The Irreproducible Gift: Musings on Christ and Biotechnological Reproduction

[1] On the contrary, it is one of the consolations of the coming kingdom and expiring time that this anxiety about posterity, that the burden of the postulate that we should and must bear children, heirs of our blood and name and honour and wealth, that the pressure and bitterness and tension of this question, if not the question itself, is removed from us all by the fact that the Son on whose birth alone everything seriously and ultimately depended has now become our Brother. No one now has to be conceived and born. We need not expect any other than the One of whose coming we are certain because He is already come. Parenthood is now only to be understood as a free and in some sense optional gift of the goodness of God.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III/4


[2] No one now has to be conceived and born. The command to be fruitful – to multiply strong and reliable children capable of carrying the promise – is now set within a context, is now relative to the particular fruit of a holy womb. With the birth of this promised one, the pressure and bitterness and tension of conceiving and crafting heirs of blood and name and honor and wealth are removed.

Or so it should be.

[3] Purveyors of decidedly pressurized and taut reproduction have found ready Christian participants down through the centuries A.D. Ill-conceived parenting is not a unique invention of the biotechnological West. All languages converge on the expectant or barren womb, and each generation of Christians faces a constellation of temptations that distort the task of conceiving and raising children. Perhaps the desire to craft and manipulate conception in order to graft power to power and so to cultivate wealth was at one time the domain of royalty and their eager courtiers. Those who fell drastically below such aspirations likely sought mere survival. But in the last, approximately one hundred years, Christians in North America have seen a simultaneous democratization and technification of aspiring parenthood, and with it the spread of a dubious desire to thrive and flourish through promised and promising children.

Biotechnology and Mainline Protestantism in the U.S.

[4] I am increasingly interested in the religious contours of this pattern. What began for me as a project morally to evaluate specific procedures and techniques in contemporary reproductive and pediatric medicine has become a larger inquiry into the emergence of biotechnological reproduction. As I sought to parse the ethical particulars of artificial reproductive technology, prenatal testing, and pediatric pharmaceuticals, I found that I needed to take several steps back, to take in a wider scope of culture and faith in the U.S.

[5] In this inquiry, I discovered that mainline Protestants have had a particular role in the growth of commercialized medicine. While more fundamentalist Protestants and Roman Catholics resisted various products and practices in the medicalization of parenting, mainline Protestants duly applied their famous work ethic to the prevailing spirit of reproduction and childcare, making diligent use of the tools widely available through medical science. Although the relationship in the U.S. between mainline churches and secular culture is notoriously difficult to interpret, the role of mainline Protestants in the religious legitimation and cultural normalization of reproductive and pediatric biotechnology is sufficiently strong to prompt such a hypothesis. What is more, this intersection of religion, medicine, and parenthood is replete with the rhetoric of class and race. By way of “modern” infant formula, atomic science, tomes of expert advice, and the careful breeding of “fitter families,” middle-class Protestants industriously sought to differentiate their own children from the offspring of the irresponsible, lower classes.

[6] Because such prudence, procedures, and products came to constitute a way to distinguish worthy from unworthy children – to delineate good and bad recipients of economic investment and care – their import went beyond middle-class Protestantism. As respectable parenthood became synonymous with the efficient flow of domestic and civil economies, many middle-class families sought to cushion themselves from all avoidable forms of suffering and physical need. As a certain class of children became technological products for manipulation, society became ever less capable of adapting to the interruption of embodied human life. I believe that current patterns of biotechnological reproduction and childcare may be problematic in ways that reflect this history; not only do such patterns dehumanize capable children as projects for technological manipulation, they also serve to diagnose overtly dependent children – whether disabled or poor – as woefully unplanned.

[7] The most blatant example in recent history of Protestant class politics and reproductive science occurred during the rise of eugenics in the first half of the twentieth century. Although a growing number of people are aware of the patently coercive anti-miscegenation and sterilization laws associated with the eugenics movement in the United States, fewer know about the simultaneous effort to shape the imaginations of middle-class Christians toward “voluntary” eugenics. This “Fitter Family” movement, which flourished in the United States from the turn of the last century until World War II, was engineered by the American Eugenics Society and sought to encourage “prudent” marriages and to discourage the unfit or “tainted” from procreating. Bringing the “science” of eugenics into American churches, homes, and county fairs, exhibits across the heartland warned white Americans: “Some are born to be a burden on the rest” and explicitly linked crime and unemployment to ill-considered conception. While the vast majority of Roman Catholic and fundamentalist Christians refused these efforts, many mainline Protestant leaders took up the charge with gusto, preaching sermons and crafting Sunday School curriculum consistent with the plan. In the resulting rhetoric, middle-class Protestants sought to separate themselves from 1) dissolutely reproducing immigrants, 2) irresponsible African-Americans, and 3) the deviant, accidental children of lower-class Anglos. The specter of the diseased or disabled child and of the overwhelming poor became intertwined in the middle-class imagination. Eager to contribute to rather than cause a drain on the variously precarious economy of early twentieth century America, many mainline Protestant leaders became advocates of responsibly planned parenthood.

[8] This is the historic trajectory out of which emerges, for example, the United Methodist statement on economically responsible parenthood. But when this history is narrated, historians and scientists depict World War II and the revelation of Nazi atrocities as a chasm that American eugenics could not possibly breach. Citing the (much later) removal of overtly coercive eugenic laws in the United States, prominent geneticists like James Watson refuse to consider the ways that this history of “voluntary” eugenics continues to inform cultural expectations of scientific reproduction and parenting. (James Watson has a personal stake in distinguishing the old and the new genetics, as his laboratory in Cold Spring Harbor, New York served in the last century as the headquarters of the American Eugenics Society.) Even if secular historians and scientists refuse to narrate across the supposed breach of Nazi Germany, mainline Protestants must consider how our present evaluation of reproductive genetics is shaped by an earlier acceptance of and contribution to a eugenic culture. The American Eugenics Society palpably exemplifies a more generalized current of premonitory parenting apparent during the twentieth century, and it behooves Protestants to consider these connections. Through prenatal testing and other reproductive technologies, parents seeking today to reproduce promising children may continue to work from assumptions about disability, poverty, and social cost writ large during the eugenic era. At the very least, this history may prompt mainline Protestants to be more self-consciously critical in our evaluation of “advances” in reproductive medicine.

The Gift of Christ and Reproduction

[9] In his 2003 presidential address to the Society of Christian Ethics, William F. May drew from the work of feminist Barbara Ehrenreich to suggest that the upper-middle class presently seeks to cushion ourselves from physical dependency within our own homes and suffering within poor neighborhoods. Often pulling laborers precisely from other neighborhoods (or other countries) to tend to the bodies of our dependent children and aging parents, a whole generation of the democratized decision-making class is climbing above the detritus of common, daily life. Observing reproductive and pediatric science through this lens, we may perceive that contraception, prenatal testing, and pediatric enhancement therapies merge with the use of nannies, BabyGap, television, and private schools to cultivate well-timed and well-planned children of a particular American promise. In an economy that systematically abhors the interruption of nascent and otherwise unproductive human life, aspiring middle-class families may very well seek to emulate these patterns of efficient reproduction and parenting in an effort to stay financially afloat. It is not difficult to predict (or presently to detect) where this trend leaves parents for whom these tools are unmistakably out of reach. Searching for employment within a post-industrial, service economy, the lower-middle and working classes facilitate an upper-class avoidance of conspicuous need, whether in the form of infants (as childcare providers), children (as public school teachers), and the elderly (as nursing home attendants). Unable completely to eliminate the interruption of non-regularized bodies, due to the inevitabilities of childhood dependence and aging, we stop up the gaps with the bodies of the economically disadvantaged. A class-conscious evaluation of present reproduction may thus reveal the unseemly side of what we might otherwise deem to be “wholesome” Christian families.

[10] In order to gain a critically theological foothold on this scene, I wish to draw from and argue for a particularly Protestant (perhaps even more specifically Lutheran) response to the use of biotechnology for the crafting of reproduction. The Roman Catholic response to the technologically calibrated parenting of the twentieth century is well-known and compelling. Drawing on a long tradition of natural law and the nobility of marriage, this argument emphasizes the created beauty of marriage and reproduction. (Leon Kass, the Chairman of the President’s Council of Bioethics, has offered a Jewish argument for natural reproduction that is quite similar.) While there are aspects of Humanae Vitae that draw from the Christological insight with which I began this piece, the heartbeat of the argument draws from an explanation of natural, sanctified patterns within creation. Rather than arguing that these patterns of medicine and labor are unnatural (an argument for which I have respect and appreciation), I hope eventually to develop an argument that they are ungracious – that we betray the extravagant gratuity, interruption, and hope of the incarnate Christ by seeking to master and control reproduction and childcare.

[11] There is a trajectory of Lutheran thought running through Kierkegaard, Thielicke, and (most clearly the early) Barth, that narrates discipleship as patterned by an openness to the interruption of Christ into the world. While each of these theologians sounds a counter note of human responsibility, such responsibility is embedded in the larger context of requisite receptivity to grace. The command to multiply must thus be seen within the revelation that life itself is a loan, a gift that never truly becomes ours for disposal, manipulation, or definitive control. To envision the gift of reproduction and parenting as set within the narrative of the irreproducible Gift that is Christ should, as Barth describes above, shift the task away from our mastery. Children are not our projects, tools for furthering God’s kingdom here on earth. The child who occasions the kingdom has already come, has been born in an inauspicious manger, has lived with offensive openness to the wounds of the poor and the just plain sinful, and has died a criminal’s death so that our lives might be made holy. To raise children in the wake of that life and in the growing tide of that kingdom is a project that will likely make Christians seem irresponsible and even profligate to a culture intent on raising heirs of honor and wealth. It may mean that we refuse the messages of pressurized, taut parenting, eschewing the tools of medicalized class-warfare in order to live instead at the untidy, seemingly ugly intersection of real bodies and real need.

[12] This gratuitous coincidence of human embodiment and divine grace may be seen to intertwine inextricably faithful discipleship with the interruption of dependent, even suffering, bodies. Inasmuch as dominant culture in the United States seeks exactly the opposite – to avoid and even eliminate the interruption of dependent and suffering life – we may name the U.S. as, at the very least, an environment inhospitable for Christian parenting. We may even go so far as to diagnose the present patterns of reproductive biotechnology and parental economics as a demonic denial of Christ’s revelation.