Saturday, May 8, 2010

Guest Blogger Brigham Fordham on Parenthood

Recently, I have been doing research on the ethical limits of artificial reproductive technologies. In reading up on this subject, I have been surprised how often legal scholars claim that parents have children primarily to suit the parents’ own interests. In a very thoughtful book (most of which I disagree with) Dena Davis writes:

The decision to have a child is never made for the sake of the child, for no
child then exists. We choose to have children for myriad reasons, but before the
child is conceived, those reasons can only be self-regarding.

Certainly, there is some degree of truth in this. New parents underestimate the commitment and expense of having a child. We are drawn to have a family, in part, by a desire to pour our own beliefs and practices into a new generation, to extend our cultural and social group, to feel loved and needed, and to experience the quintessential challenges and rewards of guiding a person from infancy to adulthood and beyond.

But is planning to have a family at the outset merely “self-regarding”? My faith and my experience adopting a child give me hope that there is more to it. I struggle, however, to find a place for these beliefs in responding to scholarly works like the one referenced above.

Many Christians believe that God’s commandment to Adam and Eve to “multiply and replenish the earth” remains in force today. Like all commandments, the call to have children requires sacrifice, but it can also bring blessings that far exceed the sacrifices. For couples who are unable to conceive a child, this commandment can be heart-wrenchingly difficult. We want a child, God wants us to have a child, but our bodies just won’t cooperate.

When my wife and I were first considering adoption, someone pointed out to us a famous, though often overlooked, adoption—Joseph’s adoption of Jesus as his own son. Why did Joseph decide to adopt Jesus and raise him as his own child? Surely Joseph saw an opportunity to grow close to Jesus and experience the joys of fatherhood. But I also suspect that Joseph did it because he wanted Jesus to benefit from having a father here on earth.

In modern times, adoption has often been misrepresented as a compromise between young pregnant girls who don’t want a child but don’t believe in abortion and childless parents who are desperately seeking to fill a hole in their lives. This, I think, is a sad misrepresentation of the experience.

The birth mother of our adopted daughter was a young woman who had unexpectedly gotten pregnant by a young man whom she had only known a short time. Once it became obvious she was pregnant, she was under great social and biological pressure to have the child and raise it as her own. No one wants to be seen as “giving up” a child for adoption, no matter how difficult being a young, single mother may appear. Our birth mother showed amazing maturity and clarity. She looked beyond the stigma associated with placing a child for adoption and saw through media representations downplaying the challenges of teenage motherhood. She decided that her child would have greater opportunities in life if the child were raised in a more stable and complete family. For her, and for our daughter, this was the right decision. She did not place her child for adoption to escape responsibility; quite to the contrary, she sacrificed the joys of immediate motherhood in order to guarantee her child a better future. It was one of the most selfless acts of love by a mother I have ever encountered.

In my faith, we believe that all parents are effectively adoptive parents. All humanity was spiritually conceived by God before the foundations of the earth. When parents physically conceive a child, they bring to the earth an already-existing spiritual child of God. We are but stewards of children who are progeny of Eternity.

On this view, parenthood may be partially self-regarding. But the primary reason for parenthood is spiritual: Through parenthood we grow closer to God’s children, we help them to realize their unlimited potential, and, in the process, we begin to learn to express the kind of unconditional, selfless love that God has for each of us. In my faith, we often say parenthood is practice for godhood.

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