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High Tech Babies

October 12, 2013

Cracked Open: Liberty, Fertility, and the Pursuit of High-Tech BabiesOn Monday my class on Science, Technology, and Politics will host a public lecture by Miriam Zoll, award-winning author of Cracked Open: Liberty, Fertility and the Pursuit of High-Tech Babies.

The book is an engaging, intensely personal memoir of Zoll’s five-year odyssey of using various assisted reproductive technologies to try to have a baby. Beginning when she was forty, Zoll and her loving husband go through several cycles of in vitro fertilization (IVF). Three attempts fail completely and one ends with a miscarriage.

Their next step is egg donation, and they worry about the ethical issues it raises. Ads in campus newspapers at Ivy League colleges have offered up to $100,000 for eggs from blonde women with high SAT scores and musical talent. And egg donation is a physically taxing process with potential risks to the donor. But having become “fertility junkies,” Zoll and her husband work with a clinic to make laborious arrangements with two egg donors, both of whom turn out to be infertile.

In the end, they happily adopt a child. Zoll makes clear, however, that her odyssey has left a mark. Many women who go through failed fertility treatments, she reports, experience symptoms that meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Assisted reproductive technologies have helped millions of people. But in the United States they are largely unregulated, and fertility clinics often seem driven more by financial interests and technological optimism than genuine medical concern.

One of the book’s main messages is that many young people lack basic information about human fertility and the success rate of IVF techniques.

According to a 2012 survey of undergraduates in the United States, Zoll reports, about half intended to have their last child between the ages of 35 and 44, but over two-thirds thought that female fertility does not significantly decline until after age 40. And well over half overestimated the chances of a woman conceiving after one IVF treatment. According to the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology, the rate of live births for women age 35-37 is about 30 percent, and for women 41-42 it’s about 12 percent.

Zoll’s mission is not to demonize assisted reproductive technologies, but to foster realistic public discussion about them. As she proceeds though the “fertility casino,” she learns that such discussion isn’t easy.

I was discovering that many couples whose treatments had failed never wanted to talk about it — and who could blame them? There was a cultural taboo, reinforced by the clinics themselves, that said we shouldn’t talk about our infertility or our miscarriages or the inability of science to solve our reproductive health challenges. It was this absence of truth telling that made the success stories sensationalized in the media so dangerously misleading.

For more on these issues, also see Zoll’s recent opinion piece in the New York Times.

If you’re in Sacramento, Zoll will be giving a public lecture on Monday, October 14, 3:00 – 4:15 p.m. in Mariposa 1000 at Sacramento State.

And she is scheduled to speak at the Avid Reader bookstore in Davis on Sunday, October 13 at 4:00 PM.

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