Wednesday, April 27, 2011

You don’t understand!

One response drilled into me by years of telephone customer service is to show empathy in response to complaints by saying, "I understand." Just often enough, though, the quick, biting rejoinder comes back: "No, you don't understand! How could you understand!"

I've been out of work, or employed for inadequate wages, and unable to pay my bills. I've been double-billed. I've been treated rudely by people who weren't cut out for customer-contact jobs. I've had the wrong product delivered; I've had things "fixed" that weren't fixed correctly or weren't broken to begin with. In one case, a bill collector kept calling my cell phone to reach somebody else, whom I'd never even met; when I told him that he had the wrong number, he told me furiously, "You're lying!" … a clear violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

Oh, yes — I've been there. I do understand.

But that's not quite what many people mean by "You don't understand!" They mean, "If you really understood, you'd agree with me, you'd say 'yes', you'd give me what I want!" The abstract claims of reason, right and law, in their eyes, can't possibly equal or outweigh the concrete power of emotion; truth without passion is truth without traction.

This reflection is prompted by Jennifer Fulweiler's post in her National Catholic Register blog, "On Being Catholic and Infertile". In it, she quotes the anonymous author of the blog This Cross I Embrace, who says, "There is the assumption that if you are not doing [in vitro fertilization], you must not truly want children as badly as so-and-so who did IVF six times until it worked. Because, after all, if you really want your baby, wouldn't you stop at nothing to finally hold them in your arms?"

What we insist on calling the "sex drive" we should properly call the reproductive drive. While Sigmund Freud was wrong to reduce all human motivation down to sex (erōs) and death (thanatos), the inner push to reproduce is strong even in people whose desires are channeled into non-reproductive paths, or who are incapable of reproducing.

("For there are eunuchs[1] who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" [Mt 19:12].)

This impulse to reproduce gets tied up into our parental feelings. When a child is conceived, along with all the other emotions we experience validation as men and women … even more so when the child is born. Contrarily, when a man is diagnosed sterile, he feels emasculated; when a woman finds out she's infertile, or suffers a miscarriage, she feels defective in her womanhood. Pity stings as much as condemnation.

So when technology gives us the gift horse of IVF, there's no real urge to look in its ethical mouth. Our better sense that a child is love-worthy for being a child is overwhelmed by the purely biological demand that the child must carry our genes, that a child with someone else's genes simply isn't good enough to fulfill our parental needs.

So what's wrong with IVF? Simply that it turns a baby into a consumer good, made in a factory. From the very beginning of the process, the child is denied his fundamental dignity as a human being; he's not loved in and for himself, but only insofar as he fills the parents' need.

The same problem is magnified in surrogate motherhood and artificial insemination. Third parties are stripped of their dignity; they have value only so far as they have viable gametes or a functional uterus.

This natural desire, let loose of its natural order, finds its logical extension in eugenics. Not only do we feel entitled to babies with our genes, but only those genes that we feel meet our needs and desires. We're long familiar with children who are aborted because they possess some genetic defect. We don't have reliable numbers yet on children who are aborted based on sex selection or other desirable traits … but we know this happens.

Thus is our parenthood corrupted at its very beginning. Children are no longer gifts from God, but things we deserve, we're entitled to.

"But you don't understand! How could you understand!"

What more do we need to understand? That certain needs have to be satisfied no matter how much the method of satisfying them dehumanizes others? That whatever makes you feel good, whole and complete is justified by that fact alone?

In vitro fertilization, surrogate parenthood and artificial insemination "dissociate the sexual act from the procreative act. The act which brings the child into existence is no longer an act by which two persons give themselves to one another, but one that 'entrusts the life and identity of the embryo into the power of doctors and biologists and establishes the domination of technology over the origin and destiny of the human person. Such a relationship of domination is in itself contrary to the dignity and equality that must be common to parents and children' (CCC 2377; cf. CDF, Donum> vitae II;5).

The more we hear "You don't understand! You can't understand!" the more we realize that the more noble and humane principles of our moral heritage are being undermined by a deliberately-fostered culture of self-centeredness. "When all that says 'It is good' has been debunked," C. S. Lewis reminds us in The Abolition of Man, "what says 'I want' remains. It cannot be exploded or 'seen through' because it never had any pretentions." Self-proclaimed disciples of Ayn Rand are even now trying to convince us that "morality is about the pursuit of your own success and happiness".

Sterility is not an absolute evil. Selfishness, however, is the root of all evil.

[1] "Eunuchs" (eunochos), in this passage, isn't strictly literal, but metaphoric for someone who can't have sex or reproduce, either by accident of birth, by some form of physical/psychological interference, or by conscious choice.


  1. Thanks to being married to an RN I've been briefed on some horrors of IVF that don't seem to be common knowledge.

    Example: A very large percentage of IVF babies are "special needs" kids. Comes with the territory, ask any pediatric nurse for verification of this.

    Example: IVF almost automatically entails abortion unless you're "Octomom" and willing to give birth to a litter. Again, it comes with the territory.

    Example: IVF is prohibitively expensive and there is no assurance of success. You can spend thousands of dollars before a pregnancy "takes".

    So IVF isn't the magic cureall for sterility.

    But it's proponents never seem to mention the problems with it.

  2. Thanks for the additional info, Subvet! But I'm not surprised the proponents never mention it, just as pharmaceutical ads would never mention occasional side effects and increased risks if the companies weren't compelled by law.


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