This week readers of the U.K. Guardian might be forgiven for thinking that baby lust has exceeded all reasonable bounds and quite possibly become a sociopathic condition. Two articles, within two days of one another, featured women for whom motherhood is quite literally a life or death proposition: The first, titled “Women Who Kill for Babies,” reviewed the cases of women who have murdered pregnant women, then stolen their fetuses from their wombs. The second, about women who risk their own lives in pursuit of an IVF pregnancy, claims that “women are risking death and bankruptcy in their desperation to become mothers.” Taken together, the two nearly scream out that we have reached the apex of the modern motherhood fetish: Dear God, women are killing and dying for babies!
But while packaged as trend stories, both pieces seem to depict situations best described as lurking on the very far margins of human behavior. The womb-robbing story, written by Diane Taylor, is in response to the recent appeal in the case of a British woman, Linda Carty, who is on death row in Texas after being convicted of abducting and murdering a young woman to steal her newborn baby. Yes, the details are grisly, as they are in most homicides. But while admitting that these cases are extremely rare, Taylor goes on to claim they seem to be a wholly modern phenomenon -- “unheard of before 1987.” How rare? Well, since 1987, Taylor can find only 13 recorded cases, 12 of which took place in the United States. Not having access to a database that compiles worldwide local crime reports over the past century -- perhaps Taylor does? -- I’m not at liberty to offer up any factual contradictions to her claim. But I would hazard to guess that, like most statistically rare, yet sensationalistic crimes -- stranger abductions, molestation, daycare Satanic panic scares -- the ones that make headlines tell us more about the current preoccupations of the day than they do about the actual crime rate (which may explain why only one country -- us -- got caught up in reporting on baby-theft homicides. Or maybe I’m totally wrong and we Americans have made yet another contribution to crimes never before seen in nature, to go along with fanny packs and wearing socks with sandals). Even so, 13 cases in 23 years -- during which time many pregnant women were killed by their partners, mothers killed their children, and strangers kidnapped already born children -- sounds pretty low to me. And I’m even more bothered by the fact that Taylor’s “expert,” Philip Resnick, a professor of psychiatry at Case Western University, seems to blur the line between demonstrably criminal behavior and just plain old baby lust. “I have been involved in three cases, and none of the women was psychotic,” he says. “They are women who want a baby very badly.”
In the next article, women who want a baby very, very badly and thus pursue IVF are described as being driven by an urge “stronger than addiction and more powerful than obsession,” according to professor Sammy Lee, one of the early pioneers of egg donation in the United Kingdom, who goes on to tell the Guardian: “The quest to have children can become a vortex that gets faster and faster and sucks people in. Women will sell everything and do anything to have the treatment if they are short on funds. They will risk their lives, there’s no doubt about it.” He then goes on to liken couples who get “addicted” to IVF cycles to the cycle of abuse, and says, “When they get too old to get treated in this country, they go abroad. That makes them vulnerable to yet more abuse, though again, it’s abuse in which they are already complicit.”
How exactly are these women abusing themselves in pursuit of a baby? Well, in this case Lee is talking once again about a very, very tiny subset of women: those who refuse cancer drugs in order to undergo fertility treatment. "Some of these women do, indeed, go on to die [from the cancer], but they die happy, feeling that they have achieved something greater than their own continued existence." But the ethical guidelines printed in just about every IVF treatment center tell you that doctors will not start IVF treatment in former cancer patients until the woman’s condition has stabilized. But we’re not yet done. The article then goes on to suggest that women who use IVF knowingly expose themselves to cancer-causing hormones, but decide -- what the hell? -- a baby is worth dying for. Rebecca Frayn, a filmmaker and novelist who underwent IVF, claims that she was freaked out by the “cancer scares” associated with the hormones she ingested, but was so consumed with wanting a kid, she developed a “moral myopia” about the risks. She then goes even further, essentially claiming that two women she knows were killed by fertility drugs: “Liz Tilberis and Ruth Picardie, both journalists who died respectively of ovarian and breast cancer after many rounds of IVF, believed their treatment had caused and accelerated their cancers, respectively. To attempt to achieve life at the potential expense of one's own [health] is self-evidently sobering. Yet, even then, I somehow squared what I was contemplating doing with my conscience. I was in the iron grip of procreation fever."
Whether or not she’s a victim of procreation fever, Frayn is not an oncologist, and hardly qualified to diagnose what may have contributed to another woman’s cancer. While some researchers have speculated on a link between fertility drugs and cancer, the latest research seems to suggest that women who undergo IVF are no more likely to develop breast or ovarian cancer than any other woman. Anyone looking to write a story about those who defy death while pursuing cancer-causing activities could do much better with “Teens still bake in tanning beds!” Or: “Twenty-five-year-old dudes smoke Camel straights!”
So why whip readers into a hysterical frenzy about those who seem to have a death wish to produce life? Most women who have undergone fertility treatments will concede that they are pretty keen on having a baby, but I would guess you’d have to search pretty hard to find anyone who was willing to kill or die for a baby. The Guardian may have had the good fortune to find a few of both within days of one another (though I’m still not convinced their IVF story succeeded in introducing us to an actual woman who actually died from IVF). But let’s at least have the good grace to label those who would as what they are: statistical outliers, not some harbinger of the next trend to come.