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.

In a companion article in the same issue, the renowned scientist James D. Watson addressed the possibility that advances in the study of genetics and embryology might soon lead to human reproduction by cloning. "A human being born of clonal reproduction most likely will appear on the earth within the next twenty to fifty years," he wrote, "and even sooner, if some nation should actively promote the venture."

Given that science seemed to be progressing so quickly in that direction, Watson urged that the practical and ethical implications of such a development should be thought through as soon as possible.

This is a matter far too important to be left solely in the hands of the scientific and medical communities. The belief that surrogate mothers and clonal babies are inevitable because science always moves forward ... represents a form of laissez-faire nonsense...

If we do not think about it now, the possibility of our having a free choice will one day suddenly be gone.

In the ensuing years, reproductive technology did continue to make dramatic advances. But as Gina Maranto warned more than twenty years later in "Delayed Childbearing" (June 1995), reproductive science had not in fact progressed as far as some had been led to believe. In the 1970s, she explained, the field had become a mecca for the best and most creative scientists who, in her words, had "assumed the status of latter-day fertility gods." The rapid pace of discovery and the intensity of the media hype surrounding it at the time had "conveyed the impression that the vagaries of reproduction had been brought under technological control."

As a result, she explained, women had come to believe that, thanks to the wonders of science, they could now be assured of having children whenever they chose. Sadly, she reported, many of those who had waited until their thirties or forties to attempt to become mothers were now finding that they had waited too long and could not conceive. For many of these women, this discovery was devastating. Fertility clinics do hold out some hope for the desperate, Maranto noted, but in her view that option is far from ideal:

This path is generally costly (patients must pay tens of thousands of dollars out of their own pockets), as well as unpleasant (women undergo painful daily injections of fertility drugs, frequent blood tests, general anesthesia, and invasive surgery). Medically mediated conception is also time-consuming and encourages a kind of obsessiveness...

The unfortunate bottom line is that infertility specialists cannot help all couples who seek their services. Even leading clinics using the latest procedures offer no guarantees. True, a certain number of couples who don't succeed by high-tech means go on to achieve pregnancies by the old-fashioned method. But many others are left childless, in debt, and anguished over their failed dreams.

Caitlin Flanagan similarly addressed the travails of late-in-life aspiring mothers in her June 2002 book review of Sylvia Ann Hewlett's Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children. Flanagan criticized Hewlett for enthusiastically commending the heroism of older women who have braved all manner of costly and painful procedures to bear children against the odds. Given that many of the women Hewlett profiled became pregnant at (in Flanagan's words) "near-biblical ages," Flanagan dismissed the book as "something of [a] freak show." Moreover, it is far from clear, Flanagan argued, that these women's quest to have children is a worthy one.

The most obvious question that such a pursuit prompts—whether it is in a child's best interest to have a mother who will be facing the challenges and travails of old age just as her offspring is entering adolescence—is never mentioned. Why? Because this is a book from the perspective of "high-achieving women," and the main impression we get of the type is that they are going to get exactly what they want, and damn the expense or the human toll.

Though the problem of infertility has yet to be made obsolete, other dramatic scientific developments have continued to transform the process of bringing children into the world. In March 2002, Margaret Talbot discussed new technologies that enable couples to choose the gender of their children. One clinic she reported on used a technique called sperm-sorting, in which sperm with the desired male or female genetic material are selected for. Other clinics, she explained, create embryos in vitro and then screen them for gender before either discarding them or implanting them in the uterus. Talbot vehemently objected to such processes, arguing that they are antithetical to the spirit of unconditional love that parenthood is supposed to represent:

A world in which people (wealthy people, anyway) can custom-design human beings unhampered by law or social sanction is not a dystopian sci-fi fantasy any longer but a realistic scenario...

Without some humility in the face of the unknown and unknowable—without some fundamental willingness to accept and to love whatever child you get—parenthood would be a very different, and a lesser, thing.
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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.

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