Science can help us conceive but can’t explain motivation

Published in the Courier Mail 28 July 2009

JUST because we can, doesn’t always mean we should. It’s a conventional piece of wisdom, yet three reports from the past few weeks remind us of its import.

The first was of Sonya, a single woman of 44 from the Sunshine Coast who is seeking a donor egg and donor sperm so she can have a child.

Sonya’s previous long-term partner did not want children and now, after failed in-vitro fertilisation attempts, she is trying to find someone willing to have an egg extracted for donation. Sonya will arrange for its fertilisation with donor sperm and carry the child until birth.

The second report was of Maria del Carmen Bousada. She died recently but is survived by her twin children, who are toddlers.

Maria was 69 when she died, and had lied to a Californian fertility clinic about her age some years ago so that she could undergo IVF. When she gave birth in 2006, she was believed to be the world’s oldest mother.

The third report was of Jenny Brown. Jenny, who had a successful career as an academic, and never had a long-term partner, is 72. She is about to go through her seventh round of IVF in London, having spent more than $60,000 on the process. She explains: “I’d always had it in the back of my mind that when the time was right I’d like to have a child. But my studies meant that children kept getting delayed.”

Some may see these three situations as the triumph of science. After all, it seems that women no longer have to be dictated to by biology or social circumstances and can create family if and when they want to. No partner, no problem.

It may be seen as an opportunity to celebrate the independence and power of women, as well as being able to extol the fortunes of children who will be so obviously planned and desired. At last, we can have it all, when we want, and how we want it.

Finally we can bend circumstances to our preferred social agenda of self-determinism. We win!

But with winners must come losers. And losers there will be.

We don’t like to talk about the losers – it spoils the party. Besides, too much talk about the losers and we risk raising uncomfortable questions. What rights do children have? Are those right being trampled for the sake of fulfilling the desires of adults? To whom should IVF be available? Should children be able to access information about their biological parents?

It’s such a sensitive subject, and wading into any kind of discussion feels as if you are entering an emotional minefield.

After all, who would want to turn around and oppose any woman’s methods of seeking motherhood? Yet there is a sense that such pursuits are causing a fundamental and negative shift in our understanding of personhood and identity.

I fear we may not fully understand the implications of this for many years, and when we do, we will rue the idea that treated the elements of conception as commodities.

What if this is a symptom of a society that is increasingly global, but increasingly fractured? What if loneliness is just as much the problem as childlessness?

An answer then may be found in community – radical, loving, authentic community.

Sometimes success leaves us empty and life leaves us lonely, but the answer is not always to create a child by any means.

Assisted reproductive technologies such as IVF can allow us to have children made to order. But just because we can, doesn’t mean we should – does it?