A 'right' to become a parent?

Susan Jacoby

November 02, 1993|By Susan Jacoby

I ONCE interviewed a woman who was enraged because her health insurance company, after paying for two unsuccessful attempts at in vitro fertilization, had refused to reimburse her for further infertility treatments.

"They're depriving me of my right to become a mother," she said, "and I'm going to sue them."

But where is it written that our society owes everyone the "right" to become a parent, regardless of the financial or ethical cost?

The woman's comment offers yet another example of the pervasive, bloated sense of entitlement that forms a crucial, largely unexamined backdrop to the debate over the ethics of cloning human embryos.

The ethical controversy erupted last week after scientists at George Washington University Medical Center announced that they had developed a cloning procedure that would help infertile couples conceive artificially by providing them with identical extra embryos. But this "breakthrough" also creates a real possibility that unused embryos could be sold to other couples.

The debate pits the so-called right of people to control their own embryos -- and to have children in any way they desire -- against society's need to protect itself from those who would cheerfully clone and sell endless multiples of human beings as long as there was a profit to be made.

Almost no one has questioned the notion of parenthood as a right and infertility as a violation of that right -- and a disaster that must be fought with all the high-tech tools of modern medicine.

Because I consider infertility a sorrow rather than a tragedy, I cannot conceive of any ethical justification for cloning humans.

I am far more concerned about the potential social consequences of merchants' peddling "desirable" embryos (no doubt white and proven Harvard material) than about the personal disappointment experienced by couples who cannot easily produce children.

To take this position is to risk accusations of being a Luddite. Any scientific advance can, of course, be misused, but the real question is whether the possible benefit outweighs the possible risk.

Gene therapy also raises grave ethical questions, but the risks are worth taking because such experiments hold out the possibility of correcting lethal genetic defects.

Embryo-cloning, by contrast, will surely be used not only to remedy infertility but to enable affluent Americans to get what they want when they want it.

I am 48 and deeply regret having no children. Yet I am perfectly aware that career decisions made years ago are largely responsible for my childless state. Cloning would certainly get me off the hook. If such a procedure had been available back in the '70s, my then-husband and I could have stored away a number of identical future babies.

Now that I'm older and ready to be a parent, I could take my bundles of joy off the freezer shelf. Because I no longer have a uterus, I'd have to rent another woman for the pregnancy.

And the baby wouldn't have a father, because my ex-husband died some years after our divorce. But why worry? I'd have what I want exactly when it suited me.

An unlikely scenario? In an era of rights run wild, anything is not only possible but likely.

Twenty years ago, who would have believed that we would witness court battles between surrogate mothers and well-off couples determined to do anything to reproduce at least one partner's precious genes?

It is past time for our society to call a halt to the "me first" expansion of rights.

No one has the right to jeopardize the precious uniqueness of all members of the human race in order to assuage individual heartbreak and gratify individual desires.

Susan Jacoby writes on medical ethics and reproductive issues.

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