Imagining Our Children into Non-Existence

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One of the consolations of the religious mindset is the release from the illusion that we can control our destinies. The release from this illusion, the believer knows, is also a relief from the pressures associated with our attempts to control our lives. Even the irreligious can come to learn this, and one of the best educations in the disillusionment of control is parenthood. Technology, however, increasingly saps parenthood of the capacity to teach this lesson. Just look at this article in the New York Times. One of the consolations of the religious mindset is the release from the illusion that we can control our destinies. The release from this illusion, the believer knows, is also a relief from the pressures associated with our attempts to control our lives. Even the irreligious can come to learn this, and one of the best educations in the disillusionment of control is parenthood. Technology, however, increasingly saps parenthood of the capacity to teach this lesson. Just look at this article in the New York Times.

According to the article, increasing numbers of parents are using preimplantation genetic diagnosis, or P.G.D, “to detect a predisposition to cancers that may or may not develop later in life, and are often treatable if they do.” Get that? More and more parents are weeding through the embryos they create, looking for those free from “predispositions” to cancers they may never get and if gotten, may be treatable anyway. In the case of the Kingsburys, the family in the article, they subjected “Chloe to a genetic test when she was an eight-cell embryo in a petri dish,” thus “Mr. Kingsbury and his wife, Colby, were able to determine that she did not harbor the defective gene [that predisposes members of Mr. Kingsbury’s family to colon cancer].” Oddly for them, the New York Times let the writer refer to embryonic Chloe as “Chloe,” but that failure to edit out the humanity of the embryo serves to remind us of the consequence of this humane eugenics: the failure of this earliest of childhood tests by Chloe’s little brothers or sisters was fatal. To shelter them from the difficulties of living with disease, or living without disease but with the hardship of the predisposition, Chloe’s parents and doctors had them killed.

Now, as frightening and obviously immoral as that is, imagine being Chloe and her parents, as they progress through life knowing they have manipulated her coming into being in this way. The process of picking out embryonic Chloe fuels the illusion of control. Thus, her father, justifying creating Chloe through IVF precisely so they could use P.G.D.: “I couldn’t imagine them telling me my daughter has cancer,” he said, “when I could have stopped it.” In other words, had the doctors told him embryonic Chloe had the predisposition, he would have stopped her (as he did with the other embryos created through the procedure). Mr. Kingsbury finds himself in the absurd position of so loving his daughter that he cannot imagine seeing her suffer or die but being able to love her only because he chose not to kill her. The genuine love Mr. Kingsbury feels for Chloe, “with her blue saucer eyes and her tantrums that turn abruptly to laughter,” required him to imagine that he could only love a more perfect child than the love between him and his wife by itself could produce.
 
It’s hard to for me to imagine how the rest of Chloe’s life can escape the illusion her father and mother adopted. One doesn’t have children, so much as unleash them into the world, with all its dangers foreseen and unforeseen. Once you’ve adopted the illusion you can control your child’s destiny, how do you let them go? Once you’ve made the decision that this child can enter the world, but these children cannot, how will you manage the first unforeseen failure, or fall, or illness? That is the course the Kingsburys have taken. They didn’t stop the disease, as the father put it; they stopped the carriers of the disease. Chloe lives because scientists don’t yet have tests for every human imperfection; because science has not yet convinced people like the Kingsburys that life isn’t worth the risks. The article states that they “passed over” four embryos that had the defective gene and two more that failed the $2000 potential Downs test. Those embryos – those lives – were discarded. At least six of Chloe’s siblings were sacrificed for her existence. How’s that for growing up with pressure? She’d better do well in school.

Joseph Capizzi is Fellow in Religion for the Culture of Life Foundation and Associate Professor of Religion at Catholic University of America.

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