Genetic Engineering and Human Embryos

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Genetic Engineering and Human Embryos

by Shelley Minden

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 17, No. 3, May-June 1985, p. 27-31

Shelley Minden is a member of the group Women and Reproductive Technologies, which is a part of the Committee for Responsible Genetics. She is also a co-editor of the book Test-Tube Women: What Future for Motherhood? The author wishes to thank Rita Arditti, Ross Feldberg, and Ruth Hubbard for their helpful comments.   

fetus wearing helmetUnder the microscope, their long tails furiously lashing, spermatozoa were burrowing head first into eggs; and, fertilized, the eggs were expanding, dividing, or if bokanovskified, budding and breaking up into whole populations of separate embryos. From the Social Predestination Room the escalators went rumbling down into the basement, and there, in the crimson darkness, stewingly warm on their cushion of peritoneum and gorged with blood-surrogate and hormones, the fetuses grew and grew, or, poisoned, languished into a stunted Epsilonhood. With a faint hum and rattle the moving racks crawled imperceptibly through the weeks and the recapitulated aeons to where, in the Decanting Room, the newly-unbottled babes uttered their first yell of horror and amazement. 1

In 1932, when Aldous Huxley first envisioned a world in which natural birth was considered a disgusting abberation, readers might have been comforted by the notion that human control over the steps of fertilization, embryogenesis and birth was far too crude to allow for the translation of such an image into reality. Today, however, science fiction merges into reality with the development of techniques for the laboratory fertilization and culturing of human ova, and the successful transfer of genes into the embryos of other mammals. The barriers to the genetic engineering of the human embryo are rapidly becoming social and political rather than technical. How will our society be affected by this technology? Although the full answer to this question is hard to imagine, one thing that is certain is that the first people to be affected will surely be women, whose eggs, wombs and lives will form the raw material for this intervention.

The ever-increasing reach of technology into conception, pregnancy and birth has been met with concern by feminists. Although these technologies promise things that many women want—possibilities of healthier babies and of reduced infertility— the price that they exact is no less than that of women’s autonomy over our own bodies. Genoveffa Corea writes that women are increasingly becoming “mother machines,”2 incubators for life that is controlled by manmade technologies from conception to birth. Indeed, as Renate Duelli Klein points out, these technologies are not simply “technical ‘problems’ or successes, but powerful socio-political instruments of control in the hands of the patriarchy which can be used to reinforce the oppression of women.”3 To what extent might the new capabilities of genetic engineering lead to the further oppression of women?

In this article, I would like to examine some of the recent research pertaining to the genetic engineering of embryos, and to suggest some of the consequences that may emerge for women’s lives.

The Progress So Far: Experiments on Animals and People 

An experiment reported in Nature in December, 19824 provided the first indications of the dramatic possibilities inherent in the genetic manipulation of embryos. The authors were a team of researchers from five laboratories, who had isolated a gene for growth hormone from rats. They removed eggs from female mice and fertilized them in the laboratory, using a procedure called in vitro fertilization. During the process of fertilization they injected the eggs with the gene for growth hormone, which they had isolated from rats and cloned in the laboratory. Finally, they put the engineered mouse eggs back inside female mice and waited to see how the pups would develop.

The baby mice grew to rat size, acquiring the name “supermice” because they were nearly twice as large as their littermates that had not been tampered with. The researchers enthused about the “practical” ways in which this information could be applied to “commercially valuable animals.” With the appropriate growth hormone, they suggested, animals might be made to grow more rapidly and on less food. Furthermore, they suggested that such genetic treatments could help to increase milk yields. And sure enough, their suggestion has already been taken up by researchers in the cattle industry.5

But what about those other “commercially valuable animals”—people? Are we, too, subject to “improvement?” Although no researchers have suggested that people be engineered for faster growth like farm animals, genetic manipulations have been proposed as a way to treat genetically based diseases. Some diseases result from disturbances in the many complicated interactions between genes and the rest of the organism, as well as its environment, but others depend primarily on changes (called mutations) in single genes. These single gene disorders are probably the most likely candidates for human genetic manipulations. In theory, they could be cured by the insertion of “normal” genes into cells to compensate for “faulty” genes. Perhaps euphemistically, medical researchers have adopted the term “gene therapy” to describe this human application of genetic engineering.

According to the Genetic Engineering and Biochemical Monitor6 an experiment with gene therapy will soon be carried out by researchers at the University of California and the Salk Institute. The subjects will be children with a devastating disease called Lesh-Nyhan Syndrome, and their treatment is anticipated to consist of the injection of a cloned gene into the children’s bone marrow. Because the “germ line,” i.e. reproductive cells, of the children will not be affected by the procedure, it is described as “somatic” gene therapy. (In contrast, genes inserted into a fertilized egg would theoretically become incorporated into every tissue of the growing individual, including eggs and sperm, and therefore this procedure is called “germ line genetic therapy.”)

The recent burst of medical technologies involving the fertilized egg bring the likelihood of “germ line genetic therapy” closer and closer. The technology of in vitro fertilization (IVF) is particularly connected with the potential for genetic manipulations. This procedure involves the surgical removal of eggs from a woman, to be fertilized with sperm in a laboratory dish (fulfilling Huxley’s prediction of sperm “burrowing into eggs” under a microscope.7) This procedure was essential to the “supermouse” experiment described above, in which foreign genes were inserted into mouse eggs during laboratory fertilization. Hundreds of women have already used IVF as a treatment for blocked fallopian tubes. The injection of genetic material during fertilization, before the egg is returned to a woman’s body for implantation, would constitute only a slight modification of medical procedures already used on women.8

So far, no experimental attempt to introduce genes into human embryos has been reported. The lack of research may result in part from the fact that since 1975, Congress has refused to provide government funding for research involving any experimentation on human embryos. But it is easy to imagine that somewhere, perhaps in a privately funded institution or in a country outside of the U.S., some researcher has already begun to experiment with the insertion of cloned genes into human embryos.

Medical Technologists and the Religious Right 

For a new technology to come into being, someone has to want it—and one doesn’t have to look far to see people who might benefit from the development and applications of human genetic engineering. Both the medical establishment and the religious right have interests that could be well served by the development of human genetic engineering. For the medical establishment, with its interest in technological control over the physical process of birth, gene therapy would be a new source of medical interventions, offering possibilities for control not only over how babies are born, but also over the kind of babies that women give birth to. And the religious right, should it achieve its goal of bestowing constitutional rights upon fertilized eggs, could find gene therapy to be an unprecedented source of power and control over women’s lives.

Human genetic engineering fits in precisely with the medical establishment’s increasing “technological takeover” of pregnancy and birth. During the 1960s and 1970s, medical doctors established control over nearly every possible aspect of the delivery of babies, including fetal monitoring, epidural anaesthesia, and even the provision of out-of-the-womb life supports (neonatal intensive care) for increasingly premature infants. With the new technologies of conception, medical researchers are shifting their focus from the end of pregnancy to its beginning. The ability to diagnose and treat fertilized eggs would be a logical extension of this new research emphasis.

Not all of the challenges faced by the medical profession are technical ones. The increasing popularity of midwives among middle and upper-class women threatens both the authority and financial status of obstetricians. Seen in this light, the new technologies of conception might be welcomed by medical doctors as a means to lure middle-class women away from the low-technology care of midwives, with the promise that the new technologies will increase women’s chances of having healthy babies.

So far, the religious right has vociferously opposed research into reproductive technologies, fearing that the “rights” of fertilized eggs will be violated in the process of research. This group was influential in developing legislation to insure that the uses of in vitro fertilization accorded with patriarchal values: women using the technology were required to be married, or to be in a permanent relationship with a man, and the practice of discarding fertilized eggs (rather than implanting them) was forbidden. A continuing target of the religious right is the practice of prenatal genetic screening, in which women are given the option of aborting a fetus with a known genetic disorder.

Unlike genetic screening, the genetic therapy of embryos would by definition provide “therapy” to embryos, rather than lead to their abortion. The religious right might well lobby to establish such a procedure as a replacement for the current screening tests. With the establishment of legal rights for the embryo, all abortions would be banned, and the only legal means of preventing genetic diseases would be the diagnosis and treatment of embryos and fetuses.

Protection of the “rights” of the embryo, combined with the availability of gene therapy, could even mean that women would be coerced into these procedures against their will. Even with our present abortion laws, women have been brought to court by physicians for refusing to have cesarean sections. Two women have received court orders to undergo cesareans in the interests of the fetus, and one was accused by the judge of being a “negligent” and “child-abusing” mother.9 Should women be held legally responsible to undergo “embryo therapy,” we would indeed lose all freedom of choice.

rate of IVF in achieving pregnancy, doctors insert up to four eggs at a time, hoping to increase the chances of pregnancy.) Most women using IVF undergo extensive procedures for fetal testing and monitoring throughout pregnancy, and their babies are usually delivered by Cesarean section.

But will we really have to use such a technology, even if it becomes a technical possibility? The question of choice with respect to the new reproductive technologies has been addressed with urgency by many feminists. For women who cannot afford to pay, the technologies are not even a nominal choice. But even for privileged women, the extent to which these technologies are “choices” is questionable. Barbara Katz Rothman has described how our society’s demand for “perfect” babies makes a woman vulnerable to any technology that promises to insure them. Rothman points out that, “in gaining the choice to control the quality of our children, we may be losing the choice not to control the quality, the choice of simply accepting them as they are.”10

Feminists have also pointed out that the very existence of new reproductive technologies creates pressure on women to use them. Now that prenatal screening through amniocentesis is an option, women with access to the test must choose it or know that if they do refuse it, they may later be made to feel “negligent.” Ruth Hubbard has described a “not so sci-fi fantasy” of a future in which pregnancy through IVF and embryo replacement is the norm. She writes that “at that point ‘in body fertilization’ will not only have come to seem old-fashioned and quaint, but downright foolhardy, unhealthy and unsafe.”11

The issues of prenatal screening and gene therapy have been followed closely and critically by feminists in the disability rights movement. Anne Finger points out the ignorance of both our society in general and the medical profession in their stereotypes about disabilities, showing that the categoration of genes as “good” or “bad” are not simply medical decisions, but political ones.12 An increasingly thin line exists between efforts to help individual mothers to make choices about their pregnancies, and the societal effort to “improve the gene pool” by urging the abortion of fetuses with genetic traits that medical doctors or government officials may find “undesirable.”

Thus, for most feminists who have written about this issue, the concept of “choice” is problematic and even dangerously misleading in light of the general lack of options and support for women, mothers, and chidren in our society. Furthermore, in the present wave of rightwing power and influence, even our present options are tenuous. Should the fertilized egg come to be recognized as a person, technologies like embryo genetic therapy would be totally out of women’s control. It would truly be a “Brave New World.”

Feminist Strategies 

Women may soon be affected not only by the technology of genetically engineered human embryos, but also, in the present political climate, by regulatory policies formulated by the religious right. Yet we are in a strong position to insist upon a major role in the formulation of policies effecting reproduction. The women’s health movement has exercised considerable political clout in promoting women’s interests in health care policies. And feminists are already organizing to discuss responses to the newest technologies.13

One important strategy for feminists is to monitor and stay informed about research on the development of human genetic therapy. Such information is often difficult to obtain and interpret, given the competition and secrecy among research labs and the fragmented, out of context presentation of reports in scientific journals. Attending medical conferences is one way that we can learn not only about what the current developments are, but where future research projects are headed. Although professional conferences are usually expensive, and often admit participants “by invitation only,” one way to be admitted, and without a fee, is to apply for a press pass.

We can also try to forge bridges with women who work in laboratories that do research in this area, and invite them to share information with the feminist media. Recently, social psychologist Robyn Rowland, working with an IVF team in Australia, went to the press in order to expose the practice of “embryo flushing,” the transfer of an embryo from one woman to another.14

Those of us who are concerned with this issue can urge the feminist media to inform women about the threat to our tenuous control over our bodies inherent in these new technologies. Through feminist newspapers, books, journals, and political networks we can insist that women are included in all policy decisions that effect our health and that of our children. We can also urge groups with related interests to do the same, particularly disability rights groups and ethnic groups that are likely targets for eugenics programs.

The reproductive rights advocacy that feminists have long carried out may be more essential now than ever before. Access to abortion, freedom from sterilization abuse, and the availability to all women of child care and child health services: the extent to which we have these rights may well determine whether the new technologies will represent new options or intensified control.

Finally, we will surely benefit from continuing our feminist tradition of sharing the stories of our personal reproductive choices. Several hundred women have now undergone IVF, and it is crucial to know why they chose the procedure, and what their feelings about it are in retrospect. Disabled women have already begun to speak about the new technologies both in terms of their impact on disabled people in general, and on women with disabilities who have chosen to bear a child. We also need to hear the stories of women who lack financial access to technologies they might otherwise choose to utilize, of women who have been sterilized without their consent, of lesbians whose doctors deny them the options of artificial insemination and IVF, and of those women who choose to live child-free lives in a society that too often equates womanhood with motherhood.

The medical technologists introduce each new technology with the justification: “women want it, it is in their best interests.” Rita Arditti has addressed this claim with skepticism: “I find it paradoxical that the excesses of an impersonal technology developed by males in a sexist society can be viewed as important for the liberation of women.”15 Only women, through the sharing of our personal stories, can define our needs, and only our own organizing efforts can insure that they are met.


  1. Huxley, Aldous, Brave New World, Vintage Books, 1954.
  2. Corea, Genoveffa, The Mother Machine, New York, Harper and Row, forthcoming in 1985.
  3. Klein, Renate Duelli, “Test Tube Women: How the New Reproductive Technologies Reduce Women to Living Laboratories” Journal of the Society for International Development, forthcoming 1985.
  4. Palmiter, Richard D., Ralph L. Brinster, Robert E. Hammer, Myrna E. Trumbauer, Michael G. Rosenfeld, Neal C. Birngerg, and Ronald M. Evans “Dramatic growth of mice that develop from eggs microinjected with metallothioein-growth hormone fusion genes” Science, Vol. 300, December 16, 1982.
  5. Rutledge, J.J., and George E. Seidel Jr. “Genetic engineering and animal production” Journal of Animal Science, Vol. 57, Suppl. 2, 1983.
  6. Genetic Engineering and Biochemical Monitor, Issue No. 8, 1984.
  7. The term “test-tube babies” is misleading, however, because it implies that the embryos develop to maturity in an artificial womb. Eggs fertilized by IVF are returned to a woman’s body for pregnancy; an artificial womb has not yet been developed.
  8. Hubbard, Ruth, “Legal and policy implications of recent advances in prenatal diagnosis and fetal therapy” Women’s Rights Law Reporter, Spring 1982, Vol. 7, No. 3.
  9. Hubbard, Ruth, “Legal and policy implications of recent advances in prenatal diagnosis and fetal therapy” Women’s Rights Law Reporter, Spring 1982, Vol. 7, No. 3.
  10. Hubbard, Ruth “Personal Courage is Not Enough: Some Hazards of Childbearing in the 1980s” in Test Tube Women: What Future for Motherhood? Pandora Press, 1984.
  11. Finger, Anne “Claiming all of our bodies: Reproductive Rights and Disabilities: in Test Tube Women: What Future for Motherhood? Pandora Press, London, 1984.
  12. A Women’s Emergency Conference on the New Reproductive Technologies will be held during July of 1985 in Lund, Sweden. The conference will consider in vitro fertilization, embryo transfer, artificial wombs, cloning, sex predetermination, genetic engineering and experimentation with human/animal hybrids. Information and application available from Janice Raymond, Women’s Studies, Bartlett 208, U. Mass., Amherst MA 01003.
  13. Blake, Martin “In vitro row, woman quits” Geelong Advertiser, (Australia) may 19, 1984.
  14. Arditti, Rita “Women as objects: Science and sexual politics,” Science for the People, Vol. VI, No. 5, September 1974.
  15. Arditti, Rita “Women as objects: Science and sexual politics,” Science for the People, Vol. VI, No. 5, September 1974.