The Personalist Project

Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.

--Robert Frost, "Death of the Hired Man"

Some people hear this as an insult to home and hearth (and I see what they mean), but I think it captures something. 

There’s something about family—which is pretty much synonymous with “home” here—that inspires the invention of counterfeits.  I heard an ad the other day for a “family of mutual funds”

and another for a “family of cleaning products.” 

Just what is it they’re trying to piggyback on?

Is it mere biology that ensures the kind of unconditional love (or at least acceptance) we associate with families?  No, there's no absolute guarantee. Is there anything special about the biological link between mother, father, and children? In fact, studies keep indicating that there is, but the idea seems implausible to us these days.   What kind of “magic” could there be in something as unsusceptible to free choice as biology?  What’s so sacred about the highly contingent, conditional fact of being related to somebody by blood? 

Then again, if blood is so insignificant, why is it the pattern that everyone instinctively wants to imitate?

We do retain a residual sense that biology matters.  People submit to all sorts of medical humiliations to conceive a genetically related child.  On the other hand, we’ve not only moved beyond the idea that biology is destiny, we’ve kept going at breakneck speed in the opposite direction

until we ended up where we are now.  Where's that?  Well, the other day the Swedish invented a new, neutral personal pronoun to banish “gendered” talk altogether.  In California, a bill proposes that schoolchildren use the restroom corresponding to their “chosen gender identity,” regardless of physiological fact.

And a respected, intelligent, mainstream author and activist like Masha Gessen can say this:

I have three kids who have five parents, more or less, and I don’t see why they shouldn’t have five parents legally….I met my new partner, and she had just had a baby, and that baby’s biological father is my brother, and my daughter’s biological father is a man who lives in Russia, and my adopted son also considers him his father.  So the five parents break down into two groups of three….And really, I would like to live in a legal system that is capable of reflecting that reality…

Like Robert George, who quotes her in this First Things article, I applaud her honesty. She’s uncomfortable with all the lying the proponents of “gay marriage” have to do when they insist that they’re not out to destroy marriage, just adjust it a little.

Having come this far, why continue to treat biology as anything special?  After all, as Rabbi Bernheim sayswe’ve grown unwilling to accept even the most primordial realities as given.   And yet he is right that gender is “a fact of nature infused with spiritual intentions”   It’s not chosen by us, but that doesn’t mean it’s arbitrary or insignificant.  Unless you’re an atheist or a deist, it doesn’t make sense to view a biological relationship as a mere matter of chance.  We’re so used to valuing whatever we choose, because we choose it, that we don’t know what to make of something that’s at once this fundamental and this unchosen.

Respecting physiological reality would have another advantage: it could liberate us from a fantasy that has bred enormous misery: the idea that we can choose and custom-design everything--that in fact we’re entitled to a custom-made life.  Witness this very sad story of a couple who chose to undergo IVF, chose to implant two embryos, were startled to see both survive, couldn't quite bring themselves to "selectively reduce" the pregnancy by aborting one, and now fully intend to feel shortchanged for the rest of their lives because all those choices have set them on a path that promises to be hard.  What will make it hardest of all is the acquired inability to take joy in something one hadn't planned on.

Biology is like that: it presents you with things you hadn't planned on.  If we have no sense of Providence--no sense of the "spiritual intentions" with which the "facts of nature" are infused--we'll end up feeling like a slave to the whims of biology.  If we react against that by taking on the burden of being your own Providence--playing God--the result can be even more nightmarish, and twice as disappointing, because being the master of nature was supposed to be so liberating.  

Mark Shea says a friend of his has identified two sentences that sum up the entirety of human history: “What could it hurt?” and “How were we supposed to know?”  

Too many are still stuck in the first stage.   But as the fruits of our disastrous misunderstandings of family become more unmistakeable, maybe we'll come "home" to some kind of harmony between appreciation for nature as given and a creativity that rises above manipulation.   Even if our vision of "home" is as impoverished as that of Frost's character in "Death of the Hired Man," and even if our homeward trek as reluctant as the Prodigal Son's, it's a start.

Comments (3)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, May 5, 2013 9:07am

I recently saw a trailer for a film about IVF.  (I can't find the link.)  It included interviews with several adults who were conceived by that method, who now question its ethical validity. 

One woman made a point you touch on here that I hadn't considered before. She pointed out the basic hypocrisy of women who are determined to have a child biologically connected to them deciding that knowing who her father is shouldn't be important to the child.

It's really a very selfish choice, isn't it? "Being biologically related to my child is very important to me; but having a father isn't important for my child."

Devra Torres

#2, May 7, 2013 4:28pm

I think decades of propoganda have contributed to a lot of muddle-mindedness.  On the one hand, fathers are ridiculed as useless and unnecessary.  On the other, women are nurturing goddesses, even though fertility is treated as a disease (at least until infertility appears as an imposition instead of a choice).  I think a lot of women end up honestly believing that a child with a donor-"father" isn't being deprived of anything essential.

Marie Meaney

#3, May 8, 2013 4:52am

The IVF-film you are mentioning, Katie, is probably "Eggsploitation" ( There's also an excellent study called "My Daddy's Name is Donor" ( ). 

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