Tag Archives: pondering

Immortality

Once upon a time, there was an African-American woman in Baltimore named Henrietta Lacks who got treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1950. She died, and the cell sample taken during her treatment went on to contribute to the polio vaccine, cancer and AIDS research, and just about every other sort of biomedical research involving cell lines since the 1950s. The immortal cell line developed from that cell sample has saved countless lives and continues to be used to develop treatments and cures for all sorts of human ailments. Henrietta’s children and grandchildren knew nothing of this, received no compensation for it, and have lived and continue to live with a variety of health problems; many of them unable to access treatment for a lack of health insurance.

The most interesting book I read in 2010 was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. Skloot worked with Henrietta’s family to tell her true story: the story of her life, and the story of her death, and the story of her immortality, and the story of her family to date. A 31-year-old woman unknowingly provided the material to prevent, cure, and treat diseases, and will live for generations in the malignant cells that took her short life. Yet until very recently with the publication of Skloot’s book, only a few people anywhere knew anything about the origin of the HeLa cells or the name or the story of the woman whose priceless contribution to science and humanity will continue for the foreseeable future.

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Once upon a time, there was a woman who was a nanny for a series of well-to-do families in Chicago for 40 years. She also was a brilliant photographer, but her work was never discovered or publicized until after her death, when a man who had bought her personal effects at an auction began to develop some of her 100,000 negatives and post them in a blog while attempting to learn more about her. The woman was very private in life and had absolutely no idea that someday the world would become fascinated with the art she left behind.

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Once upon a time, there was a young man in Arizona, who was mentally ill and had problems with the government of his country. He bought a gun and brought it to a public event in a public place, where his local governmental representative planned to meet with constituents, and he shot her in the head. He shot 19 other people and killed six of them, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl who had been born on September 11, 2001. By committing this terrible crime, people all over the world knew his name and what he had done only hours after it happened, and millions of people in the United States and other countries discussed, in depth, his life and his crime and what it meant for the future of political discourse in this country. With that one decision, in those few moments, the young man propelled himself, his name, and his deed into the annals of history. Everybody who pays any attention whatsoever to current events knows the name Jared Loughner.

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For most people, immortality is just an unobtainable concept. For most people, the closest they might ever get to being remembered forever is to have children and to tell those children their own stories, that they might be passed down through generations. Some people are able to do a little more to enter into the collective consciousness, through pioneering scientific breakthroughs or writing beloved books, producing art or serving the public. Most people are content with the small amount of recognition the average person gets from his or her family or community, and most people will never do anything to merit nationwide or worldwide attention, or if they do, they don’t deliberately seek it. It’s really unfortunate, I think, that there are people who will commit horrible atrocities and garner that attention, when there are people whose contributions to their communities or their societies that go largely unrecognized until long after their deaths.

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.

I think it’s gross, but most women don’t.

For some reason, I’ve been paying a lot more to advertisements lately. Dan and I have a habit of making fun of them, particularly TV commercials, pointing out the messages they’re not-so-subtly conveying – men are stupid/incompetent, women like shoes (and yogurt!), buying a Prius will make everything look like blooming gardens, it’ll make you poop (and look like those women)! You know, stuff like that. Maybe it’s because we’re watching more actual broadcast TV now that we have cable and I’m noticing stuff. Maybe it’s because I’ve never given much thought to marketing or advertising or branding and I’m really thinking about it these days because of my flower venture.

Last night I was watching commercial after commercial try to sell beer. But none of them try to sell beer to women. After a while, I tried to think of a TV commercial or print advertisement that marketed beer to women, and couldn’t remember a single instance. Yet of my friends, I know that most of the women I know who drink like beer just as much as anything else, if not more. So what gives, beer companies? Why ignore a huge portion of potential market share? It seems to me that it’s an example of a company shooting itself in the foot – I mean, instead of competing with all the other beer companies for men’s money, why not try to sell your beer to women? It can’t be a holdover from prohibition or a “women don’t drink” mentality, because wine is pretty much marketed equally to men and women. The same for hard alcohol (what advertisments I’ve seen, anyway; it’s rare to see the hard stuff advertised). Even the flavored malt beverages like Smirnoff Ice and Mike’s Hard Lemonade are pushed at both sexes. What makes beer something that only men should want to buy?

Riddle me this, internet. Why don’t beer companies want women to buy beer? Why are seemingly all ads for beer marketed toward men, with the scantily clad women and the cars and the men screaming at a walk-in refrigerator full of Heineken? Why don’t the beer companies want me to be a beer drinker? I’m not a fan of beer, but that has nothing to do with advertisement and everything to do with having tried beer on multiple occasions and just not liking it.