February 2004

Jessa Crispin


Pandora's Baby by Robin Marantz Henig

The history of women's health care is not one sparkling with ethical cleanliness. The Pill is haunted by the deaths of women in Puerto Rico, given extreme doses of hormones without any explanation. Just a while back it was discovered the hormone replacement therapies doctors have been prescribing for years caused cancer. Today, c-sections are performed on perfectly healthy pregnancies, just so the doctor can make his golf game. The creation of the technology to make infertile women pregnant is just as disturbing. The story makes for a damn good book.

Robin Marantz Henig's Pandora's Baby provides an in-depth history of infertility treatments, from the first attempts at in vitro to the current debate on cloning and stem cell research. The doctors are obsessed, often cocky, always men, eager to get their reputations staked on the first successful test tube baby. At many times they appear unfeeling to the women they're treating, performing experiments on aborted fetuses without prior consent. Dr. Sweeney, an American doctor who unsuccessfully tried to fertilize eggs outside of the womb, replied to a complaint that he was hard to reach with, "I don't generally take phone calls during office hours. Usually I can't, because I've got my hand in someone's vagina."

This is salacious material, and Henig plays it up for the readers' benefit. The sixth chapter begins, "If the scientist hadn't used the word 'decapitated' to describe what he had done to the fetuses, maybe things would have turned out differently." Henig teases the readers along for a few pages more until we discover what "the scientist" was doing: he decapitated fetuses, strapped electrodes to their heads while keeping the brains artificially alive in goo. (He claimed to be studying fetal brain development.) And that experiment is hardly the most disturbing in the book. Informed consent laws had not been passed until IVF experimentation was in its final stages.

So it's no wonder that the pro-lifers began protesting reproductive technology. Even after the informed consent laws and experiments became tamer and more successful, however, the protests continued. The construction of the first IVF clinic in America was met with protests equaling that of an abortion clinic. The pro-lifers are mostly portrayed as kooks throughout the book, seemingly more crazy than the doctors themselves. They are represented by Charles Dean, a man with no medical experience and a fan of writing letters to the editor.

Pandora's Baby focuses solely on the medical and historical aspects of IVF technology, leaving the more philosophical questions unanswered. Doris Del-Zio sues the hospital that destroyed her harvested eggs, claiming they ruined her life. She was devastated by the failure, even though she already had children. What Henig never tries to explain -- and this was probably a good decision on her part -- is whether the allure of new reproductive technologies hindered Del-Zio's coming to terms with her infertility. The current state of IVF is put into stark light: the success rate is a dismal 24%, there are unknown consequences of fertility drugs, the anguish of false hope devastates many women. Henig has provided an instantly readable, comprehensive history of a procedure that has become common place.

Pandora's Baby by Robin Marantz Henig
Houghton Mifflin
ISBN: 0618224157
326 Pages