Written by Tonya Vernooy, Art Critic/Writer, 2009 for TAKE CARE: The Art, Science, & Bioethics of Motherhood Exhibition.
Scientific progress makes moral progress a necessity; for if man's power is increased, the checks that restrain him from abusing it must be strengthened. -- Madame de Stael, 1835
As molecular medicine, genetic manipulation, cloning, and stem cell research their rapid progress so too must the morality and ethics that assist in governing their boundaries. Through an examination of the gray area between enhancement and therapy, necessity and desire, parent and child, the nine artists participating in Take Care: The Art, Science, and Bioethics of Motherhoodreveal that there is no definitive right answer to the question of biotechnological advancement. It is the informed dialogue that is paramount. The political philosopher Michael J. Sandel writes, "Breakthroughs in genetics present us with a promise and a predicament. The promise is that we may soon be able to treat and prevent a host of debilitating diseases. The predicament is that our new-found genetic knowledge may also enable us to manipulate our own nature...to make ourselves 'better than well.'" Caught in the middle of this is the mother whose fundamental need to create, protect, and support her offspring to the best of her ability has to contend with biotechnology's possible repercussions While scientists are driven by the aspirations of discovery and improvement, the artists serve as the cultural conscience, helping to explicate the complex and question the ramifications of a science that will pervade social, political, cultural, and self beliefs.
Both Sher Fickand Lindsay Obermeyer examine normality and the question of enhancement versus therapy. But what is normal? In May 2008 USA Today reported that 51% of Americans were taking at least one prescription drug for a chronic condition, a 50% increase since 2001. In 7 years time, maintaining a certain standard of health by taking daily medication had become the norm. In Coping SkillsSher Fick constructed a table to hold all of the medication she has consumed in her "pursuit of physical and mental health;"prescriptions that enable Fick to become, and remain, an attentive, present mother. The structure exists as both an altar and a vanity. The mirrored shelf implies a dressing table that might hold cosmetic goods. Yet, the artist challenges this notion by carefully encasing each medication in a finely made quilt with suture seams. The preciousness or fragility implied by these colorful coverings can be attributed to either the medication itself or, more likely, the medicine taker. The coverings themselves contain varied images of skulls, religious imagery, monetary symbols, band-aids, plant life, 1950s children playing, and Frida Kahlo, who suffered a tragic miscarriage. The vibrancy and symbolism along with the altar itself suggest Dia de Los Muertos, a celebration that honors lost loved ones. Could it be that the artist is commemorating her past self and simultaneously rejoicing in the person these pharmaceuticals have allowed her to become?
Lindsay Obermeyer also deals with the pain and stigma of someone who requires medical and pharmaceutical intervention. Her fastidious beadwork enables the viewer to visualize the complexities of emotional and mental health care. All three portraits show her daughter in profile. In Shadow – Blues the internal silhouette is made up of clear crystals while contrasting shades of blue fly and swirl around her. She is completely still, unable to move, amidst a sea of activity; she feels empty, cold and alone. In the other portrait, Shadow – Red Hot, the pattern and complex beadwork take place within her profile; as if her mind and body are on fire. The world around her seems to melt away, again she is alone. In Voidthere is only her faint profile leaving the viewer asking: will her daughter ever emerge? Obermeyer's work calls out to the audience for help. The artist desperately wants to know if mood and mind altering medications will help or hurt. Are the trials and side-effects worth the possible outcome? Currently, geneticists are working on prescriptions tailored to a patient's genetics, eliminating most trials and tribulations while opening up the door to enhancement possibilities. Nicolas Agar suggests this may become a slippery slope. "Some think that we should pass different moral judgments on enhancement from those we pass on therapy. They say that while therapy is justifiable, enhancement is not. The problem is that it is difficult to make the therapy–enhancement distinction principled. It is hard to find definitions of disease suitable to serve as a moral guideline for genetic technologies."
The idea that our genetics will one day define our medical treatment is at once promising and scary. Everyone wants to be seen as an individual yet that individuality should not be an uncontrollable deciding factor in receiving health care and insurance or in becoming someone's companion, lover, parent, or child. In Kristina Arnold's Drip installation, the artist seems to be questioning how blood defines a person. The "drips" are dark red projections in clear plastic pouches with sutured edges, each unique in size and form, like individuals in a family. The plastic pouches resemble microscope slides while each blood drip casts a long shadow on the white wall. These silhouettes of bloodlines are altered by light changes in the room, implying the coming changes in how a person is perceived as genetics becomes interchangeable with the definition of self. The self then becomes a commodity as Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends, predicted in 1998, "It’s likely that within less than ten years, all one hundred thousand or so genes that comprise the genetic legacy of our species will be patented, making them the exclusive intellectual property of global pharmaceutical, chemical, agribusiness, and biotech companies."While Rifkin's forecast proved over-eager, it certainly seems to be progressing. Stefan Lovgren of National Geographic wrote in October 2005, "A new study shows that 20 percent of human genes have been patented in the United States, primarily by private firms and universities." If one-fifth of our genetic material is owned by companies and colleges what does that leave for the individual?
Focusing on the definition of self, Annette Gates creates porcelain organisms that are casts of originals; they are the structures left behind once the fabric shells have been destroyed in a firing process. The end result is an archetype, similar yet distinct from its mother. Within current cloning practices, where one de-nucleated donor egg is injected with another donor's genetic material, the end result is a clone with replicated DNA but this does not mean an exact duplicate. First, the genetic material from the donor egg does become a part of the clone, and second, as the clone matures the environment that created the original can never be the exact same thus its gene expression will vary. Gates' organisms tell tales of a fragile future where they cannot meet the expectations of the original; they are new conglomerations of old material. As the British philosopher, Jonathan Glover, points out, "There is the objection that a child created as a replica is treated, not as an end in himself or herself, but merely as a means."Those means, he goes on to explain, can be the wish of a parent to live on after death or the desire to recreate a passed loved one. In the end the clones, like Gates' organisms, will always be fragile reproductions.
Libby Rowe's Womb Worries series addresses the anxieties all mothers-to-be have when they prepare for a new life. Currently, genetic testing is still in its early stages, generally for upwards of only 14 genetic abnormalities. However, a laboratory at Baylor College of Medicine has begun trials for genetic testing that looks for 200 different genetic diseases. Its chair of molecular and human genetics, Arthur Beaudet, believes that this screening process will become routine in five years time. The Houston Chronicle reported, in December 2008, the issues surrounding such a test include potential false positives, which could lead parents to abort a healthy fetus, the implication that a life with a disability is not worth living and disparity between those who can and cannot afford such a test (it is currently $1600). It is interesting then that Rowe has chosen to use the sock monkey to convey her worries. The sock monkey was historically a working class child’s toy, made from red-heeled knit socks used by factory and farm workers. The artist has taken this toy and remade it for adults as either a cautionary tale or to highlight the possible horrors that await us if we don’t get tested. Although each monkey is still smiling, unaware of their abnormalities, ready for love, how is a parent supposed to care for a child that has two heads, one genital, and no legs? Like Paul McCarthy's Tomato Heads of 1994, whose "novelty item appearance hints at the manic consumerism of our theme-park utopias," Rowe makes us aware of the capitalistic culture behind these natural maternal anxieties.There is no right answer, it is an individual choice, but one that is made for a price. As Richard Hayes, Executive Director of the Center for Genetics and Society, states, "We support the use of that [genetic screening] to allow couples at risk to have healthy children. But for non-medical, cosmetic purposes, we believe this would undermine humanity and create a techno-eugenic rat race."
Whether through cloning or genetic manipulation, Sadie Ruben's Alien Fetuses ask if the aberrations that originate from gene expression errors are worth potential desired results. Her creatures' destinies are unknown as they sit, brewing – growing – within glass jars that seem to resemble pasta containers used in the kitchen rather than scientific vessels of experimentation. Ruben's fetuses are commenting on the commoditization of lab created embryos. The gold flecks adhering to their opaque, amorphous bodies indicate their precious worth. But we are left to wonder what happens to them if Ruben is unable to care for them? They are helpless and completely dependent upon human ministering. These beings can be seen as a critique of trendy hobbyists trying to genetically engineer life in their garage. With visions of becoming the Steve Jobs of biotechnology, laypersons are beginning to experiment with new life forms at home. A group known as DIYbio has begun a community laboratory where amateurs can explore their scientific ideas. Co-founder Mackenzie Cowell suggests that this type of unrestrained environment could lead to some very important discoveries. He added, "We should try to make science more sexy and more fun and more like a game."But Ruben's fetuses tell a different story, one of a nebulous future where their lives are not entertaining rather they exist in a lonely laboratory.
This laboratory lifestyle could become a reality if Dr. Davor Solter, developmental biologist at the Institute of Medical Biology, is correct in his prediction of the future use of artificial wombs. He says, "In essence, it would eliminate all the limitations we have now: you could have as many or as few progeny as you want...I can visualize a fetus floating freely in fluid and the umbilical cord attached to a machine."The work of Monica Bock questions the current and evolving value of the mother in our society as biotechnology advances. Bock's Afterbirth (Sac, Fluid, Cord) focuses on the importance of a mother's body in keeping her fetus alive and growing. Yet it is the placenta – whose sole function is to provide nutrients and oxygen from mother to child – that is so quickly discarded after the child is born. The three dustpans reference this quick disposal and hint at the possibility of life as a commodity. That they are three in number indicates birth, life, and death or mother, father, and child; all are easily swept away in the world of biotechnological progress if they do not meet decided standards.
Embryo selection and enhancement is key to Jeanette May's investigation of a mother's role within these new biotechnological advancements. The artist's initial question seems to be: Is it not the mother's responsibility, nay, purpose, to want the absolute best for her children? The use of slick photography and poster-size imagery draw the viewer into a bright environment surrounded by happy, beautiful people, colorful plant life, and a consumer-happy lifestyle. Upon closer inspection, we realize that all is not right with this world. Eggs are forced into square molds, growing fetuses are compared to plants bred for certain characteristics and mommies-to-be are perusing magazines imagining their lives as Michael Kors advertisements. May's posters seem to ask: once society has screened for all possible defects, how long until we manipulate those genes to acquire certain traits under the auspices of having a "happier" life and the duress of "keeping up with Joneses"? The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Fertility Institutes of Los Angeles will soon offer its clients the ability to pre-select their "choice of gender, eye color, hair color and complexion, along with screening for potentially lethal diseases."Is it the duty of the future mother to provide the best that technology has to offer for her children? Or is she turning her children into accoutrements?
Adrienne Outlaw continues this examination of maternal responsibility within the realm of advancing technology. The artist posits: How far should a mother go to protect her young? Does technology offer the best outcome for a child born today or tomorrow? In Outlaw's Fecund video series, electrified, metal breasts protrude militaristically from a white wall, each containing a unique video. The recorded imagery shows either the latest in biophysics research, such as green florescent proteins tracking tumor growth, or the natural tenderness that exists between a mother and her child, like a newborn baby breastfeeding.As the viewer's get up close to the metal nipples to peer inside, similar to a breastfeeding infant, they become aware that the hard material of the bosom creates a distance between mother and offspring; technology seems to be getting in the way. At the same time, however, the viewer is given a chance to see the amount of knowledge possible at the cellular level, thus parents may be given the opportunity to make sure their progeny's cell division is developmentally on target. The question then becomes one of what happens when a cell goes awry. Is it a mother's duty to make sure that her embryos, her fetuses, have everything they will need to survive and succeed in the 21st century, even if that means genetic interference? Professor Ronald M. Green of Dartmouth College suggests that with gene manipulation we could live in a disease-free world, he asks, "Why not improve our genome?"
While Sher Fick and Lindsey Obermeyer investigate the growing pharmaceutical role with advancing medicine, Annette Gates concentrates on the idea of the self within the world of cloning, Libby Rowe and Sadie Ruben examine the rights of the fetuses within genetic progress, and finally Monica Bock, Adrienne Outlaw, and Jeanette May explore the function of the mother within the biotechnological age. Through their artwork these artists explore the crucial social, economic, and ethical implications of biotechnological advancements and create a space for important dialogue. As Dr. Sirine Shebaya, Greenwall, Fellow in Bioethics and Health Policy at the John Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, writes, "The best way to avoid slippery slopes to bad outcomes is to have an informed, democratic discussion that takes into account both expert opinions and social values. We need regulations because scientists and the general public need clarity about what they can and cannot do, a convincing rationale for permissions and restrictions, and a voice in arriving at decisions with such important ramifications."These artists are that voice.
 Sandel, Michael J. The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering. (Cambridge , Mass: Harvard
See Sher Fick's artist statement
 Agar, Nicolas, "Designer Babies: Ethical Considerations," ActionBioscience.org, American Institute of Biological Sciences, 2006.
Rifkin, Jeremy. The Biotech Century (London: Phoenix, 1998), p.63.
Rugoff, Ralph, "Deviations on a Theme – works by Paul McCarthy," Artforum, October 1994.
Steere, Mike, "Designer babies: Creating the perfect child," Cnn.com/technology, October 30, 2008.
Wohlsen, Marcus, ""Hobbyists try genetic engineering at home: Critics worry amateurs could unleash an environmental or medical disaster," MSNBC.com. December 26, 2008.
Pearson, Helen, "Making Babies: The Next 30 Years," Nature, Vol. 454, July 17, 2008, p. 260.
 Gautam Naik, "A Baby, Please. Blond, Freckles -- Hold the Colic: Laboratory Techniques That Screen for Diseases in Embryos Are Now Being Offered to Create Designer Children," The Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2009, page A10
 Created in
Britt, Robert Roy, "Designer Babies: Ethical? Inevitable?" www.livescience.com, January 11, 2009.
Shebaya, Sirine, PhD, "Are 'Designer Babies, on the Horizon?" www.scienceprogress.org, May 15, 2008.