Progeny with purpose

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.


5 responses to “Progeny with purpose

  1. Great post. And I totally agree.

    I was just talking to Brad last night about the attitude of our parents’ generation towards having kids, and how it differs from our own. I can tell you with about 99% certainty that my parents had kids because…well, that’s what you DO after you get married, right? Especially when you’re Catholic and eschew all methods of birth control? This makes me saaaaaad.

    One of my favorite moments from any movie is from Secretary (bear with me). During the part where Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character is refusing to leave the desk, her Dad comes and reads her a quote that ends with “…You come from me, but you are not me. Your soul and your body are your own, and yours to do with as you wish.”

    And she smiles and says “Thanks, Daddy.”

  2. JT-

    That’s so weird! One of my favorite moments from any movie is also from Secretary. My favorite moment, however, involves a ball gag and a whip…


    • I think there have always been parents who actively wanted kids, regardless of whether it was something they were socially or culturally told to do (my mom, for example, made it very clear the whole time we were growing up that she really, really wanted to be a mom and wanted all of us long before we were born). Maybe it’s because our generation seems to be waiting longer to get married and/or start families, and I’m sure some of it has to do with the availability and cultural acceptance of birth control, that those who do have kids seem to do so because they want to and not because ‘it’s just what you do,’ although I’m sure there are people who have kids because they’re expected to.

      Simon, your comment made me decide that someday I should get around to watching all of Secretary. I think I’ve only ever seen about 20 minutes of it, and there weren’t any ball gags in that part.

  3. So many parents have a hard time seeing their children as individuals seperate from themselves. It can be hard because in the beginning they are so dependent on you. It takes time to realize that snuggly baby has grown into a thoughtful human being.

    I would say more than .01% of parents give more thought into becoming a parent even if they conceive naturally. There are a lot of oopses, but they don’t compromise 99.9% of pregnancies.

    • Olivia, I didn’t mean that people who conceive naturally don’t put thought into becoming parents, only that they usually don’t have to jump through as many physical hoops as those who need to undergo some sort of fertility treatment in order to do so. The vast majority of pregnancies happen just the way nature intended, and it would be great if everyone who wanted to be parents had that experience, but not everyone does. The very nature of IVF means that parents-to-be have to undergo some significant medical procedures and hormone therapy for months before you even get to the conception part of the process. Thanks for helping me make that clarification. 🙂

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