A sentimentally brutal response to the artificial womb

Remember the scene in Monsters, Inc. where all the various monsters are getting ready to be scary? They each have their own style: One is a blob with many eyes, one has retractable spikes; some are sneaky, some are creepy. And then there is the one who makes his point by flailing his orange tentacles around and rushing forward with a hysterical shriek.

This is the approach taken by a blogger for the Register a few days ago, in a post called “The Advent of the Artificial Womb: Suddenly, it’s a braver, newer world.”

The artificial womb is a long-awaited technological breakthrough which, it is hoped, will eventually allow very premature babies to continue gestating until they are stronger.

Currently, preemies must adapt prematurely to breathing air and receiving nutrition orally — an ordeal which sometimes saves lives, but still often leaves survivors with profound, lifelong disabilities. Rather than being intubated in an incubator, sedated and on a respirator, premature babies in an artificial womb would grow in a pouch filled with lab-made amniotic fluid, which would be gentler on their tiny bodies, and would allow their lungs and brains to develop more normally.

But this blogger calls the artificial womb a “travesty.” In nearly 3,000 words, he devotes only a few brief paragraphs to the idea that the invention, if successful, will keep premature babies alive, and he allows half a sentence for the idea that it’s a good thing to keep premature babies alive.

And the rest of his post is flailing tentacles, as he drags in everyone from Descartes to Dune to homeless schizophrenics to Simone de Beauvoir to Octomom, to the right to spank and homeschool, to (of course) the gays, and finally to – shudder – “feminists,” saying, “The artificial uterus is fraught with danger to the point of moral disaster on the par with abortion.”

He looks into his crystal ball and sees nothing but horrors:

Now that artificial uteri are to soon be a possibility, how many more made-to-order pedophile sex slaves are we to expect? How many of more will a liberal media refuse to shed a spotlight on?

Also, can a woman who has used an artificial womb truly bond with her child? Can the child develop normal feelings for the person who purchased its birth in a plastic Ziploc baggie?

Does he have a leg to stand on?

Well, it’s true that some folks will immediately scheme how to use this medical advance in ways that are harmful and contrary to human dignity — like incubating a child entirely and electively in an artificial environment, so that women no longer have to give birth, or so people can design and purchase a child to their specifications, with motives ranging from selfish to monstrous. I’m no fool: I know that there are people who desire these things. (It’s already being done, only we use poor Indian women rather than a plastic bag.)

But it’s also true, once artificial wombs are functional, that some of the tens of millions of babies born prematurely may live instead of die, and may be born closer to full term, with less trauma and more of a chance of avoiding life-long health problems. This is not nothing. This is not some negligible perk that we can easily decline for fear of potential abuse.

Artificial wombs are not intrinsically evil.  They may someday be used for evil, but so may every other medical advance you can name. The medical syringe, for example, was invented to inject painkillers; now it’s also used to heal the sick, to administer vaccines, and to save lives. Syringes are also used for delivering heroin, and consequently are responsible for the spread of HIV and hepatitis, which is transmissible to unborn children of the infected. Bad, bad stuff. Things that make the world undeniably worse.

But that doesn’t mean that syringes are a travesty on par with abortion. It means that human beings are prey to original sin, and will immediately set to work perverting the use of everything they can lay their hands on.

The outraged blogger fails to draw a vital distinction between two kind of scientific advances:

  1. Things that are morally neutral, and may be used well or misused, and so should be approached with caution, and
  2. Things that are intrinsically immoral, even if they may be used for good ends.

IVF and abortion fall into the second category. The artificial womb falls into the first category. But he seeks to blend the two categories, essentially arguing, “Just think how very wrong this could go!”

And what if God the Father had made this very persuasive argument when He made our first parents? Lots of potential for abuse there. Should He have scrapped the whole project?

There should always be special caution when we see medical advances related to the conception and gestation of humans. Because human life is sacred, it is especially heinous when it is treated as a commodity, as a means to an end, or even, God forbid, as a trinket.

Because human life is sacred, it is wrong to use technology to create a human life in a petri dish, even if the parents of the child love him. It is wrong to use technology to deliberately end human life through euthanasia, even if the patient is suffering.

And there are some murky areas about which, as far as I can tell, Catholic bioethicists have still not made a definitive pronouncement. For instance, it’s possible that a theoretical womb transplant might be moral or immoral, depending on the object, the end, and circumstances surrounding the procedure. It’s uncertain whether it’s ethical to “adopt” a frozen embryo which would otherwise be destroyed.

So I have some grudging sympathy for the blogger. Medical advances and human gestation make uneasy bedfellows, and modern folks are not especially particular about which bedfellows they choose. It’s no use pretending that there are no dangerous possibilities when medical technology makes another leap ahead. It’s no use pretending that everyone who might use new technology will be pure and noble. Horror are all around us, and technology is advancing faster and more recklessly than we can keep up with.

But nothing will be gained — nothing but more horrors– by shrieking hysterically and wishing for the good old days when people just went ahead and died. “It’s a braver, newer world suddenly,” says the blogger. “It’s moments like this that make me long for simpler days.”

I was at a cemetery yesterday. One large grave plot included one man, his first wife with a string of child’s headstones, and his second wife with her own string of dead children.

Those were simpler days.

Babies died, women died, over and over and over again, because the medical technology available was a bowl of hot water, a poultice, and a prayer. Things were simpler then, and children flickered in and out of life like stars, too tiny ever to send their light all the way to earth.

Was it simpler? Yes, it was. Was it better? No, it was not. Evil ebbs and flows. It adapts to whatever the current age can offer. There was evil, and carelessness, and the devaluation of human life back in the old days, and there is evil, carelessness, and the devaluation of human life now. An artificial womb may look scary and dystopian to us. For perspective, maybe browse baby coffins.

I won’t lie: I’m horrified when I look into the future (or even the present) and see that science is separating us more and more from our humanity. But I’m equally horrified when I see Catholics retreating into a sort of sentimental brutality that sighs heavily, dons a cloak of false nobility, and grandly chooses death for others over hard choices for us all.


Cisgendered Bears and Other Horrible Things That Have Happened to My Mommy Brain

A few weeks ago, a mom of my acquaintance got The Three Little Bears from the library, but was irritated to discover that the story had been bowdlerized for 21st century sensitivities.  Gone were the heteronormative Papa Bear, Mama Bear and Baby Bear. Instead, we just had three genderinoffensive bears, one big, one medium, and one small. What. A. Crock.

PIC three bears Galdone


But when she posted a picture, I thought, Wait, that’s got to be Paul Galdone, who has been illustrating for a lo-o-o-ong time. I looked it up, and sure enough, this version of The Three Bears came out in 1972. Definitely post sexual revolution, but hardly an era when devious children’s illustrators were stretching the definition of family — at least not in mainstream children’s books.

Following a hunch, I did some quick research, and discovered that the “Three Bears” story was first written down by Robert Southey in 1837, and — lo and behold, the original version was about three male bears. I don’t think they were some kind of transgressive, tradition-flouting bears shacking up in the woodsy version of Castro Street. They were just three bears trying to deal with porridge in the way that they thought best.

PIC three bears Southey


Now, I don’t blame the original mom for thinking there was something hinky going on. We really do have to be on constant alert for hidden and not-so-hidden agendas driven by people we wouldn’t trust to boil an egg for us, much less teach our kids what is normal and what is not.  At the same time, being on constant alert can make us a little nutty, and we begin to see bogeymen in every corner,

PIC Francis afraid


when sometimes it’s really just your chair with a robe hanging on it in a sinister way.

When I read books that are 25 years old or more, I play a little game:  I scan the illustrations and text to see if anything would jump out at the typical concerned mom if it were written today. Look for it, and you’ll find quite a lot! I’m not even talking about deliberate naughty easter eggs that they’re assuming most people will miss, like what the obviously drunk animators snuck into the backgrounds of ancient Bugs Bunny cartoons

PIC Looney Tunes with porno poster


I’m just talking about things that people didn’t used to flip out about, because there wasn’t any real threat of a concerted, deliberate effort to change children’s ideas of what is normal (or the threat was in its earliest stages). Lots of topless people, bottomless people, guys who may or may not be super gay, and so on. These things pepper old kid’s books for decades, and no one batted an eye.  People simply didn’t used to be on high alert at all times.

All that being said, I’m not sure what to make of a strange and hilarious book we just found:  Monsters by Russell Hoban (who, speaking of a chair with a robe on it, did the wonderful Frances books) and illustrated by Quentin Blake.

It’s a funny little story about a boy — maybe eight years old — who likes to draw monsters (and oh my gosh, the illustrations are perfect-o):

His mother asks him whether he wouldn’t like to draw other things — “houses, trees, birds, and animals” — but he is only interested in drawing monsters.

All of John’s monsters were violent.  They fought with passing strangers and random spacecraft and they fought with one another, and if they found themselves alone they made threatening noises to themselves while waiting for somebody ugly to turn up.
‘GNGGHHHHH!’ they said, “NNARRRGH!” and “XURRRVVV!”

He reassures his worried parents that he is fine, getting along with his teachers fine, getting along with the other kids fine.  One day he begins to draw a monster that is really big — in fact, he can only get parts of its huge, bristly monstrous tail on a sheet of paper. This one “somehow seems more serious than the others.”  The parents are worried, but the art teacher reassures them that “Boys are naturally a little monstrous.” They go to the doctor, who prescribes a pill, and tells them to come back if the drawings keep coming. Which they do.

I won’t give away the end, but the doctor gets what he’s got coming, and the boy ends up feeling much better.

Now, if this book had come out in 2014, Russell Hoban would be served with a lawsuit from Gloria Allred, his cause would irritably championed by Camille Paglia, and Tony Esolen would be offering him a home cooked meal drenched in a gravy of tears of rage and sorrow, and Matt Walsh would be saying something that is sorta kinda true, but making it sound so baboonishly false that you want to disown yourself for even halfway agreeing with him.

It would have been a thing, you see, a big thing about how boys are treated, how their natural masculinity is medicated into oblivion, and what monstrous things will eventually happen when boys are not allowed to be boys, or what it is that we are saying to girls by not saying that they are naturally a little monstrous, and so on. But the book is from 1991, when we were still teetering on the brink of Always Being Hysterical All the Time About Everything Especially, ESPECIALLY, What We Are Teaching Our Children.

Uphhh, I’m just so tired. So tired of having to figure out what’s appropriate, what’s inappropriate, what’s sending the wrong message, what’s playing into the whole “sending the wrong message” nonsense, and so on. It’s almost a relief to know that kids tend to remember things you weren’t even aware of telling them, and they forget the things you all but tattooed into the inside of their eyelids.

Anyway, I really like Paul Galdone, because he always draws pictures of what is actually going on in the story; and I really like Russell Hoban, because he really remembers what it’s like to be a kid. Thus endeth my analysis. I’m gonna go draw some monsters.