Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Modern Family

Nebraska woman bears her own grandchild for gay son and his husband
Screen Shot 2019-03-29 at 9.16.43 AM

News from the World of Progress:

When Matthew Eledge and his husband, Elliot Dougherty, told Matthew’s mother, Cecile, that they were planning to start their family, Cecile thought fondly of her own parental journey. She’d loved being pregnant decades earlier with her three now-grown children.

“If you want me to be the gestational carrier,” she told Matthew, “I’d do it in a heartbeat.”

Matthew, 32, and Elliot, 29, appreciated the gesture, but, they thought, let’s be real — it’s not like that would ever happen. A postmenopausal 61-year-old couldn’t possibly be equipped to carry and give birth to a baby. Right?

Well, what do you think happened next? Right:

She got pregnant after her very first embryo transfer — using an egg donated by Elliot’s sister Lea Yribe, who was 25 at the time, and fertilized with Matthew’s sperm. And this past weekend, after more than two years of planning and preparation, at 6:06 a.m. on March 25, she gave birth (no C-section needed) to her first granddaughter, Uma Louise Dougherty-Eledge. Clocking in at 5 pounds, 13 ounces, Uma is a sweet and healthy baby girl.

Note well that this happened not in Manhattan or San Francisco, but in Omaha. The mother is the stay-at-home wife of a high school principal. Their child/grandchild was born into a world of bigotry, the cost of which hits the wallet hard:

For now, Nebraska remains a tough place for a queer family to find their footing. And in Nebraska, as it is elsewhere around the country, the various procedures involved in IVF are often only partly covered by insurance plans, if they’re covered at all. Matthew and Elliot weren’t covered, and they estimate they spent about $40,000 on IVF alone.

“And that’s literally the cheapest it could have been,” said Matthew. Each cycle of egg retrieval and transfer can cost about $12,000, which the family only had to pay once, since Cecile got pregnant on the first try. Plus, they didn’t have to pay tens of thousands of dollars for donated eggs, since Elliot’s sister, Lea, donated them for free. But in addition to the costs of IVF, they also had to cover all the expenses associated with Cecile carrying and birthing the baby; if she were giving birth to her own child, rather than her grandchild, insurance would have kicked in for some of those expenses. But as a surrogate, the family’s insurance wouldn’t cover any pregnancy-related fees. For a teacher and a hairdresser like Matthew and Elliot, these costs were exorbitant.

This detail is jaw-dropping:

“It’s kind of embarrassing,” Matthew said. “My mom and I are legally Uma’s parents. Nebraska requires the sperm donor to be the father and the person who delivers the baby to be the ‘mother,’ even if she’s not biologically related to the child. This looks really creepy for us. Let’s just say we will NOT be framing and hanging up Uma’s birth certificate. I thought Elliot could at least put his name on the birth certificate, at least symbolically, but they didn’t even offer that. He now needs to go through an adoption process to get any legal rights. We plan on doing that, but let’s pretend in the meantime, since this can be a tedious process, god forbid, I were to die: Elliot would have absolutely no legal custody for our daughter.”

“We have gay marriage, but we have an entire structure that hasn’t caught up,” he added.

Read the whole story. It’s really important, and I’ll tell you why.

A woman gave birth to her son’s child so he and his male spouse could be parents. This is a story about modernity and the future. There are two kinds of people in the world: those who are instinctively horrified by this, and those who think it is a glorious thing what money, technology and a willingness to break taboos can bring about.

One key detail about the story is how much technology — expensive technology — was required to bring about this result. Another key detail: the natural limits and taboos that had to be denied for this to happen.

Before the 21st century, there was no such things as married gay couples (in 2001, the Netherlands became the first country to legalize it). Marriage emerged as a way to create a safe structure for the nurturing of children emerging from sexual union. But our civilization has come to believe that marriage no long has any intrinsic link to childbearing. If you had asked people around, say, 1960, what they thought about gay marriage, it would not have made sense to most people. That taboo was ground to dust a generation ago. I mention it here simply as a marker in how far the cultural revolution overturning fundamental customs, norms, and limits, in favor of the sovereignty of the Self, has come in such a short time.

The taboo against incest is ancient, and nearly universal. These people violated it multiple times, using technology — and no sex was involved. They mixed the egg of Dougherty’s sister with his husband’s sperm. In custom — “custom,” ha ha! — Dougherty’s sister is also considered to be the sister of his spouse, Eledge. Plus, the egg fertilized by Eledge and his sister-in-law was implanted into his mother, so that Eledge’s mother could bear his child.

Now this has happened, and the response of the world — our world — is to celebrate it as a triumph of love.

The ancient Greeks knew what hubris like this would call down. You don’t have to be a religious believer, or superstitious, to recognize that what has happened here is catastrophic. It’s catastrophic in a particularly modern way.

As the contemporary historian Yuval Noah Hariri says, modernity can be reduced to a simple transaction: we exchange meaning for power. That is, in order to gain greater power over the natural world, we trade away belief that meaning inheres in the natural order, and that there are limits beyond which we cannot transgress. This transaction took place centuries ago, with Bacon and Hobbes, and the early moderns. What has happened in Omaha is only the most recent working-out of the principle.

In order to assert their power to gestate the child they wanted, the people involved in this affair — the gay couple, the egg donor sister, the surrogate grandmother — rendered so many fundamental concepts intrinsically meaningless. They would say that they’ve simply changed the meaning of “family,” “mother,” and suchlike, in the same way that same-sex marriage changes the meaning of the word “husband” and “wife.” Well, yes, but it goes much deeper than that. What they’ve done is to deny that there is any meaning in these concepts beyond that which we choose to give them. This is nominalism.

If you’re a good modern, you don’t see the problem with any of this. I get that. The heart wants what it wants. If we have the money and the technology to make things we desire happen, why shouldn’t we do it? Cut the breasts off of healthy teenage girls, chemically castrate healthy boys, impregnate an old woman with an embryo created by her son’s sperm, and change the moral order to affirm the goodness of these acts — yes sir, this must be paradise.

Where do we draw the lines, then — and on what basis? We have created a world in which the Self can have just about anything it wants, as long as it has the money to afford the technology to make it happen. We have created a world in which people don’t understand saying no to any of this as anything but an arbitrary imposition of power.

In ancient Greek tragedy, hubris calls down nemesis. Here’s the nemesis I expect all this to bring down on us: mass forgetting. We will forget, collectively, elemental truths that make natural life possible. We have forgotten, we are forgetting, and our forgetting will be complete in another generation or two. We are creating chaos, and calling it civilization.  When the money runs out, or the technology fails, we will live with the consequences of our hubris.

A few years ago, in conversation with some professors at a conservative Christian college, one of them told me that he didn’t expect that most of his students would ever be able to form stable families. This shocked me. It genuinely did. I wouldn’t have expected to hear that from a professor at a secular school, much less at a conservative Christian one. But he said it, and there were nods all around the room. I asked him why not? Why wouldn’t these students be able to form stable families?

“Because most of them have never seen one,” he said.

Kids today are raised in a world in which words like “family,” “mother,” “father,” “wife,” and “husband” — words that have had a fixed (but not rigid!) meaning for time immemorial — no longer signify anything permanent, and are no guideposts to help one get through life. The so-called conservative party has done little or nothing to conserve collective wisdom about the natural family (“However you define family, that’s what we mean by family values” — Barbara Bush, 1992 GOP Convention). The collapse is just going to have to play itself out. It has too much momentum to stop now.

If you land at the airport in Venice, and take a water taxi into the city, you observe that what looks like open waters is actually marked in such a way as to allow the captains to navigate safely across the shallow lagoon, without crashing into each other. Our species has put down these guideposts for itself based on long experience — and we, in our ignorance, arrogance, and, yes, hubris, cast them all off as nothing but hindrances to the will. This will end in shipwreck.

People think that The Benedict Option is a reactionary political project, and they’re not exactly wrong, but they’re missing the main point. At its deepest level, it is about preserving collective memory of what the Christian faith is, what families are, and so forth, through a dark age of forced forgetting. Make no mistake, modern culture will do its best to make sure that nobody remembers what mothers and fathers and families were prior to Year Zero. That is how the revolution is becoming institutionalized.

The permanent things, T.S. Eliot’s term for those enduring aspects of human nature and order, exist whether or not we can see them (which is why they are permanent). The forces dismantling our ability to perceive the permanent things are stronger than the ability of our institutions, which do not even recognize the threat, to withstand. As Eliot once wrote about political dissolution:

As political philosophy derives its sanction from ethics, and ethics from the truth of religion, it is only by returning to the eternal source of truth that we can hope for any social organization which will not, to its ultimate destruction, ignore some essential aspect of reality. The term “democracy,” as I have said again and again, does not contain enough positive content to stand alone against the forces that you dislikeit can easily be transformed by them. If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.

The same principle is at work today. The forces of disintegration do not outright deny the meaning of “father,” “mother,” and “family,” but rather transform them so completely into a counterfeit version that they might as well have done.

You will find very few churches meeting these transformative forces with any kind of meaningful counterforce in defense of the permanent things. They are either rushing to embrace the spirit of the age, or are living in feeble denial of the immensity of the cultural revolution. It’s too frightening to them. And the next thing you know, the stay-at-home mom of the Midwestern town’s high school principal is pregnant with her gay son’s baby. Now what do you do?

This is a dark age, and it’s going to be with us for a very long time. Eliot once wrote:

I do not believe that the culture of Europe could survive the complete disappearance of the Christian Faith. And I am convinced of that, not merely because I am a Christian myself, but as a student of social biology. If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes. Then you must start painfully again, and you cannot put on a new culture ready made. You must wait for the grass to grow to feed the sheep to give the wool out of which your new coat will be made. You must pass through many centuries of barbarism.

As will we. Build the 21st century monasteries. Build them now. Preserve the memories and practices that will be the seeds of renewal.