IVF jewelry and the scandal of sentimentality

Last week, pop science entertainer Bill Nye set off a wave of righteous indignation by asking, “Should we have policies that penalize people for having extra kids in the developed world?”

The only response is, of course: What the hell do you mean, ‘extra?'” What is an extra child? Who is disposable and extraneous, and who gets to decide? Are you “extra,” Bill Nye? Am I?

Last night, I saw for myself what an extra child looks like. An Australian company called Baby Bee Hummingbirds will take your extra, unused IVF embryos, preserve and cremate them, and then encase them in resin as “keepsake jewelry.”

The founder asks, “What a better way to celebrate your most treasured gift, your child, than through jewellery?”

Well, you could let him live, I suppose. You could allow him the basic dignity of spending time in the womb of his mother, to live or not, to grow or not, but at least to have a chance. You could celebrate the life of your child by giving him some small gift of warmth and softness, however brief, rather than letting him travel in an insulated pouch from lab to lab, frozen and sterile from beginning to end. You could conceive a child so as to give him life, and you could rise like a human should above the blind proliferation of biology.

I have not experienced the anguish of infertility. I can easily imagine how the ancient, unquenchable desire for a child would drive a couple to consider IVF. Who would fault a loving couple for wanting a child?

I can imagine, if I had no guidance, seeing IVF as a way of simply bowing to the inevitable awkwardness of life. We’d rather do things the natural way, but sometimes nature fails us. If science offers us a workaround, and we end up in a place of love, what does it matter? I can imagine thinking this. It is natural to want children.

And it is natural to want our children to remain with us even if we can’t hold their plump, warm baby bodies in our arms. We want something we can touch. I can imagine this: Knowing, no matter who thinks they’re just “extras,” that these embryos are more than just specimens. I can imagine wanting to keep them safe, or something like it.

And so the mother does the thing that makes the most sense to a pagan, when nature fails her: She bows to artifice, and finds a way to bring her children with her, clumsily, sentimentally, but grasping at something that seems true: We are made to be with the ones we love. We are supposed to be able to give them life, and to keep them safe.

She knows they are her children. But does she know what children are?

In order to turn embryos into jewelry, one must believe that all children, and all people, can be made safe. One must believe there is such a thing as safety in this world.

“It’s about the everlasting tangible keepsake of a loved one that you can have forever,” says the founder of the jewelry company.

But mothers, and fathers, and you barren ones, listen to me. You cannot have any loved one forever. Don’t you know that they all go? Don’t you know this?

Sometimes it happens before we even knew they existed; sometimes it happens when they are old and feeble, frightened and crying for death. But they all go. No one is safe. No one can be preserved. Why are you lying about it? Haven’t you been through enough springs to know that winter always comes? Haven’t we been through this? No one is with us always, until the end of time.

Anyway, hardly anyone.

Imagine, a body encased in glass, made portable, made consumable. But not jewelry. Instead, a sunburst, a fountain of life, a wellspring, the maker of worlds somehow contained, first in His mother’s womb, and now on our altars, through springs and winters and then through springs again.

The body inside is a willing victim. Not preserved in death, but alive forever, immortal. Here is the difference between the scandal of the Incarnation and the scandal of sentimentality. The Incarnation invites us to accept forgiveness, bought for us through His death. Sentimentality puts our sin always before us, but tells us we can be comforted through everlasting death.

I do understand. We want the body. We grieve when the beloved one is lost to us, even if, like the parents who make “extra” embryos, it’s entirely our fault that our children are cold and dead. We want to heal our grief, to control it, to contain it.

That is not how sin is healed. That is not how death is conquered. Healing comes when we send our dead to be with Him, not preserved forever in death, but to be restored forever in His life.

I commend all the dead, all my beloved ones who are passing away like the grass: Go and be with Him. You don’t need to stay here with us, to comfort me in my weakness. Go and be with Him.

Embryos image by ZEISS microscopy via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Monstrance image by Aleteia image department via Flickr (Creative Commons)


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24 thoughts on “IVF jewelry and the scandal of sentimentality”

  1. I don’t know – I appreciate that you’re trying to understand the motivations behind this and give the parents credit for what good and real feelings are involved. . . but still, I have trouble seeing this as just about a misconception of safety.

    It seems to me that for this jewelry thing to make any sense to someone they have to also be making the much more serious error of thinking of their children as existing only for the parent and in relation to the parent, rather than as beings who really exist, in and of and for themselves. Yes, the lady interviewed acknowledges these are “babies,” but she seems to think even more strongly that they’re HER babies, with the possessive indicating possession quite literally. It’s the same kind of thinking that makes suicidal moms sometimes kill their kids along with themselves, isn’t it? How could there be any worthwhile life for my baby without ME?

    1. I completely agree. I think it goes beyond safety. I also wonder how someone can see the value in their child’s life enough to turn him/her into jewelry but not to actually give him/her a chance at life. It’s an odd paradox. It would make much more sense to me that they would throw them in the trash because how else can you justify killing them unless you don’t believe them to be valuable human children?

  2. “We want to heal our grief, to control it, to contain it.”
    “That is not how sin is healed. That is not how death is conquered. Healing comes when we send our dead to be with Him, not preserved forever in death, but to be restored forever in His life.”

    Very adroit and to the point. Many priests deal with this very issue when trying to negotiate a Christian burial for those who don’t want to give up the body with cremation. They even desire to make jewelry with the ashes to wear “brother Jose around my neck.” There is no resurrection of the dead and life everlasting. There is only an attempt to control and own my grief and love as if these are limitless possessions of limited human beings. “I own uncle Bill and I heal myself.” Closure for the sake of healthy psychology is not even allowed. Sentimentality reigns as death supplants Christ as king in the name of ignoring the life He brings.

  3. Excellent post! However, “You barren ones ” was such an insensitive choice for good women who try so valiantly and ultimately unsuccessfully. Infertility is such a burden…why add to good people’s heartbreak with this hopeless desert word?

  4. Excellent piece. As someone who lost her third child to stillbirth due to Trisomy 18 complications, your line of a “small gift of warmth and softness” struck me as so poignant. All deserve at least this. My Findlay only had this but it is a comfort, albeit a tiny one, that he did. I just gave birth to my rainbow two months ago, 1.5 months before Findlay’s still birthday and it has been difficult. Sorry this is a bit off topic but I wanted to thank you for that line. It is like I needed to read that.

    1. Dear Jennifer, I am so sorry you lost your child to stillbirth. Findlay is a beautiful name. I will light a candle for the repose of Findlay’s soul and for your consolation this weekend at Mass. Much love to you and your family, Sara-Louise

    2. My wife and I have six with us and three who wait for us in Her arms. In that truth we have a sense of what you say and share the pain of your loss whilst hoping for the joy of your eventual reunion. Peace. P. Myshkin

  5. As a side note, some people are now doing embryo adoption, where embryos leftover from IVF are implanted in the wombs of women, usually strangers, who want to birth and raise them. It’s basically adoption starting in early pregnancy rather than after birth.

  6. Walker Percy said societies become cruel and sentimental at the same time–different sides of a coin.

    1. Cruel people can be terribly sentimental. It sometimes fools us into thinking they might not really be cruel.

  7. From what I can tell, Bill Nye has no siblings. He also seems to have no children, and he’s unmarried. So there are no “extra” kids in his life, and he’s home free.

    I’m guessing that “extra” kids are children #3 and following. By that measure, I am extra, because I am #4. So I’m outta here. My parents would have two children and one grandchild. No, wait, my oldest brother died a few years ago, so there would be only one child left.

    But hold the phone! My mother is child #3 (of 5! the horror!), so she wouldn’t exist.

    My dad is child #1, so he’s fine. But wait! His mother was child #6! Not sure about his dad.

    It’s just craziness how some people who have already been born want to limit birth rights to those who haven’t yet gotten there, isn’t it?

    1. Oh, and my late husband would be outta here, because he was #10. Buh-bye to our four living kids and eight (going on nine) grandchildren. Who needs ’em? They’re just a bunch of useless eaters anyway.

  8. Wow. This news made me nauseous this morning. Your blog post is deeply moving. Thank you.

      1. Standard business English for the last 40+ years. It is a title for women, as Mr. is for men.

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