30 May 2017
ByAppeared in BioNews 902
The opening of the The Centre for Reproduction Research (CRR) at De Montfort University on 24 March 2017 was marked through an afternoon seminar of short lectures on reproduction by three leading scholars: Emily Jackson, professor of law at London School of Economics, Maureen McNeil, emeritus professor in sociology at Lancaster University, and Guido Pennings, professor of ethics and bioethics at Ghent University.
Dr Nicky Hudson, director of the CRR, introduced the seminar by reflecting on her first experience of interdisciplinary research: a project on the use of assisted conception in the South Asian community. The collaborations were stimulating and productive, and she found the experience of a cross-disciplinary research approach enriched subsequent projects. She has maintained the resulting links with clinicians, scientists, government bodies and charities through the Reproduction Research Group and now through the CRR.
Dr Hudson set out the aims for the new Centre: to research the social, cultural and political aspects of reproduction, and to develop new approaches to research through the integration of different disciplines and methods. She described how bringing together diverse academic disciplines can highlight fundamental differences in approaches to knowledge, and spur innovation at all stages of the research process, from design and methodology to public engagement. For this reason, the afternoon’s speakers were asked to explore the meaning of interdisciplinarity, drawing on their own professional and personal experiences in reproduction research.
Professor Emily Jackson began her lecture by using the case of surrogacy to describe how social research informed her work on UK social policy and law. The Surrogacy Arrangements Act 1985 was passed after the birth of Baby Cotton by Britain's first surrogate mother, in response to fears that commercial surrogacy would become widespread. Because its aim was to prevent exploitation and payment for surrogacy, the Act failed to anticipate the complex situations arising from surrogacy in practice, particularly in international cases. Many studies on domestic and international surrogacy show the ensuing difficulties of surrogacy arrangements; surrogate families can be left in limbo due to issues in the timing and process for commissioning parents to be assigned legal parenthood, and sometimes parents do not get a parental order at all, causing legal problems later on.
The complexity of relationships created by assisted conception has amended the legal framework of what defines a family. This has had a considerable impact on other areas of law, including on parental responsibility, as there may now be more than two people in a parental relationship with a child, parental leave in employment, social security benefits, and so on. The impact of surrogacy goes beyond immediate family relationships. Professor Jackson argued that lawmakers need to look at the evidence provided by social research in this area and adapt to reflect both current practice in surrogacy, and the attitudes towards parenthood and family by the parties involved. Such an interdisciplinary approach to law is less likely to be circumvented or ignored, and more likely to address the legal challenges that arise.
Professor Maureen McNeil explored what conditions make interdisciplinary research in reproduction possible. She argued that currently, the collective focus is on the constant innovations provided by 'technoscience', the applications of technology and scientific methods, leading to the neglect of other developing research areas, such as teenage pregnancy. But researchers who take a wider view of reproduction research can develop creative and novel ways to re-use existing theories and research: the feminist theories around the Wages for Housework campaign yielded fresh perspectives when applied to surrogacy and reproductive labour, for example. She challenged researchers to broaden the scope of their work and draw inspiration from approaches, theories and ideas in other fields.
Professor McNeil went on to question whether bringing infertility to public awareness had inadvertently created fertility anxiety, a relatively recent phenomenon; researchers should have foresight about the impact of reproduction research on the wider understanding of fertility and pregnancy.
Finally, she noted that this is an auspicious time for reproductive research, since reproduction has moved from the private into the public realm in both popular culture and science. The interdisciplinary work of the CRR, and its projects addressing gaps in knowledge, such as men’s position in reproduction and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) parenting, are both important and timely.
Professor Guido Pennings is a partner in an international, interdisciplinary project on egg donation (EDNA) with the CRR. He spoke about the potential for interdisciplinary research to develop new research methods, first describing the way empirical bioethics developed in response to the common criticism that philosophers are too removed from the real world. Rather than developing a philosophical position by examining and abstracting conceptual ideas related to a practice, empirical bioethics begins by observing what people do in a particular context. Subsequent ethical arguments are rooted in understanding of the values of parties involved, and are more accessible to ordinary people. This method will be used by the bioethics specialists contributing to the EDNA project, and the results will be published in due course.
There was a lively discussion afterwards as the audience explored the challenges of interdisciplinary research with the panel. We were left with a final thought: has the focus on technoscience responses to fertility issues come at the expense of other potential solutions? Public education and social policy initiatives may, for example, reduce the age of first pregnancy, helping to avoid age-related fertility issues that require medical intervention: researchers should explore the potential offered by non-medical approaches to reproductive issues.
This fascinating, engaging seminar was only the first organised within the Centre; the CRR will provide a forum where such issues will continue to be discussed through public lectures, research engagement, and conferences.