Anxiety arises from technological advances in the life sciences, and there is often uncertainty about what societal response is appropriate. Are we more likely to condone euthanasia as technology for prolonging life improves? Should we support the cloning of human embryos for research purposes even if we reject reproductive cloning? It is a common sentiment that legal regulation is a useful tool for fashioning rules about scientific activities and medical interventions. But in legal circles, we are not shy about questioning the limits of our discipline. The bulk of the literature examining law’s limitations explains that these limitations are most salient in times of crisis or upheaval, e.g., war, terrorism, or epidemic disease. All of these are phenomena with a significant public dimension. Although less theorized, law’s limitations are also evident in the more quotidian realms of human experience that have a significant private dimension—sexuality, substance abuse, prejudice, just to name a few. Fantasies of thought control aside, some scholars have theorized that law is uniquely unsuited to channelling attitudinal and libidinal expression, e.g., prostitution, and invidious discrimination. We know from vast experience that attempts to regulate these activities out of existence only drive them further underground, often with troubling consequences.
In the context of biotechnology, assisted reproduction is perhaps the area that inspires the widest range of voices calling for regulation and thus provides the most suitable subject matter for an exploration of the limits of the law in the regulation of technological advancement in the life sciences. Unlike the clashing interests of doctors and their patients or scientists and their research subjects, the creation of children through technological means triggers a wider range of responses by social groups and the political actors who serve them than do other applications of biotechnology. This may explain the wide range of regulatory responses to assisted reproduction around the world, from the “hands-off” approach of the United States to the prohibitive approach of countries in Europe, Asia and South America. What makes regulating reproductive technology difficult is that it exists somewhere between the extremes of public and private. On the one hand, it is dramatic and transformative in a public way, demanding the expenditure of public health and judicial resources; on the other hand, it transforms within a realm considered deeply private—the creation of families. The resulting tension is one that counsels some form of response but that simultaneously shies from intruding in a realm deemed sacrosanct—the choice whether to have a child. Thus, the question is not whether to regulate reproductive technology, but how.