Reproductive Technology Is Not A Dirty Word – Ellen Painter Dollar’s No Easy Choice

Family planning

In vitro fertilization

Preimplantation genetic diagnosis

Familiar terms to some, mysterious processes for many. And then come more mysteries:

Surrogate mothers forced by husbands to bear children for pay

Egg donors lured by high pay for their ovaries’ fruit

Parents willing to pay anything for a child

The mysteries continue:


Fetal testing

Designer babies

What is a man in his 50s with two grown children doing thinking on these issues? It’s hard not to after reading Ellen Painter Dollar’s No Easy Choice.

Ellen blogs on faith and family and disability and so much more, and I’ve found her writing powerful and challenging. Then I read her book, borrowed from the local library. The challenges there and the power in her words were turned up to 11.*

The Vocation of Parenthood

Ellen starts with first things: what does being a parent really mean. She explains that the

God-given desire to reproduce does not mean that every Christian is obligated to reproduce. Christian theologians have argued that parenthood is a vocation, a response to God’s call. Parenthood is not merely a peripheral activity that we engage in (or not) solely in response to our preferences, biology, or cultural expectations. If parenthood is a vocation, then an innate desire to have babies does not necessarily mean we should have them; conversely, those who feel no great desire for children are not necessarily justified in avoiding parenthood. Rather, when deciding whether we should become parents, we should look deeper than our innate desire for children and examine the particular gifts God has given us and the ways God is calling us to live out our faith. (Emphasis added.)

If a passage that argues parenthood as vocation – that people who don’t desire children might have the vocation of parenting while those who do desire children might not – if that passage doesn’t challenge you, then you have thought much more deeply on this subject than I ever did.

Reproductive Technology – faith, family, nuts and bolts

The book is a memoir, describing Ellen’s lifelong relationship with the bone condition osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle-bone disease. She and her husband knew that any child of theirs had a 50% chance of inheriting the condition, and that it could mean anything from a childhood riddled with multiple painful fractures to a child’s death before ever leaving the hospital after delivery.

Their first daughter was born with it, and Ellen found herself reliving all the anxiety she experienced as a child while her daughter experienced all the pain. It’s no wonder they looked carefully at the opportunities to avoid passing on the trait when they considered a second child.

Ellen’s book is more than a memoir, though, as she presents her detailed research into the science of preimplantation genetic diagnosis – “in vitro fertilization with the added step of testing fertilized eggs for specific genetic mutations.” She also covers theological, ethical and sociological studies and positions on parenthood and reproductive issues. By the time you are done, you will come to see the wisdom of her title No Easy Choice, and understand more of what she promises in the subtitle A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction.

This is not an easy book to read. That is not to say it is not well-written. It has wonderfully clear prose, and the memoir is intricately woven into the science. But if you are looking for answers, this book doesn’t give them. It provides information in a way that is accessible to someone like me, an admitted non-scientist, but it does not give answers to the question prospective parents ask: Which choice should I make?

If parenthood truly is a vocation (which I believe it is), then it is to be entered into with prayer and faith. This book informs prayers and that faith.

And it will challenge you all along the way.


*10,000 interwebz** to everyone who can name that pop culture reference. Multiple prizes will be awarded, even if you got the answer from reading someone else’s comment.

**Interwebz are useless, fanciful, and completely non-existent. But at least you can tell your friends you won something.


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16 Responses to Reproductive Technology Is Not A Dirty Word – Ellen Painter Dollar’s No Easy Choice

  1. Tuija says:

    Thanks for the review. It sounds like an interesting book.
    Personally, I’m past the stage of making those choices and I agree, it wasn’t easy. Still, I’m at peace with what we chose and particularly grateful that I and DH did not disagree. (Yes, reproductive technology came into it.)
    Having been there, I’m glad to hear of a book that gives information, not ready-made answers. People whose faith I do not doubt have arrived to different conclusions than we did: God does not lead everyone down the same path. Different individuals, different circumstances. But it’s always good to be as well-informed as you can, and then reflect, discuss, pray.

    • Tim says:

      Parenting decisions, including whether to pursue being a parent at all, often involve difficult choices. I’m glad that God is with us in this.

  2. Mary Anne says:

    “Turned up to 11” –would that be from This is Spinal Tap? 😎

  3. Ellen says:

    Thanks so much for this, Tim. You honed in on the most important thing about this book, which is that it doesn’t conclude by telling anyone what the “right” choice is or should be.

  4. Aimee Byrd says:

    What a great review! That excerpt you shared was very challenging. I will remember this book to recommend.

  5. jenmuse says:

    This is Spinal Tap. Now gives me the internetz and no one will get hurtz.

  6. Jeannie says:

    Thanks for this review, Tim: I read this book during the past year and found it so interesting and eye-opening.

    • Tim says:

      I keep trying to find the right description for it, Jeannie. At the moment, I’m going with “astounding”, because this is one astounding book.

  7. lauradroege says:

    Thanks for posting this, Tim.

    I’m a little confused on this point: “Conversely, those who feel no great desire for children are not necessarily justified in avoiding parenthood.” For some reason, I can “get” the opposite idea: people who want kids but aren’t necessarily called to the vocation of parenthood. (For example, I’ve heard of a couple who decided not to have children, despite wanting them, because they were called to minister to young adults in ways that would be difficult with children of their own.)

    But the idea of not wanting kids AND having the vocation of parenthood baffles me.

    What happens to the kids of such couples? Don’t they (often) feel that their parents had them out of duty, not desire, and thus feel unwanted? Wouldn’t it be better for those adults to AVOID parenthood, and thus not bring unwanted children into the world? How would those who don’t desire kids handle this vocation?

    Am I missing the point somehow? (That’s entirely possible!)

    • Tim says:

      That’s one point I would have liked to see further developed in the book, Laura, as Ellen laid out the proposition but did not explore it much further. It was essentially a point made to then move on to the real thesis of the book, that reproductive choices are rarely easy.

    • Linda B. says:

      I would say that a couple called to parenting but with no desire to have children of their own can parent in different ways. Foster parenting, for one, or mentoring older children. Taking in international students. Even providing respite for parents of children with special needs. I’m sure there are other means for a childless couple to fulfill the vocation of parenting.

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