Taking, Making and Faking Life

Jennifer Lahl discusses the ethical and societal implications of a world without limits on biotechnologies.

In 2000, Jennifer Lahl founded the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network to help “change the bioethical landscape and promote wholly and truly human progress.” While the organization is actively working with educators, medical professionals and policymakers in the field of bioethics, they have recently turned to the medium of film to help spread their message to a larger audience.

In 2010, Lahl, an evangelical Christian, wrote and produced the documentary film Eggsploitation, which focuses on the commercialization of infertility and the many health risks faced by women who choose to sell their eggs. Her new film, Anonymous Father’s Dayhighlights the many unforeseen consequences when children are conceived from sperm donation.

Lahl, who received a degree in nursing from California State University and a master’s degree in  bioethics from Trinity International University, spoke with Register correspondent Christopher White on the societal consequences of egg and sperm donation and the work of the Center for Bioethics and Culture.  


What is the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network, and why did you found it?

I founded the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network as my graduate thesis project. I spent my graduate school days reading, researching and writing and really wanted to found an organization to address the fast-approaching changes in biotechnologies. My grad school days were during the time when Dolly the sheep had just been cloned, Bill Joy had just written his famous essay in Wired magazine on “Why the future doesn’t need us”, and Peter Singer had just arrived at Princeton. Many were debating What does it mean to be human? And the CBC was founded to engage and influence these profound questions confronting the biotech century. 


What makes the CBC different from other bioethics groups?

CBC is unique from other bioethics groups, as we are not affiliated or attached to a university, political group or religious organization, which affords us much freedom in how we operate and who we work with. So, you often find us working with leading thinkers across political, religious and ideological divides. We are able to work with just about anyone where we have a common cause.


Recently, you’ve used the medium of film to highlight the human costs of embryonic stem-cell research and egg and sperm “donation.” Why film?

Stories are a powerful way to communicate. The ethics of biotechnologies such as human cloning and stem-cell research and reproductive technologies are sometimes difficult to communicate. We have really become a culture that is shaped and informed by stories, and film, over books, rightly or wrongly, is moving messages. We’ve been able to reach and educate, inform and persuade people all over the world with our films. I have a book manuscript, which, to date, I have been unsuccessful in getting published (self-publishing is looking better and better). And even if I do publish my book, I would never be able to reach as many people with my book as I have been able to reach with my films.


What’s really wrong with egg and sperm donation? Isn’t it just another medium of creating new life that we can celebrate?

Sadly, much of our focus is rarely on the best interest of the children created by donated gametes. A couple wants a baby, they have the financial means to afford expensive fertility treatment, and they will do whatever, perhaps, to have a baby. With donated egg/sperm, the baby really is, in fact, biologically not fully their child, but the biological child of the person who donated (more often, sold) his or her genetic material. We have totally deconstructed our reproductive bodies in such a manner that we don’t even see that these children may (and do) grow up wanting to know and be known by that person.

As it relates specifically to egg donors, I have many concerns with the health risks of these women as well. How did we come to a place where we will pay a young woman, or ask her to freely donate her eggs, when we should be doing everything to preserve her health and future fertility? The powerful drugs they take and procedures these women undergo are not without serious risks.


So you’re saying that a consistent pro-life ethic requires opposition to sperm and egg donation?

Actually, I would go a bit further and say that in vitro fertilization (with or without donated egg/sperm) is not consistent with those who want to assert that they are pro-life. Why do we make so many surplus embryos in the process? Because we know many embryos will die along the way. They die in the laboratory, they die in the transfer stage, and they die going in and out of the freezer. 

Also, IVF, by design, is mere technique, turning the making of life into a eugenic enterprise. The minute eggs and sperm are outside the body, quality-control standards are implemented. Are these “good” eggs/sperm or “bad” eggs/sperm? Same with embryos and the grading of them, so that the “best” embryos get implanted and the suspect embryos are “tossed” or put into the freezer. As an industry that is in the business of delivering babies, they seek to optimize the end result: healthy babies.


Would you say that students are a huge target audience for both Eggsploitation and Anonymous Father’s Day? What types of reactions have you received when showing these films on university campuses?

Yes, students on university campuses are the target audience, because they oftentimes need money; and, with egg donation, the age of females being targeted to sell their eggs is 21-29.  Because I often show the films and lead discussion with colleagues on both sides of the abortion debate, we have been able to have very good discussions with diverse student groups.  Many wrongly want to pitch these films as pushing a pro-life agenda and that I, in particular, have a hidden, secret agenda. I happily admit that I have no hidden or secret agenda; just google my name, and you will see much that I have written over the last decade, widely criticizing the fertility industry.

While I can make a pro-life case to not sell your eggs or sperm, as a nurse, a woman and feminist, I can also make a strong case for health risks, exploitation, and the rights of the child, as well as the corruption of medicine in the manufacturing-of-baby business. This is really a big-tent issue.


Anonymous Father’s Day profiles the children conceived from sperm donation and their longing to know their biological fathers. Why are biological fathers important?

Back to my concerns about the deconstruction of our reproductive bodies is my larger concern that biology matters. A womb isn’t something you pay a poor woman to rent so she can incubate a baby for you. A woman’s eggs contribute half to creating her children. Similarly, a man’s sperm is contributing half toward the making of a new life — his child’s life. Biological ties are strong and important bonds. If we learned anything from early adoption, where records were sealed, only to see how children grow up and often want to seek out their biological parents, we should translate those lessons learned to modern-day baby-making.


Each year the CBC awards its annual Paul Ramsey Award. Who was Paul Ramsey, and what does he represent?

My thinking has been shaped and deeply influenced by the writings of Paul Ramsey. Ramsey is regarded by many as one of the most important ethicists of the 20th century. He was a distinguished writer on bioethics a generation ago and served as Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University. His books The Patient as Person and Fabricated Man were prophetic, a clarion call for where we find ourselves today: a culture which appears to have lost its way with regard to morality. Every year, the CBC gives the Paul Ramsey Award to a person who has and is deeply impacting the bioethics discussion. The recipients of the Paul Ramsey Award demonstrate exemplary achievement in the field of bioethics, and it is my desire to keep his legacy alive and honor those in the spirit of Ramsey’s important contribution.


To what extent should voters in this year’s presidential election consider bioethics issues?

I suppose, in my mind, it’s not so much how bioethical issues will shape and inform our voting decisions, but, rather, what candidates support advances in medicine, science and technology which advance our common human good and protect and defend human beings. While job creation, getting out of debt and national security are important issues, what’s the point of having a country which may be seen as a leader in the world yet doesn’t protect the vulnerable at the margins of life, those who have no voice and the least of these among us?

Register correspondent Christopher White writes from New York.