A child is born
In one sense, there is nothing more natural than human fertility, conception and childbirth. Yet nowadays, it is an area full of difficult choices about technological interventions, parental rights and duties, social norms, and the “needs” of the economy. Would-be parents are subjected to a barrage of advice and warnings about what they should and shouldn’t do. So it’s small wonder that they may quail under the impact, and some may be wholly put off.
Indeed, there are signs that, particularly in the affluent West, having children is drifting away from the central place it once held within society, and is coming to be seen as just another lifestyle option that must compete with other materialistic attractions1. But this is a serious worry – surely the giving of physical form to the energy of life is not a lifestyle choice, but a sacred responsibility, which allows the divine evolutionary impulse to work out further in the world? But the fact remains that significant complications and obstacles now lie in wait.
It all starts with fertility, something that, until lately, was taken for granted. Yet there is mounting evidence of a decline in male fertility in Europe and the USA, a decline that some have linked to a rise in artificial chemicals in the environment that mimic the effect of the hormone oestrogen. At the same time, because of social and economic pressures, some women are choosing to delay starting a family until later in their career. But female fertility decreases quite sharply after 35, meaning that some who have delayed then find they are unable to have children, even after fertility treatment. The alternative is to start a family early (assuming this is possible), but the way in which employment and social policy is currently structured means that this will generally entail a large financial sacrifice. A combination of these trends with other factors helps to explain why, in some parts of the world, most notably Europe and Japan, the birth rate is now below the level needed for replacement.
This fact, added to an ageing population, has led some governments to produce laws that actively support parenthood. An examination of this approach could easily branch off into a discussion of family-friendly work practices, or education policy, but that is another article. The point is that a number of factors are at work which make even the decision to start a family more complicated than in the past. In this regard, Alice Bailey makes an interesting prediction in her book, Education in the New Age. She says, “[During the next one thousand years] the attitude of parents towards their children will alter dramatically and the responsibility angle will be continuously emphasised, though that responsibility will be concerned primarily with the time, opportunity and correctness of producing the forms which incarnating souls will assume.” (p.139 emph. added). She continues, “The idea of the need for rapid procreation and the production of large families through which the state can achieve its end will be changed.” ( ibid.) We can perhaps find some premonition of these matters in the current debates on whether parents, particularly very young parents, require some kind of parenthood education.
Returning to the challenges of the present: in order to help solve the problems of reduced fertility, new technologies – such as in vitro fertilisation (IVF) – and social practices – such as surrogacy – haveemerged. However, these bring with them their own complications. (It should be noted that the solution of adoption is not covered here because the main focus of this article is on the processes of conception, pregnancy and birth).
What difference does it make if a child is conceived through IVF? Well, one notable difference is that the link between the physical act of love and conception is severed. Thus an organic process that may exchange energies on a number of subtle levels is replaced by a technical procedure. Another difference is that, without breaking any established norms of behaviour, the biological father can be someone other than a woman’s husband or life partner. Surrogacy, which requires IVF if it is to work within normal social bounds, can lead to the opposite situation, if a woman other than the intended parent provides ova. This could be either the surrogate mother or a third party. This leads to the strange conclusion that the child would then have three mothers: the birth or surrogate mother in whom the ova are implanted, the genetic mother who donates the ova, and the “social” mother who will bring the child up.
As part of the process of IVF, ova are fertilised outside the womb, producing embryos. In order to ensure a better chance of success, it is routine to create more embryos than is strictly necessary, making it very unlikely that all of them will be implanted by the woman for whom they were originally created. One reason why a given embryo might not be implanted is because testing has revealed it to be a carrier of a genetic condition. But how is it to be decided which genetic conditions are grounds for not implanting the embryo? This provides much scope for ethical dilemmas, and opens the door to the spectre of eugenics. Some would argue that any embryo with a serious genetic condition should not be implanted (which then creates the difficulty of deciding what “serious” means); while others will say that every embryo is a potential human being and should be given the chance of life through implantation.2 These arguments turn on the question of what an embryo outside the womb is. Is it simply a collection of cells, which can be used in medical research? Or is it a potential person, with all the rights of a person?
Deciding on such questions is not just for the “experts”, but one which society at large must grapple with if it is to allow IVF. And the many questions seem to boil down to the key one – when does life begin? However, if the perspective of the preceding article is accepted, then life is always present, in varying degrees of complexity of form. With that in mind, perhaps the key question would be, when does personhood begin? And from the spiritual angle, the answer might be, when it becomes clear to an observer that the intent of the soul is for the survival and flourishing of the life in form. This answer has the virtue that it can be applied both to life before birth and life after birth.
The difficulty lies in our sensitivity to the will of the soul. We can imagine a future in which the main effort of both parents and attendant medical staff is channelled into a deep meditation, with the single aim of contacting the soul of the incoming individual to seek to determine its will. Another prediction from Education in the New Age may relate to this idea: “The light which is in the parents,… will be scientifically related to the embryonic light in the child, and the thread of light connecting parent and child (of which the umbilical cord is the [physical] symbol) will be skillfully and patiently constructed.The child will come into incarnation with its light body already embedded and functioning in the physical body and this will be due to the intelligent mental work of the parents.” ( ibid.)
When this situation is in place, the issues of miscarriage, very premature infants, and those born with life-threatening conditions may be seen in a different light than we do today. Until that time, humanity must grapple with all of these matters in the light of as much reason and compassion as it can muster, to help illuminate the difficult choices that must be made: choices that must reconcile decisions about the allocation of expensive medical resources with the natural human urge to reproduce; choices that seek to harmonise the strict letter of the law with the deep moral intuitions of the heart.
1.See for example the results of a poll in The Guardian, 2nd May 2006: http://www.guardian.co.uk/frontpage/story/0,,1765571,00.html
2.An article by William Saletan in the online magazine Slate (http://www.slate.com/id/2120781/) highlights some of the complicated ethical and legal problems inherent in discussions about embryos outside the womb.