The recent extradition of Gilbert Deya to Kenya on baby trafficking charges has brought a case of alleged religious abuse back into the limelight. Deya’s wife and another woman have already served time in prison over their role in the case. Those who remember the original story from 2007, will recall how a London couple returned to the UK with a new baby, who was taken into care after their GP expressed concerns. The child was genetically unrelated to the alleged parents, who sincerely believed that this child was theirs, a miracle mediated by pastor Deya. They were not the only ones taken in by a sophisticated confidence trick which played on desperation, convincing childless women that they had been pregnant, and, somehow, given birth. Ultimately, thirteen infants were recovered, and taken into care in Kenya. Far-fetched though the scenario may seem, the adult victims were sane, functional individuals, who would not be the first to experience a phantom pregnancy – Mary Tudor’s is a sad footnote of history.
A confidence trickster’s talent lies in identifying victims whose vulnerabilities make them receptive to a given scenario. Deya was allegedly successful at this. However, he did not create the vulnerabilities the case hinged on. How can a person become so desperate that they can be manipulated in this way? The answer probably lies more in the way we relate to children, and their place in our lives, than in the details of the fraud.
We are bombarded with images of families and children. Advertising, religious teaching, and popular culture, are mostly oriented to heterosexual households who will, it is assumed, have babies. Whereas our distant ancestors relied on the next generation for survival, we can, in theory, choose when we have children, and how many. The reality of fertility and childrearing has changed in almost every respect, and so our relationship to them has also changed. Today, we are encouraged to think of our children as existentially important to us; intrinsic to our own identities, and essential for making meaning in our lives. Allegations that voluntary childlessness is ‘selfish’, or ‘unnatural’ are complemented by the assumption, in debates around issues such as child tax credit limits, that desire for children is universal and constant, outstripping parents’ capacity to support their offspring. The violence of the rhetoric involved suggests a deeply-held world-view.
Critic and theorist Michael Warner has coined a word for this: Reprosexuality. He defines it as ‘a relation to self which finds its proper temporality and fulfilment in generational transmission’. His definition may sound complicated, but the press articles hyper-linked in this post make his point. There is a general perception that children are, if not the only source of meaning in life, pretty much the only one which counts. [Men are affected by this too. Resources here, and here] One’s own biological offspring are the ideal, failing which, adopted children, or investment in the children of others, may substitute; it may not be acceptable to choose to be child free, but if it cannot be avoided, displacement to a caring career, or a related voluntary activity is a possibility. Warner focuses on queer communities, who have found that with the advent of equal marriage, there is a broadening of the reprosexual assumption to include them. While many non-heterosexual families do desire children, many others do not, and these communities have found plenty of ways to lead fulfilling child free lives. There is a degree of irritation, and even resentment, that ‘breeder’ culture should be viewed as a natural addition to queer identity. (Warner’s article can be accessed here)
It would arguably be a wonderful thing if the conversation around equal marriage were to open up a debate on the reprosexual imperative. Both the assumption of universal child-rearing, and the focus on children as giving meaning to adult lives, exert pressure on all, regardless of status or gender. Many people who have children, chose to have them, and are happy they did, nevertheless confirm that parenthood does not provide the existential meaning of life. (See examples here, here, and here) For others, it is a source of bitter regret, or abuse. No-one can provide meaning for us; we must seek it out for ourselves, and suggesting that offspring will somehow ‘fix’ a person’s unresolved issues is unrealistic. Worse, it objectifies the child. Nevertheless, this suggestion can prevent an infertile couple, or a childless person entering middle age, from grieving for what cannot be, and pursuing other projects.
For a couple having difficulty conceiving, the pressure to continue to explore every possible solution can be intense. The constant message that ‘marriage is meant for making children’ may be relativized to ‘is often meant’ in one’s heart of hearts, but still be oppressive. The social conservatism of much religious teaching inevitably favours high fertility, which combined with societal expectation, makes a potent combination. In the case of Gilbert Deya’s alleged victims, the results have been tragic. When the circumstances are joyous, then the birth of a child is rightly celebrated. All the more so when a future filled with opportunities and choices is before them. Unfortunately, reprosexual rhetoric, and other restrictive discourses continue to exert an ambiguous, if not obnoxious influence, limiting the options many people feel they have. Hopefully, times are changing, and we will get better at supporting those whose wish for children will be unfulfilled. Hopefully we will also get better at imagining different possible choices.
Picture via Pixabay