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In Vitro Fertilization

In Vitro Fertilization

Author: Zach Lamb

Recognize cultural concerns regarding in vitro fertilization and its impact on families.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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Hello. Welcome to Sociological Studies. As always, thank you for joining me. We're going to start by defining in vitro fertilization, which will also be the topic of this tutorial. In vitro fertilization is a process where a sperm and an egg are united outside the body and then implanted in a uterus.

So you might be thinking right away, if you already knew what in vitro fertilization was or just got a solid idea of it with the definition, well, what does this have to do with sociology. What could this possibly have to do with sociology? Well, it actually has to do a lot with sociology because in vitro fertilization hits upon ideas of cultural lag. So this is a new technology, but culturally how do we use it effectively? There are some ethical concerns that arise with in vitro fertilization that we're going to talk about in this tutorial.

So we have this new technology, and then we culturally need to come up with ways to use it ethically. We need to put up limitations on the use of this technology in response to the development of the technology. So it's an example of cultural lag. And that's why it's interesting sociologically.

Examples of in vitro fertilization, then, are sometimes donor eggs from a woman will be used and united with a sperm and then implanted in another carrier. Or sometimes a single woman will decide to have children on her own and then go to a sperm bank. Other times, gay and lesbian couples will want to have children and seek out a carrier or a donor for their child. Sometimes just couples dealing with infertility issues can resort to in vitro fertilization as well. Other times a fertilized egg can be frozen and stored for later use. So you see, then, there are many reasons people have for making use of in vitro fertilization. And this really got going in the 1970s and late 1970s, 1978, in fact, when the first test tube baby happened.

Now that we've given an introduction to what in vitro fertilization is and some of the ways it's used by people in society, I'd like to really spend the bulk of this tutorial discussing some of the social and cultural effects of in vitro fertilization technology. Firstly, this idea of profit, profiting from in vitro fertilization. To what extent should we allow companies to make money from in vitro fertilization technology? Should they be able to market their services and operate as a business in the same way that other businesses and corporations do? Or should we, as a society, erect ethical boundaries around reproduction and try to cordon it off as best we can from the cash nexus and not allow these companies to profit from in vitro fertilization?

Secondly, and I think most interestingly, is this idea of designer babies and the ethics around selecting, as best you can, the desired traits you want your child to have. So there are ethical concerns as well. Should parents be able to select the traits of their future children? Even though in vitro fertilization makes this possible-- Designer babies, then, is a hotly debated topic. "I want my kid to be six feet tall. I want him to be blond, and I want him to have blue eyes." Et cetera. To what extent is this an ethically tolerated action? Especially considering that it's very, very expensive, prohibitively expensive for most people.

To give you an example, then, of what I mean by designer babies and a more clear-cut idea of what I'm talking about, I'm going to refer to a paper I saw presented at an anthropology conference by an anthropology PhD student who studied sperm banks in California. She did this fascinating study and found that some sperm banks on the cutting edge of the ethical boundaries were profiling the looks of the donors. So it was possible for a woman to come in and say things like, I want my sperm donor to look like this celebrity or that celebrity. And this raises, immediately, a whole host of moral and ethical concerns in your mind.

I still remember what she said about the top choices for women were Ben Affleck, Brett Favre, and Orlando Bloom. So women were walking into these sperm banks, and they could choose, based upon donor profiles if he looked like this celebrity, if he looked like that celebrity. Should we allow these developments? What should we make of them as a society? Should this kind of activity be supported? A super-class of babies can be designed, then, by those who have the money to do so. These are very interesting questions.

And why we study this stuff sociologically is because technologies like in vitro fertilization are fascinating moral boundary pushers, meaning the technologies develop, and then society has to come up with a response on how to deal with these technologies and decide how they can be used. So this is cultural lag in action. And sociologists have done fascinating studies around ideas like this, how the social construction of morality develops around new technologies.

In addition to in vitro fertilization, then another one comes to mind-- is the market for organs. Society's now deciding should be able to bypass a waiting list and go purchase an organ. What if I want to sell my kidney to somebody? Well, why can't I do that? It's my kidney. I ca sell it. So society then needs to decide how to regulate these activities. And that's why in vitro fertilization is interesting for sociologists to study. Well, I hope you enjoyed this discussion of in vitro fertilization. Have a great rest of your day.

Terms to Know
In Vitro Fertilization

A process where sperm and egg are united outside of the human body and then implanted into the female uterus.