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The $50,000 Daughter


Deann Barrera CC

Rachel Lu - published on 11/18/14

The cost of the "perfect family" is steep, financially and morally.

From the time she was a small girl, Jayne Cornwill wanted to be a mom. That sounds sweet, but wait for the rest of it. She didn’t want to mother just any child. She specifically wanted a little girl.

She was close to her mother. She dreamed of her own “little mummy’s girl." After her first son was born she “wasn’t too disappointed” because she assumed (rather oddly) that the next child would be a daughter. But after two more boys came, she grew desperate, and she and her husband left their native Australia to travel to California for “gender-selection treatment.”

In a world with in-vitro fertilization, many things are possible. Among them, we can demand (for a price) children of our preferred sex. The concept, at least, is diabolically simple. The mother’s eggs are harvested, fertilized, and grown to the point where the sex can be determined. Embryos of the unwanted sex are then discarded, while a few healthy eggs of the desired sex are transferred to the mother’s womb. The implantation isn’t always successful, so parents must be prepared to spend a substantial sum for their dream child. To obtain their much-desired daughter, the Cornwills went through two rounds of IVF and spent $50,000.

To Catholics, it should be clear that this practice is gravely immoral, most especially because it involves the callous disposal of unwanted babies. The Cornwills were dissatisfied with the children that were naturally born to them. Their solution was to bring into being a whole host of unique, precious children, so as to give themselves the “pick of the litter." The rest of their newly-created offspring were most likely just thrown away.

Even for those who deny the value of immature human lives, Cornwill’s manifesto (which was intended as an argument for legalizing gender-selection in Australia) should set off multiple alarm bells. Her entire perspective on maternity and family is so obviously unhealthy that no reasonable person could read this as an argument for gratifying her tyrannical demands. Let’s consider a few of the more obviously defective ideas that Cornwill unashamedly sets out in her reflection.

“Ever since I was little,” she relates, ”my only goal in life was to have a daughter, and as an adult that desire only grew stronger. I come from a mixed-gender family with two older brothers and an older sister, and I saw the benefits of growing up with both perspectives. I also think society pushes the idea of the "perfect" family being two parents, with two children — one boy and one girl. I certainly thought so.”

We already know that Cornwill’s idea of a “perfect” family is fanciful to the point of absurdity; she’s admitted that she assumed her second child would be female simply because the first was male. Clearly, that kind of reality avoidance is unhealthy. My attention was arrested, however, by her observation that children are better off “growing up with both perspectives." That is, she thinks it beneficial to have both a male and a female presence within a family.  

I would agree. But mightn’t it be more natural and appropriate to achieve that balance among… the parents? When a family begins with the uniting of man and woman (as has been the near-ubiquitous custom throughout history, until the present day) a complementary male and female “perspective” is established from the very beginning, and it isn’t necessary to impose such inflexible conditions on what sort of children we’re willing to accept. Same-sex marriage isn’t the subject of Cornwill’s piece, but she notably doesn’t mention “mother” and “father” as established elements in her perfect family. She herself has a husband. Even so, one wonders whether gender-selection treatment might, for her and others, be a kind of back-door way of validating the importance of gender complementarity.

“It’s hard to explain the heartbreak of "gender disappointment" and how it can consume you. Every gift — every blue babygrow and toy car — was a reminder of the fact my life wasn’t going the way I planned.”

“Consumed” certainly seems like the right word for it. Cornwill speaks about becoming deeply depressed, to the point of barely being able to go out. She admits to sobbing in disappointment during her second son’s ultrasound. The third time, she fell into deep depression and considered abortion.

All this time, one cannot but notice the shallowness of her self-examination. Admitting that friends accused her of superficiality and “playing God," she justifies herself mainly with the repeated assertion that her desire was real and intense. No consideration is given to the possibility that a sincere desire may nevertheless be vicious. This is an obvious failure of ethical reasoning. Desire should never in itself be viewed as justificatory, however intense it may be.

Even when the things we want are basically good and wholesome in themselves, they can turn vicious when we elevate personal fulfillment over all other considerations of duty or propriety. That clearly seems to have happened here. It isn’t wrong to want a daughter. But it is wrong to suppose that a child’s life can be justified purely in terms of a grown-up’s desire to experience parenthood, or to experience it in a particular way.

It’s amazing, through all her agonizing about daughters, that Cornwill doesn’t reflect more on whether perhaps it might be her own perspective (and not genetic happenstance) that is defective. God has blessed her with multiple healthy children, but she can’t stop seeing them as accessories meant to fill out a kind of mental tableau of “perfect” family life. It’s distressing to hear of the anguish this has caused her, but far more disturbing to think how her attitudes might be impacting her family.

Imagine her sons reading this piece a few years hence. As a mother of three boys myself, I can’t but be appalled at her lack of concern for their feelings. What child wouldn’t be crushed by the discovery that his mother didn’t want him? As heartbreaking as that is, I almost feel more keenly for the cherished daughter, whose life supposedly represents the fulfillment of her mother’s “single life goal." What if she isn’t everything her parents hoped? What if she’s a tomboy and not an affectionate “mummy’s girl”? Can the Cornwills get a refund on their fifty thousand? Accessorizing children in this way can have devastating consequences both for the wanted and for the unwanted.

As I have argued elsewhere, Westerners need to rediscover a more natural, organic understanding of parenthood. Only then will they stop tormenting themselves and their children with selfish and superficial ideas of what it means to be a family.

Rachel Luteaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas and writes for Crisis Magazine and The Federalist. Follow her on Twitter at @rclu.

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