just finished Patti Smith’s M Train (I know, I know, I’m beastly delayed in getting on board) and it’s gotten my gears turning on the idea of replication. Especially of the body.
Especially in regards to making humans. Children. Bodily or otherwise.
“Nothing can be truly replicated,” she writes. “Not a love, not a jewel, not a single line.”
But can an idea be replicated? The idea of a child? Performed again — recreated, repeated — but this time, in the flesh?
I spend a lot of time wandering through burgeoning bodily science — it’s a sometimes morbid fascination of mine to spin out on the ethics of creating life.
If someone can’t have children should they let that ship sail? And if the notion of “can’t” is evolving all the time — if we’re redefining what the limitations of our biology are, are we not redefining what it means to be mortal, to be human?
I recently learned that we’re not so far away from deriving entire embryos from skin cells.
A human somatic cell — like a skin cell for example — can be turned into a stem cell, the kind of cell that we can lovingly coerce into becoming any kind of cell. They’re all possibility.
These artificially manipulated cells are called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) and currently, they’re being studied and grown for the purpose of developing human organs outside the human body to be used for surgical transplantation. But in principle, the author writes in The Guardian, “they should also be able to form eggs and sperm.”
As of yet, we’ve yet to crack the proverbial code to make gametes — a male or female germ cell that’s able to be fertilized and form a zygote when coupled together.
In their lonesome, eggs and sperm each possess half of what is needed to create life — 23 chromosomes. When they merge in fertilization “the full complement of 46 chromosomes is then restored,” but in order to even produce viable germ cells from stem cells, the cells have to undergo meiosis, that fated splitting process that halves their chromosomes and primes them to combine, to be fertilized.
We already offer physiological support for babies as young as 23 weeks old outside the uterus, but all this glass and reimagined flesh poises us on a strange precipice. Soon enough all we’ll need is a snag of skin to make life — we won’t need men or women or anybody with a uterus to carry our kind.
Petri dishes and artificial wombs will render the human body and its reproductive functions nearly obsolete. Does this diminish the journey somehow? Or does make it all the more beautiful in illustrating our dogged fight to survive? To live, to go on.
The body becomes a mere primary source, evidence from whence we came.
Are children not another kind of replication? Not only literally through the faithful replication of parental DNA of course, but as a means of recreating our dreams? Our morals?
I think people hope — myself included — that through this fledgling ball of ever-growing flesh they’ll reproduce their hopes for the future, they’ll make good on promises their own parents couldn’t keep. Safety. A new lunchbox, a pool. No drinking. No fights. A garden, a patience.
We’re haunted by all kinds of things we lay at our potential children’s feet in a kind of re-scaffolding of our disappointments, our own concepts of happiness. They serve as a means of retelling our own childhood — what could have been becomes what will be.
At least in theory.
Our principles too. We believe we can fashion tiny soldiers all marching in a beautiful lockstep of goodwill, refracting our politics, our deeply-held and fought-for sense of right and wrong. They’ll be better than us. Smarter. Kinder. More tolerant. Brave.
So I suppose in the end I don’t hope to replicate myself but improve upon an existing model.
I’m not sure when it started, but these days when I begin ovulating, I have these loving, odd morbid fantasies.
Oops. There goes the dancer. The celebrated folk singer. The novelist. The quiet and shaggy-haired boy clutching worms on a dock.
When my boyfriend bursts in pleasure — a Sunday slice of sun cutting across the bed sheets — and I hold the warmth of his once body in my hands, I think of the half lives dying, like so many tadpoles washed ashore in a storm.
There goes the daughter who only eats food that’s white. Who loves peanut butter cookies and dogs and eats nasturtiums from the garden yelling, “so spicy mama!’” And holds a tiny sticky fist to her face.
By definition whatever combination we were to have in that moment — in our gathering of split legs and lips — will never occur. There is only what’s left. But maybe, just maybe, my body is saving the best bit for last, like the jelly center of a linzer tart.
Stem cells are the height of potentiality, but do humans not possess equally infinite paths? What is this wonderful mystery residing inside of us? What we are to be? Just who and what do I hold inside? And we’re endlessly manipulate-able — we can become anything. Saints. Gods. Monsters too.
And all this bending of our bodies to our will — IVF, surrogates, egg freezing — are we not divining our own future — are we not our own Gods? Are we not replicating a dream in creating children, that “shouldn’t” — so says our own bodies — exist? Are we not redefining the very definition of fate?
We’ve conquered so much bodily demise with science — and sickness in all its permutations has somehow always passed some kind of purity test in my mind. No one should suffer if they don’t have to. No one should die from disease or infection if we can prevent it. Life is seemingly sacrosanct in my own set of morals. Even in the absence of God, there is something sacred in living.
At 36, I often find myself in talks with my boyfriend Adam about Whether or Not to Have Children — it’s a big question and it’s often met with crushing ambivalence. Our pendulum swings left to right depending on the day, the mood, the kind of sex we just had.
Thank god it’s just us!
Good grief, what a wonder to hold a child!
Yes? No? Why? When? What do we need first? Fuck it, you’re never really ready …
And what often hastens the conversation to a close is the idea that we’ll just let Fate decide. We’ll let the sliding door determine our future.
If we try and it doesn’t happen, we won’t “medicalize” it. It will be as it was intended. But I suppose if we’re that ambivalent to begin with then perhaps we shouldn’t be considering it at all.
Adam, to be fair, feels a bit less ambivalent.
We’ll be so sad if we never even *try* darling, he lilts to me in his very lovely English accent.
But Christ, how sad will we be if we work ourselves up that to that decision only to find…there’s no baby to be had. Our bodies have failed. We are just two again with the ghost of three.
But always the pendulum settles again, winging slower and slower until it stops, hovering mid-air, a question mark.
A fantasy: I’m topless. A baby, maybe three months old is tied to my chest with a long pale blue scarf. I’m standing hand on hips looking at the ocean. It’s Crete. It’s Amalfi, it’s nowhere. It’s sunlight and wind and the tightness of my collarbones against my skin taut with salt.
The baby has almost black hair and its squinting up at my squint.
But these are cruel imaginings. You can replicate nothing, especially not the concept — the desire of — a child in your head. And yet. Amid all these convoluted thoughts is the idea that a child feels like a poultice to me. Its presence makes make me feel less mortal.
This 36-year-old body has called into question my lifelong atheism and what it means to confront all this dust to dust business. In the New Yorker essay, If God Is Dead, Than Time Is Everything, the author James Wood discusses the notion that eternity “destroys meaning and value.” If there is a heaven, the argument goes, there ceases to be any urgency in imbuing life into life here and now.
Our boundaries, our fragility, our one-way-ticketness is the very thing that gives our reality substance and weight. Choose wisely how the moments tick by because the clock will cease to tick.
Wood dovetails this concept with the Christian concept of heaven and God, further tangling the threads of being human — being alive — with replication:
“In “The Essence of Christianity” (1841), Feuerbach proposed that when human beings worship God they are simply worshipping what they themselves value, and are projecting those values onto the figment of objectivity they choose to call God. Feuerbach is particularly interesting on the question of immortality. He says that Heaven is the real God of man: it is Heaven we are really after.”
We want God to be a better iteration of ourselves and we want the promise of more time.
But for me, infinite time comes with infinite ennui. Our mortality — being bound to the dirt — is the very thing that tugs us forward. My atheism had somehow never refracted this particular facet of light. An absence of God never felt like darkness per se, but it certainly never felt like a psychic space that offered more possibility or more poignancy to life. And suddenly it does.
Are children another kind of eternity?