The Creep of the Fertility Cult

I really do like Melinda Selmys's writing.  I think she probably the most thoughtful and the most honest advocate from the traditional Catholic position on sexuality, even when I vehemently disagree with her conclusions.  Her stuff on LGBT issues does a good job of calling out the truly destructive elements of the Catholic Right, including folks like Austin Ruse.  She is an interesting and important voice in a space that is often bereft of original and nuanced thinking.

Her recent piece similarly thought-provoking, though perhaps not in the way she intended.  The middle of the piece, arguing that the CDC's recent guidance that women of fertile age that are not on birth control should abstain completely from alcohol is overly cautious to the point of absurdity, seems completely correct (FWIW, my doctor sister echoed many of the same points in a Facebook post).  So, I think we can agree that telling women to avoid alcohol completely if they may become pregnant is unsound advice.  OK so far.

But suppose that the risks of drinking alcohol were far greater than they actually are, and that a woman who drank any alcohol during early pregnancy had a ten times greater risk (or fifty times--pick your factor) of having her child develop fetal alcohol syndrome.  Then the CDC's guidance would be reasonable and sensible, right?  The problem here is the cost-benefit analysis the CDC is presenting is misleading, not that the notion of telling women who might be fertile not to drink is somehow inherently problematic.

Apparently not, according to Selmys.  Selmys's core objection to the CDC report seems to be that it puts a disproportionate burden on women who don't use birth control, since they must in theory never drink alcohol under the CDC's regime:

The problem is that this makes it needlessly onerous for a woman to be pregnant. It’s not really a big deal to give up alcohol, sushi, deli meat and half a dozen other minor pleasures for nine months once, maybe twice in a lifetime, just in case. It’s a much bigger deal for a woman who intends to exercise her fertility through a significant percentage of her fertile years, especially when these strictures are imposed not only on pregnant women but also on women who are breastfeeding and now even those who are merely open to life.

Again, insofar as the restrictions are "needless," then I agree.  But Selmys's objection seems to be, at least in part, to the very notion of restrictions that would incentivize women to be careful with regard to the circumstances under which they become pregnant.  She begins with a thesis statement that "[t]he micromanagement of pregnant bodies, and now of fertile women’s bodies, is actually a logical extension of the reasoning behind abortion and aggressive family planning."  This is because, per Selmys, "[a]t the heart of the planned parenthood mentality, there is a belief that every child has a right to be born into the most ideal possible circumstances."  Later she says, "[i]f a woman makes the decision to be fertile, then she must be warned against any behavior that might increase the likelihood of a defective infant being born."

Here's my question--what is the alternative to the "planned parenthood mentality"?  That is doesn't matter under what circumstances a child is born into?  That we shouldn't tell women what behaviors might result in harmful effects to their child post-utero?  I think the notion that a child having a "right" to be born in particular circumstances is incoherent for the same reason a "right to a mother and father" is incoherent.  But if you rephrase the statement to "future parents have an obligation to work so that their child is born in the most ideal possible circumstances," that seems to be almost a truism.  And while we can and should talk about harm reduction and relative risks with regard to specific behaviors, I would have thought that everyone would agree that medical bodies should warn against risks that do in fact exist.

Selmys tries to muddy the waters by bringing up the paired issues of abortion and birth defects:

The perception is that the most worthwhile human life is one in which a neurotypical, able-bodied child is loved and doted upon by economically privileged parents. Deviation from this ideal reduces the value of a life and increases the likelihood that abortion will be a "compassionate" necessity in order to prevent a "life of suffering."  

But it's one thing to say that it is improper to abort a child with a birth defect; it's another entirely to say that you should not endeavor to reduce the chance that the child will develop the birth defect through harm reduction strategies.  I mean, I think we can all agree that it would be better for a child not to have fetal alcohol syndrome than to have it, in particular for the child himself or herself.  The point is that bad outcomes are bad outcomes, regardless of what you believe is or is not appropriate to do in the wake of bad outcomes, and children developing fetal alcohol syndrome is a bad outcome.  Parents, including pregnant women who are parents-to-be, have some measure of obligation to try to prevent this bad outcome.  Or, at least, I think so.

Again, what exactly is Selmys's objection here?
Lurking in the background of Selmys's piece is the notion that child-bearing is a good thing in and of itself, separate and apart from the actual people that result from child-bearing.  This is the only way I can make sense of her objection to attempts to ensure that children are put in the best possible situation--to the extent that those efforts result in fewer total children, that's a bad thing, even if the children that do come to be are better off.

The problem, and we saw it in the way Selmys talked about marriage in reaction to Obergefell (linked to above), is that the traditional Catholic vision of marriage and family is secretly utilitarian and instrumentalist.  If child-bearing as such is the end, then actual embodied children are the means to that end.  Since child-bearing is the end, then it is the primary concern, over and above the welfare of any individual children.  Children (and, indeed in a sense, even the couple themselves) become instruments toward an abstract, ideological objective.

This creates a significant problem, because Catholic moral theology is absolutely insistent on the idea that human beings are always ends, and never means.  To be fair, this concept gets somewhat murky when you talk about having children.  For example, a couple that says "let's have a baby" is arguably violating the rule about means/ends, since they are making their hypothetical future child into an instrument (and thus a means) to advance the broader goal of "being parents."  On the other hand, the hypothetical future child can't really be an end, either, since it doesn't exist yet.  Arguably, it is OK to have a hypothetical future child as a means, until the moment the hypothetical future child stops being hypothetical and future (however that is understood), where it must stop being a means and only be an end.  In any event, whenever our hypothetical future child becomes an end, it becomes improper to subordinate the child's interests to that of some extrinsic program or agenda.  Doing so would make the child into an instrument, and thus a means, and that is not OK.        

It seems to me that prioritizing child-bearing over actual children violates this rule, since it makes the child subordinate to the abstract goal of "more kids" (or, to use Selmys's curious phrase, "the exercise of [a woman's] fertility").  To avoid this problem, you would have to say that only children, not child-bearing as such, has any moral significance (much in the same way that Fr. Haller argues, as I quote in the link above, that only actual marriages have moral value, not marriage as such).  But that runs you headlong into Humanae Vitae and its formulation that "openness to life" has intrinsic value that must be respected and maintained.  One of the real problems with the Humanae Vitae formulation is that the idea of "openness to life" is completely abstracted from actual kids, which results in potentially putting those two things into direct conflict.  The classic example of this conflict is the situation where parents believe that having an additional child will materially harm their ability to provide for the needs of their existing children, whether financially or emotionally.  Catholicism tries to finesse this problem via NFP, without fully committing to the idea that a couple can morally choose in a definitive way not to have any more kids if they believe that more kids would harm the ones they already have.  In essence, Humanae Vitae requires a couple to prioritize "openness to life," in the form of the potential for more children, over the kids they already have, or at the very least prevents them from definitively prioritizing the present over the future.  From there, Selmys's objections to "the planned parenthood mentality," and her corresponding skepticism about maximizing outcomes, do logically flow.

I suppose this makes me someone with a "planned parenthood mentality," but it seems to me that not only can you prioritize the outcomes of your existing children over the abstract notion of future fertility, but you have a positive obligation to do so.   Said another way, prioritizing child-bearing as such over actual children is to embrace a neo-traditional fertility cult.  As I mentioned in that piece, I believe the Duggar-style Quiverfull ideology that one should have as many kids as possible to advance a Christian agenda is morally unacceptable because it (among other things) instrumentalizes your children, making them means to advance a political and religious agenda as opposed to ends in and of themselves.  The Duggar parents are, literally, dehumanizing their children.  But while NFP Catholicism does not go that far, but it circles around that same flame, insofar as it prioritizes child-bearing as such over actual children.  If the Duggars are the "hard" Quiverfull, this is the "soft" version.

I don't think Selmys wants to go down this road.  But there is a gravitational pull coming out of the traditional Catholic thinking on the subject that tugs in that direction.  Even if I agree that the CDC's advice is misguided and wrongheaded, and I do, I can't agree with Selmys's rationale for why it is not OK.  It's a problem because it is unsound advice, not well-calibrated to the actual risks involved in the behavior in question.  It is not a problem because it encourages women and couples to be reasonable regarding the circumstances under which they bring a child into the world.  That's something that they can and should do.  That's not a function of a "planned parenthood mentality"; it's a function of treating children with the dignity they deserve and not as means to some abstract, ideological end.


Nicky James said…
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