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Fertility and reproductive issues

Infertility and reproductive problems have long been an issue, and people have tried just about everything in the past to cure it

December 9, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CST

It was no surprise Sarah couldn’t get pregnant at 90 years old. But then she did.

Before this miracle birth, Sarah and her hubby, Abraham, were desperate to have kids. So Sarah gave Abraham the OK to have a baby with her maid Hagar. And this is how early surrogacy began — all the way back in the Old Testament.

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Today fertility rates in the U.S. are up — 66.7 percent of the general population is fertile according to the Centers for Disease Control in 2005. But one in four women between 20 and 35 are infertile. Even in 2000 B.C., the struggle defeated people.

Infertility has long been a mystery, puzzling even the best medical minds. The Greek physician Hippocrates believed the female body was hollow, and the uterus, if never impregnated, would travel up the body. Granted this was in the 5th century B.C., but over time, men have experimented with a variety of questionable remedies for infertility and erectile dysfunction, including ingesting animal testicles for a little lift.

In the 1920s, Dr. John R. Brinkley, known as “goat gland Brinkley,” implanted goat glands into patients to help conjure up a long-lost sex drive. The state of Kansas would eventually revoke his medical license.

For decades, doctors and scientists exhausted their efforts against infertility, but in the 1920s, researchers began to understand how the human reproductive cycle worked. By 1941, artificial insemination resulted in more than 10,000 U.S. pregnancies. This medical wonder became such a household occurrence in 1970 that women used turkey basters to artificially inseminate themselves with donor sperm. When the husband was the donor, he was often nicknamed AIH — artificial insemination husband.

By the 1970s, scientists were trying to help couples by experimenting with in vitro fertilization, an assisted reproductive method in which a woman’s egg is fertilized outside her body and then transplanted into her
uterus in hopes of a successful birth. In 1978, the world’s first in vitro baby was born in England, and Louise Brown became the poster child for infertile parents around the world. In vitro fertilization came to the U.S., and in 1981, Elizabeth Jordan Carr became the first in vitro baby in the U.S.

Soon, becoming pregnant wasn’t the only goal for parents. Having the perfect genes could win you the blue ribbon in the beautiful babies contest at the state fair, and parents can now select for hair color, intelligence,
athleticism and more to craft the ideal baby. Walking into a reproductive clinic can be akin to walking into a Build-A-Bear Workshop, where eager couples can pick out all the characteristics they want for their child.

This all sounds easy, but there are only two sperm donors on the charts in Columbia and no egg donation clinic in the area. Lesbian and queer couples have an even harder time winning legal rights over babies they obtain with the help of a donor. On top of it all, the glitz and glam of reproductive assistance is hemmed in by medical risks and battles over ethics.

The use of assisted reproductive technology has ignited sparks from religious speakers, ethicists, scientists, right-to-life activists and parents. It is riddled with ethical and moral dilemmas. Is selective reproduction a form of abortion? Do egg and sperm donors have a right to remain anonymous? Should the government fund research using human embryos? And where will this technology go in the future?

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