The first New York Times Magazine cover of the year featured a picture of two particularly adorable babies with matching blue eyes and fair hair. These babies, we’re told, are not twins, but “twiblings”, two genetically related children, conceived at the same time in the same lab with sperm from the same father and eggs from the same donor. Each embryo was then implanted in the uterus of a different gestational surrogate, and the babies were born five days apart.
The Times piece was written by Melanie Thernstrom, a journalist who met her (younger) life partner at age 41 and then found that she and her husband were unable to start the family they both desperately wanted. The couple went through six failed rounds of IVF before a high risk pregnancy specialist asked Thernstrom: “Is your goal to have the experience of pregnancy, or to have a healthy baby?” The latter, of course, thought Thernstrom, “and compared with that goal, all other desires seemed not only secondary, but also trivial, even narcissistic.”
I hear this kind of thing a lot where infertility issues are concerned. The unequivocal priority is to produce a healthy child. I agree that the process of bearing the child is a small piece of the much larger and more significant puzzle of raising and loving one: a nonessential piece for a relatively large number of people. But to call the biological part of the process “trivial” and “narcissistic” feels a little belittling to the experience of being pregnant. And “narcissistic” is a word that could be applied to the act of parenting in general, not just the reproduction part. Sure, there’s something extra self-centered when your own genes are involved. But you’re still raising your child in your own ethos, if not your image.
When they were doing IVF, the couple had ben hoping for twins so they could complete their family in one fell swoop without having to undergo further IVF treatments. They also loved the idea of same age kids. So they wondered, why not apply that same thinking to a surrrogate pregnancy? The idea seemed to make perfect sense: use an egg donor, and two different surrogates, implanted with embryos simultaneously. But though this idea has produced what the couple relate is a rather perfect, if totally nontraditional, family unit. One benefit: with so many players, Thernstrom says, it’s harder for her to feel in competition with any one woman’s biological relationship with either of her babies. But despite their overwhelmingly positive reports on the process, the couple has found themselves confronting a lot of unsupportive opinions.
The primary objections seem to be moral. The idea of one surrogate is a stretch for some people, but rent another womb at the same time and you’re bringing up some serious baby factory anxiety. This is human reproduction we’re talking about, the spark of life that many people associate with the divine. So predictably, this Times piece has stirred up a lot of controversy.
“With every pushing of the envelope that the media trills over, we are experimenting with society’s most basic institution, not to mention—again—validating procreation as a consumer activity and form of manufacture. And let’s not get into the little pumpkins that end up as medical waste or in cold storage.” Wesley J. Smith, Secondhand Smoke (Your 24/7 Seminar on Bioethics and The Importance of Being Human). In his Times Op-Ed “Unborn Paradox”, Ross Douthat laments the obsessive (and expensive) craving for pregnancy…as compared to what he sees for a lack of respect for the lives these pregnancies create. ” This is the paradox of America’s unborn. No life is so desperately sought after, so hungrily desired, so carefully nurtured. And yet no life is so legally unprotected, and so frequently destroyed.”
What do you think? Are “Twiblings” an innovative solution to fertility problems, or a morally questionable one?
photo: Jeff Reidel for The New York Times