Fertile debate

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 March, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 March, 2000, 12:00am

The phrase 'making babies' used to be one that sniggering children used of their older siblings who would sneak off with their boyfriends or girlfriends. Now it could be applied to many would-be parents and doctors who are increasingly turning to fertility treatments to produce children.

Major problems such as having no eggs can now be overcome by using eggs donated by another woman and fertilised outside the womb before being implanted in the hopeful mother. The problem of weak sperm can be solved by artificial insemination or donor sperm.

A professor of reproductive biology at the University of Leeds in England and a former student of test-tube baby pioneer Robert Edwards, Roger Gosden begins with the fears that many people have expressed: as treatment for infertility advances, will parents get to a stage where they can choose their baby's intelligence, talents and eye colour, and reject those who fall outside the 'perfect' category? Gosden's overall thesis is that such fears have been unfounded so far: some forecast a future of monsters when test-tube babies were first produced, 'but instead, thousands of homes now ring with voices of happy families and there are no more birth defects than usual'.

Gosden makes frequent references to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World scenario - it's even in the subtitle - usually knocking it down. In Huxley's world, women were forbidden from producing natural children, and instead ovaries were removed and children produced in laboratories. In contrast, technology today is being used to help couples bear a much-wanted child. Certainly, Gosden says, parents who expect to have one or two children these days compared with a dozen just a century ago, invest a great deal more effort in each one. And technology now becomes the key factor in determining our fertility, the type of children we create, and hence the kind of society we make.

For him, the treatment of infertile couples has a 'negligible' effect on the health of the next generation, so the fear of producing a weaker species is unfounded.

And though he is against cloning of humans, he does not want to see such procedures prevented as they are in fact aimed at solving wider problems. His own laboratory, for instance, is trying to ripen eggs from ovaries removed from women undergoing treatment for cancer; although cloning could employ such a technique, in practice the aim is to help infertile women.

Gosden is liberal and sympathetic towards would-be parents, and his book is optimistic, but also urges everyone to consider the issues rationally and sympathetically, and to leave reproductive choices in the hands of those most concerned: the parents.

Designer Babies by Roger Gosden Victor Gollancz $290