Where Do Babies
Oh, c’mon…we all know where babies come from, right? Well, not exactly. Children have to be told, of course, and it is a centuries-old custom to mislead them. Plus, there are millions of religious people, in various traditions, who devoutly believe that there have been miraculous exceptions to the general biological rule. And assisted-reproduction techniques are nowadays offering newer challenges to the received wisdom about the birds and the bees.
Q: “Mommy, where did I come from?”
A: “The stork brought you, darling.”
As a response to a child’s query about reproduction and birth, the stork explanation conveniently avoids the icky particulars, which can be withheld till a later date—or never parentally divulged at all. The idea that the long-billed birds deliver babies was common in European folklore before Hans Christian Andersen revived it in his 1838 fairy tale “The Storks.” In the Danish writer’s nasty little story, a mother stork exacts revenge on the ringleader of a gang of mean village boys by bringing a dead infant to his family. (This is children’s literature?)
An alternate evasive answer to the kid’s innocent question—“You were found in a cabbage patch, honey”—seems to have originated in a French adage, “Girls are born in the roses, boys in the cabbages.” A gender-neutral version of that origin story is used at BabyLand General Hospital, in Cleveland, Georgia, the “birthplace” of Cabbage Patch Kids dolls. Visitors to the facility’s cabbage patch can watch a delivery, which is overseen by an LPN (licensed patch nurse), who injects the mother cabbage with a dose of “Imagicillin” to help her veg out during labor.
To say that the stork brought the baby conveniently evades the matter of where the stork got it. Some accounts are comfortable with that oversight: The soon-to-be father of Cole Porter’s song “It’s De-Lovely” (1936) simply looks out the window to see an “absurd bird with a bundle hung on his nose”; no questions are asked. Partly Cloudy, a sweet-natured animated short released by Disney’s Pixar Studios in 2009, offers one possibility: All infants—animal as well as human—are created by puffy cloud beings, who sculpt the babies out of little swatches of themselves, then hand them off to storks for airmail delivery. Hans Christian Andersen offers another in “The Storks”: The birds “know the pond in which all the little children lie, waiting till the storks come to take them to their parents.” In Andersen’s tale, the babies are apparently preformed. The prevailing “preformationist” medical theories of Andersen’s time (and of earlier centuries) held that plants and animals, including humans, grew from preexisting minuscule but anatomically complete versions of themselves. “Spermists” believed that in sexual reproduction the male contributed the preformed being, while “ovists” held it was the female.
Cabbage Patch Kids were the toy craze of the 1980s. At the height of their popularity—the 1983 holiday shopping season—adults fought one another in the aisles of toy stores nationwide, desperately trying to get their hands on the only doll their daughters (and some sons) wanted for Christmas. Like all toy crazes, the CPK phenomenon was somewhat inexplicable. For one thing, the dolls were ugly—with demented-looking close-set eyes and dopey, pudgy faces. But each was individualized and came with “adoption papers,” which may help explain the product’s appeal to children wanting their own, unique babies. The Cabbage Patch Kids also had a birth narrative as wondrous as that of any religious figure or mythic hero. According to the story dreamed up by their creator, Xavier Roberts (who introduced them, as Little People, in 1978), the dolls are conceived when rabbit-eared bees (Bunnybees) pollinate cabbage flowers with magic crystals; the fetal dolls then gestate inside mother cabbages till brought to term at BabyLand General Hospital. The insemination by those magic crystals qualifies the process as something other than asexual reproduction, but in other respects the cabbage mamas are, one assumes, chaste, and the births therefore virgin.
It appears that human beings have had “reproductive consciousness”—awareness of the link between sexual intercourse and pregnancy—since early in our species’ history. Virgins, it was understood, couldn’t bear children, so any pregnant woman who claimed never to have had sex was lying; in patriarchal cultures that forbade sex outside wedlock, such women were disgraced. According to the Gospel of Matthew (1:18–19), Joseph makes plans to dump his fiancée, Mary, with whom he has never had sexual relations, when she is “found to be with child”—until, that is, an angel appears to inform him that the child “that is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20).
Despite our longstanding knowledge that sex is necessary for reproduction—except perhaps in extraordinary cases such as the birth of the Son of God—human beings didn’t understand very much about the actual process of conception and prenatal development until scientific breakthroughs of the 19th century established that embryos develop epigenetically, from the division and differentiation of cells from a fertilized egg. These discoveries disproved preformationism, one version of which envisioned a homunculus—a tiny, fully formed human being—curled up inside every spermatozoon (sperm cell).
Modern assisted-reproduction technologies make it possible to bypass heterosexual copulation en route to pregnancy, although most women who avail themselves of these techniques do so after having repeatedly failed to conceive in the usual way. Artificial insemination—delivery of sperm to the female reproductive tract by mechanical means—has been around since the late 19th century and is standard in the breeding of some livestock. Because conception occurs within the mother’s body, however, artificial insemination is a simpler technology than in vitro (Latin for “in glass”) fertilization, in which the egg is fertilized outside the body and then implanted. Research into in vitro fertilization began in the 1950s, but the first baby conceived by that method wasn’t born until July 25, 1978. The British infant, Louise Brown, was billed a “test-tube baby,” a misnomer, since the sperm-egg hookup occurred in a petri dish. With these reproductive technologies, it’s possible for a woman who has never had sex to conceive a child, but the result would not qualify as a “virgin birth” in the biblical sense recounted in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels. The child—unlike Jesus—would have a human biological father, a sperm donor rather than God.
Jesus is hardly the only religious figure alleged to have been conceived without sexual intercourse. Accounts of miraculous births appear in diverse traditions: In one story of the Buddha’s birth, his mother, Maya, became pregnant when a great white elephant entered her womb as she slept. Biologically, reproduction without fertilization—called parthenogenesis, from the Greek for “virgin birth”—is a rare but not unknown phenomenon. It occurs naturally among some vertebrates, including a few species of fish, amphibians and reptiles, and stem-cell researchers have even reproduced human eggs parthenogenetically. Such embryonic stem cells are nonviable, but any human baby parthenogenetically derived would be a girl: Parthenogenetic clones arise from a female gamete (egg); no father has contributed, so any resulting baby would lack a Y chromosome, necessary for male development. This biological reality renders the virgin births of male religious figures even more suspect—or more astounding, depending on one’s perspective.
It’s possible that single-biological-parent reproduction resulting in individuals of either sex may be achieved someday through cloning. Although research into human cloning is now tightly restricted or banned in much of the world, the news report announcing the “miraculous” birth of the first cloned girl or boy seems inevitable.
In a sense, cloned human beings already exist and always have. Identical twins (and triplets, quadruplets and so on) are clones, originating from the same fertilized egg, which splits into multiple embryos early in pregnancy. Artificial cloning—the creation of one or more individuals from the genetic material of a single parent—is, however, a relatively new idea. Aldous Huxley presciently explored the technology and moral implications of human cloning in his satirical 1932 novel Brave New World. Going far beyond the test-tube baby concept, Huxley envisioned a society in which natural reproduction is no longer permitted; all human beings are industrially conceived and gestated in vitro, the fetuses developing in glass bottles from which they are eventually “decanted.” Members of the lower classes in this highly stratified society are clones—products of a technique (Bokanovsky’s Process) whereby a single fertilized egg can be chemically induced to produce as many as 17,000 identical embryos. Kazuo Ishiguro examines cloning’s moral implications in his 2005 novel Never Let Me Go, in which human clones are raised to become organ donors for “normals.” The clones’ innards are harvested to replace their counterparts’ worn-out parts until the no-longer-viable donor “completes” (i.e., dies).