This is a pre-publication draft of a book review appearing in Technology and Culture, v. 63, n. 1, 2022
Most scholars would find the prospect of writing a global history of in vitro fertilization (IVF) daunting. In IVF and Assisted Reproduction: A Global History, Co-authors Sarah Ferber, Nicola J. Marks, and Vera Mackie make it look easy. Commanding an enormous literature in the space of a relatively short book, they give a sober-minded and clearly-written overview of the techno-scientific, medical, political, cultural, and economic history of the past five decades of assisted reproduction.
Topical chapters draw the reader through time, beginning with the development of the science and clinical technique. Rather than focusing squarely on the Western story, as histories of IVF typically do, they take a broader view, and in particular give an extended account of the success of Subhas Mukerji’s clinic in India, just 10 weeks after the July 25, 1978 birth of Louise Brown in Manchester, England. His legitimacy undercut by local medical politics, Mukerji was not able to build on (or even definitively prove) his success and later committed suicide. Technoscience and clinical success were not the only necessary ingredients for developing IVF; local and national politics and wealth mattered at least as much.
In a chapter on the global development of an IVF infrastructure of clinics, practitioners, professional organizations, publications, and techno-medical techniques, Ferber et. al. make the important point that this development should not be regarded in retrospect as preordained. Practitioners and clinics from China to Dubai to Zimbabwe worked to establish a specialty for which there was enormous demand, but only very partial success. They had to harness would-be parents’ desperation, funds, and bodies in order to develop the technologies and techniques that would eventually lead to a (more) reliable means of making new families.
Ferber et. al.’s discussion of the regulation of IVF is particularly illuminating for its global perspective. Comparing and contrasting regulatory regimes around the world allows them to clarify the roles of religions and varying philosophies. They helpfully describe the critical role of “soft regulation,” along the lines of record-keeping and health insurance policies, as equal or greater in influence compared with criminal law. It’s less visible and controversial, but it was often where IVF practices were most shaped and constrained.
Cross-border reproduction is the focus of another chapter, and Ferber et. al. draw on the extensive anthropological literature to analyze it. As they explain, a number of countries where cross-border reproductive services such as surrogacy initially developed later outlawed some of these services, as exploitative of women or culturally problematic. But an already-developed industry created a “social imprint” that tended to persist even if it became a gray or black market.
Further chapters describe the technological and social breakthroughs that stem from IVF, from LGBTQ family formations to egg freezing and fertility preservation. The authors conclude with a look at just-developing clinical techniques such as mitochondrial donation and same-sex reproduction.
Ferber et. al. do not so much stake out a novel argument, as strive to provide a cogent overview of technoscientific, legal, social, and ethical debates that have surrounded IVF since its inception. They draw from the rich literature in history and anthropology of reproduction, while largely avoiding the jargon that sometimes makes those sources challenging for a student reader. They also deliberately choose relatively neutral ways to describe phenomena they analyze. For example, they discuss at length the terminology for situations in which a person or couple travels to a different political jurisdiction for IVF. Rejecting the term “procreative tourism” as too critical, and “cross-border reproductive care” as too focused on care providers, they choose “cross-border reproductive travel.” These kinds of choices throughout the book allow the authors to present competing perspectives on difficult and controversial issues.
There are inevitable trade-offs in writing a global history in under 300 pages of text. There is no room for extended stories of individuals, and there is not a lot of narrative flow. But the book’s clear and balanced exposition, divided with helpful section headers, makes it a pleasant and engaging read. It should be especially useful to historians of technology who are unfamiliar with IVF or its global context, and could work well in conjunction with narrative history/anthropology or primary sources for undergraduate instruction.
Lara Freidenfelds is the author of The Myth of the Perfect Pregnancy: A History of Miscarriage in America and The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America. Her Nursing Clio essays and op-eds on reproduction, health, and parenting are archived at www.larafreidenfelds.com.