Flashbacks September 2005

The Varieties of Reproductive Experience

Atlantic writing from the 1960s to the present on cloning, in vitro fertilization, egg donation, sperm donation, and more.

"First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage." Or so goes the old childhood saying. But in recent decades the traditions and culturally accepted mores surrounding the bearing of children have given way to new realities. As a result of scientific advances, the creation of human life has become increasingly rooted in the laboratory, as more and more children are being born to older women and in contexts that deviate from the traditional nuclear family. Over the years a number of Atlantic articles have offered commentary on these changes—addressing everything from the science behind them to their practical and ethical implications to the experience of taking part in them first-hand.

In "On Living in a Biological Revolution" (February 1969), Harvard historian Donald Fleming reviewed some of the dramatic scientific advances—from the discovery of DNA to the development of a contraceptive pill—that had taken place in the preceding fifteen years. Many of these changes, he asserted, especially recent advances in the study of genetics and embryology, would dramatically transform the way society thinks about the creation of human life. The new ideal of the contemporary biologist, he wrote, is "the manufacture of man."

In a manufacturing process ... quality-control is maintained by checking the output and replacing defective parts...

This is the program of the new biologists—control of numbers by foolproof contraception; gene manipulation and substitution; surgical and biochemical intervention in the embryonic and neonatal phases; organ transplants or replacements at will.

While he conceded that some might object to such a dispassionately technical view of human genesis, he speculated that the rewards of embracing such an outlook would ultimately win over skeptics.

Abstract theological speculations about genetic tailoring would be totally lost upon a woman who could be sure in advance that her baby would not be born mentally retarded or physically handicapped. The private anxieties of individuals are likely to diminish rather than increase any effective resistance to the broader consequences of the Biological Revolution...

The new form of spiritual sloth will be not to want to be bodily perfect and genetically improved. The new avarice will be to cherish our miserable hoard of genes and favor the children that resemble us.

Two years later, in "The Obsolescent Mother" (May 1971), Edward Grossman suggested that given the recent advances in the science of human development, the day might not be far distant when a woman's womb would no longer be necessary for the gestation of a human fetus. Already a physiologist named Daniele Petrucci at the University of Bologna had claimed in 1961 to have sustained a fertilized embryo for twenty-nine days inside a fluid-filled silicone container. Reactions to this claim had been decidedly mixed. While the Catholic Church had decried the experiment as "monstrous," the Communist party in China had hailed it enthusiastically. Grossman quoted an editorial from a Chinese Communist newspaper:

Nine months of pregnancy is no light or easy burden and such diseases as poisoning due to pregnancy are detrimental to health. If children can be had without being borne, working mothers need not be affected by childbirth. This is happy news for women.

Most serious scientists, Grossman explained, had dismissed Petrucci's claims as fraudulent. But he pointed out that great strides were being made by legitimate scientists in the science of extracting eggs from human females, fertilizing them in the lab, and eventually, it was hoped, implanting them back in the uterus for gestation to full term. If in vitro fertilization was so close to becoming a reality, he suggested, artificial wombs might not be far behind. After all, he wrote, "it might be said that for the United States, there is no technological project that is not assured of success provided the decision is made to invest whatever talent and money are necessary." And the artificial womb, he argued, would benefit everyone—especially women.

[The mother] will find that society does not expect her to have a special relation to her offspring that takes up years of her life, and also she will not expect it of herself. Too, a society that can grow fetuses in a laboratory will be more disposed to have meaningful day- and night-care centers and communal nurseries on a large scale, for the state, being a third parent, will wish to provide for the maintenance and upbringing of its children. Natural pregnancy may become an anachronism.
Presented by

Sage Stossel is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and draws the cartoon feature "Sage, Ink." She is author/illustrator of the graphic novel Starling, and of the children's books  On the Loose in Boston and On the Loose in Washington, DC. More

On Election Day in 1996, TheAtlantic.com launched a weekly editorial cartoon feature drawn by Sage Stossel and named (aptly enough) "Sage, Ink." Since then, Stossel's whimsical work has been featured by the New York Times Week in Review, CNN Headline News, Cartoon Arts International/The New York Times Syndicate, The Boston Globe, Nieman Reports, Editorial Humor, The Provincetown Banner (for which she received a 2009 New England Press Association Award), and elsewhere. Her work has also been included in Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year, (2005, 2006, 2009, and 2010 editions) and Attack of the Political Cartoonists. Her children's book, On the Loose in Boston, was published in June 2009.

Sage Stossel grew up in a suburb of Boston and attended Harvard University, where she majored in English and American Literature and Languages and did a weekly cartoon strip about college life, called "Jody," for the Harvard Crimson. From 2004 to 2007, she served as Books Editor of the Radcliffe Quarterly

After college she took what was intended to be a temporary summer position securing electronic rights to articles from The Atlantic's archive for use online. Intrigued by The Atlantic's rich history and the creative possibilities in helping to launch a digital edition of the magazine on the Web, she soon joined The Atlantic full time. As the site's former executive editor, she was involved in everything from contributing reviews, author interviews, and illustrations, to hosting message boards and producing a digital edition of The Atlantic for the Web.

Stossel lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In