09 May 2016
ByAppeared in BioNews 850
The screen slowly fades in on a female receptionist in a doctor's office. She is having a serious conversation with an unseen caller about their medical history, and the anxiety is palpable. The caller is told that there are no standard treatment solutions, but a number of options are nonetheless available. The same conversation is repeated by different women speaking German, English, French and Spanish.
In 'Future Baby', the Austrian documentary film-maker Maria Arlamovsky journeys around the world, investigating the state of reproductive treatment. The film asks a single question: how far should we go?
Arlamovsky tells stories about reproduction that only a generation ago would have sounded like science fiction – women without uteruses giving birth; sperm donors from South Africa matched online with surrogate mothers in India; screening for congenital disorders performed in embryos. All of these are related entirely through personal interviews, painting a deeply human portrait of how doctors, scientists and parents are changing the way reproduction is considered.
This is not happening in a uniform manner. The film juxtaposes interviews showcasing conflicting, and often blatantly contradictory, views. From an egg donor in Spain who thinks it unrealistic that future children would try to find their donor, we cut to a teenage girl born via IVF in Israel who is desperately looking for her biological father. From the doctor who considers it irresponsible for women not to undergo screening for genetic conditions, we turn to the sociologist who asks whether society should decide that some lives are not worth living.
The film jumps quickly between countries, emphasising the globalisation of reproductive technology and the rise of fertility tourism. At the same time, it provides a glimpse of the growing divide between the rich (who benefit most from genetic screening and who can commission surrogates) to the poor (who use egg donation and surrogacy as a source of income).
In between these stories are discussions with bioethicists that help frame the questions that societies are just starting to grapple with. Will the role of women in society change if birth takes place in an artificial uterus? Is it ok to screen for cosmetic traits in babies? Is there a human right to motherhood? And where would we personally draw the line? Or, as a 50-year-old mother of triplets from a surrogate noted wryly: 'Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it.'
So, how far do we want to go? The film has no answers. Instead it starts a conversation. The stories are aligned one after the other, without commentary, without guidance. This is not a film about scientific progress so much as one about bioethics, with an occasional close up of dividing cells. But, for those on both the pro and con sides of the many debates raging around reproductive technologies, it will be a film worth talking about.