TALKING THE TALK
Discussing with Children the Origins of Life
It's almost time to discuss with my nine year old son how he came into being. Like any reasonably observant kid his age who's seen a little PBS and been in a few schoolyards, I suspect he's processed enough information about the logistics of reproduction that I may just be filling in some gaps and answering a few questions.
My larger task will be helping him to ascribe meaning to the beginning of life in order to enable him to attach meaning to the human experience as a whole. If this seems too ambitious, I have another, more modest goal in discussing human sexuality with him: to prevent him from becoming the kind of adolescent portrayed on Fox TV or the kind of adult that shows up on Jerry Springer.
I was kind of looking forward to this talk, too. I figured it would be another of those experiences we could share, like teaching him how to ride a bike, catch a baseball or throw a hammer when he messes up a home improvement project. I planned to walk downtown with him one night for a big ice cream cone and tell him how every person is part Mommy, part Daddy, part God and part destiny.
But recently, after living for four decades and having fathered three kids, I have learned more about how babies are manufactured by a growing industry that retails eggs and sperm, performs artificial conception, selectively destroys embryos that have undesirable characteristics (like the "wrong" gender) and hopes soon to alter the genes of babies to be. Now, instead of being able to answer his questions, I have questions of my own.
Is it ok for a parent to make a child into a concert pianist or baseball player against the child's will? Is it ok for a pregnant mother to use cocaine or alcohol? Doesn't life have intrinsic value, irrespective of parental wishes? If it's ok to abort a fetus because it's not yet a person, who are adults undergoing artificial conception to benefit, a being that does not exist, or themselves?
In serving the individual interests of those who want to artificially conceive children, are we doing something very negative to the larger society in which all people live? Will the birth of babies become less cause for joy as babies become an entitlement and, through embryo selection or modification, child bearing resembles a trip to Wal-Mart? Will society become even more stratified as the rich purchase genetic advantages for their offspring? If baby-making components can be shipped through the mail and babies can be assembled or terminated in a lab, why shouldn't people view themselves and others as commodities? If they do, should we expect them to feel guilty about bombing buses or shooting up schools?
I expect my son to ask himself some of those same questions in the next few years as these issues come closer to home. Several weeks ago, for example, he and my six year old daughter and I were at the community pool when we were approached by my daughter's six year old friend who, my daughter told me, "has two mommies." Looking at me, her friend said, "Oh, there's your Daddy." My daughter asked, innocently enough, "Who's your Daddy? (Pause) What's your Daddy?" I wondered, "Is this why they invented mint-flavored Prozac?"
The arrogance of youth has, for years, allowed us to believe that, even if our parents were smoother dancers than we were, we were hipper, more enlightened and rational than they. I just wonder how we're going to create a world better than-- or even as good as-- theirs, when those who inhabit it have no sense of surprise, no sense of magic, no sense of our place in nature and no sense that those who cross their paths each day are anything more than slightly refined bovine DNA.
Would the Greatest Generation have stormed Normandy to secure the future of something that could be made in a lab? Would the Mother Teresas of the world have devoted their lives to serving their genetic tribes? Who are we saving this earth for, anyway?
And what kind of place will this be to raise kids?