How Two Sisters Became Experts on Infertility
In 1988 Wanda Ronner, an OB-GYN, saw an ad in a medical journal seeking applications from medical historians to spend a month doing research in the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ library in Washington, D.C. Ronner thought the offer was too good to pass up. While she’s not a historian, her sister, Margaret Marsh, a professor of women’s history at Rutgers University–Camden, is. All they needed was a writing topic big enough to justify a month of research at the library.
The topic was supplied by one of Ronner’s patients at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, who also happened to be a colleague of Marsh’s. “Infertility,” the patient said. “Nobody’s done that.”
Ronner and Marsh’s work became a book, The Empty Cradle, which evolved into a 31-year collaboration between the Rutgers–Camden alumnae on the history of infertility. They went on to write two additional books, The Fertility Doctor, about the pioneering physician John Rock, and The Pursuit of Parenthood: Reproductive Technology from Test-Tube Babies to Uterus Transplants, a social, political, and cultural history of reproductive technology, published in 2019 by Johns Hopkins University Press
“It was kind of a natural segue,” says Marsh CCAS’67, GSNB’69,’74 of their latest book, which begins with Rock’s early work in the 1940s and covers 70-plus years of milestones in the treatment of infertility, including the first “test-tube” baby born in 1978 and the first uterus transplant in 2017.
But Marsh and Ronner CCAS’74 go deeper than the history of infertility and ask provocative questions regarding the limits of reproductive medicine, such as why there isn’t a national body regulating the specialty in the United States as there are in most other countries and whether in vitro fertilization (IVF) should be covered by health insurance.
The sisters’ answer to the last question is an unqualified “yes.” “People mortgage their houses to have a baby,” says Ronner, “and that’s wrong. We believe that infertility is a condition that women suffer from, and just as we pay, via insurance, for birth control to keep women from getting pregnant, we should pay to help women who want to become pregnant.” She notes that, currently, relatively few people can afford IVF and other infertility treatments.
Their new book has been highly praised by both physicians and historians—the result, no doubt, of its authors’ complementary backgrounds. Ronner refers to Marsh, who did most of the writing, as “the driver of the book train.” And Ronner, says her sister, offered the perspective of “an expert in women’s health.” Together, they hammered out the book’s structure. For both, it was a learning opportunity as well as a collaboration. “When we collaborate,” says Ronner, “I learn history and she learns medicine.”
They’ve always been close and, from the beginning, each took an interest in the other’s work. “Wanda used to come to my talks at history meetings,” says Marsh, “and I went to some of her classes in medical school and even lectured to her medical school class about women physicians.” Perhaps because their fields and abilities are distinctly different, competitiveness didn’t mar the writing process. Although when asked about that process, Marsh says wryly, “I’m the older sister—I’m the boss,” to which Ronner responds, “I’m the younger sister, so I always get my way.”
They certainly agree about the larger themes in reproductive medicine, most notably that the United States needs a national regulatory body to set guidelines for technologies that were the stuff of science fiction not that long ago. “Nobody is overseeing whether physicians are following certain standards or protocols,” says Ronner. The authors believe that the government needs to set guidelines to cover complex ethical and medical issues such as the marketing and sale of embryos, the medical alteration of embryos, paid surrogacy, and uterus transplants. They blame the lack of regulation on the highly polarized political climate that prevails in the United States, where public opinion is often sharply divided on issues such as embryo research and when life begins.
While the American Society for Reproductive Medicine offers its own guidelines on IVF and other issues, which many members follow, “we just don’t think that’s enough,” says Ronner. The authors hope that a shift in the political climate will allow for regulation of reproductive technologies as they continue to evolve and affect a new generation of parents—and the children they long to bring into the world.