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Science

International team of researchers want to reinvent the family

In the future we may be able to replace pregnancy with an extracorporeal, artificial, uterus. And what does mum and dad mean anyway? A research team has set out to investigate. They hope, at the same time, to challenge the ideal of the nuclear family.

Down an otherwise empty corridor in the old municipal hospital building which is now the University of Copenhagen, a team of researchers are engaged in thought.

The four bioethicists – from Italy, South Korea and Denmark – are in the process of rethinking one of the social institutions we probably take for granted the most: the family.

Because the idea that a biological family — with father, mother and children — is best, is already outdated, they reckon. In fact, the biological family may be harmful.

And it won’t be long before technology seriously challenges everything we think we know about being a family.

Artificial uteri

I meet the four researchers from the Department of Public Health in the garden behind the old municipal hospital. Before that, postdoc Ji-Young Lee sent an email to the newsroom. It sounds like science fiction when she describes one of the sub-projects she is currently working on.

»We are exploring the implications of artificial womb technology, which may one day make it possible to gestate embryos to full term completely outside the human body,« she writes.

I'm sure that if you google 'family', you will get pictures of a married, heterosexual, white couple with children.
Postdoc Ji-Young Lee

»What kinds of ethical dilemmas will this lead to? Who is to decide whether the foetus should be aborted? How will it, for example, affect maternity or paternity leave if no-one is getting pregnant? Will employers try to convince women to avoid becoming naturally pregnant if it is possible to use an artificial uterus,« she continues in the email.

It is questions like this that she will try to answer together with the two PhD students Rikke Friis Bentzon and Andrea Bidoli.

Families can be repressive

They all sit down around the picnic table with Ezio Di Nucci. He is in charge of the project The Future of Family Relationships.

»It is a 50 per cent Italian project,« says Ezio Di Nucci with mock seriousness and laughs. Both he and Andrea Bidoli are Italians.
In the background, a group of scaffolding workers clamber around, and the noise almost drowns out the South Korean Ji-Young Lee as she explains the project.

»The project is about exploring how family structures are shaped by new trends in society. This goes for artificial womb technology and in vitro fertilisation, or about the types of families that are now accepted in society – like non-heterosexual families, or other family types. How does all this affect what it means to be a family,« she says.

»You are good at making it sound like a neutral project,« Ezio Di Nucci breaks in.

»Our starting point is quite critical. We say that the family may be able to offer some meaningful relationships. But, on the other hand, it can be a repressive system with patriarchal structures.«

Reality shows and half-sisters

Try to imagine a family.

Is there a mum and dad? Maybe she is pregnant? Are there a couple of children who resemble each other and their parents?

If it looks like this, then there is a reason for it, according to the research group. The biological nuclear family permeates our culture and language. It is everywhere, and it is the ideal.

»We see nuclear families in films, and on reality shows like on the Danish TV show ‘Sporløs’ the whole point is to find your real, biological family. This is the only way in which you can become a whole person,« says Rikke Friis Bentzon, who, like two of the other researchers, is specialised in philosophy.
She herself grew up in a family with five sisters.

»They are not all biological, but of course they are my sisters. People are always really preoccupied with finding out who are the half-sisters and who are biological sisters. It just doesn’t make sense to only attribute value to the biological relationships. It’s a bit like sexist jokes,« she says, and switches into Danish.

»They are relics from a bygone age.«

The purpose, therefore, of her part of the research project is not only to rethink the words we use about our families. Rikke Friis Bentzon also has a personal project.

»My biggest goal in life is to have my sisters accepted for what they are. My sisters. I want people to accept my family as it is.«

A test

But have we not gradually become accustomed to being a family in many different ways, I wonder.

There is hesitation at the table.

»Even though we, as a society, try to be progressive, there is a tendency to see the biological ties as the most natural. This is built into our culture. It is very subtle,« says Ji-Young Lee.

Just the fact that we still say ‘half-sister’ or ‘stepsister’ about sisters with whom we are not partially or completely blood-related, suggests that you can only have a whole sister if you share a biological background.

»These terms imply that, yes she is my sister, but not fully my sister. This terminology makes us buy into a rather narrow ideal of the family as the default or gold standard. It’s hard to unlearn this habit. I imagine if you google ‘family’, you will get pictures of a heterosexual couple happy married with children. « says Ji-Young Lee.

»Uh, that is an interesting claim. Let’s test it,« says Ezio Di Nucci and pulls up his phone from his pocket.

»F. A. M. I. L. Y,« he says, as he keys in the letters into the search field.

People, for example, are often concerned that children with two fathers are in need of a mother. But it could also be said that children in traditional families need an extra father.
PhD student Andrea Bidoli, Department of Public Health

A smiling man and woman look up from the screen while they swing a child between them in what looks to be a summer sundown. In the picture next to it, two chubby children’s hands hold a paper clip with four silhouettes of a girl, a woman, a man and a boy.

»I thought so,« says Ji-Young Lee.

The elephant in the room

Technology can turn the family’s roles upside down. Andrea Bidoli is examining how our conception of being a parent will change if we start to bring children to term outside women’s uteri.

»There is so much identity in either bearing a child or not doing so. If you can become pregnant, you must be either a mother or a woman, and these words are very meaningful. People are often very closely tied to these concepts and roles. So I study what could happen if you took pregnancy out of the picture,« she says.

But is it really that bad if you want to call yourself a mother or a father?

»I try not to take anything from anyone by discussing gendered parenting roles, but there are many who might not see themselves in these roles if society gave them other options.«

»Even today, non-binary people cannot escape from gendered parent categories, and transgender people often get the wrong gender designation as parents. People are, for example, often concerned that children with two fathers are in need of a mother. But it might just as well be said that children in traditional families need an extra father,« says Andrea Bidoli, who aims for a more inclusive language.

But new technology can also strengthen the ideal of a family with mother, father and children. The research team believes that the sharp increase in test tube (in vitro fertilization) treatment is an example of this.

»There is the elephant in the room which is that many people still want to have biological children. People go through a lot of effort, financially and emotionally, to get biological children. But we believe that this is due to the way we are brought up socially and culturally,« says Ezio Di Nucci.

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