Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Djerassi: Final comment

From: Carl Djerassi
Date: Wed, 14 Mar 2007 16:15:45 -0400

Sent: 11 March 2007 13:40
Subject: Suzanne Anker: Science and Gender (Jill Scott)
Science and Gender Discourses on gender and society abound in the cultural and scientificliterature. In this symposium there have been several references tosocial issues regarding gender identity and its power politics. As newtechnologies reconfigure the sexual revolution into an asexual one,Susan Squier's initial comments about trans-sexuality and reproductiverights target an aspect of this circumspect and unchronicled territory.Lee Silver in Remaking Eden goes into full detail about theconceivability of male pregnancy. He also cites a time when humanembryos may be created from the fusion of cells from same sex parents.Brad Davis further engages the ways in which the female is erased by theimaging practices of sonograms. These images focus only on the fetusitself as if it is located somewhere else. The new technologies of sexselection raise serious questions issues concerning female fetuses,particularly in China and India. Recently the American College ofObstetricians and Gynocologists (ACOG) released a statement on thenon-medical use of sex selection as a sexist practice (Committee Opinion#360, "Sex Selection" February 2007, Obstetrics & Gynechology.) However,this Committee Report also raises questions about the nature of anindividual's reproductive rights. What I do find so compelling in thissymposium, that as soon as it begun, reproductive rights and embryonicimages flooded in. In what way, are we engaged in updated variations ongendered anatomies? Or on the other hand, is the fetus a "primal marvel"that still remains opaque to us? Are there any sociologists out there?Richard Twine and Troy Duster, what do you think are the core issuesregarding gender, society and technology at this point in time?

3/14/07 London
This is a combination of a wrap up message from me and a grumpy comment. I apologize for the critical tone, but there is little purpose in sanitizing one's comments.

I am bothered by the direction in which some of the messages and comments dealing with "reproduction" went since some seem to deal quickly and superficially with a vast number of issues and do so rather devoid from the real world. The following sentence from above "As new technologies reconfigure the sexual revolution into an a--sexual one, Susan Squier's initial comments about trans-sexuality and reproductive rights target an aspect of this circumspect and unchronicled territory" is such an example.

What sexual revolution is being talked about? That of the 1960s dealing with sexual behavior and its impact on the power relation between men and women or the reproductive revolution starting in the 1980s created by IVF technologies with a very different impact on that power relation? The above sentence marked in bold only makes sense if sex and reproduction are always bundled together. As I have written in books, scientific articles, novels, and plays, what we are facing is a separation between sex and fertilization. Sex, as always, for love, lust, fun, curiosity or whatever and fertilization increasingly under the microscope. This is happening primarily in the "geriatric" countries of Europe, Japan and soon also USA, where the average family consists of 1.5 children. Planned fertilization and consequent reproduction now happens so infrequently that it must be firmly separated in our discussions about sexual behavior. There is plenty of realistic and societally crucial new territory, foremost of which is the postponement or circumvention of the biological clock, because that impinges on the lives of millions of women and has an enormous effect on the power relationship between the two genders. Sex predetermination falls into this category and so do many of the implications of preimplantation embryonic genetic analysis. But to put potential "male pregnancy" into the same pot is absurd. It is a form of mental masturbation that, as most masturbation, is enjoyable, sterile, and basically harmless, except when it offers fodder to the lunatic fringe and reproductive fundamentalists. I am of course not referring to Silver as the lunatic fringe, but rather to some people who will make horror scenarios out of this. Face the fact that enabling male pregnancy is of no priority whatsoever among reproductive scientists and is of so little importance globally speaking that it isn't worth arguing about, compared to the enormous implications of the other applications of reproductive technologies.

The Ars Electronica 2000 Festival of Art, Technology and Society on NEXT SEX in Linz, which incidentally is summarized in an excellent volume:NEXT SEX: Sex in the Age of its Procreative Superfluousness. Sex im Zeitalter seiner reproduktionstechnischen Überflüssigkeit (Ars Electronica) (Paperback) by Gerfried Stocker (Editor), Christine Schöpf (Editor) , Springer, 2000 (as well as another good book "Sex vom Wissen" which was published in 2002 by the Deutsche Hygiene Museum in Dresden on the occasion of its huge exhibition under the same name) offers a good example of what I am worried about. During that excellent and wide-ranging festival, Nobuya Unno from Japan reported on his work on the artificial placenta, which included stunning video footage of 4-months old fetal goats inside an artificial placenta where they were hooked up to a dozen or more tubes, pumps and artificial feeding systems and thus kept alive for several weeks. Since they were already at an advanced stage of development, they moved around to a startling extent and seemed "live.". Of course these fetuses were removed from the goat uterus and placed into the artificial placenta when they were already fairly advanced in order to see whether they could be brought to maturity. The ostensible ultimate aim of this research is to see whether even 22-week old super-premature HUMANS could be kept alive and allowed to mature for another few weeks so as to provide viable babies. Without now arguing whether such efforts are really worth while from a societal standpoint, at least the scientific rationale was made clear. But the journalists present at that conference all focused on the question whether this meant that in the future women would be able to have babies in that fashion by depositing 3 or 4 day old embryos into such artificial placentas and then pick up the intact baby 9 months later. Aside from the preposterously difficult scientific hurdles to be overcome (tubes and pumps can be hooked up to an advanced fetus but hardly to an embryo or blastocyst) and the unbelievable cost of such an artificial placenta baby, is it really worth while to seriously debate this issue? Given the existing opposition to societally useful applications, is it worth while to offer fodder for horror scenarios to the strident opposition? It does far more harm than good and the same applies to discussions of male pregnancy. A 9-month ex-utero gestation or successful male pregnancy are not the societally important issues of this century.

Having gotten this complaint out of my system, let me end by doing what Suzanne Anker suggested today: feel welcome to preview any forthcoming projectsyou are engaged in.

The program introduction of my play TABOOS, (which premiered in London in 2006 and will have its North American premiere in September 2008 at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City) states:

Terms such as “marriage,” “family,” and “parent” used to have firm denotations. They were the rock on which our cultural values rested. Terms such as “embryo,” “baby,” or “twin” were also considered unambiguous. Assumptions that marriage must be heterosexual and that a child cannot have two parents of the same sex were never even considered assumptions, because they were beyond questioning. All of these terms have become destabilized, their meanings blurred, their ranges extended. Some would blame in vitro fertilization technology during the past three decades for these developments, but in actual fact major social and cultural changes­primarily in the United States and Europe­ were even more responsible for the monumental shift that has caused so much fear and antagonism, especially among the ever increasingly strident fundamentalists in the United States. So why not write a play about a situation where “family” and “parent” have assumed disturbingly fuzzy meanings? This is why I have situated Taboos in two of the socially and politically most polarized parts of the United States: the San Francisco Bay Area and the American Deep South.
Anyone interested in reading the text (and thus understanding why I am so touchy about sloppy definitions) can actually do so on the following link

Carl Djerassi


concerned heart said...

How about a discussion of the IVF technologies allowing older and older men as well as women to reproduce. What about the relationship between advancing paternal age and genetic/DNA mutations leading to de novo autism, de novo schizophrenia etc. in the offspring?

Carl Djerassi said...


I have addressed this issue in my scientific publications, lectures, novels and play (AN IMMACULATE MISCONCEPTION). I was positing the storage of young gametes--ovarian tissue or eggs by a woman in her twenties and sperm storage by a young man--to be used optionally in later years if child bearing is postponed to that time. Hence we are not talking about genetic material from aging parents. What needs to be debated, instead, are the pros and cons of the quality of parenting by older parents, in other words increased wisdom versus possibly impaired physical agility.

Carl Djerassi