What do you call two siblings, with the same genetic parents, gestated by two different women, born five days apart, raised by a father with whom they share genes, and a mother with whom they do not?
Twiblings, who were featured in last week's New York Times Magazine, in a story written by their mother, Melanie Thernstrom, about "how four women (and one man) conspired to make two babies." Melanie was 41 when she met her husband, Michael. She went through six unsuccessful rounds of in vitro fertilization before heeding a doctor's advice that, if her goal was to have a healthy baby rather than experience pregnancy, she should find a surrogate and an egg donor.
When Michael suggested that they implant embryos (created with his sperm and eggs from a donor) simultaneously into two surrogates, thus completing their family in one fell swoop, Melanie called the idea "crazy." But after finding an egg donor (whom Melanie dubbed "the Fairy Goddonor") and two gestational surrogates, Melanie and Michael did just that. The result was the twiblings, a boy and a girl.
In the article, Melanie and Michael come across as thoughtful people who adore their babies. The surrogates and "Fairy Goddonor" appear to be genuinely gratified by their part in creating a new family. Barring catastrophe, the twiblings will grow up in a solid family, with the ongoing ministrations of their surrogates (both of whom have provided breast milk via nursing and pumping) merely adding to their sense of being abundantly loved.
I'm not, for example, wondering why Melanie and Michael didn't "just adopt." As I wrote at Her.meneutics last year, the common characterization of adoption as a simple, selfless act (in contrast with the self-absorbed, expensive use of reproductive technology) is misplaced. Current adoption practices and reproductive technology both raise sticky questions about children as commodities, wealth and poverty, and what makes a family. (John Seabrook did an excellent job of distilling these questions in his New Yorker article about adopting a little girl from Haiti.) In a follow-up post to the magazine story, Thernstrom discussed why they did not pursue adoption, in part because of medical problems that affect her acceptability as an adoptive parent.
I'm also untroubled by the family's lack of resemblance to the stereotypical family consisting of mother, father, and 2.06 biological children. We know from reading history (and the Bible) that infertility and the conception of children with someone other than one's spouse, accidentally or on purpose, are not new phenomena. Family life has always been a complicated, messy affair, and God has always managed to work through and be in relationship with the imperfect people who result. The twiblings do not represent an insurmountable threat to some idealized way of life.
My concern is that readers will judge Michael and Melanie based on preconceived notions, and then move on, failing to consider the larger ethical questions raised by stories like this one. Some readers will find the story distasteful, dismissing it as an example of traditional morals going down the tubes. Some will find it heartwarming, and embrace it as an example of technology allowing familial love to flourish in revolutionary ways. But as reproductive technology increases in scope and capability, and as stories like this become more common, we need to look beyond them to examine how individuals' childbearing choices both reflect and influence cultural norms and values.
For example, in one cringeworthy passage (fortunately, there were not many), Melanie obsesses over the surrogates' daily choices during pregnancy:
Were Melissa and Fie remembering to take their fish oil? It was great that Melissa felt so energetic, but must she take her kids camping while her husband was away one long weekend when she was six months pregnant? And why did she order pizza from Pizza Hut? This is Portland—how about I drop off some organic kale?
Melanie was not exhibiting a trait unique to mothers who use reproductive technology. Reproductive technology merely lays bare the child-as-project mentality that permeates American parenting today. Technology allows parents-to-be to handpick gamete donors with desirable traits, time their childbearing to accommodate career aspirations, or select gender. Those who have babies the old-fashioned way can't control our children's origins so precisely, but we try hard to control everything else—pregnancy and birth, our children's diet, environment, education, and even play time—to ensure that they will become healthy and productive. As Christians, we proclaim to value people not because they are healthy, wealthy, and wise, but just because they are. The modern emphasis on parental control and responsibility leaves little room for grace.
In another example, Melanie dismisses the idea that surrogacy is akin to prostitution. Indeed, the mutually satisfying relationship she and Michael have built with the surrogates makes this analogy distasteful and unfair. But as surrogacy becomes more common in our consumer society, some aspiring parents will inevitably choose a path requiring less investment (financial and emotional) than the one Michael and Melanie took. This is already happening, as couples pay low-income women from developing countries to bear babies on their behalf.
As reproductive technology takes hold, we need to decide if lines need to be drawn, and where. We can't do that if our conversations are limited to gut reactions to provocative stories that are quickly absorbed by the news cycle. I hope that as we hear more stories like this one, we will not shrug them off as purely private decisions (because like it or not, childbearing decisions, while deeply personal, have major societal impact), nor vilify those who have made complex decisions to use technologies whose long-term implications are far from clear.