In vitro fertilisation is so widely accepted as a common good that not everyone remembers the technology was once condemned by an odd coalition of Catholics and feminists.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, Melbourne was a leading centre of IVF research where it was led by Carl Wood and Alan Trounson at the Monash Medical Centre. It was also the site of an intense debate about what the technology would mean for women and society – led by local feminist Robyn Rowland.
At the same time the Melbourne-based Catholic bioethicist Nicholas Tonti-Fillippini was concerned about the theological implications of manipulating embryos and creating human life in a laboratory.
Kylie Trounson was a child during those years. Her father Alan worked with infertile women willing to subject themselves to experimental procedures in order to have a baby. In her play The Waiting Room (performed by the Melbourne Theatre Company until 27 June) Trounson bravely describes this history in a lively and unexpectedly funny work that ranges widely. Eros and Aristotle make an appearance, as do her father’s critics and her parents themselves – the long hours Alan spent in the lab contributing to the end of their marriage.
Kylie Trounson, played by Sophie Ross, is a character in the play too. Her childhood memories include being led into the lab via the hospital morgue to avoid protesters and being harassed at school because of her father’s work.
The Kylie character talks to her father about her creative dilemmas – he advises her to write about a fictional scientist – and about her own pregnancy, which takes place as she is still writing the play. On stage Alan Trounson, played by Greg Stone, tells his daughter not to think about a future child “in terms of sacrifice, it will be the best thing that you ever make, I promise”.
And that is the heart of the play summed up in a sentence – and the reason the feminist objections to IVF have been largely forgotten. Almost everyone now knows a child who was conceived with IVF and knows how their parents longed to make them.
In the play even Robyn Rowland said she changed her mind about IVF when she decided to have children of her own after her mother’s death. Although she tells Kylie “I believe it would be better for society if IVF had not been invented”, Rowland admits that she is no longer as sure of her opinions as she was when she was single and childless. Her concerns about IVF came from documenting the struggles faced by early participants in Australia’s IVF program. She wishes Kylie the joy of natural conception.
The Waiting Room also tells the story of a likeable young couple who put themselves through the emotional stress and physical discomfort that is still part of the IVF experience. The play faces the fact that not everyone who participates in an IVF program succeeds. In 2011, Australia’s national IVF success rate was 40% after five cycles, for women of all ages. Of the quarter of IVF clientele 40 and older, their success rate was only 25.3%.
Alan Trounson emerges as the hero of the piece – hardworking, optimistic, a loving father despite his long absences. Dr Trounson divides his time between Australia and San Francisco where until mid-2014 he was president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine – a $3 billion stem cell agency. In one of the most affecting scenes he visits his old colleague Carl Wood (played by William McInnes), who suffered from an Alzheimer’s-type dementia – one of the illnesses that might one day be cured through stem-cell therapy.