IVF and Assisted Reproduction: Australia and the Global Experience

IVF and Assisted Reproduction: Australia and the Global Experience is an invited workshop funded by the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia – to be held at the University of Wollongong, February 9-10, 2017. This workshop will bring together leading social scientists, lawyers and medical practitioners to survey the history, present situation and future prospects of IVF and new reproductive technologies in their cultural and social context in Australia and internationally.

Rarely has a medical technology presented such ambiguities as IVF. It brings happiness to many people, at the same time as opening up troubling potentialities, with profound effects on individuals, families, social groups, and cultural understandings. Its historical trajectory is paradoxical in that IVF and the associated assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) have become, on the one hand, more and more ‘routine’ and acceptable but, on the other hand, potentially more ethically and culturally disruptive.

The first IVF conception in Australia was in 1973 and the first IVF birth in Australia was in 1980. The state of Victoria was the first government to regulate practices related to IVF, and this was cross-referenced in other regulatory regimes, notably in the United Kingdom. Australian-based researchers were involved in the development of ARTs and operated in global research networks, often in keen competition with researchers in other countries. Since the birth of Louise Brown in the UK (the first baby to be born from conception through IVF) in 1978, an estimated 5 million children have been born through IVF worldwide, and IVF has become the lynchpin of a global reproduction industry.

IVF has been supplemented by other technologies and practices, such as donor insemination, the provision of third party ova, the freezing of gametes and embryos, and the creation of babies with three genetic parents (ovum cytoplasm donor, ovum nucleus donor and sperm donor). Once conception and gestation had been separated, it became possible to engage in surrogacy or gestational surrogacy. Commissioning parents now travel to such places as India, Thailand or the USA to engage in transnational surrogacy agreements. Although commercial surrogacy is prohibited in Australia, recent media controversies have revealed that Australians do travel overseas to engage in transnational surrogacy agreements.

The ways in which IVF and ARTs are deployed in particular contexts are not always predictable. ARTs can either bolster conventional family structures or challenge these through facilitating single, gay, lesbian and transgender parenthood; they also might enable complex combinations of genetic, gestational and social parenting. Like other technologies, ARTs are historically and culturally shaped. This workshop will place IVF and associated forms of assisted reproduction in their changing historical and contemporary contexts, in local sites which are embedded in global and transnational processes and in specific local cultural contexts. The workshop will:

  • reflect on the four decades of history of IVF and assisted reproduction;
  • situate IVF and assisted reproduction in their cultural and social context;
  • encourage dialogue between social scientists, lawyers and medical practitioners;
  • consider the current state of the regulation of IVF and assisted reproduction in Australia;
  • place Australian policies in a comparative regional and global context; and
  • consider future policy directions.