‘Phantom Fathers’ and ‘Test-Tube Babies’: Debates on Marriage, Infertility, and Artificial Insemination in the British Media, c. 1957-60

Hayley Andrew


In December 1957, Ronald MacLennan of Glasgow sued his wife Margaret MacLennan for divorce on the grounds of adultery. She stood accused of giving birth to a ‘test-tube baby’ as a result of artificial insemination by donor (AID) without his consent. Margaret was Australian and a former professional figure skater, but since the birth of her daughter in 1956 had been living in Brooklyn, New York and working as a nurse. The question under consideration in MacLennan v. MacLennan was whether a wife who had a child as a result of AID could be said to have committed adultery.1 Mr MacLennan’s barrister suggested that AID gave women the power to have extramarital affairs without consequence. Mrs MacLennan’s barrister countered by alluding to recent developments in deep-freezing and arguing that ‘a woman could be artificially inseminated by a dead man’.2 In January 1958, in Edinburgh’s Court of Session, Lord Wheatley ruled that since AID did not come within the definition of intercourse, it therefore could not be ruled adultery under the law. Yet he went on to say that it was nevertheless a ‘grave breach of the marriage contract’ and granted Ronald MacLennan a divorce.3

This controversial judicial ruling on the use of AID within marriage, and whether such acts constituted adultery and therefore grounds for divorce, was the first high-profile case of its kind in Britain. It led to heightened media attention to AID and spurred political, legal, and ethical debate on the

H. Andrew (*)

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G. Davis, T. Loughran (eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Infertility in History, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-52080-7_12

question.4 The MacLennan case, involving sex and scandal, was an easy story with which to engage readers and audiences. The way in which the media captured this case and reported on AID in its aftermath offers a lens through which to understand both anxieties about marriage and the role of the media in reshaping moral norms during this period.

In this chapter, I argue that the popular media pushed against public opinion on the issue of AID, and in so doing began redefining the heteronormative family. Despite public opposition to the practice, the popular media actively supported families who had ‘test-tube babies’. Prominent debates in the press, on radio, and in television and film represented AID positively within progressive, liberal narratives of the family, but always as part of a broader commitment to the traditional marital relationship. The popular media supported AID because it aimed to discourage divorce. In the narratives that followed the MacLennan case, couples undergoing AID treatment were presented as happily married, or as working through the difficulties of having a ‘test-tube baby’. This coverage promoted tales of happiness and reconciliation in spite of reproductive difficulties. By insisting on the importance and centrality of the family, and by giving a voice to couples with children conceived by AID, the popular media helped to expand the definition of what was ‘normal’ in family life. This encouragement of a new family model within the traditional model of heterosexual marriage reflected growing social ‘permissiveness’ in Britain.

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