The XX Factor

It’s 2010. Can We Stop Talking About “Designer Babies” Now?

The New York Times article KJ refers to here is headlined “Building a Baby” and is part of a larger series the Times is calling “Made to Order.” The lede for this particularly installment begins, “Unable to have a baby of her own, Amy Kehoe became her own general contractor to manufacture one.” Later we learn how Kehoe “put together her creation.”

I understand the temptation to frame stores about reproductive technology in terms of assembly lines and industrial manufacturing; I’ve probably done it myself. I can’t think of a book I’ve read on reproduction and biotechnology that does not fall into the hackneyed and vaguely dystopic use of that particular vocabulary. But in the end, how illuminating is it? It’s a lexicon meant to evoke alienation and objectification. It’s baby as configure-to-order Dell computer. Yet reading the article or any number of similar articles on this topic, one does not get the impression that the relationship between parent and child is that of consumer and consumer product. The problem, as told by the Times reporter, is not a lack of parent-child bonding. It’s very nearly the opposite: too many parties claiming a legal right-and an emotional attachment-to the same child.

I can’t really argue with the claim that babies are “manufactured.” But if the Kehoe kid was manufactured, so were you; so was everyone you know. We could declare that your mom “contracted” with your dad, I suppose, and obtained his genetic material in return for any number of wifely services, but that Vulcanesque diction seems to obscure more emotional truth than it reveals. Kehoe’s relationship to the surrogate mother she hired, who now has custody of the twins she originally promised to Kehoe, is not a disinterested, contractual one. It’s angry and tortured. Kehoe thinks this woman stole her children. Again, the assembly-line metaphor is not particularly illuminating here. No one feels this wronged by the guy who puts together a made-to-order couch and then refuses to relinquish it.

Part of the impetus to describe these relationships as new and frighteningly alienated comes, I think, from the misperception that until recently the process of having a baby has been entirely separate from the market economy. And there is undeniably something new about the buying and selling of ova among former strangers. But for as long as childbirth has involved medical professionals, the “creation” of a child has been a group endeavor including parties both paid and unpaid. New technologies create the possibility of new relationships. As those relationships-egg donor and intended mother, sperm donor and surrogate mother-become normalized, the pattern I see is less one of alienation than adaptation.