"You will be a better mom because you are a theologian, and a better theologian because you are a mom."

Is it true? In this blog, I explore the interplay and intersection of motherhood and theologianhood.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Women, Fertility, and Technology

Ah, technology. We couldn't live without it. Or, at least, we feel like we couldn't live without it. I can honestly admit that my Good Friday fast from Internet was just as difficult as my Good Friday fast from food.

I sometimes get caught up thinking about the way that technology has changed fertility and the way our culture thinks about fertility. This hit me a few months ago when I caught an NPR book review of Liza Mundy's Everything Conceivable: How Assisted Reproduction is Changing Our World. Amazon shows listing for similar books, as well. Mundy reported that the reproduction industry is currently worth about $3 billion dollars (I believe this was in the U.S. alone, but I could be wrong). Of course, that's nothing to the $93 billion dollar worldwide pornography industry (also largely facilitated by technology). But $3 billion dollars is still a lot of money.

It struck me that it would be really interesting to find out how much the contraception industry is worth and then add these figures together. Then we could get a sense of how much money goes into our culture's having babies and not having babies according to our preferences. I did a quick web search, but couldn't find what seemed to be reliable statistics on the contraception industry. By the number of advertisements available for this or that oral contracption or shot (to limit both fertility and menstrual cycles) and this or that condom or whatever, it seems that the contraception industry is holding its own.

I'm not sure we often think of fertility in terms of an industry, but I think it might be a worthwhile endeavor, especially if we complicate the picture even more with a historical consideration of the "technology" that has brought much of America to feeling that they can't live without fertility technology (whether preventing or facilitating conception).

In Catholic debates about contraception and Natural Family Planning, I've noticed that some assume that a woman who is not using contraception will be fertile pretty much ALL the time. One moral theologian, for example, suggested that if a woman were trying to limit her family size using NFP, she would have to spend most of her life abstaining from sex. The only other option, it seems, is to give birth about once a year.

This perspective didn't sit well with me for a number of reasons. The first reason is that I know a LOT of people who have had trouble getting pregnant. Some never do get pregnant. One friend told me it took 7.5 years. And many learn NFP precisely so that they can increase their chances of pregnancy. Given the $3 billion dollar industry for reproduction, I think it's safe to say that my comments here reach beyond the anecdotal.

When my mother was born, she joined a three year old, a two year old, and a one year old. In other words, my Irish grandmother really was giving birth about once a year - exactly the moral theologian's fear mentioned above. As a good Catholic woman, my grandmother was certainly open to life. But is one baby a year a necessary consequence of not using contraception? In short, no. This brings me to my second observation, namely, that these pregnancies in quick succession were also a result of technology.

Times were tough when my grandmother was trying to raise her kids with her waitress's salary. With an alcoholic husband offering no financial support, she struggled to do what was best for her kids. One of the sacrifices that she made was to cut short her own spending in order to buy formula for all of her infants. This, of course, was because formula was the new, scientific, technological baby food, advertised as far superior to breastmilk. She was poor, alright, but not so poor that she would deny her babies the technologically advanced formula. This dedication brought an early return of her fertility after each birth... thank God, it brought my mom! But it wasn't easy, nor was it optimal for my grandmother in this situation.

Formula has become so much a part of the American landscape that even the most committed breastfeeding mother cannot escape it. I admit no small amount of surprise when a week before my daughter was due a container of formula was delivered to me in the mail from Enfamil. Of course, the medical establishment now recommends breastfeeding. The American Pediatrics Society suggests at least one year of breastfeeding for an infant. And yet, I haven't found our pediatrician to be particularly accomodating to breastfeeding. At the three-month check-up the doctor prescribed flouride drops for Maia. She shook her head and said, "If you were using formula, your daughter would be getting flouride from the water you used to mix up the formula, but, as it is, she's likely to have a mouthful of cavities if you don't give her these prescription flouride drops." Thank goodness they had a technological solution to my backwards breastfeeding, right?! While we filled the prescription, we never actually gave the drops to Maia. I'm sure the cavities will show up any day now.

Anyway, it's obviously a complicated picture. Technology in the form of formula and breast pumps has allowed women to continue working. For many, this is a good (or financially necessary) thing. But it has also led to a decline in lactation amenorrhea. In many areas of the world, children are naturally spaced between two-four years. This, of course, requires sleeping with the infant, not having breastfeeding schedules (another recent invention), not using pacifiers, and not supplementing with formula. As a busy theologian mom, I somehow found this possible.

But for many women, especially with work schedules, it seems this kind of "natural mothering" or "ecological breastfeeding" as it's called, is inconceivable, hence the technology trap. Technology in the form of cribs and a separate room for the infant (with all the appropriate video monitors, electronically-breathing teddy bears, etc.) has also caused a desire for more technology. In American life, the trend is to spend money on contraception. Sometimes spend money on reproduction. Spend money on formula. Use of formula rather than breastfeeding brings an early return of fertility. Hence the desire for more contraception. And the cycle continues. How much of a woman's paycheck does she spend on this technology?

We can debate whether certain technology has been used in positive or negative ways. But I don't think we can debate whether or not contraception, formula, cribs, and reproductive services are an industry. They are an industry, and it seems to me that women ought to be particularly aware of that as they are targeted with ads for eliminating their periods or whatever the technological trend is.


RevolutionMe said...

Industry indeed. It reminds me of something I heard on NPR about how crisco was developed because of an excess in cottonseed oil, and as a result, the company (kraft?) had to develop a need for it. The marketing was successful, it's in most homes, including the one we grew up in.

Just for your information, so you pass on the right details to your family, Grandma became a beautician after she remarried because I.S. wanted her to have a career to fall back on in case something happened to him. I believe in Des Moines she worked as a Waitress. I'm not sure what she did in Carroll.

I do think that, had contraception been available to our Grandmother, she would have used it.


Theologian Mom said...

Hey, thanks for that. I changed it to say "waitress." I'll have to ask Mom what Grandma did in Carroll.

I'm pretty sure contraception was available to her. But it was a different time culturally than it is now.

Clara said...

You certainly touch on many important points here. I guess my question would be: is technology per se the heart of the problem? Obviously it's a much bigger part of life generally than it was a few centuries ago. We can tinker with fertility much more successfully than in days of yore. Still, manipulating fertility isn't a new idea. Recall Leia and Rachel arguing over fertility-enhancing herbs in Genesis. A more anomalous thing is the amount of energy we put into contraception (which, incidentally, comes back again to the fertility industry, since the same people who use condoms and/or the pill for years often end up putting money into *increasing* their fertility when they finally decide that they want a child sometime in their late 30's.)

Anyway, using technology to achieve good ends can be good, and I think casting the conflict as "natural vs. technology-dependent" is somewhat misleading. The real problem lies elsewhere, though I agree with you that the greater panoply of choices have been instrumental in exacerbating it. The real question is: what place does parenthood play in our lives as a whole? What sort of relationship do we think there is between our children and ourselves? I'd argue that parents in our present day tend to view (and treat) their offspring as techne, or in other words, as made things, products of their own efforts. They see themselves as the creators of children, not just as their guardians and educators. Technology makes it easier to fall into that trap, of course; it gives potential parents so many more choices, and having choices enhances their feeling that childbearing is a choice and an expression of their own individual autonomy.

Still, it isn't the technology per se that's problematic, and opting for "natural" choices isn't necessarily good in itself. Not that I'm disparaging the "back to nature" impulses either; some artificial innovations (most notably artificial contraception) are certainly immoral, and other artificial substitutes (like formula, as you observe) are less healthy than the natural alternatives. Others, though, really do help to eliminate health risks that used to be quite prevalent and serious in former times. And not every efficiency-increasing innovation is necessarily a bad thing. So anyway, I share many of your concerns, but I do think we need to be careful. Some technology is helpful and good, and, by the same token, rejecting it isn't always an effective solution to some of the deeper societal problems surrounding family.

Theologian Mom said...

Clara, thanks for the comments. Of course, you're right. After all, it's not simply technology that is the problem. My favorite biblical example of messing with reproduction is actually Sarah's arranging for Hagar to sleep with Abraham - the precursor to IVF or surrogate mothers!

The two major concerns in the post were first, to take the issue of contraception beyond contraception to considering the "technology" that has led this other technology to seem so necessary. Secondly, I wanted to point out that this other technology (formula, cribs, etc.), like contraception has historically and does currently come to women in the form of an industry with advertising.

I'd also like to add one thing to your mention of parents seeing children as "made" things, products of their own efforts. I think there's also a trend of seeing children as investments. And, for many American parents, the money spent begins with an expensive hospital bill (with lots of technology that I would argue is not necessary - but that's the subject for another post) and an enormous amount of gear, from crib, to stroller, to carseat, to diapers, to swing, to bouncy seat, to video monitor, to... well, you get the point.

Recently, when a pregnant friend of mine asked what you REALLY need for a newborn, I said: "a sling, a carseat, 24 cloth diapers, and maybe some clothes." In my experience, that really is all that you need.

If all technology could come to us in a form other than an industry, I'd be better able to regard it as pre-moral. But, I'll say it, there's just something evil about a canister of Enfamil showing up unsolicited at a breastfeeding mom's doorstep. Formula's not just "less healthy." It's also expensive, and, not, I think, a gift of charity so much as an enticement to the product.

My mother-in-law took out Enfamil to her work with child protective services... and there we could say it was technology put to "good" use. If Enfamil was really interested in helping people they'd donate directly to places like CPS instead of to hospitals, where formula is given free of charge to mothers right after the birth to persuade them to use formula rather than nurse.

Clara said...

MAYBE some clothes? What's the recommended alternative for those who decide not to spring for the clothes... wrapping the baby in a gunny sack? :)

Anyway, I doubt Enfamil would claim disinterested concern as the motive for sending formula to new moms -- it's an advertising strategy for sure, though I'm not sure it's any MORE evil than running beer ads on TV or giving out samples of cookies and potato chips at the grocery store. But possibly those things are evil too.

Undoubtedly you are right that there's an industry here. Expecting couples and young parents are a "market." Of course, in Western countries these days, we're always in somebody's "target market", and almost everything we own comes to us through some industry or other. Perhaps you might argue that it's more pernicious in the case of young parents since they're feeling vulnerable and are easily guilt-tripped into buying things they don't really need. Certainly we should always keep in mind, at all ages, that these industries, whatever their usefulness, don't really have our best interests at heart.

But you seem to want to attach a moral value to "escaping" from the grips of industry by buying as few of their products as possible. You note that you COULD regard these products as pre-moral IF they weren't the product of some industry. Why does that make the difference? Industries aren't primarily interested in helping us to, say, foster the virtues... but they're not trying to make us miserable or vicious either. We shouldn't take their word for it when they tell us what we supposedly need, but I don't know that it's specially virtuous to shun their products either.

I guess one reason I resist this a bit is that I've certainly seen the "all natural" approach become a fad in its own right, by people who seem pretty definitely to manifest the same deficiencies I mentioned before in the way they regard their offspring. It's amazing to me how many upper middle class 38-year-old academic women seem to want to have their one perfect child at home with a midwife. (I've heard them complain about how doctors don't like them to do it, which of course they don't at that age.) They see it as somehow part of the complete bona fide "parent experience." That one just seems foolish to me; some of the others are probably harmless at worst, and maybe you could argue that things like breast feeding, whatever one's reasons for doing it, will "shape the sensibilities" in the right sort of way (as we Trad Catholics might say!) Still. Shunning technology doesn't necessarily instill the right mindset towards parenting.