Have We Become Obsessed with Our Own Genetic History?

ELLEN GOODMAN

August 09, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — BOSTON-- From the photos, Arlette Schweitzer looks like the subject of one of those trendy articles about older mothers. Attractive, short-haired, 42 years old, and very pregnant.

In fact, Mrs. Schweitzer is on her way to becoming a young grandmother. She is carrying twins conceived from her daughter's eggs and her son-in-law's sperm. She is the surrogate mother of her own grandchildren.

If all this begins to sound like that old song of conjugal confusion ''I'm my own grandpa'' so be it. It's another American ''first'' in the expanding surrogacy circuit.

Gradually, we've gotten used to the idea of babies conceived out-of-womb. We've subdivided motherhood into its biological parts genetic and gestational. We've adjusted to women walking around carrying ''other people's fetuses.''

We've met surrogates who are siblings and surrogates who are strangers. Now, judging from the mild reaction, we are not

shocked by a mother-daughter act of nature and technology.

Almost from the time the two women discovered that Christa had been born without a womb, they had talked about a joint pregnancy. Arlette, having given birth to her daughter, had no trouble giving birth for her daughter. ''You do what you do for your children because you love them, '' she says. ''If you can do something to help your children, you do it.''

I don't doubt this sentiment, though in some ways her pregnancy has established a new threshold of mother love: Can you top this? We take self-sacrifice for granted among mothers. Indeed, this mother had a role model in South Africa,where a 48-year-old gave birth to triplet grandchildren.

As for the men in their lives, there were, notably, no comments in the stories I read from either husband or father. What are the feeling about, essentially, impregnating your mother-in-law? Of sleeping with the wife now carrying your daughter's child? Would we feel queasy if this woman were carrying the sperm of her son?

I will spare these children conceived with love, carried with love my reservations about the complex psychology in their biology. But as each reproductive tale comes delivered to my doorstep, nicely wrapped in my morning newspaper, I have felt another gnawing worry.

Have we become obsessed with the preciousness of our own small pool of genes? What exactly are people willing to do to produce their ''own'' children? Is it too much? Do the new technologies enable us to reproduce variations of ourselves? Do they keep us fixated on the genetic links that connect? At what cost?

As the biological mother of a child, I am treading on sensitive turf. But as someone with adopted relatives, I have never entirely understood the primacy given to blood.

Lately, it seems that everything conspires to place nature over nurture, genes over environment and so, too, surrogacy over adoption. We have seen soldiers off to war after stashing sperm in a bank. We've had a divorcing couple wrangle over their frozen embryos. The human genome project charts every difference in our makeup.

At the same time that scientists have discovered that every human on earth descends from one genetic mother, we seem more obsessed with our personal genetic history. And our own genetic legacy.

Adoption is both harder to accomplish and more complicated these days. There are fewer babies (read: white American infants) and more hurdles. There are worries about crack babies as well as concerns about open adoptions.

But ethicist Art Caplan, who has spent more time in fertility clinics than I, agrees that most of the people going down the new reproductive menu of new options, are not there because of the scarcity of adoptable babies.

'' They want to send something of themselves into the future, '' he says, admitting, ''That sounds like a bad version of a time capsule, but what these new technologies remind us is that people want to have children in part to carry on their biological blueprint. It's not just the case that people want to parent; they want to parent someone who represents themselves.''

The question now is how far should we go for that desire? All the way cash in hand to a surrogate? Back to mom? At 42? At 48? At 53? Why is it so hard to switch our sights from our microscopic genes to the world of children who need parents?

So, I wish this family well. But I also squirm when Christa, watching her mother grow big with grandchildren, says, ''There are other women like me and I want them to know that this is one option they can think about.'' Now it is one option -- one option too many.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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