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Genetic Mandate or Social Impulse?

Catherine McDiarmid-Watt | Friday, March 07, 2008 | 0 comments

INFERTILE PEOPLE ARE OFTEN CHARACTERIZED as desperate for children. But Houston psychologist Patty Mahlstedt says the struggles people will endure to conceive a child is not a sign of desperation. Mahlstedt, who specializes in counseling the infertile, says people were intended to conceive children. "That was the plan, wasn't it?" she asks with a smile. "Whoever or whatever you believe made our bodies had that plan. I think it's unfair to think that because people really want a child, and will go to extremes to conceive, that that is pathological or neurotic or narcissistic."

In fact, most infertility patients never go so far as IVF. In 1995, only seven percent of the women who sought help for infertility used IVF, artificial insemination, or other "assisted reproductive technologies." Three times as many used ovulation drugs. But infertile people are far more likely to try treatment than to adopt. Only about 11 percent of infertile people pursue adoption -- about half of those who do adopt pursue medical treatments first.

Does that mean people are driven by a primordial edict to bear children? Evolutionary psychologist Stephen Pinker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, thinks not. Pinker is the author of the recent book, "How the Mind Works."

"Primarily, we have a drive to have sex," he says. "If we really had a drive to have children that bear copies of our genes, you'd have men lining up around the block to donate sperm." Pinker says humans wouldn't be such avid consumers of birth control if our genes were commanding us to reproduce.

"There are people who decide not to have children," Pinker points out. "Probably most people in our society decide to have fewer children than they could have." There is, however, one other powerful impulse: "I think there are very few people who decide they have no interest in sex," Pinker says.

From an evolutionary perspective, there was never a need for humans to develop a desire for babies, Pinker argues. As long as we wanted sex, we got babies. He believes the reason so many people do want babies is that human brains run on more than instinct. People can reason. We can predict that having children might make us happy. But many experts on human behavior, including Pinker, say once a baby is born, an instinct does kick in: parents are driven to care for their children.

Imagine a maternity ward, Pinker urges, where a nurse who tells a new mother, "We have about a dozen babies who've appeared in the last day or two. Do you care which one we give you?'" Pinker laughs. "I think it's obvious that people would care," he says. "They would want their own child, even if they can't even tell the difference between their child and other children. There is a deep-rooted idea of a child that is your flesh and blood."

Minneapolis adoption attorney Judy Vincent says it's not as hard to adopt as people think. LISTEN

Biologists point out that in other species, too, animals are more likely to care for offspring related to them. Penguins will find and feed their own young in vast colonies of seemingly identical baby penguins. Psychologists say it is clearly possible to love and bond with a child who is not genetically related to you. Adoptive parents and their children often love each other deeply. But many infertile people say that in order to adopt, they first had to grieve for the genetically-related child they could never have.


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About Catherine: I am mom to three grown sons, two grandchildren and two rescue dogs. After years of raising my boys as a single mom, I remarried a wonderful man who had never had a child of his own. Unexpectedly, I found myself pregnant at 49!
Sadly we lost that precious baby at 8 weeks, and decided to try again. Five more losses, turned down for donor egg, foster care and adoption due to my age and losses - we have accepted that there will be no more babies in our house.

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