Amy Laura Hall
Better Homes and Children
While the nation engages in acrimonious debate over when life begins, the "suburban Washington, D.C."-based company GIVF is clear: "Life begins at the Genetics and IVF institute." This, GIVF's motto, runs through their advertisements for human ova, appearing in magazines across the country. GIVF recently ran a full-page ad on the inside back cover of the New York Times magazine, just opposite the "Lives" feature. The advertisement promises "Doctoral Donors in advanced degree programs, and numerous other egg donors with special accomplishments, talents, or ethnicity." GIVF also very helpfully offers both "Adult and Childhood Photos" of their donors. After all, "your decision has lifelong implications."
Designer babies? The Childbirth Center at Duke Health Raleigh Hospital recently ran an advertisement that unabashedly embraced this imagery, likening itself to a boutique. A petite young women in silhouette gazes at the window of a brightly hued shop, where three fashionable frocks hang on mannequins. The bold print reads: "finally, a childbirth center that's as stylish as you are." The smaller print continues, "In the world of hospital birthing centers, consider us the smart little boutique where you always find the latest thing (exactly in your size)." The last line concludes: "Just the place to find something perfect to take home with you."
Soon after entering the dubious field of reproductive bioethics, I began singing (to myself) David Byrne's "Once in a Lifetime." Surrounded by the various advertisements for procuring beautiful children to adorn beautiful houses I heard myself singing (in a rather irate voice), "How did we get here?!" and, more to the point, "My God, what have we done?!" Yet in the midst of my incensed little ditty, I have found myself also asking another question. Are we chugging up the biotech slope towards a qualitatively post-human world, or is this the "Same as it ever was?" This brave new world may be newly creepy, but is it really new? The project of perfecting our offspring through human ingenuity is as American as Benjamin Franklin. Suburban mommies buy our daughters spun-sugar polyester dresses brought to us by DuPont; is the boutique childbirth center simply the logical extension of "Better Things for Better Living … Through Chemistry"? Is there a radical difference between choosing the most élite piano teacher available for our budding young musician and choosing the very best gamete donor available? The question "How did we get here?" is important, but digging into the mess of parenting in the last century becomes, well … messy. It requires a hard and meddling look at what mainstream, middle-class women expect when we are expecting.
For the past several years, I have been digging into mainline Protestant and mainstream American culture from the 20th century, in an attempt to understand the turn to "Designer Children." Working as a bioethicist, I recognized that the default mode of bioethical reasoning among many upper-middle-class, mainline Protestants (my people) is a potent mix of social Darwinism, utilitarianism, and faith in scientific progress. In order to gain some critical purchase on these assumptions, I explored dusty issues of the Ladies' Home Journal and Together ("The Magazine for Methodist Families"), National Geographic, Parents' Magazine, and others. I have looked for photographic images of ideal family size and domestic cleanliness, for infant formula advertisements and the promises of pediatric psychopharmaceuticals, and for the links between mainstream, Protestant domesticity and the American eugenics movement. Although the various parts of this project do not easily fit into a master narrative, there are, I believe, discernable patterns.
I have come to believe that the repro-biotech revolution poses anew some very old questions: But who do you say that I am? And who is my neighbor? When was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?
"Progress is Our Most Important Product"
General Electric's longtime motto—"Progress is our most important product"—might have served as the American credo for the 20th century. "Is your baby enjoying The Results of Progress in infant feeding?" asked an advertising letter to modern-minded mothers of 1933, signed by Dan Gerber. The letter continued, "When you are confused about anything you do not understand, you ask someone who knows. Why not do this in the vitally important matter of food for your baby?" The advertisement announced that it was also the cover page for a brochure entitled "Progress in Infant Feeding," handed out "to thousands of visitors" at Gerber's Exhibit in the Hall of Science at the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago. The theme of the Exposition was "Science Discovers, Genius Invents, Industry Applies, and Man Adapts."
Two decades later, during the postwar period, the geniuses of industrial invention focused their attention on the women of a newly burgeoning middle class. Ladies' Home Journal became "The Magazine Women Believe In" (the LHJ motto), and the cumulative question posed by way of advertisement after advertisement was: "Is your baby enjoying the results of progress?" DuPont indeed promised Ladies' Home Journal readers in March of 1955 "Better Things For Better Living … Through Chemistry," the better living embodied in a photograph of three smiling children in their Easter best standing in front of mom, who is wearing pearls and playing the piano. The sterile, uniformly blue backdrop reflects the carefully controlled antics of the childhood models. The "better living" featured in such images involved a particular configuration of "better." As summarized in an Ivory Snow advertisement (Parents' Magazine, 1958) women were to expect purity, safety, and efficiency. Through their buying power, they were to help to ensure these things for their family.
Themes of domestic security were enormously potent in the Fifties. Consider the marketing of nuclear power during that decade. The same year that DuPont Nylon was running its "Better Living" ads in LHJ, President Eisenhower's special assistant on disarmament promoted "Atoms for Peace" to LHJ readers:
Imagine a world in which there is no disease … where hunger is unknown … where food never rots and crops never spoil … Where "dirt" is an old-fashioned word, and routine household tasks are just a matter of pressing a few buttons … a world where no one ever stokes a furnace or curses the smog, where the air everywhere is as fresh as on a mountaintop and the breeze from a factory as sweet as from a rose … Imagine the world of the future … the world that nuclear energy can create for all of us …
—"Atoms for Peace," Ladies Home Journal, August, 1955.
The "Atomic Age" was to provide limitless sources of power, fueling shiny new refrigerators and other gadgets to perform routine household tasks in a jiffy. To naysayers, the author offered an ultimatum. Those American citizens who retained a sense of wariness about the technologically enhanced future needed to "try living in a primitive society without doctors, sewers, medicines and machinery of any but the most basic sort for about six weeks—and then see if they can still work up an argument against it."
"Not on the Move"
The threat of being labeled "primitive" runs through the last century. To progress, to move one's children and family forward, was not so much a right, perhaps, as a responsibility. This responsibility was made quite explicit in the immediate postwar period, in pieces such as Life magazine's May 5, 1947 photo-essay, "Family Status Must Improve: It Should Buy More for Itself to Better the Living of Others," where Americans were encouraged to stop saving and start spending—for the sake of their children and for the good of the nation.1
For this feature, an ordinary American family—Ted and Jeanne Hemeke and their children—was drafted to offer Life's readers a pictorial lesson in economically responsible domesticity. Contrasting "what is" and "what should be" photos serve to accentuate the aesthetics of properly ordered and appointed family life. On the one side, Ted Hemeke arrives home from his job in well-worn clothing that bespeaks his working-class status, with the child at his side in shorts, a wrinkled shirt, and shoes with no socks. His wife stands at the doorway of their "drab" home, one child in her arms and another sitting listlessly nearby. The yard is unkempt, the pathway to the door strewn with sticks and dry, wayward grass. In the photo below, Jeanne bends to shovel ashes from a "dirty" furnace. A child sits on the floor sucking her thumb as a shaggy dog and two kittens romp in the dusty mess.
On the other side, Ted arrives home in a business suit, holding the hand of a child with a knit hat, fashionable swing coat, and shiny shoes with socks. The yard is manicured, the home clearly a modern, suburban ranch-style. His wife again stands at the door, but the child in her arms is now in puff-sleeved dress, the other pedaling cheerfully on a trike. And in the photo below, Jeanne is no longer bent over an old furnace; instead, dressed in flowered frock, nylons, and shiny high-heels, she's cheerfully using an electric mixer in a bright kitchen, all decked out with the latest appliances. The baby of the family sits in a high chair sucking on a clean plastic toy. Her bottle of milk awaits her on the tray.
The accompanying text underlines the assumed connections between the responsibility to purchase consumer goods, broad economic growth, and proper domesticity. It is a civic duty to aspire to the "decency" standards represented by "a pleasant roof over [the family's] head, a vacuum cleaner, washing machine, stove, electric iron, refrigerator, telephone, electric toaster, and such miscellaneous household supplies as matching dishes, silverware, cooking utensils, tools, cleaning materials, stationary and postage stamps." For all of the optimistic democratic rhetoric of bringing "everyone" up to the "health and decency standard," however, I have come to suspect that the message of progress depended on the threat of being associated with those who were deemed "backwards"—with those families who were deemed not on the march forward.
Another photo essay from the immediate postwar period makes this point quite clearly. In its September, 1946 issue, National Geographic featured a series of photographs entitled "America on the Move." From travelers boarding a shiny new jet airplane, the piece moves on to show GI Bill recipients in a University of Wyoming trailer camp as well as vacationers in upstate New York, "Sheep on the Move" across the Grand Coulee Dam, and some of the "More than 110,000 Passengers" who travel through Washington National Airport every month.
In the middle of the feature, a two-page spread unambiguously signals the difference between families "on the move" and those who are not. Three children look into the horizon, pointing upward at their high-flying kite. The caption reads, "Chicagoans Enjoy High Winds and Soaring Kites on Outings to Sand Dunes at the Michigan Shore." Below are two children, separately photographed, with their heads touching the magazine's binding. The caption on the right reads, "This Tennessee Hill Boy's Traveling Days Will Come Later: Now, with food shortages world-wide, he is better off at home." The caption for the other photograph leaves even less open for interpretation: "To a Deep South Farm Urchin, There's No Place Like Home: His world is where his short legs can carry him between meals." The Americans "On the Move," those with whom the National Geographic readership were to identify, were "On the Move" inasmuch as they were able to distinguish themselves and their children from children like these. They were "On the Move" inasmuch as they were evolving, through technological progress, toward a new existence.
"The Future of the Race Marches Forward on the Feet of Little Children"
"Very early on in the midst of my digging I came across a series from a 1950 Ladies' Home Journal that stopped me in my tracks. A photo essay called "Baby's First Year" featured pictures of the photographer's own wife and children taken during the first year of their third child. In one of the earliest photos, the mother breastfeeds her newborn, her hospital bed sheets wrinkled under her plain button-up gown. The baby's sister (3 years old) and brother (18 months) peek into an obviously thrice-used bassinet with a well-worn blanket. The little girl's fingernails show signs of outside play, and her sweater has a small hole in it. In another photo, mother appears with all three in the doctor's office, the toddler barefoot and wearing only a diaper. As I flipped through the pages, these details lodged in my mind immediately at a subconscious level. The signs of worn, used, subtly soiled life with children were palpable. My snap-second thought was "The magazine must have been doing a feature on poor families."
My subsequent realization left me silent. This was merely the real, un-airbrushed life of a woman the age of my grandmother. Three small children in one family, the used blanket, the signs of joy but also weariness on the mother's face, the barefoot and diapered toddler—these seemed slightly off-kilter to my early 21st-century eye, signals of insufficient planning and purchasing and preparation. I registered the images in this way in no small part due to the contrast between the father's relatively spontaneous photographs from 1950 and the exquisitely staged images of domestic advertising in the decades that followed. My unthinking judgment rested on the accretion of maternal good sense passed down by "The Magazine Women Believe In" and by aspiring grandmothers to hopeful mothers to promising daughters in mainline America.
For the first two decades of publication, from 1929 until 1951, Parents' Magazine closed its editorial page with a quotation from Phillips Brooks, the Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts at the end of the 19th century. The quotation sums up a basic assumption of American family life in the 20th century: "The future of the race marches forward on the feet of little children."
Alongside advertisements for potty-training devices, scientifically enhanced infant milk, and selective summer camps, the staff writers of Parents' presented mothers with the conceptual tools to form children who would participate in the march forward. Indeed, maternal expectations in the United States have been shaped by a subtle, working distinction between families whose children are marching forward and those whose children are backward. Legal, efficient forms of controlling birth changed parenthood from a probable given in marriage to a task that must be chosen responsibly and performed well. Aspiring young couples today often speak about parenthood as if each potential child, each possible life, must be justified—each conception brought about only under the best timing and after obviously adequate preparation. This is not surprising; they know that they are being watched, and judged. The cumulative message emerging from the mainstream conduits of better homes and households in the last century has been that a prospective mother should choose well in order to set her household on the right side of the divide between lives that are atavistic and lives that are evolving.
These norms shape maternal choices today, not only when a woman decides whether to buy her daughter new dresses for school or accept hand-me-downs from a neighbor, and when she decides whether to pursue ova donation or adoption, but also when she is faced with news that her fetus will not predictably advance "the future of the race." At present, women who go through prenatal testing and discover a genetic disability are deciding 9 times out of 10 that the life cannot be justified. One testimony from this world of prenatal testing consistently haunts me as I write in the field of repro-bioethics. While I have quoted it elsewhere, I believe it bears repeating, and repeating again, for the woman dared to speak out loud in her interview what has become a subtle but persistent logic of death at play in the United States:
I had my abortion on June 30th, and I was a mess. I was weeping all the time, I was inconsolable, and we went away for the 4th of July, and I couldn't calm down at all. We were watching the parade on Main Street in Hamlet, at my in-law's cottage, and a family with a kid with Down's was standing in front of me. Right there at the parade, honest to God, like a sign direct to me. And the thing was, I really looked at the kid, how she dripped her ice cream all over, how she couldn't be made to do what the other kids wanted. I looked at her and thought, "She doesn't belong in that family." She didn't look like them, she looked like someone else. Like a lot of someone elses, not quite from the same race, if you know what I mean. And it made me feel, well, that I'd done the right thing, that the one I aborted wasn't quite from my family, either.
—Emily Lockhardt [name changed in original], 37, white antiques restorer.2
This human striving to justify oneself and one's children and one's household seems today a particularly Protestant heresy, but it is also a heresy that Protestantism should know how to name. To all presumptions of human striving, the Protestant tradition has posed one word, a Word through which we are each created, a Word that justifies us in spite of us. It is also a Word that may send each middle-class, aspiring household out into the world with gratitude and anew sense of abundance—ready to risk association with the very children and households for whom Christ showed preference.
When speaking to the public about a "culture of death," Pope John Paul II often went to great lengths to encompass the many manifestations of violence. This seemed to confound secular reporters, eager as they were to isolate a sound bite on the pope's opposition to abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, or euthanasia. Yet the call to affirm life, each and every life, involves a seemingly disconnected myriad of affirmations and denials.
In the midst of this research project, I have heard from couples who intentionally moved into struggling neighborhoods, each buying a house large enough to share with teenagers fleeing drug violence or single mothers in need of help. One young doctor chose primary, pediatric care over the high-end research promoted in the City of Medicine because he wanted to be present to his future children and to be a physician for a community considered a lost cause. One new father risked solidarity with new mothers by becoming the first professor at Duke Divinity School to take paternity leave. A congregation proudly founded as the proper Methodist downtown church now welcomes (somewhat awkwardly) its future in the form of children whose clothing and manners are considerably less formal. One pastor in an otherwise bow-headed and bow-tied suburban church allows her children to wear t-shirts and baggy jeans to worship, over the grumblings of the deacons, in order to help make the space more hospitable to others who wander in. Some couples have refused private school, carving out time to volunteer to wipe noses and spread peanut butter at the struggling public school. Some parents count "other people's" mainstreamed children with special needs to be in an important sense also their own. Some mothers have refused prenatal testing, others have embraced "at risk" adoption, others have thrown baby showers and offered babysitting for the pregnant teenager in the congregation who took the road increasingly less traveled.
These stories reflect a kind of holy foolishness. I have gathered from such testimonies the sense that to resist the norms of meticulously planned parenthood requires tackling head-on two facets of mainline Protestant life in the United States. First, resistance involves faith in a future secured neither through scientific progress nor by way of the march of children to advance the race but through the inscrutable birth of one child, the Word made flesh in an inauspicious manger surrounded by donkeys. Second—and this is for most parents the trickiest part—resistance involves refusing to justify my children according to the measures of ostensibly good housekeeping. Resistance involves eschewing the means by which I am to distinguish my own daughters from children who seem vaguely "backward," from those who are considered "at risk," from neighborhoods that seem godforsaken and from schools that are deemed by quantifiable results to be "subpar." Resistance means not only following the Word born in Bethlehem but bringing one's own children along, to identify with and live among those who are considered today to be the least of these.
Amy Laura Hall teaches ethics at Duke University Divinity School. She is also an elder in the United Methodist Church. This essay reflects her research as a Henry Luce Fellow in Theology, for a book called Conceiving Parenthood: The Protestant Spirit of Biotechnological Reproduction, scheduled for publication by Eerdmans in 2006.
1. See Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumer's Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (Knopf, 2003).
2. Quoted in Rayna Rapp, Testing Women, Testing the Fetus: The Social Impact of Amniocentesis in America (Routledge, 2000).
Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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