Is it wise to have a baby at any age, at any cost? Seeds of doubt

January 28, 1994|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Staff Writer

Somewhere along the way -- after "test-tube baby" lost its freaky-future image, after surrogate mothers and sperm donors made plain old conception seem downright quaint -- it happened:

Baby love turned into baby lust.

What once was a simple if occasionally unfulfilled desire -- to have a biological child -- has become, in some cases, an all-out, single-minded mission to be pursued against all costs, ethical concerns and, now, even menopause.

"We've carried this baby obsession to the point where it's harmful -- to the point that women at 60 are desperate to have babies," says Leslie Lafayette, a Sacramento-area educator who two years ago started a group, ChildFree Network, part of a growing undercurrent of sentiment questioning this relentless pursuit to procreate.

When a 59-year-old British woman gave birth to twins last month, she pushed the childbearing envelope beyond previous boundaries. The birth also triggered an uproar over fertility technology that allows post-menopausal women to procreate and black women to be implanted with a white donors' eggs. And now, researchers are close to developing techniques in which eggs could be harvested from aborted fetuses for the use of infertile women, raising what one doctor so aptly called the "yuck factor."

As fertility technology advances at a dizzying rate and in disturbing ways, detractors are emerging from a range of perspectives -- feminist, ethical, environmental, as well as those who simply want to stop explaining why they choose not to have children.

"Men have the option of having children, without as much to lose if they don't," says Mardy S. Ireland, a Berkeley, Calif.-based psychologist who recently wrote a book titled "Reconceiving Women: Separating Motherhood from Female Identity" (The Guilford Press). "But women, because the culture doesn't support them in other ways, end up feeling they're missing something if they don't have children."

Ms. Ireland, whose book looks at the reasons women remain childless and how society views them, says all this new fertility-extending research suggests a "patriarchal" aspect to our culture.

"It's a way of making sure a woman doesn't escape [childbearing]," she says. "With the technology that's available, now there's the feeling that there's no reason for a woman not to have children."

For those who have taken advantage of advances in fertility research, however, the issue is one of choice: The option should be there for those who can't have children otherwise. And, they say, having a child is ultimately a personal, not a societal, decision.

"[Infertility] affects you every day. It seems that every TV commercial is about pregnancy, every show has children, all your friends suddenly happen to be pregnant," says Cari Stein, 36, a producer at Maryland Public Television, who went through several years of surgery and treatment before successfully conceiving through Greater Baltimore Medical Center's in-vitro fertilization program.

Her twins are now 20 months old. "But I wouldn't call it societal pressure -- that wasn't the reason I wanted to have kids. It's more internal than external. I knew I wanted to have a family because my own family has always been important to me."

Contraception as a choice

Some believe it's more a question of balance: Why, asks Dianne Sherman, communications director of the Washington-based group Zero Population Growth, is there so much emphasis on increasing fertility but so little on controlling it with newer and better contraceptives?

"You can't stop technology, but you have to give women a full range of choices," says Ms. Sherman. "We live in a pro-natalist society. It says something about the status of women: Women are still seen fundamentally as child-bearers."

ZPG, now in its 25th year, has been in the news much less than during its early years, when it was a major part of the first wave of environmentalism. But just as the environment has returned to the forefront in recent years, so too has interest in ZPG. It has 55,000 current members, up from 10,000 six years ago, Ms. Sherman says.

"The media and the general public had forgotten about this issue for a while," she says. "But now there's a steadily growing concern that if we're really going to make things better for future generations -- and that's always been part of the American character -- then we need to address issues like population and poverty and social and racial inequities."

"People's concern about the environment leads them to see too many people as part of the problem," says Susan Weber, ZPG's executive director.

ZPG and other like-minded groups often get cast as anti-child, but they would argue that they are actually pro-child, she says.

"I'd like to see a better world for children," Ms. Weber says. "There's so much talk about having babies, and not enough talk about being a good parent."

One of the more troubling aspects of the focus on baby-making, many say, is how this has trickled down to teen-agers.

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