When sexuality and reproduction become two unrelated activities, is it just possible that society might experience some discomfort or confusion? “The blurring of parental roles” would be putting it mildly.
Birds do it. Bees do it. Even monkeys in the trees do it. We do it, too. But more and more of the time, we’re doing it without the consequence Nature intended: the creation of babies. This is to no small extent due to the advent of convenient birth-control pills, which are in turn largely the invention of Carl Djerassi, PhD, a Stanford emeritus-chemistry-professor-turned-playwright.
The flip side of the coital coin, as Djerassi emphasizes in his recent play, Taboos, is the degree to which a different invention – technologically assisted reproduction, notably in vitro fertilization, or IVF – opens the gates of baby-making not only to infertile heterosexual couples of childbearing age (far and away the heaviest users of IVF) but to practically anyone who decides they want children. In the U.S. today, perhaps 1-2 percent of all babies born are conceived via IVF. In Denmark, it’s upwards of 4 percent.
After a live performance of Taboos this weekend at Stanford, I had the pleasure of monitoring an animated panel discussion on the societal and ethical issues posed by IVF and kindred techniques. These procedures include preimplantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD, wherein a cell is removed from each of several embryos created in vitro, then analyzed for its genetic contents so that only embryos devoid of some genetic disease carried by one or another parent – or, perhaps coming soon to your local womb, only embryos with genes for the right height, hair color, level of intelligence or gregariousness, or sexual preference – will be implanted.
The discussion, which was written about on Patch.com, featured an often-flummoxed but always-game moderator and four articulate, passionate and engaged panelists: Stanford IVF-services medical director Valerie Baker, MD; law professor and bioethics specialist Hank Greely, JD; physician and former presidential bioethics advisor William Hurlbut, MD, and writer and IVF mom Melanie Thernstrom.
Among the many scenarios discussed by the panel: Now that cryogenic preservation of eggs and embryos is routine, it could be possible (though not necessarily ethical) for a woman of child-bearing age to have an embryo created by her mother and father implanted, carry the embryo to term, and give birth to… her brother?
And another: A member of the audience, a physician, reported that some of her perfectly fertile peers were outsourcing gestation to surrogate carriers so that their careers could proceed uninterrupted.
And then, another member of the audience – Djerassi himself – stepped up to the microphone and beseeched panelists and audience alike to consider the possibility that someday young women might routinely consider banking their eggs, then getting sterilized so that they could enjoy a sexually active adulthood bereft of reproductive consequences. Later in life, their careers established, those Forty-Somethings of The Future could head for the lab (or to the gestational carrier’s house) to get motherhood underway.
You want a slice of apple pie with that?