Today, Word on Fire contributor Ellyn vonHuben examines the sanctity of parenthood, and how technology, culture and convenience can dull its blessed significance.
Few in the greater Chicago area have not heard of the city’s attempt to turn back the horrific tide of young murder victims by establishing more stringent curfews. I am surprised that we have not heard those TV announcements that were once common: “It’s eleven o’clock. Do you know where your children are?” Those announcements perplexed me as a teenager. How could anyone escape parental omnipresence? Between Mom and Dad and the other parents with whom they were in cahoots ... everyone knew where we were.
Young people roaming big city streets aren’t the only ones who have escaped parental oversight. There is a sad group of children whose parents - mostly fathers - do not just know where they are; their parents often don’t even know they exist. I am not so naive as to think there hasn’t always been a percentage of the population whose parentage is unknown or incorrectly attributed. Now it is more common. And it is deliberate.
"One Sperm Donor, 150 Offspring" was the headline of a recent piece in the New York Times. Beginning with a mother who searched an online registry to find half-siblings for a son conceived with donor sperm [“an extended family of sorts for modern times.”] and discovering 150 half-brothers and sisters, we are given an ‘inconceivable’ picture of the results of an amoral industry lacking legal regulation.
And the Style Network has a ‘reality’ show – “Sperm Donor” - featuring a man who must explain to his fiancée that he has 70 children. Since I am not blessed with deluxe cable I have been spared witnessing this slice of human tragedy and I don’t intend to check it out the next time I can plop down in front of the tube at my daughter’s house. ("My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding" will suffice for me - there are more ‘family values’ to be found there.) Speaking as a soul who recently spent a sick day on the couch exposed to the suffering of the careless amateur ‘donors’ and ‘baby mamas’ on Maury Povich, there is only so much sad disregard for humanity that one person can absorb from the media.
Any qualified dude can now be a modern Genghis Khan or self-styled Abraham. [“I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, and I will give them all these lands, and in your descendants all the nations of the earth will find blessing.” Genesis 26:4] There are certain qualifications. Perhaps here I should digress into the recent flap in which a major sperm bank was wait-listing redheaded sperm donors. [“ ..the only reliable demand for sperm from redheaded donors from Ireland, where he said it sold “like hot cakes”. Cryos’s stores have now reached their peak capacity of 70 litres of semen, and . . . a waiting list of 600 donors.” Gross.] As a grandchild of a vividly redheaded woman, I had hoped there would be a gingy in among my children. But I wouldn’t buy one. (Life’s happy surprises abound. Have I told you about my two Chinese surnamed Daughters of the American Revolution?) And why should I be surprised when an illicit scheme for providing people with children should be riddled with prejudice and superficiality.
It is estimated that up to 60,000 children are born each year from donor sperm, but since fewer than 40 percent of the mothers with ‘donated’ children voluntarily report their births to sperm banks that number is debatable. A quick scan of the internet puts the number of babies from donated eggs in the thousands.
We tend to look at things donated through an altruism tinted lens: blood, Salvation Army fashion finds, those fabulous used books at the library sale. Even when the donor is remunerated there is an aura of goodness around the transaction. But in the realm of reproductive technology I think this blinds us to the reality of what takes place. In 2011 we are supposedly humanity at its most educated. And yet we behave as though semen were simply a magic fluid which animates an ovum and it is regarded with as much moral and philosophical thought as plasma. While I agreed with many of the misgivings posed by the NYT article, my foremost thought was, “You are selling your children.”
This is scandal. The problems go beyond the anticipated chance of “unintended consanguinity” between brothers and sisters who could meet and marry. (I’ll take an educated guess and say that this has been happening for centuries, without assisted reproductive technology.) This is wanton disrespect for the human dignity of the child and an avaricious attempt to obtain what is essentially a gift from God.
“Parents must regard their children as children of God and respect them as human persons. Showing themselves obedient to the will of the Father in heaven, they educate their children to fulfill God's law.”(CCC 2222) The desire for children is visceral; it is a desire for that which the catechism rather clinically describes as the “fecundity of conjugal love.” I don’t mean to criticize the authors of the catechism - it is just my own maternal impression that this phrase cannot capture what starts long before that blessed, ecstatic moment when your child is first placed in your arms. So I am not without empathy for those who have an intense desire for children. But gifts, no matter how badly desired, are to be received, not taken.
There is not only scandal here, but sadness. A sorrow for a society in which human life has been commodified and discounted. Sorrow for children cast adrift by their progenitors . . . sorrow for parents who, for a variety of motives, now have so many children that they must chart them on an Excel spreadsheet.
The New York Times articles ends with an apt question: “What does family mean to these children?” I would have to add, what did children mean to their biological parents?
Ellyn vonHuben is a regular contributor to the Word on Fire blog.