By Kirsten Mickelwait
Today, hundreds of thousands of babies are born worldwide to couples of all ages through assisted reproductive technology. This broad term includes the ancient process of artificial insemination, modern processes of in vitro fertilization, and now the increasing possibility of genetic engineering. Within the U.S., California has become the fertility capital. While we may cling to the idea of the nuclear family—epitomized in the 1950’s Leave It to Beaver sitcom and the norm for centuries—the fact is that only about 20 percent of children are currently raised in that traditional model.
In fact, the notion of assisted reproduction may be older than you think. The book of Genesis describes the servant Haga bearing a child, Ishmael, to be raised by his genetic father, Abraham, and his infertile wife, Sarah. Abraham was 99 years old and Sarah was 90.
In her new book, Babies of Technology: Assisted Reproduction and the Rights of the Child (with Tom Ekman, Yale University Press, released this week), Mary Ann Mason takes a hard look at the mounting issues surrounding this growing technology. “Donor anonymity is still the most pressing issue,” she said. “With such means as frozen eggs and sperm, it’s impossible for the child to know the identity of his or her biological parents, and one sperm donor could be the biological father of dozens of children or more.”
There are also serious medical issues—particularly regarding the implantation of several embryos to produce multiple births—health problems with triplets and higher multiples, and even twins with low birth rate and increased child mortality.
Other legal problems have arisen, as well: children who are denied benefits, birth certificates that eliminate the genetic mother or surrogate, and children born without a nationality. Take the multinational origins of the so-called “Greengold baby.” The sperm originated in Israel, where it was frozen and flown to Thailand to meet a South African egg donor. After the egg was fertilized, the embryo was sent to Nepal and was implanted in an Indian woman, the surrogate mother.
A slippery slope
Breakthroughs in human genetic engineering—with the new gene-editing technology known as CRISPR/Cas9—are raising new ethical concerns over the idea of using “designer” eggs to create the “perfect” child. “It’s already being used extensively in agriculture and animal husbandry, and the first cases of its human use will be to prevent devastating genetic diseases,” Mason said.
“Then it becomes a slippery slope, because you can start to enhance factors like intelligence, height, or longevity. Without regulation, it could get completely out of hand. It will change the DNA of not only that child, but will also be passed on to future generations. This is called ‘breaking the germ line,’ which ultimately could change the species,” she said.
There’s also strong discussion around epigenetics—the study of how one’s environment can cause certain genes to express themselves in an individual, and possibly his or her offspring. One study linked a mother’s lifelong diet to the risk of future obesity in her children. Growing evidence suggests that ova and sperm can become damaged by smoking and other unhealthy habits. And epigeneticists are beginning to see signs of “genetic scarring.” For instance, children of parents with extreme wartime trauma may show a vulnerability to diseases like diabetes. For those children born from surrogate mothers the physical condition of those surrogates may be critical in their development.
The United Nations’ 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child—which states that children have the right to know the identity of their genetic parents—is the most rapidly and widely ratified human rights treaty in history, with 194 nations participating. Only one country has chosen not to ratify the treaty: the United States, which continues to allow donor anonymity over a decade after it was outlawed in Europe. The U.S. is the world’s largest fertility tourist destination, yet provides lax oversight of the billion-dollar assisted reproduction industry.
Mason wrote Babies of Technology, she said, because with the rapid development of reproductive technology, the rights of these children have been grossly overlooked. She breaks these rights into five areas:
- The right to know the identity of their biological parents and their surrogate.
- The right to have a healthy surrogate who is medically evaluated on a regular basis before and during the pregnancy.
- The right to have biological parents, legal parents, and surrogate listed on the birth certificate.
- The right to citizenship in the country where they are born, or where one of their legal parents is a citizen.
- The right to universal standards ensuring that surrogates are treated equally in all countries.
Mason proposes creating a federal administrative agency that would make the entire fertility market transparent by monitoring assisted reproduction, instituting guidelines and maintaining records of all procedures performed nationwide. Britain launched a similar agency about 15 years ago, with its Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.
For nearly three decades, Mason has brought her expertise on children’s rights, child custody issues, and family law and policy to UC Berkeley, first as a professor in the Graduate School of Social Welfare and currently as a faculty affiliate of the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology. From 2000 to 2007, she served as the first woman dean of the Graduate Division.
Her research and advocacy have driven several ground-breaking policy initiatives, including the ten-campus UC Faculty Family Friendly Edge and the nationwide Nine Presidents summit on gender equity at major research universities. Because of such family-friendly policies, twice as many babies are now born to assistant professors at Berkeley than in 2007, she points out. Female faculty members get two semesters off from teaching for the birth of a child, and male faculty get one semester.
“She’s making a major new contribution by looking at technology issues through the lens of family law, which is precisely the type of approach that scholars and the public will need more of. We’re thrilled to have her associated with our center.”