Book Review

Babies in Bottles: Twentieth-Century Visions of Reproductive Technology

Susan Merrill Squier, Babies in Bottles: Twentieth-Century Visions of Reproductive Technology. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994. xiii + 270 pp. Paperback, $17.00.

When I was about half way through Babies in Bottles: Twentieth-Century Visions of Reproductive Technology, I was sufficiently curious about public discourse on reproduction in the early part of this century to seek out sources of public information. Among several pages on eugenics in the second edition of The Child Welfare Manual: A Handbook of Child Nature and Nurture for Parents and Teachers (1919), I found this: [End Page 277] The value of the study of Eugenics will be seen when public sentiment demands that criminals, imbeciles, epileptics, chronic alcoholics shall be kept apart and prevented from having children. This will be the first safeguard. The next will be the necessity for publicity of the diseases and characteristics of families, so that young people may know the kind of mate they are choosing. It needs only the working up of a healthy sentiment to make it as desirable to marry "blood" as money. 1

While I recoiled at this discussion of "the science of the improvement of the human race by better breeding," I could not help thinking of my own fairly recent experience of "genetic counseling," which was attached to my experience of chorionic villus biopsy, a prenatal testing procedure. My 1990 conversation with a genetic counselor was framed in terms of the individual (the idea was that one should think twice before taking on responsibility for an "imbecile") and not in terms of "the human race," but selective breeding was the common principle.

In Babies in Bottles, Susan Merrill Squier invites such a comparative move as she warns us against "accept[ing] the contemporary construction of reproductive technology as a scientific breakthrough without a past" (p. 13). Her own project is to historicize in modernism, and so make more available to criticism, postmodern reproductive technologies. From Squier's introduction: By considering how early-twentieth-century fiction and popular science writings negotiated the issues central to the project of achieving human control over reproduction, we can reclaim the origins of this postmodern technology. It is to those earlier images that we must look if we want to understand what acts of ideological construction have been carried out, and are currently being performed, in the name of reproductive technology. (p. 23)

Squier's central argument is sound, and her scholarship is satisfying. Squier weaves discussion of specific reproductive technologies (from artificial insemination to prenatal sex selection) through the biographies and writings of five scientific/literary figures of the first half of the twentieth century: Julian Huxley, J. B. S. Haldane, Charlotte Haldane, Aldous Huxley, and Naomi Haldane Mitchison. Moreover, Squier reads the literary/scientific history of reproductive technology against the 1978 birth of Louise Brown, "the first test-tube baby," and the subsequent 1984 report in Britain of the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology (the Warnock Report). [End Page 278]

Each of the five chapters (exclusive of the Introduction) of Babies in Bottles performs an act of exploration and analysis through a single historical figure, and each study suggests an approach to the cultural criticism of reproductive technology. I provide here a sampling of Squier's offerings, although I make no attempt to summarize her book.

Squier examines Julian Huxley's work as zoologist and popular science writer to consider how "reproductive ideas circulate through the overlapping realms of literature, popular culture, and science via the operations of analogy" (p. 27). She textures her study of analogy with the notion, from Marilyn Strathern, of the "domaining effect," the shift that takes place when ideas move from one social or cultural milieu to another, as from literature to the laboratory. 2 In the course of this chapter, Squier explores the role of analogy in the construction and reception of technologies from eutelegenesis (artificial insemination for eugenic purposes) to parthenogenesis (reproduction without fertilization), and she attributes the persuasiveness of eugenics itself to the power of the analogical move from animal husbandry to improvement of the human stock. Writing particularly about Huxley's Tissue-Culture King, Squier urges us to interrogate the analogies foundational to early versions of reproductive technology. In those analogies, she says, we will find embedded "deep conflicts over the two most problematic aspects of contemporary reproductive technology: the tendency to use people as things . . . and the tendency to totalize" (p. 62).

The technology of ectogenesis (extrauterine gestation) is studied by Squier through the life and work of physiologist-geneticist J. B. S. Haldane, although the early debate about ectogenesis is complicated by Squier's view from the 1984 Warnock Commission Report. The Warnock Commission--paradoxically, as Squier points out--both asserted its inability to make judgments about ectogenesis for the future and recommended that gestation outside the uterus beyond fourteen days be outlawed. Thus ectogenesis reveals itself as a site of particular contest. Especially interesting is Squier's analysis of ectogenesis as a kind of redressive masculinist response to "anxiety over human reproductive asymmetry"; in vitro technology, Squier says, is a means to insure that the sperm and the egg are "equally alienated [from the process of reproduction] from their very moment of union" (p. 94).

Moving from ectogenesis to prenatal sex selection, Squier turns to the work of Charlotte Haldane, whose novel Man's World explored the implications of sex selection procedures sixty years before it was possible to perform them. This chapter, which studies Haldane's popular science writings as well as her autobiography, provides an occasion for some of Squier's discussion of the feminist revision of modernism [End Page 279] and critique of modern science, and, more particularly, feminist ambivalence about reproductive technology. Squier notes, for example, that reproduction refigured within the realm of science is reproduction appropriated by the masculine.

The further appropriation of reproduction by the forces of business is, by the way, an element of ideology that Squier does not discuss, though she alludes in passing to the merchandising of pregnancy and childbirth. The commodification of the fetus is, however, something worth exploring, as now health "marketers" write about infertility as a "$2 billion-a-year-industry," its "high-tech market segment . . . very attractive if successfully targeted." 3 A recent North American counterpart to the Warnock Commission, the Canadian Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies, found that legislation limiting the use of reproductive technologies was necessary in order to protect citizens from fertility entrepreneurs. 4 It is possible, I think, to see the metaphor reproduction is a business as a subtext for some of the texts that Squier reads for their versions of babies in bottles.

In her chapter on Aldous Huxley, Squier takes on the relation between vt (visualization technologies) and rt (reproductive technologies), arguing that while separation of the fetus from the mother is a feature of ultrasonic and fiberoptic technologies, it is not an invention of these technologies. Rather, Squier maintains, "[a] vt/rt link has been written into the history of reproductive technology from its earliest years." She continues: "Recovery of the history of relations between visualization and reproductive technologies can both illuminate how the developing fetus is portrayed in contemporary representation and enable us to develop more flexible responses to such representations" (p. 134). Squier considers here the account by Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe of developing the in vitro technology that led to the birth of Louise Brown, and she finds that their narrative reveals "scientific practices saturated by the reproductive metaphors and the passionate concern with the powers of visualization that characterized the writings of Aldous Huxley" (p. 159). It is in this chapter that Squier establishes the strongest link between modern literature and postmodern technology and launches the most provocative cultural critique.

The final chapter, focusing on Naomi Mitchison's science and science fiction writings, pushes again at the boundaries of literature and science and, indeed, at the boundaries of motherhood. Yet, while this chapter extends the work of the rest of the book, it also begins to suggest a flaw in it: the book, by this point, reveals itself as a collection of essays tied together by an analogy, with its own "domaining effect" [End Page 280] insufficiently explored. Squier's study rests on the premise that a "powerful, if often culturally unacknowledged, relationship exists between the creation of fiction and the construction of fact" (p. 102). While I agree with her claim that a literary history of reproductive technology allows a more informed response to reproductive technology in our own time, I wish Squier had done more to illuminate the relationship between literature and cultural practice, fiction and ideology.

Part of the problem is simply that Squier's book stops at the end of its fifth chapter, the chapter on Naomi Mitchison, with no concluding chapter to tie together issues of contemporary ideology, or really, to rescue the book from existence as a collection of essays. It is not difficult to imagine a conclusion that would continue in the connective mode of the vt/rt chapter, expose some of Squier's over-embedded insights, and address the question of the significance of her "transhistorical" study head on--but Squier does not supply one. I managed to compose my own conclusion to Babies in Bottles by returning, in a concluding frame of mind, to Squier's introduction, to the most provocative parts of her five core chapters, and to several of her very generous endnotes. But the obligation to conclude, I think, belongs to the author. A colleague of mine said recently (and only half in jest) that the problem with reviewing a book "is that you have actually to read it, from cover to cover." Perhaps the problem with Babies in Bottles is that--because it never quite accumulates and establishes its own virtues--it requires us all to read it like reviewers. Still, with its wealth of information, interpretation, and insight, the book certainly repays the efforts of its readers.

-- Judy Z. Segal
University of British Columbia

Judy Z. Segal is Assistant Professor of English at the University of British Columbia, where she teaches rhetorical history and theory and does research on rhetoric and medicine. She has published articles on biomedical rhetoric in Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Social Science and Medicine, Textual Studies in Canada, and a chapter in Writing in the Workplace: New Research Perspectives (Rachel Spilka, ed.). She is currently working on a rhetorical study of health policy and the health policy debate.


1 . William Byron Forbush, "Eugenics," in The Child Welfare Manual: A Handbook of Child Nature and Nurture for Parents and Teachers, vol. 1, prepared by the Editorial Board of the University Society (New York: The University Society, 1919), 10.

2 . Squier cites Marilyn Strathern, Reproducing the Future: Anthropology, Kinship, and the New Reproductive Technologies (London: Routledge, 1992).

3 . John F. Grashof, "Health Care Marketing Abstracts," Journal of Health Care Marketing 13 (fall 1993): 68.

4 . The final report of the Royal Commission was filed in 1993.