The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

July 19th, 2009

Maria Carmen del Bousada de Lara was a poor spinster of 66 who desperately wanted a baby. As a retired shop assistant she had little money, so she sold her house in Cadiz to buy some IVF treatment and donor eggs and sperm in California.

Maria Carmen del Bousada de Lara was a poor spinster of 66 who desperately wanted a baby. As a retired shop assistant she had little money, so she sold her house in Cadiz to buy some IVF treatment and donor eggs and sperm in California. Without telling her family, she flew to the Pacific Fertility Centre in Los Angeles, and before long her wish came true. She gave birth to twin baby boys, who are now two years old, and was photographed with them in a youthful leopard-print outfit. People said she was too old but she didn’t care. She said she thought she’d live to be 101. But last week at the age of 69 she died of ovarian cancer. She believed the powerful drugs she took during her IVF treatment hastened the spread of the cancer. IVF treatment has many risks and, besides, nobody really knows how an aged body will respond to the strain of pregnancy. The consequence was that Bousada left behind her two little boys with no mother, no father and no money, to the care of a disapproving and angry family and to the kindness of strangers. And the world said, as it usually does these days, that it should never have been allowed. The world, as so often, is wrong. Of course this wretched woman was unforgivably irresponsible, self-centred and unimaginative. Of course it was daft of her to think that a woman on her own, past retirement age and of modest means, could possibly hope to look after any child properly, still less twin boys. Perhaps she was unhinged. But, wrong though she was, it is also wrong to think she should have been stopped. Stopping people having babies is a serious matter. It is, for one thing, impossible unless you have compulsory abortions, as in China, or compulsory sterilisations, as in Indira Gandhi’s India. And although it is quite clear that some people would be, or are, unfit parents – such as poor, misguided Bousada – nobody who loves freedom can possibly want the state to get involved with stopping people having babies. Most of all, no one who loves freedom can want the state to have any part in deciding who is or is not fit for parenthood. That way lies totalitarianism. The state can, of course, justifiably say that it won’t use public money to pay to help people to have babies and it can say that it won’t allow clinics and doctors to help them to do so. I think the state should go further in this country in refusing to pay taxpayers’ money for IVF treatment for single parents. But the state cannot, in a country with any pretensions at all to freedom, stop people resorting to their own money, to the turkey baster or to cut-rate flights to clinics in countries where they do things differently. It is true that the victims in all this are the children who are produced for and acquired by highly unsuitable people, such as Michael Jackson. But if one is not prepared to assert a legal right to stop unsuitable people having babies in the natural way, how could one reasonably assert such a right over those resorting to privately paid-for unnatural methods? Besides, in the case of the Bousada twins, they can at least hope for a rather younger and more sensible parent than the one they have just lost – or, with any luck, two. And there may be some money for their upbringing: one of their uncles has signed a story deal with a Spanish television channel to provide for the boys, and who is to say he will not use the money for that purpose? The strange truth about Bousada is that she has unintentionally provided the world with a powerful cautionary tale. By exercising her freedom to buy babies when she was pushing 70 and perhaps killing herself in the process she has, by example, done far more to show the world what is wrong in all this – and to stop other people doing the same thing – than any amount of state interference could ever do. Everyone will now know of her shocking story and everyone remotely interested in late motherhood will now understand clearly how risky IVF treatment is and how wrong it is to think of a baby as a must-have. What’s more, people won’t just know this, as they could have done already – given the amount of information there is around on the subject. They will also now have the greater awareness of knowledge combined with feeling – the feeling that this cautionary tale arouses – and that kind of awareness is not something that always comes with rational argument. Sensational stories usually have more power than sober information. Anyone who believes strongly in freedom, as I do, faces a problem with individuals who, like Bousada, abuse it. Such obvious abuse invites state intervention. So those who love freedom will value any reasonable checks on the abuse of freedom that have nothing to do with the state and that therefore cut the state out, so to speak. One of them, as my hero John Stuart Mill pointed out in his essay On Liberty, is public disapprobation. We are all free, for instance, to burp loudly at concerts and funerals, but the thing that stops most of us is disapproval. I’ve always felt that this disapprobation of Mill’s was risky; when powerful enough it surely might amount to something that he feared – the tyranny of the majority. But these days there is so little disapprobation about anything that some genuine public disapproval might be a very good thing; at least it is better than the heavy hand of the state. For years and years there has been a sense in this country that disapproval is wrong. It is judgmental; it is discriminatory. Perhaps a case like Bousada’s, in which disapproval is so obviously the only response, will make us all feel a little more free and inclined to show our disapproval of selfish, antisocial behaviour. It is high time. When, decades ago, people were extremely judgmental about illegitimate babies, harsh though that often was, there were many fewer such babies and many fewer chaotic families. When eating in the street was strongly condemned, there was far less obesity, drunkenness and litter. It is true that what the neighbours say can be nasty and repressive, but it is not half so nasty and dangerous as the repression by an intrusive state such as ours, which finds an excuse to curtail our freedoms in our abuse of them. Let’s not have more political control over fertility or anything else; let’s have more moral judgment and the freedom to express it.