Even good things—perhaps especially good things—can be desired too much, or in the wrong way, or potentially so. Take babies, for instance. To be specific, take Rose, the baby daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Devotees of the Little House on the Prairie series of frontier books debate how much Laura Ingalls Wilder’s journalist daughter Rose influenced the character and quality of her mother’s books. Oh, Laura could write, and her epic late 19th-century pioneer childhood gave her great material to work with. However Rose, a lifelong professional journalist, maybe contributed more of the pacing and plot development. But in the posthumously published The First Four Years, we read the account of Laura’s early married life with Almanzo Wilder, published largely unedited by either mother or daughter. That may help explain why, shortly after the scene where Laura gives birth to her daughter, I felt stunned by the visit of a familiar character.
Mrs. Boast, a fellow homesteader introduced about three books earlier, comes by to see the new baby. Ella was a young newlywed and Laura a 13-year-old when they first met in By the Shores of Silver Lake;
in every subsequent appearance, she is a warm, merry, outgoing presence. Suddenly, now, after several years’ passage, a different note is struck. The still-childless Mrs. Boast hungrily eyes Laura’s baby and begs to be given the child, since Laura and Almanzo are bound to have more. Fortunately Laura and Almanzo don’t do so—as it turns out, they will have only one other child, a boy who dies as small baby.
We know the desperation that afflicts so many women in crisis pregnancies. However, the desperation of a woman who is pregnant and does not want to be is often matched by the desperation of one who is not and desperately wishes she were. The solution that suggested itself to Mrs. Boast, out there on the sparsely settled South Dakota prairie, was informal adoption. That and more formal types of adoption remain options today, but there are also a host of scientific advances she would never have dreamed of that in many cases make it possible for women who would not otherwise have been able to do so to conceive and bear their own children.
However, just as in King Solomon’s time, morally acceptable means of addressing infertility must be separated out from those which, although they would also result in motherhood, would endanger or exploit or sacrifice other lives. For example, when in vitro fertilization is used to help infertile couples achieve childbirth, multiple human embryos are generally implanted to increase the chances of success; if more than one or two attach to the uterine wall and seem to be thriving, their numbers are usually reduced. And we have all heard of lawsuits regarding rights to frozen fertilized eggs in the case of divorce or death. In other cases, when a woman’s own eggs cannot be used for fertilization, another woman is paid to undergo the painful and risky procedure of having her eggs harvested. Meanwhile researchers continue going down the road to human cloning. In all these cases both the yearning and hopeful parents and the medical personnel are keeping their eyes on the prize, but not calculating the effects on other lives involved or meditating upon whether there are any moral absolutes to be considered. Which is why that sort of analysis should be done way before the point when these decisions become practical for us—before personal, professional, financial, and political motivations cloud clear thinking.
Desperation leads people and societies to strange places. Sometimes, it leads—perhaps without our fully realizing it—to a kind of snatching, to our taking something that is not ours, something that, if we paused to ask for it, the rightful owner would decline to give.
This can be hard to see when the object is a baby. After all, aren’t babies wonderful? Isn’t that the pro-life message, the point of our efforts, the subtext of the billboards and posters of developing embryos and fetuses? Then why sourly condemn certain modernly-derived methods of obtaining them for people who otherwise would have to do without?
And of course babies are wonderful. But they are not wonderful in the same way the Rolex watch a mugger steals is wonderful. They are beyond our capacity to weigh the value of, as we weigh ounces of gold or evaluate the clarity of a diamond. Like the famous Mastercard commercial tagline, they are “priceless.” They are human lives. And they are not human lives being acquired by other human lives (that is the master/slave relationship) but human lives being mothered and fathered or foster-mothered and fathered into maturity. So their lives matter just as much as ours do—and just as much as the lives of anyone who might be sacrificed to bring them into being. That includes “excess” fertilized ova, whether frozen or implanted.
Near the end of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Julia Flyte renounces her adulterous relationship with Charles Ryder, concluding with these words:
“I’ve always been bad. Probably I shall be bad again . . . But . . . it may be a private bargain between me and God, that if I give up this one thing I want so much, however bad I am, He won’t quite despair of me in the end.”
You could almost reverse the words in that quote to arrive at the state of mind of those lovers of life who, finding themselves in desperate circumstances, hope that, in just this one case, to attain this one greatly desired life, they can grab for “this one thing I want so much,” be forgiven, and perhaps even find their action tallied up on the divine balance sheet as a good. But sadly, wishing cannot always make it so.
I don’t know what ever happened to Mr. and Mrs. Boast—whether they were able to adopt someone else’s child, or whether Mrs. Boast unexpectedly conceived after waiting many years, or whether they were able to make peace with the gnawing hunger for a family of their own. Maybe, if the Boasts had lived in our own era of scientific marvels, they could have conceived a child by morally licit means and filled that empty place in their home. Or maybe they would have been tempted beyond their level of resistance to snatch—to accept a means of achieving conception that would sacrifice another to obtain “this one thing I want so much.” Today, too, there are many infertile couples who have traveled portions of their road, and know how they felt, and hope that they found peace.