Friday, 25 July 2008


According to today's Dom Post, the parents of little girls suffering from cancer are having the girls' eggs harvested before they undergo cancer treatment. Treatment may damage girls' fertility, so parents are trying to ensure their daughters will have the choice to one day have kids of their own.

I feel fraught about this; and then I feel hypocritical for feeling fraught about it. I'm lucky to have no fertility issues: I wanted babies, so I went ahead and made some. If I'd been unable to have kids, I would probably have been devastated.

But the harvesting of little girls' eggs makes me feel yucky for a host of reasons. Here are some:

- It makes an implicit value judgement on the lives of women, suggesting that having kids is - or ought to be - a key life goal.

- It exposes children to the discomfort of what I've heard is an unpleasant procedure. Sometimes, as a parent, you've got to make your kids go through nasty stuff for their own good (vaccinations, for example), but the gain should outweigh the pain. In this case, I'm not sure it does.

- To me, egg harvesting seems at the very edge of what a parent can reasonably determine is in his or her child's interests. I don't like the view that kids are property of parents, and that parents therefore get to call all the shots regarding their kids lives. Sure, there are times when I make decisions about my kids' lives, but I'm reluctant to go too far down the road of deciding what is or isn't right for them. I'll make them wear jackets when it's cold, but I don't force them to go to church or learn ballet, for example. I don't feel I have the 'authority' to call the shots about some aspects of their lives (eg, their spiritual development, interests, future life choices about fertility, etc).

What do you lot think?


stargazer said...

hmm, yes it's a difficult one. but given the level of anxiety people with unfertility problems go through, maybe these parents don't want to face the prospect of their adult daughters turning around and saying "you mean you could have saved some of my eggs and you didn't! you decided to deny me the right to ever have children? on what basis???"

The ex-expat said...

I should preface this by saying that I am coming from the viewpoint of having my parents decide against surgery when I was younger due to the pain involved, and am now contemplating it at a point when I'm older makes the risk of failure and pain far worse. If I had known at 14 what I knew at 28 I would have badgered them to get it done.

I think what this gives these girls is reproductive choices. Just because the eggs are harvested doesn't mean they are forced to use them. Just gives them options.

Dana said...

It is hard. My instinctive reaction is "eugh!" But for so many people, having children is such a big thing, on balance I think it's OK. I can imagine kids growing up infertile and being incredibly angry that their parents didn't do it.

I don't want kids so it makes my reaction against this kind of thing stronger, along with my belief that the desperate need to pass on your own genetic material is deeply questionable, but ultimately I can't see too much wrong with trying to help your kids like this.

weka said...

I don't like it. It's part of the idea that bearing children is an individual woman's right. It's not. It also reinforces the idea that we can have it all, especially if we can pay for it.

Given the state of the world I find expensive fertility treatments ethically questionable anyway. How many childhood cancer treatments could be funded instead? Or prevention of infertility for that matter.

I'd be interested to see an analysis of who is choosing to harvest their kids' eggs, and how its being paid for.

Also, under what other conditions will this be ok? Who is determining those conditions?

homepaddock said...

It's not a decision to be taken lightly. But it's not forcing the girls to have children, it's just is enabling them to choose to have children in the future if they want to and their treatment leaves them infertile.

How would you feel if as an adult you wanted to have children but couldn't, when harvesting eggs when you were younger might have made it possible?

Anna McM said...

It's not the idea that girls are being forced to have babies that bothers me - I don't think that's what's being suggested.

The thing that bothers me is the limit of parents' right to make decisions based on their kid's futures, which involve some unpleasantness to the kid.

For example, I'm opposed to circumcision. A Jewish guy I know said it's a child's right to be circumcised - the scripture says it must be done by the time the child is 8 years old, so if the parent doesn't act, the child misses his chance to fulfill his religious responsibility. I thought that was a crock - I would not put my child through a painful experience for the sake of some religious belief he may or may not have in the future. Probably, I wouldn't put my daughter through an egg harvesting surgery for the sake of children she may or may not have in the future.

However, I would put her through some other medical procedure that might give her good health later in life. If, for example, she'd been born with some sort of health problem or defect, I wouldn't hesitate to get surgery for her.

I guess it's a cost/benefit thing - what aspects of our kids lives do we think are important enough to put them through a yucky experience for? To some extent, you have to try to guess what your kids' life priorities will be when they're adults. I hope my kids will be able to have children, but I also hope they won't place undue emphasis on it either, to the extent that their lives would be unhappy if they can't or choose not to have kids!

barvasfiend said...

"I guess it's a cost/benefit thing - what aspects of our kids lives do we think are important enough to put them through a yucky experience for?"

That sums it up, and I think for me, it's about choice. I think having children is important enough of a choice to go through a procedure like this. You want to give your kids as many choices in life. If they grow up and decide that, as one commenter says, that having children is not the be all and end all, or not a woman's right/perogative then they can make that decision when they are adults.

You are making one small decision for them now, that enables them to make a much larger decision for themselves when they are older.

Dana said...

Ahh, well, I'm pretty anti circumcision. I find it deeply disturbing.

But surely for a lot of people being given the ability to have your own children, if you wish, via having eggs harvested as a child would definitely be worth it?

I don't think I'd do it to my own theoretical children, if that means anything.

Anna McM said...

Weka, I think you're right on the money with your comments about the ethics of the infertility industry. I'm deeply uncomfortable with the idea that some people spend thousands creating an embryo when there are real, live kids out their with inadequate diets and respiratory diseases because they're poor.

I think that there is a) too much emphasis placed on the importance of having kids, and b) too much emphasis placed on the importance of your kids being your own biological offspring.

Don't get me wrong - kids are great, and having them in your life is rewarding and fun for many of us. But you don't necessarily have to 'own' kids to achieve this. You can do anything from fostering to volunteering at playcentre to involving yourself with extended family. There are heaps of kids who could benefit from the care of loving adults - why get hung up on bestowing this only on kids who share our genes?

The things we prioritise when we act in our kids' best interests send them strong messages about what is and isn't important. The life of a woman who doesn't want or can't have her own biological children is not empty. The thousands of dollars which people spend on fertility stuff implies absolutely the opposite. It's the same with adopted kids - we tell them (or used to) that biology doesn't matter, and that it's the people who love and raise them that are their parents. Then, as a society, we contradict this by spending a fortune on fertility treatments which reinforce the idea that 'proper' parent-child relations are between genetically related people.

But the thing that disturbs me most of all is that some parents react to their daughters having cancer by putting them through another scary and painful medical procedure. If the child survives, surely they would look back on the love and support their parents gave them, not criticise their parents for what they failed to do?

Deborah said...

I've been through infertility. It's devestating. I'm inclined to think that this is acceptable. Possibly not desirable, but nevertheless acceptable.

a) too much emphasis placed on the importance of having kids, and b) too much emphasis placed on the importance of your kids being your own biological offspring.

Yes... but if you want to be a parent, then thee aren't all that many options. There are virtually no children available for adoption, for good reason. And although there are lots of ways to be involved with children without being a parent, they fall far short of actual parenthood.

I'm deeply uncomfortable with the idea that some people spend thousands creating an embryo when there are real, live kids out their with inadequate diets and respiratory diseases because they're poor.

Yes, but this sort of logic applies to everyone who wants to be a parent. You ought also to feel uncomfortable about anyone choosing to have a child at all, and spending masses of money on that child, when there are already many, many children in the world.

Anna McM said...

Yes, options for those who want to be parents are pretty limited. And I feel unqualified to comment on how people ought to deal with infertility - it is a cruel thing which I would not want to face. I do think, though, that the desire to have kids, and the devastation felt by those who are infertile, must be influenced by the general acceptance that biological parenthood is the only legitimate way to have meaningful engagement with children.

I think you're right to some degree about the spending money on existing kids argument also applying to those who have babies the traditional way. But as a society we still need babies - and although traditionally-made babies cost the same to raise, they are a lot cheaper to make. To use an awful economic argument (for brevity - not because I like awful economic arguments) it makes sense for those who can make something cheapest to specialise in that activity, because it's least resource intensive.

How we share the 'resource' that is kids is a different matter. It's part of a bunch of bigger societal issues - the way we tend to regard kids as the private property of their parents, the insular way in which we tend to live as nuclear families, segregation between generations (in Pakeha culture at least)...

Julie said...

I too find this a difficult call. I think my awareness of just what an arduous procedure egg harvesting is tends to make me quite sympathetic to Anna's argument here. In an ideal situation I guess it would be best to sit down with your daughter and have an honest discussion about it, and ultimately let her make the choice. How young could you realistically do that? I don't know, I suppose it would depend a lot on when you wanted to have the sex talk, and if you already had.

Consider though how we would feel about freezing a boy's sperm for the same reasons. Is that different? I imagine there might be some practical difficulties with it depending on the age of the boy (someone help me out here), but the process itself would seem to be much less brutal than egg harvesting.