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The Purposes of Creation

Midway through David Mitchell’s latest book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, historical fiction takes an unexpected turn toward fantasy. Jacob is a clerk in the Dutch East Indies Company’s Japanese outpost at the end of the eighteenth century. Having fallen in love with aspiring midwife Orito Aibagawa, Jacob is shaken when she disappears, sold into slavery to the sinister Abbot Enomoto. We abruptly discover that the abbot and the acolytes who guard his remote mountain fortress have amassed a harem of physically disfigured women whom they regularly impregnate and rob of their newborns. The infants are killed in rituals that, the men believe—and not, the novel hints, without good reason—will grant them immortality. Meanwhile, the mothers are fed stories about their children’s adoption and survival in the world outside the fortress.

The reader, astonished at this genre-bending shift, is asked to consider Enomoto’s stoic defense of the nightmarish ritual. “Where is your ‘evil’?” he demands when confronted by one of Orito’s would-be rescuers. “Without the Order, the Gifts [children] wouldn’t exist in the first place. They are an ingredient we manufacture.” At a reading in New York this summer, Mitchell drew attention to this moment and to the ethical dilemma it presents: if you are responsible for the production of a life, he asked, are you allowed to use that life as you please? If you have created a being, can you destroy it?

Those of us who enjoy speculative fiction have been asked to consider similar dilemmas before. From the beginning, the genre has taken up the question of the unnatural creation of life: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the canonical example of man’s urge to play God by crafting a new creature and bringing it to life, in a process that parallels but does not replicate natural reproduction. That plotline has been eerily adapted in recent years not only in Thousand Autumns but in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which is set in an alternate-universe England and describes the lives of clones who serve as living organ farms. (The novel was published in 2005, a year that also saw the release of Michael Bay’s movie The Island, a clumsier version of the same tale.) Both Mitchell’s and Ishiguro’s novels utilize new technologies to provide an updated version of the famous narrative: deliberate creation, undertaken with the intention of destroying the freshly fabricated lives.

It’s certainly become easier to create a human life when old-fashioned sex doesn’t do the trick. The low-tech rhythm method has been left in the dust: fertility specialists can track a woman’s likelihood of getting pregnant at any given time by testing hormone levels and analyzing cervical mucus; DIY types can purchase home ovulation kits and check for escalations in hormones that are vital to successful pregnancies; insufficient hormone levels can be addressed with fertility drugs that increase the likelihood of ovulation. When such relatively non-invasive strategies fail, one turns to in vitro fertilization, or IVF, a process by which a woman’s eggs are extracted, externally inseminated, and returned to the uterus. (Robert Edwards, the developer of IVF, won the 2010 Nobel Prize in medicine for his work.) Nor is IVF the end of the line. When it proves unsuccessful, the next step is often coculture, in which a fertilized egg is allowed to grow outside the uterus on a pillow of uterine cells, retrieved through a biopsy; successful embryos are subsequently transferred to the uterus for implantation. The entire process of impregnation is thus removed from the body’s hormonal rhythms, and indeed from the body itself.

These techniques supplement human sexual reproduction, dealing exclusively with pregnancy, but they by no means form the limits of reproductive science. In 1996, we met Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal; since then, many others have followed. Stem-cell research continues despite numerous attempts from the political right to end or limit its activities. Nor have the technologies of abortion failed to keep pace. Women who sought to terminate a pregnancy once had to rely on questionably effective and often dangerous herbs, plants, and chemicals, crude attempts at dilation, curettage, and extraction, and abdominal pressure or worse physical trauma. Today, science offers sophisticated pharmaceutical and surgical options. So long as a woman has access to adequate health care and is free of geographic, financial, and cultural impediments – big ifs, admittedly – most pregnancies can be terminated easily and safely.

As time has passed, these two branches of technology have not only developed individually, but also edged ever closer in the collective imagination. Take, for instance, 2008’s sensationalized tale of Aliza Shvarts, then an undergraduate art student at Yale. After the Yale Daily News ran a feature on Shvarts’ senior project—a multimedia project that, she claimed, documented her repeated artificial inseminations and medical abortions—the national media pounced on the story. In the face of the ensuing uproar, Yale issued a number of statements to the effect that Shvarts’ project was the announcement itself, amounting to nothing more than a misguided piece of performance art. Shvarts was forbidden to display her project unless she provided a written statement that she had made the whole thing up. Tests found no actual human blood in Shvarts’ work, and she graduated after submitting an alternate project. Even so, the story proved deeply troubling: nobody could say that Shvarts’ project would have been illegal, but many—including diehard choice advocates—found themselves feeling squeamish about the destruction of so many deliberately created lives. What was it about the purposeful nature of the pregnancies that made their termination so upsetting?

A series of articles on abortion after IVF, published during the summer of 2010, took up similar, still unanswered questions. In June, the Times of London published a front-page article revealing that about 80 women a year in England opted for abortion after undergoing IVF. The piece was marked by a withering quote from a member of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority: “These women can’t be surprised to be pregnant; you can’t have an IVF pregnancy by accident.” In July, Elle joined the debate by printing Bettina Paige’s first-person account of her decision to undergo “selective reduction” after a fertility treatment intended to produce a single child resulted in twins. Paige’s ethical qualms are clear throughout: “I was horrified at the idea of terminating one of the fetuses growing inside me,” she writes. “‘Selective reduction’ was Orwellian; I knew I was ending what could be a life.”

Though Paige and her husband eventually decided to undergo the procedure, she became aware that abortion after fertility treatments elicits a different response than the termination of an accidental pregnancy. “I’d begun to realize that people viewed selective reduction in its own category,” she explains. “You were making a ‘Sophie’s Choice’ between siblings, something a good mother would do only with a gun to her head.” Predictably, the pro-lifers came out with guns blazing. More surprisingly, the pro-choice movement seemed torn about how to react. As Danielle Friedman put it on the Daily Beast, the issue “raises a provocative question: Do women who become pregnant through IVF relinquish their pro-choice prerogative to some degree?” Some pro-choicers, she writes, “see shades of grey.” An August post on Slate’s XXFactor blog provides an excellent example: “I am a choice absolutist,” KJ Dell’Antonia writes, but “I think Paige failed.”

An early-stage cloned embryo called a blastocyst

A purposeful pregnancy appears, in the collective conscience, to give the fetus a much stronger claim to life. This raises what has become the million-dollar question in reproductive policy: what, exactly, constitutes the beginning of life? Conception? Viability outside the womb? Birth? It’s a gray area made no less opaque by the ambiguous timeline of Roe v. Wade. Medical experts continue to argue over when life can be said to begin, and science has offered no clear answers. In the wake of this chronological confusion, we seem to have decided that purpose is the solution. When a life is planned for and desired, it has a deeper hold on the imagination: destroying it becomes a monstrous act, even to those who support a woman’s right to abort an unplanned pregnancy. Lacking a clear sense of when the potential for life becomes independent life, we turn to intentionality for an answer. Life exists when life was planned for and desired. Destroying such purposeful life is less “termination” than “murder”; on the flip side, the act of purposeful creation not only creates a new human life but also affirms the humanity of the creator.

Literary versions of this narrative echo the same moral arc: those who create for creation’s sake are heroes; those who kill what has been deliberately created are pure evil. In Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Abbot Enomoto, the founder and leader of the infant-destroying cult, is as villainous as they come. When, near the novel’s end, he is poisoned in a desperate murder-suicide, the event is hailed as a victory, and his killer depicted as a martyr to the cause of preventing the killings of more infants. The tone is eerily reminiscent of those who advocate violence against abortionists, and while I certainly read Enomoto as a frightening character, I couldn’t quite shake the image of George Tiller’s murder by a right-to-life militant in 2009. Meanwhile, Enomoto’s biopolitics are placed in direct opposition to the novel’s heroine, Orito, who consistently steals the show from Jacob de Zoet with her ambition and sheer guts. Orito is unquestionably the ethical center of the book, and it seems clear that we are meant to revere her for her commitment to saving lives—particularly, given her career as a midwife, those of innocent infants. The novel opens with Orito performing a remarkable medical feat: presented with an apparent stillbirth that threatens the life of the laboring mother, she manages to deliver the child without mutilating him, and swiftly begins to tend to the mother. Then, a mysterious sound emanates from the covered crib:

Surely not, thinks the midwife, refusing to hope. Surely not
She snatches away the linen sheet just as the baby’s mouth opens.
He inhales once; twice; three times; his crinkled face crumples…
…and the shuddering newborn boiled-pink despot howls at Life.

Orito as miracle-working midwife, the savior of lost infants, the assistant of creation: her moral opposition to Enomoto opens the novel, and the theme carries throughout the book. (In fact, we learn after her capture that the story of her lifesaving abilities was what made Enomoto set his sights on her.) In the novel’s most wrenching and troubling scene, Orito manages to make a daring and highly unlikely escape despite the many monks and lookouts on guard—yet the minute she lowers herself over the outer wall, she is haunted by the thought of the lives she could save were she to stay a prisoner. “One in ten, one in twelve births in the House end with a dead woman,” she thinks. “With your knowledge and skill, this is no vain boast, it would be one in thirty.” She convinces herself to go on, but pauses when she hears the bell announcing that her closest friend has gone into labor, picturing “knotted twin fetuses blocking the neck of Yayoi’s womb.” Weighing her freedom against the life of Yayoi—and, still ignorant of the details of the ritual and believing that the children are actually adopted, the lives of Yayoi’s twins—Orito decides to turn back. She serves as the ethical counterweight to Enomoto, and to the specter of abortion at large: she is firmly in service to life, even when that service requires that she sacrifice everything. Where Enomoto creates with the intent to destroy, Orito gives without limit to the cause of pure creation, countering Enomoto’s horrifying intentionality with her life-affirming purpose. This dedication is what it means to be a moral human in Mitchell’s literary world. Life is defined by intention and humanity is defined by the act of creation. So it is that morality requires the deliberate protection of the ultimate creation: human life.

A similar ethos pervades Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. The novel gives a sharp sharp literary gloss to the familiar dystopic story of clones serving as organ farms for the rest of humanity—a story that owes a great deal to the somewhat hysterical debates surrounding stem cell research, though its ethical points are far more nuanced. Never Let Me Go is narrated by a woman named Kathy, who announces herself as a “carer” and alternates between describing her adult life and reminiscing about her childhood at Hailsham, apparently an idyllic pastoral boarding school. Since the book was adapted for a film released this summer, the story has received enough attention that it shouldn’t be too much of a spoiler to reveal the harrowing twist: Kathy and the other students at Hailsham are clones, created and nurtured in order to donate organs until they die, or “complete.” Apparently physically normal, though unable to have children, they lead relatively comfortable lives at school, though their teachers place an unusual premium on artistic production and they feel pressured to produce high-quality aesthetic work. After their time at Hailsham, they serve as “carers,” helping other clones through the donation process, until they are called upon to start their own donations. When the novel begins, Kathy has been a carer for nearly twelve years, an unusually long time, and she’s earned the right to choose which donors she will take on. She cared for Ruth, her childhood best friend, until Ruth “completed,” and for Tommy, Ruth’s onetime boyfriend, with whom Kathy carries on an affair until he nears death and requests another carer so Kathy doesn’t have to watch him pass. As if this haunting scenario weren’t enough, a romantic tragedy lies at the book’s emotional core: somehow, the students at Hailsham have all heard that a couple who can prove that they are truly in love may put off their donations and start a life together. Driven by this belief, and aware that Tommy’s next donation will probably be his last, Kathy and Tommy track down the former headmistress of Hailsham, only to learn that it’s nothing but an empty rumor: there is no deferral, no exception on account of love. They were created for a specific purpose and nothing can change the path on which they are, and have always been, set.

Clones from Never Let Me Go, played by Keira Knightly, Carey Mulligan, and Andrew Garfield

On its surface, this is simply another nightmarish tale of bio-slavery, an aesthetically superior and more haunting version of the Matrix in which humans, not machines, mine the human body for useful resources. Yet there is something more complex at work. When Kathy and Tommy confront the former matriarch of Hailsham, they learn that their childhood was far from the norm. “All around the country,” they are told, “at this very moment, there are students being reared in deplorable conditions, conditions you Hailsham students could hardly imagine.” Hailsham was an experimental environment, an attempt not only to raise clones in a humane manner, but also to prove that “it was possible for them to grow to be as sensitive and intelligent as any human being.” This explains Hailsham’s unusual emphasis on artistic creation, and the gallery of student work that accumulated over the years: “We took away your art because we thought it would reveal your souls. Or, to put it more finely, we did it to prove you had souls at all.” The scientists who create the clones—and, even more importantly, the “normal” people who accept the system as a necessary part of modern medicine—are not simply vilified as Enomoto is, even though they participate to the creation/destruction paradigm. Instead, they have learned to convince themselves that the clones simply aren’t human—and here, as in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, the human is defined by his ability to create. Biologically unable to have children, the students can only prove their humanity through artistic creation. Yet the conditions that are necessary for such aesthetic production—a liberal education, kind teachers, a beautiful home, the ability to form friendships and fall in love—add a level of horror to their predicament. As the characters come to ask, “Why Hailsham at all?”

This question forces a return to my initial point: logically or not, intentionality creates an increased claim to life. The Hailsham students are not simply “shadowy objects in test tubes.” Thanks to their relatively privileged and familiar experience, they are given an exalted status that makes their fate all the more chilling. The plight of the Hailsham students moves me more than that of the less fortunate clones, even though I understand that the latter’s experiences are truly the stuff of nightmare. At first, I was puzzled by this reaction—but this is just another version of the purpose paradox. Even within a fictional world, life that is intentionally created simply seems to matter more. The Hailsham students were raised to become as human—intelligent, morally aware, emotionally active—as possible. Because of this, the loss of their lives is even more tragic. The awakening of their higher-order consciousness was no accident, so it seems even crueler to rob them of their claim to life.

This horror at the meeting point of creation and destruction exceeds the reaction to either individual action: it’s somehow less wrong to kill a stranger than it is to take a life for which you are responsible. Enomoto would be less of a monster if he were simply a superstitious serial killer; the women who undergo abortion after fertility treatment are subject to an ethical outrage that by and large is not directed against the termination of accidental pregnancies.

In a strictly biological sense, this distinction is not easy to explain. One life should be just as valuable as another. Intentionality shouldn’t make such a difference. Yet biology has failed to provide a universally accepted answer to its own most basic questions: namely, what exactly is life, and what are its formal limits? At what point, in other words, does a cluster of cells become a human?

Without scientific answers to these questions, intentionality is one of the only routes available. To most abortion-rights advocates, myself included, it is not murder if a woman takes the morning-after pill, or opts for surgical abortion in the next few months. Yet if a woman who planned for a baby and is delighted with her pregnancy suffers a miscarriage, it’s as tragic as if she had lost an older child. The biological facts matter less than the sense of purpose underlying these facts. Abortion after IVF is likely to be viewed with discomfort, if not moral outrage, because IVF implies purpose, and purpose demands life. Deliberate creation is what defines life in every sense: when we make, or when another makes us, then we are truly human. The act of destroying such purposeful life destroys not only another being, but our own humanity as well. As the sciences of reproduction and destruction progress, we find ourselves at a morally murky crossroads: we may be able to create and destroy life, but we’re not yet entirely sure of what we’re making and unmaking when we do so.

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Rebecca Evans, formerly of California and New York, is currently a doctoral student in English at Duke University.

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