restricted access Two Chicks in a Lab with Eggs
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Two Chicks in a Lab with Eggs

One winter morning, the two of us—both postdoctoral fellows in medical humanities and bioethics—gathered with a handful of reproductive science graduate students in the lab to watch a demonstration on making alginate beads. Due to their three-dimensional nature, the beads are capable of holding ovarian follicles—the beads act as though they were a small ovary. The scientists in the lab have managed to mature the follicles maintained in the beads into eggs, fertilize these eggs, and produce the birth of live mice. This research was begun in an effort to develop a means of gathering ovarian follicles from young human cancer patients before they commence cancer treatment that may result in their infertility, thus preserving parts of their ovaries for later use in in vitro fertilization.

But the point of this paper is what else happened that day in the lab. The graduate students and the fellows began [End Page 21] talking about the inability of the lab to extend the experiment to see if human ovarian follicles are similarly capable of maturing into eggs that would be fertilizable. As the recipient of a grant from the National Institutes of Health, the lab must abide by the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, which bans federal funding for research involving human embryos and parthenotes. A parthenote is an egg that begins dividing as though it were fertilized even though fertilization has not occurred. Eggs can be induced to develop into parthenotes (a process known as parthenogenesis) in the absence of sperm by several different chemical and mechanical stimuli that mimic fertilization. The lab scientists understood the prohibition of federal funding for embryos, but they were frustrated that parthenotes were lumped in with embryos, especially given their scientific differences, because the ability to use human parthenotes would significantly improve their understanding of egg maturation in humans. We were surprised to learn about the ban on parthenote research, and somewhat chagrined to recognize how little we knew about the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. Our discussion with the scientists of why a parthenote was legally and ethically equated to an embryo in the Dickey-Wicker Amendment began the first of several joint research projects.1

Many have noted the importance of multidisciplinary work, and here we describe how such work—well, worked. We also show how our postdoctoral fellowships could be used as a model for the postgraduate training of others in medical humanities and bioethics. But first, a bit about our backgrounds, because our multidisciplinary work is not just about being embedded with scientists, but also about coming at medical humanities and bioethics from different disciplines. Lisa approaches her work from a philosophical background, with careful attention to power dynamics that can lead to health care inequities and injustices. Sarah comes at her work from a historical perspective, looking at how an issue developed in order to contextualize ethical issues and frame questions being asked today. Yet given that we both work in the broader field of medical humanities and bioethics, our work by its very nature is multidisciplinary. Furthermore, we are both interested in reproductive health and how the issues brought forward and the questions being asked are influenced by and influence the larger culture. We learn from each other the importance of historic contextualization and philosophical inquiry, and we join our work with the work in the lab.

By being embedded in the lab, we can both learn more about reproductive science and enable scientists in the lab to think about their work away from the bench. We discuss the differences between the scientific process and the historical and ethical research processes, as well as the similarities among the disciplines. We learn about the science of ovaries, ovarian follicles, eggs, embryos, and parthenogenesis, which furthers our ability to carefully analyze the intricacies of reproductive technologies. The scientists learn about the legal, historical, and ethical parameters of the science, providing them a useful context for understanding how and why their work is seen as it is by those outside reproductive science. It is this embedded nature of our fellowship that we suggest would make for...