A Birthday Present
Georgia, my middle daughter of three, is a combination of my DNA and identity release donor #2817. Unlike her sisters who both have the advantage of knowing their sperm donors in real time (both friends of mine), Georgia’s donor can only be revealed to her next year when she turns 18. There is a countdown to the truth when her donor goes from number to person, from phantom to real. As I am sealing up the 23andMe™ saliva box mailer for Georgia, who wanted a DNA sleuthing kit as a gift for her 17th birthday, I feel a little peculiar. After my cursory online “research” about all the ways her DNA would be used without her consent to create new drugs, test out future surveillance apparatuses, or disqualify her from medical insurance, I relented and agreed to let her do it. Perhaps my maternal guilt trumped my sociological suspicions.
Georgia has been curious for as long as I can remember. In fifth grade, she and a few friends formed an ad hoc club to find her donor. After a three days’ work, they came up with Paul Walker of Fast and Furious fame claiming the physical resemblance was uncanny (even though several other facts didn’t quite line up). Various other theories about this man have surfaced over the years. Georgia wonders: what does he looks like? What’s he good at? What will the meeting be like? What he will think of her? Will she have siblings? More than once she has recollected her night’s dream featuring her sperm donor—“and then I realized he was my dad. I guess I am trying to work it out at night.” Just as explored in Mary Shelley’s story of assisted reproduction, Frankenstein, we rely on social relationships to help us form our identities, the sense of self. Upon reflecting on his life, Frankenstein says, “we are unfashioned creatures, but half made up.” A universal theme whereby God or divine essence is partially responsible for making us up but socialization that is what makes the rest of us—the meaning of creation is nothing without our relationships. But when these relationships are uncertain, how do we make ourselves up?
I am not immune from the curiosity of who this man is either. I was on the Board of Directors of the sperm bank I used for Georgia and had access to the inside scoop. When I found out I was pregnant with her, I remember calling my contact and asking for more specifics. Maybe it seems weird that I waited until after I was pregnant to use my connections, but I wasn’t really committed to this donor until I knew it was going to work. I called and said, “So #2817 did the trick, and I’d love to know anything reassuring about him since I’m kind of anxious about it.” All I remember now is that I was disgusted with myself that her statement “Oh he’s so friendly and gorgeous. We are all so happy when he is coming in for a donation as his smile lights up the place” delighted me. Around the office, he was known as “Mr. GQ.” (The model donor in the literal sense of the word.) I’d like to think if she said he was kind, enlightened, or brilliant I’d have been equally pleased, but who am I kidding?
Every birthday, Georgia lets me know we are one year closer to the big reveal. The suspense is at its peak now. 23andMe is a sort of place holder, a reward, an appeasement or a guilt gift despite its nefarious potentials. Impatiently we wait to see what the company can come up with in the next few weeks beyond what the well-read, 12-page single space donor profile tells us. I’ve memorized phrases from the profile “He’s good at math”, “avoids refined sugars”, “has piercing blue eyes.” We all need stories about who we are and where we come from. There is an interesting relationship between Georgia’s 23andMe analysis as a qualitative report of her genome and the sperm donor profile as a dog-eared proxy of the same.
Packing up this DNA kit strikes me because I am also starting a new project investigating transgenic spider goats. I see an empathetic opportunity to connect my personal and maternal experiences with my scientific and sociological ones. Transgenic refers to situations where an organism’s genetic material has been manipulated to contain DNA from another organism. Scientists are able to artificially incorporate genes from one organism into another, a technique most commonly associated with the genetic modification (GM) of crops including corn, rice, soybean, and cotton. Given my research interests and expertise in critical animal studies and medical sociology (Moore 2015; Moore and Kosut 2013; Moore 2017), I am more specifically interested in this transgenic model as it has been applied to non-human animals. To date, several mammalian species—including mice, goats, sheep, and cattle—have been genetically modified to be used as research objects or to produce pharmaceuticals and other bio-materials (cf., Haraway 1997). According to the Food and Drug Administration, transgenic science is used to make pharmaceuticals, serve as source of cells, tissue, organs—with close match to humans, innovate materials like sutures, or grow and harvest healthier and efficiently produced food.
Up early, and before Georgia spat in the test tube for 20 minutes, I read through recent academic and scientific literature on transgenic species—imagining the dairy cows embryos changed by human genes to lactate human breast milk (Wang et al. 2017), a transgenic bull modified with human DNA to reproduce modified dairy cows (Taussig 2004), AquaAdvantage™ salmon modified with genes from an ocean pout for faster growth (Friedman 2015), and Enviropig™ transformed by the introduction of a transgene created from the bacteria E. coli to produce less waste. I know there are relatively simple presumptions about how I am supposed to feel—because I am a social scientist, or because I am a feminist, or because I am a mom, or because I am progressive. I am supposed to feel disgusted by the transgenic animal. I am supposed to be horrified by the machine of late capitalism exploiting all of human life and squeezing the original purity from the animal. I am supposed to be terrified of how mad scientists are fueled by freakish and unexamined psychotic urges to create monsters. I am supposed to pity (or educate) those duped by promises of a future where we are all fed, healthy, and fully aware that they are what usher in the dystopian future. Instead I am sheepishly thrilled because I used scientific innovation in reproduction to have my own children.
It’s clear to me that as humans we have always struggled with this question of naturalness in different ways, that is the struggle of overcoming nature’s limitations and then being conflicted about it. Biomedicine is an intervention in nature and obstacle to the divine scheme. On one hand, both Georgia and I are juggling the fact that we do not have a face to her father but this is already passé in other circles. In other circles, people work in labs to make more fantastic creatures. These questions of the natural and the altered have always been in tense relationship; they are a contradiction without a coherent narrative. And we seem to always approach these uncrossable boundaries between the natural and the synthetic, the thinkable and the unthinkable, the acceptable and the unacceptable.
More Than Human Methods
My research projects use a method called grounded theory to examine historical moments of cultural, scientific, and medical preoccupation with technological manipulation of biological life. Sociologists comment upon these shifts in scientific innovation and cultural integration of new realities like the cloning of Dolly the sheep, the proliferation of GMOs, and the expansion of assisted reproductive sciences. This manipulation of the natural environment is occurring at a time of massive ecological degradation and destruction. The boundaries of life are more porous and hybridized.
This work is another tack in my continued investigation into the concept of more-than-humanness. More-than-humanness is a concept that has emerged from the recent turn in academic work toward understanding nonhuman or extra human actors and objects as integral to social life. My approach to studying more-than-humanness has been in situ research of scientific practice. In situ means I am figuring out the sociology of something while I am in the situation, doing it or watching it being done. Most recently I followed conservation biologists and environmental scientists who study horseshoe crabs resulting in the publication of Catch and Release (NYU Press, 2018). My current project builds from that study to examine the use of transgenic species in a North American laboratory developing industrial uses of spider silk, a strong and flexible substance that has applications for human products such as parachute rope, tailhook arresting gear, and bullet proof vests.
In order to do this work, I have to deeply engage with how bounded I am by my humanist attachments, specifically my attachment to the concept of the ‘natural.’ I’d like to suggest that we, as humans, are haunted by the idea that there is a natural way of being and doing human life. We collaborate in making up these fictions that co-produce the natural—the naturalness of relationships between genetically related parents and children, or the natural boundaries between species, and even most specifically between humans and all other non-human animals. These fictions become real to us. We forget that we made up the stories and we present ‘evidence’ of irrefutable natural criteria of ontological coherence. We are attached to stories that reify naturalness and we collectively go to great lengths to maintain a cogent narrative, even when there is none.
My lived experiences inform my increasingly fragile attachment to naturalness, exposing cracks in the façade of my claim (and others?) to biological integrity. I have no personal experience with the natural way of reproduction. While I have given birth to three children, I have exclusively reproduced through donor insemination. This natural way of having children is a phantom. I am haunted by the natural in my self-concept (Am I a real mom?), my ways of explaining my family to others (How are we related to these children and how are they related to one another?), the origin stories I tell my children (Where did they come from?). In turn, the way my children understand themselves invokes their phantom ‘real’ fathers. As I attempt to be a ‘sociologist’, I reflect back on my own daughter’s (and my) experience of being haunted by naturalness and I become more sympathetic to scientific mediations of biological reproduction. Scientists, popular opinion sometimes goes, use unnatural ways of intervening in ‘natural’ processes and create monstrous freaks of nature–Spider Goats. But I find myself shifting my attachments (and allegiances) away from the natural to the freaks, the trans-genes, the mediated deliberate blends, even perhaps seeing myself, in retrospect, as creating them.
Humans are continually reckoning with our relationship to “nature.” On the one hand, we situate ourselves outside and above the natural world in order to justify (or at least feel okay about) the exploitation of non-human animals and natural resources for our own needs and wants. On the other hand, we fall back on the myth of the “natural” when it serves other purposes—such as explaining (probably socially constructed) behaviors and ways of being. As we swivel between these and other understandings of ourselves, the blurry spaces between are left mostly unexamined. These ideas are hard to corral. They are things in motion.
At the same time that I’ve been researching transgenics and managing Georgia’s birthday DNA, I have also been reading Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy with my book club. In the books, Atwood crafts a world of biologically engineered genetic hybrids within the backdrop of corporate domination over everyday life amidst ecological degradation. The characters facing human extinction must also address the introduction of a new race of beings, Crakers, and innovated transpecies. Some of the new transpecies include pigoons, wolvogs, and liobams. Coincidentally, Atwood introduces spider goats in the first book:
Compared with Martha Graham, Watson-Crick was a palace. At the entranceway was a bronzed statue of the Institute’s mascot the spoat/gider – one of the first successful splices, done in Montreal at the turn of the century, goat crossed with spider to produce high-tensile spider silk filaments in the milk. The main application nowadays was bulletproof vests. The CorpSeCorps swore by the stuff (Atwood 2003:199).
Here Atwood is creating a fictional universe where cleverly named institutions of higher learning train young people to become professionals, but she also relies on current scientific innovations. The blending of the fictional with the real science adds to the creepy familiarity of what could happen in the near future. While there is no palatial Watson-Crick University, there is a spider goat transgenic animal that lactates spider milk protein. That is real. Right now, fibers are being spun from purified spider milk to create industrial objects.
In Atwood’s second book, The Year of the Flood, the objects from spider goats are in use to enable survival. “She’d worn surgical gloves, a bulletproof vest made of silk from a spider/goat splice lifted from the AnooYoo guardhouse a year ago” (Atwood 2009:22). As in the books, these proprietary spider goats, clearly part of the military industrial complex, are operationalized for human protection from injury and death.
As it goes with so much speculative fiction, there is an eerie and overlapping foreshadowing of real life. I have met a version of these spider goats. My research begins with a preliminary fieldwork trip to Utah State University in Logan to visit the Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative (USTAR) and Randy Lewis’ transgenic goat lab. Since I am a medical sociologist and I had read about the biocompatibility of spider silk for human implantation use, this link to biomedicalization fascinated me.
To provide a bit of history, Biosteel™ is the trade name given to the material engineered by a spider goat species modified to produce spider silk in their milk. This particular species of spider, the female Golden Orb Weaver, was carefully selected to be integrated into other species. Native to Central America, female golden orb weaver spiders (Nephila clavipes) produce six kinds of silk. A golden orb weaver can spin a three-foot-wide web in one hour, and will make approximately 100 webs over her two-year lifespan. Speculative applications of spider silk include sutures, bulletproof vests, parachute rope, or artificial ligaments and tendons (Heos 2013). However, unlike silkworms, spiders cannot be raised domestically because they eat one another. Furthermore, spider silk is produced at too small a scale for economical human use. So, other animals (goats and silkworms), plants (alfalfa) and bacteria (E. Coli) have been crossed with the spider silk protein.
The story of the goat transgenic manipulation is typically the most compelling to come out of the lab, possibly because they are mammals. In the 1990s, the U.S. Department of Defense offered financial support to a now-defunct Canadian biotech company, Nexia Biotechnologies, Inc., as they engineered a herd of transgenic goats (Center for Postnatural History 2014). The goats were part of a project to produce new fabrics that were both strong and flexible and could be used as wearable armor—bullet proof vests or pants that repel shrapnel. When the Canadian project collapsed, Dr. Randy Lewis, an American biochemist, was able to acquire the herd and bring them to the Western US.
By mandate of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, these transgenic goats are quarantined in a secure facility, isolated from non-trans species so they can never accidentally reproduce. In isolation, the herd continues to reproduce transgenic goats—females, in hopes they are milk-producers, and males, to be used as studs. The kids produced in this herd are tested to determine if they are transgenic and enrolled in scientific research.
Over the summer, the lab focuses on purifications, or methods of extracting spider silk from the medium of production, goat’s milk. For example, there is large-scale goat milk work that occurs in the lab; through a series of filtering, and purifying procedures, spider silk is produced in powder form and then reconstituted.
Dr. Lewis’ research with the goats has been funded by a variety of military and other federal agencies. Describing the history of their funding, he told me they began with money from the Office of Naval Research, then from the Army, and eventually from the Air Force. Along the way they also got funding from the NIH, NSF, DOE. At the time of my visit, he said, “And now we have made a complete 360 and we are back at Naval but more for our adhesive properties rather than mechanical properties.”
While the US military has been the primary driver of transgenic spider silk research, and these goats exist because of military funding, the military’s investments and interest diverge from the scientists’. The military wants to find lightweight fabric technologies to protect soldiers from weapons and wartime risks. The scientists want to create body compatible medical insertables such as prosthetics and bandages. While, neither potential of spider silk materials has yet to be realized, the laboratory is in full pursuit of both—balancing the economic value of the goats for military actors with biomedical innovations for health care.
My sense of thrill in the speculative fiction and real-live truth must certainly be related to my own reproductive experiences without heterosexual penis vagina sex. I didn’t do what comes naturally. And while, I know Georgia isn’t transgenic (neither are her sisters), she feels to me somehow transgenic adjacent. I did use technosemen to get pregnant. This process could be considered very low tech compared to making a new species with mixed up genes. I didn’t do cutting-edge gene splicing to get pregnant with her—but I feel a scientific intimacy with these practices of mixing, hybridity, and creative mediated reproduction. Sometimes I visualize my inseminations in a Frankenstein lab-or-a-tory fantasy where the smoky liquid nitrogen tank billow as I reach for the vials of semen, drawing the liquid up into a syringe, props in my human chemistry set. Three different people have put the semen inside of me using speculums, syringes, catheters. My body has been the staging ground for genetic experiments of mixing DNA (with great results).
My embodied experiences in technoscience connect to my sociological work. I consider the integration of transgenic species in human everyday life to rework sociological and anthropological concepts such as kinship, species, natural, and social. How are humans reproducing themselves and animals in the pursuit of some larger mixing, hybridization, transing? Biological citizenship refers to a form of citizenship that produces new forms of belonging, claims to expertise, and access to resources oriented around biological claims. This new way of understanding citizenship moves away from humans building solidarity around labor organizing, political engagements, or nation states but rather biologically based rights claims (Rose 2006; Petryna 2002). Acknowledging this transgenic turn in biomedical interventions, my work shows biological citizenship not to be built on a solitary, coherent biological entity but rather, often hidden networks of transgenic machinations undergird the research, development, and implementation of prophylactic, curative, and palliative treatments.
Scientists operate with a keen awareness of popular opinion about their work in transgenics and acknowledge a degree of hypocrisy. When discussing the ethical considerations of transgenic science, Randy Lewis told me:
You know the major problem is from outside people who say we are playing god and how could we do this. And it’s like you know, we have an engineering day in February and we take baby goats – twins where one is transgenic and one is not and we ask them to figure out which is which. It is truly impossible for them to identify. There are no differences….
Take a look at dogs right now. What have people done with dogs. Everything, absolutely everything. Has anyone said a word? Not one word from everyone. And I look at what they have done to some of the dogs and it is not just inbreeding but it is new breeds like Labradoodles and all this and that people want to have. So, we have been manipulating for several thousand years what we want in dogs and we end up with arguably dogs that are completely and totally non-functional without a human being to care for them.
And yet we make a very precise genetic manipulation here and we are playing god.
I wonder why and how people end up with the ethics that they do. Just like the failed trials of transgenic or cloned animals—all the dollys before The Dolly, the mistakes, mess ups, errors, unsuccessful outcomes, I’ve experienced reproductive loss or “scientific failure”. My three children were not the entirety of my reproductive experiences. I had multiple miscarriages and a terminated pregnancy complicated by genetic abnormalities. Does this place me in the same continuum as the scientists who are accused of some eugenic motivations? When we make accusations of playing god, what species are we talking about human fetuses, dogs, goats, bacteria? Aren’t we all inside of this conundrum?
In this laboratory bioengineering is “engineering organisms to make things for us” as Dr. Lewis told me. The “us” in this statement are humans. Bioengineering cells and species to produce spider silk and then figuring out what products can be made from the spider silk—adhesives for bio-compatible bandages, fabrics for sutures, artificial tendons for surgical implants, bulletproof clothing.
These genetic manipulations are happening at time of popular concern over GMOs. But GMO outrage is selective. In the words of one graduate student in Dr. Lewis’ lab:
I think GMOS are wildly misrepresented in society. Nothing is organic. Genetic modification is how we feed the world; the natural tomato was like this big. (Gestures with her hands) There is a lot of modification that already goes on—even putting your two best tomato plants together—the way you breed. We never do anything that nature can’t do themselves, we just give them more tools to do it. We didn’t make up these process—but we can’t make proteins in a dish—but I guess we can with polymers. But to the extent where we are now, nothing does it better than the natural system. We are just helping it along.
No one really cares if you genetically modify bacteria.
Goats we have had problems with PETA and other groups. Our goats, there is nothing different about them, they make one more protein extra in their milk. We jump through all these hoops for the goats. No one cares about the spiders and no one cares about the bacteria. All of our drugs come from genetically modified bacteria and no one cares about that. I think if people really understood the process. Their manipulation happens as an embryo. We aren’t torturing goats. No one cares if you dissect a spider, we don’t like spiders, we like goats though. I hope the alfalfa can go somewhere though because that would be good and efficient—there would be no waste.
The central thread that connects all these stories and ideas is not necessarily the ethics or innovation of transgenesis in this moment, but our long history of reckoning and rationalizing these things. The spider goats can be read as horrible and fantastic, but is my honey crisp apple any less so because it is hybrid rather than genetically modified? Why is plant grafting and dog breeding more “natural” than genetically engineering Enviropigs? These are simplistic examples and maybe my reading is too broad or obvious, but our collective discomfort with GMOs (spider goats included) and our mostly dystopic visions about the perils of genetic engineering say to me that we are afraid this is a threshold we dare not cross. That DNA is somehow fundamental and sacred, the ultimate evidence of “naturalness”—our own elusive naturalness included.
Part of what is important to me about my own experience of using biological technology is that there are instances that the benefit of using biomedical innovation (the birth of the child) exceeds the angst of defying convention, real as that angst may be. When the stakes are high, we get more motivated to embark in that journey of re-examining our assumptions about what is natural and ethical. Only when pushed do we enter that discomfort zone that is the indispensable ingredient of social change. Perhaps one of the reasons we are still inclined to see spider goats more like freaks rather than super breeds is because the use of spider milk, beneficial as it is, does not yet carry significant benefit for most of us. My own Frankenstein children are partially of my flesh but also of some other substance. In the case of two of my kids, the code is attached to an actual person. In the case of Georgia, he remains imaginary for another 10 months.
Lisa Jean Moore is a feminist medical sociologist and professor at Purchase College, State University of New York. She is the author of several books including Catch and Release, Buzz, and Sperm Counts (New York University Press). Her university page is here and her work can be seen here.
2003 Oryx and Crake. New York: Anchor.
2009 The Year of the Flood. New York: Anchor.
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2014 Biosteel Goat. http://postnatural.org/filter/specimen/Biosteel-Goat, accessed April 14, 2017.
2015 GMOs: Capitalism’s Distortion of Biological Processes. Monthly Review 66(10): 19–34.
1997 Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleManC_Meets_OncoMouse Tm. New York: Routledge.
2013 Stronger than Steel: Spider Silk DNA and the Quest for Better Bulletproof Vests, Sutures, and Parachute Rope. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Latour, Bruno, and Steve Woolgar
1979 Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Moore, Lisa Jean
2007 Sperm Counts: Overcome by Man’s Most Precious Fluid. New York: New York University Press.
2015 A Day at the Beach: Rising Sea Levels, Horseshoe Crabs, and Traffic Jams. Sociology 49(5): 886–902.
2017 Catch and Release: The Enduring yet Vulnerable Horseshoe Crab. New York: New York University Press.
Moore, Lisa Jean, and Mary Kosut
2013 Buzz: Urban Beekeeping and the Power of the Bee. New York: New York University Press.
2002 Life Exposed: Biological Citizens After Chernobyl. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
2006 The Politics of Life Itself:Biomedicine, Power and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century (In-Formation). Princeton: Princeton University Press.
2004 Bovine Abominations: Genetic Culture and Politics in the Netherlands. Cultural Anthropology 19(3): 305–336.
US Food and Drug Administration
2014 Fact Sheet: Genetically Engineered Animals. Center for Veterinary Medicine. http://www.fda.gov/AnimalVeterinary/DevelopmentApprovalProcess/GeneticEngineering/GeneticallyEngi neeredAnimals/ucm113597.htm [https://perma.cc/9ZZU-NETG].
Wang, Ming, Zhaolin Sun, Tian Yu, et al.
2017 Large-Scale Production of Recombinant Human Lactoferrin from High-Expression, Marker-Free Transgenic Cloned Cows. Nature: Scientific Reports 7(10733). https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-11462-z.
 An Identity release donor is a sperm donor who has agreed at the time of donation that their identifying information can be released to offspring when they turn 18. To read more about this program: https://www.thespermbankofca.org/content/identity-release-program.
 A pseudo-number to slightly protect privacy.
 As far as we know there are no other offspring from the sperm bank using this donor and his inventory was destroyed a couple of year after Georgia was born. We have checked through Donorsiblingregistry.com and there are no other recorded live births. That said, he may have reproduced outside of sperm donation and Georgia might have other siblings.
 Donor profiles are now available online but 18 years ago when we purchased this sperm we had a printout copy that we have since PDFed. Georgia has a hard copy of the profile in a box in her room.
 This type of research approach is akin to the approach taken in Laboratory Life (Latour and Woolgar 1979) whereby a social scientist examines how scientists work as it happens.
 As a way of gaining entree, I mailed Dr. Lewis a couple of my books, then I reached out to him by phone to ask if I could visit his lab. I wanted to explore the feasibility of an ethnographic study spider silk transgenic research. Spider and goats have been interesting to me in and of themselves for many years. The horseshoe crab is most closely related to arachnids in the tree of life and goats are metaphorically rich to me, in part because both Georgia and I are Capricorns. With enthusiasm and warmth, Randy invited me to his lab and in the summer of 2017, I travelled to his lab, a remarkable site for rich sociological study and multispecies ethnography. I observed and interviewed the lab personnel as preliminary research. Since my research method is largely exploratory, qualitative, and interactive, it is necessary that I visit the laboratory at least more two times.
 The lab team includes four senior scientists, 7 graduate students, and 20 undergraduate students collaborating with spiders, goats, E. coli, alfalfa, and silkworms. There are three major threads to Dr. Lewis’s research investigating and operationalizing the use of natural spider silks. The first thread of research is to clone and express the proteins in spider silk and evaluate its mechanical properties. The second is to determine how to produce large enough amounts of the protein in different models. The third is to investigate what can be made from the spider silk once they are extracted from the producer. Currently they are examining the use of spider silk in fiber-adhesive gel prototypes.
 Male spiders do not produce silk; they steal insects from females’ webs.
 Technosemen is the new and improved body product manufactured by semen banks. These are technical, medical even mystical manipulations of the raw material that are carefully presented to potential clients (Moore 2007). Semen analysis includes sperm counts, morphology, motility testing, functional testing, and sperm washing ranging from the swim-up methods to percoll or retrograde. Each test is accompanied by a price tag. In addition to semen analysis, which purports to be a method of insuring “fertability” of the product, semen and the donor undergoes disease and genetic testing to diminish possible fears of genetic or contagious conditions such as HIV/AIDS. These practices of semen analysis and disease testing create technosemen.
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