by Theo Schall




Earlier this week, Sir Elton John called for a boycott of fashion house Dolce & Gabbana in response to comments that Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana made about gay parenthood, in-vitro fertilization (IVF), and the sacredness of the traditional family in an interview with Italian magazine Panorama. Other celebrities have joined John in calling for a boycott and, inevitably, critics have jumped in to point out that boycotting luxury fashion is the ultimate “rich people problem.” It’s probably not a terribly important spat in the scheme of things, but the underlying issues are topical and important: what makes a family? How are modern families made? And is cutting edge science changing what it means to be human?


“…you are born and you have a father and a mother, or at least that’s how it should be. I am not convinced by those I call children of chemistry, synthetic children,” Dolce said. “Rented wombs, semen chosen from a catalog. And then go on to explain to these children who their mother is.”


This is a complicated tangle of issues, so let’s drill down for the sake of clarity. Set aside the question of whether gay and lesbian couples make fit parents. Research, even by skeptics, has shown this to be indisputably the case, especially when same-sex families are planned and stable. Set aside too the idea that a child must have two parents, as it’s a relic. Single parenthood has become so prevalent that demographers now believe half of all American children will live with a single mother at some point before they turn 18. Children succeed when they have loving, supportive parents, regardless of who those parents are.


What’s left is the idea of the natural. Gabbana called the family a place with “a supernatural sense of belonging.” Dolce called offspring produced by IVF and surrogacy “synthetic” “children of chemicals.” From these statements taken together, we can infer that certain families and certain methods of conception are natural (or supernatural, which we’ll return to later), while other families and methods are unnatural.


Well, what does “natural” mean, anyway?


This is not a new question – people have been answering it since the dawn of Western civilization. Perhaps most famously, Aristotle distinguished φύσις (nature) from τέχνη (art or craft) by pointing to their different “causes” (think of cause in the sense of purpose). An acorn contains its own inherent causality – its tendency to grow into an oak tree. A brick contains no inherent tendency to become a building. It’s only through a person’s planning and construction that bricks become buildings. Natural things are impelled by their own causes, whereas unnatural things are made by humans. We still think this way today. The natural world is what’s beyond the boundaries of human civilization, where asphalt gives way to grass.


But this distinction breaks down almost immediately – surely humans are capable of performing natural acts. We’re animals. We contain tendencies just as the acorn does, e.g., we grow from babies into adults. Is it a natural tendency that leads us to wear clothes? To build things? How do we know which human actions are inherent tendencies and which are unnatural acts of art? To a significant extent, what is “natural” is socially constructed and historically situated. Today’s country cottages might look rustic and close to nature to us, but would appear high-tech to people born last century. Is it less natural to build a home from cantilevered steel beams than from cob, wood, stone, or brick? Building itself can’t be totally unnatural – bees build hives and beavers build dams. Distinguishing between the natural world and the human one persists as a philosophical challenge, so any time someone claims a given technology perverts nature, we must be skeptical.


Dolce and Gabbana have built careers in fashion, where clothing (maybe a “natural” need) is elevated to art. Dolce & Gabbana’s signature advertising style has long been posed, painterly, and slightly surreal. But in recent years, it has tried to pay homage to the family’s place in Italian culture, replacing nude models with exquisitely outfitted extended families in luxe environments. In 2013, the company launched the #DGFamily project to crowdsource user-submitted family portraits from all over the world. Each uploaded photo has the Dolce & Gabbana logo superimposed before it appears on the project website, turning ordinary people into a recognizable part of the brand. (Is the natural family branded? Is it a work of art?) It was in the midst of this attempt to use advertising to simultaneously pay tribute to and profit from a social institution that Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana made their comments about “synthetic,” “chemical” children.


“Looking at the thousands of shots they sent us, we came to understand that the family is not a fad,” Gabbana said. “In it there is a supernatural sense of belonging.”


In the imagined divide between nature and nurture, IVF seems to undermine nature itself. This quality is likely what Dolce referred to as “synthetic.” Yet that’s not how the biology works. Sperm and eggs and stem cells – the earliest states of human potential– are so much more like the acorn than the brick. They are their own causes. Procreation depends upon the underlying tendencies of human tissue to develop and grow. Sure, IVF changes the setting and requires extra steps, most of which feel clinical and therefore detached from ordinary life, but the clinic is not what makes a baby. The natural tendencies of gametes to fuse and stem cells to differentiate are what make a new person possible. IVF is more like planting and watering an acorn than it is like growing a tree from a brick.


Dolce was also critical of “rented wombs.” This view is popular around the world. Paid surrogacy and even so-called “altruistic” surrogacy are illegal in most developed countries due to beliefs that they exploit women’s bodies and aren’t in the best interests of children. From an American perspective, these laws look like an interference with the market (we prefer to protect the rights of women to “rent [their] wombs”), an overreach of socially old-fashioned government. Same-sex and infertile couples who have the financial means increasingly journey to the US to find surrogates here, as did Elton John and his now-husband David Furnish.


In his response to Dolce and Gabbana’s comments, John wrote, “Shame on you for wagging your judgmental little fingers at I.V.F. Your archaic thinking is out of step with the times, just like your fashions.” Americans (and socially progressive, international elites with access to American technology) see old-world traditions as inevitably falling away in the face of ever-improving technology. Yet in the midst of global social change and rapid technological innovation, it’s hard to know which conventions will remain stable and which inventions will succeed. The widespread popularity of IVF certainly suggests that fertility treatments will hold on. Surrogacy may never gain popular approval outside of the US, but it may become obsolete once NICU research finally brings fully functional artificial wombs. Today’s “unnatural” practices may become tomorrow’s norms or they may fall out of favor. Dolce and Gabbana’s nostalgia is an argument for the latter, while Elton John’s boycott supports the former.


And what about the supernatural, a domain of inexplicable feeling? The supernatural feeling of belonging that Gabbana referred to is not necessarily absent from IVF any more than it is necessarily present in traditional nuclear families. Vox just pushlished a great article on the experiences of adopted children which confirms that “family” transcends genetics. Both the creation of life and the nurturing of a family are wholes bigger than their parts. Gabbana made the point that procreation should be an “act of love.” He meant this in a physical sense, that babies should come from sex. But we can take it more broadly. No matter how (or by whom) a child is made, is there any act of love greater than parenthood? The desire to have a child despite biological limitations doesn’t pervert nature, it transcends it. The feeling of family can be found outside the traditional Italian form, which is the argument that John and his supporters have made.


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Theo Schall

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