The Commodification of Children and the Insensitivity of the Culture


A couple of months ago, I wrote an article for the Catholic World Report in which several adult offspring of third-party-conceived offspring were interviewed. These adult offspring recounted the suffering they had experienced as result of their unjust conception. When the article was reprinted on a popular pro-life website as well as a well-trafficked conservative message board, the reactions from many pro-lifers, conservatives and Christians on Facebook, Twitter and comment boxes were quite surprising.

“Pathetic.” “Drama queen.” “Silly.” “…idiot loser…” Other commenters offered advice such as, “Stop dishonoring your parents” and “grow the hell up.” Why were commenters so outraged by Stephanie Blessing, the evangelical Christian and home-schooling mother of five the CWR piece opened with, simply because she revealed how devastating it was for her to learn her biological father was actually a sperm donor?

The harsh and insensitive comments may underscore the fact that many Christians, pro-lifers and conservatives either do not have a problem with, or lack an understanding of, our culture treating children as commodities, or the lifelong effects doing so can have on them.

Shouldn’t offspring of third-party conception be some of the “least of these” that pro-lifers and Christians work to protect? Anthony McCarthy is a former fellow at the Anscombe Bioethics Centre and currently serves as the education and publications manager at the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children in the United Kingdom. He told me via email recently that consumerism effects even those of us who are strongly pro-life. “I think we have become very sentimental in this age, which is the flipside of our cynical consumerism,” he said. “Perhaps this explains why even pro-lifers find it hard to think carefully about justice and think only of the loveliness of a child’s existence without thinking about sex and marriage and commitment and how they relate to that child and what he or she deserves.”

Jennifer Lahl, president of the Center for Bioethics and Culture (CBC), is an activist who is urging us to think more deeply about issues such as in vitro fertilization (IVF) and artificial reproductive technology (ART), such as sperm donation and surrogacy. Lahl recently wrote a piece for Christianity Today, urging evangelicals to start thinking about the moral ramifications of these technologies. After the fact, she told me she is amazed that even people who profess a well-established faith tradition do not have a cohesive view on such important matters.

“We have been working on abortion for 40-plus years,” she said in an interview with the Register. “[Are we] going to keep letting the train keep barreling down the track? The pro-life community: They need a bigger vision.”

Lahl said Christians, although not generally anti-technology, can be contradictory in our thinking at times about these matters. “We want things that are healthy. We go to the grocery store [and] we avoid the frozen peas, but we are freezing people, freezing babies. Do we want making children to be a technology, a manufacturing enterprise?”

She said pro-lifers should not just be concerned with killing in the womb, because “we are killing them in the lab; we are killing them in the petri dish.” She said killing children will become less stigmatized because it will be done out of sight more and more, thanks to IVF, ART, cloning and more.

Although a Pew Survey on abortion, in vitro fertilization and embryonic stem-cell research released in August did not cover third-party conception, its results with regard to Catholics and Church teachings on bioethics issues were rather telling. Although 64% of Hispanic Catholics and 53% of white Catholics say abortion is morally wrong, only 13% of Catholics say in vitro fertilization is wrong. Only 24% of Catholics believe embryonic stem-cell research is wrong.

Lahl believes that, in some sense, there have always been economic and utilitarian factors that have impacted childbearing. “Farming families would welcome sons to help the fathers work the farm and daughters to help raise the children and cook the food.”

Yet technology and a lack of coherent thought on moral issues are taking us places we should not go. According to Lahl, “Modern technologies in assisted reproduction have taken us further down the path of creating children according to our desires and wishes,” she said. “For example, the hundreds of thousands of frozen embryos in the U.S. underscore this mentality: Wanted children created for later use, when we are ready for them, and selective reduction when ‘too many’ embryos implant illustrate the cavalier attitudes that see children as products. [Then there is] sex selection just to produce boys and girls and in the order we want them,” she said.

McCarthy said IVF lends itself to commodification. “The very language of the IVF procedure is an inegalitarian one of producer over product, of controller over controlled,” he said. “This is radically opposed to the idea of unifying committed sexual love in which a newly conceived child — for those lucky enough to conceive one — is ‘received’ as a gift and at no stage treated in a sub-human, ‘product-like’ way.”

Recently, I watched a very impressive video featuring Jennifer Roback Morse of the Ruth Institute. In it, she said there is a connection between the commodification of children, contraception and abortion. I asked Morse how she would sum this connection up.

“Contraception and abortion are the instruments that make 'choice' seem plausible. Both abortion and contraception were about the 'choice' to say 'No' to a child,” said Morse. “But, increasingly, people are seeing artificial reproductive technology as a means of ‘choosing’ to say ‘Yes’ to a child. So the ‘right’ to have a child becomes the mirror image of the ‘right’ to dispose of the child. The buying and selling of children is literally the only way to accomplish this ‘choice,’ since ordinary sexual reproduction has such a large random element to it. Hence, the easy slide to commodification of children.”

For his part, McCarthy pointed to the use of “therapeutic” abortions, which many abortion supporters advocate as further evidence of child commodification. “Abortions for disability may sometimes be chosen out of misplaced kindness, but are often based on a view of the child as a rejectable and replaceable product. The language of choice, appropriate for the supermarket and purchasing of goods, is applied here to a unique and very special bonded relationship,” he said.

In addition to new and available technologies, what else is behind this commodification? “Economic systems based on usury and contempt for labor already encourage the idea that people are commodities and nothing more,” according to McCarthy. “Children, as the most vulnerable members of any society, are particularly prone to commodification. The institution that has always protected children from being regarded as mere commodities in a marketplace is the traditional married family. That natural institution is based around the welfare of children, understood as bringing together biological and social bonds as part of a lifelong commitment — an affirmation of the irreplaceable nature of all members of the family.”

Lahl added that commodification of children could also be attributed to a lack of moral imagination, a failure to see early life as “a unique member of the human family and a gift and not a product of our own design,” she said. “And many couples who go down the assisted reproductive path desperate for a child … in [their] desire to get a baby, [their] judgment is clouded.”

What can we do to stop this? Lahl said that getting educated about these new technologies, as well as comforting those who are infertile and encouraging them to find ethical ways to add to their families, is important.

McCarthy told me he thinks we need to understand the culture before fighting it. “It’s worth seeing how different aspects of commodification support each other,” he said. “On the economic front, we see contempt for marriage in terms of taxation, contempt for the family in terms of wages paid or hours of work required. This undermining of the family fits well with the destruction of marriage and the replacing of the idea of husband and wife with a kind of genderless consuming individualist as the paradigmatic ideal for people to aspire to.”

He added that strengthening our family lives, cutting out TV propaganda, getting involved in our local schools and parishes and connecting with other families are key in rejecting commodification. “And, of course, for Catholics, prayer and recourse to the sacraments are the most perfect way to resist the very real temptations of commodification.”

Leslie Fain is a freelance writer who lives in Louisiana with her husband and three sons. She can be emailed at lwfain92(at)gmail(dot)com.


José Benlliure Ortiz, “Leaving Mass in Rocafort,” 1915

On Suffering and Hope and Forever

‘In the Eucharist the sacrifice of Christ becomes also the sacrifice of the members of his Body. The lives of the faithful, their praise, sufferings, prayer, and work, are united with those of Christ and with his total offering, and so acquire a new value. Christ’s sacrifice present on the altar makes it possible for all generations of Christians to be united with his offering.’ (CCC 1368)

José Benlliure Ortiz, “Leaving Mass in Rocafort,” 1915

On Suffering and Hope and Forever

‘In the Eucharist the sacrifice of Christ becomes also the sacrifice of the members of his Body. The lives of the faithful, their praise, sufferings, prayer, and work, are united with those of Christ and with his total offering, and so acquire a new value. Christ’s sacrifice present on the altar makes it possible for all generations of Christians to be united with his offering.’ (CCC 1368)