Conceiving Parenthood: American Protestantism and the Spirit of Reproduction by Amy Laura Hall. Eerdmans, 2007. 460pp.
A Good and Perfect Gift: Faith, Expectations, and a Little Girl Named Penny by Amy Julia Becker. Baker, 2011. 240pp.
Reproductive technologies provide parents with unprecedented influence over the arrival of children: controls can include pregnancy spacing, selection of sex and other traits, twin reduction, and selective termination based on prenatal diagnosis. The potential for would-be parents to be increasingly choosy raises the question of what happens to those children living with characteristics that are not in vogue.
Two recent books by up-and-coming American authors address this question by calling Christians to remember that, whatever control humans claim to exercise, every child is gift from God. In Conceiving Parenthood: American Protestantism and the Spirit of Reproduction, Amy Laura Hall explains how middle-class mainline Protestants in America lost sight of that truth. A Good and Perfect Gift: Faith, Expectations, and a Little Girl Named Penny provides author Amy Julia Becker’s reflections as mother of a daughter with Down syndrome.
Conceiving Parenthood demonstrates how mainline Protestants in America, forgetting the unmerited nature of adoption into God’s family, pursued “justification by responsible procreation.” Hall identifies a hundred-year-old trend among middle-class mainline Protestants: being preoccupied with perfection at home led each generation of families to adopt a “toxic calculus of worth.” Children poised to meet expectations of aesthetics and productivity were celebrated and rewarded with opportunities and social investments. Other children were ignored and regretted. To explore how the family aspirations of America’s mainline Protestants came to perpetuate exclusion of some families and children, Hall delves into sermons, print and television ads, articles in family magazines, and museum displays.
Influenced by Social Gospel movement’s view of progress and armed with considerable social and political influence, mainline Protestants continually sought to shape America’s families according to their own aspirations. Over time, the target of mainline Protestants shifted along a trajectory from moral hygiene to domestic hygiene, and then to social hygiene. Enthusiastic mainline Protestant social reform that had been directed towards temperance soon discovered that cleanliness is next to godliness. Members of mostly white middle and upper class denominations—Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran, and Presbyterian—were not content just to govern their own families because they saw themselves as “deciders” with a responsibility to promote progress in America. Protestant leaders who were eager to embrace scientific solutions to social ills became evangelists of eugenics. They and their organizations played a key role in social hygiene campaigns that sought to improve human breeding just as ranchers sought to improve their herd. Armed with eugenic methods, social hygiene became racial hygiene that sought to prevent some kinds of people from reproducing or even from being born.
Hall finds two sources at the root of mainline Protestant culpability for excluding, stigmatizing, and eliminating families that did not meet their standards. First: “By downplaying the gratuity of grace, middle-class Protestants endorsed a particular configuration of domesticity as a means to do no less than ‘save the world.'” Second: “The relatively self-sufficient, middle-class, white, Protestant nuclear family of two parents and two or perhaps three aptly gender-balanced children came to be the model by which all other configurations, colors, and classes of domesticity were viewed as, at best, unusual.”
Unrelenting economic and technological progress and the growth of mass marketing over the past century have meant that families bear much pressure to show that their children are being prepared for tomorrow’s challenges and opportunities. The backdrop of progress makes some families look conspicuous; their children appear to be likely candidates for tomorrow’s welfare. One hundred years ago the arrival of new consumer products (Hall examines ads from Lysol, Reuben shirts, electric appliances, Gold Dust soap) promised to harness science for the forward-looking family. These new products provided some gains in safety and cleanliness at home, but their advertising too often fuelled fears (often with racial overtones) of not wanting to be the “wrong” kind of family. Magazine ads that made the kitchens of rural tenement homes look “backward, inefficient, and ugly” portrayed the occupants of the kitchens in the same negative light.
Early in the twentieth century the baby became an object of study for doctors, educators, sociologists, and practitioners of Social Darwinist pseudo-science, and the subject of planning by social workers and civic leaders. American parents became familiar with the scientific and professional standards by which each baby’s development could be precisely measured. Easy statistical comparisons provided a clear set of answers to the question of which babies were a good social investment and which babies would be a waste of resources. Also, by extension, this valuation immediately revealed the in/adequacy of the respective parent. Cultural assumptions about scarcity and competition and the view that humanity is improving itself through science fostered parents’ fears that their child would be judged unfit. This fear kept worried mothers watching for delays in the expected timing of their child’s first smile, bowel movement, or full night’s sleep.
By the 1870s, leaders of mainline denominations were warning Protestants to carefully avoid marrying anyone carrying a hereditary disease. Concern with breeding good human stock grew steadily. In the 1920s, highly coordinated social hygiene ad campaigns aimed to help young people choose mates with bodies and family trees clean of socially burdensome traits. These campaigns were instruments of stigmatization: “In a climate where normality increasingly meant industrial and aesthetic worth, those who were neither obviously productive nor comely were merely burdensome.”
Social hygiene—fostering the growth of a productive population unencumbered by disease—easily extended into racial hygiene, cleansing the population of unfit groups. People with stigmatized characteristics that made them undesirable mates sometimes became victims of the forced sterilization that followed Buck vs. Bell in 1927. Disabilities and illness were not the only factors making people targets for elimination by social planners, scientists, and the Protestant philanthropists like the Carnegies and Rockefellers who bankrolled eugenic causes. This was the era when experts at New York’s Eugenics Record Office travelled the countryside to study “defectives,” usually blacks or immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, whom they described as parasites or mongrels reproducing indiscriminately.
Already convinced of the need for meticulous quality control in ordering their homes and families, and eager to keep up with the forward march of science, mainline Protestants were among the most enthusiastic American supporters of eugenics; their institutions and publications openly endorsed it. Scriptures usually associated with moral purity were reinterpreted by mainline pastors to preach about racial purity. Biblical images of the wheat and the tares, the refiner’s fire, and cutting down trees that bear no fruit, were used to argue for eugenic race improvement as Christian duty.
In 1929, Methodist George Huntington Donaldson preached, “the strongest and best are selected for propagating the likeness of God and carrying on his work of improving the race.” The eugenic and Social Darwinist sermons of popular American preachers cited by Hall are distressing. They are devoid of grace, a negation of the gospel.
The narrative of social progress I’m most familiar with congratulates itself for elevating the statuses of people who are poor, members of racial minorities, or those who have disabilities. Hall wants us to remember that people with these same characteristics have also faced systematic devaluation at the hands of political and religious progressives. Mainline Protestants at their best provided political advocacy and social services for the poor. At their worst, they said that the poor should be left to struggle against scarcity and starvation, forces that serve to cleanse the population of weaklings that hold up progress.
Hall wants Christians to learn from this history to inform how we respond to new genetic technologies. These technologies raise the same question that mainline Protestants faced in Hall’s account: will we welcome each other as kin or subject others to quality control?
The new eugenics combines new technologies with some old aspirations. Embarrassed at being intellectually linked with Nazi Germany’s eugenics program in the 1930s, the American eugenics movement shifted to “a subtler, voluntary, less explicitly racist understanding of reproductive responsibility.” Some old-style eugenicists obtained new respectability by using the terms human genetics and genetic counselling. Public interest in the potential to improve the human stock was renewed by the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure in 1953 and has been further intensified by the ongoing advances of genomics.
How have mainliners responded to the subjection of the unborn to commoditization and intense quality control? Do they receive each new life as a gift, or appraise life based on health and productive use? Whether through a meticulous and exclusionary domesticity, social hygiene campaigns that operated based on stigmatization, or 1920s and 30s eugenics, mainline Protestants pursued their family aspirations to the exclusion of groups they looked down upon. This pattern leaves mainline Protestants open to seduction by the new technologies of genetic manipulation, prenatal screening, and designer babies, and ill-equipped to stand in solidarity with people seen as having defective genes.
Heritage is not destiny, insists Hall. She calls for mainline Protestants to break with their past and, with all Christians, to reject any criteria by which some children are welcomed and others not. “Christian faith is, in an important sense, a call to accept into our lives children who will not ‘get better,’ learn to read, or make a name for themselves in the local or national paper.”
Christians know that all children, not just our own, are good gifts from God. Sending out a lifeboat for orphans is not enough; Hall wants Christians to challenge the underlying culture that seeks to save the world by producing the “right” type of children. Provocatively, she calls Christians to forego the means by which we could distinguish our children from those who are “backward” or “at risk.”
A Good and Perfect Gift
Conceiving Parenthood is consistently engaging and sometimes even hopeful or amusing, but it is also sobering. Hall’s intention in presenting history that we’d rather ignore is that she wants us to repent and reform our ways. In contrast, A Good and Perfect Gift is accessible, fun, and moving. It will be enjoyable to read whether or not you are a parent, whether or not you are a Christian, and whether or not you want to learn about Down syndrome.
Becker has the modest goal of telling her own story. It’s a story worth paying attention to because it models the resistance that Hall calls for, showing what it means to receive “with a tenacious joy what is not typically depicted on the covers of magazines or in the statistics on selective termination or in the patterns of carefully segregated children.”
Becker’s memoir begins with her extended family having just celebrated Christmas. Now they are waiting for the arrival of Becker’s first child. Two things are clear about Becker from the first page: she is somewhat of a perfectionist and she has a great many things to be thankful for. Education? She skipped kindergarten, showed tremendous work ethic all through school, graduated from Princeton, and now studies at seminary. Spouse? She married her high school sweetheart—tall, intelligent, and good at his work. Career? She will soon publish her first book. Financial stability? She’s got it. Children? She and her family are obviously excited about the baby they are expecting.
But the daughter born shortly after Christmas is not the baby Becker and her family were expecting. Or at least that is how it first seems. Just minutes after childbirth, Becker and her husband receive news they can scarcely believe. Their newborn daughter has Down syndrome. Only weeks ago the ultrasound technician had specifically ruled out that diagnosis.
What will this mean for their family? The diagnosis causes Becker’s intense worry about Penny’s health. It also precipitates a spiritual crisis for Becker. She soon learns that Penny’s health complications are far less severe than she had feared and should not stop Penny from having a happy and active life. However, the crisis of faith persists. She cannot bring herself to pray for months and feels that God does not care or cannot be trusted.
Friends waver awkwardly between consoling and congratulating Becker when Penny’s birth is announced. Is this baby a tragedy or a blessing? Getting to know Penny quite quickly removes the ambiguity of their feelings as they learn to love her and enjoy her personality.
Penny is as pleasant and cute as any baby but her mother has been warned that Penny will struggle to keep up with her peers, and this gap will only widen as Penny grows up. How will her disability limit her as an adult? Becker worries that she will find little significance and satisfaction in life. What if she is not seen as attractive or capable and can never live on her own, get married, or appreciate literature and ideas? Grappling with her fear and despair brings Becker new knowledge of herself:
I could never have imagined the words mental retardation or birth defect being used in the same sentence as my child’s name. It was as if having kids had become an equation: youth plus devotion to God plus education equaled a healthy and normal baby . . . As if I were entitled to exactly the baby I had imagined, a little version of myself.
Becker’s experience corroborates one of Hall’s premises. Believing that we deserve a baby who meets our exacting standards will make it more difficult to welcome a baby who arrives with characteristics we would not have chosen.
Becker gradually realizes that Penny, even if she does not meet some standards that other people set for her, is an undeniably good gift from God. She brings great joy to her mother and father and, this also is clear from the book, she brings glory to God. Receiving and recognizing Penny as a good and perfect gift begins to free Becker from judging people with a “toxic calculus of worth” (Hall’s term). Was life really “only as valuable as what we could produce or what academic degrees we had attained or how attractive we were or how big our house was?” Of course not.
Becker’s writing is honest and vulnerable, and the lessons she learns and shares with the reader come in starts and stops. She learns to be proud of her daughter not for how closely she comes to doing the same things as children who do not have Down syndrome, but for being herself and offering her own unique gifts. This tension doesn’t ever completely disappear and Becker never claims to hold a perfect love for her daughter. Perfect or not, it’s watching the love grow between Penny—a child who excels at learning sign language and giving slobbery kisses—and her parents that makes reading this book so enjoyable.
Before and after Penny’s birth Becker is beset by what if questions. What if the pregnancy had been better timed? What if her daughter did not have Down syndrome? The answer that Becker receives to these questions (I won’t spoil the surprise by revealing how) is: “Then you wouldn’t have had this child.” Becker comes to know that God has given her none other than this particular daughter, and that he intends to bring glory to himself through her (John 9:3). “The more we receive Penny, the more we welcome her, exactly as she is, the more we welcome God’s work in our lives.”
We celebrate Christmas because a child was born who was truly worthy. God came near us, taking a humble form. Right from the start in Bethlehem, he subjected himself to our stigmatization and rejection. He was the Hope of the world but neither his society nor ours hold much hope for children with origins that seem so inauspicious. We can’t guess what genetic markers, whether considered desirable or undesirable, he would have displayed in prenatal tests. The unwed migrant who bore him in a manger might well have become a target for sterilization in a number of U.S. states and Canadian provinces in the past 60 years. Later, his association with swindlers, prostitutes, and rabble-rousers would have confirmed predictions that this child was more likely to be a drag on progress than a valued member of society.
It is this child who frees us from our misguided attempts to establish our own worthiness and save our children and communities by imposing order and greatness on our offspring. Amy Laura Hall quotes Barth’s announcement of this good news: the child on whom everything depends has already arrived and we have been adopted as his siblings.
How do we welcome him and thank him? Mark and Luke both record him saying, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me.” Like Amy Julia Becker we may find that it is in receiving and welcoming a particular child—not necessarily the one we imagine and not necessarily our own—that we welcome God and his hand in our life.