Souls on Ice

One Generation’s Solution to Infertility Is Another’s Diabolical Dystopia

It’s no surprise that we aren’t having babies and that the global birth rate has for years not been at replacement status. But now we hear that sperm counts all over are lower than normal too. Even Elon has warned about waning birth rates. This is not good. But what’s to be done? Surely, it would be too much to ask modern people, equipped as we are now with the technological finger of God, to revert to the old human forms of marrying and having babies in the natural way. How primitive.

In response to these problems, Hashem Al-Ghaili afforded the world a glimpse at Ecto Life, a solution to the dropping birth rates as the “World’s First Artificial Womb Facility.” Watching the video, it is difficult to know where the farce ends and the diabolical machinations begin. One wonders if they had already purchased the rights to the intellectual property of The Matrix before they made the ad. The whole scene revolves around a poorly animated version of what Joe Allen calls “the pink pod scene,” where Neo is unplugged and discovers that “human beings are nothing more than bio-batteries used to power an artificial intelligence swarm.” It seems one generation’s dystopia is another’s utopia.

Of course, it wasn’t long until this video was “fact checked” as having been “taken out of context” by its critics. Reuters acknowledges that Al-Ghaili’s ghastly dream is not the first iteration of the concept, which indicates the intention to build such a future is earnest. (Of course, according to our trusted media, “fact checked” can mean something like “things that we don’t have yet but which we’d like to create as soon as possible.” But even Huxley’s good intentions did not justify his “bokanovskified” future in which optimized workhorse humans were cloned en masse.)

While the claim is that the “facility described in this video does not exist,” making the point that it is only a “concept”—as if the silly animation and bizarre voiceover weren’t obvious enough—it doesn’t really matter. The point is that highly capable people want to do this sort of thing and are not far off from attempting this latest manifestation of Babel’s Tower.

Throwing Apart Human Things

The fact that technology is the solution to the problem of low birth rates, just as it is for dirty floors, means that we are entrenched in a post human age. For instance, some Christians might raise the alarm about Ecto Life, while never lifting a finger to resist the normalization of contraception. The truth is that Ecto Life is the natural outflowing of a social order that has embraced IVF as a normative means of procreation.

As Donum Vitae makes plain, the problem with this is that it “establishes the domination of technology over the origin and destiny of the human person.” This kind of artificial fertilization “entrusts the life and identity of the embryo into the power of doctors and biologists,” rather than allowing the natural integrity of human sexuality to remain intact. In other words, technology disrupts the sexual act from the procreative act.

This kind of separation and division is “diabolical,” a Greek word that testifies literally to the work of the devil, for to act in a diabolical manner means “to throw apart” or divide things that ought to be united and “symbolic” in nature. This is also why any kind of practice of vivisection is morally wrong. G. K. Chesterton railed against it in his day. We’ve come a long way since then. If today’s IVF is but the twenty-first century version of nineteenth-century eugenics, then how are we to understand the complex moral landscape of today’s burgeoning market of “embryo adoption”?

The New World of Embryo Adoption

Just four months ago some parents in Portland, Oregon, “welcomed twins from embryos frozen 30 years ago.”

In April 1992, Vanessa Williams’ “Save the Best for Last” topped the Billboard 100, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton was running for the White House, “Who’s the Boss?” aired its final episode, and the babies born to Rachel and Philip Ridgeway a couple of weeks ago were frozen as embryos.

Because these twins were born from “what may be the longest-frozen embryos to ever result in a live birth,” it’s possible that the “parents” are, in a strict chronological sense, younger than the children to whom they gave birth. What does this mean for the embryos?

According to Dr. Jim Toner, a fertility specialist in Atlanta, “It’s like that Rip Van Winkle thing. It just wakes up 30 years later, and it never knew it was asleep.” It’s a somewhat strange allusion. Anyone who has read Washington Irving’s short story knows that Rip wakes up to find that he is a man out of time and temporally homeless. But Dr. Toner assures us that it’s all fine: “It doesn’t seem like a sperm or an egg or embryo stored in liquid nitrogen ever experiences time.” How a physician could be so confident about the metaphysical experience of the embryo is, as the kids say, sus ("suspect").

Regardless, adoptive parents like the Ridgeways are at least able to see the “embryo” as a child. According to the Ridgeways, the opportunity to adopt embryos that have been frozen for thirty years “really is God’s grace.” It’s admirable to want to redeem a life that has been created. Compare that with Paris Hilton’s latest boast after “making” 20 embryos (“I have 20 boys.”) and setting them aside in a freezer indefinitely.

The problem is in creating frozen embryos in the first place. Though it doesn’t reach the level of abortion, Hilton’s act of putting souls on ice still constitutes an unwillingness to fully welcome and receive a new soul into the world. This is wrong in the same way vivisection is unequivocally wrong, for it not only sunders the ordered union of sex and procreation but it also leads to a further separation from the context of one’s natural time and place in the world.

Cosmically Orphaned and Ontologically Homeless

When Hilton declares, “I have 20 boys,” she really means that she has frozen them, having her own eggs “stocked and ready,” as she puts it. She and her husband “are continuing to make embryos hoping for a little girl,” but the fact that she keeps having “all boys” implies she will continue to put more and more souls on ice until she gets what she wants. The cavalier manner and remarkable ease with which she announces all these facts is troubling in itself. But what is perhaps most depressing is that she likely has no intention of actually bringing those “20 boys” into the world of the living.

The blessings of human reproduction are inextricable from the bonds of human limitation. This is always the paradox of freedom – that it depends for its very existence upon the Good. The same bonds that might keep us chained from realizing our Nietzschean dreams are also the cords that keep us human. To sever those bonds will only bring about the “abolition of man,” as C. S. Lewis warned. The power to free oneself from our creaturely nature comes at too great a cost. “Each new power won by man,” writes Lewis, “is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger.” So we can freeze embryos now. If this is a conquest, then we have only conquered ourselves, for “[in man’s] every victory, besides being the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who follows the triumphal car.”

Creating life without fullness, having fertility without meaning. What is the point? What is the point of power so alienated from the Good? The purpose of being able to conceive children is not so that a man and a woman can hand over their babies to the Ecto Life hellbots, nurturing their young in the antiseptic space of an artificial womb.

“All long-term exercises of power,” Lewis argues, “especially in breeding, must mean the power of earlier generations over later ones.” This means “all possible future generations are the patients or subjects of a power wielded by those already alive.” The effect of this new reproductive power is a diabolical sundering of the coherent Goodness of bearing children.

Whence comes this power? It begins with an epistemology that assumes there is no Divine Logic in which all things exist and cohere, seeing man not as integrated within the moral order of the natural world but as somehow standing apart from it, outside of it, alienated from creation. In putting souls on ice, it is we who end up in need of adoption. For in doing so, we depart from the human family and become cosmically orphaned and ontologically homeless.

Further Reading

Devin O'Donnell is the Vice President of Membership and Publishing at the Association of Classical Christian Schools. He is author of The Age of Martha: A Call to Contemplative Learning in a Frenzied Culture (2019). He was the Research Editor of Bibliotheca in 2015 and has worked in classical Christian education for 20 years. He and his family live in the Northwest, where he writes, fly fishes, and remains a classical hack.

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