The Future of Baby-Making

Don't Take the Sex Out of Reproduction

It was forty years ago, in his Ethics of Genetic Control, that Joseph Fletcher articulated clearly what the future of baby-making was going to be. Reproductive technologies can now do far more than was possible when Fletcher wrote, but not more than he could imagine. “Love-making and baby-making have been divorced,” he wrote. “Sex is free from the contingencies and complications of reproduction, and sexual practice can now proceed on its own merits as an independent value in life.”

Fletcher emphasized the importance of both choice and control in human reproduction, though it was never quite clear which of them was the more basic in his thinking. Asserting that human reproduction was now centered in will and choice rather than in our genitalia, he nevertheless was quite ready to require the “genetically unfortunate” to be sterilized, and able without hesitation to assert that those who knowingly give birth to a “defective” child are “as guilty of wrongdoing as those who culpably contribute to a wrongful death.”

We are now fast approaching a point at which a half-century’s technological development may make Fletcher’s imaginings sober reality. In a recent article in the New York Review of Books (September 25, 2014), Carl Djerassi suggests that in less than another half-century we can expect to see an increasing “divorce of coitus from reproduction.” As it becomes easier to freeze not only embryos but also a woman’s eggs, he predicts in vitro fertilization (IVF) will no longer be used only by women with impaired fertility. Instead, it will become a desirable reproductive method even for women who experience no fertility problems. As if on cue, the New York Times reported in October that some companies—in particular, tech companies such as Facebook and Apple—have recently begun to offer a new “health benefit,” covering a considerable portion of the expense of freezing eggs for women who work for the company. Djerassi also notes that women may even wish to be sterilized once their eggs have been retrieved—the better to enjoy sex without fear of an inconvenient pregnancy. There are at least two reasons, he thinks, why this scenario is by no means farfetched.

In part, the opportunity to retrieve and freeze a relatively large number of eggs at an early age may offer a kind of insurance against future health or reproductive problems. Doing so would not commit a woman to using IVF in the future; she might still decide to conceive children the old-fashioned way. But it would provide options for the future, enabling women to use their cache of stored eggs for reproductive purposes at a later age, whenever they feel the time is right. To be sure, embryo retrieval requiring hormonally induced superovulation carries some medical risks and possible complications during pregnancy that should not be underestimated. Djerassi’s expectation that IVF will be used with increasing frequency by women with no fertility problems rests on the reasonable assumption that the procedures will continue to be improved and the risks lessened. It is hard to bet against medical advance. Djerassi also notes a point that has become rather standard in defense of new reproductive technologies—namely, that “normal coital reproduction at an advanced age carries its own risks.” Evidently these are simply two ways, each with its pros and cons, of producing a desired result.

A second reason for Djerassi’s prediction of increased IVF use even by women who have experienced no fertility problems is essentially eugenic. By this I do not mean the kind of state-sponsored, coercive measures that gave eugenics such a bad name in the mid-twentieth century. Rather, private individuals pursuing their own aims may wish to avoid having children with a variety of defects or to have children of a particular sex or with certain desirable characteristics. Screening for any or all of these purposes prior to implanting an embryo could become routine, or so Djerassi speculates. “For many fertile women who plan on having no more than one or two children, and are prepared to pay for such information, this would be a major incentive to pursue the IVF route to conception rather than ordinary coitus.” Fletcher would have understood. “Producing our children by ‘sexual roulette’ without preconceptive and uterine control, simply taking ‘pot luck’ from random sexual combinations, is,” he wrote, “irresponsible.” Choice replaces chance and control replaces mystery—at least for those with the financial resources to seize the opportunity offered by reproductive technology.

There will be some, as there have always been, who will pooh-pooh any prediction that our future might be one in which coitus and reproduction are separated in the minds and lives of many people. At least in my experience a common response to predictions like Djerassi’s has been a slightly worldly laugh and the observation that most people are surely likely to prefer the route of sexual intercourse. But that response assumes, of course, that baby-making via IVF (using frozen eggs or embryos) is still somehow connected to the experience of coitus. That response has not yet made the mental separation Djerassi foresees, imagining a world very different from the one to which we are accustomed. In the future world he anticipates, these are simply two different things: sex for the fun of it, children if and when we choose and of the sort we choose.

 

A BETTER AND MORE thoughtful response would ask two questions about such a future world: Would it be good for children? And would it be good for sex?

Think first about children. Why should it matter how we produce them if, once we have them, we love them? In fact, might we not love all the more those whom we have taken pains to produce, those who are not simply the result of a passionate act that was probably not focused on the well-being of a possible future child? Perhaps so. At the very least, we need not deny that parents who use technology to produce their children—and even produce them to meet certain specifications—will love them. But that does not mean there is no cause for concern here.

One of the oldest distinctions in moral thought is between doing and making. Making occupies a great deal of our lives, as it should. We are in the world as people who have projects, people who seek to accomplish a variety of important aims and produce needed products. Yet, of course, we are not just makers or engineers; we are also doers who engage in a variety of activities whose worth is entirely independent of any product that results. Thus, we play, we worship, we admire the beautiful in sight or sound—and we make love. In such doings we are not seeking to accomplish something or produce some result. On the contrary, we exercise a certain generosity of spirit that takes us out of ourselves and testifies to goods whose worth cannot be measured in terms of goals accomplished or strategic plans carried out.

There may be countless ways to make a child; not all of them amount to doing the same thing. When a man and a woman give themselves to each other in the act of love, they are not undertaking a project intended to produce a child as the aimed-for result. They are not making anything, but they are doing something of great human significance. Perhaps they deeply desire a child; perhaps they hope that their love-making will have a child as its fruition. Indeed, their love-making may be structured with considerable deliberation in ways that they hope will result in conception. Still, that hoped-for child is not, in the most immediate sense, the object of their embrace. Instead, in that moment they set aside their projects in order to attend to each other and give themselves to each other in their mutual embrace. And then, if a child should happen to result, that child is simply a kind of natural blessing on their love, a gift given them when they were so beside themselves that they could not make or engineer anything. Moreover, the child who is not a product made by them is equal to them in dignity, sharing in their being imparted in love, and not one whom they have made or whose destiny they should try to determine or control.

Does this really make a difference? Or am I living in a world of pure theory? We should never suppose that ideas lack consequences, and we can reflect on some possible consequences by recalling the relation between responsibility and humility that Michael Sandel elaborated in his widely read book The Case Against Perfection. The more reproduction becomes separated from coitus and the more we begin to pick and choose among possible children, the greater the responsibility we shoulder for the character of the next generation. Disposed as we are to believe that being responsible must be a good thing, we may forget that there could be responsibilities that are more godlike than human. As conscientious parents we will, of course, seek to nurture our children on the path toward adulthood. But do we really want to think of ourselves as responsible for shaping not only their nurture but also their nature? Accepting responsibility for the eugenic shaping of our children may smack more of hubris than humility. It may be bad both for us and for them.

A humility that receives children as blessings given to us rather than products made by us may deepen our capacity to see in others, whatever their talents or capacities, a dignity equal to our own. After all, we have not made them; we have simply received them as those who mysteriously have a share in our own being. Perhaps, then, a world in which coitus and reproduction have been divorced would not be good for children.

What about sex? Would it be good for sex—that is, for the act of love between a man and a woman? This may seem a little less obvious. Is it good for children? That question seems like a sensible one, however we may happen to answer it. But it may not be as obvious why we should ask my second question. If, however, we rephrase the question in a slightly more traditional way, its significance—and complications—will be apparent. Why continue to think that sexual love and procreation should be held together in the relation of a man and a woman?

Suppose we separate these two in our thought and practice. Sex is one thing—fun, personally fulfilling, potentially relationship-building. Producing children is another—meaningful at least for some, personally fulfilling for many. What happens to the meaning and experience of sex if the two are separated, if the sexual relationship is not in any way oriented toward the next generation? Is it sufficient that sex be fun, a form of play that answers to some deep human needs and desires?

There is no answer to this question likely to meet with universal assent. It may even be—to voice the sort of possibility we are seldom even allowed to consider today—that the answer is to some extent different for women and men. In any case, true as it is that sex can be a pleasurable form of play, does thinking of it that way really do justice to the experience—to what sexual partners are seeking from each other? There are countless ways to play, and, on the whole, these are matters for will and choice, personal projects that we take up and continue for as long as they give what we are seeking. But desire is, of course, endless and not easy to satisfy. What even deeply engaging forms of play do not offer is something that is more than just a personal undertaking, something that connects us to deeper—mysterious and mythic—aspects of our humanity. Oriented as it is in its very nature to the next generation, sexual love carries significance that we have not chosen or willed. And perhaps only that sort of significance can justify the kind of vulnerability sex involves, in which a man and woman give not just their bodies but themselves to each other. Perhaps—I offer it only as conjecture worth pondering—the divorce of coitus from reproduction, depriving the act of love of the kind of seriousness it traditionally carries, would not be good for sex.

 

WE COULD SIMPLY stop there. But there is an obvious problem left hanging, and we need to consider it. Grant for the sake of argument that it would be bad if we were to create a world in which sex was one thing and reproduction another, with no necessary connection between them. Grant that it would be bad if, as a quite common occurrence, children were produced by noncoital means. Grant that it would be still worse if those means often or regularly had eugenic overtones.

But, then, if reproduction should not be in principle divorced from the sexual relation, should that relation be divorced from reproduction (insofar as it is within our power to do so)? Some questions never go away, and contraception seems to be one of them. If baby-making is best done in the context of love-making, as I have been suggesting, may love-making deliberately sever its connection to baby-making?

Speaking only for myself, it would be unfortunate if the argument against an autonomous, noncoital world of baby-making should turn out also to be an argument against contraception. Unfortunate in part because in our cultural context it would surely be a losing argument. Nevertheless, arguments that lack cultural purchase are not necessarily false, and that would not in my mind be sufficient reason to give it up. Rather, it would be unfortunate because it would not capture the complexity of marriage as what Paul Ramsey (Fletcher’s great opponent) called “the covenant of marriage and parenthood.”

In marriage the biological and the personal are held together in a union of love. Ramsey argued that this union has its basis not simply in natural law nor, even, in a Christian doctrine of creation. Its deeper basis is the teaching of John’s gospel that God’s own creative work was not simply the making of a product but an act of love. Hence, “we procreate new beings like ourselves in the midst of our love for one another, and in this there is a trace of the original mystery by which God created the world because of His love.” If we think in this way, we will not want a world that separates coitus and reproduction in principle, but this does not mean that we should exercise no control at all in either marriage or parenthood.

Parents are not parents unless they help shape and direct the course of their children’s development. We can and must provide nurture, even if we draw back from the use of techniques aimed at determining our children’s nature. Likewise, the exercise of some control over our procreative powers, so long as it does not separate sex from procreation in principle, may have a place in the covenant of marriage and parenthood. To borrow a phrase that I love, even though it failed to gain papal endorsement in Humanae vitae, “the whole ensemble of conjugal acts,” though not necessarily each individual act, should be oriented toward procreation.

None of these judgments can be made with precision, but difficulties and uncertainties do not undermine the central truth that holding together love-making and baby-making is good both for children and for sexual love. We do not have to endorse a future world in which coitus and reproduction are routinely separated, as if deep within our humanity the first were not oriented toward the second. We cannot easily discern the direction our culture will take. Perhaps the risks and dangers of reproductive technologies will turn out to be deeply problematic. Perhaps a routine separation of love-making from baby-making will turn out to be profoundly unsatisfying. Perhaps we as a society will recoil from parental decisions made on unmistakably eugenic grounds.

And, of course, perhaps none of that will happen. Even so, it will still be true for Christians that in marital love that gives rise to children “there is a trace of the original mystery by which God created the world because of His love.” Discerning the implications of that trace and exploring that mystery will not answer perfectly every issue raised for us by reproductive technologies, but it will give us a place from which to take our bearings—a place that will be good for both children and sex.

Published in the January 23, 2015 issue: 

Gilbert Meilaender is a Senior Research Professor at Valparaiso University and the Ramsey Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.

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