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  • IVF and Assisted Reproduction: A Global History by Sarah Ferber et al.
  • Lara Freidenfelds (bio)
IVF and Assisted Reproduction: A Global History By Sarah Ferber, Nicola J. Marks, and Vera Mackie. Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020. Pp. 361.

Most scholars would find the prospect of writing a global history of in vitro fertilization (IVF) daunting. In IVF and Assisted Reproduction, co-authors Sarah Ferber, Nicola J. Marks, and Vera Mackie make it look easy. Commanding an enormous literature in a relatively short book, they give a sober-minded and clearly written overview of the techno-scientific, medical, political, cultural, and economic history of the past five decades of assisted reproduction.

Topical chapters draw the reader through time, beginning with the development of the science and clinical technique. Rather than focusing squarely on the Western story, as histories of IVF typically do, they take a broader view, with an extended account of Subhas Mukerji's brief clinical success in his clinic in India in the late 1970s. Mukerji's legitimacy was undercut by local medical politics. He was not able to build on (or even definitively prove) his success and later committed suicide. Technoscience and clinical success were not the only necessary ingredients for developing IVF; local and national politics along with wealth mattered at least as much.

In a chapter on the global development of an IVF infrastructure of clinics, practitioners, professional organizations, publications, and techno-medical techniques, Ferber et al. make the important point that this development should not be regarded in retrospect as preordained. Practitioners and clinics from China to Dubai to Zimbabwe worked to establish a specialty with an enormous demand, but with only very partial success. They had to harness would-be parents' desperation, funds, and physical bodies in order to develop the technologies and techniques that would eventually lead to a (more) reliable means of making new families.

Ferber et al.'s discussion on the regulation of IVF is particularly illuminating for its global perspective. By comparing and contrasting regulatory regimes around the world, they clarify the roles of religions and varying philosophies. They helpfully describe the critical role of "soft [End Page 248] regulation," along the lines of record-keeping and health insurance policies, as an equal or greater influence compared with criminal law. It's less visible and controversial, but was often where IVF practices were shaped and constrained.

Cross-border reproduction is the focus of another chapter, and the authors' analysis draws on the extensive anthropological literature. As they explain, a number of countries where cross-border reproductive services such as surrogacy initially developed later outlawed some of these services as exploitative of women or culturally problematic. But an already-developed industry created a "social imprint" that persisted even if it became a gray or black market.

Further chapters describe the technological and social breakthroughs that stem from IVF, from LGBTQ family formations to egg freezing and fertility preservation. The authors conclude with a look at just-developing clinical techniques such as mitochondrial donation and same-sex reproduction.

Ferber et al. do not so much stake out a novel argument as strive to provide a cogent overview of technoscientific, legal, social, and ethical debates that have surrounded IVF since its inception. They draw from the rich literature in the history and anthropology of reproduction, while avoiding the jargon that can make those sources challenging for a student reader. They also deliberately describe the phenomena they analyze in relatively neutral ways. For example, they discuss at length the terminology for situations where a person or couple travels to a different political jurisdiction for IVF. Rejecting the term "procreative tourism" as too critical, and "cross-border reproductive care" as too focused on care providers, they choose "cross-border reproductive travel." These kinds of choices throughout the book allow the authors to present competing perspectives on difficult and controversial issues.

There are inevitable trade-offs in writing a global history in under three hundred pages of text. There is no room for extended stories of individuals, and there is not a lot of narrative flow. But the book's clear and balanced exposition, divided with helpful section headers, makes it a pleasant and engaging...


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pp. 248-249
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