What are the latest reproductive technologies, and what is their impact on our social systems? It has been a complaint for many years that technological innovation often surpasses the capabilities of our social system to adapt to it. Is this the case also with new methods of reproduction?
Comment on “Egg Freezing Puts The Biological Clock On Hold” on Morning Edition 31 May 2011. This report on the latest reproductive technologies of egg-freezing did not address the sociological and psychological effects of such technology. Instead, it informed how it was done and what the success rate in fertility was for the women who chose this method. I also discuss sperm donation, and the social effects of sexual selection in China.
Updated: 2 Sept 2014
NPR reporter Jennifer Ludden interviews women who froze their eggs and had children later in life, and doctors who use or do research on fertility methods involved with egg freezing. They speak about whether it is possible to get pregnant from frozen eggs, what kind of child is born as a result, success rates of pregnancy, age limits for donating eggs. Nothing was said about the lives of children born to women having children late in life. The implications of genetic engineering could also be considered.
My Comments at NPR
Yes, it is now possible to freeze your eggs and physically have a child at 57, but, let’s face it, with our track record for the process of aging in this country, can a mother or father who is in their 50’s today really be there when their child reaches the teen years? Human kids take a very long time and an increasingly greater amount of energy of the parents to raise to adulthood. The parents will be retiring, and certainly will not be able to keep up with their child within about 10-15 years, precisely when a child needs MORE supervision, not less.
The Hazards of an Older Mother
Why do teenagers need MORE supervision, not less? Because they are at an age when they have all sorts of motor and mental capabilities but lack the one thing that separates them from true adults–judgment. They are more likely to take risks that adults will not because the adult can judge the final consequences much better than the teenager (we all know exceptions, but they are clearly that). Anatomically and physiologically, the final hookups in the brain between the frontal lobes (judgment and emotional awareness) and pons (executive center which executes the final steps in the commands of the frontal lobe and other parts of the brain) do not take place until around 26 years of age (auto insurance companies see it in their records, thus the higher rates for those under 26).
The teenage brain, no matter how much training we give it, is not capable of making good judgments for many activities. An important quality of judgment is perspective. Perspective is developed only with experience and there are some experiences that a young person cannot achieve before the age of 26, both in quantity and in quality. A person logs experience in the brain from a history of making decisions, watching others make decisions, analyzing the outcomes and testing templates for their own decision-making process. Perspective is developed with age, not with the number of experiences since it must be accompanied by normal brain developmental changes that are tied to the number of years a person has lived.
We know that chimp mothers cannot raise a child successfully to adulthood (Jane Goodall‘s observations on Flo and her last son Flint*) if they give birth at an advanced age (the years that we would define as post-menopausal in humans). What evidence do we have that a human mother or father can do so, who is aging as fast as the child from a much more compromised baseline? The equivalent model of today is the one of the grandparent who raises grandchildren, and who may or may not have a husband or boyfriend living with her. Since more than 50% of all children in the U.S. are being raised by a single parent (usually the female relative), it is highly likely she has to continue to work beyond retirement age and hold down several jobs in one day. In such a case, the child is much more likely to be unsupervised for long periods of time.
CBC’s Ideas program had a series called “Brave New Family” **, where they discuss in more depth than that of NPR, all aspects of the process and technology involved with sperm donation, including the possibility of genetic engineering, where genes can be altered in the embryo. They also discuss other reproductive technologies in this program and in others (see note below***), along with the social and physical impacts of late-life pregnancy, with researchers, mothers who had children late in life, and other people. They raise a picture that is much more complicated. The effect of increasingly more common egg-freezing and late life (post-menopausal) reproduction is huge, not only on parents and child, but also the extended family, schools, other families, employment places, etc. This Brave New World has a huge impact on all society.
The “equivalent model” described above is the closest we have to the Brave New World model of elderly parents raising a baby today. Based upon what we have seen in this model, and what we have seen happen with Flint, the chimpanzee, we will see an increase in out-of-control pre-teens and teenagers, with a consequent increase in crime, leading to adults who cannot successfully hold a job. Furthermore, their children will be least able to care for their elderly parents when they are too old to continue parenting. These women, watching their biological clocks, who want to have a child late in life need to really look at what their lives will be like raising a child when they are least capable of handling it physically and economically. They may be able to survive long enough to see their child graduate from high school, but there is so much more to raising a human child than that. Humans rely upon the wisdom of their grandparents and great grandparents when raising their own children and this wisdom will be lost to the generation of children of post-menopausal women. I think we can predict that this is an experiment that will not last very long.
Technology and Sexual Selection
On NPR’s Morning Edition for 15 June 2011 in a report, In Asia, The Perils of Aborting Girls And Keeping Boys, Renée Montagne interviews author Mara Hvistendahl (Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls and the Consequences of a World Full of Men). Hvistendahl attributes modern technology for determining the sex of the fetus (ultrasound) and readily available abortion practices for causing a huge sexual imbalance in Asia. One can see this outcome as an early consequence of some level of “genetic engineering.” In some Chinese classrooms boys overwhelmingly outnumber girls. She says that statistics show that too many unmarried men leads to unrest and crime in a country (Egypt is a case in point, although its revolution carried out by these jobless young men seems to have lead to what Americans would call a good outcome since it ended up overthrowing a dictator.)
Another program, rebroadcast on 16 June 2011, the CBS The Doctors show, in an episode called “Double Dilemmas“, discusses sperm donation. The Doctors (Drs. Travis Stork, Lisa Masterson, Jim Sears, and Drew Ordon), speak with another doctor, Kirk Maxey who has donated his sperm multiple times to a sperm bank that he was told he could trust. Upon discovery that his semen donation was split many times and contributed to a pool of many donors to make many donations to different women seeking such contributions, he estimated that he could have more than 100 children out there, with his genes. He stated that his son might meet one of them, fall in love and not know that he was too closely related to his fiancée to marry and have children safely.
Other doctors have pointed out that many sperm banks have a record of high numbers of genetically defective children born as a result of their unscreened sperm donations. The point The Doctors wants to make is that, of all the branches of medicine practiced, this one type of reproductive medicine is not regulated by the FDA. The drugs they use are, but not the practice of the medicine. They discuss these ideas with a representative from a sperm bank who says that they screen all sperm for the standard genetic defects. However, not all sperm banks do this and some screen for more and some for fewer genetic defects. There is no standard that these sperm banks adhere to so that the patient or donor can trust that them as reputable. This show raised only some of the questions that potential donors and recipients should ask a sperm bank or the doctor that is using a sperm bank for his patients.
The social outcomes of rapid growth in technology are usually severe. Our human history backs this up. We have seen the disruption in, and even extinction of, cultures when guns and horses were introduced to “stone age” groups of people, and the spread of lethal infection to Native American people from European explorers to the Americas. Long before a culture was disrupted, individual lives were hurt by the adoption of new technology before all were educated enough to handle it. With in vitro fertilization and the use of new reproductive technology, like egg freezing, by women who want to start a family much later than her own biology usually allows, we will see the ripple effect from individual families to the society as a whole. It will also be very tempting for some unscrupulous, and unregulated, sperm banks and fertilization clinics to genetically engineer their sperm donations or frozen eggs.
*Jane Goodall at National Geographic
My Life with the Chimpanzees (Natl Geographic Video)
Excerpt from National Geographic Magazine
**CBC Ideas Brave New Family: Pt 1
**CBC Ideas “Brave New Family: Pt 2
Unfortunately, these programs are not available for downloading, but most likely will be repeated in some form in future Ideas broadcasts. Check out the schedule for future programs. You might be able to buy the CD at that site.
***CBC Ideas How to Think About Science series has several episodes where people discuss different aspects of reproductive technologies. Ulrich Beck in episode five discusses genetic engineering as an outcome of increasing risks our society is willing to take. In episode ten, Brian Wynne talks about genetic technologies with relation to the political decisions made and the clash between freedom and choice vs our fate as determined by technoscience. Ruth Hubbard in episode 19 discusses new genetic and reproductive technologies that have amounted to “an experiment on the human being”. I strongly recommend listening to this series and read books written by people being interviewed that are listed at this site. Some of these authors are considered revolutionary in approach but have contributed some very unique ideas that help to explain many of the anomalies that all scientists have observed but cannot or will not discuss.
The CBC’s Ideas program, From Here to Maternity discusses the growing business of egg donation.
Sousa, A. P., Amaral, A., Baptista, M., Tavares, R., Caballero Campo, P., Caballero Peregrín … Ramalho-Santos, J. (2011). Not all sperm are equal: Functional mitochondria characterize a subpopulation of human sperm with better fertilization potential. PLoS ONE 6(3): e18112. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0018112
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