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Unwanted Children? Disposable as Last Sunday’s Paper

The Sunday Supplement, that colorful insert in the middle of the overstuffed Sunday newspaper, has always seemed a harmless, even friendly, little publication. Sometimes it’s the first part of the paper you look at. The Sunday Supplement is a gentle warm-up, before you turn to the front page to slog through another day’s murders, misfortunes, and malfeasances. In it you get jokes, lists of celebrity birthdays, ads for arthritis medicine and laxatives and toenail trimmers, photos of cute house pets, recipes for “quick, elegant appetizers,” and cheery profiles of beautiful overachievers. Part of the fun of reading it is knowing that millions of Americans are reading it with you. You have that cozy feeling that you are smack-dab in the middle of the American mainstream — or rather, the American mainpond, so slow and unchanging are the currents on which the ever dependable, ever inoffensive Sunday Supplement seems to float.

The cover story in Gannett’s USA Weekend for December 10-12, 1999, begins just the way a good Sunday Supplement cover story should. In warmly approving prose it tells of Lance Armstrong, the great bicycle racer. At age 25 he was found to have cancer; his body was riddled with tumors from scrotum to brain. After surgeries and chemotherapy and missing a full season of racing, he made a feeble comeback and was so depressed that he nearly retired. But he didn’t. Instead, he trained for a year at a superhuman pace and then in the summer of 1999 won the world’s foremost bicycle race, the Tour de France, in record time. The article celebrates this feat and then reports Armstrong’s latest accomplishment: He has become a father. The writer describes how Armstrong “stares in admiration” at the month-old infant. He “cannot keep his hands off his son.” This is “the bliss of a man who once wondered openly if he would live to see such a day.”

Your eyes tear up just a little in sympathy and admiration as you finish that paragraph and start the next one. Then your eyes bug out of your head, for this is what you read: “The birth of every wanted child represents an act of faith: faith in the future, in our own and the child’s health, in our ability to care for the child.”

The little word “wanted” administers a shock. It’s like seeing the flick of a gator’s tail in the old swimming hole. Suddenly the Sunday Supplement is scary. Without warning, without debate, without proposing for our consideration the controversial opinion that children should be “wanted” in order to be born, the writer drops into his warm, bland prose this icy little word, with all its implications. That he knows its implications is evident from what he does with the word “faith.” Here “faith” doesn’t have its usual sub-religious but laudable connotations of self-confidence or stick-to-itiveness or a can-do attitude. Here the word “faith” is stuck as an approving label on some obscure process of calculating costs, benefits, and consequences: Apparently while the baby is gestating the prospective parents are to assess the signs of fetal health, the indicators of parental health, the time and money available for “care,” and the relative rosiness of the future. If these are satisfactory, the child may be adjudged “wanted” and further gestation — even up to and including birth — may be allowed. (The son Lance Armstrong is holding, the writer tells us, was conceived in vitro. Nothing is said about whether the little boy had any “unwanted” mates in the petri dish where he was generated.)

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