Procreating Alone

Procreating Alone

If sexual attraction is one powerful force that God built into the world to counteract the individual’s inclination to self-absorption, then the combination of technological and cultural assaults on this urge doesn’t threaten only the formation of families, the basic unit of society. It also threatens something even more foundational: the nature of the person as a social being.

Civilization is, before all, the will to live in common. A man is uncivilized, barbarian, in the degree to which he does not take others into account.
—José Ortega y Gasset

Robert Putnam’s sociological study Bowling Alone (2000) provoked an avalanche of reflection and debate on the importance and fragility of social capital. Even while many have questioned various theoretical and statistical elements of Putnam’s work, commentators still look to it as a lodestar in the effort to understand, document, and, to the extent necessary, challenge certain trends in contemporary American culture.

To many observers, the situation has continually worsened. Digital streaming, remote work, online education, and the proliferation of delivery services intensified the isolation that Putnam predicted. We are not only bowling alone; we are watching alone, learning alone, and eating alone–and the pandemic only aggravated the “loneliness epidemic” that the US surgeon general predicted back in 2017.

One deep human urge presses against these tendencies. Throughout history, the centripetal force of sexual attraction has induced people to form bonds—sometimes brief, often lasting. To satisfy our physical and emotional desires, we must come together. The socially interactive character of sexual union is reflected in the archaic terminology that has mostly fallen out of use, such as intercourse, commerce, and congress. Merriam-Webster still offers under the first definition of that third term: “a) the act or action of coming together and meeting; b) coitus.” This instinctive coming together is the natural foundation on which the Church built the sacrament of marriage. At the beginning of his treatise On the Good of Marriage, Saint Augustine wrote that “the first natural bond of human society is man and wife.”

But what if even this final line of defense against the march of social disconnection has been breached?

Technology and Isolation

The technological nudge toward isolation arguably began in the 1960s with the advent of widespread access to and use of birth control chemicals. Critics and celebrants alike widely recognize the revolutionary effect of contraception. “Modern contraception is not only a fact of our time,” Mary Eberstadt wrote in her incisive Adam and Eve after the Pill. “It may even be the central fact, in the sense that it is hard to think of any other whose demographic, social, behavioral, and personal fallout has been as profound.”

While the contraceptive sexual act preserves the essence of mating two people, it introduces a barrier between them by promoting limited rather than full giving of each to the other. Whether or not one accepts this particular argument—cogently made by John Paul II and the many admirers of his Theology of the Body—the evolution of technology has advanced the cause of separation far beyond what the pill made possible. The ability to decouple the fertilization of the egg from the act of intercourse attenuated not merely the tie between procreation and the sexual act but even the link between procreation and the cooperative action of two individuals. Creating new life no longer requires “sexual congress.” By this measure, some reproductive methods are more disintegrative than others. The use of a husband’s sperm to fertilize his wife’s ovum still brings a man and a woman together in a cooperative enterprise. Conversely, the indiscriminate purchase of sperm or eggs in the fertility marketplace more gravely depersonalizes and commercializes procreation, as it further separates the creation of life from the act of loving union between two persons.

Even in the latter case, though, the prospective mother depends on the cooperation of a father (or vice versa), no matter how far removed or unaware. Yet the logic of separating procreation from sex, once unleashed, has run amok. In fact, it is now reaching its ultimate conclusion in human cloning. In this technique, the sexual act and procreation are definitively severed. The laboratory replaces the bedroom and procreating alone becomes reality.

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