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When expecting a son is “just like rape”

Carl R. Trueman | The vocabulary of victimhood trivializes deep moral questions


An OB-GYN doctor shows an ultrasound of a baby to the baby’s parents. iStock.com/megaflopp

When expecting a son is “just like rape”
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Without a doubt, of all the areas of moral discourse in the present age, the vocabulary of victimhood has been subject to the most dramatic grade inflation. To be a victim now covers everything from those herded into the gas chambers at Auschwitz to the person upset by a cruel comment on Twitter. And it is a sign of our times that the current cult of victimhood is increasingly incapable of distinguishing any difference between the two. The language used to claim the status of victim is always strident but also increasingly flat in its register. That speaks to a world whose moral vision is increasingly detached from any means by which to distinguish trivial First World suffering of the thin-skinned Twitterati from the real agonies faced, for example, by the displaced Ukrainian refugees flocking to the Polish border.

Take, for instance, the recent story of a lesbian couple who had been seeking a female child by in vitro fertilization and then discovered that the implanted embryo was that of a boy, not a girl. As reported in the New York Post, the woman carrying the baby was understandably shocked when she found out. In her own words, “He was put there against my will, just like rape.”

Actually, no, he wasn’t. He was put there in an elective medical procedure she chose to undergo, the “risks” of which had presumably been clearly explained to her beforehand. It was not like rape at all, and the claim of even a remote analogy trivializes the experience of those who have suffered a real sexual violation of their bodies. The comparison is simply shameful. And when the person making it has herself been the victim of sexual assault—and in this case, it was—the comparison is also quite incredible. Of all people, the victim of sexual assault knows the full horror of such. So why trivialize it in this manner?

Babies are no longer created, they are made, and often—as in this case—made to order.

Thankfully, the mother did not take the easy route of abortion as a means of fixing the situation. That she first thought of the baby as an alien presence might have implied quite another outcome for the child. But she brought him to term, has bonded with him, and now loves him. This makes the fact that the couple is suing the clinic seem somewhat bizarre. Has the child damaged them in some way? It appears not. Yet the legal action does point to the broader problem with IVF. If the comparison with rape points to the trivialization of trauma in our world, the act of suing speaks to the trivialization of the creation of new life.

Whether we are conscious of it or not, IVF is shaping how society thinks about the mystery of life. We may not agree with the legal action in the case above, but we can see that it is not irrational. Why is that? It is because such medical procedures have shaped our intuitions to see babies are no longer created, they are made, and often—as in this case—made to order. Life is not mysterious, nor are its beginnings tied to an intimate act between one man and one woman. It is something over which we now assume control, even down to the sex of the baby. In our world, therefore, babies are commodities, and when the manufacturer slips up and provides the wrong type of commodity, they can and should be held financially accountable. The significant thing about the story of this lesbian couple is not that the medical procedure went wrong, it is that we now live in a world where such a story is not significant at all. It makes perfect sense to us to think about babies as just one more product.

There is little doubt that the discussion of IVF is emotionally charged and often tricky, especially so in Christian circles. The infertile husband and wife who want a child desire that which is good. They want to bring new life into the world and they want to lavish their love upon that child. These are good things. But the broader question has to be: How does the normalization of this method of satisfying this desire shape how we as a society think about children? We might be shocked when we read stories such as the one above, when a lesbian couple have a child, when one of them can liken having the wrong embryo implanted to rape, and when they sue the clinic afterward, even when they love the child. But can these things be separated from the process of IVF? That is a hard question to ask, but it is vitally important.


Carl R. Trueman

Carl R. Trueman taught on the faculties of the Universities of Nottingham and Aberdeen before moving to the United States in 2001 to teach at Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. In 2017-18 he was the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.  Since 2018, he has served as a professor at Grove City College. He is also a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor at First Things. Trueman’s latest book is the bestselling The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. He is married with two adult children and is ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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