Babies in Bottles

Susan Squier
September 01, 1996
drawing of two men looking at baby in bottle

Fifth Philosopher's Song

A million million spermatozoa All of them alive; Out of their cataclysm but one poor Noah Dare hope to survive.

And among that billion minus one Might have chanced to be Shakespeare, another Newton, a new Donne—But the One was Me.

Shame to have ousted your betters thus, Taking ark while the others remained outside! Better for all of us, froward Homunculus, If you'd quietly died!

—Aldous Huxley (1920)

What do the Hubble telescope and the scanning tunnel microscope have to do with embryo research?

A quick answer to that question would be to say that all three are "high tech." Perhaps that was why Sir Ian Lloyd invoked those scientific instruments in his discussion of embryo research during the 1990 House of Commons debate over the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill: "As science takes us nearer to the fundamentals of creation," he said, " whether through the outward reach of the Hubble telescope . . . or the inward reach of the scanning tunnel microscope, revealing for the first time the secrets of the living cell, we shall be presented with greater potential for good and evil, greater powers of intervention, and greater challenges to orthodox dogmas of all kinds—religious, scientific, and political."

I would argue instead that Lloyd's choice reflects a long-lasting association between visualization technologies (VT) and reproductive technologies (RT). Since the birth of Louise Brown, the first test-tube baby, in 1978, reproductive technology has been constructed in the popular imagination as a revolutionary new field. Yet there is a modern history to our debate, a history interweaving literature and science, a history profoundly gendered, a history of choices and struggles, that we repress to our cost.

Long before in-vitro fertilization (IVF) became a medical reality, and even before the development of artificial insemination, a group of British scientists and writers wrote stories and essays that explored the social changes such technological developments would herald. As prominent members of the scientific and literary communities of early-20th-century Britain, zoologist Julian Huxley, physiologist-geneticist J.B.S. Haldane, and novelists Charlotte Haldane, Aldous Huxley, and Naomi Haldane Mitchison assessed the social, cultural, and scientific implications of scientifically mediated conception, gestation, and birth. It is to their images that we must look if we want to understand what acts of ideological construction have been carried out, and are currently being performed, in the name of reproductive technology.

One of the most memorable passages in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) is the scene in the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre's Embryo Store, where embryos gestate ectogenetically under dim, red light: "The sultry darkness . . . was visible and crimson, like the darkness of closed eyes on a summer's afternoon. The bulging flanks of row on receding row and tier above tier of bottles glinted with innumerable rubies, and among the rubies moved the dim red spectres of men and women with purple eyes and all the symptoms of lupus. The hum and rattle of machinery faintly stirred the air." For readers today, that passage may evoke the vivid visual effects of films by David Cronenberg and Ridley Scott: the red-robed gynecologists in their lavish operating theater, the rain-slick, neon-spangled streets of Los Angeles. It is no coincidence that this scene from Brave New World anticipates such films of reproduction gone wrong, producing cyborg replicants with artificial memories of human-fly chimeras, for like those films Huxley's novel links VT to RT. The interchange with which the scene begins establishes a central trope for Huxley's novel: " Embryos are like photograph film,' said Mr. Foster waggishly, as he pushed open the second door. They can only stand red light.'"

Mr. Foster probably means that embryos, like photographs, need to develop, a process that for each is best carried on under dim light. But the representations of embryo culture in Brave New World extend the comparison, for they reveal a heavy dependence on a variety of visualization technologies, from microscopy to cinematography. Thus the tour of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre features "the yellow barrels of the microscopes" lit by the winter sun; the Director's description of how fertilized ova are transferred, in their embryonic culture solution, "onto the specially warmed slides of the microscopes," where they are "inspected for abnormalities"; and a description of how x-rays are then used to trigger the process of embryo budding, or "bokanovskification," which produces up to 96 identical embryos.

One way to explain the juxtaposition of RT and VT would be simply to say that it reflects the state of the art in embryological practice, which was heavily dependent on microscopy in the early 20th century. Indeed, Huxley was highly accurate, according to the eminent embryologist Joseph Needham, who reviewed the novel. "The biology is perfectly right," Needham wrote, "and Mr. Huxley has included nothing in his book but what might be regarded as legitimate extrapolations from knowledge and power that we already have. Successful experiments are even now being made in the cultivation of small mammals in vitro, and one of the most horrible of Mr. Huxley's predictions, the production of numerous low-grade workers of precisely identical genetic constitution from one egg, is perfectly possible. Armadillos, parasitic insects, and even sea-urchins, if treated in the right way, do it now, and it is only a matter of time before it will be done with mammalian eggs. Many of us admit that as we walk along the street we dislike nine faces out of ten, but suppose that one of the nine were repeated 60 times."

Needham's image for bokanovskification—the apparition of those (60) faces in the crowd—rings a frightening biological change on the urban street scene prominent in the poetry of Pound and Eliot, the novels of Woolf and Joyce, and the photography of Steichen and Atget. Needham thinks of a city street because the urban street scene, like VT and RT, subjects the stroller to the experience of a loss of individuality. Likewise, in his unpublished essay, "Stars and the Man," Huxley considered the impact that his close friend Edwin Hubble has upon our understanding of the universe. "Bulldozers and atom bombs have intoxicated us with the illusion that man is virtually omnipotent," he wrote. "On the other hand, cybernetics and biochemistry have inclined us to the belief that individual human beings are merely the by-products of molecular arrangements and subatomic events. Will the new cosmology confirm us in that sense of personal insignificance, which is the paradoxical corollary of our collective bumptiousness?"

To understand fully the link between VT and RT, we must turn to the scientific memoir of Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe, A Matter of Life (1981), their account of their discovery of IVF and the creation of test-tube babies.

The chapter of interest recounts Edwards and Steptoe's success in bringing four human embryos to blastocyst stage—the "last stage of growth before the embryo begins its implantation in the mother's womb." As Edwards recounts it, he stared into the microscope at "an unbelievable sight: four beautiful human blastocysts . . . the beginning of the foetus as it started its journey towards life. . . . I knew that instant that we had reached our goal: the early stages of human life were all there in our culture fluids, just as we wanted." Edwards then walks out of the laboratory into the night, on his way to his mother's house: "I looked up at all the stars, the moon, the night sky over Oldham, and considered the equally amazing sights I had just seen under my microscope."

Edwards announces the moment of successful embryo culture with that visually powerful double look—up to the moon and stars, down (and in) to the blastocysts just beginning their "journey towards life." I suggest that the link made by Sir Ian Lloyd between new scientific technologies for looking and the new reproductive technologies embodied in embryo research is anything but accidental. Such a connection not only predates, but actually may have shaped the development of reproductive technology.

Many contemporary feminist theorists hold the VT/RT link responsible for a dramatically new phenomenon: the contemporary construction of the gestating woman as an invisible, even hostile environment for the fetus-at-risk. Those theorists have argued that such (relatively) new medical visualization technologies as ultrasound and fiber-optic endoscopy have enabled the medical separation of the fetus from the gestating mother, permitting the (re)conceptualization of the fetus as not a part of, but rather apart from, the woman who is gestating it. The fetus thus becomes available for legal and medical interventions on its own behalf, as if it were already a civil subject.

Although I share their alarm at this maternal/fetal disjunction, I do not share the general opinion that the VT/RT link it reflects is a new phenomenon. As I have shown, a similar VT/RT connection appears in the writings of Aldous Huxley in the 1920s through the 1940s: it was Huxley's work that inspired first John Rock and Arthur Hertig, who laid the foundations of in vitro fertilization in the late 1930s with a series of experiments on fertilized human ova, and then Edwards and Steptoe. From Aldous Huxley's vision of the spermatozoa floating in an interstellar uterine space, no maternal body to be found, to his image of the babies in bottles that most powerfully express the "triumph of science over nature," the literary articulation of the desire to see (and identify with) the fetus separate from the body of the gestating woman parallels its scientific articulation in the germinal and scopophilic obsessions of Edwards and Steptoe.

Awareness of the history of this link between RT and VT can help us to arrive at a more flexible feminist response to both the mother-fetus disjunction, and to the technologies that—since the early years of this century—have worked together to produce it in representation and (gradually) in reality. It can encourage us to remember that the embryo is neither astronaut nor "froward Homunculus," but part of a complex mutual relationship, beginning at conception and culminating, if not ending, with birth.

Susan Merrill Squier, Ph.D., is Julia Gregg Brill Professor in women's studies and English, 104 Burrowes Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-9582. This essay was adapted from her book, Babies in Bottles: Twentieth-Century Visions of Reproductive Technology, published in 1994 by Rutgers University Press.

Last Updated September 01, 1996