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Questioning the Commerce of Conception

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on August 6th, 2008

Late last month, Biopolitical Times contributor Pete Shanks noted several supporters of assisted reproduction who took the occasion of IVF's 30th anniversary to assert that the industry urgently needs some rules. Since then, a number of additional liberal voices have raised questions about what Barnard president Debora Spar calls "the commerce of conception."

  • In an article about the marketing of egg freezing, the National Women's Health Network's Kiesha McCurtis argues that the practice is "far from ready for mainstream use by otherwise healthy women." McCurtis lists the risks of egg extraction, observes that it offers "large profit margins for egg banks and specialized fertility clinics," and concludes that "[a]dvocates of egg freezing use alarming statistics in a misleading fashion to encourage women to create unnecessary back-up plans based on an ineffective, expensive, and unproven technology."

[Nota bene: The National Women's Health Network is one of the few women's health organizations that does not accept financial support from pharmaceutical companies, tobacco companies or medical device manufacturers.]

  • A blog post on RH Reality Check by Jennifer Rogers begins with her appreciation that because of IVF technology, "the clock is not ticking as loudly for me as it was for my mother." She then enumerates several examples of what she calls "a whole new set of concerns" captured by her question, "What are the ethical, moral, legal and financial impacts of this field?"

  • Over at Huffington Post, Melissa Lafsky reacts to the glibness on display when the libertarian magazine Reason convened a panel of women to talk about selling their eggs in a Manhattan bar. From Lafsky's piece, titled "Selling Your Eggs: No Big Deal?"

"The room went silent when one woman admitted the gynecologist performing the surgery had told her, 'Whatever they're paying you, it's not enough," because the risks were so high…More than one listener flinched as the speakers described having needles stuck through their vaginas into their uteruses, to aspirate their eggs and package them off to conceive a child that the women had (possibly illegally) contracted away their right to ever see or contact. All for somewhere between $10,000 to $30,000. But the panelists? They just smiled and cracked another joke."

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

A Literal Reductionist?

Posted by Pete Shanks on July 31st, 2008

Michael Rae
Michael Rae

Michael Rae thinks he is starving himself to life. He's six feet tall and weighs 115 pounds. He believes that calorie restriction will extend his life by 5 to 15 years, long enough (he hopes) for regenerative medicine to advance enough to make him immortal. Yes, he works with immortality crank Aubrey de Grey. And yes, even Rae admits that this is "crude, weak medicine."

He might want to check out Michael Pollan's excellent "In Defense of Food" which includes a withering assault on "nutritionism" and reductionist science in general, coupled with a strong defense of the wisdom of the ages (aka Mom). Pollan's advice: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

Or maybe refusing to eat makes life seem longer.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Gene Doping Hits the Headlines

Posted by Pete Shanks on July 29th, 2008

Olympic Rings

The Beijing Olympics open at the end of next week, and right on cue come a whole bunch of reports of undetectable gene doping. "I predict multiple people will win in Beijing who have been gene-doped," says an American swim coach. It's "the next big thing," says gene therapy expert Ted Friedmann. This may be an April fool's hoax, but this is serious advocacy of gene doping, and this is very close to throwing in the towel and accepting it.

Friends of the Earth has just taken a lead on the issue, writing to all the major U.S. pro sports organizations asking them to ban gene doping. "Altering one's genetic makeup to impact athletic performance is unacceptable," said Gillian Madill (formerly of CGS, now genetic technologies campaigner at FoE). "Gene doping is cheating, and it's dangerous." See their factsheet, and the sample letter (pdf).

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), originally set up by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), has been on the case since at least 2002, when it held a conference on "Genetic Enhancement of Athletic Performance." From the WADA Code (pdf): "The non-therapeutic use of cells, genes, genetic elements, or of the modulation of gene expression, having the capacity to enhance athletic performance, is prohibited." 192 countries and 570 sports organizations have signed the Copenhagen Declaration on Anti-Doping in Sport (pdf), which endorses the WADA Code.

However, many national governments could not legally be bound by the WADA Code, so UNESCO set up an International Convention against Doping in Sport in 2005. Thus far, 87 nations have officially signed up -- not yet including the United States. And the U.S. professional sports organizations, which have been slow to take effective action on doping in general, have been well behind the curve on gene doping. Let's hope the FoE letter gets not just attention but active responses.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Happy Birthday!

Posted by Pete Shanks on July 25th, 2008

Party balloons

Thirty years ago today, the first IVF baby was born. Her name is Louise Brown, and she is now a mother who generally prefers to stay out of the spotlight, so let us just wish her a very happy birthday.

This date also marks the birth of the modern assisted-reproduction industry, which has grown into a multi-billion-dollar business. Naturally, many of its practitioners are happy to mark the anniversary.

Nature went further, producing a special feature [subscription required] looking forward 30 years, including such gems as Davor Solter predicting that 100-year-old women will give birth and that that research on embryos "would mean you could introduce any kind of genetic modification." An editorial clearly endorsed inheritable genetic modification: It envisages a scenario where "the door would open wider to allow genetic enhancement and modification of germ cells and embryos." It also imagined a couple in 2038 who "chose this particular embryo [because she] had the best odds of growing up to be thin, happy and cancer-free ..."

In the same issue, however, there is Ruth Deech, the former chair of Britain's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, saying: "In the United States, assisted reproduction is nearly an unregulated black market, guided by toothless 'rules' from non-regulatory bodies." Debora Spar, President of Barnard College and author of The Baby Business, agrees that "This is a $3 billion market without any established framework." In the New York Times Magazine last Sunday, Peggy Orenstein, who has written about her own experience with assisted reproduction, gently suggests: "A bit of mandatory reining in might not be a bad thing."

This kind of constructive criticism -- from supporters of assisted reproduction -- does seem to be gaining traction. That's a good sign. But calling for designer babies is a move in the wrong direction.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

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