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baby making in the 21st century (hint: this has nothing to do with sex, and maybe that’s the issue)

July 12, 2006

Check out the July/August issue of Mother Jones magazine – it has some great articles relating to Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART). This is not something I knew a whole lot about, especially for a person who considers herself somewhat in the know in terms of “reproductive rights.” What began to sink in for me, first of all, was the way that “reproductive rights” has come to be a synonym for “abortion rights,” which is actually not accurate at all. The aspect of reproductive rights, in its most literal sense, is the notion that any woman with a desire to get pregnant and give birth should be able to do so. ART includes in vitro fertilization, surrogates, sperm/egg/embryo donation, etc.

This article, by Elizabeth Weil, discusses the complexities and difficulties of ART. The thrust of the article revolves around the fact that there is almost no public policy in the US that manages ART, leaving the decision of who is fit to receive help in becoming a parent up to fertility doctors themselves. Personal beliefs enter this decision-making too often, Weil argues. It’s actually sort of shocking to me how much the doctors get to pass judgment on people seeking fertility treatments and how much power our government has given them by not creating any guidelines for ART. Weil states the following in a table that I can’t seem to find in the online edition of the article:

In a survey of fertility clinic doctors:

  • 59% agreed that everyone has the right to have a child
  • 44% believe that fertility doctors don’t have the right to decide who is a fit parent
  • 48% said they were very or extremely likely to turn away a gay couple seeking a surrogate
  • 38% would turn away a couple on welfare who wanted to pay for ART with Social Security checks
  • 20% would turn away a single woman
  • 17% would turn away a lesbian couple
  • 13% would turn away a couple in which the woman had bipolar disorder
  • 9% would turn away a couple who wanted to replace a recently deceased child
  • 5% would turn away a biracial couple

So everyone has the right to have a child…with many, many exceptions. Aside from the moral stuff delineating whether lesbians, women with disabilities, single women, etc. are fit to be parents, there is another issue. Potential ART “consumers” shop around for awhile, looking for the fertility clinic with the highest success rate before plunking down $100,000 or more. To obtain high success rates, these clinics have to do their own careful choosing among potential patients. Most of this discrimination has to do with age – older women are often rejected from potential ART.

What would it look like to actually have ART controlled by the government? Weil cites different rules in different European counties as examples for ART-related regulations: “A woman is entitled to two cycles of IVF, a woman is entitled to four cycles of IVF, a doctor will implant one embryo, a doctor will implant up to four.” Weil points out, almost ironically, that the only law relating to ART has to do with embryo use for stem cell research:

So far in this country no rules have been set. Literally, the only thing you can’t do is use embryos created since 2001 for stem cell research in a lab that receives federal funding. Other than that, anything goes. Women in their 60s have been assisted in having children. Semen has been extracted, without prior consent, from men who’ve died. In some states, embryos are treated as material possessions and deemed transferable as part of one’s estate; in others, they’re treated almost as children and cannot be harmed or destroyed, and, if abandoned, can be implanted by doctors in surrogates’ wombs.

A quick aside: there’s a guy named Geoffrey Sher, who runs this weird website that allows any woman up to the age of 42 to pay a lump sum for three tries to have a baby, and receives a percentage of it back if she fails to give birth to a baby. He has a total open door policy, except for a few occasions, and Weil cites what she believes to be some bizarre circumstances surrounding one of the few times he refused a patient:

In his 24 years of operation, he’s turned down only a few patients for nonmedical reasons-one being a woman who wanted to harvest her eggs, fertilize them, freeze the embryos, have a sex change, find a woman to marry, and then have his wife carry his babies.

I’m sorry but open-door my ass, that’s some clear and obvious transphobia. If Sher prides himself on being so non-judgmental, why the sudden judging of a transman? It seemed very strange to me that Weil would use this example as a very extreme case where Sher was forced to turn on the morality.

A big question I was thinking about when I read this article: why are we so obsessed with our own biology? I fully understand that adoption, in most cases, is equally as expensive, if not more so, than some types of ART. However, shouldn’t all these concerns about our “embryo glut,” coupled with “abortion stops a beating heart!!” be reasons to make adoption more affordable and more accessible? I have this theory that on some level, putting adoption on our map as a real and viable method for raising a family (and not just touted as an alternative when you are unable to conceive, though even that would be great) would fall somewhere near approving GLBT relationships. Part of what bothers the haters so much about GLBT folks is that we take human relationships out of the realm of what is ‘natural’ and create something not dictated by our genitals and some human need to procreate with those genitals. In the world of computers, paved roads, subway trains, radios – you name it, nothing can really be ‘natural’ anymore – why are we still obsessed with the fact that children have to be spawned from the DNA of two people and then raised by those two exact people until they are old enough to move out and renew the cycle? We know full well that that isn’t the way the world functions anymore.

I fully support people who want to give birth to their own babies. But I really wonder what the world would look like if we stopped telling women (consciously or not) that they will form a connection with a baby that is growing/grew in their uterus that will be far more intense than with an adopted child. I wonder what the world would look like if adoption didn’t mean years of red tape and money to have a child that our culture still considers ‘second class’ to a biological child, if it simply meant giving a parentless child a home and not needing to spend $100,000 for just a chance to have a baby who shares your DNA.

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