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Plato's Offspring Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Monday, 28 June 2010

Books have been written on Book Five of Plato’s Republic, with its discussions of whether its account of the “communality of women, children, and property” is meant to be serious or ironical. I have argued that Plato’s Guardians, who were denied wives, property, and children in the name of perfect rule, reappear in Christianity as the monastic vows. Revelation found a better way to accomplish what Plato wanted than by destroying eros and family.

In trenchant words, Aristotle said that Plato’s system simply does not work. Wives, children, and property are not well taken care of when held “in common.” The Christian point is that the vows do essentially what Plato wanted but without the horrendous effects on families and society. Both family life and life without family are good. They are to be preserved, but each separately. Monastic life and family life depend on each other, but they are not the same.

A friend called my attention to a Washington Times article (June 2) about children born of anonymous sperm “donors.” The woman is artificially impregnated from sperm, the source of which she does not know. The later born child has a “father” unknown both to the mother and to her child. This “donation” seems to be a thriving business as a “service” to “womankind.”

Evidently, children born of such donors develop certain not entirely unexpected worries. Incest with half-brothers or half-sisters is one of them. How does anyone know that someone he wishes to marry is not his half-sister? Other interesting issues come up. How many anonymous donors do we need? (Correct answer: none).

Evidently, a single enterprising male, using different names, could father vast numbers of “anonymous” children by different women. Neither father nor mother knows the origin of a specific child. The child does not know its parentage. All of this “benevolence” is done in the name of privacy, service, and perhaps vanity.

Do the donor’s children have any legal or natural right to know who their father is? After all, if one’s father turns out to be very rich, why cannot the natural offspring sue him for child support? Laws that do require such information, when passed in England, suddenly see a marked drop off in numbers offering to be “donors.” They too can see the logic.

The female version of this process also exists. A man I heard of decided that he had a “right” to a child he could not beget with his wife. He hired an unknown co-ed to provide an ovum. It was then impregnated artificially and implanted it in a third woman to carry it to birth. He then asked his own wife to bring it up! I call it “the case of the three-mothered child.”

Most of the actual children born of “donor” fathers or of ova transplants, when asked, want to be born, as we might expect. Few people want not to exist. But it is complex. In this situation, they can never really be normal. They do not know who they are. They were deliberately born in obscurity, not in light as in the case of marriage.

The Washington Times article ends this way: “It seems that it doesn’t matter how you break the norm (of a known father and mother in a marriage). . . .When kids are brought up outside intact, married families, their risks’ for problems go up.” Theory is thus confirmed by practice. If we try to “improve” on the essentials of marriage and family, we end up making things worse.

In Plato’s proposed communality of wives and children, no parent knew his offspring and no offspring knew his parents. But there was worry about incest. The state decides who is to beget in a context of genetic breeding to “improve” the race. No one will know who his father or mother is, except because of the unavoidable fact that most children look like their parents, not like someone else.

We have the very same Platonic worry today that actual children of “donor” fathers or mothers have. If it does not make any difference, if we have a “right” to beget even outside a family, what is the problem? The problem is misplaced charity. We are not dealing here with what might be normally called lust or infidelity.

Rather the child is begotten in cold “scientific” or medical circumstances. No eros is involved. The child is not a “gift,” but a “product” of a planned, anonymous “service” to someone’s “desire” or “right.” The child comes outside the proper conditions that make its life secure and known to all as the child of specific parents. Those born of “donor” parent exist but lack a human relation they were meant to have. They lack a good due to them, for which lack both parents are responsible.


James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is
The Mind That Is Catholic.

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Comments (6)Add Comment
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written by Ars Artium, June 29, 2010
These times have a quality of unreality - as if one were observing a horrible drama. Large numbers of people have accepted that anything that can be done is allowable - that there are no fundamental boundaries. Like Europe in the period before World War II, the United States seems powerless to halt this march toward disaster.
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Brave New World
written by Joe, June 29, 2010
Father, there's much more on this front emanating from European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology conference in progress in Rome, of all places, including news that, increasingly, many women are not putting all their eggs in one basket, so to speak, but rather freezing them until "Mr. Right" comes along, in the words of one researcher.

According to a study of 200 women students in their 30's, eight in 10 pursuing a medical degree would freeze their eggs to delay starting a family.

The researcher said, "We found that they had all had partners in the past, and one was currently in a relationship, but they had not fulfilled their desire to have a child because they thought that they had not found the right man."

Perhaps one could, in a twist on Darwin, call this "unnatural selection," but God's injunction to "be fruitful and multiply" seems to be secondary to the selfish notion of advancing one's educational and career interests.

One of my stepkids gave me a plaque that reads: "Anyone can be a father but it takes someone special to be a dad."

And while I agree that it's much better and to God's purpose to know who one's mother and father are and to thus honor them, it does not mean that "test-tube" babies or others born through extraordinary fertility means cannot somehow overcome this familial connection by establishing bonds with those who are not of the same blood.

And what of those abandoned early on? Stanford’s Institute for Social Research recently estimated that “28% percent of White students, 39% of Hispanic students, 69% of Black students, and 36% overall live without their fathers.”

There are millions of people who are fatherless and motherless, but can still call on Our Father whenever they are in need of help.
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Misplaced charity?
written by CatholicTide, June 29, 2010
Another example of the adage that "Just because you can do something does not mean that you should." Modern science, unfettered by any moral constraint, uses us as guinea pigs as they test out each new technology. And then they are shocked - shocked! when lives are ruined and people suffer. We are at the mercy of people who regard themselves as an enlightened elite and who are motivated primarily by pride and curiosity. I think you are overly generous to attribute this situation to "misplaced charity." To me it just seems another case of willful men (both the scientists and the sperm donors) looking for an opportunity to satisfy their egos. We need to pray for humility and discernment and hope the next generation learns from our mistakes.
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written by nancy, June 29, 2010
We have adopted a child. Who knows why the child was conceived? It is now loved by 2 parents. One should not decide that a child with only 1 parent will have trouble deciding where it came from and how. If a child is loved and knows it he or she will grow up to love also. Sometimes God has a one parent family. He is still present in our lives and loves us very much. We are all in this world together to help live and grow and to show others God's love and light in our lives and to let it shine out to others. I am so tired of the church telling others of the sinful society that we live in. It has always been sinful, even from the time of Christ. It is what we do in the here and now that matters. God gives us the situation and then its how we handle it that matters. He has given us so many ways to help us find our way back to him. His mercy endures for ever. Maybe its time we show more mercy instead of judging people. That is just my opinion. Thank you.
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Back to the Commandments
written by Sandra, June 29, 2010
Does this not PROVE THE POINT, of why the Mother Church has deemed acts such as artificial insemination as "sinful" acts that put up barriers between us and G-d, and brings suffering to the resulting child(ren)?

Children are no longer gifts from a Loving creator, but personal "objects" as in "MY CHILD" or "YOUR CHILD," not "Our Child."

Already there are businesses in countries like India where a couple can "rent a womb." The egg from one woman, sperm from any number of men and a third person CARRIES and her body nurtures the resultant infant.

Oh it's all so sterile and surgically done but what of the child and what of the mother that borne that child? Legally, it is recognized that the woman that borne the baby is it's natural mother. But how natural is it when it is not even her own genetic off-spring? What seeds are we sowing that we have yet to reap?
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written by Timothy J. O'Donnell, June 29, 2010
In a debate for the US Senate, Dr. Alan Keyes raised this very issue of incest during a debate with then candidate Obama only to be scoffed at. The debate is on Youtube. When truth is defined as desire + consent, then all is permissible.

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