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J-Term: Ethics, Gender and Reproductive Technologies

This next installment in the J-Term series has been written by Rosalyn Berne, Associate Professor in the Department of Engineering and Society. See the first J-Term blog here.

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In January, for six hours a day, 25 second and third year students and I sat in a circle, talking about human conception. The act of conception may seem the most natural of activities, but for many it does not lead to the desired outcome of a baby. Not, at least, without the help of technology. Our J-Term course focused on the appropriate, though sometimes disconcerting, role that technology can play in that process.

We began the course with students own birth stories. Some discovered for the first time details of their birth, such as use of forceps, a C-section, premature or induced labor. They’d all gotten here somehow, and it was time to think specifically about the role of technology. So we viewed film of actual deliveries. Student reactions ranged from delight, to concern, to horror.

We turned to sperm donation and, in particular, cases where one man’s multiple, anonymous donations led to many offspring. We considered children’s moral status, and their right to be told the identity of their paternal genetic line, when the intended father prefers to be seen as the only “dad,” and the donor has no intentions of revealing his identity. On the matter of compensation, we asked what sperm is worth, and how money ought to factor into the ethics of donation. The students seemed especially curious when they learned that as college- aged men, they are subjects of targeted marketing by sperm banks in the USA. Some grew uncomfortable when we opened one online donation site, which revealed the minimum height requirement, preference for Caucasian race, blond hair, heterosexuality, blue eyes, a high GPA, and high I.Q. Some expressed outraged, while others chuckled nervously.

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The subject of egg donation, target-marketed to female college students, drew a more sober response from the class. We learned about how serious that procedure can be, involving the use of hormones to stimulate multiple egg production, followed by their surgical removal. Some students said, “Well, it’s a woman’s choice to use her body that way, and it pays really well, and is helpful to another woman, so there’s no problem with using technology for that purpose. Maybe I should become a donor!” On the issue of surrogate motherhood our discussions grew animated, and emotional, for some. We learned of women who, on delivery, feel profound remorse, and a connection to the baby they carried, whether it be from her own egg, or an embryo that was embedded, genetically related to the intended parents who contracted and paid for the surrogate. We also learned of cases where intended parents had changed their minds, abandoning the surrogate, leaving her pregnant with a fetus she had not intended to birth as her own child. Of course, we also learned of successful, happy circumstances.

On in-vitro fertilization, students felt compassion for couples that struggle to have babies, and pleased that new reproductive technologies make it possible to help them to do so. Its high cost was their main concern.

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The greatest disagreement was over exo-uterine technology. Some students were strong proponents of research and development that will cultivate a way to incubate a fetus, from conception to birth, without the need for a woman’s body. Others, mostly female, thought otherwise, arguing that the relationship between mother and child begins in-utero, and removing the direct, bodily connection between them will likely cause harm.

Despite the disagreements, and wide range of personal beliefs, the classmates grew close and vowed, to stay friends and to keep in touch. Something about the subject matter, and the open, honest conversations, had served to unify them. It’s why I teach.

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