very strong opinions, not only about how they’ve decided to create their own families, but also about how others should build theirs. In the interests of avoiding another round of unpleasantness (and of making my friends fear that every conversation with me could end up as blog-fodder), I won’t go into any specifics about my friends’ views, or their arguments in support. Instead I want to use this opportunity to make and defend a point that might go insufficiently appreciated at times:
Every method of “having” children has its own ethical issues.
Let’s start with the old-fashioned way: Having your own kids through procreation. More than a decade ago, Joy Williams blew apart any thought that simply having one’s own biological kid was a moral good, or even that it was necessarily ethically neutral. While most of her deliciously over-the-top essay took aim at the fertility industry, she didn’t spare those who conceived the ol’ fashioned way. After reminding us that there are too many people in the world, she gets specific about American babies:
The argument that western countries with their wealth and relatively low birth rate do not fuel the population crisis is, of course, fallacious….The US population is growing faster than that of eighteen other industrialized nations and, in terms of energy consumption, when an American couple stops spawning at two babies, it’s the same as an average East Indian couple stopping at sixty-six, or an Ethiopian couple drawing the line at one thousand.
Williams’s snark-attack at those women and couples who choose to go to extraordinary means to conceive recently received a substantial boost from an in-depth series in the New York Times. The issues involved in such reproductive gymnastics are well-known, and the Times reporting shone what I’d consider to be an unflattering light on extreme cases. Sometimes, there are as many as five participants (egg donor, sperm donor, gestational surrogate, adopting couple) in the birth and parenting processes and an unsavory amount of money changing hands. Other cases involve Herculean and medically ill-advised efforts at fertility.
A woman profiled in one of the stories, for example, went through the following: an in vitro procedure that resulted in a miscarriage and revealed a problem (“incompetent cervix”) that made further pregnancies fraught with danger; a second procedure that resulted in twins — one of which died in utero, and the other of which was born at twenty-four weeks (and then remained in the neonatal unit for more than 100 days, so that the hospital bills approached $1 million — all of which was eaten by the woman’s self-insured employer); and then, incredibly, another in vitro procedure that resulted in a healthy birth. Why the last one?
“I didn’t did feel our family was complete yet.”
At this point in reading, I could barely contain my anger. Not once in this story, nor in the next installment in the series, was the word “adoption” used. Yet the question fairly screamed from the page: Why not complete your family by providing a good home to one of the millions of kids, world-wide, who need one?
As regular readers of this blog know, this is the time for full disclosure: David and I are adoptive parents. So obviously I have a bias of my own, and one that I defend. Our kids are local (from Philadelphia), so we don’t have to face the question: Why not adopt a child from your own backyard? Yet one must decide during the adoption process all kinds of questions that don’t otherwise come up: Does race matter to you? What about disability? Are you willing to adopt an older child? And so on…. I won’t get into the particulars of how we answered those questions, but the moral issues they raise should be clear enough.
And then there’s international adoptions, which raise for some additional but related issues: What justifies removing kids from their community of origin? (In a sense, this question can be asked of any adoption.) Would they be better off, in some ways, remaining there? On the other hand, are we simply associating a baby with a “community” that it will never even know? In other words, does it matter where kids are from? And for gay couples, international adoptions may not even be an option unless they lie — which of course raises its own set of questions.
To return to the beginning of this post: The friends with whom we were arguing had the benefit of a particular experience that colors their view of one of these options. Another couple we know had a somewhat-similar experience, but the difference may be in the “somewhat,” as their view of this same option is diametrically opposed.
So maybe we can’t do any better than this aphorism, attributed by a member of this second couple to an unidentified friend:
“People have the babies they need.”