Musk has relied on reproductive technologies in welcoming eight of his ten children. His family tree is nearly as complex as his portfolio. Five of Musk’s six children with ex-wife Justine Wilson were conceived via IVF. Musk fathered his next two children, X and Y, with girlfriend Claire Boucher–the first via surrogate who was born just a month after Musk welcomed twins conceived via IVF with employee Shivon Zilis, despite company policies that prohibit close relationships. (Apparently, the begetting and raising of children together no longer qualifies as a close relationship.) Notably, many of Musk’s children have no one to call “Mother,” specifically, X and Y, as Boucher has claimed to find the title impossible to “identify” with and “distasteful.”
While having a second family used to be shrouded in secrecy and shame, Musk appears to be publicly building three at once, and with little public reprobation. In fact, Forbes has proclaimed Musk’s technologically centered method of family building “the future of reproduction.” The redefinition of the family is not news in itself, but Boucher’s revulsion at the reality of her own motherhood is a hallmark of a new era: the reproductive revolution. What the sexual revolution began, by upsetting gender roles and obscuring the necessary link between marriage and procreation, the reproductive revolution continues, shattering our conceptions of motherhood and fatherhood and severing the bond between parents and children.
Are You My Mother?
Reproductive technologies have resulted in an unprecedented fracturing of the family, creating disconnections between the social roles and biological capacities of parents. This is reflected in the new language necessitated by practices such as egg donation and surrogacy, which dissect motherhood into its component roles. The roles traditionally fulfilled by one woman are now fulfilled by two or more: biological mother, gestational mother, and social mother, to name a few. The same disconnect occurs when sperm donation intentionally separates biological and social fatherhood.
After decades of practicing surrogacy, the profound impact of the bodily bonding and nurture contributed by gestational mothers has come to be disregarded, something that may even be relegated to brain-dead women or mechanical alternatives. In states such as Oregon, there are processes in place to erase surrogates from birth certificates, as though the mothering that occurs in the womb for the first nine months of a child’s existence is irrelevant.
Worse yet, when disputes arise, surrogates are dehumanized even further, reduced to mere mechanical incubators. This was the case recently when Brittany Pearson discovered she needed cancer treatments while acting as a surrogate for a same-sex couple in California. The intended fathers threatened legal action if she refused to terminate the pregnancy because they feared possible impairments from a birth prior to 34 weeks (the time when Pearson needed to begin her life-saving cancer treatments). They also refused to consider allowing her to continue with the pregnancy and offer the twins for adoption, because, as they claimed, they did not want their DNA “out there” being raised by someone else. This example reveals the absurdity of commercialized reproduction: our biology is paradoxically prized and eschewed simultaneously. A genetic link is deemed important enough to pursue its further propagation, yet not quite important enough to prevent gamete donation. The very term gamete “donation” is questionable, since what is given, if it becomes what it is intended to be, is one’s future child.
This fact does not seem to trouble serial sperm donors like Kyle Gordy, whose business selling his sperm on social media has made him the biological father to 65 children (and counting). Yet it is deeply troubling to the donor-conceived community, who wrestle with questions of identity even when their families aren’t victims of deceptive doctors like Norman Barwin and Donald Cline, (practitioners who used their own sperm to inseminate patients without their consent). The reproductive revolution takes the redefinition of the family a step further than the reshuffling depicted in The Brady Bunch or even Modern Family post-sexual revolution; the reproductive revolution alters the identities of the family members themselves, creating a cut-and-paste collage of genetic material and social relationships.
As we increase our technological control over the process of procreation, we create the illusion that we can design parenthood and family to our liking. Actress Jamie Chung reportedly chose surrogacy because she was “terrified” to put her “life on hold for two plus years” to have children. And EctoLife’s concept video features mechanical wombs that simplify the process of birth to the push of a button. These “options” offer the promise of children with no inconvenience whatsoever. Yet this is poor preparation for parenthood, which at its core demands sacrificing our own needs in taking responsibility for another’s. Couching pregnancy and childrearing in terms of convenience rather than sacrifice reduces children to commodities that exist solely to satisfy their parents’ desires.
Rotten Roots, Rotten Fruits
Many scholars agree that this strange ideology finds its roots in the rise of the pill. Separating sex and procreation in our cultural consciousness set the stage for the widespread exploitation of women and commodification of children. The separation of sex and babies renders the family irrelevant. Contraception allowed sex on demand, devoid of consequences, and assisted reproduction provides procreation on demand, no lifelong, self-forgetting commitment to marital fidelity necessary.
As we shift away from the traditional family and toward new ways of constructing close relational units, what we leave behind is not an arbitrary process for obtaining progeny. When our concepts of “mother,” “father,” and “family” no longer correlate with concepts like biology and marriage, the words lose their meaning. This may explain why the Law Commission of England and Wales recommends erasing the word “mother” from the legal system altogether. When we abandon the biological reality of the family, we unravel the fabric of human life. We become disconnected threads, no longer woven together as an integral whole.
We no longer must accept the genetic hand that nature that deals our children, either. Like enthusiasts obtaining dogs from a breeder, we can select sperm and eggs that offer the genetic characteristics we deem desirable. With genetic editing technologies like CRISPR, we are closer than ever to creating progeny with specific characteristics. And as the documentary Make People Better suggests, this may already be happening.
Visionaries like Musk don’t see the need for genetic enhancement. Taking the logic of the reproductive revolution one step further, Musk advocates a transhumanist future in which the human mind is enhanced by interfacing with computers. His tech company Neuralink, which seeks to implant computer chips into the brain, has received approval to begin human trials later this year.
But genetic manipulations and brain-computer interfacing are hardly necessary to declare that the transhuman era has begun. Physical enhancements are not the only means to transforming the type of creatures that we are. As Mary Harrington argues, transforming the way we reproduce also transforms our relationships–in that sense, “The transhumanist revolution isn’t an ominous possibility just round the corner. It already happened.”
The human person is never merely individual, and our bodily capacities are not the only realm we attempt to manipulate; an integral part of our humanity is our received identity existing in reciprocal relationships with others. When we make ourselves into creatures who are no longer fundamentally rooted in familial structures, we lose the sense of belonging and reciprocal relationship that are central to human identity. If we jettison the family altogether, becoming little more than autonomous individuals loosely associated by fluid contracts of autonomous will, are we not abandoning a constituent part of our humanity?
If we can deconstruct a concept as fundamental as “mother” to make it impossible to “identify” with, or even a word worthy of erasure, who are we becoming? What does “sister” mean when you have 67 of them? In bypassing the familial structures central to procreation, we are becoming something humanity has never been before. It may be that the transhumanist era begins not by altering our physical capacities, but via the destruction of our most fundamental human relationships.
It may be that no man is an island. But something else, something beyond man, might be.
Important announcement: Introducing our new Ethics Advice Column! This week, submit your ethical questions to Chris Tollefsen, our expert in natural law philosophy and ethics. Each quarter, we will publish Chris’ responses to select questions.