Science helps reproduction but there's a price to pay

Last updated 11:23 15/12/2009

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Every Monday Derek was late getting into the Chelsea College research lab.

Every Monday he came in and entered some data on a graph on the wall. Finally we could bear it no longer and asked him what it was all about.

"My research," he said mysteriously.

We all knew it wasn't, so he explained. As he drove his motor scooter over Battersea Bridge he stopped for 15 minutes and counted the condoms floating downstream under one arch of the bridge. He plotted these results as the "pleasure coefficient for the weekend" of the people living up stream. We thought this was hilarious. Our unmarried "dowager" supervisors were kept confused as they were told anything but the truth.

One Monday in 1962, Derek came in distraught. The condom numbers had dropped right away.

What we did not realise at the time was that we were witnessing the most important scientifically based social change of the 20th century. The contraceptive pill had arrived. Women were now truly emancipated and reproduction could be controlled and planned.

At the time, I thought this was great. Unwanted children are the world's worst tragedy. Many women had early problems with some pills and, even worse, it took away the libido of many.

The contraceptive pill soon became well-established in the western world. This should have been great, but socio-economic factors encouraged families, especially middle class ones, to delay having babies until it was biologically too late and dangerous. The nearer a woman gets to 40 years of age the lower the chance of natural conception and the more likelihood of hazard with the pregnancy and/or the foetus.

Many years after the advent of the pill we now find that this group of well-educated professional women have become slaves to advancement and economic pressure such that we have large numbers of desperate, childless couples in their late 30s queuing up for IVF treatment.

In New Zealand you get two free hits. The pressure on the system and relationships is unrealistic. My parents were married in January and I was born in November. The way it should be. I embarrassed my father by asking him "What kept him?"

Robert Winston is one of the world's most well-known human reproduction biologists. On this subject he has recently stated: "It has caused great happiness and can cause great unhappiness; it can improve and destroy health; it can cement relationships and undermine them – and it can leave offspring deeply damaged. But above all, reproductive manipulation – and in particular genetic meddling – is so powerful that it could ultimately change our idea of what it is to be human." That is really food for thought!

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Viagra, taken by usually older men to cure erectile dysfunction, has also changed our reproductive and social structure.

Now we have medication, also used by younger men, to solve the problem. Erectile dysfunction does not mean that the man is sterile. He can produce sperm throughout life. So what has all this facilitated? More and more older men are marrying younger women and becoming fathers at an advanced age. We have already seen that mothers are getting older. The older fathers are often on second or third marriages.

So we have children growing up in families with "grandfathers" for fathers and middle-aged mothers. Quite significant is the likelihood of a parent or parents dying during the child's teenage years when guidance is particularly important. Not to mention financial support in these days of expensive education.

Science set out to solve some of society's reproductive problems, but social and economic pressures create even greater ones.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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