Wednesday, February 28, 2024

The Social Construction of Babies


Christ in Limbo, by an unnamed follower of Hieronymus Bosch, ca. 1575. Via Wikipedia.

I think the really important thing about the "frozen embryos are babies" fiasco is the way it revealed that everybody actually knows they are not, right down to Nikki Haley and Donald J. Trump. This is something I've been thinking about for quite a while, not really reducing it to writing beyond the occasional Twitter thread, and I thought I might make it an occasion for laying my argument out at some length.

I mean, the Alabama case makes it especially clear. Haley and Trump really aren't aware that they know it, and if you ask the Republicans in a given sample straight out, "Are frozen embryos babies?", they may well give you the pious, but senseless, answer that Haley and Trump initially did, but if you make them think a bit about it instead, they'll realize easily enough that there's nothing morally wrong with throwing unneeded embryos in the garbage (if probably not getting that it's really better to donate them to scientific research). They'll just have an awfully hard time explaining why.

Because practically everybody knows that blastocysts are not children, and for that matter (in my opinion) that embryos and fetuses are not in and of themselves persons in anything like the legal sense either, though we may not realize we know it, or be able, if we do, to give it a philosophical explanation. Almost everybody sees one contradiction or another in the idea that every abortion is a murder. Almost nobody thinks a ten-year-old girl should be forced to carry a child begotten by a rapist uncle or father, almost nobody thinks a woman with a tubal pregnancy should have to let it kill her, and it's forbidden by Jewish law as well.

It's only maniacs like that Alabama chief justice who will stick to the original story; Trump got an adviser to come up with an alternative cliché, while Haley had to grasp at the straw of her own personal reality, even if it meant quietly acknowledging that Major Haley has in the course of his life jerked off for medical purposes into a plastic cup, probably at least twice, first testing the sperm count, then supplying the sperm (reader, there's no shame in that—I've done the test myself, though in our case IVF turned out not to be necessary):

"We want to make it easier for mothers and fathers to have babies, not harder!" Trump said on his Truth Social website, commenting on an Alabama Supreme Court decision that ruled frozen embryos are children.

Speaking a day before the South Carolina primary, Trump said "that includes supporting the availability of fertility treatments like IVF in every State in America." ...

on CNN on Thursday, Haley said she disagreed with the ruling's impact on IVF, noting that “I had artificial insemination. That’s how I had my son."

She added: “I think that the court was doing it based on the law, and I think Alabama needs to go back and look at the law." (USA Today)

Logically, though, it's a real dilemma for conservatives: "pro-life" dogma holds that "life begins at conception", i.e., with the fertilization of the egg turning it into a blastocyst, but the in vitro fertilization process creates more blastocysts than most people could really want—typically 5 to 10 embryos out of 15 eggs collected, of which the doctor will advise you not to try to implant more than one or two at a time. It needs to be that many for backup, because the process isn't perfect, and some of the embryos may not be usable. In the old days they used to implant them all, under the assumption that most would probably abort themselves, which didn't really disturb anybody, though it led to a lot of triplets and the occasional Octomom. But nowadays, thanks to the freezing technique, that's not done, and you'll probably end up with around five or six embryos that you don't especially want; you can freeze them in the hope of implanting them later on, and some absolutely do, but even then you don't want all of them, and you're most likely to satisfy yourself with the one kid, like Governor Haley, and most of them are almost certainly going to be left over, and getting rid of them (throwing them out or donating them for research) is going to be, for the "pro-life" dogmatist, a taking of life, an act of murder, an abortion to all intents and purposes—if you're really "pro-life", you can't accept it.

The case that went to the Alabama Supreme Court wasn't about that; it was about an accident in which a bunch of embryos that were supposed to be implanted were destroyed instead, and the people hoping to turn them into babies sued, understandably (it's a lot of work getting IVF treatment, and possibly more important for most of us, it costs a lot of money, $12,000 to $24,000, for which your insurance almost certainly doesn't pay, cut to $2,500 to $6,000 if you already have a frozen embryo available). The court could have awarded the plaintiffs damages for loss of property, but instead they made it a case of wrongful death, on the grounds that the lost embryos were actually children—"extrauterine children". I'm sure it never occurred to them what kind of havoc they were creating for the custodians of tens of thousands of frozen "children"—I'm thinking of hospital administrators more than would-be parents—who could now be charged with mass manslaughter for following the simple and unquestionable protocol they've been following for years.  


What we're talking about when we're arguing about abortion rights (and by "we" I mean basically white North Americans) is generally the idea that there's a key moment in the development from fertilized egg to born child at which it stops being a thing and becomes a human person, with human rights, including the right to life; at the instant of fertilization, at the first measurable "cardiac activity" around six weeks at the site where the heart will eventually form, at the ill-defined moment of "quickening" (usually somewhere between 16 and 20 weeks) when the fetus begins to move, or a legally defined point ("viability" around 20 weeks in Casey, arbitrary 24 weeks in Roe), or the emergence from the dark aquatic environment of the womb into the visible world outside, exchanging the oxygen borrowed from its mother for the oxygen it can breathe for itself, the "breath of life", which is how the actual King James Bible puts it (Genesis 2:7):

Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. 

and you'd think that would have answered the question for adherents of the Abrahamic religions: breath through the nostrils is the moment of transition between dead dust and ensouled personhood. But it's not the answer they're looking for.

Anthropologists Beth A. Conklin and Lynn M. Morgan, however, in their "Babies, Bodies and the Production of Personhood in North America and a Native Amazonian Society" (Ethos XXIV/4, December 1996) (JSTOR link), note that there's nothing openly religious about the debate, which pictures the appearance of personhood in purely material terms, as a single moment in an almost entirely mechanical process, in which the fetus acquires these individual rights that may be in conflict with those of another individual, its mother:

In contrast, for the Wari' (or Pakaas Novas) people of the Amazon rainforest in Rondônia state, personhood is seen as a product of sociality, specifically of the sociality of the body, acquired as a "processual quality that is constructed and reconstructed on an ongoing basis among individuals and groups of people," in which "social identities are physiologically constituted"—

Thus, the Wari' fetus is created in the first place by the social interaction between the mother, contributing her blood to its making, and the father, contributing semen. The parents are encouraged to have sex often during the pregnancy, to contribute to the future child's strength, as a token of the continuously building relationship between the two and their respective kin groups—they think it would be odd for pregnancy to result from a single sexual encounter (some of their biological ideas are not sound). The processuality extends beyond the birth, to a six-week period of seclusion for mother and child when the child, not yet named, is known as "Arawet", literally "still being made", while the father hunts for a particular indigenous bird to provide the mother with food (blood) that will help her produce plenty of breastmilk.

Of course, the contrast is a bit artificial; what Conklin and Morgan have to say about the Wari' is based on Conklin's own extensive anthropological fieldwork in Brazil, and what they report on North Americans is from what Morgan refers to, in another context ("Life Begins When They Steal Your Bicycle: Cross-Cultural Practices of Personhood at the Beginnings and Ends of Life", 2021), as coming "from the fields of philosophy, bioethics, theology, law, and biology, but rarely from the social sciences" and belongs to the realm of ideology. The latter doesn't represent a system of cultural meanings in which the rules were written long ago by the ancestors so much as the terms of a political conflict over how the rules should be written right now, and it's worth asking whether, if we sought an understanding of what we really believe in the rhythms and rituals of our everyday behavior, the way Conklin asked it of the Wari', we might find more of a dialogue between bodies and sociality than you get from that bleak ideological picture of conflict between woman and fetus, and a real alternative kind of answer to the personhood question and its implications.

Namely, and this is what I wanted to get at, that in our culture as well, the attainment of personhood is a process of social construction, not a biological instant you can specify in a piece of legislation or a Supreme Court opinion; rather, something that can begin well before a pair of potential parents have thought of it—at an older cousin's wedding, for instance, not in your mind but your mom's, or (in a case familiar to a lot of men of my generation, I think) in a girlfriend's late period, when it turns out to be a false alarm but opens up a discourse: what if we had a kid? what if we got married? Imagining yourselves with a child is the beginning of constructing personhood for a fetus that doesn't yet exist.

Or the case that leads to IVF or other expedients, of a failure to conceive, which can make the couple's imagination of the nonexistent child so especially vivid and poignant that it drives them to spend astounding amounts of money to make it happen.

The story of a happy pregnancy is a story of social construction shared by a community, from the couple (thinking of names, buying a crib, and so on) outwards to family and friends, doctors and doulas, with the shower or nowadays the gender reveal party, in which the social person in the parents' imagination and the biological fetus in the womb are growing in tandem—she tells all her friends when it starts kicking in the quickening; he listens contentedly when she's singing to it—until at last the birth takes place and brings the two together, in the person of the baby, social person and lively animal at the same time, getting fully socialized and growing physically.

While an unwanted pregnancy is another matter, whether for a very young woman who's not ready or a mother under financial stress trying to care for the ones she already has—59% of the abortion patients in a 2005 study by the Guttmacher Institute had at least one child, and the forms of their unhappiness were pretty clear for almost all of them:

The reasons most frequently cited were that having a child would interfere with a woman's education, work or ability to care for dependents (74%); that she could not afford a baby now (73%); and that she did not want to be a single mother or was having relationship problems (48%). Nearly four in 10 women said they had completed their childbearing, and almost one-third were not ready to have a child. Fewer than 1% said their parents' or partners' desire for them to have an abortion was the most important reason. Younger women often reported that they were unprepared for the transition to motherhood, while older women regularly cited their responsibility to dependents.

Here the woman's goal will be to prevent the construction of a social person along with the development of a biological fetus, through de-socializing the pregnancy by keeping it private, telling as few people about it as she can, hiding her nausea and any weight gain, possibly getting rid of social bonds by breaking up with the partner, and as soon as possible terminating the pregnancy before she forms an emotional attachment either to the idea or to the fetus (usually successfully, I think, which is why research shows that women almost never regret their abortions). From her standpoint, it doesn't have to be a person until it's born, just as in the language of Genesis 2:7, and also as in the common experience, because once it's brought alive out of the birth canal, it's in society, and society has to deal with it, like it or not. Everyone born is a social person, happily or otherwise. Before that, it doesn't have to be a person if you don't want it to be.

(In the case of pregnancies that directly threaten the mother's life, or with a fetus so defective it could not survive out side, it's probably a wanted pregnancy, and the decision to terminate may be experienced as a tragedy, just as a stillbirth often is—the social person did exist, and has to be grieved. The helpmeet and I lost a baby at around 24 weeks and I know what I'm talking about.)

Anyway, that's why everybody including Donald Trump and Nikki Haley knows that the frozen embryos left over from the IVF process are not babies, though they not know how to say it—nobody's really invested in them until they're implanted in the place from which they will be launched into the social world. It was bad to accidentally lose those embryos in the Alabama case, but it's a case of destruction of property, not "wrongful death" of children.

It's weird that ostensibly religious people should insist so hard that the creation of a soul is a purely biological event, but they show by their conduct (Guttmacher 2020) that they know it's not true:

  • 17% of abortion patients identified as mainline Protestant;
  • 13% as evangelical Protestant;
  • 24% as Catholic;
  • 38% reported no religious affiliation; and
  • 8% reported some other affiliation. 

Someday our laws will reflect our real understanding rather than misogynistic sloganeering, and we'll be able to stop working so hard to explain it.

By the way, this is a good example of how calling something (gender or race, for example) a "social construct" works: a lot of conservatives react very angrily when you say "race is a social construct" because they think you're claiming it doesn't exist, but this is not at all the case; race is real, it just isn't the kind of thing Charles Murray stupidly thinks it is, because society is real, pace Mrs. Thatcher, and absolutely creates things (out of biological material, no doubt; bodies and their genetic endowments are real too, and undoubtedly an important part of the story). The same goes for the stuff discussed here, which is, when you come down to it, the human soul. Calling it "socially constructed" doesn't deny it; it just tells you what it's made of, human interaction around the eventual body, and that's scientific progress.

Cross-posted at the Substack.

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