31 May 2016
Reproductive Research Group, De Montfort UniversityAppeared in BioNews 853
BBC Radio 4, Monday 23 May 2016
Written by Joseph Wilde
'We'd like her to look like she came from us – but maybe better.'
Any child that Anita and Tom conceived naturally would have serious disabilities, but they still want a baby who carries both their genes. This is how they end up in the office of Dr Ahmed of Zenith Genomics, a genetic engineering company, discussing not only their future child's looks but her metabolism, personality and even bra size.
What happens next is an intriguing and believable portrayal of the potential outcome when a couple is able to choose their daughter's features – and then she does not turn out to match their expectations.
Anita and Tom's initial reaction to their baby girl, Beth, is reminiscent of that of some parents of donor-conceived children: every feature they can't place must be due to the genetic manipulation. Later, when she starts school, this is compounded by the fact that poor Beth isn't the slender, academic high-achiever they paid for. Instead, she's a chubby girl in the bottom set, no matter how hard they push her. They also blame themselves. As first-time parents with no other children, Anita and Tom have no experience to fall back on that would reassure them that Beth's tantrums are down to the 'terrible twos' rather than her genes. 'It's nature AND nurture,' Anita says despairingly. 'The nature was perfect, and we're the nurture!'
Beth learns from Dr Ahmed that she's the product of genetic manipulation, and she asks her parents some searching questions about what that means, openly wondering if they would love her if she'd been different. Her parents are unable to provide a satisfactory answer; while they do love her, they are constantly questioning why she has failed to match up to their ideas about how her genes should be expressed. Eventually, they complain to Zenith that she is not the product that they had paid for, and demand their money back. Having expressed discomfort with the language of consumerism when choosing their child's features, they are only too happy to use it when they want to complain about her perceived failings.
While the clinic is deciding how to respond, Anita and Tom begin to notice that Beth is clever and creative in ways they had failed to notice. They start to see the qualities they love in each other expressed in Beth, and realise they simply hadn't appreciated her all this time.
Shortly afterwards, when Dr Ahmed turns up to take Beth – the 'faulty product' – to the clinic to correct her 'genetic mutation', Anita and Tom are horrified and want to keep Beth as she is. Their wishes are overridden by the clinic's legal team, which threatens to sue them if they prevent it, and by Beth herself. Having endured years of feeling like she is not loved because her parents wanted a different daughter, she wants to become the daughter they always expected to have. When the clinic returns her, 'normal', her parents barely recognise her – the mutation responsible for her creative mind and strong personality has gone. She conforms, and they don't like it.
The play describes some messy real-world issues that may be familiar for those involved in the field of donor conception: complicated feelings around family resemblance, the need for parents to have counselling before they embark on the treatment, and the moral quandaries surrounding embryo selection, to name just a few.
The language of commodification is woven throughout the storyline, beginning with Dr Ahmed insisting that, for legal liability reasons, Anita and Tom (rather than a member of staff at the clinic) have to select their child's features. Throughout, she refers to Beth as a 'product'. It's normal for parents to have expectations of their child, but the couple can't let go of the fact that they have paid for their daughter to have certain qualities, and so they expect her to meet commercial standards of delivery. This is a familiar attitude from countries where donor gametes are paid for: some people are not satisfied with a 'normal' that reflects their own genetic heritage and want 'the best'. There is no discussion about degrees of likelihood that genes will be expressed, or any way for the parents to contextualise what they are choosing.
The play has a cast of just five actors, so the social context is missing – for example, 'resemblance talk', in which family, friends and neighbours identify the ways that a child is like its parents (regardless of whether a child is genetically related to their parents or not). It takes the couple many years before they are able to see aspects of themselves in Beth. It's interesting to speculate how being surrounded by family and friends might have changed their attitude, and possibly provided the parenting support and wisdom that they so clearly need.
In 1993, Jim Sinclair wrote the article 'Don't mourn for us', a plea to the parents of autistic children to accept the child they have, rather than constantly grieving for the child who never existed: 'Nothing will change the fact that this time, the child you waited and hoped and planned and dreamed for didn't arrive,' he wrote.
Beth was 11 when she was 'cured', and from a very early age had lived with the knowledge that her parents were unhappy with who she was. Transhumanists argue that, if the technology is available to enhance human ability, we have a duty to use it to better the human race. But if 'Produce' is correct, and the cost of genetic enhancement is for a child to endure being brought up by parents who cannot accept that they are not the fantasy child they paid for – who continually make them feel like a disappointment – isn't this too high a price to pay?