Academic journal article Genders

Technodrama of the Designer Baby in My Sister's Keeper and Pride

Academic journal article Genders

Technodrama of the Designer Baby in My Sister's Keeper and Pride

Article excerpt

[1] Engineering a cure for the heteronormative family has become one of the signature missions of certain forms of assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) in the twenty-first century. Processes like artificial insemination and surrogacy are increasingly depicted in popular culture representations as commercial options for women (particularly career women) to fulfill the naturalized role of motherhood and build families conforming to contemporary norms of whiteness, middle-class status, and heterosexuality. While the use of ARTs might enable new forms of kinship, identity building, and family formation, as many feminist scholars have pointed out, the increasing commercial availability of such technologies tends instead to shore up gendered norms and heteronormative family structures (Balsamo, Davis-Floyd, Kaplan and Squier). The perception of ARTs as service to these norms is, in fact, so pervasive that even technologies not yet in place and ripe for imagining difference tend to be portrayed as disruptive forces of otherness that challenge the sanctity of the family, but they are usually absolved by producing the idealized infant. Within these elements of contemporary reproductive discourse, the designer baby is a unique example of the ways in which fantasies about reproductive technologies negotiate these tensions between technological innovation and familial norms.

[2] While the notion of humans experimenting with human biology has appeared throughout history in various fictions and speculations, the 1990s heralded the appearance of the designer baby in cultural discourse, a term commonly employed in the mass media to describe the conception of infants according to particular parental and medical standards. Biologist Colin Tudge defines the designer baby as a child "genetically engineered to a specification," that would supposedly employ the now common processes of in vitro fertilization (IVF) and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) (Tudge). While, as Tudge indicates, there are important scientific factors in designing children, the designer baby is also tied indelibly to certain elements of cultural fantasy in popular discourse. Perhaps one of the most interesting qualities of the designer baby is its ability to blend scientific and popular discourses, as the series of popular medical books appearing on the topic since the 1990s indicates (Green, Sandel, Stock, Tudge). The term "designer baby" is commonly referenced in major newspapers and on news sites (at least once a year since 1990 in The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Chicago Tribune), accompanied by articles that invariably cite medical doctors or specialists. Several television documentaries have also appeared, meant to explain the ethical and medical issues involved in designing children to a popular audience (Who's Afraid of Designer Babies, Frontline: Making Babies, Designer Babies: the Genetic Revolution). Moreover, alongside its identity as a child "engineered to a specification," the designer baby invokes medical standards for the healthy body, and with the use of PGD, is both criticized and valorized through its potential to eliminate various forms of disability (Snyder and Mitchell, Silver).

[3] In its position at the crux of medical and popular discourse, the designer baby has also played an important role in fictional narratives about ARTs. Science fiction has dealt with the possible alien and alienating aspects of designing human beings irrevocably different from and possibly superior to our current norms (Gattaca, Dark Angel, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Splice). Portrayals of the designer baby are also intimately concerned with the well-being of the heteronormative family, and often pose the figure of a genetically engineered infant or human being as paradoxically a threat to that unit as well as a saving grace (After Amy, Picoult).

[4] Commonly idealized in popular culture, the image of the family wields a formidable normative force (Coontz, Stacey). …

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