Blog  Musings about these complicated and fascinating issues

January 31, 2012
Signing off – Generations Ahead is now closed

It is with a sense of pleasure and loss that I write this final blog post for Generations Ahead. As of January 31, 2012, Generations Ahead is closed as an organization.

I’m proud of all the work that the organization accomplished in four short years, and I’m pleased that we closed the organizational doors with foresight and planning. And, I’m sad that Generations Ahead will no longer exist as an important social justice voice. We were a home for some important conversations and work, and many of us are feeling this loss keenly.

I began working in the area of human genetics in 2004, and started Generations Ahead in 2008 because I wanted to make sure that progressive social justice leaders and organizations were aware of these issues and the complex challenges they posed to the communities we care about. As you can see our final report, Releasing Seeds to the Wind: The Story of Generations Ahead, we made important progress towards ensuring that diverse voices and perspectives are included in the debates. I hope you take a few minutes to page through and read this report. It not only captures our vision and work, it also includes lessons for the movement that we thought were important to share.

I am continuing to work on concerns related to human genetics in my new job at the University of California, San Francisco; they are just a smaller part of my daily work. I am the Director of the CoreAlign Initiative, a “think and do tank” working to develop and implement a 30-year vision and strategy to win resources, rights and respect for all women to make their own reproductive decisions. Clearly, reproductive genetics are an important aspect of this work.

I’ve loved the work and only regret that I didn’t blog more often. I grew tremendously through this work, personally, professionally and intellectually. I deeply appreciate all the staff, allies, consultants, friends, funders and board members, who gave of their time and energy to me, to Generations Ahead and to this movement for a more just and fair society.

The Generations Ahead website will remain active for the next three years, as will my Generations Ahead email account. There are so many reports and resources that we want to make sure are available for a while yet.

It was a pleasure and an honor to work with many of you and I hope our paths cross as I move on to the next leg of my journey.

December 7, 2011
Innocent or Guilty: In the DNA Profile Gotcha Game It No Longer Matters

In states across the country, an aggressive expansion of DNA databases now includes the collection of DNA from individuals merely arrested for a felony offense, regardless of conviction. When your DNA sample is collected upon arrest, it will remain in the system indefinitely, unless you have the time and resources to pursue an extensive legal process for its removal. Once in the system, your DNA sample will be compared against DNA samples collected from new crimes, every week.

Wondering what this means in the real world, consider the list of crimes under disorderly conduct that can be subject to felony offenses under aggravated circumstances and depending on the state: public drunkenness, inciting a riot, disturbing the peace, loitering in certain areas, fighting, obstructing traffic, use of extremely obscene language, unreasonable noise, etc.

Now imagine being arrested for one of these as a felony, but having the charges dropped the next day or the next month. Either way, your DNA is going into a database. If convicted, it will remain there for the remainder of your life. If innocent, you can petition to have it expunged (removed.) In California, the process involves a wrangling of legal paperwork: 1) A certified copy of the court order reversing and dismissing the conviction or case etc. 2) Proof of written notice to the prosecuting attorney and the Department of Justice that expungement has been requested, etc. 3) A court order verifying that no retrial or appeal of the case is pending etc.

Our latest report, Forensic DNA Database Expansion: Growing Racial Inequities, Eroding Civil Liberties and Diminishing Returns, outlines the impact of over a decade of DNA collection in 50 states and by the federal government. The report notes that as of September 2011, the FBI has a database of 10 million profiles and expects another 1.2 million by 2012. They are also managing a backlog of 600,000. These databases have been a valuable tool in identifying individuals convicted of violent offenses. But their utility has been greatly undermined by the structural inequities in the criminal justice system that make whole communities, too often people of color, a target.

Proponents argue that forensic DNA databases aid in the investigation of violent crime, and due to high recidivism rates, being able to match DNA left at crime scenes by repeat offender’s increases the likelihood of convictions. However, many experts are critical of ever-expanding categories of people and crimes for which DNA is collected. They argue that the collection and storage of DNA from individuals arrested for but not convicted of a crime violates the fundamental premise of our legal system that individuals are innocent until found guilty. Further, the permanent storage of DNA from these individuals leaves them under potential genetic surveillance for the rest of their lives. Critics also point out that the expansion of DNA databases is compounding the problem of the extraordinary racial and ethnic disparities in arrest and incarceration rates, brought on in large part by a failed 40-year war on drugs.

The presumption of innocence is rapidly being transformed into a presumption of future guilt. And, newer techniques such as familial searching now include innocent family members of individuals with DNA profiles stored in a database. As the databases grow, these lines will be continually blurred for more and more categories of people, and especially vulnerable populations.

There is little doubt that DNA plays an important role in the criminal justice system. Many of us are familiar with the heart-wrenching stories of people exonerated through DNA evidence after serving years in prison for crimes they did not commit, or the survivors of sexual assault whose assailants were apprehended thanks to DNA matches. These examples are powerful reminders of the utility of DNA, but they only tell
part of the story of DNA
in the criminal justice system.


June 30, 2011
Sex Selection: Not Looking for Quick Fix

Last week I had the opportunity to join Generations Ahead as they hosted a book reading for Mara Hvistendahl from her new book, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men. Hvistendahl’s book has been gaining quite the conflicting media hype over the past month, so I was interested to see if she addressed the conflict she’s mistakenly uncovered, and hear her personal feeling about her book.

Through her book, Hvistendahl looks critically at sex selection internationally, and how “missing women” are affecting communities, traditions, and cultural norms. Hvistendahl, though vocally pro-choice, has mistakenly unearthed an anti-abortion gold mine for conservatives under the guise of reaching “gender equality”. Though Unnatural Selection does NOT recommend restricting abortion as a way to curb sex selective practices, many reviewers (looking at you, Jonathan Last and Ross Douthat) have decided that Hvistendahl’s creation is the latest manual on how to take away more rights from women, without looking like scum.

It totally amazes me that we are still stuck in this debate. There are more boys than girls because their mothers, grandmothers and sisters are undervalued, abused, and neglected globally. Further restricting women’s rights will only continue this destructive cycle of gender inequality. Banning abortion simply means that women are able to make even fewer choices for themselves, their families, and their bodies. How could this possibly help to fix gender inequality? Let me break it down for you: IT WILL NOT!

Moving the conversation of sex selection to abortion is simply skidding the issue. It is easy to suggest that the course of action should be to impose bans—bans are easy, a quick “fix” to a very complex social problem. But to address the fact that sex selection is actually rooted in global male privilege, son preference, and generations of concrete gender inequality- now that could take some real work. We need to be prepared to be addressing this issue for the long-term. Hvistendahl’s book is just another step in a long line of potential actions that could bring awareness to the international undervaluing of girls and women.

Though Hvistendahl did not fully address the conservative media hype of her book in the reading, she did mention that she will be writing a rebuttal to some of the reviews. I truly look forward to reading her comments.

Bailey Hanselman is an intern supported by the Civil Liberties and Public Policy program.

June 23, 2011
The missing voices in egg donation

There are a couple of reasons why I’ve never considered egg donation, most of which revolve around the fact that I don’t know how well my genes would sell. At a whopping height of 4’11 and a family history of breast cancer I’ve never really thought I was the “ideal” candidate. Furthermore, the cheery very-straight looking blonde women beaming at me from the egg donor ads posted around my school have not exactly been a tempting endorsement. That being said, I’ve never thought I was that attached to my ovum, and if a couple or individual was looking for a very short, Jewish, yogi donor- I might even genuinely consider it.

I also definitely have friends who’ve seriously considered egg donation and even one friend who went through with the entire process. So clearly there are strong motivating reasons that attract women to donate. Since I’ve mostly come into personal contact with egg donation on my college campus, the main incentive I hear from my friends is how helpful $8,000 would be in clearing up some of those pesky student loans.  Also, how they would be more than happy to help out a couple or individual who wanted to start a family.

Interestingly enough, it seems that egg donation happens on college campuses even more than I thought. I met with my school’s Nurse Practitioner towards the end of the semester and she mentioned how often other students will ask her about egg donation. She said she often does not know how best to answer these questions, and I have to agree- it’s definitely not a simple question. As young women, when we are indirectly (or even directly) asked to donate there are many factors we have to take into account.

When I think about egg donation so many seemingly unanswerable questions pop into my head. Am I more attached to my eggs than I thought I was? Would I be able to give myself hormonal injections? How would this affect my future, in both my ability to have my own children and the possibility that the donor child could try and contact me?

Searching the Web for some more information mostly just brings up a plethora of agencies looking for eggs and a few articles about women being offered “outrageous” amounts of compensation for their designer genes (healthy, tall, white, ivy league graduate). There really is little readily available information that helps women navigate through the emotional, confusing, and lengthy donation process.

This lack of information totally blows me away- aren’t we the ones who are providing the goods? Shouldn’t we be the center of all of this? Why is there so little information or dialogue from a donor’s perspective? This is where Generations Ahead is stepping in to fill a void. In the next 4 months we’re putting out both a survey and website that will address the fact that there is almost no donor perspective in the current cultural dialogue of egg donation.

The survey will help to inform Generations Ahead (as well as our partners at San Francisco State University and Choice USA) about how women think about their bodies, lives and needs within the egg donation world and where there is missing information that could help women make the best choice for themselves.

The website will walk women through the entire egg donation process. It will allow potential donors to see exactly what will be requested of them every step of the way through the donation- and answers to questions that may arise throughout the course. It will also be a forum where women can discuss issues with each other, share their stories and hear from individuals who have already donated.

It is crucial that more donor perspectives are brought into the discussion. For women to gain the respect they deserve within the biomedical system, we need to be our own best advocates. Though there are many people whom you can look to for support throughout this process (friends, family, healthcare professionals, and counselors) this is your life and future. Help yourself to make the best possible choice!

Bailey Hanselman is an intern supported by the Civil Liberties and Public Policy program.

April 20, 2011
Sperm Sorting and the FDA

In 2009, Generations Ahead wrote to the federal Food and Drug Administration about MicroSort, the sperm sorting technology that permits pre-pregnancy sex selection. Co-signers of the letter included Reproductive Health Technologies Project, the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, and 19 reproductive health rights and justice organizations and other advocates.

Though the technology has been available for years in a clinical trial under FDA monitoring, it has been available only to married couples and only to avoid sex-linked disease and for “family balancing. Recent research, however, suggests that in the United States, “family balancing” is having a direct impact on sex ratios in some communities. 

Generations Ahead is concerned that the use of sex selective technologies reflects and perpetuates gender stereotypes, reinforcing unfortunate social and cultural norms.

At the time of our letter, the Genetics and IVF Institute in Fairfax, VA, which holds the license for MicroSort, had publicly stated for many months that FDA’s review of MicroSort for final “pre-market approval” of the technique was underway.
In our letter, we requested:

“that the FDA hold a public advisory committee meeting to hear expert testimony and invite public comment on the scientific and policy issues raised by this product and related reproductive technologies.  To our knowledge, MicroSort is the first sex-selection product to come before the FDA.  Thus, this approval process sets important precedent for a range of future products related to reproductive medicine and assisted reproduction. Consumers, providers, and companies considering whether to bring similar products to the FDA for approval would benefit from increased transparency in understanding what the FDA’s requirements and standards will be in this case and in similar cases.

We urge the FDA to gather input from a range of experts and stakeholders about the potential impact of such products on the public health…. A public advisory committee meeting would allow the FDA to consider its role in addressing these issues, and provide public notice of the FDA’s plans for data collection, marketing and labeling requirements.”

Since the letter was sent, pre-market approval continues to be delayed and there has not been any news on a public advisory committee meeting being held.

However, we learned last week that Genetics and IVF Center was told by the FDA that its license is being extended for 6 months, and during that time it may be used only to avoid sex-linked diseases.  The license extension does not permit MicroSort for “family balancing” as has previously been the case.

We’re still figuring out what this means.  At a minimum, it appears FDA’s views on the appropriateness of the use of the technology for family balancing may have changed, which would be a significant shift for that agency.

Coming up with our “ideal” approach to MicroSort is a delicate balance. On the one hand, we are presented with an opportunity to consider how new reproductive genetic techniques are approved and marketed, and what data collection and labeling requirements might be appropriate.  On the other hand, we do not expect or want to see FDA in a role of limiting reproductive choices and acting as an ethical gatekeeper. We had quite enough of that in the Bush administration when FDA placed inappropriate barriers to young women’s access to emergency contraception for years on end. Regardless, given FDA’s role in MicroSort’s approval, we expect to see full transparency in the process.

In any case, we expect that the next 6 months will bring more clarity about FDA’s plans for MicroSort and we’ll keep you posted as we learn more.

April 13, 2011
Choice for Another Reason

Recently I had the pleasure and discomfort of participating in two academic discussions about assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs). One was all legal scholars, the other mostly sociologists. I enjoyed meeting many committed and smart people while being both an outsider and an insider in these invitation-only events. And I found myself uneasy that both discussions focused on regulating either the supply-side or the demand-side of these technologies.

Two specific aspects of the academic discussions struck me most. First, that many scholars were writing and responding to John A. Robertson’s Children of Choice. Robertson makes a libertarian case for “procreative liberty”, arguing against any kind of regulation of reproductive technologies. In response to Robertson, many of these debates tended towards figuring out grounds for regulation.

Second, many participants seemed to be judging other women’s decisions in response to their own uneasiness and concern about how the technologies were being used. There was a sense that many did not approve of the decisions that some women made regarding the use of ARTs. There were clearly “right” and “wrong” reproductive decisions, with an interest in “protecting” vulnerable women, (poor women, young women, women of color), through regulation, from making the “wrong” decision.

While I appreciate how scholarly discussions unfold, I would rather that these particular debates focus on the real experiences of women and families making the decisions. In the case of ARTs there is little information about the attitudes and experiences of the user and the real life context in which women are making decisions. Debating these issues in the absence of real – not assumed – information about people’s experiences seems to lead to troubling assumptions and judgments about the choices of certain women and families. Rather than focusing the research on the effectiveness of the technologies and the ethical debates trending towards regulating ARTs, I’d rather we focused on understanding why people consider using them, under what circumstances, what else is going on in their lives, and how their experience with these technologies went.

The more involved I am in this work – both researching and debating– the more often I find myself opposed to regulating ARTs at this historic moment. I’m deeply aware that when it comes to current reproductive politics, the most vulnerable and powerless in society bear the brunt of restrictions. As with abortion, contraception and sex education, young women, poor women, and women of color will experience the most restrictions if and when ARTs are regulated. 

We do not have enough information about the social experience of ARTs, though we do know that regulation tends to harm the most vulnerable. That alone should be reason enough to take a precautionary approach to regulation.

So, as uncomfortable as it makes me feel, I find myself on the same anti-regulatory side of the debate as John Robertson. Not because of any libertarian beliefs, but because I would rather err on the side of not judging other women’s reproductive decisions and because I want to avoid additional reproductive restrictions for the most vulnerable.

I wonder, what would these discussions focus on if we began with the rock solid guarantee that all women – not just some women – had the rights, resources and respect to make the best reproductive decision for herself and her family. I suspect we would focus much more on the real lives of women and on changing the social, economic and environmental context in which they are making these decisions, and less on legislating and controlling the decisions that any individual woman might make.

March 30, 2011
An exploration of egg donation

During my undergraduate days at UCLA, I frequently came across ads seeking egg donors in the campus paper.  Now a recent graduate, I see ads for egg donors almost daily in Craigslist or the Classifieds section.  Fitting the profile of a donor – young, healthy, and fertile – I can’t help but think about what it would be like to donate my eggs. 

For me, one of the most striking things about the ads has always been the amount of money offered. In my mind I can still see the $50,000 figure from one of the Daily Bruin ads staring back at me, in large font and bold-faced. Although I did not satisfy the ad’s request for egg donors of Asian decent, I thought about those digits in terms of quarterly tuition costs. Even now, as I come across ads offering upwards of $5,000, I can’t help but think about how I could use extra money to support myself at a time in my life when I don’t have the guarantee or promise of long-term employment.

But these ads also speak to me in another way. I first began thinking about reproductive technologies from a social justice perspective as an undergraduate at UCLA, which made me think about the more abstract questions surrounding egg donation. As a college junior I took a class on the policy and legal theory of human tissue exchange, which got me thinking about the potential implications of egg donation.  I had never thought about questions related to the legal, ethical, and social concerns associated with egg donation, or about whether regulation is necessary to protect and ensure the well-being of all parties involved in the process?

Ever since then, I have been intrigued by the topic’s complexity and relevance to young women.  Post-graduation, I have had the opportunity to follow these issues and be a part of thought-provoking conversations on the subject. I find myself facing a growing array of difficult questions that have real significance for anyone considering becoming an egg donor. What protections should be in place for egg donors? What information is needed to make an informed decision? What are the rights and responsibilities of an egg donor?

Often, I find these kinds of questions have a fickle relationship with the kind of thinking that I do as a young woman looking at egg donor ads. Sometimes, the social justice and the “young-woman- looking-at-ads” mindsets inform each other. For example I often like to ask myself: ‘’what information would I want if I was considering egg donation?” Other times, I feel conflicted. Knowing what I do about the risks and uncertainty of egg donation, why am I so struck by the money offered? Why do I think about these amounts in terms of how I would spend it? Do I tend to disregard the risks when faced with the dollar value?

Generations Ahead is currently working on a project to explore some of these questions, to involve young women in the dialogue, and to ensure that young women’s perspectives are included in the conversations on egg donation. It incorporates a unique amalgamation of the concerns voiced by young women thinking about egg donation and those expressed by scholars and advocates, uniting them into an experience relevant and important to everyone.

For someone such as myself, who falls under the rubric of an egg donor candidate – young, healthy, and fertile—and who identifies as an “egg donor advocate,” I am looking forward to the future developments, dialogues and great work on this issue.

March 24, 2011
Disappointed or Desperate

While reading a recent article on sex selection in the Daily Mail, I was struck by the use of the word ‘desperate’, as in “But what of those who are so desperate for a boy or a girl that they will go to any lengths to achieve it?”

In discussions about boys, girls and sex selection, parents are portrayed either as disappointed or desperate. Disappointed that they didn’t get the child of their dream or desperate to get this imaginary child. From the vantage point of somebody who is not a parent, parenting appears to be a minefield of conflicting desires, hopes and behaviors.

I was raised by two parents who passionately believed in gender equity, and yet when I was born, as my mother recounts it, she was disappointed that I was a girl.  Throughout my early years my parents very consciously treated my brother and me equally and worked hard to model gender equity in their relationship. But even with that, there were definitely things in my family that boys and men and women and girls did. And every time my parents pushed me in one direction, I stubbornly went the opposite way.

Even though we got the same allowance and were equally expected to achieve in school, my mother demanded that I wear pretty skirts, while my brother’s jeans and t-shirts were just fine for family functions. So, of course I developed a strong preference for jeans and pants that I’m still addicted to decades later. 

As a girl, I was expected to stay close to home, while my brother could roam. So, at 15 I left home to be an exchange student in a foreign country.  And I still roam the world today – India, Brazil, Mexico, Ecuador, Australia, South Africa, Malaysia, and Thailand, where I have mostly traveled alone.

And, while my brother and I both had household chores, his consisted of taking the garbage out once a week and mine required doing loads of family laundry throughout the week. I never remember them expecting him to find cooking and cleaning delightful and fulfilling tasks. And yet here we are years later, my brother loves to cook and keeps an immaculate house while I, in my 40s, still struggle to keep a decently clean house and put home cooked meals on my table.

What are the implications for a parent to be desperate to only have a boy or a girl? Given the incongruities and contradictions between parental hopes and actions, and the vagaries of children’s behavior, I wonder if parents honestly think that selecting for the XX chromosome rather than the XY is really going to get them what they want.

Shouldn’t the question be more about what kind of parent they want to be, rather than what kind of child they want? After all, what kind of parent they are is really the only thing they have any control over.

March 3, 2011
Arizona: An Update

In the past few weeks we’ve seen an avalanche of anti-choice legislation popping up in state legislatures all over the United States.  Generations Ahead is keeping particularly close watch on activity and strategies around sex selection and “race selection” abortion bans which have been introduced in a handful of states. In the sea of bills limiting access to abortion in a myriad of ways, these bans aren’t constantly on the front burner – or the front page.  However, one bill, Arizona’s HB 2443 has sped through a committee and the Arizona House.  If it is taken up by the Senate and sent to the Governor, it seems likely to become law.  And, as Sujatha writes below, while we view sex selection as a critical issue worthy of being addressed in a thoughtful and serious way, this bill is just another anti-choice effort in a nutty disguise.

Arizona has stuck close to the anti-choice playbook we’ve seen on this issue so far. In the media reports of the House passage, the chief sponsor of HB 2443 described his bill as aimed at the issue of race discrimination and claimed the bill showed their commitment to an egalitarian, multicultural society.  It is a message consistent with other current anti-choice efforts to portray abortion providers as targeting communities of color

It is possible this strategy – of attempting to garner support by invoking values of equality and anti-discrimination long fought for by progressive communities– worked: at least one House member stated that he voted for the bill out of concern for how Native American communities in Arizona had been decimated.  On the other hand, it’s clear that Arizona is an extreme anti-choice state these days and the arguments used may ultimately be irrelevant in this case – the anti-choice House, anti-choice Senate, and anti-choice Governor seem likely to embrace whatever anti-choice legislation comes their way.

The next weeks and months will tell us more about whether this issue is attractive to other state legislatures – and whether we’ll be hearing more disingenuous claims from anti-choice folks about how they are trying to “protect” communities of color.

February 9, 2011
Arizona is at it again

Seems like Arizona just can’t get enough of being in the news. Recently, it has been the flashpoint for immigration with SB 1070, for gun control and violence with the assassination of Gabriella Giffords by Jared Loughner, and now, in the latest they are trying to get into the headlines by trying to ban abortions for reasons of race or sex. This idea, however, is nutty enough to escape the headlines.

In Arizona, Representative Steve Montenegro (R-Litchfield Park) decided to introduce legislation that would require a woman to sign an affidavit that the abortion she is seeking is “not for reasons of either the race or sex of the fetus.”

Now, while many of us agree that sex selection is a troubling practice and that we should work to discourage all gender biases that might lead to the use of sex selective practices, there is no evidence that banning abortions based on sex are in any way effective in addressing these concerns. In fact, trying to make women sign affidavits and making doctors vulnerable to lawsuits will only curtail women’s rights and limit their access to health care.

Generations Ahead takes the issue of sex selection very seriously. We are working closely with reproductive health professionals to encourage them to be clear about their opposition to race and gender discrimination while supporting and protecting every woman’s right to make the best reproductive decision for herself and her family. We’re working in partnership with South Asian women’s organizations to identify attitudes and beliefs that contribute to sex selective practices to begin community conversations. And, we are starting a public conversation about healthy parenting and how we can all agree that parenting isn’t about choosing any particular characteristics of your child. After all, real parenting is a lifelong process of working everyday to raise our kids the best we can.

As this issue of sex selection is debated, we want to make sure that women, particularly Asian women, are not scapegoated in the pro-life fight to undermine abortion for all women.

So, for all that is going on in Arizona, it seems that legislators are prioritizing time to censure and condemn women who are trying to decide how best to take care of themselves, their families and their children. Where do these legislators find the time?

January 28, 2011
Healthy Parental Expectations: An Open Letter

Dear Amy Chua,

I wish we could sit down and talk about parenting. Admittedly I have not yet read your book, but I have been following the debate around it closely. 

I just saw you on the Colbert Report and you seem to have shifted over the past few weeks: from describing and endorsing a “Chinese” style that demands that children live up to extremely high parental expectations at all costs, to emphasizing your conversion to a more open style, recognizing the conflict comes from trying to control a child’s development. 

And yet ... I can’t tell if you would acknowledge the risks of trying to choose who our kids will be and the high cost of “requiring” incredibly high performance in every area.  The only example you gave of your new approach was that you let your younger daughter switch from violin to tennis. I can’t help wondering if allowing a switch from perfection in violin to perfection in tennis fixes much.

It’s tempting for all of us to try to design our perfect child of course – even before birth. At Generations Ahead we are currently working on the issue of sex selection – our goal is to discourage the practice without infringing on women’s reproductive choices.  One important aspect of this is to address the root causes of sex selection. 

I believe that many parents want to have a boy or a girl based on stereotypes and gendered assumptions about what boys and girls will be like and what they will bring to the families. Insisting that your child must be a boy or a girl: “So we can play football!” or even “So we have a girl to balance out all these boys” seems mostly about insisting that your child be some preconceived notion of what a boy or a girl is like. Sex selection, may be the earliest and perhaps the most extreme version of trying to mold the child into some expectation of the parents.

Of course, many parents – perhaps nearly all of us – reinforce those gendered assumption by the way we treat (dress, play with, encourage, describe) boys versus girls once they are born.  But a little awareness goes a long way in allowing a child to become who they are.  We should all consider the impact on a kid who is not interested in or able to live up to parental expectations.  In your case, ultimately your younger daughter let you know that she needed a different set of expectations.  Not every child may be as strong.

My husband and I try to teach our kids the same values you write about: a strong work ethic, self-discipline, pride in one’s efforts. And yet … I want the discipline and pride to be theirs not mine.  I want them to find whatever they are passionate about and be able to work well with their peers rather than automatically try to “win” everything that comes along.

So instead of pushing them towards uber-excellence in one area or another, I often do the opposite, to try to limit the intensity of it all at this young age. We look for the (few) kids’ sports and activities that have only once-a-week practices, that are done before dinner.  When there was worksheet after pointless worksheet of first grade homework I would try to get some downtime for my 6 year old by simply (gulp) throwing some away.

We expect that our kids will take some time to find their passion and pursue it.  When they do, I bet it will not be something we could possibly predict today. If I could make more time in our days it would be to let my kids dabble in hobbies, stare into space, read for pleasure and play in the dirt.  That peace and quiet might help them find passions all their own as opposed to the passions I might guess – or wish – or demand – they “should” pursue.

Do our efforts to help them along their own path look to you like Western excuse-making and indulgence? Every kid is different of course, and parents are too.  Your methods and priorities may be a great fit for your kids and your family.  We are all tempted to try to mold our children to our own parental expectations of what a child should be.  But when it comes right down to it, the ultimate message of your book seems to be that it doesn’t work. 

January 11, 2011
A Story You Can Be Proud Of

Surrogacy is such a lightening rod for assumptions, vitriol and judgment. Those women were forced to do it! You should have adopted! That’s buying a baby! How privileged and wealthy can you be! That’s unfair! Your put those women at risk! How much did you pay those greedy women! The judgments fly endlessly and furiously.

Given the slinging that goes, Melanie Therstrom was brave to tell her story of surrogacy and egg donation in the New York Times. The article, Meet the Twiblings, is heart-felt, honest and human. It captures the familiar family stories of heartbreak, confusion and joy that’s part and parcel of surrogacy.

Generations Ahead recently started a project on surrogacy to record the perspectives, struggles and values of all parties involved in surrogacy – intended parents, egg/sperm donors, surrogates and future children. So often the story focuses on either the parents or the surrogates, but rarely on all four and never based on an assumption that they would want to treat each other well. The overwhelming supposition is that everyone is either the exploiter or the exploited. Rather than debate the goodness or badness of surrogacy, what if we debated how best to treat everybody in this mix?

Therstrom did a lovely job of exposing herself agonizing over decisions and attempting to treat surrogates Melissa and Fie, and the Fairy Goddonor as well as possible, in alignment with her own personal values. She seemed to strive for raising the bar in this new arrangement while embracing all the complexities with courage and goodwill.

In an interview with Terry Boggis, formerly with the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of New York, she said that she advises her intended parents to go about this baby business in a way that will give them a story that they can be proud to tell their children and families. Melanie Therstrom definitely did that; she created a story that she was proud enough to tell the world.

December 6, 2010
Confusing in India

The trailer for Made in India so viscerally evoked the smells and sounds of India that I felt homesick. The young Indian woman explaining in accented Hindi why she decided to become a surrogate for an American couple, could have been one of the girls I played with growing up in India. To anybody who has spent time in India, the difference in her accent and the accents of the other Indians in this movie speaks volumes about the class differences at play. Add to the mix the Indian and American accented English, and a whole array of globalized social and economic inequalities are exposed.

If one emotion marks my perspective on outsourcing surrogacy to India, it is ambivalence. There is nothing new about being uncomfortable that some (in this case American) people are able to buy a baby cheaper in India, although I’m not sure whether it’s the buying or the cheaper that makes me more uncomfortable.

I feel for people who want to have children and can’t. I have witnessed this painful and private grief among my friends. But, in this movie, somewhere between the Indian woman who is doing this for the money, the doctor who is “only interested in their uteruses,” and the American couple who decided to “gamble” their house for a child, the babies being made become objects for possession and to be passed around.

I know the dismal lives that these Indian women live. I’ve been in those shantytowns, spent time in those dirt floor houses clapped together with carton, and smelt the distinctive odor of poverty and open sewers. All is fair in the attempt to scrape together any money to escape or make sure your children don’t repeat your life of struggle.

It was painful to hear that, while the intended parents think the surrogate kept $7,000 (out the total $25,000-35,000 fee) she reports that her cut will be $2,000. But I also know what a huge amount $2,000 would represent for some women. Nevertheless, somebody is getting rich here and it’s not the women who are doing the most difficult and dangerous work of making these babies.

I’m trying to imagine what these women from my childhood might say about what they would want in this situation. Would they want surrogacy banned or stopped (probably not), regulated (not clear what this would even mean), more information provided about it (probably yes, and in more accessible forms), more protection during the process (probably yes, although their poverty and lack of education poses the biggest danger here), or more money (definitely yes)?

What I would like is for these Indian women who choose to be surrogates to be treated like family, or at least like old childhood friends – with warmth, respect, dignity, fairness and good intention. But, it is precisely the vast chasms of class, race, culture, language, education and geography between these surrogates and intended parents that make them seem so alien to each other, and make these bridges so hard to build. Perhaps that is the most disturbing and confusing aspect of this, that across all these divides these people come together to create a baby, one of the most intimately familiar acts.

November 15, 2010
Ideology in the Tea

As the volume turns down on the televised roar of midterm elections, now comes the endless murmur of punditry about what it all meant: The electorate was sending a message about big government. Anti-incumbent feelings rule the day. Wacky and extremist is a combination the American public can’t resist.

Based on his research, James Fowler of UC San Diego argues there’s a liberal gene. He maintains, “Ideology is about 40 percent heritable. It’s almost half genes and half environment.” In his estimation, there’s a gene variant that inclines some toward seeking out new experiences. Specifically, variations in the dopamine receptor gene DRD4 lead people with it to the pursuit of novelty, which tends to expose them to a variety of lifestyles and norms, people and opinions. It’s this variation in DRD4 that leads to an increased likelihood of being liberal in adulthood, but only if people with it were highly social as adolescents.

As a person who votes early, often and always for liberals, I embrace this definition. Open-minded, curious and social sound good to me. But I’m not convinced my genes are the source of my political convictions.

In 9th grade, I made a decision. I could either be scared of change for the rest of my life or embrace uncertainty. I could breathe shallow and stick close to the familiar, or breathe deep and venture out to see what else I could learn. Did my particular variation on DRD4 predispose me to towards this? According to Fowler, at least 50% of that “decision” was nothing I could consciously govern or choose.

There is something deeply disturbing that rejects that half of what I end up doing stems from biological realities and is thus predetermined. It discounts all I’ve invested in seeking out difficult conversations; the tears I’ve shed over other people’s trials. And the shear hard work of holding to my convictions in a world that too often appears to have lost its collective mind. A lot of questioning and effort has gone into creating and maintaining my personal ideology. Biological determinism seems both too easy and flat a source for the self I’d like to believe I’ve constructed.

If ideology is about genes and governed by biology, I’m scared to think what they might start putting in the water around election time to depress our dopamine. This leads me to wonder, what is brewing in those tea partiers’ Lipton? Given these bizarro elections, I wouldn’t put it past someone to spike the water as it boils on the stove.

November 2, 2010
Desperately Seeking Sujatha: Making Myself the Man I Always Wanted

On my 32nd birthday, I selected a theme for my year: “Making Myself the Man I Always Wanted.” Two years past a heartbreaking divorce, I was out seeking something I had decided was a someone. Deeper into the dating game, I found myself attracted to men who did activities I admired. Unfortunately, these men’s personal interests didn’t necessarily make them personally interesting. So, I decided that instead of dating an athlete, I would become an athlete. No more making cow eyes at carpenters, I would apprentice to become one. And, rather than drooling over some guy’s biceps, I would pump up my own.

And I did. I started running and biking and hiking and weightlifting while also working as a handy(wo)man and training as a carpenter. I plunged into pursuits I’d found attractive in men but had been told all my life weren’t for ladies. Especially not for the South Asian lady I was trained to always assume I wanted to be. I chopped off my hair, beefed up my muscles and found that, if I had a hammer…Well, you know the song.

As I delve into the myths and motivations behind sex selection, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own gender-bending self-improvement project. Parents often report seeking sex selective technologies based on their beliefs that girls do certain things while boys do something entirely different. Even now in our world, where old boundaries between girl and boy activities are blurring, parents who go to doctors for sperm-sorting or preimplantation embryo testing often do so with rather rigid ideas about what children like and are like. And these are based on gender. 

If as an adult at 32, I could embrace my inner “boy”, what makes these parents think that their babies-to-be can’t do and become whatever they want? Technology might help them select the biological sex of their child but it will in no way guarantee who that child is or how he or she will want to spend free time.

My biceps have lost some of their definition and my hair now brushes past my shoulders. I now rarely pick up a hammer. But those days of taking on the “manly” roles I had admired in mates served me well. Once I was no longer seeking a type, the sculpted athlete or skilled carpenter, I found men with warm hearts, easy laughs and kind sensibilities. I stopped getting confused by what I was looking for and started seeing potential mates for who they were.

When it comes to sex selection, my hope is that parents will stop applying tired assumptions about what certain children do. Only then can we come to know and nurture who children are and honor all they’re capable of becoming.

October 25, 2010
Can We Treat Each Other As Family?

Surrogacy seems to be one of the sexy, scary topics in the news. On a regular basis, articles pop up about both domestic and international surrogacy, telling exotic stories of American military wives, poor Indian women and coerced Guatemalan women renting their wombs to rich American and Europeans to supply them with newly born babies. Four different kinds of stories are told to explain this complex global phenomenon that makes most of us feel queasy and confused (hence the sexiness of the stories).

Story #1: Surrogacy is just like any other service in the market place, and we live in a global free market. So, leave them all alone.

Story #2: Surrogacy is unnatural and not the way God (or nature) intended children be born. So, regulate if you have to, but better to ban it all together.

Story #3: Surrogacy is a wonderful and fulfilling experience of a woman giving the gift of a baby to another unfortunate family who desperately wants a baby of their own to make them feel complete. So, leave them all alone.

Story #4: Surrogacy exploits poor (uninformed) women and commodifies their bodies. In order to protect these poor women, regulate surrogacy if you have to, but better to ban it all together.

These four stories about surrogacy create some really odd bedfellows—social conservatives and feminists arguing for banning it, while free-market and motherhood celebrants advocating for live and let live. But aside from that, these four perspectives don’t really seem to move the discussion along. There is often a lot of discussion about state laws, contract law and different regulatory frameworks, but very little about the different stakeholders involved in the process—surrogates, intended parents, egg/sperm donors and future children. And even when there is some nod to the actual human beings involved, it is usually all about the surrogates or the intended parents, very rarely does it include the gamete donors and the resulting children.

Since surrogacy is about creating families, what if all four stakeholders in surrogacy were to treat each other as family? What if we had a discussion about how all four stakeholders could be their best selves and treat each other well in the process?

If we did that, I imagine that we might be talking about some very different things.

  • What would it look like if the intended parents were committed to and ensured the present and future health and wellbeing of surrogates and gamete donors?
  • Since this is about family, how about paying poor Indian and Guatemalan women the same amount that intended parents would pay their own sisters to carry a pregnancy for them?
  • International surrogacy would certainly open up a whole new conversation about race and class in all families involved!
  • And how about maintaining family ties through the pregnancy and beyond so that the children born through the process would know who all was involved in bringing them into the world?

Since the current debate about surrogacy is stuck, how about trying a different approach, an approach that treats everybody involved as family in all its messy and fiercely loyal forms.

October 11, 2010
The One and the Many

Last week biologist Robert G. Edwards was awarded a Nobel Prize in medicine for developing in vitro fertilization (IVF). In addition to all the religious and ethical controversy that surrounded the world’s first “test tube baby” in 1978, many feminists were concerned that this technique would lead to the exploitation and commodification of women and children. Now, thirty-two years later, many recognize the gift it has been to many women and families. Through IVF, more than four million babies have been born worldwide and people struggling with infertility and gay and transgender people now have the option of having biologically related children. This is something that puts a smile on my face.

However, many, in more troubling ways, celebrate IVF for the possibility of using it to eliminate disability. In fact, Edwards himself advocated for the use of IVF precisely to prevent the birth of children with disabilities, stating that it would be a “sin of parents to have a child that carries the heavy burden of genetic disease. We are entering a world where we have to consider the quality of our children.” One doesn’t need to, nor should, denigrate disability or people with disabilities in order to appreciate the benefits of IVF. To do so both supports a eugenic agenda and pits women’s rights against disability rights. In fact, anti-choice advocates argue against the use of IVF and for the curtailment of women’s access to abortion in order to protect people with disabilities.

However, what strikes me about both critiques of IVF—the early feminist critique and the current anti-choice critique—is the way they are framed in terms of harms against groups of people – women and people with disabilities. The prevailing solution to these critiques is to support individual choice in reproductive decision-making. The response to the feminist critique is that this is what individual women and families can and should feel empowered to choose. The response to the pro-life argument that we must restrict abortion and IVF in order to protect disability rights is to support individual reproductive choice.

This framing of the interest of the one against the interest of the many seems to me to be both inaccurate and problematic. When the solution is framed as one of an individual choice several important issues are erased.  An individual choice seems to imply that a woman is making a selfish decision, rather than thinking about her current or future family and about the community in which she would raise her child. It makes invisible the social, historical and political forces that create and shape the context of her decision. The reproductive decisions women could make 50, 100 or 150 years ago are very different than the options she faces now, or 50 years into the future. And, by focusing only on individual women we conceal all the systematic and structural barriers that women face in accessing contraception and reproductive health services, receiving comprehensive sexuality education, and to having and raising children with dignity with adequate resources and support. The solution isn’t to advocate for individual choice, because there is not such thing as an individual choice in this context.

At Generations Ahead, when it comes to reproductive genetics we have been struggling find a balance between individual autonomy and collective benefits. We are trying, however successfully or unsuccessfully, to reframe this pitting of the rights of the many against the rights of the one.

When it comes to sex selection, we advocate for discouraging sex selective practices by supporting strong families and healthy parenting while still protecting the right of women and families to make the best reproductive decision for themselves. We identify the locus of the problem not with individual families that decide to use sex selective techniques, but with the social norms that encourage gender stereotypes and biases, and with the use of medical technologies for non-medical reasons. We advocate for encouraging professional ethical guidelines by fertility doctors and discouraging the marketing and promotion of reproductive technologies that are premised on gender discrimination.

Similarly, when it comes to IVF and the exploitation of women and disability, can we discourage disability discrimination and gender inequality while celebrating IVF? Is IVF really the problem, or is it disability discrimination and the vulnerability of women to sexism? I’m weighing in on the side of working against discrimination and inequality, and not against technology.

If we can frame the problem and the solution as a collective social, not as the interest of one against the many, we might focus more on solutions that meet the needs of many. The solution to protecting women and people with disabilities is to address the systematic barriers they face, not punish individuals for making the best decision for themselves under less than ideal circumstances. As somebody recently said, “Our experiences are all very, very personal, but not particularly unique.”

October 1, 2010

Welcome to Sujatha’s blog, my space to muse and explore the complicated and difficult intersections of race, gender, disability, sexuality, and human genetic technologies.

I first became involved with human genetics not because I was so interested in the science (which is fascinating, by the way), but more because I was challenged and intrigued to think about the socially just ways to use these technologies. Now, six years into this, I’m even more challenged. As I’ve become more involved, the “right” way to address these issues becomes less clear. 

For example, using genetic technologies for sex selection and disability de-selection is deeply troubling to me, but is the solution really to have governments tell women and families what to do? I know I feel angry when anti-abortion advocates use the socially and culturally sensitive issue of sex selection to try to ban abortion, particularly when much of the debate is racially coded for Asian and South Asian women. But how can we take a thoughtful, hopeful, solutions-oriented approach when anti-choice advocates make these outrageous claims about “race-selective” abortion?

I love DNA forensic science for convicting violent offenders and exonerating the wrongfully convicted, but what do I think about expanding databases that are including more innocent people, too? Do I think we should be using DNA dragnets that include family members? And should we use such a costly science to catch and incarcerate non-violent offenders, particularly in a system that is breaking under the weight of massive incarceration?

And I’m equally troubled by the missing conversation about why egg donation is seen as such an attractive economic option for so many young women. I firmly believe that all women make the best decisions for themselves and that nobody else can live with their decision. But, who is responsible for expanding those options and where does egg donation fit into a bigger conversation about young women’s lives?

These are just some of the questions I’ve been struggling with and that I will be ruminating on in this blog. I hope you will join me in this exploration and journey together to figure out a socially just way forward on these issues.