My fifth grader recently did a "puberty workshop" in health class. As far as I can gather, they giggled their way through it.
I'm not sure how much he took in, because last week, as actress Sofia Vergara and her ex-fiancé Nick Loeb continued to battle over their frozen embryos on the morning news, he asked me what an embryo was.
I was busy burning toast to the specifications laid out by my other children, so I was a little caught on the hop, so to speak. The hop you get when you think you can flick the slice of bread to the side of the toaster and see if it is crisp enough, only to burn yourself.
I tackled the question with straight biology. As I sketched it out on paper, the conversation quickly exceeded his tolerance for such intimate details, and he decided it was preferable to brush his teeth. That was a win, but I was still left alone in the kitchen at this significant moment in a man's relationship with his son, with a singed finger, a hungry daughter and a fully-formed zygote, contemplating that this simple cell, seemingly equal parts man and woman, is not equal at all.
In his April 29 op-ed piece in The New York Times "Sofía Vergara's Ex-Fiancé: Our Frozen Embryos Have a Right to Live" Nick Loeb choose to make his case in terms that were pro-life;
When we create embryos for the purpose of life, should we not define them as life, rather than as property? Does one person's desire to avoid biological parenthood (free of any legal obligations) outweigh another's religious beliefs in the sanctity of life and desire to be a parent?
This inspired a backlash along familiar lines; Loeb was accused of "reproductive coercion" by the head of RH Reality Check.com Jodi Jacobson and his article was describes as "vengeful, misogynistic, self-involved drivel" by Popsugar's Lindsay Miller.
Now, I'm not about to go into bat for a guy who, on first impression, would fail the 'Do I want him dating my daughter?' test, but this situation is murkier than the normal abortion argument. It raises some interesting issues about men and "their" embryos and those differences deserve an airing.
Let me start with abortion by saying I am pro-choice. It should be obvious what that means when you are a sexually active man, but as I've never heard it made explicit, here goes: A pro-choice man gives up his ultimate rights to decide what happens if he gets a woman pregnant. It is her decision.
That's not to say a father doesn't have any rights, it's just that given the impact having children has on a woman, her body, her lifestyle and her career, her rights take precedence.
I had a girlfriend who was the progeny of young love. I still remember her explaining to me that she could never have an abortion because if her mother had had one, she wouldn't be here. I had no desire to be a father in my early twenties, but I had plenty of other desires, which I exercised in full knowledge that, as my grandfather would have put it, "I would do right by her," should it come to that.
Loeb faces some significant legal hurdles. Not least, the pre-fertilization legal agreement between the two omitted to cover the eventuality of what would happen to the embryos if the couple split up. This clause is required by California Law and ironically its absence seems to be the basis of Loeb's case to have the whole agreement voided by the court. That is the sort of legal trickery that my grandfather would hardly approve of.
The moral dilemma here is this: Should one person's right be a parent outweigh another's not to be forced to become a "genetic parent" against their will?
While the moral harm is lesser, he is not asking Vergara to bear the child or even be involved in its upbringing. I think most people would agree she shouldn't be forced to give up her right of refusal in this situation. Whether his pro-life beliefs are sincere or not, Loeb had little choice but to introduce the rights of the embryo to try and bolster his case, but what if the situation was tweaked slightly or the roles were reversed?
One hates to kick a man when he is down, but because this is a story about artificial reproduction, let's cross Nick Loeb with Lance Armstrong and turn him into one of the least sympathetic characters imaginable. A fictional Lance Loeb, who happens to be no longer able to produce viable sperm.
At this point, where these embryos represent Lance Loeb's last chance to have children, would his right to become a father outweigh Vergara's right not to have her genetic material used to make these children?
The Guardian had it's own op-ed in response to this issue. In "I froze embryos to have reproductive choice, but I nearly lost my reproductive autonomy", Adrienne Mundorf describes how she conceived and then froze embryos before having chemotherapy, only to break up with her wayward boyfriend and later have him deny her the right to use the embryos.
She came up with a satisfyingly ingenious tactic to convince her ex to relent, but still concluded her column saying, "it's increasingly common for those equal rights (over frozen embryos) to be wielded as a weapon of control, particularly against women."
As I read her story, I found myself quite sympathetic to her cause; certainly, much more with her than I would have been for our fictional Lance Loeb. I suspect I would not be alone in this view. While I am not about to blame women for being vigorous in defense of their own bodies, there is a problem here.
In terms of moral reality, where the rights of person A are being considered against those of person B, Adrienne Mundorf and Lance Loeb are in the same role. Yet, one is treated as a victim and the other reproductive power monger depending on their chromosome makeup.
In today's cultural climate, a clash between the realpolitik of reproduction and my pure moral distillation seems unavoidable. Down the road, when women are a little less embattled, this dichotomy is troubling, because how can we be equal if we can't be gender neutral?