What about those octuplets?

Government indifference to responsible fatherhood is what made the tragedy of OctoMom possible. 
Jennifer Roback Morse | Mar 6 2009 | comment  



Nadya SulemanWhat are we to make of the case of Nadya Suleman, the California woman who gave birth to octuplets through IVF? The case has inspired lots of internet chatter and water cooler talk. I maintain that insurance and government funding are the least of the worries of this case. The case illustrates two deep problems with our current attitudes toward artificial reproductive technology (ART). First, no one has a right to have a baby. Second, the state should not be in the business of deliberately separating father from their children.

No one has a right to a baby. That is because becoming a parent is something no one can do alone. It is the ultimate team effort. To say that a woman is entitled to a baby comes awfully close to saying that someone is required to help her have one. But this is obviously nonsense. No one is required to help her.

What we mean to say when we think that someone has a right to a baby is something like this: I have the right to try to persuade someone to cooperate with me in the physical act necessary to create a baby. I am not entitled to the cooperation of any one particular person, or to some generalized cooperation from society at large. I am only entitled to try.

If I am successful at getting someone’s cooperation, the child’s father has as much entitlement to that child as I do. Both parents have rights and responsibilities toward their child. This protects the legitimate interests of the child in having the care of both parents, as well as the legitimate interests of both parents in the well-being of their child. Those rights, which flow naturally from the organic reality of human sexuality, inhere in both parents.

Even if one agrees with me that no woman is entitled to the cooperation of any particular man in impregnating her, one might still object that my position is hopelessly old-fashioned and out-of-date. Technology relieves us of the necessity of having any kind of personal relationship with your child’s other parent. We allow unmarried women access to artificial reproductive technology, complete with anonymous sperm donors, on a regular, and completely unregulated basis. So why are we now all of a sudden hysterical over a woman exercising her “free choice” to implant all the frozen embryos she has on hand? Any woman is entitled to unlimited access to the use of artificial reproductive technology, provided that she can pay for it.

But look at what this position actually entails. We are permitting women to have babies without any relationship with their child’s father. Under normal circumstances, we think there is something wrong with parents who don’t cooperate with each other for the good of their children. In the case of artificial reproductive technology, we not only permit it, we enlist the aid of the state to make it possible. The legal intervention of the state permits a woman to do something that could not be possible in the ordinary course of human life: she can have a baby without ever having even a single encounter with her child’s father. The state enables all the arrangements that make this possible. The state makes the sperm donor, that is to say, the child’s father, a “legal stranger” to the child. The state preserves the anonymity of the donor, which obviously could not happen in a normal encounter.

Now children get separated from their parents all the time. But we usually recognize this as an unavoidable tragedy, from which any humane soul would spare the child if we could. But in the case of artificial reproductive technology with anonymous sperm donors, the state is actively separating a child from his or her father. The state itself is enabling something that we ordinarily strive to prevent.

And why is the state acting as the agent of separating children from parents? Because the woman wants the state to do so. But her desires are not a sufficient reason to violate so basic a right as the child’s right to affiliation with both parents.

This is the real tragedy which the Nadya Suleman case brings to light. It is not that she made an unconventional decision, in part using other people’s money, and counting on financial support from her parents and the state. The problem is that no one has a right to have a child, in the way that anyone with the ability to pay has a right to buy a house. This use of the language of the market assumes the very point that is necessary to prove, and which I believe can not be proved: namely that a child is a kind of commodity, to which other people have rights and entitlements. The child is not an object of rights, but a person who has rights of his or her own. The child is an end in himself or herself.

The violation of rights in this case took place well before she and her doctor decided to implant “a lot” of embryos, rather than a “reasonable” number. The real violation took place when she decided, with the help of the state, that she was entitled to the use of someone else’s genetic material to achieve her personal reproductive goals.

I am second to none in my admiration for the market. But not everything should be treated as if it were a commodity. Children are not commodities, and neither is someone else’s genetic material. It is time to rethink our whole approach to artificial reproductive technology.

Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse is the Founder and President of the Ruth Institute, and author of Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn’t Work, newly reissued in paperback.

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