A couple of weeks ago, The Economist published a commentary called “Sex and science.” Its print edition carried the subtitle, “Ways of making babies without sex are multiplying. History suggests that they should be embraced.”
I’m a big fan of The Economist. I love the breadth of issues it covers, I love its wit, I love pondering the questions its articles and commentaries bring to my mind. But I found this particular piece to be so unsatisfying.
To be sure, I was always going to disagree with the conclusions of a commentary bearing the subtitle “Ways of making babies without sex are multiplying. History suggests that they should be embraced.” But more than that, I think “Sex and science” fell flat. It offered up a complex, even mind-bending set of possibilities and considerations and then answered them not with an elegant argument, but with a simplistic, “Happy parents and healthy children make a pretty good rule for thinking about any reproductive technology.”
Happiness and health: the only measures that matter, apparently.
“Sex and science” advocates for research into the next generation of human reproductive technologies. It embraces the now-familiar earlier generations (artificial insemination by donor and in vitro fertilization) and seems to look forward to the day when children can also be routinely created from the genes of one parent (cloning) or three (mitochondrial transplantation.) Or from two parents, but with gene editing to avoid disease or advantage certain characteristics, or to allow gay couples to produce children related to both parents.
The article casually mentions ethical concerns about such practices and the research required to make them possible, but doesn’t attempt to answer the concerns with much more than a “disgust is not a good guide to policy.” That and “the test of happy parents and healthy children is the right one.”
I spent a good week feeling very disappointed in The Economist, frustrated that it would be so sloppy as to skip over a whole field of ethical concerns only to land on the squishy, transient good of “happiness.” But then I had to acknowledge to myself that this is a much wider trap, one into which most of us (including me!) fall at some point or another. (And into which many of us fall over and over again.)
How many times do we think of our children’s futures and say that we “just want them to be happy”? How often do we rank our own happiness – as temporary as it might be – over any other consideration? How willing are we to brush away nagging questions about the right and the good and the responsible when they risk getting in the way of something that we think will make us happy?
Happiness comes and goes throughout our lives. (Health does too, for that matter.) And though we pursue it in big ways (a spouse, a child, a job, a house) and small (food, clothing, entertainment), happiness is too elusive to be captured for long. Ultimately the goals we seek – the ones we’re just sure will make us happy – can only ever get us part of the way there.
Parenthood is a good and beautiful thing, but contrary to the offhand promises of “Sex and Science,” it is no guarantor of happiness. Ask the postpartum mother struggling with depression. Ask the parents dealing with a teenage rebellion. Ask the grandparents whose children have cut them out of their grandchildren’s lives.
I don’t mean to suggest that happiness (or parenthood) isn’t worth pursuing, that it doesn’t add to our lives, or that it can’t go right alongside the beautiful and good. I only mean to say that happiness is too fickle and subjective a quality to be used as a measure.
Happiness is like a cloud at sunset: bright and colorful for a moment. It is constantly changing form. It swells with beauty, increases in wonder – and then dissipates into the dark night.
(Come back tomorrow for more thoughts on this subject.)
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