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In 2006, Angela Collins and Margaret Elizabeth Hanson, a lesbian couple from Port Hope, Ontario, wanted to have a family. They selected a donor identified as possessing an IQ of 160, a bachelor of science in neuroscience, a master's degree in artificial intelligence, and who was working on his Ph.D. in neuroscience engineering. He had also been described as an eloquent speaker and mature beyond his years. They bought his sperm from Georgia-based Xytex Corporation, and Collins gave birth to a son on July 19, 2007.
One month before the boy's seventh birthday, the women learned that his biological progenitor, "Donor 9623," was none of the things they'd been told but was in fact a schizophrenic college dropout with a criminal past. The women affirm their love for their son, but say that they have suffered emotional and financial damages because of this discovery and that they require adequate funds so he can be properly cared for should he be diagnosed with schizophrenia in the future. They are suing for fraud, negligent misrepresentation, breach of warranty, battery, and unfair business practices. There is no word on how the child is faring, given his complicated family background.
But as an unwitting product of the brave new world of assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs), he is far from alone. Since the 1978 birth of Louise Joy Brown, the first person born after conception by in vitro fertilization (IVF), a raging commercial marketplace for buying, selling, and manipulating life has exploded worldwide. In it can be found all the raw materials of human reproduction—women bearing eggs, men bearing sperm, and gestational surrogates bearing wombs—bustling about a freewheeling band of businesses arranging contracts between interested parties with means to trade. It is largely unregulated—something the lesbians hope their suit will change—and it is fraught with ethical complexities and potential human casualties, past, present, and future.
Ethics Taken Seriously
As a nurse, mother of four, and graduate student in bioethics at Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois, Jennifer Lahl saw a need for serious discussions about the ethics of what was fast becoming possible with medical technology. It was the era of Dolly, the sheep cloned in 1996, and other morally questionable practices, such as freezing embryos and potential designer babies. After securing the go-ahead to start a non-profit in lieu of writing a thesis, she wrote a plan with bylaws and articles of incorporation, established a budget, and assembled a board of directors. And thus was born the Center for Bioethics and Culture (CBC). Although the organization does not bear her name, she has served as executive director ever since.
Jennifer and her colleagues collect information and advocate both for medical studies on the effects of ethically ambiguous technologies and for better legislation regulating their practice. But given the growing demand by same-sex couples for "their own" children, and a complicit, sound-bite-oriented media ducking any reporting that might provoke a charge of being "anti-science," they often find themselves a lone voice of reason against a chorus of emotion.
The CBC's widest reach has come through making and showing documentaries. "I always tell people, 'It's a story war—competing stories,'" Jennifer says.
Right now, the story on [the ART industry] is, "We have this wonderful new technology, and people who desperately want children but can't have them—whether because of infertility, or because they waited too long to start their family, or because they're a same-sex couple or single or whatever—these people can now have children! So what could be wrong with this wonderful new technology that's going to help them?"
Our story is, "It's not wonderful new technology. It's technology that's full of problems. It risks women's health, and risks the health of children. And it's a class-based system. Only the wealthy can afford these technologies, and the poor people end up having to sell or rent their bodies to them. People think they can go to the IVF doctor and get a baby in nine months. It doesn't work that way. Many people go through many, many IVF cycles, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, and don't get a baby."
The Unmarketed Truth
CBC documentaries present facts, data, research, and stories that show the practice and effects of these technologies as they have played out in real human lives.
Eggsploitation (2010) examines egg donation through the eyes of real women who answered ads offering upwards of $100,000 to "donate" their eggs and "help make someone's dream come true." Most were healthy, hard-working college students who saw what they thought was a way to both help someone out and finance their own education. But they were not informed about the risks of the hormone treatments administered prior to egg harvesting or about the risks of the harvesting procedure itself. Some of them required lengthy and costly subsequent hospitalizations due to ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, while for others the procedure resulted in the loss of their own fertility, cancer, and, in some cases, death.
Anonymous Father's Day (2011) looks at sperm donation through the lives of donor-conceived men and women, many of whom struggle with identity issues, genealogical bewilderment, and a deep sense of loss from never having known their father. Well into adulthood, they long to know something of the other half of their background and whom they're related to in the world. Some began to ask, "Who's my daddy?" as early as age three.
Breeders: A Subclass of Women? (2014) looks at the practice of gestational surrogacy and the complex ramifications for everyone involved—which can be as many as four people including the child, or even more in the case of a multiple birth. What started out for some as an altruistic service, in many cases degenerated into degrading peonage and reduced children to pawned products.
With surrogacy, too, there are the life-and-death questions of what is to be done when a pregnancy doesn't go according to plan, which is not infrequent. Procreation is always profoundly indeterminate. No one may order up a human life in the same way he might order up a pizza or a new-model SUV. But the nature of surrogacy contracts surrenders ground to this kind of objectification of a human life. Jessica, a product of surrogacy, said, "It's hard not to be aware that there is a price tag. There is an awareness that, in essence, you were bought by the family that you grow up with."
Surrogacy also, in practice, tends to trade along class-based divisions. People of means desiring a child, and perhaps feeling entitled to one, can easily prey upon desperately poor women in developing countries, with marginal concern for their needs beyond the birth of the child. And sadly, in what seems an indictment of American legislative priorities, a large percentage of surrogates in America are military wives looking to supplement the family income.
Most of the consideration in all of these arrangements is for the adults involved—what they want, what they are looking for and paying for. But the technologies and the businesses that deal in them open wide the floodgates for this kind of desacralization of human life.
Responses to CBC advocacy have run the gamut. Some say the subject is simply too controversial, while others carp about "imposing religion onto science." After seeing any of the films, though, it's hard to come away unaffected. Although CBC positions are founded on the Judeo-Christian ethic of life, the messages have found unlikely allies. For example, in California, where CBC is based, many people have no problem with ARTs, but they are concerned about artificial hormones getting into their water and the prospect of fish becoming gender-neutral (which is happening). Similarly, the National Organization for Women isn't concerned for the dignity of the human embryo, but it does care about the exploitation of women.
On the other hand, there has been fierce opposition, primarily from industry stakeholders, who profit from loose buying and selling, and the LGBT lobby, who doesn't want anybody getting in the way of same-sex couples getting children. Sadly, many Protestant denominations, fully supportive of reproductive technologies, opt not to join the conversation.
In Pursuit of Better Questions
But the conversation is one that deals in matters of life and death. Here's an example from recent history that illustrates the importance of clear thinking and non-agenda-driven research and reporting. Last fall, 29-year-old Brittany Maynard, who suffered from brain cancer, became something of a media sensation after announcing her plan to take advantage of Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law. True to her word, she ended her life on November 1, in a bizarrely cheerful kind of way, saying, "Goodbye world. Spread good energy. Pay it forward!"
Brittany had glioblastoma, a type of brain cancer that is very rare in a woman her age. She will probably be long remembered as a pretty face for the misnamed "Death with Dignity" movement, but what most people don't know is that Brittany was also an egg donor, not once but multiple times. In January, Brittany's husband, Dan Diaz, began carrying on the cause. "My preference would be not to be in front of any cameras, but this was one thing Brittany had asked, that we make [physician-assisted suicide] a reality in California," he said in a People magazine cover story.
But in a CBC blog post titled, "Is Brittany Maynard's Husband Fighting the Wrong Battle?", Jennifer wondered whether the hormone treatment phase of Brittany's egg donations might have exposed her to a heightened risk of developing this cancer. Her post was very precisely worded in order not to overstate what is known, but it is known that there is a connection between women taking artificial hormones and glioblastoma. Doesn't good science and ethics call for looking into this connection?
Jennifer continued, "I wonder about the children born from Brittany's eggs who should know about their biological mother's health history. . . What, if anything, will they ever be told?" Doesn't responsible adulthood call for prioritizing the consideration of these children?
Guarding the Meaning of Life
Infertility is an age-old problem, and no one is "owed" a baby. At what cost or to what extreme should people go to produce one? And at what point does the complacent public become complicit in a reckless pursuit? Or coldly indifferent to prospective children who have no voice? These are good questions without simple answers.
But if life is a trust from God, then trustworthy people need to be involved in the conversation. What's at stake is far more profound than a simple case of misidentified sperm. It's also a much better way to "pay it forward." •
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