Messing with Mother Nature

The single 69-year old Spanish woman who gave birth to twins at the age of 66 died last Saturday. Maria del Carmen Bousada de Lara, who thought she had every prospect of living to see her now two-year old boys Christian and Pau into adulthood because her own mother died at 101, claimed not to regret her late-motherhood decision, even though her doctors told her that "the powerful drugs used during her fertility treatment could have helped her disease [believed to be breast cancer] to spread." Although at the time of the birth Ms Bousada de Lara's case attracted a few stalwart supporters of the "right" of a woman to control her own fertility destiny, the general reaction was one of dismay and recoil. The most commonly adduced argument was that her children's odds of growing up motherless were sharply escalated by her selfishness. And so it came to pass, which will doubtless serve to dampen the enthusiasm of other older women contemplating the idea of post-menopausal pregnancy. But that was the wrong argument. For what if in fact she had lived to be 101 like her mother? Would that have made the adventure any the less grotesque in a moral sense? That children may be deprived of a mother is sad, but children are deprived by bad luck of young mothers all the time, and these newly orphaned twin boys may be no worse off in the end than if their mother had died of ovarian cancer at 33. The peculiarly neat moral symmetry in this cautionary tale applies to the woman. She sold her soul to the devil of technology and she paid a terrible price. Case closed in most people's minds. But this rather sensational story does not bring closure to the moral questions that arise in general when science, female fertility and human emotion collide. Because scientists mess with human nature all the time, and yet there seems little indication of general public concern in this area. Recently scientists announced the possibility of autonomous conception through stem cell-manufactured sperm: that is, the end of any real need for men, not to put too fine a point on it and potentially, the end of the human species as we know it. I've seen jokey allusions to the idea, but no serious discussion on the monumental implications of such a possibility coming to fruition. Much more advanced mechanically, and already in unofficial progress is the technology-aided conception of donor siblings. The movie My Sister's Keeper should have initiated intense discussion amongst cultural observers. The plot revolves around an 11-year old girl's attempt to free herself from bodily servitude to her leukemia-stricken older sister. The younger girl was conceived for the purpose of providing life-saving nutrients to her sister. In fact her umbilical cord and later, marrow transplants, do keep the older sister going for many years. The crisis occurs when the older sister, obviously dying, needs a kidney which, it is made clear, will not save her life. The desperate mother assumes the younger sister will happily contribute a kidney. What happens next, though marred by Boston-legal style courtroom histrionics and some pretty unrealistic family dynamics, should have been the basis for a flurry of in-depth commentaries by cultural observers. Unlike the 66-year old mother's case, in which one person's selfishness is the core of the story, issues like cloning, autonomous conception and donor siblings present a variety of emotional and moral claims that cannot be so easily sorted out and judged. When we look back at our era and its consequences, I think we may be rather astonished at the amount of media coverage given to every form of nature under the sun except human nature.  Environmentalists think it is immoral that we have not taken adequate steps to meet the challenge of the earth getting warmer. A thin polar bear rates front page coverage. The attention paid to Miranda Del Carmen Bousada de Lara only serves to remind us how little attention is paid to the bigger story in which she has played a very minor role. Surely the prospect of human nature as we know it changing before our eyes should capture our imaginations and consciences with at least equal, but hopefully more urgency than we give to plants and animals. Barbara Kay is a columnist with Canada's National Post. She writes and lives in Montreal.


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