Dunn: Do We Have the Right to Procreate?

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Linda Dunn

As March is Women’s History Month, I’d like to raise the topic of government overreach in a role that women have been performing since human life began: Procreating.

This is not about the right to choose to avoid giving birth; this is about the right to use currently available medical technology to achieve the goal of motherhood.

Back in the “good old days,” infertility was considered to often be a psychosomatic condition and always the woman’s fault. Today, we are very much aware that there are a wide range of medical conditions that can prevent us from reaching our goal of bringing life into the world and there is not just one alternative (adoption) available to us.

Adoptions, of course, can create family bonds just as strong (and sometimes stronger) than biological ones. But adoption is not an option for every prospective parent and those of us who came of age at a time when adoptions were quick and affordable need to recognize that we are living in a very different era.

“In 1969, mothers of out-of-wedlock children who had not married after three years kept only 28 percent of those children. In 1984, that rate was 56 percent; by the late 1980s it was 66 percent.”

Good for them…but not so good for those of us who were not blessed with a properly working reproductive system and yet still yearn to become mothers.

Since the birth of Louise Brown — the world’s first “test tube baby” — back in 1978, an estimated twelve million In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) babies have been successfully carried to term. About two percent of live births in the United States last year were the result of IVF.

Louise Brown and her younger sister, Natalie, have both conceived naturally and have both given birth and their lives and the lives of their children have been just as “normal” as anyone else’s.

But this advancement has not come without making us uncomfortable with some problematic statistics.

We’re delighted when IVF results in a healthy birth but we struggle with how to balance this accomplishment against the losses we can so clearly see in IVF that are invisible in the “natural” reproductive process.

If 10 eggs are exposed to sperm, about seven will fertilize. Of these seven, only a quarter to half of them will reach the “blastocyst” stage, which then has a ten to sixty percent likelihood of becoming a human baby.

There are also too often “leftover” embryos when IVF succeeds. What happens to them? And what about the embryos that are non-viable? If one cannot abort pregnancy because the fetus is non-viable and and life begins at conception, how can a non-viable embryo be discarded?

So here we are today:

A judge in Alabama has declared that a frozen embryo is a child with all the legal protections accorded to a human child.

This, of course, meant a “pause” at some IVF clinics in Alabama, caused major hospitals to pull back fertility services, and raised concerns nationwide. Prospective parents are anxious to learn how this may affect them and what they should do next as many of these would-be parents fear their last hope of becoming parents (or expanding their family) is about to be snatched away from them.

Our politicians are proceeding cautiously on this subject; hesitant to wade into a mess that appears to be a theological answer to the ontological question: When does human life begin?

Many theologists advocate for “personhood” and legal protection beginning at conception. Scientists, meanwhile, note that “genetic uniqueness and singleness coincide only after implantation and restriction have completed.” [Which seems to be “tech talk” for explaining identical twins].

Each one of us takes our own beliefs and feelings into this discussion, which is as fraught with human emotion as the question of when human life ends.

At one time, we left these decisions in the hands of those most affected by them: immediate family members and medical professionals. But as our ability to create and sustain human life through medical intervention grew, our trust that others would choose wisely has slowly diminished until now we don’t even trust women with what was once a very personal and private right:

The ability to choose to procreate with the means that we have available?

A lifelong resident of Hancock County, Linda Dunn is an author and retired Department of Defense employee.