We’ve been going to the library about once a week, and yesterday, after poking around a bit, we were about to head out with just the books I’d put on hold when I spied something on the “recommended by staff” shelf. It was Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper. I’d heard of it before, and picked it up, thinking it would be some schmaltzy chick lit. But as soon as I read the back cover, I was intrigued. I began the first chapter, and within a few paragraphs had two thoughts: This book is probably going to make me mad, and this book is probably something I’ll want to read.
So I checked it out and brought it home, and last night before bed I started reading it. I didn’t put it down until I finished, at about 4 AM. It did make me angry, but it also made me think a lot about why people have kids in the first place. The basic storyline goes as follows: the 13-year-old protagonist was conceived via IVF with preimplantation genetic diagnosis to be a genetic donor match for her older sister, who has cancer. The girl has, over the years, endured a number of medical procedures to harvest cord blood, stem cells, bone marrow, and other bits and pieces to help make her sick sister well. Finally, her sister needs a kidney transplant in order to live, and she hires a lawyer to be medically emancipated from her parents so she can have some modicum of autonomy over her own body, instead of remaining a body part farm for her sister. The parents are torn between advocating for the life and health of each of their daughters, and are shocked that their younger daughter might not choose to donate a kidney in order to save her sister’s life.
Aside from the plethora of moral and ethical issues raised by the book, what kept coming back to my mind was the part about how the protagonist had been specifically conceived, even designed, to help cure her older sister. While that’s kind of an uncommon reason to bring a child into the world, it’s just one of many reasons why people decide to have kids.
Some people have a baby in order to hold a failing relationship together. Others do it so they have someone to care for them when they are old. Some decide to have kids because they want someone to love them unconditionally (popular amongst teenage mothers, as I understand it); others do it so that they’ve got someone to abuse or dominate because they feel so small themselves. And the list goes on and on. Having a baby in order to give a sick existing child a chance to be healthy isn’t the most wacky reason for spawning by any stretch of the imagination. Further, some people have kids because the birth control failed, or because they didn’t care enough to bother preventing pregnancy. Not every kid that comes into the world is planned or wanted or welcomed, which is both good and bad for kids and parents alike.
I’ve thought a lot about people’s motivations when it comes to childbearing. And, to me, the decision to bring a child into the world is simultaneously one of the most selfless and one of the most selfish acts a person can ever commit. You’re creating a person with parts of yourself and parts of someone else, and you’re the biggest influence on how that person is going to grow up and who he or she will become. Parenting is a person’s best chance at a small piece of immortality, for better or for worse, and while many parents voluntarily sacrifice any number of things for the benefit of their children, that doesn’t absolve them of the self-serving nature of bringing kids into the world.
As Dan and I contemplate the act of creating a baby via IVF, it strikes me that this is a far more deliberate act than 99.9% of parents out there. For us, it will be a conscious decision that will require months of preparation and medical intervention, and if a pregnancy and a baby result from that very deliberate series of acts, someday we’ll have to tell that child (or children, though I’d prefer not to have twins if possible) that he or she was so wanted, so hoped for, that we parents spent a lot of money and underwent a lot of testing, needles, and hormones to even have a shot (no pun intended) of creating him or her. The steps we’ll have to undergo are very different from the process one normally describes when telling a small child how babies are made. It’s a lot to put ourselves through, but the ultimate act will be a very selfish one: we want to be parents of a child (or children) who is the product of ourselves as individuals and of our relationship, the ability of which to do most people take for granted. The purpose of that child won’t be anything so lofty or so specific as “We created you to be a donor for your sick older sibling”, but he or she will still exist very deliberately.
It seems to me that, ethics and morals of creating a person to donate body parts for another person aside, a child brought into the world for such a specific purpose will never have to undergo the existential crisis that many people spend their teenage and young adult years angsting about: “Why am I here? What am I for?” Such a child will know from very early on that he or she has a reason for existing, even if that reason isn’t something the child might have chosen. And knowing one’s creation story doesn’t remove any of the stress of living up to the expectations of one’s parents to fulfill that purpose.
As I read the book, I was surprised that my reaction all along leaned very strongly toward the girl’s successful medical emancipation. Parents love their children so much that they will do just about anything to help them, heal them, keep them alive, assuage their suffering. But I don’t know that it’s right to sacrifice the body autonomy of one child in order to benefit another, no matter how minimal the impact on the healthy child might be. I know that parents make medical decisions for their children all the time, and for parents of baby boys, that role starts when they are newborns when (at least in the US) parents need to decide whether or not their sons will be circumcised. I can’t imagine being in the position to have to allow medical procedures to be performed on one child in order to benefit another, and I hope I’m never put in that position. But here’s the thing: whatever the reason for bringing a child into the world, once the child is here, he or she is an individual with a personality, likes, dislikes, and rights. A parent who creates a child has no right to assume that child will fulfill the purpose for which he or she was created.