Reproductive Tech and Family Ties Workshop ’21

The ‘Reproductive Technologies and Family Ties’ workshop is a one-day, in-person event, open for all to attend, organized by the ‘Future of Family Relationships’ research project, and the Centre for Medical Science and Technology Studies (MeST) at University of Copenhagen. This event is also associated with the KU Masters course on ‘Reproductive Technologies and Family Ties.’ We are grateful to MeST and VELUX for sponsoring this event.

Location: Panum (Maersk Tower), Room 7.15.152 (on Floor 15, via elevators in Maersk Tower), Blegdamsvej 3B, University of Copenhagen (Directions here)

Date: 26 October 2021, 09:30-16:00

Queries and Registration: This is an in-person event and we are not planning to hold this event in a hybrid/online format at this time. There are a limited number of spaces for in-person attendance.

Please e-mail to register, only if you intend to attend in person, no later than October 8th, 2021. In keeping with venue restrictions/catering considerations, please also let us know if you wish to attend all day or just one/some of the talks.

Speakers: Giulia Cavaliere, Anna Smajdor, Heidi Mertes, Rikke Bentzon, Teresa Baron (Titles and abstracts for talks at the bottom of the page!)

Workshop description 

The institution of the family is one of the major forces driving inequality and patriarchal oppression. The persistence of the traditional family as the most common microeconomic unity and social framework has allowed to save on welfare policies by exploiting women’s domestic unpaid labour, to neglect the needs and desires of non-heteronormative individuals, and to maintain patrilineal wealth and property inheritance models. At the same time, families are also the source of some of life’s most meaningful relationships and experiences. 

Over the last few decades, reproductive technologies have been changing family forms by increasing access to parenthood to infertile heterosexual couples as well as single individuals and homosexual couples, through a number of procedures such as IUI and IVF with donor gametes, the ROPA method, or surrogacy. While being potential vehicles of reproductive equality, such technologies might actually end up not only replicating but also reinforcing patriarchal oppression and structural injustice, including by supporting a need to procreate, or by overemphasizing the relevance of biological ties. 

This workshop will build on ‘The Future of Family Relationships’ research project, working on a range of questions about the nature of family ties and the ethics and implications of reproductive technologies. Talks will address questions like: 

  • Can we tackle the perpetuation of the privilege intrinsic to the partiality of family ties, without sacrificing some of life’s most significant bonds?  
  • Can reproductive technologies improve family relations and structures without further entrenching bionormativity? 
  • Could emancipating families from biological (genetic and gestational) ties deliver us less inequality and more emancipation? 

Although this is primarily a philosophical workshop, we welcome attendees from all backgrounds and disciplines at this workshop. We would especially encourage scholars to engage in cross-disciplinary dialogue about reproduction and family conceptions. 


09:30-10:00Welcome, Breakfast, and Coffee/Tea
10:00-10:50Heidi Mertes (Ghent University), “Why we need new outcome measures in infertility treatment”
11:00-11:50Anna Smajdor (University of Oslo), “What is reproduction, and (how) do reproductive technologies facilitate it?”
12:00-12:50Teresa Baron (IRLaB Prague), “The limits of assistance: What it means to have one’s own child”
14:00-14:50Giulia Cavaliere (KCL), “Involuntary childlessness, suffering and equality of resources: An argument for expanding state-funded treatment provision”
15:00-15:50Rikke Bentzon (University of Copenhagen), “Why Families Shouldn’t Be Defined By Biology”
15:50-16:00Closing remarks and Coffee/Tea
18:30-Social Dinner

Abstracts (alphabetical order by author’s last name)

The limits of assistance: What it means to have one’s own child
Teresa Baron

Assisted reproductive technologies and practices have rapidly multiplied in recent years, in response to advances in medical science and liberalisation of national and international laws governing parenthood. In this paper, I argue that some of these practices – both currently used and those envisaged in the near future – should prompt us to ask what it means for someone to be assisted in reproducing. Why, for example, should we consider double-donor surrogacy a form of assisted reproduction, and not a form of private adoption? Is sperm donation a form of assisted reproduction, or reproduction with a non-partner? How will future technologies such as ectogenesis and artificial gametes fit into these frameworks? I will suggest that the way in which we commonly understand assisted reproduction is underpinned by specific (unjustified) presuppositions about the relationship between biological reproduction and parenthood. In place of this understanding, I suggest a distinction between assisted reproduction, collaborative procreation, and commissioned (pr)ocreation, and I explore the implications of this distinction for moral parenthood.

Why Families Shouldn’t Be Defined By Biology
Rikke Bentzon

In this talk, I will present and critique a traditional understanding of family relationships: so-called bionormative theories (Velleman 20015, 2008; Almond 2006, 2008a, 2008b; Laing 2006; Gheaus 2018; Weinberg 2008). Traditionally, ‘family’ concepts have always been explained in bionormative terms: being part of a family means being biologically related (Witt 2014). Historically, this was ‘the nuclear family’ in particular, however, new technologies in assisted reproduction (ART) also satisfy the bionormative theories. New ARTs aid in creating families that prioritizes or values a genetic or gestational form of parenthood, thereby reinforcing the bionormative view on family relationships (Segers, Penings & Mertes 2019; Griffiths 2019). 

Nevertheless, there is not a clear consensus on why the bionormative family is perceived to possess a higher moral value than non-bionormative families and scholars have argued in favor of a new understanding of family that does not rely on a biological connection (Haslanger 2012; Rulli 2014; Witt 2014; Overall 2014; Brighouse & Swift 2014; Di Nucci 2016). Despite different definitions of family relationship, they all argue that a mere genetic or gestational connection is not necessary nor sufficient for a relationship to qualify as a family relationship. 

The argument will center on the proposed value of a biological family relationship and I will argue that biological ties lack intrinsic value and any instrumental value that they might provide, is also something a non-biological tie can and do provide. Consequently, it is doubtful that biological ties have enough excess instrumental value to render it impermissible to create non-biological family types.

Involuntary Childlessness, Suffering and Equality of Resources: An Argument for Expanding State-Funded Fertility Treatment Provision
Giulia Cavaliere

Assessing what counts as infertility has practical implications beyond estimating its prevalence, for access to (state-funded) fertility treatment is usually premised on meeting the criteria that undergird the chosen definition of infertility. In this talk, I argue that the focus of these discussions should move away from ‘infertility’ (and fertility treatment) and towards ‘involuntary childlessness’ (and on the medical and non-medical interventions that can be adopted to address it). This expression emphasises that what matters with respect to people’s inability to conceive is the lack of the ‘end product’ (they are childless) and the dispositional attitudes surrounding such state (they are childless involuntarily). Once this conceptualisation is taken onboard, it becomes clear that there exists a mismatch between those who experience involuntary childlessness and those that are currently able to access fertility treatment. My concern in this talk is explaining why such a mismatch deserves attention and what reasons can be advanced to justify addressing it. My case rests on a three-party argument: that involuntary childlessness causes a kind of suffering that we have good reasons to address; that involuntary childlessness is rather widespread and people might have good reasons to insure against it; that involuntary childlessness is characterised by the desire for a certain kind of intimacy, building a certain kind of identity and taking part in a web of social relations. I then move to consider potential objections to my argument: the ‘adoption’ objection and the ‘oppressive social norms’ objection. Rather than being defeating objections, however, I explain that they help strengthening my case and that should be factored in broader normative and policy-related discussions on involuntary childlessness.  

Why we need new outcome measures in infertility treatment
Heidi Mertes

Assisted reproduction technologies are aimed at fulfilling people’s desire to achieve biological parenthood, and whenever possible genetic parenthood. This is a laudable goal, given the severe impact that infertility has on wellbeing. However, there is an important difference between suffering caused by infertility and suffering caused by most other medical conditions, namely that it is desire-dependent. People only suffer from infertility if they desire to have (their ‘own’, biologic) children. At first glance, this does not seem to have great implications for the field of ART, since it does not render the suffering less real or relevant: people who suffer from infertility still require help. And thus, fertility clinics promise their patients that they will do everything in their power to give them what they want: a healthy baby, even if this implies severe risks for the patient and/or future children. By doing so, they acknowledge the patients’ suffering and reinforce the validity of their desire for (genetic) parenthood.  

Yet, for some people a genetically related baby is difficult to deliver, leading to the option of donor conception, and for others the ART journey ends with empty hands. In these scenarios a different narrative pops up: a genetic bond with your children is not of utmost importance and a life without children can be equally rewarding. Of course, such a message loses credibility if you spent years on a long and hard IVF trajectory towards (genetic) parenthood, or are simply aware of the huge investments, emotionally and financially, that many people make to achieve the goals of parenthood. Looking from this angle, the investments we make in helping people relieve their suffering, also has a negative impact on (other) people’s wellbeing, as it perpetuates the common idea that (genetic) parenthood is of utmost importance, while unachievable for many. However, empirical evidence shows that in the general, fertile, population, parenthood does not lead to higher levels of wellbeing or meaningfulness of life (on average). And yet, the main reason why people desire to have children is because they think it will make them happier and their lives more rewarding. This brings us to a peculiar predicament: we are reinforcing a false belief, which leads to a strong desire of which we know that if it is not fulfilled, leads to severe suffering. Alleviating this suffering again reinforces the false belief, etc. This is a spiral that needs to be broken.  

My suggestion is that the focus of the intervention should be the suffering from infertility, not infertility as such, which requires a revision of infertility treatment’s main outcome measure. Rather than measuring the success of the treatment of a person faced with infertility as their ‘take home baby rate’, we should be measuring their levels of wellbeing when leaving the fertility clinic, which can be achieved through ARTs, but also through psychological counselling. In any case, it requires a different discourse from the start (both in the clinic and in society at large), where childlessness is presented as a valuable option, rather than a dreaded outcome. This will not only benefit the patients who are visiting the clinic today, but also have a positive impact on people confronted with infertility in the future. 

What is reproduction, and (how) do reproductive technologies facilitate it? 
Anna Smajdor

Sarah Franklin says, ‘[…] genealogy and reproduction can be seen as two of the most important, but vague and undertheorized, terms in contemporary critical thought.’i This is evident among bioethicists, who commonly take genetic transmission to be the essential component of reproduction. But current and future reproductive technologies (IVF, surrogacy, reproductive ooplasmic transfer, artificial gametes, reproductive cloning) undermine the plausibility of a simple biological answer to the question ‘what is reproduction’? It is becoming evident that different stakeholders might define reproduction in different ways. The World Health Organisation, for example, describes reproductive cloning as ‘the replication of human individuals’ and declares it ‘contrary to human dignity and integrity’.ii Yet John Harris argues that reproductive cloning could be regarded as a part of the right to reproduce.iii With the increasing array of technological possibilities, one person’s reproduction is another person’s replication. In this paper I will look at the impact of proliferating reproductive techniques on understandings of the role of biology in reproduction and fertility treatment. Taking ethical, legal and clinical documents as my subject matter, I subject each to systematic analysis to identify areas of contradiction and convergence. I suggest that the tendency to seek a central biological answer to questions of reproduction is untenable in today’s world of reproductive technology. The ways in which members of the public interact with fertility services reveal a subjectivity and variability that cannot be encompassed through reductive biological explanations. This has serious implications for regulation, legislation and social and ethical understandings of the place of reproductive technology in society. It is already possible with today’s technology to create offspring that could be argued to have seven ‘biological’ parents. I conclude that as technology develops further, the definition, and the ethical and legal status of reproduction, will need to be negotiated, rather than inferred from biological facts. 

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