A woman is born with all of her eggs. Unlike male sperm, which are produced continually and by the millions throughout a man’s life, a woman’s immature eggs are contained in follicles in her newborn ovaries. Over the course of her reproductive years, 300 to 500 eggs will mature. Each month, she offers up one egg (usually) to the possibility of fertilization. My eggs are old. In their late 40’s, they huddle in the back of the ovarian fridge, past their expiration date. For my eggs to engage in a creative endeavor now would be risky at best. My ovaries are slowing down, sometimes no longer even producing enough hormones to trigger the release of the monthly egg. But in my prime, four of my eggs made it past maturity, past the burst of ovulation, through the undulating Fallopian tubes to historic meetings with four of my husband’s mobile tadpole sperm, then on to conception and successful implantation in my uterus. Each egg grew for nine months - give or take a few days - from zygote to embryo to fetus to healthy birth. Each was snipped free of her afterbirth to become an independent, breathing, loud, beautiful baby girl. For these four undeserved blessings I give God my most heartfelt thanks.
Despite the adage that warns against it, we have put all our eggs in one basketone Catholic basket. They nestle there as if it were Easter morning, decorated and full of promise. By the age of two months, each daughter had been welcomed into the Catholic Church with ritual and sacrament, dressed in ceremonial white, marked by holy oil and doused with holy water, offered to the sacred will of God by her parents.
These are Catholic girls.
As they grow up, their own eggs begin to mature, and with the onset of menstruation, they are physically able to become mothers. With each cycle, their hormonal patterns press and cajole them to mate. The female body wants to become pregnant; otherwise, why invest all that time and energy and blood and tissue building up the uterine walls for implantation? Each month, the egg is prepped and coddled for her biggest hour, and sets forth like a blushing bride on the long stroll down the Fallopian aisle, from ovary to uterus, hoping for her chance encounter with a lucky sperm. The sex drive is amped up just before the egg’s brief availability: Come on down! At the time of ovulation, our bodies are longing for sperm. Our bodies don’t care if we are too young or unmarried or an emotional mess or in med school or on a ballet scholarship. Caring is the brain’s job.
And the heart’s. And the soul’s. Which is why ongoing moral formation matters.
Being a woman involves a kind of emotional oology, the study of eggs. We are unconscious oologists, saving our eggs, hoarding our eggs, offering our eggs for fertilization or protecting our eggs from it. Once our eggs have hatched, we mothers nourish them, warm them, form them and then watch them go. But our study of them is never over.
Consider this case: my daughter’s college roommate’s Big Idea. I am visiting with my daughter when she floats it. She apparently has been planning to sell her eggs. She read an ad in the back of an upscale magazine that promised thousands of dollars for the eggs of intelligent, healthy, pretty college girls.
As heartened as I am by her positive self-image, her announcement jars me. I just met this girl the day before, while moving my daughter’s possessions to this second-floor apartment. I’m thinking this may not be the best time to launch an in-depth, ethical discussion that I know will sound like a holy roller pontificating. I’m thinking I’ll just smile and hope that between classes and assignments and working and socializing, she doesn’t get around to answering the ad.
But then I hear my daughter. She thinks it through for her roommate: What if you donate an egg who later becomes your unknown daughter, and one day your actual son, who you know is yours because you had him, meets her and falls in love with his half-sister? Doesn’t that freak you out?
Her roommate sits back in thought. She has not considered her eggs as daughters or sons. She has thought of them merely as valuable tissue that can help pay off her student loans. She has thought of her young and vibrant ovaries as the salvation of some unfortunate, infertile, solvent couple searching for the perfect egg. She says that maybe she is a little freaked out by the unintentional consequence of future incest.
My daughter no longer goes to Mass and, in fact, has washed her hands of Catholicism. Yet she has Catholic traits that she may never shake. She has a deep and abiding love of ritual and tradition. She has a strong sense of justice, or perhaps of injustice, especially on behalf of the marginalized. When faced with a black-and-white photo assignment, she headed for where she knew she’d find interesting architecture, and took photos of the local Catholic church. And in this exchange with her roommate, I realize how being raised as a Catholic has formed her, not only in her ethical stand for life, but in her reasoning skills. She can’t help but think things through with an eye toward God, even when she’d rather not.
My daughters, and many of their friends, give me hope that the pro-life movement may yet accomplish its goal without legislation. Women of the coming generation do not necessarily treat their eggs lightly. According to a study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a birth control advocacy group, the abortion rate for teenagers went down 39 percent between 1995 and 2000. In 2000 the total number of abortions in all age groups was at its lowest level since 1978, even though the population rose.
There is a pervasive reverence for budding life, for which I believe we can thank not religious zeal, but science. This generation has grown up with an open window into the womb. They have seen microscopic zygotes; they have watched the swimming limbs of a younger brother or sister on an ultrasound screen. They have witnessed the tiny hand grasping a surgeon’s finger as the surgeon operated on the baby before birth. Scientific advances have given these young women, as well as young men, a glimpse of God’s divine workings. They do not question when life begins. They do question what they are to do with their own lives and with the lives that will someday depend on them.
Young feminists are not as likely to stand with their older, pioneering sisters on the lone issue of reproductive choice. My daughters believe that choices are made before conception. They have friends who, faced with a pregnancy, have married the father, or become single mothers, or decided for adoption. Overwhelmingly, abortion has not been among the choices of their peers. Once conception has occurred, there is a 50 percent chance that the new human is a woman. What kind of feminist would deny her her very life?
My daughters have many arguments, some valid, with the Catholic Church. But the church’s consistent stand for life, its regard for all life as sacred, is a beacon that guides and lights their young hearts. My ongoing study of oology is brightened with gratitude for that.