Agnes Howard writes on “moral labor” in First Things, in a piece that’s of evergreen value:
There are conflicting Christian opinions on childbearing. But a good place to begin is with the idea of procreation. It is an archaic-sounding word, and though sometimes made to stand in as a synonym for “reproduction,” there are crucial differences between the two. Reproduction depends on industrial and mechanical metaphors, making copies of the human species. In contrast, procreation roots sexuality and childbearing deeply within two relations: that of the man and woman, and that between the couple and God. In the first, the sexual embrace of husband and wife opens them to receive a child. In the second, procreation places human intimacy in the context of a divine work, with husband and wife as co-workers alongside God in the creation of a unique human soul.
While procreation implicitly defines the whole process from conception to birth, most often the word is used particularly for the parents’ physical union. Given the profundity and physical character of pregnancy, though, a woman’s continuing efforts to nurture a fetus should also be described as a moral act, her cooperation with God in bringing forth life. Indeed, the woman is particularly burdened and particularly honored in the process. She is the first to witness the creation of the new human being, never before introduced to the created order but present in her. “God creates the soul of the new child in her body,” Alice von Hildebrand writes of this maternal privilege. “This implies a direct ‘contact’ between Him and the mother-to-be, a contact in which the father plays no role whatever.” …
The transformation of our embryology has immense implications for human experience, but a reductive scientism should not have the first and last words in describing human life. A sperm-meets-egg-makes-cluster-of-cells narrative is inadequate to explain our origins: not false, only not sufficient. As Pope John Paul II emphasized in his 1994 Letter to Families, “Man’s coming into being does not conform to the laws of biology alone, but also, and directly, to God’s creative will, which is concerned with the genealogy of the sons and daughters of human families.” Our aim should not be to reclaim folk beliefs about how babies are made, but given the biological and clinical frameworks of maternity today, return to philosophy and theology to help describe the import of what we are doing.
The knowledge (and self-knowledge) imparted by medicine alters the way women view and live pregnancy. Even before that knowledge informs action, it is morally significant. Human gestation resembles the same process in other mammals except for this distinction: We are very much aware of it and we, in some measure, understand what is happening. Carrying a baby is a conscious act. …
What medicine reveals about the mechanics of gestation, rather than stressing woman’s passivity, instead allows us to see pregnancy as a moral act. “Feeling fine, just tired,” a mother-to-be might politely answer when asked how she is doing. Just tired: bone-tired, spent as though having performed a strenuous task. A mother is doing something strenuous, not “making” a baby directly, like hammering out a shape in a forge, but growing tissue, crafting a placenta, carrying weight.
Pregnancy is not just waiting but real work. Exactly what kind of work is it? Terms offered by the market are not much help: It is not evaluated like salaried tasks, and phrases like “maternity leave” construe the event as though it were vacation or hiatus from meaningful employment. We might better avail ourselves of theological categories to help make sense of women’s labor in this phase of procreation: Hospitality describes the mother as welcoming a needy guest, self-denial honors the pains and costs of that nurture, and stewardship observes the boundaries of her agency in respecting Providence.
Scripture and the early Church enjoined hospitality as a duty, and St. Benedict commended it in his Rule. Believers were to extend kindness, such as the acts of charity itemized in Matthew 25, to strangers as though to the Lord himself: “I was a stranger and you invited me in.” An expectant mother welcomes and serves a child as a stranger. Ultrasound pictures notwithstanding, the fetus is a person she does not yet know but whom she is uniquely qualified to help. Doctors may not encourage “eating for two” any more, but an expectant woman comes to live as two. Her whole being is stretched to accommodate another person. Her body, clothing, time, rest, and food are shared, and the most intimate areas of life reflect the presence of another person. Consider those notorious food cravings. Women develop aversions to edibles formerly counted as favorites, or desires for things normally detested, or for great quantities or in strange combinations—as in the venerable jokes about pickles and ice cream. These cravings point to something fundamental about pregnancy. Wanting something you usually do not like attests to this: You are not yourself. At least, you are not only yourself. You are acting on behalf of someone else, wittingly and unwittingly.
We devalue when we reduce human life and human experience to only its biological aspect, as if we are not ethical and moral creatures. Agnes’s piece helps recover a richer sense of ourselves as moral agents—as father and mother—at the same time that she helps make the distinction between our reproductive and procreative powers clearer.