Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Medically Assisted Conception: Revolutionizing Family or Perpetuating a Nuclear and Gendered Model?

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Medically Assisted Conception: Revolutionizing Family or Perpetuating a Nuclear and Gendered Model?

Article excerpt


In recent decades, family life has been transformed by more effective birth control, women's stronger presence in higher education and paid work, global labour markets, and greater emphasis on personal choice and individual fulfillment. These changes in the larger society have encouraged more consensual relationships, delayed childbirth and declining fertility (Beck-Gemsheim 2002, Lewis 2003). At the same time, women's delayed childbirth and certain lifestyle choices have increased fertility problems. Medical interventions now permeate the entire childbearing experience but new technologies permit more low fertility couples to reproduce and enable more women to bear children outside nuclear families.

Fertility clinics have been established throughout the world and more people are turning to them for help with conception. Fertility treatments began in the 1960s and the first 'testtube' baby was born in 1978 in Britain. Since then, a wide range of procedures have now become routine, such as egg retrieval, in vitro fertilization (IVF) and re-implantation into a woman's womb (Coney and Else 1999: 1), although Australian data indicates that only 1.7% of all babies are born with assisted conception (Ford et al 2003). Nevertheless, frozen sperm and embryos now make conception possible after their donor's death, postmenopausal women can bear children, and potential parents can contract 'surrogates' to bear children for them (ibid). Assisted conception also enables more single and lesbian women to reproduce outside nuclear families, and sperm or egg donation and surrogacy could alter generational lines and parental roles. Generally, new reproductive and genetic technologies have to potential to radically transform family life (Eichler 1996).

While technology permits both childless marriages and greater childbearing options, social pressure to reproduce continues. This includes the implicit assumption that all 'normal' adults will develop permanent intimate relationships, will want to reproduce, and will actually become parents (Veevers 1980, Morell 1994, Cameron, 1997). Many people still dream of what they consider to be a normal family, with a committed marriage and their own biological children. In fact, social research suggests that most heterosexual couples assume that they will have children when they find a suitable partner (May 1995, Daniluk 2001, Exley and Letherby 2001). Consequently, unexpected infertility causes considerable anxiety and selfdoubt, especially when having children is synonymous with adulthood.

The media and some sociologists focus on the radical potential of reproductive technologies to change family life and the wider society. However, this paper questions the extent of social change generated by medically assisted conception by showing how it is actually being used in New Zealand by ordinary people with fertility problems. Five themes are drawn from qualitative interviews with men and women seeking treatment in Auckland, New Zealand's largest city. These include the close link between fertility and identity, the marital stress associated with the inability to conceive, social exclusion felt by those who cannot reproduce, the increasing normalization of medically assisted conception, and negative visions of life without children. Through a discussion of these interview themes, combined with overseas research, I argue that medically assisted conception is more likely to reproduce nuclear families with gendered roles than to become a revolutionary force altering the family as an institution. Before the details of the New Zealand research are discussed, the radical potential of reproductive technologies needs to be further outlined.


For years, various medical interventions such as anesthetics, episiotomies, inductions and caesarean sections have been used,in childbirth but these procedures are becoming widespread with more babies delivered by obstetricians in hospitals and the development of new reproductive technologies (Tew 1998). …

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