‘Babies Made with Sperm from Sick Donor’ read the front-page head­lines in the Dutch daily Trouw at the end of February 2002. The report that followed these striking headlines was shocking enough! Eighteen children were found to have been artificially conceived with sperm from a donor suffering from a congenital muscular disease, which had only manifested itself in the donor later in life. The chance of this being passed on was 50 per cent for each child. A nasty fright, and not just for the (foster-)parents. The report confronted the newspaper reader, just out of bed, with the alienating effects of reproductive medicine. The headline chosen only reinforced this and at any rate stayed with me, and kept buzzing through my head all that week. And certainly, the headline was ‘provocative, polemical and piquant’, as the editor said in justification, after extensive reader comment. ‘It is a radical shock to be confronted with the downside of the “messing about” with modern reproductive techniques’, wrote the editor.

‘Yet that wasn’t what concerned me most’, wrote a very interesting magazine with a Christian perspective on faith and culture. The writer expressed his view as follows:

I have long disliked the downside of the ‘messing about’. There’s no need for the paper to define me with this headline.

It’s a little late, it seems to me. It disturbs me too. There’s some­thing hypocritical about wanting suddenly to focus in the light of this unpleasant incident on the messing-about with nature’s reproductive techniques. As if when they are supposedly successful, they raise no questions. Apart from that, it is all so relative. The messing about and manipulation surrounding conception is only a special variant of the universally accepted messing and manipulation surrounding contraception. It may provoke its own moral questions, questions which are real, but to act as if natural conception in a period when contra­ceptives are deliberately not used is not messing about, goes too far for me. Children are not only made in laboratories, nowadays.

The headline ‘Babies Made with Sperm from Sick Donor’ approved by a conscientious editor concerned me because I found it an almost poetic line, reflecting as it does both modern life (‘made’) and the classical Calvinist teaching of man’s mortal condition, or original sin (‘sperm from sick donor’).

And a little further:

The article casts an unusual light on something as everyday as the desire for children. It seems as if the scope and depth of the desire for children is realized precisely where this desire is not immediately fulfilled in a natural way. The fact that the desire proves to have undreamed-of highs and lows, becomes clear in the lengths people go to in order to realize their wish after all. Nether the medical route nor the adoption route are pleasant, but they are demanding, both mentally and physically. The desire is such that some people are prepared to make do with a child that is not fruit of both members of a couple.

This is in no way new. On the eve of writing I read pre­cisely the stories of Sarah and Hannah in Genesis and Samuel.

The story of Sarah in particular displays many parallels with the newspaper article. In the absence of a well-trained gynae­cologist Sarah took the route of the surrogate mother. The ‘fuss’ casts an unusual light on such people’s desire for chil­dren: honour must be saved. Without wishing to argue that the desire for children is inspired only by the desire for honour – general values (virtues) like care and love are also at issue – I would not wish to play down its importance for our age. In our children we finally transcend the finiteness and futility of our existence, perpetuate ourselves, retain our grip on the world after our death.

If in the practice of reproductive medicine you listen to what involun­tarily childless couples have to say, you realize the extent to which the ‘death is final’ feeling can affect the ability to retain the unfulfilled desire for children. It makes everyone it affects doubly aware of human mortality. The line dies out, the name is lost. Looked at in this light, the often laborious journey through the medical circuit or the adoption mill, sometimes accompanied by moments of loss of decorum, takes on the character of a battle against the finiteness of existence. The child­less couple want a share in what others regard as axiomatic.

But where awe at the mystery of procreation and sense of vulner­ability are lost, or are even absent, the human soul is damaged. Parents who with the aid of assisted reproduction techniques want to ‘make’ a child as part of their life project, sooner or later run up against the boundaries of narcissism, certainly when a child demands a different kind of care and love than its parents had planned. Instead of blessing their child, they may come to curse it and such curses can extend a long way. If they cling to the ‘project’, sad self-pity is the lot they have chosen for themselves.