Carl Djerassi, the chemist and writer who died last week, was among the few men with claim to the title “father of the Pill.” Djerassi imagined how contraception and IVF could work together to change the world even more. His September 2014 essay in the New York Review of Books anticipated “The Divorce of Coitus from Reproduction,” speculating that in a few decades, people who could afford to keep the two apart would do so as a matter of course; couples would undergo in vitro fertilization and use the best embryos when they wanted children, the rest of the time protecting sex from the possibility of conception.
Confronting this arrangement in a recent Commonweal piece, Gilbert Meilaender concludes that it would be unfortunate both for children and for sex. Meilaender instead upholds a view of procreation informed by Christian ethicist Paul Ramsey (1913-1988), who observed that “we procreate new beings like ourselves in the midst of our love for one another, and in this there is a trace of the original mystery by which God created the world because of His love.”
Those who dismiss Djerassi’s prediction with “a slightly worldly laugh” underestimate its appeal, in Meilaender’s view. Meilander is right. While it may take a few more years for the practice to become normal, in mentality we are already there. Parental ability to pre-screen embryos and choose the best one is a big advantage. The fact that acquiring this control requires laboratory assistance rather than doing what comes naturally would not disturb some parents, since what counts for parenthood, increasingly, is the intention to have children rather than the bodily composing of them. So much of women’s ordinary reproductive process already is entrusted to medical authority that having the process medically initiated, even when not medically necessary, is not that much of a stretch.
I would add two more reasons why that divorce would be a troubling development. First, making babies that way allows parents some determination but heightens the illusion of control, rather than offering control itself. You never really know in advance what your child is going to be, how a child’s being will require reshaping of your life and self. Second, understanding a child as a product of one’s will and chemical building-blocks distorts the role of nurture, starting with prenatal nurture. Surrogacy notwithstanding, pregnancy holds pretty fast the link between sex and reproduction.
The splitting off of sex from the generation of offspring pushes us conceptually if not biologically in the direction of asexual reproduction. And this reduces, rather than enriches, understanding of who and what we are.