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Test Tube Future

My introduction to bioethics came with the issue of in vitro fertilization. I was a student at UC Santa Barbara, designing my own major in science journalism, talking with scientists, reading every science-related news item I could find, and just beginning to gain a conceptual grasp of where the cutting edge was in different fields of science and medicine. One thing was clear–an area that was moving faster than most was reproductive and regenerative medicine. And, if you were paying attention, you realized that cloning, embryonic stem cell research, preimplantation genetic diagnosis, germline genetic engineering, and a litany of new research is all based on one technology that has been around for a quarter of a century–in vitro fertilization (IVF).

And while the ethical implications of cloning and stem cell research are splashed in bold headlines across newspapers everywhere, I thought it odd that many of the ethical issues surrounding IVF had never really been settled–Who pays for it? Should it be regulated? Is prolonged hormone stimulation bad for your health? Should physicians worry about the psychological trauma that often comes with infertility? Are there attendant health problems in children born from IVF? Do “innovative therapies” introduced by IVF clinics constitute human experimentation? Should children of anonymous sperm or egg donors have a right to seek their parentage? Do surrogate parents or gamete donors have parental rights? Should you be able to make decisions about your child’s sex or physical features? All these issues and more are still out there–they’re just not sexy anymore. And I always found it odd that we can debate the morality of cloning or stem cell research in a way that totally cuts off the debates over IVF.

So, long story short, my honors thesis as an undergraduate was a one-hour documentary exploring the links between old and new ethical problems raised by IVF technologies, and pondering the future of high-tech parenting in the US. It was thoroughly a student film, full of rookie shooting and editing. I eventually sold a slightly more polished version of it to an educational distributor, but it certainly was never a mainstream affair. I’ve continued to follow the subject and waited for a long time to see whether someone would come along and work through these issues for a larger audience. And so it is with great anticipation that I await the film Frozen Angels, which deals with precisely these issues, received good reviews at Sundance, and will finally premiere tonight on public television at 10. While some of the debates treated may seem futuristic, I encourage everyone to watch, and remember when you do that the future is now.