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'Coffee-Shop Babies' and Humane Procreation


| Posted 11/10/11 at 10:23 AM


Does a child have a right to parents? Does a child have a right to be reared by his parents? Should a parent ordinarily give life to a child and then get out of his life? Even if he does, should society allow that?

Most people would answer the first two questions “Yes” and the last two “No.” We instinctively recognize that children ordinarily have a right to parents who gave them life and raise them. We instinctively recognize that ordinarily a parent should be responsible for his child and, if he is derelict in that duty, society should hold him accountable.

I say “ordinarily” because we admit exceptions: A parent may die or be abusive; an unwed teenage mother may have no other option than to give up her baby. But, by saying “ordinarily,” we admit that such situations are tragic exceptions. They are not and should not be normal, either in the sociological (how frequently they occur) or the ethical (should we regard these exceptions as consistent with the norm of kids with parents) senses.

In their hearts, most people know: that parents should not only give life, but also rear their kids; that deviations from that norm are good neither for children, parents or society; and that society needs to uphold those norms when they begin to break down.

Lots of people happily still think that way. Most people wouldn’t even find these questions controversial. Well, welcome to the brave new world of 21st-century reproduction.

U.S. News and World Report put the question of the “coffee shop baby” on its Oct. 10-24 cover. Nowhere in the otherwise positive article did the author even bother to raise the questions I just asked you.

What’s a “coffee shop baby? The example the article cites is the child conceived by a lesbian in an ersatz “marriage.” “Beth Gardner and her wife” (the opening line of the article, which does not even bat an eyebrow about Mrs. and Mrs. Gardner) cannot conceive a baby as a result of their “marriage,” so they need some outside help. They did not like sperm banks: Semen comes with a price (“at least $2,000”), and the donors are anonymous. So they did what any good postmodern American would do: They shopped online for free sperm donations, a new market niche. Google provided plenty of hits.

Their first rendezvous with a free donor was at Starbucks (hence, the “coffee-shop baby”). He arrived, masturbated in the restroom, and handed over a cup. Beth then discretely slipped into the ladies room, “attached the cup to her cervix, [and] as nature took its course, the three sat down for coffee together.”

Although Beth didn’t conceive as a result of this new variation on getting together over coffee, she eventually got pregnant, although we do not find out how. In this euphemism-laden article, there are two ways: artificial insemination (everything from antiseptic syringes at fertility clinics to new uses for a coffee cup) and “natural insemination” (i.e., sexual intercourse).

Does this sound weird to you? It should, especially in light of the questions you answered above. U.S. News, however, did back flips to make it sound so ho-hum. Surfing one website, author Jamie Chung opined that “far from being overrun by sex-crazed ‘sperminators’ and ‘desperate girls’ ... most of what I found was mundanely human.”

“Mundanely human?” Since when has wanting to have a baby with the sperm of a man you just met for the first (and probably last) time over a latte become so boringly routine?

More than 30 years ago, in Donum Vitae, the Vatican affirmed that a child has a right to parents and to enter this world through “his parents’ ‘act of union and love’; the generation of a child must therefore be the fruit of that mutual self-giving” (4c).

Mutual self-giving is more than just handing over a coffee cup, even if gratis. While the Church is often accused of standing in the way of “progress” and science,” who is really standing up here for humanity? For human procreation, not just technological reproduction? For a humane world and how one enters it?

How have we reached this situation? In America, it’s the result of the toxic effects of Roe v. Wade. In the mid-1970s, in vitro fertilization (IVF) would emerge as the primary means of artificial reproduction. Definitive regulations of the new fertility business would require the state to address issues central to Roe, establishing precedents that could challenge the constitutionality of that groundbreaking decision by the high court.

Not wanting to grab that third rail, lawmakers kept silent, yielding legal lacunae exploited by entrepreneurs. That’s why there’s no real consensus on what to do with frozen embryos or who gets them when a couple divorces, or whether artificial insemination using a man’s sperm after he dies represents good public policy.

As Catholics, our acquiescence in Roe’s lies about the beginning of life is responsible for the moral corrosion that extends far beyond the abortion issue. Roe’s radical individualism also provides the legal fig leaf for those who assert that marriage is nothing more than what a judge or 31 members of the New York Senate say it is.

As Catholics, we also need to recognize there is a straight line between “coffee-shop babies” and rejection of Humanae Vitae. If one denies the central and humane principle of the encyclical — that man may not divide the unitive from the procreative dimensions of sex — then the shards can be reassembled however one wants.

Sex without babies? Babies without sex? And if sex has nothing to do with babies, why does it have anything to do with sexual differentiation? And if it doesn’t, why does the sex of those “having” babies matter?

We haven’t yet reached the totalitarian methods of reproduction Aldous Huxley envisioned in Brave New World. But, unless we recommit ourselves to the humane vision of Humanae Vitae, we will continue slouching towards “love” as a website and a coffee cup.

John M. Grondelski, a moral theologian, writes from Perth Amboy, New Jersey.