Monday, 11 February 2013

The Questions We Ask

On Saturday Mr. Turtle and I decided to try Shaw Pay Per View for the first time to pick a Saturday night couch-cuddle movie. Neither of us seemed to know what we wanted (I usually just want a "feel good" movie) so we spent some time flipping through the titles. I was moderately intrigued by a Norwegian movie about troll hunters (still kinda curious about that). Mr. Turtle ended up picking Tim Burton's Frankenweenie.

Frankenweenie turned out to be the best animated movie I have seen in a long time, maybe of all time, and it was pretty darn good as movies go, too. I loved everything about it, but my favourite character was Mr. Rzykruski, the science teacher with the heavy accent and the colourful metaphors.

Mr. Rzykruski explains lightning to his class:

Mr. Rzykruski gets his class excited about science, leading to competition among the kids to win first prize in the science contest. Their experiments get a bit out of hand, and some parents call a meeting where Mr. Rzykruski is accused of causing trouble in the community. Various accusations are made, such as "My daughter is asking questions about things I have never heard of!"

 Mr. Rzykruski gets up to defend his teaching. He makes an awkward but hilarious speech to the parents beginning "Ladies...Gentlemen: I think the confusion here is that you are all very ignorant."

Maybe part of why I love this so much is because I grew up in a family of technologists and engineers, with books spilling off every shelf and lively discussions about everything under the sun. Both my parents also had English as a second language. A lot of profound concepts were explained in a similar manner to Mr. Rzykruski's in our household.

Of  course, Mr. Rzykruski is fired. Victor catches up with him as he is packing his bags into his car.
"People like what science gives them," he says, "but not the questions science asks."

The movie is set in the 1950s, but its themes are for today. After, this is the age of unprecedented information access, of iPads that toddlers can operate, of scientific and technological advancement affecting every part of our lives. It is also the age where many people seriously believed that the world would end on December 21st, 2012, and where the History Channel airs a show called Ancient Aliens that attempts to "prove" that aliens helped build the pyramids, Stonehenge, the Bow Tower, etc. (OK, I'm still waiting for the show about the last one. Give it a couple of years. It should be out in the same season showing how alien abductions helped develop the technology for IVF.)

Apart from being an awesome movie, Frankenweenie resonated with me also because the themes reflect some of my current questioning and thought process, as we contemplate using Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART) to start our family. (I'll never see either science or "art" in quite the same way again...heh.)

I tried doing some internet research on what different religions say about ART (in trusty ol' Wikipedia Yah, I know, very scholarly of me). Mr. Turtle and I don't belong to any religion, and have no plans to do so in the future. Religions views therefore don't have any personal significance, other than maybe giving us some idea what to expect if we discuss our plans with friends/acquaintances who follow a particular faith. But I was curious to see if I'd find anything that resonated with me or even that I vehemently disagreed with.

I didn't find anything particularly original in the religious perspective.  Judaism and Islam support many forms of ART. Reading a between the lines, the most likely reason seems to be that it means more babies born within the religion, and that's seen as a good thing (Islam seems more preoccupied with (il)legitimacy - so has more prohibitions around donor eggs/sperm, artificial insemination and surrogacy.)  "Liberal" Christian religions mostly support ART. The Catholic church (and Evangelicals, according to Wikipedia, anyway) are  opposed to pretty much everything, including IVF with sperm/egg of husband and wife. 

From my reading, the objections sum up as follows:

1) ART gives people too much control over reproduction and the creation/lifespan of embryos. It's OK for parents (to a point) to have control over reproduction. It's not OK for people outside the marriage (e.g. doctors and scientists) to have control.

2) There's a lot of anxiety over science and technology "dominating" human destiny, whatever that's supposed to mean.
3)  Conception often happens naturally, therefore it should always happen naturally, or else it's wrong. 

Now I approve of science and technology and medical interventions. They have caused some problems for sure, but not so many problems that I'd want to go back and time and live without them.  In fact, that would be the single most important reason I wouldn't go  back in time. That and the fact that women's lives and choices don't look so hot even if you go back even a little bit back in time.

Anyway, here's my take on 1, 2, and 3:

1) Control:

I think it's normal for humans to seek control over their destinies and environments. And over each other,  for that matter, but that's why we set limitations through laws and morals.  I see ART as an attempt to gain control over infertility, not over other human beings.  For sure the system has potential for abuse. You could get unethical scientists/doctors manipulating couples for purposes other than creating a child. Or you could have people trying to create a "designer baby." I must say making a designer baby is the very last thing I care about.  I would hazard that a designer baby is the very last thing most(all?) IF couple care about. Also, IVF is grueling, expensive and unpleasant enough that you'd have to be pretty crazy and/or masochistic to voluntarily undergo it for some Orwellian purpose.  Although probably there is someone out there who would do that, such is the variety of humans on the earth.

I would agree that we should pause before exerting control over any human being, maybe even an embryo.  But I don't think that ART / IVF is really breaking new ground here.  People have always faced these kind of questions.

2) Science and technology:
....ARE a part of our world and for what it's worth, our destiny.  Now perhaps, one of the risks of utilizing ART is that people can put too much faith in it.  They can do IVF cycle after IVF cycle in their desperation to have a baby. Maybe that's kind of like letting technology rule your destiny.  But that's a choice, not an inevitability.  One can, as a sentient adult, put limits on how much and for what exactly one is going to utilize technology.  That's much the same as the moral limits we put on ourselves daily to avoid being dominated by any desire.  Again, ART is not really breaking new ground here.
Or, perhaps it's the embryos specifically that technology is supposed to be dominating. OK, the embryos can't do anything to protect themselves.  But from what I understand about IVF, it's an imperfect attempt to duplicate what happens inside the womb.  Some embryos don't develop in vitro, some do (at least for a little while.) Much the same thing happens inside the womb, though on  a  different timeline.  It's not a perfect process either (large percentages of embryos fail to implant or they miscarry.) The scientific attempts to control the in vitro process are to try to make it more efficient and increase the success of an implantation.  I can't see that as inherently immoral.  Maybe it can be wasteful, but so is nature (millions of eggs and sperm, and how many ever become a baby?)
3) "Natural is better:" Again, I just can't accept this without some sort of objective proof that natural conception is better than assisted, other than assisted conception involves scientists and is therefore icky.  Granted, science and technology have given human beings more knowledge and control over their environment and destinies than ever before. I guess some people are OK with that, and some are not. I'm mostly OK with it because I don't see infertility as my noble, natural destiny.  I'm OK with trying to outsmart it. 
Finally, I also think that ART is if anything, more loving than natural conception, specifically because it involves more sacrifice - of money, dignity, and - yes - people's (mostly imaginary) control  over their reproductive system. As people have said, no child conceived by ART will ever doubt that they were wanted. The process might not be very romantic, but there is a huge amount of love present in an assisted conception (along with a lot of other emotions.)   That's why I don't feel any real hesitation in going down the ART path, scary as it is with no guarantees. 

As I think about all these things, I realize why i liked Frankenweenie so much: despite the fact that the children's experiments led  to monsters, and Mr. Rzykruski tells Victor to "be careful," the movie takes a very positive view of how science and technology affect our lives. 

This came out most powerfully at the end (spoiler alert).

I admit, I totally expected Sparky to die for good at the end of the movie. The English major in me was convinced that only a death, only a lesson in "letting go," would give the movie real emotional and tragic significance.  I was all ready to give up on a happy ending (see, I was so  caught up in the story I forgot it was a DISNEY STORY, for pete's sake.)

I was a bit surprised when Victor's parents tell him they were wrong, after all, to advise him to "let go" of Sparky.  Not only that, they get the community together and try to shock Sparky back to life by attaching him to jumper cables. Incidentally, the process is totally undignified. One feels almost sorry for Sparky's poor, battered body. But hey, I guess parents will try anything for their son. Of course it isn't really going to work. The parents rev the cars; Sparky lies limp. Okay, there's the tragedy. Try everything you can, but you can't cheat death.  Right. That wraps up the story.

But then Sparky does come back to life.  And I was surprised.  Part of me actually felt resentful, cheated out of the Profound Ending About Letting Go, about the supremacy of death. Then I thought about it, and I realized that this time, the happy ending was actually the more daring, the more thought provoking one.  It said that we should dare to mess with the stuff of life.  Maybe it won't work or maybe the result won't be exactly what we had in mind.  But that doesn't make it wrong to try. And if the results are imperfect, messy, and complicated (like a human being) we can accept and live with that. Because that is what loving people do. 

I can get behind that. Yes.

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