October 23, 2017

Eggs, eugenics and economics

A leading article for The Ecologist Vol. 24 No. 2, March/April 1994, by The Editors. Republished in The Doomsday Funbook (Jon Carpenter Books, February 2006).

See ordering information for the Funbook.


Revulsion at the idea of mining aborted foetuses for their ovaries is not just fastidiousness; it describes public abhorrence at the prospect of medical scientists harvesting immature human eggs from the ovaries of aborted female foetuses. These are to be used to enable women to have children through in vitro fertilisation (IVF), a technique proved successful in mice.

The main reason scientists are seeking more eggs is to increase the flow of germ material for egg and embryo research. This demand has proved to be self-reinforcing. The more embryos there are in scientific circulation (one estimate puts the current number at 200,000), the more pressure there is on governments to allow expanded embryo research – which in turn generates a demand for yet more eggs.

The ultimate aim is to develop ‘somatic gene therapy’, in which new genes would be inserted into cells to replace ‘faulty’ ones; or ‘germ-line therapy’, in which eggs, sperm or embryos would be manipulated for the ‘benefit’ of future generations in what some genetic determinists have dubbed a ‘cost-effective way of cleaning up the human gene pool’.

Fragmentation of the procreative process is commercially significant in that it allows people’s desire to have perfect children ‘made-to-order’ to be transferred into an economic demand. As the chair of one company says, “when you consider that about 15 percent of the population in most developed countries is infertile, the prospective clientele is enormous.”

In 1990 an Australian newspaper reported going rates for fertile eggs at $1,500, sperm at $55, and the use of a womb for ‘surrogate motherhood’ at $18,750. For people’s procreative capacities to be given economic value is nothing new. For women of many societies, the marriage market is a fact of life.

What makes the new reproductive technologies different is the way they fragment human tissue itself into factors of mass production and commodities – like land, forests, water, labour and various forms of knowledge – all being enclosed and transformed into scarce resources circulating in a highly centralised market system. The disembedding of eggs and embryos from women and from current procreative practices is placing new forms of power in the hands of influential economic actors – most of them men.

Human procreation is already being reinterpreted as ‘inherently inefficient even in normal, fertile couples.’ Researchers have already developed a foetal incubator in which spontaneously aborted human foetuses have been kept alive for up to 48 hours, and have kept clinically dead women ‘alive’ so that an embryo can be implanted in them. Already embryologists and genetic researchers have joined anti-abortion enthusiasts in reducing pregnant women to ‘uterine environments’ for the foetus.

But while many anti-abortionists divide a woman from her unborn child in keeping with a particular moral code, the researcher does so by defining the foetus as ‘material for genetic improvement or transplantation’, or as a ‘source of immature ova’. Women may well be discouraged from aborting when scientists think they can ‘repair’ a ‘faulty’ embryo, yet encouraged to do so when foetal tissue is required for commercial purposes.

Just as today children in some parts of the world are ‘grown’ for the commercial value of their organs, women could be paid, coerced or emotionally blackmailed to become pregnant and have female foetuses aborted for immature eggs and tissue. This is an abuse to which poor and Third World women would be particularly vulnerable. Such women would probably be encouraged to abort late to ensure the foetus remains intact.

Among the many ways concerned people have to challenge this is to support independent regulations on the new reproductive technologies of the new reproductive industries and practices. Yet regulation is not enough, not least because it implies that what is regulated is, in its essence, acceptable. There must be constant efforts to open up reproductive and genetic engineering to full public discussion and debate about its social, political and economic implications, so as to counter the narrow pursuit of scientific control and the greed for profit which such engineering promotes.

Contrary to some scientists’ claims, a truly informed debate would in all likelihood lead to a halt in the use of these technologies. Without such a debate, commercial interests in conjunction with medical research could end up influencing our future in ways never dreamt of, even in science fiction.

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