January 13, 2012 — Rosalyn Berne's University of Virginia students sit in a circle and debate techno-ethical issues.
Berne, an associate professor in the Department of Science, Technology and Society in U.Va.'s School of Engineering and Applied Science, is teaching a January Term course on "Science Fiction and the New Reproductive Technologies," which explores human reproduction, including natural childbirth, new fertility technologies, and the moral limits and unintended consequences of manipulating the reproductive process. Berne, who has written an unpublished science fiction novel about reproduction, includes written and cinematic science fiction as a way of illustrating some of these situations.
"In Science, Technology and Society, we explore the appropriate role of technology," Berne said.
"Human reproduction has long been the subject of science fiction," she noted. The class explores the topic through films such as "Gattaca," a 1997 film about a future society where people's lives are determined by their genetic makeup, and "Children of Men," a 2006 film about a society where humans can no longer procreate, as well as literature such as Aldous Huxley's 1932 novel "Brave New World," about a society in which children are raised in "hatcheries" and their destinies are predetermined.
But the students also discuss contemporary issues, such as a woman whose son's sperm was harvested after his death at age 21 to produce grandchildren, and the ethics of gene mapping, gene therapy and how the information can and should be used.
"We have not taught the young much about pregnancy and childbirth," Berne said. "They are surprised how much they have to learn about infertility."
Berne does not lecture, but rather has the 22 students select discussion topics. She guides the discussion, but allows students to push in their own directions. Berne said the students, evenly divided between males and females, learn from each other.
Linderman described the discussions as "a better way of learning," and said that she appreciated hearing the perspective of the other students.
Natalie Powers, 19, a second-year biomedical engineering major from Chesapeake, said she has learned a lot about infertility and "how we work with technology in basic life processes."
She said she enjoys the discussions and how ideas come together, because it gives her an opportunity to see how others look at things and how these ideas are explored more fully in personal context.
"I have also learned not to believe everything I read, everything I see and what people tell me," she said, noting that some women become egg donors thinking they are just helping infertile women, without considering that there may be risks. "Don't trust the first word on something. Look into things first. It's mostly about making an educated decision on things."
Weston Edwards, 21, a third-year computer science engineering major from Appomattox, said one of the lessons he has learned is how wide-ranging the ramifications of a single decision can be. He said if genetic modifications on an embryo are allowed to prevent an inherited disease, for instance, then should genetic modifications be allowed to change eye color?
"You're opening the door for things that are not what you expected," he said.