Our society’s ongoing mainstreaming of “poly” relationships continues apace, if the New York Times is any indication. Two weeks after exploring the difficulties of polyamorous parenting, Debora Spar has penned an op-ed touting new developments in reproductive technologies that promise to dissolve the family as we knew it.

At the center of the revolution is in vitro gametogenesis (IVG), a process in which gametes are created by clinicians from an individual’s stem cells. Though the technology has only so far been employed on mice, if used successfully for humans it might enable a woman to create both a sperm and an egg from her own genetic material, making her the only parent of the child. Or she might use genetic material from two other friends as well, giving the child three parents. “The implications are enormous,” Spar rightly observes. Although Spar is right that this technology could alter how we think about marriage and family, her narrow focus obscures the darker potential of IVG.

Spar’s essay underscores the primacy of technological developments for how we imagine “the family.” If abortion introduced the logic of “choice” into the center of how we imagine children’s relationship to parents, in vitro fertilization extended it, allowing parents to choose children with particular attributes or of a particular sex. As Spar observes, the separation of reproduction from sex helped generate sympathy for the logic of gay marriage among many people.

These reconfigurations have been animated in large part by the interest in allowing “people to conceive babies they desperately want, and to build families with those they love.” Spar never interrogates whether we should endorse the vision of a society of threesomes or foursomes, “reproducing with whomever they choose and loving as they desire”. Instead, her essay is suffused with a technological determinism that renders ethical objections superfluous. The “history of assisted reproduction is powerful and clear,” she writes, “once we create new technologies for conception, we embrace them.” While we might have qualms or anxieties when new technologies are introduced, we will eventually acclimatize to the foursome next door — as we once did to the single parent next door. Our “howls of bioethical criticism” disappear into the void, while technology “urges” its own use in service of our desires.

Though satisfying a person’s fundamental desires to have a child sounds noble, such technologies bring darker possibilities along with them that Spar’s triumphal delight in disrupting our conception of family obscures — as Spar herself knows all too well.

The politics of the baby making business

“We are selling children,” Spar wrote in The Baby Businessher 2006 examination of the way markets have shaped the fertility industry. In that volume, Spar did not seem sanguine about the future of such an industry without government regulation. Indeed, she argued that we needed a political debate in order to ensure the “baby business” does not “disintegrate into chaos or fall prey to narrow interests of particular groups” — and that we need to impose some limits on parental choice. If cloning were to become a realistic option, for instance, the choice to use it would be “more than personal”.

The same warnings should apply to the new technology Spar now so enthusiastically endorses. Although IVG is not identical to cloning, it does make “solo parenting” possible, which introduces a form of genetic transmission that is as disruptive as cloning to our relationship to future generations.

As Spar’s depiction of the “baby business” and of the need for regulatory policy implies, the dissolution of the family will lead to increasing State control over reproduction. Due to its expense, access to IVG will be limited to the wealthy and the privileged. As long as that endures, whatever “advantages” IVG provides would deepen and extend those inequalities. While the State might decide to redress that imbalance by making IVG available to everyone, that would also give it a unique responsibility to the children who are created — and a unique authority to set limits on people’s reproductive choices.

If IVG allows for new means for parents to satisfy their desires, it also opens up new possibilities to “perfect” the children we create. As one group of philosophers points out, IVG could allow for the creation of a massive number of a woman’s eggs — which are otherwise limited — which would enable us to better “optimise” our selection of the embryos created from them. Yet such newfound powers also bring the possibility of reifying various systems of classism, sexism, racism, or other forms of inequity that linger in the background of our desires.

This type of “slippery slope” arises from the very framework of technological inevitability that Spar seems to endorse, in which the combined logic of markets and individual desires overwhelms any moral aversion or objection. Technological optimists have done much to try to philosophically distance contemporary reproductive programs from nefarious historical applications of eugenics, like those of Nazi Germany. But if moral objections do not matter in the face of our rush to satisfy our desires, there is nothing to prevent us from enacting all manner of social evils.

The effects on children

Yet Spar’s essay also says little about the individuals who would be most affected by the use of IVG: children. In Spar’s euphoria over the possibility of “poly parenting,” she never explains why we should expect such arrangements to go well for the kids. There is some reason to be doubtful that it will.

The logic of poly parenting is founded on the basic principle that “more is better”. As another piece in the Times acknowledged two weeks ago, there is effectively no research on how children who are raised in polyamorous households fare. Anecdotally, more parents might indeed mean “more time, more love, more experience, more finances, and, best of all, more sleep …” Yet more people also means more time spent negotiating the shape of the household, more time navigating adults’ emotions, more possibilities for miscommunication and offense about matters central to a person’s well-being — in short, more drama.

Some polyamorous relationships enact “rules agreements” in order to minimize these burdens, introducing a contractualism into the heart of their unions that few marriages require. The limits that marriage imposes on one man and woman are more efficient than any boundaries that polyamorous proponents could devise, and also more fruitful. Diminishing the amount of time adults spend navigating their own relationship frees them to focus on children, empowering the whole household to look beyond its own walls toward the good of their neighbors.

Diffusing the child’s genetic roots among four people, rather than two, would amplify these difficulties by diminishing the sources of familial unity across generations. A person’s genetic or biological inheritance provides a source of multi-generational continuity for a person as they grow and develop. One learns to see one’s own identity as shaped by not only one’s parents, but also one’s grandparents — physically, to be sure, but also through the narratives and stories that give their flesh its unique significance. My own relationship with the grandfather I resemble is enriched by the knowledge that he was a polio survivor, who could swing an axe better than I could as a scrawny teenager, despite his having the use of only one arm. The two inheritances are mutually reinforcing: the story gives our resemblance a significance it would lack otherwise.

Yet as grandparents multiply, both genetic and narrative inheritance become diluted. In the world that Spar heralds, five friends might combine their genetic material to create a child — giving that child 10 grandparents. And that is only the first generation: if that child decided to behave likewise with four others who had been similarly created, the number of great-grandparents would multiply exponentially. Any meaningful genetic continuity across generations would be lost, as would the transmission of stories, practices, and other fabric of the family that children inherit when they come into the world.

Keeping memory alive

Of course, the lessening of that inheritance is the point of such technologies. As Spar observes, our acclimatization to new social realities prompts us to forget how the world was before them. That forgetting is inevitable with any technological development; yet it seems to be part of the point of a technology like IVG, which would destroy the transmission of life across generations as we know it.

The family inducts us into the world, by inculcating in us the history of failures and triumphs that have shaped our opportunities and limitations. Identifying with the history that preceded us helps us recognize our indebtedness and obligations to past generations: we owe something to those who came before us. Being stretched backwards that way also helps us look forward to the manner in which our own actions are reshaping the world for generations to come. Even if Spar’s dream-world of threesomes raising children could be tenable for one generation, would it be for the next two or three?

At the very least, Spar’s essay helps underscore that the debate about the shape of marriage and family did not end at Obergefell. It simply shifted into the world of biotechnology. The emerging discussion about IVG and other types of multi-parent technologies demands renewed attention to why children do well with only two parents, and why those parents do best to procreate in the ordinary way, even with all its inefficiencies, burdens, and failures.

People of faith have a responsibility to keep alive the memory of a world in which children are received as gifts from God. That task requires properly ordering our own genealogical lines by chastely reserving our procreative acts to marriage and forging a multi-generational culture within our households. Such an opportunity is open to everyone: those who are childless can pass on the goods of family to future generations through the practice of godparenthood; through the revival of extended-family communities; and through the practice of hospitality. Only when we begin to fully display the beauty and joys of a family life that is not governed by the insatiable demands of our own desires will the logic of IVG and its appeal begin to lose their power.

This article has been republished with permission from The Public Discourse.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Assistant Research Professor of Ethics and Theology at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion and the founder of Mere Orthodoxy. You may read more at matthewleeanderson.com.