Beware of those babies bearing gifts

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The Independent Online

Suddenly my head is full of babies. Better to be me than Macbeth, in that case, whose head was full of scorpions. But I could still do without the babies, never having been much of a baby man myself and, I suspect, never having been much of a baby. Some of us are born old before our time and try to stay that way. If that means we've missed out on something, so be it. For my part, I'm happy to have gorged on maturity early.

It's obviously the latest Barnardo's advertisement that's babied me. The one with the new-born baby on its back, still moist with afterbirth, its plastic ID bracelet containing all its credit details and affiliations to terrorist organisations on its podgy wrist, and a cockroach crawling out of its mouth. If that's what it feels like to be a baby, I'm glad I never really was one.

So much for "trailing clouds of glory do we come". Though I take the point that however glorious our heavenly antecedents, at the moment of birth the world takes over - a silver spoon if we are among the lucky ones, a cockroach or a syringe if we are not. Good for Barnardo's, I say. If this image can give a dedicatedly anti-baby man like me nightmares, imagine its effect on the milk-and-kindness section of our community. Kafka's Gregor Samsa is fully grown when he wakes up after an unsettled night and finds himself "transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect". The Barnardo's baby is just one minute old. Greg, they've called him. Not a working-class name. And therefore not an accident. Gregor, Greg - nice to see how fully this has been thought out. Literature lives, despite the efforts of BBC2 to destroy it. Clanging about in our heads, literature still disturbs our sleep.

Poor little Greg, then. His future decided for him after one minute on the planet. Deprivation to be his lot, hideousness to be his environment, and full of horrors his imagination. Not an absolute and invariable determination of his future - some, of course, succeed in spitting out the cockroach - but near enough. And sufficiently a fait accompli, I'd have thought, to give pause to those - 82 per cent of us, if you believe "consultation exercises" - who have assured the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) that they would rather we were not able to determine the sex of our babies because of a "deep-seated belief that children are gifts and not commodities". How much of a gift is Greg, how much of a gift is life to him, how much of a gift the circumstances into which he has been born? Or is it sacrilege even to ask the question? Must Greg accept the miracle of life on any terms, and be grateful?

I suppose it's good we have HFEAs. With so many godless embryologists and IVFers running about, fiddling with the constituents of our reproductive systems, it makes us sleep easier in our beds (cockroach-ridden or not) to know that someone is keeping an eye open. Why we can't employ all scientists of the Frankenstein sort in the service of giving big lips to women who want them, I do not understand. But since they are to be allowed wider access to our parts, then yes, better to have an ethical watchdog like the HFEA than not. Though whether what passes for ethics in their deliberations is worth a hill of beans I am not sure. Ask 82 per cent of the population how they regard the matter ethically and you get "deep-seated beliefs", which could just as well be called superstitions. As for birth as a "gift", I don't know whose voice you hear, but I hear Carole Caplin's.

Never having conducted a "consultation exercise" myself, I don't have the figures, but I doubt that 82 per cent of pregnancies, let alone conceptions, are considered wondrous, miraculous, divine or otherwise worth invoking the Bible for. Even Sarah, wife of Abraham, laughed disrespectfully when the angel told her a little one was on the way. Admittedly she was 90 at the time, but the principle is the same. We are not always well pleased by the news. We would sometimes choose other things to do with our time. We do not always know or like the father. Not infrequently, for any number of reasons, not all of them selfish or misanthropic, we view the prospect of motherhood and/or fatherhood with reluctance if not loathing. In which event, what sort of a gift is the baby? The truth is, though we mean to make life more mysterious and wonderful when we talk of it as a gift, what we are actually doing is cheapening it. A gift! What, such as we buy in Selfridges, with ribbons round the box. Happy birthday, Merry Christmas, thank you for the lovely party! Something we've already got, need never look at again, need never use, need never even keep? Call a baby a burden rather than a gift and you do it, and the responsibility of bearing it, more justice.

Curious, isn't it, that on the one hand we're talking gift and on the other we're baulking at commodity. In fact, neither term is appropriate. Does deciding or not deciding to have a baby in the first place make it a commodity? I see no difference, commodity-wise, between choosing to have one, hoping for it to be healthy, and wishing for it to be a girl or boy. And no more difference, commodity-wise, between interceding to ensure its arrival and its health, and interceding to decide its sex.

If Barnardo's is right, then we commodify much more brutally by other means. Poverty commodifies, ignorance commodifies, prejudice commodifies. Try imagining being shocked by an advertising campaign that shows us Greg gurgling in his afterbirth, and another baby, Gloria, crawling from his mouth, beneath the words "It could have been a girl!".

As usual, we're confusing ethics with mystification, and not being ethical where we need to be at all.

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