I’m starting at the end, with Ellen’s chapter, “The Only Way is Hard.” In this chapter Ellen explains that all decisions that come with life in an advanced technological age will be hard ones for Christians. It’s hard not to have a baby. It’s hard to have biological children when there are so many who need to be adopted. It’s hard to forgo medical procedures we perceive will eliminate pain from the lives of our loved ones. Ellen writes that each choice is accompanied by high physical, emotional, and financial stakes. Her broad suggestion of a way forward is to listen to the stories of others. Her whole book is an experiment in this kind of investment in the personal – a narrative ethics approach to issues of reproductive technology.

I started Ellen’s book just after finishing Danielle Allen’s Talking to Strangers. I interacted with this book a lot over the course of writing a paper on abortion for my contemporary ethics class this semester and it was in the back of my mind as I read No Easy Choice. Allen’s book looks at the historical moment of the integration of the Little Rock public school system, in particular when a miscommunication occurred and Elizabeth Eckford was sent to school by herself and faced a rabid crowd outside the school. It’s a fascinating chapter in American history because this moment forced a recalibration of public/private space. What was an intensely personal moment (walking to school) took on public significance. From then on no longer could Americans envision citizenship merely as a matter of public acts like voting and paying taxes. Private moments were now meshed with the public in a way that demanded something of the citizen.

Stories matter. That’s one of the reasons Ellen wrote this book, to break open to conversation about reproductive technologies from the confines of disembodied medical ethics and public policy. And there’s a lot to be said about this approach, especially the way Ellen does it. Another intriguing aspect of Allen’s thesis is that those of us operating in liberal democracies refuse to recognize that the price for this form of governance is loss, and at times self-sacrifice. In order to protect the goods we all value as common commodities we have to accept that someone will lose out on the decision making. I reason that reproductive technologies are the most deaf to this reality. These are advancements that work off the notion, as Ellen deftly points out, that you should have the kind of baby you want when you want it. What happens to your fellow employes insurance premiums when we undergo expensive fertility treatments? What about the cost of medical care? What do we lose in terms of valuing vulnerable life when we destroy embryos that are unhealthy?

But on the other side of loss is trauma, and liberal democracies are equally poor at naming the trauma that comes with loss and finding ways to adequately deal with that trauma. This is where I think Ellen’s work is so incredible and essential. She provides vivid descriptions of what it is like to live with OI herself, and to experience the excruciating pain of seeing her child felled by broken bones again and again. If we are going to truly talk about the losses that come with reproductive technologies we also have to name and negotiate the very real and profound traumas associated with those who will lose out on those decisions. We have to be able to take seriously what they are telling us is the actual lived experience of living with a child with a profound disability, what it is like to grieve a stillborn child, to walk alongside someone who must face the reality of never being able to bear biological children.

At the end of the day, however, I don’t think this means that we end up weighing difficult story versus difficult ethical decision to see which one feels worse. This is because for Christians this kind of “love” is not the final answer. Jesus, God enfleshed, is to whom we owe our allegiance. And we remember that following this Jesus means finding ourselves nailed to the cross. This means that we can and must ask others to undergo the trauma of certain losses, but our hearts should break with them. Not only that we as the church, the body of Christ, must also find ways to carry those losses and to name those traumas. This is not where the church has been at its best. We tend to take political positions (pro-life/choice being the most obvious) without naming that there is profound loss on both sides of this issue. We don’t do an adequate job of naming what the common goods are that we try to cultivate through particular limits on reproductive technologies.

Ellen also names one of the very real challenges that comes with trying to tell stories – even as these decisions are both private choices with very real public consequences it is very difficult to have these conversations. Childbearing decisions, despite their reverberation into public policy, health care, health insurance, eugenics, and political office, are incredibly emotional decisions. Most of us know someone who’s struggles with fertility cause her to avoid or end friendships with pregnant friends, or to cry in the bathroom every time there is a pregnancy announcement at work. My experience is that the desperation around infertility leads people to make decisions without consulting their communities of faith or asking deep questions about the ethics surrounding their choices. Practically speaking, I feel a great sense of despair about being able to truly talk about these decisions in a meaningful way. And I’m not sure of the way forward. Ellen offers some interesting suggestions from her own experience of being on the side of trauma that I find very helpful. But I also think she is a rare bird in her willingness to be open in the way she is. I wonder if anyone else has successfully navigated these waters.


2 thoughts on “No Easy Choice: Narrative Ethics

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