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December 06, 2004

Neonatal Tech and the Meaning of Life - Part One

In 1990 I dated a pediatric surgeon. It was one of the strangest relationships I ever had. I've never met anyone with a more twisted sense of humor. I never quite laughed along with the cracks about meconium inhalation, but I understood finally where that came from.

Now my cousin was a trauma surgeon once. So I grew accustomed to hearing things like "I can't wait to get my hands into somebody's guts." And according to those elaborate skill inventories, I've been assessed to have three perfect careers, architect, programmer and surgeon. So I truly understand the mentality of the men and women who keep their hands bloody for a living. So I finally understood that part and parcel of the professional ethos was a healthy respect for the human body. As a part of this I think it is only when you understand how incredibly complex and robust a system it is, do you begin to respect it. Still, bodies succeed and fail in inexplicable ways. You have to accept the capriciousness of the system too. It's an odd mix of temperaments.

I don't know how one can be a GP without having a healthy dose of cynicism, especially when one practices medicine in the United States. One of the first surprising things I learned was how doctors get sold by drug companies like us ordinary folks get spam. I attended a black tie event - some medical awards ceremony - and it seemed like half the people there were drug dealers, er pharmaceutical salesmen. We were plied with branded pens, post-it notes, refrigerator magnets and all sorts fo junk. I played along with the game, pretending to be a throat specialist (since it's well known that there are a healthy number of African Americans in that specialty here on the West Coast) just to see how far one of the guys would go.

Now back in that day, part of the cynicism extended to the widely reported phenomenon of the 'crack baby'. At Children's Hospital, they were spending millions, literally, to show that they could save low birthweight babies who were born addicted to crack cocaine. And they did. There was a revolution going on in being able to keep premies alive with newfangled procedures and advanced incubators that were practically synthetic wombs. Just for those pictures we all remember so well - little grey infants smaller than an adult hand, shivering weakly. That's what got the rich old codgers and dowagers out of their seats and into writing fat checks. The irony that crack babies were driving what would inevitably save thousands of premies was not lost on anyone, especially not me.

Right about that time, the culture wars were still in full swing, as were the accusations about 'black genocide'. The idea that the black man was an 'endangered species' did the rounds, not without probable cause. As well, diatribes about 'welfare queens' and teen motherhood were all anyone ever talked about in those days before The Verdict and OJ. From my perspective, I preferred to cut through the BS. How could this so called genocide be successful if all the black teenagers were having so many babies? It has long been one of my arguments about the persistence of African America - there are more of us now than there were back then, plus now we have Yo MTV Raps. We're not going back to Africa, we're doing just fine here. Part and parcel of that argument was that 'God don't make mistakes.' If a human body can get pregnant and deliver a child, then it's our economy that is out of joint if that child suffers, not 'black sex drives'.

The medical fact is that teenage mothers don't deliver as healthy a babe as a more mature woman comepletely aside from socioeconomic factors. Furthermore as a proper definition of survival of a species is concerned, all that must occur is that creatures' life expectancy gets through and beyond reproductive age. So there are almost none, if any, endangered ethnicities on the planet, strictly speaking. What we really care about is the longevity of the cultures, not the actual humans. The actual humans were doing well biologically. But then again, some were not. Enter technology.

If a couple cannot get pregnant, they had better have some money. Because if you want a baby and your own body is in the 'pathetic' category - if you swing that hammer but can't ring that bell - you had just better come out of your pocket and buy that kewpie doll. They are for sale, you know. My new partner says there is an incredibly brisk adoption business in China, the clients are all woefully out of shape Swedes, Finns and Danes. Make a note of this vis a vis Gay Marriage. But if your body can't reproduce, maybe God is trying to tell you something. We've all heard the stories of fertility clinics etc. This is all part of the equation..

I'm going to break off this piece and continue it later. The points I want to associate here have to do with the economic and professional incentives of the medical industry to get and spend on sperms, eggs, fetuses, premies and infants. Most babies in the world are born via midwifery, a cultural artifact that is all but extinct in the US of A. Go around and ask women you know about an epidural. Of course the desire to have a baby is very strong in everyone. Some folks will bear the pain, others will just shop. There is an economy here, and American values weigh in heavily. It's about race, it's about money, it's about technology, it's about culture and values and God and politics.

People want to chop each others heads off about Roe V Wade. I'm about to live somewhere where the government dictated how many children you can have. So I'm going to be particularly interested to understand what happens when you let the state that close. I'm civil libertarian on this matter, not pro-life, but anti-abortion. Where should the lines be drawn? To be continued.

Posted by mbowen at December 6, 2004 10:15 AM

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Neonatal Technology and the Meaning of Life from Booker Rising
The moderate-conservative Republican writes: "Furthermore as a proper definition of survival of a species is concerned, all that must occur is that creatures' life expectancy gets through and beyond reproductive age. So there are almost none, if any,... [Read More]

Tracked on December 6, 2004 02:00 PM