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06/09/2010

To do: Make beds, mop floors, Two Minutes Hate

Wow!  Hey!  Look what I found!  It's an INTERNET!

Between houseguests (wonderful) and laptop problems (insurmountable) and the run-up to my mother's arrival (imminent), I've been totally out of touch.  Even so, you'd think I'd have sensed it — an obscure raising of the hackles, an isolated tingling in the extremities, the puzzling urge to upcycle a New York Times vending machine with a crowbar — but I didn't.  Ross Douthat's op-ed on donor conception passed me by entirely.  Thanks, ivfcycler, for pointing me to it.  I was running a little low on irritation and contempt.

I don't have a lot of time; I still have to alphabetize the guest soaps before my mom comes, and perhaps install an in-ground swimming pool.  But I do have time to say a few things about the article.

  • It's predicated on a "study" — really a poll, whose methodology is riddled with problems — done by the Institute for American Values, an organization "devoted to contributing intellectually to the renewal of marriage."  I think we can infer exactly which "American values" they work to uphold.
  • It's deplorably sloppy.  I want numbers.  I want sources.  Don't invoke a "substantial minority"; tell me whether it's 49% or 2%.  Don't claim that "sperm donations generate between 30,000 and 60,000 conceptions every year" without acknowledging that that range, which is so variable from end to end as to be meaningless, is pulled directly from the deepest reaches of your ass.  (No industry-wide numbers are maintained; one estimate posits a birth rate closer to 4,000-5,000.)  If you're going to claim an enormous social impact, back it up with proof of...an enormous social impact.
  • It hoists the rat-infested strawman that I believe I last saw erected on the lawn of I Fucking Hate William Saletan: that of designer babies.  While it is true that some recipients pay premium rates for what they consider premium gametes, the vast majority of people pursuing donor conception are not, in fact, looking to create a race of gorgeous genetic robogeniustechnosuperbabies.  We're looking for babies — possibly babies who might resemble us physically, possibly babies who come from a similar ethnic or religious background.  Most of us shrivel in disgust at the idea of "shop[ping] for gametes the way you’d go shopping for a house or a car — buying ova from an Ivy League undergraduate, or sperm from a 6-foot-8, athletic, blue-eyed Dane."  Most of us — in fact, I presume a substantial majority — are decent people doing our best, not cartoonish movie villians looking to people a master race, one hard-won fetus at a time.
  • It's not even internally consistent.  Douthat, like other conservatives, gives lip service to the idea that the government intervenes too much in the lives of the American polluter factory farmer petroleum interests citizen.  Yet in this article he seems to argue for...greater regulation.  It takes a lot of work to stuff that big huge giant government up into a uterus, but Douthat, and others like him, are apparently perfectly willing to roll up their sleeves and get crammin'.
  • Douthat's stinger, his reference to one subject's "feeling of existing entirely for 'other people’s purposes, and not my own,'" is downright comical.  Is any child conceived for her own purposes?  Son!  Behold!  I give you life, that you might watch eight episodes of Spongebob Squarepants and mouth off to your mother!  It's the rare child who doesn't contrive some reason to resent her parents.  I don't know about anyone else, but I'm pretty comfortable telling my kids we had them solely because we wanted them.

This article is a real shame, because I believe everyone would benefit from a long, nuanced dialogue about the benefits and costs of donor conception.  This article, for all that it makes me want to set fire to something — perhaps that strawman; gosh, I hope it's not too close to his house — raises an issue we don't talk about much.  Even I, one of the people Douthat's pointing at all j'accuse-y-style, haven't discussed it much here, in a space I've created for just such conversations.  What are the repercussions for children of anonymous donor conception, and how do we balance that against our own desire for a family?  (Remind me to write about this more when I don't have a gazebo to design, build, paint, landscape, and plumb — what, your gazebo doesn't have a 3/4 bath? — before 4 PM today.)

I'd say Douthat missed an opportunity, but of course he didn't.  He did exactly what he meant to do.  He raised the specter of an unhappy generation, hundreds of thousands of children made miserable by their parents' selfish straying from the narrowest of paths.  He used the space given him by the paper of record — oh, New York Times, I weep — to advance the most reactionary of agendas.  And he did it without needing to exert even a scintilla of intellectual rigor.

Neat trick.

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