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Bearing Life in a Broken World: A Review of 'No Easy Choice'

May 4 2012
Strengthened by her own story, Ellen Painter Dollar's book explores the ethical dimensions of reproductive technology.

Is donating sperm and eggs an act of kindness to a stranger or a breach of our common humanity? Should wealthy women be able to hire surrogate mothers to bear their babies? What are the ethical questions surrounding adoption, in vitro fertilization (IVF), and prenatal genetic testing? These topics make the headlines, from Time magazine—which recently profiled a man who has sired at least 70 offspring via sperm donation—to The Atlantic, which recently commented on the problematic ethics of a society in which everything is up for sale, to Ann Patchett's recent novel State of Wonder, which explores the possibility of lifelong fertility.

From time eternal, men and women have been making babies, usually by choice, and usually in the old-fashioned way. But in recent years, making babies has become fraught with promises and possibilities never before imagined, whether the opportunity to conceive children later in life, identify genetic abnormalities in embryos, or hire surrogate mothers from halfway around the globe to carry an embryo to term. Ethical questions often get shoved to the side in the face of both rapid technological advancement and the emotions involved. Who wants to raise concerns about the production of millions of babies who bring great joy to millions of parents?

Thankfully, Ellen Painter Dollar has waded into the murky waters of reproductive technology in her new book No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox). Ellen begins with her own story as a woman with OI, osteogenesis imperfecta. She passed OI, a genetic disorder that causes frequent broken bones throughout childhood, to her first child, Leah, and wondered whether it was right for her to conceive other children who might inherit the same condition.

Ellen and her husband, Daniel, struggled with the practical and emotionally wrenching reality of caring for a toddler who could, say, break both of the bones in her left forearm, or break both her tibia and fibula, all during innocuous activities like climbing up on a sofa. They wanted more children, but they faced a 50 percent chance of passing along Ellen's defective gene. They considered preimplantation genetic diagnosis, in which they would create embryos via IVF and then test them for OI before implanting them in Ellen's womb.

But as Christians, the Dollars struggled with whether or not human embryos should be a matter of human control. They wondered whether participation in reproductive technology would contribute to a devaluing of human life or, alternately, demonstrate an act of stewardship over the gift of procreation they had been given. As Ellen writes, "If our desire for children comes from God, then how are Christians to view how to have children, particularly given the choices available to help people have babies even when they face challenges to natural conception?"

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