Teaching Moms and Dads to Perform the Family: Rhetoric and Assisted Reproductive Technology Websites


Technologies for becoming mothers, fathers, and families are dramatically changing through Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART).  ART generally "refers to methods used to achieve pregnancy by artificial or partially artificial means" ("Assisted reproductive technology," 2010, para. 1).  It is comprised of a variety of procedures including fertility drugs, artificial or assisted insemination, in vitro fertilization, and the genetic testing of embryos (Mundy, 2007, p. 4).  ART allows for new reproductive choices. Manuel Castells (2004) theorizes on these choices and describes how they are changing what it means to be moms and dads.  He writes:

Yet, the fact that women can have children on their own without having to even know the father, or that men even after their death, can use surrogate mothers to have their children, severs the fundamental relationship between biology and society in the reproduction of the human species thus, separating socialization from parenting. (p. 300)

Soon all combinations of parenthood, as Castells intimates, will be possible. ART, after all, can allow for numerous sorts of family relationships (e.g. families made through surrogacy or gamete donation) and provides prospective moms and dads new reproductive choices. Parents—whether LGBTQ, heterosexual, single, or as couples—whose reproductive choices are limited due to bio/medical issues or societal/cultural constraints have greater opportunities to conceive biologically related children.

In fact, scientists have created “female sperm” where a female’s genetic material is inserted into a sperm head. Marcy Darnovsky (2008) describes a study done at the United Kingdom’s University of Newcastle of a successful implantation in mice resulting in pups. Such ART techniques have not been perfected; however, it is not difficult to imagine a future where mommies will have their own sperm and daddies will have their own eggs.

As one can see from the possibility of mommies with sperm and daddies with eggs, ART techniques and procedures have changed dramatically from the sex-biased 18th century use of electroshock fertility treatments to the herbal teas and tonics all aimed to "cure" women of their infertility problems (Spar, 2006, p. 10-11). According to Deborah Spar (2006), three significant events lead to the current ART industry—what she calls the "baby business." First, scientists developed a better understanding of "the biology of reproduction" (p. 17); it was no longer a "woman's disease" as male factor infertility was "discovered." One event that contributed to this discovery was, strangely enough, gonorrhea. Doctors "discovered" that gonorrhea caused infertility in men. Simultaneously, gynecology was moving forward and doctors were beginning to examine the "physical impediments to conception"(p. 18). For example, Spar notes that doctors were "experiment[ing] with artificial insemination and...repairing woman's fallopian tubes" (p.18). Second, hormones were "discovered" and understood to be important actors in reproduction and fertility.  This discovery did not go unnoticed by pharmaceutical companies who along with universities learned to synthesize hormones and, thus, "reduce the price of hormonal treatments and widen the market" (p. 21). Finally, ART reached a pinnacle moment in 1978 with the birth of Louise Brown—the first test tube baby.  Through IVF and other techniques (e.g. ZIFT, GIFT and ICSI), it was discovered that conception no longer had to occur in the womb. These events helped shape and create the powerful ART industry. According to Spar "In 2004, more than one million Americans underwent some form of fertility treatment" (p. 3). ART including IVF, fertility drugs, diagnostic tests, donor eggs, surrogate carriers, and donor sperm, accounted for nearly three billion dollars of the ART industry (p. 3). I do not doubt that this industry has grown since.  For those readers interested in more in-depth information on ART history, issues, the industry, and technologies available, see Spar's The Baby Business (2006) and Liza Mundy's (2007) Everything Conceivable.

Castells’s clairvoyant reading about the future of parenthood and its instability where “the fundamental relationship from biology and society” is severed may change the traditional parenting roles mothers and fathers perform. Yet, he notices, “under these historical conditions, families, and people’s living arrangements, are being redefined in terms still unclear" (Castells, 2007, p. 300). These changes in the relationships between biology and culture and what it means to father and mother continue, for the most part, to remain clearly opaque, though in some ways they are in the process of transforming.

"Teaching Moms and Dads" takes Castells’s observations about biology, culture, and parenting seriously and shows how under these historical conditions families are being defined and re-defined in ART company website representation practices. By examining the ART industry through ART company websites' (i.e. companies offering sperm donation, egg donation, and surrogacy services) rhetorical moves, "Teaching Moms and Dads" shows how the relationships between biology, culture, and parenting are, overall, remaining clearly traditional. In other words, the types of families and parenting roles presented by many ART company websites continue to represent parents and families in stereotypical ways. They uphold traditional parenting paradigms where heterosexual families are normalized, mothers are nurturers, and fathers are powerful heads of the family.

While ART company websites represent only one actor and one medium in a network of relationships affecting biology and culture, ART company websites, nevertheless, are important spaces for discovering transformations in parental paradigms. They are points of contact between audiences interested in using ART and ART companies’ own cultural/ideological assumptions about themselves and their audiences.

There have been studies on ART company websites. For instance, one study examines how fertility clinic websites conform to American Medical Association (AMA) online health information guidelines (Huang, Discepola, Al-Fozan, & Tolandi, 2005). This study critiques how fertility clinic websites present information about their affiliations, editorial content, and website navigation. A few aspects of the study include determining whether or not website ownership is clearly presented (affiliations); whether or not the site's language is appropriate for it's audience (editorial content); and whether or not the site features a site map (website navigation). The findings reveal that the fertility clinics studied do not conform to the AMA online health information guidelines very well. Another study on fertility clinic websites uses the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM)/Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology (SART) guidelines for advertising (Abusief, Hornstein, & Jain, 2007). This study looks for the presence of a number of informational features that conform to ASRM and SART guidelines. For example, a few aspects of the study include determining if the site presents appropriate live birth data and shows how the data was calculated. Another aspect of this study is to determine if a required SART disclaimer about treatment success rates is present. As with the study on how fertility clinic websites conform to AMA online health information guidelines, this study finds that the "majority of fertility clinics do not follow 2004 SART/ASRM mandatory guidelines for advertising" (p. 91). While these studies are important for helping us understand how ART companies are communicating informational content, these sites do not examine the rhetorical impact of visual imagery on ART company websites.

There have also been studies analyzing the rhetoric of ART. For instance, the rhetoric of ART has been examined as it is presented in women's service magazines (Diepenbrock, 2000), egg donation advertisements (Hobbs, 2007), differences in the reasons sperm and egg donors donate and how donors are coached in their answers by company representatives (Almeling, 2006), the ways discourse frames women in fertility clinics (Shanner, 2000), and analysis of the verbal discourse of participants of online infertility support communities (Haas, 2009). The focus of these studies is on verbal rhetoric. Shanner does touch upon visual rhetoric when she discusses the impact of pornographic materials on women and men in fertility clinics. Haas's piece also does consider the rhetorical impact of how a doctor is allowed to picture himself on one of the online bulletin boards she critiques noting that this picture "contradicts the so-called purpose of such spaces—to provide forums for women's experiences with infertility to be heard" since "the doctor's identity is worth sharing in more visible ways than the women on the BBS [infertility online bulletin boards]" (p. 76). However, the focus of Shanner and Haas's work is on verbal discourse. While not exactly about ART, Herrle-Fanning's (2000) study of eighteenth century British midwifery texts can be considered a critique of a precursor to ART's development. Herrle-Fanning describes the significance of the textualization of midwifery—how midwifery's practices and processes shifted from being orally transmitted to textually transmitted (i.e. becoming medical literature). Though she explains how the visual and verbal rhetoric of female reproductive organs by male midwives creating these new textual transmissions fragmented women's bodies, decontextualized them and objectified them, Herrle-Fanning, like Haas and Shanner, is primarily concerned with verbal text. Georges and Mitchell's (2000) "Baby Talk," like Herrle-Fanning's work, is not directly tied to ART.  Their work critiques the visual and verbal rhetoric of pregnancy guides and the ways they present maternity and fetal identity. There have also been ethnographies of ART (e.g. Franklin, 1997 and Thompson, 2005), which investigate the experiences of ART participants.  Franklin's work focuses primarily on women's experiences with IVF, and Thompson conducts a comprehensive analysis of ART clinics, which explores multiple viewpoints from ART participants including but not limited to perspectives from patients dealing with infertility, nurses, lab technicians, and surrogates. These ethnographies (Franklin resists calling her work an ethnography, though she concedes it shares similarities to an ethnography) show us how participants negotiating ART processes play out gender and kinship. These studies help us understand the experiences of those undergoing ART procedures and show us how the players in ART processes perform gender identities in complicated ways; however, as with the other authors mentioned, their focus is not on visual rhetoric.

"Teaching Moms and Dads" contributes to ART research by describing how the visual rhetoric of family and of men and women acting as parents on ART company websites are like a handbook instructing audiences about gender appropriate parenting behavior. By using a teaching or instruction metaphor, this study explains how the pictures on ART company websites teach audiences to be particular kinds of families and particular kinds of parents.