Timeless Souls

After struggling with the moral implications of fertility treatments, I realized that all babies come from God.

BY: Beth Kohl

 

"Hello?" my husband Gary says, using the speaker function on his work phone.

"It's me," I say, trying to modulate my volume so that only Gary can hear me. "Quick question. Do you think children who result from in vitro fertilization are coincidental? A happy circumstance of our particular clinic, doctor, embryologist, ultrasonographer, vials of Lupron and shots of Gonal-F? Or do you think they are timeless souls waiting for their most perfect embodiment?"

Gary picks up the phone and whispers, "Timeless souls."

"Thanks," I say, and hang up. Corollary questions occur to me, but I'm already late for the graduate writing classes I've started taking, and the last of the art school students are pushing through the smudged revolving door. I call Gary back. "Yes?" he says, elongating and dipping the word in the middle so I'll know I'm interrupting his work and testing his patience.

"Just to clarify, you think all babies, IVF and naturally occurring, are these timeless beings, their physical shape the only genetically influenced part? And are these timeless souls random ones, or do they descend exclusively from our ancestors? If ancestral, how are they divvied up among the children? Look how hard it is negotiating between our moms over where we spend Thanksgiving. To think our dead ancestors might also be jockeying for position."

"Hon, I appreciate how hard you're thinking about what we're doing, I really do. But I have a moot court in twenty minutes. Can we talk later, like at home tonight?"

"Promise you'll give it serious thought?" I ask.

"Promise," Gary says.

Gary kept his promise, thinking hard when I begged him to and, presumably, even when I didn't. Eventually, and all-in-all, we underwent five rounds of IVF, joyfully ending up with three daughters. But even as I endured clinical procedures and dosed myself at home, I questioned the scientific means I had no choice but to enlist to have my own, biological children. I wondered, if it's a doctor manipulating my system, fetching my husband and my genetic material and manually combining it to produce fertilized eggs, where is God's hand? If I get pregnant with multiples, do I "selectively reduce" to help assure one live, healthy birth? What is my moral responsibility to unused embryos?

When, exactly, does life begin? Is it at the moment of fertilization or someplace further down the line, at some point when the heart starts to beat or the brain waves start waving?

I also wondered if I should be tinkering with God's Plan and/or Mother Nature since there was, in fact, a medical diagnosis for my infertility. I had polycystic ovarian syndrome, a fairly common condition in which the ovaries create an abundance of follicles (the fluid- and hormone-filled sacs in which eggs are meant to grow) each month without ever producing an egg.

But I desperately wanted pregnancy, desperately wanted a child. I wanted to see ancestral features traced on our children's faces. And, with the science so easily accessible, a mere matter of signing up with one of numerous area fertility clinics, it was hard to resist, questions notwithstanding.

I'd hold my breath, listening for sudden rushes of faith and certainty, some voice or sense to tell me that although medicine was no substitute for a spontaneous pregnancy, it was still okay, particularly for such a life-affirming cause. I wanted confirmation that all I'd been raised to believe – that human life stems from God, love and miracle – was true, even under these scientifically-juiced circumstances. But no voice ever came. Until, that is, my daughters arrived, their voices being the ones to quiet my doubts.

Maybe I'm mistaken, assuming this tension between science and faith. Maybe man's scientific ability stems directly from a divine source, the hand of God leading the technician's, and all the results sanctified thereby. In fact, maybe my daughters bear out rather than disprove God's presence in artificially stimulated conception. Maybe the mere fact of their existence, their emergence in spite of human interference, the potential obstacles at every step, the cold speculae and sticky syringes, the clumsy technique and imperfect judgment, is proof that fallible man is no match for the Almighty Lord.

This idea helped ease my mind, made me realize that I didn't have to view IVF as a struggle between faith and science, that not only could the two coexist, but that they are complementary. When man-made technologies are used to initiate conception, we aren't playing at God's job, since no amount of scientific brilliance will give us the capacity to create a soul in vitro. There can be no spirit donor, no such thing as a soulologist. All man can do is scientifically simulate conception and let the miraculous, invisible part happen beyond the reach of magnification and ultrasound.

As the Bible says, "God blessed them. God said to them, 'Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.'" According to the Bible, God put people in charge of our surroundings, granting us permission not only to rule our fellow creatures but also to subdue the earth, bringing it into control, lessening its chaotic intensity. One can then argue that scientific progress, in its ability to combat disorder and disease, is therefore not only not heretical but sanctified. "God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. There was evening and there was morning, a sixth day."

A couple of summers ago, our fertility clinic threw a party to "celebrate life and miracles." We decided to go. Not only did the invitation beckon – a monarch butterfly, rows of sunflowers, and stands of orange lilies hinting at well-planned merriment amid panoramic surroundings – but there'd be food, entertainment, and fun for all.

We had a great time, especially the girls. A deejay played music on a lawn and several giant, stuffed mascots were over there, doing Ring Around the Rosie with children and each other. When the girls ran off to follow several older kids who were tapping the mascots on the back and running away, Gary chatted with another family while I found a bench nestled in some flowering bushes at the lawn's edge.

I could smell flowers and grass and hear the low-pitched hum of bees behind me. The deejay, clearly briefed on his audience, played song after song about enjoying life and family. The songs were generic, the sorts I'd heard a thousand times – "We Are Family" and "What a Wonderful World" and "Celebration" – but it was the first time my kids had ever heard them, and they were having a ball. They darted in and out of the dancing crowd, Anna following Lily following Sophia as they hugged one favorite character after the next, Care Bears and the Cat in the Hat, Scooby-Doo, their dada, and me.

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