Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Motherhood on demand

Motherhood any which way

From The Statesman

ND BATRA

Last December, 28-year-old Louise Brown, who created a global hullabaloo by being the world’s first test-tube baby, became the mother of her own first child.She did it the old-fashioned way. But the door, which her test-tube birth opened, has created many possibilities for women and made age less relevant.

Consider, for example, a situation when the womb is willing but the ovary says no. What should a woman do? The human reproductive technology has enabled women to have test-tube babies of any sex.It has now advanced to a stage when a woman’s eggs can be cryogenically preserved to enable her to have a child at any age, even after menopause.

This does not make menopause irrelevant or arrest the biological clock because women would still suffer from mood swings, hot flushes and osteoporosis.But there is on the horizon a new threshold for women, freedom from the reproductive constraints menopause imposes on them. The social costs cannot be counted at present.

A few years ago, a team of researchers at Reproductive Biology Associates in Atlanta, Georgia, successfully froze and thawed the eggs of a 29-year-old woman without damaging the gene-carrying chromosomes. Then they fertilised the eggs with the sperms of the man whose wife became the recipient of the embryos and gave birth to a healthy twin. The 39-year- old recipient woman had become prematurely menopausal but had a healthy womb and wanted to have children. If the egg-freezing technology were available earlier, the woman might have frozen her own eggs and banked them for a later use when menopause disabled her from egg production. A young woman, busy with her education and career might postpone marriage and childbearing by banking her frozen eggs for future use when her eggs won’t be so healthy. She may even donate her young and healthy frozen eggs to other women who are infertile.

The quality of eggs deteriorates as a woman ages. Moreover, chances of babies with physical defects and mental retardation, according to experts, increase when a woman in her 40s or in later years gives birth to a child. Now an older woman with younger eggs could beat the odds and become the mother of healthy babies. When a man ages, his sperm count declines but not necessarily the quality of the sperm. Frozen sperm banks have been in existence since long and freezing embryos has given no problem to doctors. But freezing and thawing ova damaged them until the Atlanta researchers injected sperm directly into the thawed eggs through a method called intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI).

There may be less ethical objection to the freezing of ova than embryos, which are fertilised eggs ready to develop into foetus and blossom into full life in the womb. In the brave new world of the 21st century, a single woman in her 50s is able to walk to a reproductive bank in a fertility clinic and choose cryogenically preserved eggs of an 18-year old high school girl and have them fertilised with the sperms of a musician, mathematician or an athlete and let her womb do the rest. She still has to undergo the pleasure and pain of pregnancy ~ the essential part of motherhood~but her menopause or infertility would not be a deterrence to having children.

Freedom from the chains of menopause and reproductive equality with men, who can have children even after 60, are the two hypothetical gains of the new biotechnological development. Would the next advancement be to find ways of doing away with the womb? Nor has the question whether the womb of a 50-year-old woman is as good as that of an 18-year old. Probably researchers would succeed in their efforts to develop an artificial womb, making us re-think the meaning of motherhood. But aren’t we losing something in the bargain? One social consequence of an older man marrying a younger woman and having a child has been that it invariably falls on the woman to raise the child. If the older man does not die but becomes incapacitated with old age, the woman has to carry on child-rearing alone.

But if women begin to depend on the promise of the later-day pregnancy offered by the frozen-egg technology, they may not be able to raise their children as well as would a young mother: soccer mom who goes to every Parent Teacher Association (PTA) meetings and raises hell if school cafeteria does not serve good lunch or the library keeps objectionable reading material. OB Harding, Jr. asks in his book Disappearing Through the Skylight, “Is the idea of what is to be human disappearing, along with so many other ideas, through the modern skylight?” Every time a new technology appears in someone’s garage or laboratory, it gives us a sense of liberation and power over our destinies.

We feel that our free will has been enhanced and we could take informed decisions and better choices. But along with free will, we need wisdom to ponder over the unintended consequences of the new freedom.

Professor Batra teaches communications and diplomacy at Norwich University

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