bek comments below that her blonde-haired, blue-eyed and well educated husband receives unsolicited requests for his sperm in the mail. It seems the sperm banks are going through alumni lists of high-profile schools and hunting for good DNA.
Another twist, eh? Did anyone else know that they do that? Because I read a great book about the history of the Nobel sperm bank and on sperm banking in general and the author never mentioned it, that I recall.
What I did remember, when bek posted her comment, however, was that years ago (before I turned 33), I looked into egg donation. I was a starving grad student with high rent and little income and whopping student loans, not to mention tuition and fees in the present. I figured I have no particular attachment to my eggs, at the time, I wasn't planning to ever have children--at least not through pregnancy--and it seemed okay to go through the medical process of egg retrieval, and what the heck, I might as well help someone have a baby (far secondary to the money in my mind). I went as far as to fill out a small online questionnaire and order the longer forms to begin the process.
The small questionnaire included educational informational and a photo if possible. When I got the package of detailed application material, it came under a cover letter congratulating me on my superior genes and telling me I was eligible for a higher than usual compensation fee.
Starving as I was, I couldn't stomach the eugenics overtones of being congratulated on my master-race-like qualities, and that was the end of my tentative plan to sell (which is what it really is) my eggs. I filled out the application though, because I wanted to know what they wanted to know. The agency I was looking at included an option to be in an open relationship with the families and children born from my eggs and I was glad to see that option. I never would have donated eggs without that option.
I want to pause here and tell you what I think about the eugenic thinking behind gamete banking (what I'll call "donation" to anonymous banks for monetary compensation, versus real donation, which might happen between known parties for no monetary compensation). First off, I know, I know, I know, that many, if not most people who avail themselves of sperm or eggs through banks are not thinking eugenically. Most are going to look simply for the absence of a terrible disease, or for traits similar to their partners', or for traits complimentary to theirs, or for a kind-hearted personal essay, or--as in the case of one single lesbian mom I know, who conceived before "yes donors" (available to be contacted later) were common--for traits that will help them track the "donor" down with a private detective's help in future years. (My friend chose someone with red hair, who graduated from a certain school in a certain year for this reason. She thought red hair would be rare in one year's class and thus easy to find if her son ever needed a bone marrow transplant or something.)
That said, the banks themselves sure do seem to assume that their clients are thinking eugenically. There is an emphasis on "purity" (one bank I looked at had a special "Scandinavian Program" and claimed it was about purity of the sperm. What kind of purity, I wonder?), looks, level of education, SAT scores, musical virtuosity, etc. And they charge more for the goods coming from people with higher levels of education or special artistic abilities. When you browse banks online you will have eugenic messages shouted at you from every corner of their websites.
And lets face it, they wouldn't act like that if at least some of their clients weren't thinking that way. And according to her interviewers, our antiheroine Ms. Ryan (of part one) certainly admits proudly to thinking that way: some gametes are more valuable than others.
I'm not a biologist like smarty-pants Trey, or a doctor or even someone with the greatest track record in science grades, but here's one thing I do know about eugenics: We just don't know enough about how genetics works to really know how to go about producing "better" people. And: variety=quality when it comes to gene pools. Generally speaking certain genes aren't "better" than others, blends of many genes produce the best people at the level of large populations, because it gives them more possible survival traits. Sickle Cell disease is bad. But Sickle Cell trait will protect you from malaria, which is key if you live in Africa. Nat carries Sickle Cell trait. She'll need some genetic counseling before she reproduces biologically. That is, she'll have to check with her partner (if he's a boy contributing sperm to the project) about whether he carries the trait too. But she will also be able to join the Peace Corps and be better equipped to travel in malaria-stricken countries than her non-Sickle Cell trait-carrying peers.
That's just one example. But my point (and The Genius Factory linked above makes this point quite well too) is that choosing a reproductive partner with certain traits really doesn't mean much beyond visible physical characteristics, and even with those, it's really a crap shoot, especially when it comes to recessive traits like blue eyes. The way I see it, there's no reason to assume that the "natural" processes of the reproductive lines leading to my daughter are any less genetically fit than ones I could hand-pick from a bank. In fact, given that my daughter's genetic lines are real-world tested and "naturally selected" (a la Darwin) they could be more fit.
But I don't really put much stock in what we have figured out about evolution or genetics, because it seems the more we learn, the more complex it all turns out to be.
And because I don't put much stock in it, I don't actually believe that when people want to make eugenic choices; when they want to produce a certain kind of child via gamete selection, that they actually can. So in my musings on the topic of reproductive technology ethics, I don't actually fear the creation of a master race. I don't think we have the first idea how to produce such a thing. Instead, it's the values behind the desire to produce a certain kind of child that concern me.
Last year, my oldest friend and I explored the possibility of my giving her an egg. My eggs are expired now, by egg bank standards, but by personal standards, they might be fine (I was 35 when we talked about this). I had promised her an egg back in our college days, when we learned about egg donation in yet another bioethics class and she told me her concerns about her remaining ovary, having lost one at the tender age of 16 to cysts. (We have since mused about the probable unnecessity of them taking her whole ovary at age sixteen, believe me!) She and I were both completely on board, but her partner wasn’t sure, so we dropped the plan.
I felt entirely, completely different about giving eggs to my friend than I did about selling them to the bank. It isn’t the technology of being able to mix and match our gametes and parent them outside their genetic “family” that bothers me one bit. As with most technology, reproductive technology can be used for good or bad or several shades of grey between them. For me, almost all ethical quandaries come down to relationship.
On abortion, for example:
Are you bonded to your two-week old embryo? Have you named it Isabelle and are you painting her nursery? It’s your “baby.”
Did you fall pregnant unexpectedly at the worst possible time and do you have no desire to gestate this unwelcome interloper? It’s just a clump of cells with human potential taking up space in your body, which you can dispose of as you need to.
I know lots of you disagree, but that’s how my ethics tend to settle, when all is said and done.
The problem is that we live in a society that places all but no value on relationship. We pay a lot of lip service to “community” but it’s hard to find one. I can’t stand the way the term “community gets thrown around to refer to any large group of people who share one trait but nothing else and don’t, by and large, know each other (eg: the “lesbian community;” the “African American community” the “blogging community”). I have a queer community, but I don’t share it with every lesbian in the United States. By my count, there are at least three of four African American communities in our tiny town. Every Black person here doesn’t fall under the same umbrella.
To me, a community is a smallish group of people who have frequent contact with each other and have explicitly or implicitly agreed to support each other in many aspects of life, over a long period of time. It’s a bit like a family. It’s a bit like a large, extended, chosen family. Any ethical quandaries that arise in a real community are going to be decided case-by-case in a way that takes into consideration not just the needs of one or two individuals, but the health of the community overall. Sometimes one or two individuals might sacrifice their desires or even some needs for the sake of the overall community. But in my notion of community, these sacrifices would be taken on willingly, not imposed from the outside.
It’s a tall order, but these community dynamics inform the way I try to make decisions in my own life. The complications of having many people’s welfare considered in major decisions make it difficult to draw up any hard and fast rules or opinions about the rightness or wrongness of any one act in isolation. And when it comes to decisions that don’t necessarily impact my own community, I think in terms of a larger circle that expands eventually to the health of the planet itself (which of course, folds back to the good of my community anyway, as we have yet to colonize space, try as we might).
So Ms. Ryan’s embryo bank doesn’t really fit into my ethical framework. Not because she’s creating lives in a lab, but because she is creating lives outside any particular community framework. Her gamete sources are far-flung and don’t know each other. She emphasizes that they are specifically not to be involved in any decisions concerning the offspring that comes of their “donations.” She prices them based on eugenic notions of quality and value. There are none but business relationships between any of the parties involved, because you cannot assign a dollar value to human relationships and as such, they undercut the strict capitalist framework of the process.
Yes, this is going to require a third post, because Nat is awake, and I haven’t come yet to the essay I want to discuss; the one by Jackie Stevens, in this book
We have been waiting for baby #2 for about 10 months. And even though it would be HIGHLY inconvenient right now, and even though Nat woke up at 4 am crying inexplicably last "night" (probably due to my mother and brother's sudden drop-in and related excitement) and even though I am only now beginning to feel somewhat human after the long, dark, sleepless night that is infancy (Nat will be two in a month! Can you believe it?)...
When I was a teenager, slouched uncomfortably in a wooden desk in my “Introduction to Bioethics” class in high school, the human genome had just been slated for mapping. IVF was still called “test-tube baby-making” and was mostly still theoretical. My fellow teenagers and I had heated discussions about the rightness or wrongness of “playing god” or the fate of left-over embryos or the ethics of engaging in high-tech eugenics to choose everything from an absence of serious disease to eye color.
I usually defended the position that whatever we could do was fine. New technologies just didn’t bother me at all. Eye-color choosing was obviously wrong, but we could easily maintain a bright line between that and more legitimate selectivity, right?
Ah the naivete of youth.
A couple of days ago, blog-reader Leslie sent me a link to a Slate article about Jennalee Ryan, a Texas woman who has started a business selling embryos manufactured from select gamete donors to couples who want to be parents. They aren’t leftover embryos from IVF, donated for the use of others and they aren’t donor egg and donor sperm. They’re custom embryos from custom gamete “donors” (who are richly compensated), premixed, healthy and ready to transfer. The idea, apparently, is to save “clients” the energy and expense of finding and paying donors directly and on paying a clinic to mix the elements and grow and bank the embryos for them.
On the one hand, it’s just the next logical step from browsing an online sperm or egg bank. Just the next step from IVF itself. On the other hand, this Ryan woman really comes off pretty unsympathetically when she says it is “control” (second only to the incredible profits she has already made in the “adoption advertising” business and stands to make selling embryos) which drives her. To read her interviews, you come away with the distinct impression that her number one concern is taking biological “parents” (or “donors” or “sellers” of gametes: choose your preference) out of the prenatal experience and out of the decision-making process about who will parent the child born of the process. And she is so obsessively preoccupied with the short-comings of adopted children (they may be drug-exposed, mentally ill, too old, not white, the wrong gender, or otherwise unacceptable to prospective parents) that one worries how her eldest child—an adopted son—must feel about his position in her heart vis-a-vis his five siblings, born to her biologically.
Ah yes, and of course, all her embryos are white. And likely to be blue-eyed blondes, judging by the sperm and eggs that spawned them. As Ryan claims, there’s a high demand for white babies.
I am hesitant to sit here and denounce folks who’d rather pay tens of thousands of dollars for a blue-eyed, blonde baby-to-be than adopt a child they have a hunch they wouldn’t love because he wasn’t a blue-eyed blonde. After all, the minute I start moralizing about someone’s boundaries of family, someone else will doubtless wag a finger in my direction for not foster-adopting a waiting child rather than adopting a healthy newborn. There’s always another step in some direction that’s just one step further than some one of us is willing to go. I’m happy to check my judgment of what people are or aren’t comfortable with if I can live unjudged for my own decisions too.
So rather than point fingers at the “clients” of this new business, or even at Ryan herself (loathsome as she seems), I’d like to zoom out a bit and look at things from a slightly wider angle.
Part of me is still somewhat persuaded by my slouching teenaged self, rolling her eyes at peers who seem merely squeamish about a new technological process rather than able to point to any real harm it might do that’s bad enough to cancel out the good of making someone a parent. But another, equally strong part of me is disgusted by the market-driven nature of Ryan’s business—and ART more generally—that allows only those who can afford it—who have the insurance coverage (plus the cash or credit to make up what insurance doesn’t cover), the flexibility in their careers, the access to a high-tech fertility clinic—to become parents.
But what else should we expect? This is capitalism. And for all the hand-wringing that follows upon a story like Ryan’s, or upon some couple’s decision to spend $60,000 hiring private adoption professionals to track them down a blonde-haired, blue-eyed baby, it seems there is never any hand-wringing about the moral and ethical framework that leads to these kinds of situations in the first place. No one ever questions the “bottom line” which is that in this culture we value any number of things above human dignity and human relationship. We value cash. We value a physical appearance that can be best cashed in on. We value power in the absence of any particular responsibility and we call it “individualism.”
“I have the right to any baby I can afford.”
“I have the right to make as much money as I can selling whatever (or whomever) I choose.”
And perhaps worst of all, “She doesn’t deserve her baby, she’s too poor to raise it.”
In the absence of a more human framework than capitalism, these are the obvious conclusions to be drawn when questions of reproduction outside the fertile, straight, white, middle-to-upper-class cul-de-sac are raised. There’s nothing particularly shocking about it. Hammering away criticism any one person falling into any one of these conclusions is pointless at best, a waste of time and energy at worst. We could be using our time and energy drawing up a different framework; another logic that refocuses the debate on something other than a desperate would-be parent or a victim of rapacious economic circumstances.
Jim Donald, one of the best preachers I’ve ever known said once in a sermon, “the opposite of poverty is not wealth.” And because he was speaking to a large group of upper-middle and upper class, white, Washington DC professionals, he repeated it slowly: “the opposite of poverty is not wealth.”
“The opposite of poverty is community.”
This is a distinctly non-capitalist claim and has radical potential when people believe it enough to live its logic. But much as folks in the U.S. love to repeat “it takes a village to raise a child” they don’t really believe it. They certainly don’t believe it enough to let a village raise their own children.
In the U.S. what we really believe is that it takes a gated community, a cul-de-sac, an electronic security system and a private school to raise a child. It might take a nanny or a housekeeper too, but those folks aren’t villagers by any stretch. Those people can be purchased for a price that justifies a complete lack of responsibility for their human vulnerability. No one really wants a village raising their child unless they can be the dictators of the village.
Under Jim Donald’s logic, more children are being raised in poverty than under capitalism’s logic. There are of course, the poor children who have no private schools or nannies—who might not even have enough food for the day—then there are those with wealth, but without any real community.
If we evaluated the ethics of our technological abilities according to community logic, rather than capitalism’s logic, what would our families look like?
to be continued
Update 12 February
Jennalee Ryan has emailed me. She is feeling misrepresented by the media. I told her to feel free to post her "side of the story" here in the comments. I don't know if she will choose to do so. Meanwhile, I'll correct one thing above. Her adopted child is her youngest, not oldest. My sources were wrong about that, according to Ryan.
Nat loves to nurture and love on things. She does this with dolls and stuffed animals, of course, but she has also been known to hug my disposable duster, saying "aw..." while patting it under her cheek (yuck). She also hugs her favorite books in the same way and when it comes to actual human beings...look out! She's an affection monster. Other kids her age usually back away from her fearfully as she toddles toward them with outstretched zombie arms and huge grin on her face, chanting "hug! hug!"
This morning, I was in the (ahem) bathroom with the door closed. Cole was napping after her usual early rising with Nat, and Uncle David was bringing up some (brand new, clearance-priced) kitchen cabinets for his place, while Nat toddled through the "safe" (ish) part of the house alone for a minute.
I thought for sure I heard the freezer door open (we have a bottom freezer) and various plastic bags being shuffled about. I rolled my eyes and prepared to come into a kitchen strewn with frozen veggies and the freezer door flung open.
But when I went into the kitchen, there was no indication she'd done any such thing, so I decided that my ears had fooled me and she must have been in her room doing something else. I went on into her room and came upon this sight:
Nat was sitting on her new dog chair, with her favorite book of the moment open in front of her. She was "reading" aloud to a bag of frozen peas cradled gently in her arms, as she patted it affectionately.
Cluttergirl wants me to tell you six weird things about myself.
1. I don't think I've ever told you that I am allergic to allraw vegetables and fruits plus tree nuts. Oddly, peanuts are the one "nut" (not a nut!) that I'm not allergic to. You might well be reeling with shock now, if you know me as the mostly vegetarian, hyper-healthy, born-again home cook I portray myself to be on this blog. It isn't easy to be a vegetarian allergic to vegetables, but cooking, freezing/thawing, pickling, drying or otherwise changing the basic chemical structure of a plant seems to fix the problem for me. So I eat wilted salads and smoothies made with frozen produce.
2. I loved high school. Moreover, I loved my all-girls' Catholic high school. This is one of the many weird things about me that I didn't realize was weird at all until other people started making me aware of it. I will meet other alums of all-girls' Catholic high schools and they'll say "oh wasn't it just awful?" and want to bond over the misery. Mine rocked. It was seriously cool with fabulous students (at least my friends were an incredible bunch of young women) and mostly fabulous teachers--hippie, feminist, lefty nuns, hippie, feminist, leftie non-nuns, and re-renderings of God-language from "He" to "She" on a constant basis.
3. The t.v. mom I'd probably most like to be is Barbara--first wife on "Big Love." I thought of this one, because I recently led a mothers group meeting in which we talked about pop culture moms and I asked everyone this question, having not given it much thought myslef and I realized I adore Barbara. She and I have a lot of parenting values in common. Also, it seems natural to me, that a lesbian would like living in a plural marriage with three other women and a live-in sperm donor/bacon provider. (I'd prefer to receive the sperm in a little cup, of course, but other than that, it looks like a good deal.) Mind you, I'm not saying real plural marriage is necessarily a good deal (I wouldn't know, as I know no one who's in or has ever been in one), but that I like the way that show portrays it.
4. I have never dieted to lose weight in my life. I am chronically underweight and have often been accused of having a variety of eating disorders which annoys me for a million reasons, not the least of which is that sometimes, people accuse me in an admiring tone. I also hate it when people say "I wish I had your problem" because what it means is "you don't really have a problem" and it's dismissive of my actual problem. It's stupid to wish you had anybody's problems. It's much easier to maintain a decent body weight on the frozen plains than it was in a walking city, by the way, especially with Cole's big, cabled-up t.v. and nothing to do but sit and eat nachos and watch "Big Love." In DC, I walked about 10-15 miles per week at a healthy clip and had no t.v. Here, I walk maybe one mile per week in the summer, and nothing but car-to-building-to-car in the winter. So I'm fine at the moment, but it's a lifelong struggle in general. It wreaks havoc with my immune system when I'm too skinny.
5. I didn't start shaving my legs (after stopping, in college, that is) until I came out as a lesbian at age 29. Same goes for wearing lipstick and high heels.
6. I honestly don't care at all what famous people do in their actual lives. I can rarely remember their names and have no interest in them beyond whether I like their acting/character in a movie or t.v. show or whatever. Really. I have very, very few exceptions to this and sometimes fake interest because other people seem interested. It is hard for me to understand why anyone cares. I really don't get it at all. Sometimes I like to look at the clothes they wore to events, or at pictures of their babies, but no more than I'd want to flip through Vogue, or look at your babies. Actually, I far prefer your babies.
Cole suggests that this meme be changed such that the blogger's partner gets to list six weird things about her. Cole had many suggestions for me. They didn't make the cut (except the vegetables thing which topped both of our lists). But if you want to list six weird things about yourself, report six weird things your partner identifies about you, or maybe split it three/three, be my guest!
This is the course I'm teaching, starting next week. It's a face-to-face course, here at Cole's University, in the advertising department. As of today, it's full, at 20 students. I'm working on the syllabus today.
Consumers and Citizens
Consumers and Citizens will explore the confusion in U.S. American life between citizenship and consumption. How did we get to be a nation that "votes" in droves for new M&M colors, pop "idols" and in network news internet polls for or against "gay marriage" while having one the lowest actual electoral voter-turnout rates in the first world? Whose interest is served when citizens confuse capitalism with democracy?
In class readings and discussions, we will look at theoretical and historical texts that describe the complex relationship between consumption and citizenship; capitalism and democracy, in the United States since World War II.
The course will be a writing-intensive seminar, requiring several forms of writing, from in-class individual and group assignments to out-of-class research papers. Students who expect to use writing in their careers or who plan to continue their educations at the graduate level particularly ought to consider taking this course.
Fine, so we got home last Wednesday night, but I have been bogged down ever since. I got ill, again, or perhaps it's still, but whatever it is, enough already!
The doctor gave me a lecture about my "lifestyle" and told me she wanted to give me sleep meds instead of antibiotics this time. I told her I was already on top of a new sleep plan and to give me a month, because I'd really rather not use any sleep meds.
For the fellow insomniacs among my readers, here's my plan (which has worked pretty well for all of three days of trying so far).
1) in bed by 11
2) lights out by 12
3) up by nine
4) no more than two cups of regular tea in the morning
5) no more than one cup of half caf/half decaf tea in the early afternoon (before 3)
6) shower at 10 pm (rather than in the morning)
7) yoga stretching following shower
8) meditation for 10-20 minutes following yoga
9) reading or whatever until lights out
I have melatonin in reserve for an emergency, but so far this is working. I have slept pretty well--falling asleep within an hour of lights out and waking some, but falling back asleep throughout the night. The stretching (oh yes, combined with ibuprofen) is helping the pain that makes sleeping that much more difficult.
Sorry if that bored you to tears. It's hardly a dazzling return to the internets, but it's what I time for before lights out tonight. Any other night owl-types who have tips for better sleep without heavy pharmaceuticals?