“My Sister’s Keeper” and Reproductive Rights

Kathleen Reeves

Lisa Belkin worries that the film paints an unrealistic, alarmist picture of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis.

Lisa Belkin blogs about “My Sister’s Keeper”—first a book and now a movie—on the NYT’s Motherlode blog. The movie portrays a family that uses pre-implantation genetic diagnosis to try to save their daughter’s life. PGD is a process by which a couple creates several embryos and then determines which of them are genetic matches for their living child. In the case of “My Sister’s Keeper,” the daughter needs a bone marrow transplant—but eventually she needs more and more, including a kidney, and the second, PGD-conceived daughter finds herself battling with her parents over her bodily autonomy. A court case ensues.


Belkin worries that the film paints an unrealistic, alarmist picture of PGD. She wrote a story for the New York Times Magazine in 2001 on two families who used PGD to try to save their children, who had Fanconi anemia. The families she wrote about used the cord blood from the placentas of their newborns for bone marrow transplants for their sick children. This procedure is non-invasive and, one would think, uncontroversial—the placenta is usually discarded, anyway (except when families choose to keep their baby’s placenta).


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In the movie, on the other hand, PGD leads to a host of moral dilemmas: the younger daughter’s parents eventually take her to court when she refuses to comply with their increasing demands. And indeed, a “slippery slope” is how the government came to regard the technology, and taking cells from an afterbirth is far from uncontroversial for some of the commenters on Belkin’s blog post.


While one of the families Belkin followed saved their daughter’s life with PGD, the other family lost their son:


One of the reasons that the Strongin-Goldberg family lost Henry was because research on PGD was stalled for a year and a half in the middle of their attempts to use it — stalled by government officials who called it stem cell research, and who feared a slippery slope, and designer babies, and parents who use their children for spare parts. Had this family not lost those 18 months of research time, their real life story might have had a different ending.


As in the battle over stem-cell research during the Bush administration, what the government objected to in the mid-90s was PGD’s use of embryos. Fear of the anti-choice, anti-science contingent led the government to put embryos before people.


One of the commenters on Belkin’s post goes further, defending placentas over people:

Yes, I do understand what the point of PGD is and what a boon it could be to the children whose lives could be saved. But that’s just the point – the fetuses who would be brought to term would then be children, and we don’t have the right to decide what to do with their tissues simply because we can and want to.


Who advocates for the other child – you know, the donor whose tissues are being bandied about by the parents and medical establishment?

Does this person also object to the daily disposal of placentas at hospitals? My guess is that he or she sees this as a pro-life issue—that he or she is thinking of the embryos rather than the placentas.

Lisa Belkin responds:

I am confused by your question. There is no risk, minor or otherwise — no risk at all — to the baby whose cells are being used. They are taken from the placenta — the afterbirth, which is not attached to the baby at the time the cells are taken, and which would otherwise be thrown a way. So how is that “being bandied about”?


Even in this case, when there is no rational argument for opposing the harvesting of placenta cells, religious conservatives smell a fight. Pharmaceutical research on children and adults doesn’t seem to bother them. But when there’s an embryo involved, you can bet their opposition will cost us years, and countless lives.

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