Friday, March 07, 2008
The ethics of making babies
I recently read about the Kentucky mom with osteogenesis imperfecta who just gave birth to a baby almost as big as herself. It's not that the baby was huge - 18 inches is all. It's just that the mom is only 28 1/2 inches tall.
This is the second daughter born to this woman. The new baby appears to be perfectly "normal" and will be expected to grow to standard size. The first daughter was afflicted with the same genetic disorder as the mom and so will face a lifetime of pain and struggle.
Part of me celebrates the miracle of this amazing accomplishment. Doctors had warned the mother that she most likely could never carry a child to term. Because her torso is so tiny the growing fetus would smash her heart and lungs, killing them both. But that didn't happen. By all accounts, mother and daughter are doing just fine. Also the birth of the older daughter goes to show that doctors are not always right.
Still, I cannot help but wonder, at what point is the best choice, the most responsible choice to forge ahead and build a family despite significant challenges and when is it better to choose NOT to have children? Who decides?
Years ago I was acquainted with a woman who had the same disease as Stacey Herald. Although considerably taller, the woman I knew had tremendous challenges. She also had four children, ALL born with osteogenesis imperfecta.
I know of another family in which a mentally retarded mother has two mentally retarded children she is unable to care for. Would it have been better if those children had never been born?
We've all known of families in which child after child after child is popped out when it appears rather evident that the parent(s) have neither the physical or emotional resources to deal with them. Does that make it WRONG for the woman to continue to get pregnant?
As we learn more and more about genetic testing, we have to face the reality that most families have a mixed bag of chromosomes and genes. My own boys both inherited my poor vision and my family's predisposition to heart disease and cancer. Yet I certainly would not think they or the world would be better off had they never been born just because they are not biologically ideal. However, had I had some extreme disability would I have felt different about bring babies into life?
I don't know.
For the most part I do believe that all life is sacred. I have seen first hand through my stepson, Troy, who is brain damaged how much a handicapped child can bless the lives of all who know him. But if I KNEW before getting pregnant that the chances were 50/50 of bearing a child with a brain disorder, a major organ malfunction, or some other illness, would I take the risk?
In the Sociology of the Family class that I teach we have been discussing the factors that go into influencing the decision whether or not to have kids. I suppose there are some people who do give it serious thought. I suspect most do not.
But at what point does it make sense for a couple to keep trying to reproduce their own genes and when should they explore other options?
I would not suggest denying someone the right to be a parent simply because he or she faces significant challenges. Or would I? Do I support the right of seriously mentally ill patients to have babies? Do I support the right of someone who has ten or fifteen children already the right to continue propagating? Do I support the right of someone who cannot afford to care for themselves the right to bring babies into their family?
There is a difference, I think, and a rather substantial one - between thinking a choice may be misguided and proposing it be restricted. I would seriously question the wisdom of getting pregnant in any of the above situations. But I would not support any law that would stand in the way of it.
How much can a responsible, compassionate society permit individual members freedom to make choices that have painful/negative consequences for themselves and others?
The old axiom goes that my right to extend my arm stops where your nose begins. So by that rationale we can do things that have some negative consequences so long as they don't hurt someone else. But what about the most serious of personal/private choices - like deciding to make a baby? Doesn't that very much have direct impact on someone else?
Is there ANY circumstance that would justify mandatory sterilization? Yes. I can think of one or two. I knew a woman who used abortion as her primary form of birth control. When I met her in her mid twenties she had already had seven. I found that absolutely reprehensible. I thought she should lose the right to create life.
But what of these other circumstances? It's complicated business.