Americans and Assisted Reproduction: The Past as Prologue

Margaret Marsh Introduction

In 2010, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) honoured assisted reproduction pioneer Howard Jones (1910-2015) on his 100th birthday. In 1981, he and Georgeanna Seegar Jones (1912-2005), his wife and research collaborator, became the first Americans to achieve a successful in vitro fertilization (IVF) pregnancy and birth. With this achievement, the USA became the third country to have a documented IVF birth, following Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe in England, and Alex Lopata and his collaborators in Australia.1

Jones may have had a long career behind him, but on the occasion of this centenary speech his focus was on the future, not the past. Jones took advantage of the moment to urge his colleagues to take up a series of new initiatives and research priorities. Some of them were more controversial than others, and surely his most jaw-dropping suggestion was that one of the field’s goals should be the development of reproductive cloning (which he called ‘somatic reproduction’ ). ‘Why in the world do we want to do this? ’ he asked, rhetorically. ‘We want to do this’, he continued, ‘because the use of donor eggs and donor sperm interrupts the genetic continuity which most couples desire’. Eliminating the need for donor gametes, he believed, would settle questions of parentage and render moot the sometimes difficult ethical decisions that gamete donors and recipient parents alike often confront.2

Research for this chapter was supported by an Investigator Award in Health Policy Research, 2014-17, from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

M. Marsh (*)

Rutgers University, Camden and New Brunswick, NJ, USA 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_28

Assuming that there would be a demand for such a technology in the USA, Jones urged his colleagues to action. But where would the demand come from? By the first decade of the twenty-first century approximately 4 million babies around the world had been born as a result of assisted reproduction (that is, using techniques in which the egg is fertilized outside the body), roughly 500,000 of them in the USA. The vast majority of these babies were born to heterosexual, married, infertile couples in their reproductive years undergoing IVF using their own eggs and sperm. Such couples, who do not make headlines, would not likely be in the market for somatic reproduction but rather for improvements to existing technologies. However, a market for reproductive cloning might come from among single women and men, same-sex and transgendered couples seeking parenthood with a genetic link to one of the partners, or heterosexual couples who now turn to donor eggs because the woman cannot become pregnant using her own. Jones was suggesting that having children with a genetic connection to their parents creates a more ‘natural’ family than those formed using donor gametes, but it is impossible to assert the truth of such a presumption. What is true is that for many people, having one’s own biological children is critical to their beliefs about the nature of family, their desire to pass on that family’s love and legacy, and their sense of their place in the community and purpose in life.

Could cloning be an answer to their hopes? Not likely - or at least, not yet. Although Jones received warm applause for his speech, there is currently little support for the use of somatic reproduction either within the ASRM or among the public. In relatively short order the ASRM Ethics Committee reaffirmed its opposition to reproductive cloning, and most Americans appear to share that opinion.3 Jones was aware of these attitudes, yet argued otherwise, viewing somatic reproduction simply as an unconventional means to a conventional end, a procedure that validates even as it reinterprets normative ideas about family and childbearing. Cloning may be new, but the ideas behind it echo back through the generations, with roots that can be traced at least as far back as the early days of research into human IVF in the 1930s, when the US obstetrician and gynaecologist John Rock (1890-1984) first attempted to achieve the earliest stage of assisted reproduction: the fertilization of human eggs ‘in glass’.4

 
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