Children on Demand

Tom Frame, Children on Demand: The Ethics of Defying Nature (UNSW Press, 2008), $32.95

As I write this it is the thirtieth anniversary of the birth of Louise Brown, the world’s first successfully conceived IVF baby. The IVF process has made many couples very happy; about 40 per cent of IVF attempts lead to the birth of a child. However, a similar percentage of these children show some kind of (perhaps minor) disability. This latter may be due, not to the IVF process, but to factors such as parents’ ages and genetics. The process is also quite expensive, amounting to about $2000 for each attempt.

In the most straightforward cases, the mother is given hormone injections, causing ovulation so that the harvested ova may be fertilised by the father’s semen. Originally, two or more such gametes were implanted in the mother’s uterus, often leading to joyful but somewhat overwhelming multiple births, a save, I guess, on having to repeat the process, with all its emotional and financial considerations.

In his thoughtful examination of parenting, Children on Demand, Tom Frame discusses all methods of achieving parenthood in our times and questions the modern demand to be a parent. His first and last argument is: what is good for the child; and he concludes that, on all available evidence, the arrangement of “two parents living together … has proved consistently better for children than any other, without exception”. By two parents he wishes to make it clear that the two best parents are the biological mother and father of the child.

IVF does not mean that the resulting children, however artificially engendered, will not be part of a loving family, but Frame argues strongly for natural processes and acceptance of the cards nature has dealt: “A person’s ultimate worth is not determined by their ability to parent.” He sees all sorts of social, family and peer pressure operating in making a couple, or even a single adult, or those in a gay relationship, seek to have a child.

Tom Frame himself was adopted as an infant, and his adoptive parents, particularly his alcoholic father, never quite convinced him of their love and full acceptance. He acknowledges that adoption was for centuries the only way a childless couple could get a child. Nowadays it is a very limited option. An orphaned child might be adopted by family members, or a couple might seek a child from an orphanage overseas. There are high-profile examples of celebrity adoptions by people like Madonna or Angelina Jolie, and a cynic can’t help questioning their motives and wondering what other charitable works they are committed to in the poor countries their adopted children hail from.

Very few children come up for adoption in First World countries. Single mothers can now rely on social security, and some are even motivated to have a child because of the guaranteed government support and the rather sad, dubious need to have someone to love. Another rather surprising motive manifested itself in the last couple of months when a group of teenage girls in a mid-western US high school all decided to get pregnant as an act of self-assertion.

Tom Frame himself became available for adoption at a time when a teen mother would have had little or no help and would have been left with no choice but to relinquish her child. He later sought and found his birth mother, but was unable to find out the name of his father. He acknowledges the deep grief and frustration of people who are unable to trace their real families. There is much anecdotal evidence that some are led to contemplate or even to commit suicide. There is a strong argument for making a child aware of their adoption, rather than pretending to be their natural parents. There are all sorts of laws in place, and they are continually under revision, which enable children to trace their natural parents. I was always amused by stories of children who were so dismayed by the parent reality dealt them that they persuaded themselves they must have been adopted, and fantasised about wonderful, tragic natural parents.

Tom Frame’s subtitle for his book is The Ethics of Defying Nature, and while he concedes strong motivation based on his personal experience in having been adopted, his arguments spring from concerns for the best interests of the child, whether he/she is naturally conceived, or through the often convoluted use of ART (Artificial Reproductive Technology). He argues strongly and convincingly against producing a child as a lifestyle accessory, and questions arrangements that have the potential for three kinds of mothers: genetic, gestational and social, and two kinds of fathers: genetic and social. Just today on the news there was a report of yet another kind or mother/father. A woman who had a sex change into a man, then married, decided to carry a child for the couple, since “he” had kept “his” ovaries, and his wife for some reason was unable to bear a child. No mention was made of the infant’s donor father.

Frame examines and presents convincing arguments against commercial surrogacy and the legal entanglements, not to mention the emotional ones, involved in this method, as well as in other ART options. Frame concedes that surrogacy meets the desire of adults who want to be parents, but that the needs and welfare of the child must always come first. When he looks at what he terms “the burden of freedom” he strongly recommends that an individual or couple seek support and counselling where they might be incapable of reaching an informed decision on whether to have a child or not, whether it is a matter of abortion or adoption or ART intervention.

In 2005–06 there were 266,745 reports of child abuse and yet there is an unwillingness by the Department of Community Services to remove these children from their families and place them in a safer environment. Tom Frame does not go into the fraught area of fostering, nor into the yet more fraught area of intervention in Aboriginal child abuse. For many such children fostering has had a positive outcome, but the security of adoption was never a possibility or a consideration.

Frame does argue for help for victims of abuse and help for children and people in real need, not just here in Australia, but especially in countries where the need is greatest. But he sees ART as a burden on society, financially and ethically, and suggests the funds be better used on children already amongst us.

Frame criticises opinions by ethicists such as Peter Singer, Max Charlesworth and Robert Winston who, to me, demonstrate in large part a rather naive attitude to reproduction, parenting and ART. All argue for unfettered choice, but seem to ignore the notion of informed choice and the welfare of the child in favour of a dubious liberty.

For me there are a number of surprises in Frame’s book, including the feminist objections to ART, which is viewed as a way to control and manipulate a woman’s reproductivity.

As a mother of five children, I’m probably not in a position to judge anyone who is desperate, for whatever reason, to have a child, but I have always had a profound respect for anyone who has recognised in themselves a reluctance, for whatever reason, to have one. I do smile at the memory of one naive male acquaintance who liked to pontificate on the subject of reproducing himself, as if he ever could. And he never did. He deemed the whole business of reproduction to be some kind of ego-trip. He really had no idea.

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