To Be Absolutely Frank

”Baby” Talk

The New Yorker offers an unblinking -- and horrifying -- look at assisted reproductive technology.

By 7.5.02

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Steven Spielberg's latest movie, Minority Report, is getting lots of press for its treatment of a theme, the tension between security and liberty, that seems increasingly urgent in light of September 11th. Spielberg's last work, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), was much less celebrated when it came out. But something I just read suggests that futuristic fable to be no less relevant to contemporary life.

A.I. tells the story of a couple whose son has dropped into an apparently irreversible coma. Unable to have or adopt another child (since a global environmental crisis has led to the strict regulation of reproduction), they settle for a child-like robot programmed to love. All goes well until their real son unexpectedly recovers. His jealousy of the artificial substitute eventually drives his mother to take the robot out into the woods and tearfully abandon him.

The horror and pathos of that scene make it hard to watch, yet a more horrible and pathetic version is played out every day in clinics around the world. I refer to the side-effects of certain assisted reproductive technologies, as described by Michael Ryan in the July 1 New Yorker.

Ryan's article, "Countdown to a Baby," is a week-by-week account of his and his wife's efforts to get her pregnant by in-vitro fertilization. The level of detail is sometimes embarrassing. Unable to "produce a specimen" in the clinic's bathroom, even with the aid of an X-rated video, Ryan (a poet and critic by profession) goes home to his own bed and thinks of Keats. Finally successful, he returns with his sample just in time for the scheduled insemination.

More than we needed to know, perhaps, but we should thank Ryan for telling his story in such clear and unsparing terms. Though obviously an advocate of in-vitro, he does nothing to prettify the process. He describes his wife's physical ordeal: weeks of painful injections, induced hormonal shifts and virtual immobility in bed. After learning that she's pregnant with not one but four children, the petite woman must force herself to consume "the diet of a sumo wrestler."

Ryan also considers the ethical quandaries posed by therapy that risks "the chance of a multiple pregnancy in order to maximize the chance of a single pregnancy." Quadruplets, he learns, are strong candidates for premature birth and thus for grave birth defects. If the mother carries them to term, she risks death or permanent damage to vital organs.

The couple and their doctor discuss the possibility of a "reduction," but Ryan scorns that euphemism and the cold calculation it implies. He notes that "the embryos are all alive, and it makes me shiver to think of choosing which is to be killed. The smallest and the weakest? Would the twins have a better chance, or the ones in their own sacs? What if you kill some and the remaining ones die later?"

Ryan is honest enough to write "kill" instead of "terminate" or "abort," and that's refreshing, yet one of the most disturbing aspects of his article is the very absence of euphemism. Just four weeks after fertilization, a doctor refers to an implanted embryo as a "baby"; and as other embryos appear, they receive the labels Baby B, Baby C and Baby D. Describing the first sonogram of Baby A's heartbeat, Ryan observes that "the rapidly pulsing pin-point means life." None of which in any way limits the mother's power to order a potassium-chloride-induced cardiac arrest for one or more of these babies: "it's her body and, in the end, her decision."

The likelihood of such a decision grows when Ryan and his wife learn that two of their unborn children are conjoined (or "Siamese") twins. "Medically, I would recommend a reduction," a doctor tells them. "This is not Chang and Eng. They will most likely die. They share a liver." The physician acknowledges possible religious objections, but it's hard to imagine that any religion forbidding abortion could approve of the actions that brought about this monstrous situation in the first place.

Ryan's wife is spared the awful choice when three of the four embryos die on their own, leaving Baby B to pass through an effectively normal pregnancy. The story ends with a scene of formerly infertile couples, including Ryan and his wife, celebrating Halloween with their children (who include an "unusual number of triplets and twins").

Any parent ought to appreciate the joy that the Ryans have achieved, and no one lucky enough to have conceived without medical help should blame them for taking extraordinary measures to achieve it. But not even so basic a yearning can justify any cost.

The author holds out the hope that in-vitro could soon get less messy, both physically and ethically: "twenty-five years from now the cutting-edge technology that Dr. [Lawrence] Werlin uses may seem like treating colic with doses of black lead."

Can anyone believe that scientific progress will solve our moral problems for us? Another 25 years of playing hit and miss with unborn babies will only further dull our already enfeebled ethical judgment, and make us all the less capable of resisting the temptations that new technology will offer.

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About the Author

Francis X. Rocca ia an American writer in Rome, Italy.