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Making Babies

Ideals, technology and politics

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

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How does reproductive technology affect our images of and aspirations about family?
The birds and the bees, old school: these days you can make a baby with artificial insemination, fertility drugs, intrauterine insemination, in-vitro fertilization (IVF), donor eggs or sperm and employment of gestational surrogates. Full-on cloning, previously attempted in sheep, recently succeeded in the form of a woman's beloved cat— for a fifty thousand dollar price tag.

Along with technology comes a slew of complicating factors. Of the issues cloning raises, philosopher Michael J. Sandel writes: “When science moves faster than moral understanding, as it does today, men and women struggle to articulate their unease. In liberal societies they reach first for the language of autonomy, fairness, and individual rights. But this part of our moral vocabulary is ill equipped to address the hardest questions posed by genetic engineering. The genomic revolution has induced a kind of moral vertigo.” More than twenty-five years after the fact, the birth of Louise Brown— the world’s first test-tube baby— remains emblematic of the debates about how much to intervene in the making of babies, regardless of what we can do.

How does reproductive technology affect our images of and aspirations about family? On the one hand, technology (of a low-level nature) has played a significant role in widening the definition of family from the traditional nuclear model of mother, father, and child or children to nontraditional configurations. The turkey baster, popularized in certain circles, set off concerns not so much about reproductive technology per se than the deliberate lack of a patriarch in families where a single woman, two women (or less often discussed, two men) chose to raise children they intended to have. In the late seventies and early eighties, many questions arose about how lesbian families would function and feel. As many couples queued up in Massachusetts to obtain marriage licenses with their children in tow this past spring, these concerns seem—a generation later— almost naïve.

On the other hand, technology works to assure that the nuclear family remains a revered, even more perfected aspiration— a dream, some would argue, that crosses over to entitlement. The components of IVF can be broken down such that they can be shared between two or three women (and one or two men). Sperm banks and sperm donors have long been fixtures in the treatment of infertility and have been more recently joined by egg donors. Sperm and egg donors provide the raw goods necessary for conception and generally remain anonymous. Donors, screened for good health and lack of blood-born diseases, are scrutinized for other traits deemed desirable. The contribution males make is less time sensitive and less physically intensive or involved than their female counterparts. Egg donors must endure rigorous hormone therapy and undergo surgery in a coordinated effort with the recipient so that retrieval and implantation of eggs is synchronized. Ads for egg donors often run in Ivy League student newspapers in hopes of enticing ambitious and accomplished young women to offer their eggs.

At times, anonymity can be lifted or even go awry. A recent case involving the use of the wrong sperm donor resulted in a child support lawsuit. Another story reported a happy reunion between donor/father and progeny/daughter after the eighteen-year old successfully sought contact with this formerly anonymous donor. In a recent New York Times Magazine story, a lesbian co-parent-egg donor to their twins-struggled so mightily with her partner about whether to reveal her biological ties to the children (her partner had carried the pregnancy) that the relationship crumbled. A bitter custody battle ensued in California, where an egg donor is not considered a mother. Joint custody was denied. While adoptions are routinely becoming more open, sperm and egg donors seem to be, by and large, mysterious accessories to the process of conception.

Of the technologies currently available, surrogate parenthood is arguably the most extreme. By housing a pregnancy throughout gestation, a surrogate can provide an intended parent or parents a vehicle for biological ties to the fetus in a few ways. Either a woman’s egg is united (in a Petrie dish) with her partner or husband’s sperm or her egg is united with a sperm donor’s sperm. If a woman’s eggs cannot be used, a third party’s egg is typically substituted. Some gay men employ surrogates to carry offspring with their sperm (and a third party’s egg).

gestational surrogates and celebrity moms

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