Beth Kohl, author of the new book “Embryo Culture,” talks about abortion, faith and her personal struggle with the ethics of assisted reproduction.

By Jennifer Niesslein of

Aug. 16, 2007 | After a year of trying to get pregnant in the time-tested manner (intercourse with mate, slow jams and cocktails optional), Beth Kohl discovered that, like 6.1 million of her fellow Americans, she was clinically infertile. So she and her husband, Gary, then 29 and 32 years old, respectively, embarked on a different, but increasingly common, baby-making journey — one using assisted reproductive technology (ART) to conceive. But along with prenatal vitamins and baby-name books, Kohl found a mess of ethical questions. Why spend so much time and money conceiving bio-kids when many already-born babies could benefit from the same resources? How many embryos is it OK to transfer, given that later a mother might be faced with the decision to selectively reduce (read: abort) one or more of her fetuses? Are IVF kids the same — healthwise, soulwise — as naturally conceived children? What about the risk of pregnancy complications, premature birth, and the host of long-term problems that come along with them? Can “man-made” babies ever be reconciled with religious faith? And the biggie: What should would-be parents do with their leftover embryos?

Kohl, who grew up in a conservative Jewish household in suburban Milwaukee, tackled her ethical and reproductive journey with a typically Midwestern work ethic, digging for answers in sources ranging from the Bible to congressional testimonies about forced abortion in China. Now she chronicles her struggle, both with fertility and morality, in a new book, “Embryo Culture: Making Babies in the Twenty-First Century.” The bones of “Embryo Culture” is Kohl’s own story of two IVF-assisted pregnancies, but she beefs it up with an impressive amount of research on the technical matters and moral questions facing would-be parents, clinicians and the government.

While the subject is serious, her touch is light. Trying to find a metaphor for their infertility, her husband suggests “botanists in the Arctic Circle” — and Kohl replies: “That is better. Not only does it suggest that my uterus is inhospitable to life, it also manages to hint of my frigidity.” She’s compassionate, but unsentimental (especially when you compare “Embryo Culture’s” language to the banter in infertility chat rooms and blogs. Kohl reports that some women refer to their frozen embryos as “embies” and nickname the eight-cell clusters “Frosty” and “Snow White”). And she never claims to have all the answers. In late July, while her three daughters were at summer camp, Kohl spoke to Salon from her home in Chicago about reproductive rights, “test tube babies” and the unexpected impact IVF has had on her.

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