There’s nothing quite like coming to work to the smell of semen in the morning.
Being greeted down the microscope by a morass of seething sperm in a mindless frenzy to find their egg. Or a sadder scene of feeble soldiers in fruitless limp rotation, doomed by truncated tails incapable of propulsion. Or, even worse, an eerie, empty field, where no sperm resides and only dust motes will grace a woman’s body.
It was 30 years ago, in the sperm bank of a major Melbourne hospital, and I was charged with the god-like responsibility (and social death) of being Scientist In Charge.
It was my job to analyse the semen of men who feared they were infertile and to recruit a stand-in, a sperm donor, if the news was bad. Donors were selected for lack of disease and good sperm, and were matched to couples by looks and blood type, their washed sperm stored in coded straws in massive vats of liquid nitrogen (beside which I was once embarrassingly interviewed for TV, eight months pregnant… ). In couples where this didn’t work, eggs and sperm were taken out of the body and fertilised in the lab, by the then brand new technology of IVF, or in vitro fertilisation. Louise Brown, the world’s first IVF baby, was born in the UK in 1978, and Australia’s first just one year later.
Being immersed in the salty moisture of others’ sex lives was confronting, but it did put me on the frontline of a medical technology that took the making of babies out of the mysterious realm of women’s bodies, and into human hands for the first time in our six million year history. Humans – renowned for their greed, voracity, market-driven decisions, male-control and imperious use of others less fortunate – now, theoretically, ruled the realm of procreation. I was witness to the shocked predictions of what may come when markets, men and blind drive to procreate, combined. This month’s unseemly battle between the luscious Sofia Vergara and her spurned ex, Nick Loeb – trying to grasp their frozen IVF embryos and force her to be genetic mother to his children – is a perfect example of where it was all heading.
The problem immediately spotted as Louise edged her way into the Brave New World was that once you put egg and sperm into human hands, you could do just about anything with it, within the limits of technology.
A fertilised egg, a fleck of conception or an IVF embryo, can find a home in almost any consenting woman’s womb, and noone knows who to call 'mother'. Kids can have a number of potential legal parents (egg, sperm, surrogate, social parents); who’s responsible for them when the chips are down? Children can be born with no genetic or familial relationship to the woman who carried them. Women have given birth to their grandchildren, sisters, aunts and nephews. Strangers from a particular socio-economic group (read poor) in carry and deliver babies not genetically their own, in commercial acts of surrogacy - a new kind of prostitution borne of financial desperation. Donated eggs and sperm end up as embryos then babies, who never ‘see’ their genetic lineage.
Many of the world’s 5 million IVF babies have been born into these scenarios, creating legal and moral minefields.
There in our little lab in the early ‘80s, with donors clutching their yellow-capped jars and trudging stoically to the masturbatorium upstairs (actually, the shower in the hospital’s men’s toilet, deftly disguised by a strip of leopard spot lurex stretched across the shower-head and a ragged collection of soft porn), we lived through the heroic attempts of the Victorian government to lead the world in gently nudging this explosive new technology into humane and respectful behaviour. In our small state, we banned surrogacy. We ruled out sale of eggs and sperm but enabled donation, including to research. We established laws requiring that donors’ identifying information be kept, so children born of reproductive technologies could know from whence they came.