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Artillery Row

Parenthood erased

We must not forget the fact that children are begotten and not created

“From now on there is no knowing what a parent is.” So wrote theologian Oliver O’Donovan in his 1984 book Begotten or Made?, in response to the new developments in artificial reproductive technologies. The first IVF baby, Louise Brown, had famously been born only six years prior, in 1978. In her case, both biological parents — the egg donor and the sperm donor — were the same people who raised Louise, with her mother serving as both egg donor and gestational carrier. Despite being a “test tube baby”, Louise grew up with a clearly identifiable mother and father. Forty-five years later, however, O’Donovan’s fear about the potential of technologies such as IVF to erase parenthood have proved well-founded. For decades now, we have seen cases of as many as five individuals staking some kind of claim to parenthood, for example where IVF involves a donor egg, donor sperm, a gestational/surrogate mother (separate from the woman who donated the egg), and up to two adoptive parents. As if this was not evidence enough, just earlier this year, the UK welcomed the first baby born from three people’s DNA through the process of mitochondrial donation

The reason for carrying out such procedures is always explained away with platitudes: an individual or a couple desire a child, and if science can, science must aid their desire for self-fulfilment. What this means for the children is less often investigated. But for all we tell ourselves that the only thing that matters is to have parents who love us, as a society we retain an intuitive sense that genealogical bewilderment is very much real. Knowing whose genetic material contributed to your conception does matter, and on some level, however subconscious, we recognise this. Just recently, for example, a change in UK legislation established the right of children to have information about the donors involved in their birth from the age of eighteen.  

How did we get to this state of confusion, where we can no longer clearly define the concept of “parenthood”?

How did we get to this state of confusion, where we can no longer clearly define the concept of “parenthood”? Although it’s a challenging issue to untangle, I want to suggest that O’Donovan is right: artificial reproductive techniques allow us to “make” rather than merely “beget” our offspring, and we cannot relate to something we make on a normal parent-child basis. We feel that we are in complete control and ownership of that which we make like a work of art, and so we are ready to reshape or destroy it at our will. We may not quite have reached the level of “making” people in the same way that Dr. Frankenstein does in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but the intention behind our actions is often comparable. Women looking for sperm donors will often make their choice based on the donors’ physical fitness, intelligence, or wealth, hoping that a “perfect” baby will result from the union. Even more disturbingly, though illegal in the UK, sex selection is allowed in several US states as part of the IVF process, meaning that an embryo can end up being discarded for the sole reason that it would develop into a boy where a girl was wished for, or vice versa. And of course, just as Dr. Frankenstein destroys the female being he had been creating as a companion for his creature, we destroy embryos during IVF, and preborn children via abortion, when they are not quite what we want them to be. We are already moulding our offspring in ways which place us in the role of “creator” rather than parent. 

Few of us are comfortable talking about the God-shaped hole in all of this. But this kind of alienation from our offspring is precisely what happens when we replace God-as-creator with individual-human-being-as-creator. We can trace the story of this replacement if we look at the literary works we have produced as a society over time. Let’s consider two examples, one from the late middle ages, and one from the 21st century, to show you exactly what happens to our concept of “parent” once the Christian framework of God-as-creator collapses. 

The first literary work to which I want to bring your attention is a 14th-century poem called The Pearl, in which a father, grieving the death of his young child, falls asleep in a garden, and dreams that he is able to meet his daughter again in the form of a beautiful maiden he calls his “pearl”. The father knows that he should be glad his daughter is now in heaven with God, and yet he feels her loss deeply, struggling to reconcile himself to her death:

A hopeless grief on my heart was laid.

Though reason to reconcile me sought,

For my pearl there prisoned a plaint I made,

In fierce debate unmoved I fought;

Be comforted Christ Himself me bade,

But in woe my will ever strove distraught.  

His daughter, though young, then spends a considerable part of the poem rebuking her father for his grief and reminding him that he should rejoice in her happiness in heaven. Grief is a natural reaction; but grief that is self-indulgent does not actually benefit her, the lost child. The Pearl was never her father’s property; though dear to her parents, her creator was always God, and her father needs to accept that to God she has returned. By the end of the poem, although still experiencing pain, the father learns that he needs to let go. When he tries to follow his daughter across the stream and into the heavenly city of Jerusalem, he is awoken from his dream, and his Pearl is no longer there. The poem ends with the father reflecting that, since he now knows his daughter is in heaven, he will resign himself to her death:

If it be true and sooth to swear 

That in garland gay you are at ease,

 though chained in care,

That you that Prince [Christ] indeed do please.

The father of The Pearl is in many ways representative of a vision of parenthood which we have lost: while alive, he was his daughter’s guardian. Now that she has died, he struggles to relinquish control of her, but he knows on a deep level that he must do so, because God, not the parent, is a child’s maker and creator. His resignation at the end of the poem may strike us as half-hearted or not particularly convincing, but in a society with much higher mortality rates, it was particularly necessary to learn how to cope with death. The Pearl’s father knows that all he can do is love and protect his child for as long as he is allowed; beyond that, it truly is all in God’s hands.

What happens when that very Christian framework which enabled the father in The Pearl to relinquish control of his child collapses? A fascinating scenario is provided by Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go. Ishiguro imagines a dystopian version of history in which, instead of developing nuclear power, human effort post-World-War-Two focused on cloning. In the Britain of Never Let Me Go, human clones are bred and raised into adulthood for the sole purpose of organ donation; after a certain number of donations, they “complete”, that is, they die. They have no legal status, and all seem to die by their early to mid-thirties. The main character and narrator, Kathy, recounts her childhood and adolescence with her close friends Ruth and Tommy at Hailsham, a boarding school where the clones are kept, educated, and treated “humanely” before it is time for them to be killed so that “real” humans can live longer with their donated organs. By the end of the novel, we discover that Hailsham is unusual in attempting to treat the clones like people; many other clones are raised in much harsher conditions.

There are many ways in which parenthood and childhood are conceived completely differently in Never Let Me Go compared to The Pearl. The children in Ishiguro’s novels, obviously, have no parents. Their only sense of family comes from their close friendship and the guardianship provided by their teachers. These children also never have the chance of becoming parents themselves; they have been specifically created so that they cannot reproduce. But just because they don’t know what it is to be someone’s child or have a child, it does not mean that the desire isn’t present within them. In a particularly moving section of the novel, Ruth has an emotional outburst when she and her friends think they have spotted her “possible”, that is, the woman from whom she was cloned. She is wretched and confused when she realises that she is unlikely to ever meet her original, the only person to whom she can claim a biological connection. Later in the novel, as adults, Kathy and Tommy visit their old teachers, Miss Emily and Madame Marie-Claude. Kathy remembers Madame seeing her, as a child, dancing to the song “Never Let Me Go” while clutching a pillow alone in her room. As she recalls this, she tells Madame:

Maybe that’s why you started to cry when you saw me. Because whatever the song was really about…I imagined it was about this woman who’d been told she couldn’t have babies. But then she’d had one, and she was so pleased, and she was holding it ever so tightly to her breast, really afraid something might separate them, and she’s going baby, baby, never let me go.

Kathy’s latent desire to become a mother is never to be realised, of course. It is both extraordinary and yet completely predictable that, despite being parentless herself, that desire is still there. The “children” in Never Let Me Go are not really children but rather commodities, having been deprived of all means of having a biological connection to either a parent or to their own offspring. But humans will always crave biological connection, and no amount of technological interference can change that. It is precisely through technological interference, in this case through the process of cloning, that God-as-creator has been replaced by man-as-creator. Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy are all made, not begotten, as O’Donovan would put it. And this dehumanises not only them, but also the people who made them. In the episode I just cited where Kathy reminisces about being seen dancing alone, Madame’s response is particularly telling:

I was weeping for an altogether different reason. When I watched you dancing that day…I saw a new world coming rapidly. More scientific, efficient, yes. More cures for the old sicknesses. Very good. But a harsh, cruel world. And I saw a little girl, her eyes tightly closed, holding to her bread the old kind world, one that she knew in her heart could not remain.

Madame has been deeply traumatised by the knowledge that the very children she once cared for are now being slaughtered one by one, all in the name of a better world, with better medicine. Her words may not strike us as particularly relevant to our society today, but the principles by which Kathy and the other clones are treated as less than persons are the same principles that have allowed for surrogacy and IVF to be so quickly accepted as morally permissible. In both cases, the desire of adults for what they perceive as a ‘better’ life trumps the innate desire of children to be loved by the people who begot them. Children born of artificial reproductive technologies today may well be loved by their “parents”, but, like the children imagined by Ishiguro in Never Let Me Go, they are born and live to fulfil the wishes of adults who see themselves as owners rather than guardians. Unlike the father in The Pearl, who learns that he cannot own his daughter, and that he must let her go, we now think of children as a means to our happiness, not as persons who have been entrusted to our care. 

Whether he intended it or not, Ishiguro identifies precisely this problem. By the end of the novel, it isn’t Kathy who cannot let go. In fact, the novel ends with Kathy accepting the loss of Tommy, and cherishing their memories together. It is rather the adults who clone and then slowly kill the children who can’t let go. They can’t accept death, and therefore they harvest other humans for their organs to prolong their lives. They can’t accept suffering, and thus they impose suffering on those who are too weak and vulnerable to defend themselves. 

The world imagined by Ishiguro isn’t some far-off dystopian future

The world imagined by Ishiguro isn’t some far-off dystopian future. We are thinking and acting like that already. We have lost the medieval vision of parenthood of The Pearl, with the parent as earthly guardian and God as creator; instead, we make gods of ourselves. We make and destroy embryos so that infertile couples can have the child they always wanted. We tear newborns away from the woman who bore and gave birth to them and call her a mere “surrogate” mother, never thinking twice of what that does to the newborn who is being deprived of the care of the only person he or she knew while growing in the womb. We may think we’re living in a more merciful and compassionate society than the one conjured up by Ishiguro, but I would contend that our reasons for using technology so indiscriminately are the same. Our actions betray that, deep down, we think adults are more valuable than children. As argued by O’Donovan back in 1984, this is because the “making” of children chips away at the very concept of parent and child. We would do well to see Ishiguro’s reality as a mirror of what we have already become, and The Pearl as an image of what we might hope to return to.

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