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.

 

An Ethically-Produced Shingles Vaccine?

vaccine elderly

Many pro-lifers still decline to use any vaccine that was not ethically derived, choosing instead to face the risk of contracting and spreading preventable, often fatal diseases.

Whatever is keeping Americans from taking full advantage of vaccines, this potential new shingles vaccine is a step in the right direction, and pro-lifers are rightly heartened by the possible advent of at least one ethically-derived vaccine. It’s a bit early to celebrate, though.

Read the rest at the Register.

 

No, It’s Not Okay to Flip Off Your Sleeping Baby

In Slate, Education Columnist Rebecca Schuman shares a gallery of photos of herself flipping off her sleeping seven-month-old baby. Schuman explains why, so far, she hasn’t found a compelling reason to stop taking and sharing these photos.

She loves her baby, but the kid is a bad sleeper, and is making her very tired and frustrated.

Schuman says:

The reasons I take and post these pictures are varied. I crave emotional release after hours of increasingly desperate nursing, jiggling, rocking, walking, and, my personal favorite, walk-nursing (all wriggling, self-torpedoing 22 pounds of her). I’m also trying to amuse my husband, to diffuse what could otherwise be even more strain on two adults pushed to the boundaries of civility. And, of course, there’s the defiant gesture of Parenting Realness, an offshoot of the Go the Fuck to Sleep genre—that urge to fly in the face of decades of parenting decorum and admit that while we adore our children to smithereens, we’re not going to pretend to love the bare Sisyphean relentlessness that our days and nights have become.

She argues, I guess with tongue in cheek, that Kant and Artistotle would frown on her behavior. Kant, she says, would say that “what I’m doing isn’t necessarily bad for the baby per se, but it might be hardening my heart toward humanity in general”; and Aristotle would condemn her for “habituating” herself to “the wrong kind of actions.”

But, she argues, her actions don’t actually harm the baby in any way:

[I]s my current use of the one-digit salute warping my offspring’s fragile little mind? She’s a baby, so she doesn’t understand what the bird means yet. Also, she’s asleep, so she doesn’t know I’m doing it. And also, she’s a baby.

Let me be clear. I, like the author, despise the “lovin’ every minute of it” culture that is strangling American parenthood like so much sentimental kudzu. We’re expected to cherish every second we spend with our children, and we’re expected to be awash in joy and wonder at all times.

This is bullshit, and I’ve said so more times than I can count. It makes us into worse parents when we expect to be joyful and grateful all the time. Raising babies is hard, and there are lots of times when it just plain sucks. I recall telling my pediatrician, in a moment of sleep-deprived candor, that I wasn’t actually going to throw my always-screaming baby out the window, but I sure felt like I wanted to.

Speaking the truth about how we feel can be a great release. I have mountains of sympathy — oceans of sympathy, galaxies within galaxies of sympathy — for strung out parents who are exhausted beyond belief by the insane demands of babyhood. My own baby is six months old and is currently all angry all the time, because she thinks she can run, and her ridiculous doughy legs won’t cooperate. I’m hardly getting any sleep, and things are kind of awful right now. I’m having a hard time writing this post, because the baby won’t stop shouting at me.

But listen to what I said: the demands of babyhood are awful. That does not make your baby awful. One of the first things you need to learn, if you want to be a good parent, is to make sure you know the difference between “fuck this situation” and “fuck this baby.” The former is a universal experience. The latter is grotesque.

But why? The baby doesn’t know the difference, and I believe this mom who says she loves her baby. Isn’t this just some harmless, if tasteless, venting? Does it really matter what goes on around the head of someone who doesn’t and can’t understand what’s happening, which is really just a joke anyway?

Well, how would you feel if this were a gallery of photos of a fed up policeman flipping off people he’s put in handcuffs? Or a gallery of photo of an overworked heart surgeon flipping off a series of unconscious patients? Or a gallery of frustrated judges flipping off prisoners headed to jail? Or a gallery of exhausted nurses flipping off dementia patients? Or a gallery of under-appreciated ESL teachers flipping off a roomful of baffled foreign students who didn’t know what the middle finger signifies?

Not cool, right? Even if they are only venting, even if the people being flipped off had no idea it was happening. We expect more of people who do know what it means, because of their position of authority. Along with the authority and strength of their position comes the responsibility not to abuse the weaker person, even if the weaker person has made a lot of trouble for the stronger person, even if the weaker person doesn’t know it’s happening, even if the stronger person is very tired. If these policemen and judges and surgeons and teachers felt free to behave grotesquely and offensively toward the people under their authority — if they wrote jocularly about it in Slate magazine, and proudly provided a link to more photos — we’d freak the hell out, and rightly so.

We would demand that they treat the weaker person with the dignity they deserve because they are human beings. This is what we expect from people who are simply doing the jobs they are paid to do. Why should we expect less of a mother?

Just because someone can’t fight back, that doesn’t mean we can use them. Just because someone can’t fight back, that means we can’t use them.

Recall the infamous Army Private Lynndie England photos from Abu Ghraib. There were many photos showing prisoners being tortured and humiliated, but Americans were especially repulsed by the jaunty, thumbs-up “lookit me!” ones. The ones where the prisoners had bags on their heads, the ones that showed that the torturers thought the whole thing was kind of funny.

Recall: Schuman’s frivolous joke here; England’s hilarious prank here. 

 

No, the Slate writer’s baby isn’t be tortured. But there is something chillingly familiar about “HA, you can’t fight back!” attitude. You don’t need to look up your Aristotle to know that some things just aren’t funny. Even if it makes you feel better.

The very worst thing that you can do to another human being is to use him. I used to think this was just some abstract theological formulation meant to neaten up the codification of sins. But now I see that objectification of human beings lies at the heart of every sin. That’s what it always comes down to.

We don’t use people, even if they don’t know they’re being used. Especially if they don’t know they’re being used. And for God’s sake, especially not when it’s our own child.

 

Hey, who wants to talk about Dr. Deisher and vaccines and autism and fetal cells and statistics? Some more?

PIC man showing woman statistics chart

Not me! But other folks do, and ain’t other folks what make the world go round? Here are a few good reads for vaccine/austism/fetal cell/Deisher/statistical analysis die hards, following an odd exchange I had with Stacy Trasancos in the comment box of my Monday post, But what if we’re not scientists?

The folks at Rational Catholic have added an even more in-depth commentary on the statistical analysis in Dr. Deisher’s study with Looking a Little Closer at the Numbers

Joseph Moore of Yard Sale of the Mind offers Simcha Fisher’s Science Post: the Gift that Keeps On Giving!

And after Stacy Trasancos wrote this, to her credit she asked highly credentialed statistician Matt Briggs to evaluate Dr. Deisher’s study. You can read his opinion at Autism and Stem-Cell Derived Vaccines: Deisher’s New Paper.

So now you are all caught up! I find that I am sitting here slowly making my way through an unattended stick of butter as I type, so rather than go through and find tantalizing pull quotes for you from the links above, I’m going to get away from my computer for a bit. Byee!

Temporary womb transplants?

Wow – not sure what to think about this:

Nine women in Sweden have successfully received transplanted wombs donated from relatives and will soon try to become pregnant, the doctor in charge of the pioneering project has revealed.

The women were born without a uterus or had it removed because of cervical cancer. Most are in their 30s and are part of the first major experiment to test whether it’s possible to transplant wombs into women so they can give birth to their own children.

The intended procedure, as it stands now, is not ethical by Catholic standards:

The transplant operations did not connect the women’s uteruses to their fallopian tubes, so they are unable to get pregnant naturally. But all who received a womb have their own ovaries and can make eggs. Before the operation, they had some removed to create embryos through in-vitro fertilization. The embryos were then frozen and doctors plan to transfer them into the new wombs, allowing the women to carry their own biological children.

But what if doctors eventually learn how to connect a transplanted uterus to fallopian tubes, to permit for natural conception?  Could the procedure then be ethical?  It’s not surrogacy.

At first I thought, “Well, a uterus is just an organ, and other organs can be transplanted ethically.”  But it’s not really just another organ, because its purpose is to support another human being; whereas if you undergo a risky heart transplant, it’s only your own life you have to consider.  So far, no one with a transplanted womb has brought a baby to term. Is it ethical to get pregnant when you have reason to believe the baby may not survive? If so, is that different from a woman with the womb she was born with, knowingly getting pregnant even if she’s had several miscarriages before?

Also, who could ethically donate a womb, according to Catholic bioethics?  I’m pretty sure it would not be ethical for a married woman of childbearing age to donate her womb, even if she considered herself “done” having children.  What about someone who made a vow of celibacy? A purely medical question:  would a post-menopausal woman’s womb even be useful to a young woman with younger eggs who was trying to conceive?

Does it make a difference that these are intended to be temporary transplants?  The idea is that women try to have as many as two children, and then the uterus is removed so they can stop taking anti-rejection drugs, which have bad side effects.

I don’t want to automatically shy away from science. Just because something sounds creepy doesn’t mean it’s wrong.  But this is an especially complicated situation.  What do you think?