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Who is my neighbor’s child? Trayvon Martin and Parenthood’s Future

One of the most existentially chilling discoveries during my research on eugenics for Conceiving Parenthood was how many beloved progressives had taken up the eugenic mindset.  Reformer Jane Addams, Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick of the Riverside Church, Margaret Sanger, even the stalwart union activist Father John Ryan each, for a time, accepted eugenics.  How did this happen?  As Jean Bethke Elshtain narrates in her intricate treatment of Jane Addams, Addams came to see the women she was helping more as kin than as charity, and other on-the-ground reformers rejected top-down eugenic schemes after a time.  But, for others, their mistake was clumsy thinking.  People intent to “do good” get busy, and we sometimes lend aid or legitimacy to a notion or movement that we would not, with more thought, endorse. Especially in the case of Father John Ryan, it appears that perhaps he was not paying terribly close attention to the aims of the organization to which he was lending his good name.  (As I relate in my book, Ryan’s concise case against eugenics in one pamphlet was one of the most compelling I found in all my digging.)

At present, I am feeling like a total clod about my own clumsy thinking related to an organization called the Commission on Parenthood’s Future.  Now things in this blog entry are going to get tricky, and I am going potentially to burn some bridges.  Let me say up front that the Commission on Parenthood’s Future is not a eugenic organization.  I do not believe that the good people working on family issues there endorse eugenics.  In fact, I think that I was on their list of related scholars because my work against eugenics held some interest for other scholars named there.  But, I was clumsy.  I failed to pay close attention to their documents.  I failed to pay attention to the fact that my name appears on at least two of their documents that I find problematic.  Evidently, I was sent drafts of the documents by email, and I simply did not take the time to look them over and/or realize that I was supposed to comment on them.  I am embarrassed, and I owe the people there an apology for being careless.  I have failed them, by not being an active, engaged member of their conversation.  I now would rather not appear to approve of the cluster of projects going on under that organization. And, given that I have proven myself incapable of attending with vigilance to their rhetoric – a rhetoric counter to my own.  I have asked them to remove my name from their website.

I need to back up a bit to explain.  Around when I was entering the mix of public bioethics in the U.S., Leon Kass published a piece on bioethics in First Things on finding the wisdom in repugnance.  Kass is brilliant, and his argument there is complicated.  But one aspect of his argument is that there is a kind of wisdom to be gained from what might be called our visceral, aesthetic response to a moral issue.  In this case, Kass was concerned with the wisdom we might find if we pay attention to our sense that something is strange, even grotesque, about conceiving a child by way of some new forms of biotechnology.  One of my most beloved graduate students, Jodie Boyer, wrote a fabulous paper around that time about why repugnance may not be a reliable moral guide for Christians, as it turns out, because we follow a man who seemed particularly to like strange people, and we cling to a rather grotesque, bloody cross for our salvation.  Our “natural” response to a moral issue is not as relevant as our graced response.  Jodie further suggested that it may be precisely those “we” find morally puzzling or even sickening who can teach “us” a thing or two about faith.  (Cue cheering from fans of Flannery O’Connor.)  Jodie articulated exactly what made me uneasy about finding myself loved by the same people who loved Kass at the time.  (Heck, I was even invited to the White House for one bioethics event.)  I became increasingly concerned that some public bioethicists were encouraging a sense of fear and shame around reproductive and procreative issues.  I called this tendency the “Grumpy Old Man” response, in honor of that character on SNL, and I fell into it sometimes myself.  Culture is degenerating.  People are making babies in all sorts of wildly unpredictable and extravagant ways.  The basic sense of children as gift, not product, is increasingly tenuous.  So one version of the argument goes.

But by the time of my last edit on CP, I knew that shame was the last thing that mothers need today.  While some snarky (ok, bitchy) comments about perfect-mommy mommies remain in the final copy, I tried to shift the emphasis of the book toward cultural messaging about families, divine providence, race and class.   Yet, while on the speaking circuit, I had become congenial with other bioethicists who were willing to risk saying out loud that procreation is more than a merely private decision made in a cultural vacuum.  And this conversation at times slipped again into a rhetoric of fear.  At its best, this time made for helpfully strange allies, crisscrossing faithful and secular, feminist and decidedly not feminist, Republican and Democrat and radical anarchist Catholic boundaries.  At our best we were part of a fruitfully complicated conversation.  At our worst, some of us on the left were reckless, allowing ourselves to be used by some on the right as fodder in a cultural battle over women’s basic, reproductive freedoms.  I have now come to suspect that our concerns about race and class and the commodification of women’s bodies, gametes, embryos and fetuses were used to legitimate a swerve toward subtly racist and sexist paternalism in bioethics.  The tacit argument goes something like this:  the sheer existence of the traditional family is at risk; children are at risk; women don’t know how to choose well in the bizarre new world of reproductive options; women need protection, through state and federal regulation of their options.  While the language of ‘reproductive rights’ may be woefully insufficient for Christians, who, after all, hope for love in addition to justice, at this point in American politics the language of rights is necessary.

Maybe this is an overwrought confession made from the stuff that is Holy Week.  I don’t think so.

Which brings me to the two documents from the Commission on Parenthood’s Future that I find problematic.  The one that arrived in my mailbox most recently is called “One Parent or Five: A Global Look at Today’s New Intentional Families.”  The report itself is important reading, and I would encourage people to consider the broader, cultural questions that Elizabeth Marquardt, the Principal Investigator, asks throughout.  But the cover sets a tone that I find, at the very least, wrong-spirited.  The image is of an egg in a nest, with five birds standing around the nest.  One parent or five?  The report goes on to discuss multiple forms of procreation available to people today.  But, as an adoptive mom, I was immediately miffed.  Isn’t my daughter a strange sort of egg, by some reckoning, having a birth mother and an adoptive mother, a birth father (who she will never meet, given the circumstances) and an adoptive father?  (This is not even to mention the issue of divorce; that is for another blog post.)  Marquardt wishes to make a strict division between adoption – a solution born of necessity after what some consider to be unfortunate accident – and forms of reproductive technology that intentionally create a biologically and/or domestically ambiguous child: It is one thing to accept adoption as a blessing in the midst of tragedy.  It is another to seek to form a family that is definitely not made up of one biological/domestic father and one biological/domestic mother.  So the argument goes.  But the rhetoric is divisive, playing on a politic of shame.  The unambiguous form of family is unequivocally the best one for children, Marquardt narrates, with report after report and statistic after statistic.  Hence, the image of five birds sitting around one nest is to cause the reader deep concern.  I am surprised that the egg in the nest on the cover is not drawn with a big, red crack through it.

The other document is entitled “My Daddy’s Name is Donor.”  The first time I really clued into the study was through a news posting entitled “Who’s Your Daddy?,” apparently after a review of the report in the Calgary Sun.  The study shows deep anxieties and questions about identity among young adults who were conceived through donor insemination.  The provocative title, and the phrase from the review of the report, play on themes of illegitimacy in ways that I believe compound identity issues related to gamete conception.  The latter sounds like a playground sneer, and the report title itself sounds on a register of embarrassment.  Marquardt might well counter that the report reports, specifically, that the children of gamete donation feel shame.  Yet this, to my mind, does not excuse, and actually argues against the further stigmatization that may be caused by stressing the importance of carrying one’s father’s name.  Who’s your daddy?  Well, if you do not know, I do know what that makes you in most circles in the U.S. still today:  a bastard.  And to duplicate in any way that game of identity is not a move I want to make, ever.  This report, like the report on ambiguous families, seeks to uncover the divisions between different types of children.  By calibrating carefully families of different sorts, and measuring their flourishing with different tools, readers are to come to a conclusion that all of us, collectively, should seek to encourage some forms over others, and even actively discourage particular forms that may lead to moral confusion.  (Interestingly, in the too-many-birds-around-the-nest report, Marquardt meticulously dismisses one study that found children raised by lesbian couples seem to fare better than those raised by heterosexual couples.)  The method is one of dividing different kinds of families from one another, and placing them on a sort of hierarchy of good to bad, normal to abnormal.  Here, while reading “My Daddy’s Name is Donor,” I kept thinking of words of supposed wisdom given to students preparing for interracial marriage (yes, in this decade).  Interracial children suffer from identity crises.  Studies show this.  So, think carefully before you intentionally bring an interracial child into this world.  I have suggested that they gently tell their loved ones that they are grateful for their concern, but that their concern is itself demonic, that is, they are contributing to a form of evil into which such children are born and suffer.

Do I personally believe that more couples, gay, lesbian or straight are called to adopt than hear that call?  Yes. Do I wish that more people would adopt than go through the process of reproductive technology?  Yes.  But that conviction comes from a different place than a fear of how children will suffer due to morally ambiguous origins.  For, to my mind, humans all come from morally ambiguous origins.  That is the doctrine that Christians call original sin.  It may be old fashioned, but it is, as my father reminds me, the one tenet of Christianity for which you can see evidence every day.  It is a miracle of grace that children conceived through our confused and confusing combination of greed, love, desire, intoxication, and pride find their way into flourishing.  And, by my understanding, original sin and our need daily for grace are realities that should pull parents of all kinds together in support and kinship.  My concern with some forms of reproductive technologies is not that they are abnormal, but that our increasing use of them suggests a lack of faith in the transformative kinship of Christian grace.  Dividing different sorts of parents in order to determine whose families win by the rules of late-industrial capitalism seems unfaithful, cruel and counter-productive for achieving the sorts of programs that we know help all mothers and children:  basic health care, smaller classrooms, better parental leave, working situations that allow for sick days without reprimand or risk – this list goes on.  Helping a suburban kid with two heteronormative parents survive alcoholism and pornography addiction should optimally lead a suburban mom to discover solidarity with a single mom in a predominately poor, African-American neighborhood who is helping teach her son to survive the allure of gangs.  But, too often, the messaging around parenthood is divisive, distinguishing kids “at risk” from those who are set, by conditions of their birth, to prosper.

The cultural subtext of the conversation runs in racial ways, sounding an alarm akin to that of what has come to be known as the Moynihan Report.  There, the decision-making classes were to take measures to dismantle a matriarchal system that was, according to the study, contributing to a cultural context of inherited poverty.  The report has recently come up again, thanks to a (sadly) well-received book called Freedom is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America’s Struggle over Black Family Life – from LBJ to Obama.  (See the cover for a summary of the author’s perspective.)  Now, warning:  inflammatory suggestion to follow.  Part of what the “My Daddy’s Name is Donor” study implies is that single mothers with economic means are irresponsible for bringing into the world children who demographically resemble African-American children of single-mothers.  That is how it reads to me.  The problem facing children of single mothers, white and black, in the U.S. is not so much a hostile work place and a desperately underfunded school system for our children, so the argument goes.  The problem is how women, black and white, are discounting, or even undermining, the importance of a father in each child’s home.  It also seems to me to be a small step from reports like these to legislation introduced recently in Wisconsin to consider “non-marital parenthood as a contributing factor to child abuse and neglect.” That argument is now making the talk-circuit rounds, with some leaders on the right suggesting that some left-leaning leaders actually want to encourage single-motherhood, because single mothers benefit from programs that left-leading leaders promote (like health care, public schooling, etc) and who are thus are reliably left-leaning voters.  (This reliably left-leaning voter thought, when I heard good old Phyllis Schlafly making this argument – “yea, what with all the laundry and dishes and dog-poop removal, I am pretty darned lucky if I actually find the time to vote!”)

I have not felt the need up to this point to register a comment on the Trayvon Martin case.  To be perfectly honest, my first thought was that this case is like so many others that go unmentioned in the national press.  African-American boys are guilty until proven innocent in most neighborhoods, which is why Trayvon was very, very clear that he should NOT, under any circumstances, run home.  He told his girlfriend that, although Zimmerman was clearly scaring him by following him in his car, he had to walk quickly but not run.  Black boys grow up learning these rules from their mothers, sisters, and brothers, whether they are rich or poor, so that they might have some chance of not inciting suspicion.  Tragically, my response was to think that this is just the same old same old in a racist country.  I decided also to trust that others would weigh in well, hoping that other writers had the moral passion left to do so.  And there were keen responses.  The “Best of the Left” podcast (which has become solace as our local NPR station caters to a mushy New South middle) has an excellent mash-up on the case.  (I particularly recommend listening all the way to Brooke Gladstone’s conversation with Trymaine Lee.)  I was also blessed by this trenchant article, which Kara sent to me, that names so clearly the divides that lead to cases like this one.  Although her tone is very young-pissed-off-know-it-all-white-girl, I also love this youtube video that one of my pastors sent me.

What strikes me most now is the intensely divided conversation about the case, as so many of my own sorts of people are calling for their African-American neighbors not to jump to conclusions or to “pull the race card” before it is supposedly clear that there is a racial dimension to the story.  I find the tragedy to be clearly, unquestionably about race, from beginning to middle and likely to end.  But, even if it were not all about race, the responses to the story are.  They reflect a deep cavernous divide between parents in this country.  To my mind, the responses to this case say more about “Parenthood’s Future” than any set of reports on depression, anxiety, teen pregnancy or alcoholism.  One of the commentators on the “Best of the Left” podcast put the matter succinctly, “Every decent human being in the country thinks [when she hears about this case] about their own kid.”  But, tragically, many of us do not think that Trayvon Martin is our own.  He is not our neighbor’s child.  He is a stranger’s child.  He is likely at risk, likely prone to violence, likely a threat in some overt or subtle way to my own child’s well-being.  Statistically, as the African-American son of a divorced family, isn’t it “reasonable” for me to see him this way?

One of the sections of the abnormal-nest report makes a point that requires pondering:

 Of course, to recognize that adults tend to favor their biological children is not to say that this predisposition is necessarily or always a good thing. Rather, it is to recognize that this tendency is highly common and probably even hardwired, or biologically primed, into humans. Ideally, all of us would be as deeply committed to and concerned for other people’s children as we are for our own, but practically speaking the human race is not there yet.

The human race may not be there yet, but miracles are possible, and essential.  As I sit here, typing during Holy Week, waiting and praying for Easter to come (dear Lord, soon) I know that Jesus was betrayed as much by carelessness as by malice, by cowardice as by violence.  I pray that I will be more careful in the future, and that I will come, in my gut, to see Trayvon’s mother as my sister.  I pray that my immediate, aesthetic/moral wisdom in my bones will be transformed, by grace, to see this child as my blood kin.

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