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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 9, 2000. All rights

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Turning Back The Biological Clock: Julie Drawbridge

Every working woman has heard about the "biological

time clock," and some recognize its sound more than others. Now

some doctors are saying that they can turn back the clock using

Assisted

Reproductive Technology (ART), such as in-vitro fertilization.

ART may sound like the feminist dream-come-true. Now a working woman

in her mid-30s can hold off motherhood in favor of her career for

another year or two — her chances of having a baby seem that much

better.

It may sound like the next best thing to birth control, but there

is a dark side to ART, too, says Julie Drawbridge, an assistant

professor of biology at Rider University who lectures on "Barefoot

and Pregnant in the New Millennium: A Curmudgeon’s View of Assisted

Reproductive Technology," on Thursday, February 17, at 6 p.m.

at the Swiegert Auditorium at Rider University. Call 732-274-4607.

Doctors may mislead desperate patients, desperate patients may exploit

young egg and sperm donors, and donors may unwittingly concede to

a vast experiment in eugenics — the science of improving a

species.

Lab technicians can already choose the sex of a child — how much

longer before they can produce the genetically flawless baby?

"Assisted reproductive technology is the only unregulated branch

of medicine I can think of," says Drawbridge. "It’s not

illegal

for you to go to a hospital and say `I want an embryo — what have

you got?’ And you can pick one out for $4,000. If you’re a couple

that’s wealthy enough, you can go in and say `we want a boy or we

want a girl.’ Is that the type of society that we want to create?"

One couple’s search for a "Grade A" egg donor at the nation’s

Ivy Leagues stirred up some controversy over these issues back in

January, 1999. The couple put an advertisement in student publications

requesting a donor no shorter than 5′ 10" with a minimum of a 1400

SAT score. Several Princeton women were chosen as finalists. The going

price for the egg: $50,000.

"I think we need to think about this," Drawbridge says.

"This

is not a technology that should be driven by a desperate, wealthy

patient population. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of sexual

selection

as well. It’s been going on for ages in other societies — it’s

called infanticide, and that’s why we’re missing thousands of girl

children."

Drawbridge grew up in Camden, Maine, and received a BS in biology

from the University of Maine, where she met her husband. She earned

a PhD in zoology from the University of Texas, and came to Rider in

1996, specializing in kidney development. She began research on ART

for a course on developmental biology she teaches at Rider. That’s

when she came to the conclusion that unregulated use of ART may do

more to harm women, both physically and socially, than it does to

help them.

For one reason, ART favors the rich, says Drawbridge, at the expense

of the poor. "The economics can be very exploitative," she

says. At Rider the student population is relatively low-income.

"When

you see a $5,000 offer for an egg, that’s a pretty enticing ad."

What most young women egg donors fail to understand, however, is that

the procedure of extracting an egg can by physically and emotionally

complicated. "It’s extremely uncomfortable and there are lots

of hormone adjustments," says Drawbridge. "But there’s not

a lot of insurance liability. I think damage to patients is

under-reported

in this context. The medical profession’s response has been largely

knee-jerk — someone says I want this and they do it."

Hopeful recipients of in-vitro fertilization are also often duped

— even after they have shelled out the money for the perfect egg.

Lab technicians may be able to produce an embryo in a dish, but

there’s

no guarantee that it will survive once it’s introduced into the

uterus.

"There’s a very small chance really," says Drawbridge.

"The

actually pregnancy rates at these clinics is 20 percent," and

not every pregnancy results in a baby.

In the larger debate over women’s reproductive rights, from Roe v.

Wade to the more recent ban on certain third-term abortions

procedures,

the fact that ART has existed unfettered, unregulated, for this long

seems to suggest, says Drawbridge, that our society still values a

woman’s right to reproduce over her choice not to do so. "We’re

limiting access to preventing pregnancy, but creating this huge

industry

around promoting it," she says. "Methods for ART are getting

more and more heroic, while options for abortion are getting

fewer."

As a biologist, and mother of two, Drawbridge says she understands

how powerful, even irrational, the desire to have children can be,

but ART is not necessarily the answer. "We have this evolutionary

history that you don’t succeed in history if you don’t reproduce —

biological baggage that we’re carrying around. I understand that —

I’ve got two children," she says. "I think it’s really

liberating

to say that it is an urge, but we also need to value the adults, the

women, in other contexts. Ultimately, the message we are sending women

here — it’s back to Henry VIII: If you’re not fertile and you

don’t bother to go through this method, you’re not trying. There’s

6 billion people on the planet. Is it really necessary that we view

people without children as defective?"

"I don’t think we’re creating a society where a woman can step

back and say, well, there are other things I can do — being

pregnant

is not the pinnacle of my existence," she says. "Do you want

a society where your daughter or my daughter, if she’s diagnosed

infertile,

has to do those things? Hopefully my daughter will have more

self-respect

than to think that the only way she can leave a legacy is to have

a child."

Ultimately, once ART crosses into the realm of eugenics, and

recipients

of ART are no longer rolling the evolutionary dice like everyone else,

it’s no longer a technology to help people. "We have to ask the

question about any technology: What problem does this solve?"

she says. "What problem does being able to select the sex of your

baby solve? From the perspective of a feminist, I don’t see one."

— Melinda Sherwood


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