Sex & Fertility Are Not a Miracle—Just Life

Item: Texas hospital goes to court to keep a dead woman on a machine that keeps her fetus alive—over the objections of her husband, her family, and her stated wishes while alive.

Item: Kansas judge rules sperm donor is liable for child support payments even though he and the two moms signed a document ahead of time renouncing his involvement in any child.

Item: Presidential aspirant Mike Huckabee decries supposed Democratic Party belief that women are helpless without government-supported birth control because they “can’t control their libido or their reproductive system.”

Half of this country simply cannot get over the amazing fact that human women can get pregnant and give birth. This prevents America from having an intelligent discussion about sexuality, conception, and contraception.

I am as awestruck as the next person when considering the elegant engineering and world-class reliability of my eyes, my fingers, my ears, and my bowels—not to mention my brain. And yes, the whole sex-conception-birth thing is totally astonishing.

But come on, this is old news. As with all extraordinary facts of the physical world—eyesight, nuclear power, bacon—the question a grownup society must face about the mechanics of conception and birth is what to do about it.

In this, self-described religious people have no advantage over the rest of us. Neither do parents, or physicians, or those who have suffered tragedy. We simply face a series of public policy questions that should be addressed the way we (ideally) handle tasks like locating airports, treating diseases attacking orange groves, and ensuring clean drinking water: with logic, facts, science, and by using the tools of the 21st century, not the 20th. Or the century of Julius Caesar.

The wide-eyed “miracle of life” narrative infantilizes us and prevents adult policy decisions around sex, fertility, & conception.

Sound public policy proceeds from respect, not awe; from fact, not faith; from what benefits most people, not the loudest, or most violent, or a group who believe their “feelings” somehow matter more than everyone else’s.

Every technological advance, every fundamental change in our understanding of the world leads to other changes in our understanding or abilities that some people don’t want, don’t understand, or don’t believe. The jet planes we can no longer live without are spreading previously local germs and predatory plant species around the world. The ultrasound that discloses a fetus’s gender now makes gender-selective abortions possible. And inevitable.

Two such advances in knowledge are now on the table, and are never going to go away. Now that we know exactly how conception and childbirth work, we also know how to prevent each one. Not surprisingly, over 90% of American women at some point want to contracept. And each year over a million American women—more than half of them already mothers—want to abort.

Artificial fertility treatments and the resulting births are growing at a dramatic rate, while the use of First World contraception remains stable and abortion is actually diminishing. Societies can’t consider fertility treatments as simply technological developments to be made available to everyone without treating contraception, emergency contraception, and abortion the same way. Whether it’s IVF and sperm donors or RU-486 and Plan B, these all involve personal choices that people have—and expect to use—as a result of technological achievements.

Thousands of years ago scientists speculated that sperm contained tiny invisible people. One hundred fifty 150 years ago the Victorians believed that a woman had to climax to become pregnant. Today in Africa, sex with a virgin—no matter how young—is believed to prevent or cure AIDS.

But the truth is that there’s no magic in sperm, or climaxes, or conception, or virginity. They’re all just routine parts of the amazing life of humans. Public policy needs to catch up and treat these various parts of our sexuality in an adult way.

Anything else—treating a dead woman like an incubator, treating sperm like parenthood, treating birth control like an admission of pathology—is barbaric. And by pretending that we don’t know any better, it trivializes “life.”

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