Mette Bryld, Odense University, Denmark

met@litcul.ou.dk

 

Paper for the 4th European Feminist Research Conference, Bologna, 28 September-1 October 2000.

 

Cyborg Babies and Cybergods: The Baby Makers' New Origin Stories

 

'A 7 years old girl, who her mother wants to protect from the breeze, answers back "You know very well that I have been frozen, I am not afraid of the cold".

 

'An 8 years old girl ... tells her [mother] "I, too, will get injections in order to have a baby".

(PR-leaflet for Dr. Lia Singh's Constantine and Invitro.)

 

Two Scandinavian infertility doctors recently presented a survey of IVF treatments in Europe which clearly demonstrates that it is in our part of the world, and not in the USA, that this kind of assisted reproduction (in vitro fertilisation) is most common. More than half of the world's IVF treatments takes place in Europe with Scandinavia, and especially Denmark, in an absolute top position as far as the percentage of births is concerned (one out of every 38 Danish babies born today is an IVF child).1

          It goes without saying that with 50.000 test-tube babies born in Europe within a single year, the total number that has come out of this fertilisation technique since 1978, when the first IVF baby was born, must be quite impressive. Aside from an enormous amount of media coverage, bureaucratic and ethical proceedings, new legislations, etc., these special European babies have been accompanied by a rapidly expanding infertility industry whose main actors are not only the public and private clinics but also various private (often multi-national) companies. At the annual meeting of the European infertility society, ESHRE, this year in Bologna, several hundred m2 of the Palazzo di Congressi were thus occupied by company stands promoting pharmaceuticals and other kinds of technological products. Major pharmaceuticals companies such as Serono, Organon, Ferring et al. also contributed to the conference with company symposia.

          There is nothing new in these, at times, blurred boundaries between the medical profession and big business. What is, perhaps, less well known is that the infertility professionals are expanding their range of action since they have begun to manufacture new origin stories for the cyborg children, and, hence, for their parents. Sometimes these stories are sponsored by a pharmaceuticals company.

          In the case of the IVF children the traditional conception narrative, which serve both as the child's very first introduction to heterosexual intercourse (with a utilitarian legitimacy) and as an answer to the child's question, "where do I come from?", obviously fails. A need for new origin stories/children's books on assisted reproduction has therefore emerged, and it seems that, to a certain extent, this expanding market niche is being occupied not by the usual story-tellers, nor by the patients but by the infertility doctors and counsellors, - experts in conceptions. Their goal is to normalise IVF treatments and to show that although IVF children are very "special", they are also very normal.

          In this paper, I shall look at two children's books, written by people who make their living by assisting their clients with getting a child "of their own". Since the strategies differ in how these books try to normalise the cyborg babies, I shall first briefly outline the two relevant meanings of the term.

          Although the concept of normalization incorporates both "normal" and "normative" (Cussins 1998; Foucault 1970), there are still very different ideas of what can be considered normal/nor–mative, and the representational practice varies accordingly as the following two examples will demonstrate. The promotion of diversity and the celebration of differences, for instance, spring from the view that each individual has a right to be and do whatever she pleases as long as her actions do not harm others. An extreme example of this super-liberalistic approach is Lee M. Silver's Remaking Eden (1998) which deliberately renders normal every individual desire within the field of human reproduction. His norms for being human imply outwitting nature by making designer babies. Seen through his optics, the cyborg babies born from the most diverse reproductive desires and technologies, therefore all fall within the scope of normality, - that is, as long as the child's physical appearance does not make it too unique!2       In contrast, fear of techno-monsters, whether concealed or not, is outspoken both in the discourses of some IVF parents3 and in the Danish legislation on assisted reproduction. In both cases, the practice of in vitro fertilisation is perceived of as so contrary to "nature", to normality in the sense of heterosexual essentialism, that the cyborg child is more or less expected to reflect the monstrosity of its origins in one way or other. Since the in vitro treatment is based on reproduction without sex, replacing the penis with the petri dish (cf. Franklin 1993), the Danish bill insists on upholding the illusion of biological essentialism and the significance of sexual difference by allowing only the stable heterosexual couple to procreate in this way. No doubt, the intention is to restore the normal/normative to the child, - and to society.

          The two children's book I shall now turn to, are written by a British infertility counsellor and a Swiss gynaecologist, respectively. They are both issued in the second half of the '90s. As already suggested, their goal is the same - ie. normalization of the cyborg baby and the IVF treatment - but the concepts of the normal differ as radically as the two opposing examples outlined. While the first one, I'm a Little Frostie, resembles Silver's strand of ideas in so far as it seems determined to render normal what would nonetheless remain monstrous to many, the second one, Coline. Souvenirs d'une Fécondation In Vitro [Coline. Memories of a Fertilisation In Vitro], follows the IVF master narrative by using "nature" as its normalization device, similarly to what many of the Danish MPs did during the debate on the bill on assisted reproduction.

 

 

Cyborg Life in a Freezer

The children's book, "I'm a Little Frostie", is authored by Tim Appleton whose biography reveals a lifelong involvement in the ethical aspects of medicine.

          Appleton has two doctorates in cell biology and, for two decades, he taught cell biology and medical ethics to medical students at Cambridge University. After he was ordained an Anglican priest in the '70s, the two IVF pioneers, Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards, invited him to become a founding member of the Ethics Committee of the world's first IVF clinic, Bourn Hall Clinic in England. Appleton is presently working as an infertility counsellor in his own centre, Independent Fertility Concerns. He has produced a couple of CD-ROMs on assisted reproductive medicine and on the history of assisted reproduction (the latter was sponsored by Ares-Serono); his children's books are likewise available on a CD, where the author 'reads the stories through the computer'. The back cover of Little Frostie informs us that the story was written in order to 'help parents ... tell their children about the miracle of their conception and birth'. It is also suggested that 'these happy stories be told to children at a very early age - between 3 and 6 years old'.

          Little Frostie was first published in 1996 with funding from Ferring Pharmaceuticals which, as part of the sponsorship, also bought and distributed 3,000 books; the second edition was published in '99 and was favourably reviewed in a newsletter from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. It is available in several languages, yet it will hardly surprise anybody who is familar with this booklet that its sales success has so far been quite modest (personal information from Appleton). For the autobiographical account of Little Frostie's coming-into-being is a strange and monstrous one. On the one hand, personhood is ascribed to an embryo that is frozen at the cellular stage; on the other, this individualization takes on the chilly colours of a martyrdom.

          The course of events basically goes as follows: Little Frostie is conceived in a petri dish in a lab and frozen in liquid nitrogen, i.e. the fertilized egg is cryopreserved. After some time - perhaps days, perhaps years, the booklet doesn't say - Frostie's 16 cell embryo is thawn and eventually implanted into the disembodied womb of the designated mother. So, the focus is not on the mother or the parents who do not appear in the pictures until the  very end, but on cryo-preservation and on a cyborg life in a freezer as a precondition for the home-coming. Rather than "I'm a Little Frostie", the title should perhaps be The Embryo who came in from the Cold.

          Since this particular Bildungsroman is very short and its pictures play such an important role, I´ll go through the course of events in greater details. The story starts with an image of a kitchen refrigerator which suggests not only a frosty environment, but also the food of every-day life bought in a supermarket. However, this ordinary fridge is, so the text informs us, much less cold and much less special than the one from where the narrator, and many others like her/him, originates. A whole kindergarten of frosties seems, in fact, to have come together in this 'very special' fridge which belongs to the doctors. Why did the frosties live in so cold a place? Because their "parents", who did not have any babies to love, have asked the doctors to make one for them. And as if following a recipe for cooking, the doctors then 'take' some egg cells and some sperm cells - (the origins of these cells remain a mystery) - and 'make' an embryo. Who are the parents, the reader wonders. The mummy and daddy who order a baby at this babyshop, or the babymakers who enter the story in the shape of some 'clever doctors and scientists'?

          In my view, the narration leans towards favouring the latter. Similarly to the images of God the Father reaching his arm out of the sky to interfere in human lives, a picture shows the somewhat hairy hands of a 'clever' doctor move Frostie from the petri dish to the cryopreservation container that is to be its cold wintering womb. Here, it it is said to live 'very quiet, very still and very cold', - like a tiny  Sleeping Beauty or an animal that has gone into hibernation. So, I would say that the 'parents' are replaced in the following ways: the father, both in his divine and profane incarnation, with the doctors, the maternal womb with the freezer. In fact, 'mummy's tummy' into which Frostie is eventually implanted, does not differ much from the freezer. The woman herself has disappeared; what is left is just the womb as a trivial container, a vessel. Also, what is important to Frostie after her/his birth, is not 'mummy's tummy', but the stay in the freezer, the surrogate womb, where the embryo spent a happy time with all the other frosties in spite of all the ordeals involved. Finally, this presumably youngest protagonist ever to appear in world literature comes home, and a picture of a traditional family so joyful that even its computer smiles, underlines the words of the happy ending: 'that is the story of how we became such a happy family. - After being frozen for such a long time.'

          By suggesting the binary opposition of winter-spring/summer, this final sentence re-inforces the identification of ice and cold with the underworld, with death, sterility and stagnation. The stay in the freezer could therefore be interpreted as the special site of passage, the elsewhere, that in the Bildungsroman precedes (re-)integration and homecoming. But frankly speaking, where is the PR value in this? What's the attraction in this icy martyrdom of an embryo? Can that really be expected to sell in vitro treatments, not to mention infertility drugs from Ferring Pharmaceuticals?

          Nevertheless, the intention is clearly to normalize the 'very special' Frostie by making her/him one of many: 'There were hundreds of other frosties all like me, each in their own special place, just waiting for their time to become a baby' (p. 2). So, quantity renders Frostie a normal speciality.

          "Little Frostie" has not created the same stir in the Euro-American hemisphere as Lee Silver's Remaking Eden, though it points in the same direction, - towards the designer baby. Perhaps the main explanation for this lies in the fact that Appleton's booklet fully respects the cultural boundary, the great divide, that Silver transgresses: the heterosexual couple as the only legitimate consumer. Although "Little Frostie" thus touches upon heterosexual "nature" as an additional normalization strategy, this reference is nevertheless downplayed by the  book's focus on the laboratory as the place where babies are manufactured, and the cryo-freezer as the place, where they are stored for later delivery.

 

 

How  Swiss Cyborgs may be Sweetened

My second example, Coline. Souvenirs d'une Fécondation In Vitro (1997), has not the 3-6 years old children but the adolescents (and adults) as its target group.  In contrast to "Frostie", this book depicts a heterosexual couple, especially the woman, in quest of a child; it follows the traditional strategy of, amongst others, IVF patients of normalizing the process and the cyborg baby by drawing in various, idyllic aspects of "nature". This is evident from the cover illustration alone. Depicted is a green pasture with the pastoral family, daddy-mummy-daughter and the pet, a cat, in focus. Behind the child, a four-cellular embryon hangs on a bush as if it were leaves. Whilst barren and icy mountains hover in the background as a distant reminder of past sterility, the infertility doctor emerges from a cloud in the sky like the benevolent gardener, God himself. The doctor's paternal role is underlined by his physical similarity and proximity to the "real" dad.  Also, they are both dressed in blue.

          The story is written by a Swiss infertility doctor, Lia Singh, who for years has been working at the Unit of reproductive Medicine at the University Hospital in Lausanne. Her book, Coline, presented in the PR leaflet as an 'illustrated comic', is sponsored by Serono who also figures on the cover as the book editor. Moreover, the narrative contains a badly concealed advertisement for Arès-Serono's new infertility medicine, a hormonal super-ovulation drug, which is praised by the story's IVF couple as being totally 'clean' in contrast to the unappetizing and potentially infectious drug, based on hormones extracted from the urine of menopausal women. The new Serono hormone is 'clean' because it is 'natural': 'cette hormone est parfaitement pur, car produite grâce au DNA. Ca s'apelle de la biologie moléculaire!' (p. 38) ['this hormone is totally clean, for it is produced by means of DNA. This is called molecular biology!]. The urine-based hormones from menopausal women threaten with polluting the body instead of making it fertile, whereas the nice drug mysteriously connected with genetics results in the heroine becoming pregnant!

          Very recently, Singh has released yet a publication, Constantine and Invitro (2000), which is advertised as a 'book that helps children conceived by IVF to understand their conception'. It follows from this that Singh is considered an expert in (re-)producing reproduction, and that the work of assisting conceptions and unfolding epistemologies is taken to be two sides of the same coin.

          In Coline, the plot, an autobiograhical account of a married woman, goes as follows. On the occasion of her cyborg daughter, Coline's 4 year birthday, the mother, Lucie, recalls the terrible times she and her husband had to go through in their efforts to get a child. Especially for Lucie, this childlessness causes nothing less than a major life crisis (cf. also Cussins 1998: 74). In deep depression, she withdraws even from her supportive husband, who later turns out to be the infertile one. Eventually, God's double, the nice infertility doctor explains what may be done (ICSI), and after one failure and many tears, the husband takes her horse-riding into a forest to tell her that this time - after her shift to the 'pure' Serono drug - her pregnancy test is positive! A family is born.

          However, the story's construction of fertility/infertility goes further as it also involves gender in a more problematic way. All the couples, to whom the reader is introduced, are related to the thematics of children either because of their infertility or because of their super-fertility. Each of the infertile couples is white, and one almost gets the impression that most of middle-class Switzerland is struck by what Singh calls 'the cruel and mysterious disease' of infertility. When half of the book's four infertile Swiss couples does not succeed in getting pregnant, the fault seems, first and foremost, to lie with the women themselves. Thus, one of the women who remains childless in spite of several treatments has, at an earlier stage in her life, given priority to her career, while the other one has serious marital problems. Do such women really deserve a child? the text implies. Our heroine, Lucie - with a subordinate job at a veterinary clinic and  a family-oriented husband who builds houses/homes, - is the only one to get pregnant by means of IVF but then she is also very far from being a career woman or to losing her husband (the last woman of the total four stops her treatment in order to adopt a child from India).

          On the agenda is also ethnicity. More conspicuous, perhaps, than the women stereotypes is the book's opposing of the whites and the coloured as infertiles and fertiles, respectively. (In spite of her name, Lia Singh looks very native Swiss herself.) The only ones to have "natural" children are an African-Swiss couple where the woman, though complaining that they cannot afford to have a third child, nonetheless complies with her husband's opposition to abortion. By the end of the story, she is expecting child number 4! Furthermore, India is recurrently constructed as the unproblematic supplier of children for adoption by white middle-class Swiss. The image of the third world as the site of overpopulation due to the uncontrolled sexuality of the ethnic others lurks just beneath the surface.  Similarly to the imaging of the menopausal urine vis-à-vis the DNA drug, nature becomes even more benevolently natural when science gives her a helping hand.

 

 

Conclusion

The techniques of normalization, used in the two books that I've analysed, expose differences as well as similarities. In "Little Frostie", the large number of frozen embryos was clearly meant to soften the cyborg protagonist's queerness by making her/him only one of many. "You are not alone" goes the message. Still, the story-line's stubborn replacement of the maternal body with the freezer might well undermine this strategy because it re-enforces the association of baby-shopping already at play. Appleton's storytelling practice thus opens the door to the techno-scientific market of designer babies, so ardously advocated by Lee Silver. However, the individual reproductive desires which, regardless of sexual orientation, are all embraced by Silver, seem to be rejected by Appleton. To him, the construction of infertility as an exclusive disease (or problem) of the heterosexual duo appears self-evident, - ie. normal and normative. The mother and father may be erased as procreators but certainly not as upholders of the nuclear family.

          In Singh's story, the heterosexual couple is one flesh right from the start, as it is taken for granted that the childlessness, which is caused by the husband's low sperm count, can only be overcome either by ICSI (injection of the sperm directly into the egg) or, as second choice, by means of adoption (from India). The possibility of the wife getting pregnant by another man is clearly not  an option.

The only father-figure allowed beside the genetic daddy is the infertility doctor who as the benevolent "gardener" restores natural harmony by fusing the cells that could not establish contact on their own.

          Both books also celebrate the image of the IVF practitioner as a quasi-divine creator of life, a masculine cybergod who provides help to the deserving needy.4 In this way, the IVF authors (and their sponsors) seek not only to improve their public image in general but  to counter in particular that of the "mad scientist" which so frequently surfaces in the European cultural imaginary, especially in connection with reproductive technologies and reprogenetics. Within the framework of normalization, the diabolic can only be ousted by the divine.

 

 

Literature

T. Appleton (1996/1999) "I'm a Little Frostie", Published by The IFC Resource Centre, Cambridge, UK - (cf. www.infertility-info.com/books.htm).

M. Bryld & N. Lykke (2000) Cosmodolphins. Feminist Cultural Studies of Technology, Animals and the Sacred, ZED Books, London.

C. Cussins (1998) "Producing Reproduction: Techniques of Normalization and Naturalization in Infertility Clinics", in: S. Franklin & H. Ragoné (eds) Reproducing Reproduction, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

S. Franklin (1993) "Essentialism, Which Essentialism? Some Implications of Reproductive and Genetic Techno-Science", Journal of Homosexuality, vol. 24, nos 3/4, pp. 27-39.

M. Foucault (1970) The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, Random House, New York.

L. M. Silver (1998/1999) Remaking Eden. Cloning, Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humankind?, Phoenix Giant, London.

L. Singh (1997) Coline. Souvenirs d'une Fécondation In Vitro, Editeur: Serono, Lausanne. (Translated into German, cf. Dr. Lia Singh, "Allegretto", Ch. Des Planches 32, Ch-1052 Le-Mont-Sur-Lausanne, fax 021-6539045).

L. Singh (2000) Constantine and Invitro, LEP Loisirs et Pédagogie, Lausanne.



1 In 1997, there was a total of 65.000 IVF treatment-cycles in USA and Canada. In Europe, however, the number was 200.000 (500 clinics in 18 countries). France, Germany and the UK accounted for half. Altogether, the European in vitro activity that year resulted in app. 50.000 cyborg babies. (Cf. paper presented by A. Nyboe Andersen (DK) and K. Nygren (S) at the 16th annual meeting of ESHRE (European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology) in Bologna, June 2000, and Politiken 3.7.2000.) The difference between Europe and North America has structural as well as economic reasons: typically, the North American infertility clinic is a small, private business, run by a single MD, whereas the  clinics in Europe tend to be large units within the public Health Care system, with several specialists and an array of high-tech equipment. Moreover, in several countries (eg. Scandinavia) the IVF treatment is free. However, only stable heterosexual couples are accepted,

 

2 . Chimeric children, made through the fusion of two embryos from different women - eg. a lesbian couple -, could be born with a patchy complexion over the whole body. Silver admits that such colour patchiness would be difficult to hide and could be viewed as unattractive by others. The difference he notes, could therefore 'impinge on the happiness of a chimeric child' (Silver 1998: 221). In other words, this kind of cyborg child would not pass as normal!

 

3 This has been observed by many researchers of the western IVF scenario, and is also a recurring theme in the interviews Nina Lykke and I conducted with Danish infertility patients

 

4  On the cybergod and the notion of "directed panspermia" as the original procreator of life on Earth, cf. Bryld & Lykke 2000.