This month's episodes of Glee and Modern Family—two of the most popular prime time television shows—featured central characters contemplating assisted reproductive technologies.
Glee, which follows the on-and-offstage drama of a high school glee choir, included a confession from the depraved cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester that she wants to get pregnant. We first see Sylvester speaking to the high school's most eligible males (the glee club members who also serve as the school's football team, naturally) in an effort to secure sperm (believe it or not, I'm going to leave the ethics of that one be). Later, Sylvester—played by actress Jane Lynch who is 52 years old—explains that reproduction is possible despite her age because, thankfully, she had the foresight to freeze her eggs in a meat locker, long before "egg freezing" was offered by fertility clinics. Two episodes later, we learn that Sylvester has gotten pregnant, as she hits up one of the school's teen moms for advice about morning sickness.
On Modern Family, Kam and Mitchell, two gay men who have already adopted a girl from China together, are trying to adopt their second child, but they want this one to be a boy. Tired of the long wait, they grow envious of another gay couple they know, who got a child quickly through the use of a surrogate. Kam and Mitchell initially reject surrogacy because they can't decide whose sperm to use. They briefly toy around with the idea again when their friends suggest the "swirl" technique (where sperm from both men are mixed in with the eggs—leaving uncertain whose actually produced the embryo), but they rule this idea out when they see that their friends' child clearly resembles one of the fathers. Then, a new way to produce a child with both their genes emerges. Over several bottles of wine, Mitchell's sister Claire drunkenly proposes that she donate an egg, which would be fertilized by Kam's sperm and gestated by a surrogate. There are tears of happiness all around. But the next morning, there are deep regrets, in sitcom fashion, until they finally decide that it would be too weird and toss the idea out.
Though the two programs present different reproductive technologies, both treat the issues that arise with frivolity. Though we can't expect popular culture to be on the cutting edge of the ethics conversation, the fact that there's no mention at all of the risks of egg retrieval or the experimental nature of egg freezing should give us pause. The programs are casual about both risks to women and the experiences of surrogates and egg donors, giving the impression that making a baby using assisted reproduction is akin to picking one up at Babies 'R Us.
Will this sort of treatment on primetime television serve to trivialize important life decisions, and obscure social justice and safety considerations? Let's turn to Glee and Modern Family for laughs and entertainment, but make sure we look elsewhere for guidance about responsible uses of assisted reproduction.