V Reproductive Technologies and Imagined Futures

Introduction: Reproductive Technologies and Imagined Futures

Gayle Davis and Tracey Loughran

The troubled historical relationship between man, modernity, and machine has been played out in a variety of arenas. World warfare has been a particularly effective lens through which to explore the interface between these themes, perhaps most notably the First World War, the so-called ‘Great War’, because it so shattered what had gone before. The social upheaval and sacrifice of individual freedom that accompanied this conflict stemmed in large part from powerful fears over the prominence and terrifying capabilities of technology, from machine guns to bomber planes to poison gas.1 Weaponry aside, wartime mobilization required populations to submit to the demands of autocratic planning, governed by more mundane technologies such as the wristwatch and railway timetable. Newly emerging forms of technology were simultaneously admired for their potential to lead mankind into a landscape of unparalleled progress, and feared as the likely source of our dehumanization and ultimate destruction.

Popular cultural depictions from the science fiction genre - from short stories and novels to the big screen - of this troubled and ambiguous relationship between man and machine abound. Set in futuristic dystopian landscapes, with technological cast members ranging from industrial machines and computers to robots and cyborgs, these stories explore a range of social, political, and ethical issues around what it is to be human, and how we might improve, displace, or destroy ourselves through reliance on this brave new technological

G. Davis (*)

School of History, Classics and Archaeology, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh,

United Kingdom

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T. Loughran

Department of History, University of Essex, Colchester, United Kingdom e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© The Author(s) 2017

G. Davis, T. Loughran (eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Infertility in History, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-52080-7_27

world. Notably, such ‘futuristic’ depictions tend to be more about the present than the future, that is, the time in which these fictionalized accounts are created rather than set.

The German film Metropolis (1927) establishes a dramatic futuristic dichotomy between the docile ‘workers’ in their squalid underground lair, shuffling in mass formation and enslaved by time and the machinery which they operate, and the idle rich men who enjoy a life of decadent luxury above ground. Fritz Lang’s film in fact reflects the social and political instability of a defeated Weimar Germany, and its citizens’ enthusiastic embrace of US mass consumption, Fordism, and its soul-destroying scientific management of labour.2 Other famous cinematic examples include Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which depicts the transformation of HAL 9000 from the most reliable computer ever made to a murderously malfunctioning instrument, and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), where humans hunt down genetically engineered beings who are visually indistinguishable from adult humans but have risen up destructively against their creators. Both films consciously blur the identity of human and machine, the machines seeming more emotionally engaged and exhibiting the most human of instincts: the urge to live.

The relationship between human reproduction and technological innovation has provided a further rich venue for writers and filmmakers to exercise their futuristic imaginings. Still most famously, Aldous Huxley’s classic novel Brave New World (1932) is set in a future society where recreational sex is promoted but natural reproduction abolished, and human embryos are instead raised artificially in ‘hatcheries and conditioning centres’. Children are bred and treated chemically to fit one of five ranked castes, maintaining a pleasingly stable and predictable social structure. Once again, the novel reflects contemporary issues and fears from the decade in which it was written, including the social upheaval of the interwar period and fears that individual identity would be lost in a fast-paced world of mass media, mass consumption, and Henry Ford’s degrading and inhuman assembly line.

Genetic manipulation and enhancement feature prominently in this genre, often employed with explicitly eugenic motivations. An early example is H.G. Wells’s novel The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), later adapted into the film Island of Lost Souls (1932), where Wells reflects critically on Darwinian and degenerationist theory to imagine an experimentation programme on the island’s animals that produces hybrid human-like creatures. Later examples include the film Twins (1988), which explores the aftermath of a eugenic experiment to create the perfect man that produces strikingly different fraternal twins - played by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito - from a ‘sperm milkshake’ of six men’s DNA. These actors reunited for the film Junior (1994), to tell the story of a male scientist who manages to impregnate himself with a fertility drug invented in his laboratory. The less comedic film Code 46 (2003) examines the widespread application of reproductive techniques such as IVF, donor insemination, and cloning, and the resulting medico-social implications in a world where people no longer know to whom they are genetically related.

Governmental concerns over the damaging impact of incest and inbreeding on the gene pool lead to the implementation of a draconian eugenic regulatory system.

Such works explore and problematize an eternal Darwinian struggle to perpetuate and better the species. Their fears are echoed by the media, where there appears to be a growing perception of a looming fertility crisis, attributed to factors ranging from an obesity epidemic and selfish career women’s postponement of their maternal destiny through to environmental pollution.3 Pitted against the pressing need to combat infertility are the more creative and controversial possibilities which reproductive technologies tempt, whether it be to ‘improve’ the quality of our race, to satisfy our selfish preferences, or to serve our most base prejudices. With options such as sex selection, stem-cell research, and animal-human hybrids now within our reach, assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) can potentially allow us to transcend many of the restraints imposed by nature.4 So ‘progress’ is a double-edged sword: if the future is one increasingly of reproductive uncertainty and dependence on technological mediation, then we must face the threats that technology’s ‘dark side’ poses to our emotional fulfilment, ethical barometer, social stability, and very existence.

Few areas of medicine have witnessed more spectacular advances, but none have raised more ethically complex conundrums than the science of fertility. This final section examines and contextualizes some of those ethical debates generated by the creation of the ARTs. It contrasts those that have shaped the development of research science and mediated access to medical treatment with literary and philosophical imaginings of the potential implications of reproductive technology for infertile individuals and non-fertile couples. These chapters underline the extent to which infertility debates have been grounded in current and historical concerns, but have also involved imagined futures, for individuals and societies.

In 2010, the reproductive health pioneer Howard Jones (1910-2015), the first American to achieve a successful in vitro fertilization (IVF) pregnancy and birth, celebrated his 100th birthday by looking not to the past but to the future. As Margaret Marsh’s chapter notes, Jones recommended that his younger colleagues adopt a bold new research agenda which might include such controversial possibilities as reproductive cloning and foetal gestation in artificial uteri, ideas which had seemingly come straight from the dystopian fiction genre. Marsh traces historical continuities between cloning and early research into human IVF, another unconventional means to a conventional end, which initially appeared to offer a pronatalist technological miracle but had, by the early 1970s, become an ethical and political minefield of distressing imagined future possibilities. Jones’s recent attempts to normalize ARTs as a vehicle to accomplish the ‘traditional’ and ‘natural’ objective of having a much desired - and, crucially, genetically related - child are thus contrasted with long-held ethical and social fears over the potential market for such services and any resulting reinterpretation of normative ideas about family structure, sexuality, and human nature.

Turning to the British context, Duncan Wilson offers further insights into how medical scientists promoted and justified access to IVF treatment, not least by invoking a rights-based discourse to promote this controversial new technology. Thus, Robert Edwards (1925-2013), one of the scientists behind the world’s first successful IVF birth, portrayed patients as empowered consumers who had the ‘right’ to produce children of their own. Yet his motivation was not necessarily one purely of altruism or concern for patient autonomy. In a climate of increasing disillusionment with modern medicine, stimulated by public exposes such as those by the US and British medical ethicists Henry Beecher (1904-76) and Maurice Pappworth (1910-94)5 - which revealed how far medical research had become a vehicle for selfadvancement rather than an exercise in bettering the patient’s condition - activists argued that patient rights could only be safeguarded through new forms of external oversight. Edwards endorsed the rights of infertile patients, Wilson argues, in order to reject calls for oversight and defend his own professional autonomy. He maintained that responsibility for applying IVF must rest with doctors and scientists because external involvement in the development of regulatory standards would delay or jeopardize the infertile couple’s right to prompt and thereby effective treatment. This focus on human rights was also used as a tool to refute claims that IVF was an ‘unnatural’ procedure.

As had his US counterpart Howard Jones, Robert Edwards sought to further normalize IVF by portraying it as a form of treatment which attempted to replicate, rather than challenge, natural biological processes and - by limiting treatment to married heterosexual couples - to reproduce social norms, family values, and kinship structures. Wilson’s research reminds us that different groups have sought to police access to infertility treatments according to their own ideas about gender, kinship, scientific progress, and morality, and helps to contextualize more recent controversies over whether single women and lesbian couples should be served equally to heterosexual couples by ARTs.

Such historical examinations of the medico-social politics behind recent developments in this field are approached from a different angle in Fran Bigman’s chapter, which takes recent dystopian speculative fiction - or, to use her term, ‘reprodystopias’ - as its source material. However, rather than focus on the biologically infertile woman, she turns her gaze to another type of involuntary childlessness: the ‘socially infertile’ woman, denied the experience of motherhood not by her compromised reproductive system but as a deliberate political act by a totalitarian government. The politics of reproduction are thrown into sharp relief in the literary works analysed here, dramatized examples of reproductive injustice which project our deepest reproductive anxieties onto a futuristic world ofoppres- sion and technological control. Birth control takes on a sinister quality, subjugating the female body to male technocracy; the separation of sex, love, and reproduction does not liberate women but deprives them of any natural right to mother. This is the double-edged sword of technology and modernization, explored so extensively within the futuristic dystopian genre. Bigman’s chapter also highlights the extent to which reproduction is rarely a purely personal decision, but must be contextualized within a more extensive, complex landscape that balances the needs of the wider community with that of the individual, including a perceived duty to safeguard the quality and very existence of the human race.

Finally, Daniela Cutas transports us to the future of reproductive health and technology in a more literal sense, by exploring some prospective developments in the field - including artificial uteri, ectogenesis (artificial wombs), and human cloning - and considering their possible social and ethical implications. Can access to such reproductive technologies, and thus the ability to procreate, ever become a matter purely of personal choice? Crucially, Cutas argues, these treatment options will remain bound by moral assumptions and ethical judgements, just as access to fertility treatment has in the past. Indeed, the very definition of ‘infertility’ can be problematized. Infertility is not merely an inability to reproduce, otherwise single women and same sex couples in many countries - whether or not they were capable of reproducing with a(nother) partner - would not be denied access to fertility treatment. We must define the concept of ‘eligible’ infertility when deciding how to allocate limited and expensive resources, and this concept might be as much about how a society judges social status and sexual orientation as the specific condition or symptomatology of the individual ‘patient’.

So however far to the future we feel able to look, it seems that we are likely to remain bound not merely by our scientific capabilities, and their financial implications, but by the social values and prejudices that shape our ethical frameworks. Thus, it seems, the ‘right’ to reproduce, or to receive technological assistance to do so, will remain mediated by a range of complex factors dependent on the place and time in which decisions are made. Amid our continued fears that a very fine line separates biological progress and Frankensteinian science,6 and disagreements over who should judge which is which, the troubled historical relationship between (wo)man, technology, and modernity is likely to remain a dominant trope, in media representations as much as our imaginations.


  • 1. See, for example, John Jervis, Exploring the Modern: Patterns of Western Culture and Civilization (Oxford, 1998), chapter 8; Brian Ladd, The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape (Chicago, IL, 1997), chapter 3; Douglas Mackaman and Michael Mays (eds), World War I and the Cultures of Modernity (Jackson, MS, 2000); Angus McLaren, Reproduction by Design: Sex, Robots, Trees, and Test-Tube Babies in Interwar Britain (Chicago, IL, 2012).
  • 2. Anton Kaes, Shell Shock Cinema: Weimar Culture and the Wounds of War (Princeton, NJ, 2009).
  • 3. See, for example, ‘Experts Link Male Obesity to Infertility’, Evening Standard, 9 July 2008; ‘NHS Chief Warns Women not to Wait until 30 to have Baby as

Country Faces a Fertility Timebomb’, Daily Mail, 30 May 2015; ‘Pollutants Linked to Lower Fertility in both Men and Women’, Time, 15 November 2012.

  • 4. Jervis, Exploring the Modern.
  • 5. Henry Beecher, ‘Experimentation in Man’, Southern Medical Journal, 6:6 (1959); Maurice Pappworth’s Human Guinea Pigs: Experimentation on Man (London, 1967).
  • 6. Jon Turney, Frankenstein’s Footsteps: Science, Genetics and Popular Culture (New Haven, CT, and London, 1998).
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