Cover image for The pregnancy project : encounters with reproductive therapy
The pregnancy project : encounters with reproductive therapy
Propp, Karen.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Pittsburgh, Pa. : Duquesne University Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
xii, 138 pages ; 23 cm.
Personal Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
RG134 .P76 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



In this beautifully written account that is both accessible and clinically accurate, Karen Propp relates her own experiences with infertility treatment. After speaking with women across the country about fertility problems, she was able to also weave other women's stories into her own. She describes a range of reproductive technology techniques, including artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, and the use of donor eggs.

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

An author of children's textbooks, poems and a novel, Propp, who put off deciding to have a child until she was 39, joins the recent spate of memoirists who recount their struggles to have a child through reproductive technology (such as Linda Carbone and Ed Decker, author of A Little Pregnant). Her husband, Sam, had been rendered sterile during successful radiation treatments for prostate cancer. Before his treatments, however, he banked his semen. Propp subsequently endured three failed attempts at artificial insemination. The couple then turned to intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), a new procedure whereby a single sperm is injected into an egg taken from the mother's body. Acknowledging that ICSI is accessible only to the affluent, Propp convincingly conveys the dashed hopes, despair and pure physical pain she experienced during the frequent injections and egg extractions. In order to stave off her depression, with which Sam appears to have had little sympathy, she joined a support group and did some volunteer counseling for other infertile women, many of whom had to wait nerve-racking months and years to have a biological child. After ICSI also failed, Propp finally became impregnated through an egg retrieval and an embryo transfer and later gave birth to her son, Zohar. Couples with fertility problems will take heart from the author's laborious success story.(Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One Reconceptions     October 17, 1997. I have been up much of the night with my newborn son. I am weary and sleep-deprived, it's true, but I complain less than other new mothers. Perhaps this is because until a very short time ago I didn't know if I would ever write or say "my newborn." There's about a 20 percent chance of any single in vitro fertilization cycle resulting in a successful pregnancy, and in my case, the doctors predicted even lower odds. So indulge me when I say I feel blessed. In the middle of the night, when the house is dark and still, I sing him a song: "Zohar, Zohar/I am so glad/You came to stay/ With me and your Dad." I cry a little when I sing this song, and perhaps my tears are from sheer exhaustion and postpartum hormonal changes, but what gets me every time is that I just turned 40 and how close we came to not having a baby at all.     It is a late and luxurious fall morning, and even here in the city, the foliage is at its most colorful peak. Zohar and I sit in the rocking chair where most of his feedings takes place, and once he latches on, I glance at the newspaper my husband has left lying open. I catch the headline and a few snatches: Successful Births Reported With Frozen Human Eggs. "... to allow women to freeze their eggs when they are young, for use later when they are older and their eggs are of poorer quality ... This would make menopause obsolete ..."     I am stunned. Previously, embryologists could freeze only embryos. For the women in my generation, this means that one is dependent on the quality of one's eggs at the age of attempted pregnancy. The eggs of a 35-year-old woman are less fertile than the eggs of a 25-year-old woman. If, at 25, one is not yet ready to start a family, well, then ... in later years, biology can have its revenge. But if a woman can freeze her eggs at 25 for later use, the entire childbearing clock has been altered. Because these frozen egg twins began in a laboratory at nearly the same time as my Zohar, I feel for them an odd closeness or synchronicity. Perhaps, I think -- and here the baby's fussing shortens my thought process to a generalization -- mine is the last generation of women to feel quite so profoundly conflicted about career versus family.     Spring, 1996. I am almost 39, the age when a woman has reached the cutoff for success rates for most infertility treatments. Under 30, 30 to 35, 39 and under, 40 and up -- these ages used to seem so arbitrary, but now the startling difference in success rates between the last two categories is a measure of how much hope I have left. True, I can't change the way I have lived until this moment and don't know I would even if I could. True, women in their twenties do suffer infertility and women in their forties do bear children naturally, but the charts and their statistical columns have given me a new identity and cohort that is as temporary as it is binding: 39 and under .     Like many in my generation, I put off childbearing for professional training, self-growth, the right partner. My twenties were filled with turbulence, ambivalence, shoe-string living. Then, in my thirties, I fell in love with children the way I once fell in love with certain cities. I became fascinated with preschoolers' jouncing steps, funny hops, whimsical spins. Who were these creatures who refused the pedestrian walk? Passing playgrounds, I turned toward the joyous afternoon shouts. Friends began having babies, and as I held the warm, sweet-smelling bundles, I began to want one of my own.     Having a child of my own presented certain financial as well as emotional pressures. I had worked as an adjunct Professor of English, as a children's textbook writer, a bookseller, a waitress, a secretary. Often, I held more than one job, rushing from a 1:00 writing workshop to my bookstore shift. Weekends, I corrected student papers. And still I had no health insurance, no decent car, and too many housemates. How would I ever have the time and money to bring up a child?     I married a man who works in the sciences. After several years seeing me struggle to support myself and to write and to have a life, and after we married, he proposed that I quit my jobs and write full-time. He would support us financially. "You're never going to know what you really can do unless you try," he argued. "Give it your all. Besides, I don't like subsidizing the university to exploit you working adjunct."     And so I wrote: a book of poems, a novel, book reviews, some essays about education. And as I wrote, a funny thing happened: my desire for a child grew and grew until I felt I could no longer live and die without a child to raise in the world and leave behind.     At 39, I have already reached the stage the books talk about when pregnancy seems elusive, unattainable. My first artificial insemination, timed and measured, did not take. I lay on the table, feet in the stirrups, pelvis obligingly tipped to accommodate the catheter, and rested as the sperm cells made their uphill swim. The nurse left with a kitchen egg-timer in her pocket of her white coat, its relentless tick-tick -- so like a baby's heartbeat -- marking off the 20 minutes until she returned. When the timer went ding! however, my eggs were not done.     Cradling a child who came out of my body is beginning to seem impossible. Accidental pregnancies are literally inconceivable given our severe male factor. Unlike many women who find themselves, in chagrin and surprise, sitting in an infertility clinic and looking for an answer to their monthly grievance, I knew from the beginning that in order to become pregnant I would need medical help. Perhaps I was lucky to be spared the years of deepening grief that many women experience when struggling to conceive, but I will also never know whether I could have become pregnant "the normal way." Perhaps, given my age and a history of endometriosis, I would have eventually sought treatment.     But these what -- ifs become irrelevant. As a member of an infertile couple, one learns not to assign blame. A problem becomes our problem. During the past months, I have begun to see myself as infertile, or at least as a woman struggling with fertility, and this has made me search for new ways to conceptualize fertility.     For my second artificial insemination, I ovulate on a Saturday, when the regular hospital staff is off duty, and it falls to a young resident with a smooth baby face to "do me." I climb onto the examination table in the quiet, windowless room with nothing on the walls but a poster of pale yellow daffodils. To make conversation, I tell him that in two days I will be flying to England.     "Is that so?" he says from his position in front of my crotch. "My fiancee is from Liverpool. Oh, you'll have a nice time."     Do I detect pity and fear in his voice? Pity that it is he, this soft-spoken stranger, who must administer the most intimate of marriage acts? Fear that his fiancee could one day find herself in my compromised position? For compromised indeed I am, legs spread in the stirrups, speculum shoved up my private parts, hoping to get lucky with an aging set of ovaries and a limited supply of my husband's pre-frozen sperm. I am envious, then, of this Liverpool woman, who must be considerably younger than I, who will soon have this man's gentle touch, and his presumably endless supply of motile sperm.     I will never be 25 again.     "Here you go," says the young resident, and he shoots Samuel's specimen -- which has been thawed at room temperature for nine minutes, then warmed for seven minutes in a special gizmo -- up my cervix. "Good luck to you," he says as he leaves me to my 20 minutes of quiet time lying flat on my back.     Warm shame flutters up my legs. For my academic degrees and life experiences mean nothing to the sperm traveling up my womb. The places I have traveled and the books I have read mean nothing to the egg dropping down my womb, an egg I imagine as a dowager in bustled dress, holding on to the railing as she descends the stair to the ballroom where smooth-skinned women dance on lithe feet.     These are the same smooth-skinned women I see on the streets of Harvard Square. The woman with gold navel rings walking hand in hand with her mohawk haired boyfriend. The woman wearing a plaid jumpsuit and pennyloafers who carries a knapsack on her back. The woman stepping out of a boyfriend's red Miata with a high laugh and a toss of her permed hair. The woman driving a convertible of her own.     These are all the women I am not and no longer can be: women whose ovaries make it most likely for them to conceive.     These are the women able to take technology for granted: cyberspace and reproductive biology. The women able to e-mail one another about the pros and cons of freezing their eggs.     One of these women or someone she knows may be my new friend Simone's egg donor. "She was 24," Simone told me, incredulous, describing the anonymous woman whose eggs the clinic harvested and then, fertilized with Simone's husband's sperm, transferred into Simone's waiting womb. "Twenty-four," she repeated. And we both laughed at this amazing fact -- that in this world, women are still 24.     The truth is, I am closer to Simone's age and predicament than I'd like to admit. Forty-three-year-old Simone, the mother of 18-month-old twins. It's Simone who told me that it takes a year before my clinic finds an appropriate donor, and advised that I put my name on the waiting list now, just in case. Either one of us could speak our minds to one of the young women who dash from subway to cramped apartment and who navigate the path from annoying boyfriend to demanding job. I want to throw my feminist upbringing aside and shake one by her pretty shoulders and say, "Yes! Act now. Time passes. Choose wisely."     I want to say this just as my mother said to me when I was 16: "You can do whatever you want. You can find fulfilling work. You don't have to be tied down to a husband and children." (My mother said this in bits and pieces, over time, often while I was helping her to make dinner.)     Two days later, jet-lagged and full of jism, I come upon six dazzling white swans in London's Kensington Park. They are the queen's swans at the pond's watery edge -- web-footed, downy necked, and fat. It is late afternoon and I have been in England for seven hours. For some reason I walk directly into this flock of swans. Didn't I, too, just fall from the sky? The giant birds go on nipping at the short green lawn; occasionally one raises his long neck, opens his sharp beak and lets loose a brash warning honk.     Ostensibly, I am in England to calm my friend Lauren, who has come over on a book tour, with her fear of flying. But also, this is an excuse -- an extravagant, indulgent one, admittedly -- to distract myself in this interminable waiting period between insemination and pregnancy test. There's another reason, too. We're both superstitious. Lauren tells me that because I'm a good person, the airplane won't crash if I'm on board. Although I won't admit it to her, I'm hoping that Lauren's age 33 fertile eggs will somehow rub off on me.     As I stand and stare at the waist-high birds, I think how a sperm must penetrate my egg follicle, how the cells must divide into two, four, eight as the fertilized egg falls down my fallopian tubes, and how that microscopic embryo must implant in my uterine lining. This seems like a tall order. I am a little awed to think these elaborate interior processes might be happening within me now as I admire the swans' perfect plumage and supple necks, an April mist falling on the shoulders of my green wool coat. They give off a damp, moldy scent, these other-worldly creatures, and they eat the vegetation with tremendous energy and purpose. I can barely breathe, they are so new to me.     Leaves rustle in the distance. A woman, her long white hair flying in all directions, emerges from the trees chasing a shaggy red dog.     "She won't hurt you!" she cries to the swans, who suddenly waddle down to the shore, push off, and glide across the water.     "My dog won't hurt a thing," the woman says to me, gasping for breath." She is wearing a corduroy coat, and her thin lips are painted a garish red. "But she scared away the swans, poor things."     "They're amazing," I say.     She touches my arm in alarm. "You shouldn't get too close this time of year. The females are all pregnant. The males get especially protective, you know."     "Really?" They did me no harm; I hope it is a sign. Maybe the swans know , I think, outlandishly hopeful. Maybe they know I am like them.     "They're edgy right about now," the woman says.     "Well, they didn't seem to mind,"     "You were lucky."     Lucky. Lucky would be to have a human fetus curled inside my belly, its tiny hands and feet hitting my protruding shape. I see a tiny bird also, pressed up against the swan's feathery belly, a tiny beak curled to its tiny webbed feet -- an impossible swan fetus floating inside a circle of amniotic fluids.     "Look," the woman says, pointing to her dog, who is gleefully sniffing the short grass the swans have just vacated. "She just has to smell them."     "She's pretty," I say, for she is, all perky ears and curly tail and burnt red coat. As we stand admiring the woman's progeny, as it were, a large white dog runs over to the red dog and jumps on her rear, and starts thrusting.     "Get off now!" the woman yells, running to shoo this would-be dog rapist, mad to impregnate the female. "Get going, you!"     She manages to separate the dogs, and then they all get going, back into the mist of Kensington park. And I get going too, on a path that takes me past beds of purple hyacinth and yellow daffodil, their colors brightened to brilliant hues by the rain's wet wash.     Back at the hotel, I tell Lauren about the swans and the woman's warning. "Swans don't get pregnant," Lauren says quite matter-of-factly. "They lay eggs."     "Maybe she didn't mean pregnant exactly," I say. "Anyway, the egg is fertilized inside the female for a brief time before she lays it, right?"     "Well," says Lauren. "Like the saying goes, `You can't be half pregnant.' Except for me, who half wants to be and half doesn't. I mean, how could I handle a tour like this and a child, too? I'm not sure I'm up to motherhood as a lifestyle."     "You still have time," I say. Still have time, I think a bit resentfully, to be ambivalent about self-sacrifice versus personal freedom. I can no longer entertain such issues. Perhaps fewer in the next generation, the generation of frozen eggs, will have to be as conflicted.     The next day, I read in The London Times about a grandmother pregnant with own grandchild. I am fast losing whatever assumptions I ever had about human creation. Like a hungry person who thinks only of food, I have become acutely conscious of fertility and its permutations.     Spring, whose late arrival this year I have taken personally, is finally here. I breathe in spicy geranium, heady lilac, delicate forsythia. In my yard, I dig into the dirt, drop in tiny seeds for nasturtium and phlox, and sprinkle them with water. Earthworms wriggle along my trowel. I wake early to dig up clumps of hardy daylilies and hold in my hand their brown, bulbous roots, their hairy tendrils and stringy lengths.     I stroke my cramping belly. Everything rests now on what my body will or will not do. Four more days. I visualize white, white underwear with nary a spot of red.     Three days. My breasts swell, heavy with water. I dart into the bathroom to pull down my underpants: no blood.     Two days. I grow puffy, my belly cramps. I slip into the bathroom to pull down my underpants: nothing.     Samuel returns from his lab. "Your period come?" he asks, trying to sound casual.     My breasts smart sharply. I slink into the bathroom to pull down my underpants: still no blood.     I walk around light-headed and bloated. Maybe this is what's it's like. In the morning, I open the refrigerator and don't feel like eating. Is that the faintest tinge of nausea in the pit of my stomach? I go outside to look at my two-toned French marigolds until the sun warms my shoulders and back. Whatever happens will happen, I tell myself, and think of how happiness and happen come from the same root: hap, which originally meant good luck. I wish what happens will be lucky.     But it is odd to be hoping that something will not happen. Not to get my period, that monthly visitor for the past 27 years, is to be pregnant. And I wonder if my body -- if I -- for I am becoming my body, am all body now -- can make such a switch.     I think fecund, filled, abundant . I think gravid, heavy, rich . Please, please, please, I think. Bless us. Remember me.     I go to the bathroom to pee. A warm breeze wafts through the open window and brings a sweet lilac perfume -- they are at their peak now, the cascades of pale purple blossoms drooping under their own full weight. I pull down my pants and sit down on the toilet, and there it is, a spot of bright red.     Nothing I can do, nothing I can do.     I feel my breath deepen and my limbs relax now that at last I know what my body had in mind all this time.     So this is the way it's going to be.     In a little while I'll call the clinic to schedule one last set of appointments -- three insemination cycles is all our semen supply allows -- but for now I stay slumped on the toilet, my jeans twisted down around my knees, the morning light slanting off jars and tubes of cosmetics.     I enter this third and last cycle with considerably diminished expectations. Hope has become painful. Aside from the absurd amounts of paperwork, scheduling, and appointments that medicalized reproduction entails, I have given up control. Even straining to perfect New Age visualizations seems like an excuse for seeking control. From now on I will have to listen and follow what my body has in mind. And evidently, twice now, my body did not have pregnancy in mind.     Then I question myself, I who am often quick to assume blame. Thawed sperm has considerably less motility than fresh catch -- could that be the problem? Our doctor told us that on the average, it takes six months for a woman to become pregnant, and we have only tried twice. Infertility is currently defined as year of unprotected intercourse without pregnancy. The problem is that using three to five vials a cycle of our nonrenewable semen supply doesn't give us the luxury of six months.     The good news is: I have a body. My legs pump the bicycle pedals when we visit friends one weekend on Block Island's rolling hills; my arms reach for weeds in my flourishing garden; my breath comes deep and then fast and my heart beats steady. Samuel strokes my breast and my nipples harden. My hair grows longer. My skin tans. Food is delicious. I appreciate these pleasures more keenly for the anxiety and disappointment they must assuage.     Time weighs heavily on a woman trying to conceive. There is the 30 seconds it takes to wash down a Clomid pill with a glass of water, and then there is the rest of the day. My next ultra-sound appointment, to measure ovulation, seems eons away. And the more time passes, the more infertile I feel. I begin to wish for a fertility ritual; something irrational and unproved to lessen my plight. The fertility rituals I have devised for myself are mere routines, really: on the trip to the hospital, I always stop at the same corner store for a muffin to eat in the car; in the hospital lobby, I always buy a newspaper; I always take a particular elevator.     When I was a child, my family lived for a time in a small village in western Nigeria, where my father taught math at a high school he'd helped to found. On weekends, he and my mother were forever loading my sister and I into the back seat of our white Rambler and then traveling miles and miles of Yoruba bush roads to search out some new sight. Once, we visited a fertility shrine. We walked the lush green grounds down to a rushing river and then up a narrow path to a white mud walled courtyard. There, we saw three women, their eyes gazing inward, a grave sadness on their faces. One woman fell prostrate to the earth while the other two wept and wailed and beat the heavy air with their arms. My mother was pregnant with my younger brother and I'm not sure I knew precisely how this had occurred, but those flat-bellied women in the bright sunlight made me feel I was witnessing something utterly private and extremely fierce.     Recently, my parents give me a Yoruba fertility statue, a kneeling woman with an infant attached to her back. Her head is covered with ornate braids, and on her lap she holds a bird with a fanshaped tail. The bird lifts off to become a round, receptive bowl. On the woman's enormous, jutting breasts rests a medallion.     "She has such a presence ," says my friend Nadine. "You'll get pregnant with her around."     It is a presence that stirs something for which I have no name. She is not beautiful; the expression on her face is alternately wise, sad, and mysterious. Do I imagine it or does the energy in the house subtly shift, so that all currents flow toward this strong-lined woman?     One sweltering afternoon, I bicycle to Harvard's Tozzer library. Inside the air conditioned rooms, I find a collection of anthropological essays about African fertility rituals. I sit down at a long wooden table, and with trembling hands, I open the book. Here I can find, perhaps, a way into the folk societies I glimpse as a child. Here, I hope, is a path to pregnancy that does not rely on sterile instruments and chemical substances.     I read that in one tribe, butter, for its wetness and contribution to fatness, is linked to semen; how in another tribe, the women who want to conceive keep sacred clay pots hidden in the bush. I learn that blacksmithing, for its ability to forge new forms out of melted iron, is associated with fertility; that deceased ancestors have the power to "close the womb" of a female descendent or make a man impotent. I do not read about the Lagos professors or the Ibadan lawyers, people who are more like me. Mostly I read about agrarian communities, people who raise cattle, grow crops, and live in grass huts. Their idea of fertility is not merely the wish for children, but a generalized desire for crops to flourish, cattle to multiply, food to be plentiful. Fertility is a man with many wives and a fat stomach. Fertility is a woman with fire to light her cooking pots. Rain is fertility and so is a party with plenty of palm wine.     By these standards, I am fertile indeed; I find some consolation in renaming my plight. My refrigerator is full, my oven is lit, and Samuel has a rack stocked with carefully chosen bottles of wine. We don't need children to draw water from the river or even to carry on our professional work. If rain is scarce one growing season, our sufferings amount to pennies more paid for the lettuce and carrots and artichokes and grapes that overflow the grocery shelves.     On the other hand, the way we live separates human reproduction from the reproduction of capital. Our sources of production are linked to information, technology, language. We can be considered affluent without having children, an unthinkable concept in African society where children are generally regarded as wealth. And yet, the high cost of medical infertility treatments rely on affluence, a privilege not to be underestimated. Yuppie clinics, I've heard people say with derision when referring to centers that cater to the rich and infertile. Admitted, there is something pitiful in the woes money can buy.     At seven o'clock on a Sunday morning, I roll out of bed and drive the 45 minutes to the hospital to have my egg follicles measured by ultrasound. The ultrasound technician swaggers in a half-hour later: thin, blonde, arms lined with ropy veins, blue jeans tucked into work boots. I have never seen her before. Her demeanor indicates that I have interrupted her Sunday morning.     I undress and lie back, feet in the stirrups, as she smears the condom-covered probe with lubricant. In my previous soundings, a kind of etiquette had been observed: I inserted the phallic probe between my legs, and the technician cruised my insides looking for eggs. But this woman shoves it up so roughly I gasp. Then she proceeds to bump my vaginal walls and click on the keyboard attached to the monitor as if I am a video game she must beat. When it's over, I stagger off the examination bed and she hands me a towel. "Here," she says, making no effort to disguise her disgust. "Go wipe yourself off."     I go into the bathroom and wipe, but there is really no mess. I want to cry. During this final cycle of inseminations, my confidence has dropped considerably. I feel weak, weary, worn out. I carry the ultrasound results upstairs to the nurse on duty. Alas, my egg follicle is one centimeter short of the two centimeter width this clinic insists upon before insemination. We will postpone the procedure one more day, to give the follicle more time to grow. Tomorrow, say the instruments, I will be more fertile.     The next day, I take my place in the stirrups like an old cowhand. I lie on my back and thumb through magazines, filling my mind with fashion tips and celebrity gossip -- the more banal the better. This is no sacred moment. If a new life is to begin inside me this time, I think as I again obligingly tip my pelvis, it will have to happen the way the poet W. H. Auden understood suffering to take place: "While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along."     Yes, someone has turned on a radio down the hall. Its tinny tune reaches me through the thin walls as I thumb the glossy pages, not daring to hope.     "What about the Old Testament?" Samuel says when I tell him about my search for a ritual. We sit at our butcher block kitchen table facing the lilac tree. "The Bible," he says, "is full of difficult conceptions and pregnancies, miraculous births. Hannah. Rifka. Sarah."     "How can I read anything?" I reply. "I can barely get it together to make dinner. I cried all afternoon. I'm starting to lose it."     Samuel has heard this before from me. He too, is weary -- weary of my tears, weary of hope being replaced by disappointment.     Before Samuel became a computer scientist, and before he was a political scientist, and before he worked as a middle-east peace activist, he studied The Talmud and read Jewish mystical texts. "In the Kabbalah," he says, "the smoke from the animal sacrifice is believed to rise up and tickle God's nose, causing him to ejaculate over the earth; his semen comes down as rain to fertilize the land."     "Really?" I ask, surprised.     "Well, yes, that's the Kabbalah. Concerned with mythical time, cyclical time. If you want our history, though, check out the Bible."     A couple of days later, in the Old Testament, I find my private struggle writ large: fertility and conception as crucial to survival of the species and the clan. It is tempting to read with a contemporary mind. For example, the story of Jacob, whose twelve sons became the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel, drips with fertility concerns. I read about the unending rivalry between sisters Leah and Rachel. Leah births seven children with ease, seven times shaming childless Rachel, Jacob's second and best-beloved wife. Rachel, of course, suffers great pain while she is barren. When she finally does give birth, she proclaims: "God has taken away my shame."     Yes, I recognize that shame.     Ultimately, Jacob is sperm donor to four women: his wives Rachel and Leah, and their two slave women, whom the wives, during barren times, thrust upon Jacob to impregnate. Perhaps these domestic dramas make Jacob especially attentive to reproductive differences. For Jacob, sheep and goat herder, proves fertile in his ability to multiply animal as well as human life.     First he proposes a deal to Laban, his father-in-law and livestock owner. Every black sheep and every speckled or spotted goat that is born will belong to Jacob, and the rest will belong to Laban. Laban agrees, but then removes all the spotted and speckled goats. How is Jacob to get a flock of his own? He gathers tree branches and peels off their bark until the branches are striped with white. Then he places those striped branches in the drinking troughs, where the animals can see them when they mate. Sure enough, the Biblical writers tell us, this prenatal influence produces striped, spotted, and speckled young -- Jacob's property. In this way, Jacob prospers. Then he furthers his technique. He puts the striped branches in the trough only when the flock's most sturdy animals mate. Such selective breeding insures that Jacob, trickster who finally bests his father-in-law's long exploitation, gets sturdy offspring, while Laban gets the feeble. These cutting edge techniques of Biblical reproductive technology, this anti-Laban fertility laboratory, this drive to procreate in droves, make Jacob an extremely rich man. I think of him now as a rare man, a vital man, an extremely fertile man -- one whose entire personal and professional life is occupied with difficult conceptions and miraculous births.     One week passes.     The grass grows faster than we can mow it. Orange daylilies break into glorious blossom. Bees fat with pollen fly in and out of the house. We eat fresh green salads, thick crusted bread, a slippery bass with eyes and gills who swam in the sea.     The second week passes.     My period arrives.     So this is the way it's going to be.     Three times, we've struck out. We can no longer afford to use our dwindling semen supply on artificial inseminations, but must move on quickly to in vitro fertilization, where a new procedure called ICSI will allow us many more chances. We will go to yet another clinic. I feel numb with dread and failure, yet doggedly hopeful. It is the end of May. In July, I will turn 39.     On Sunday evening, PBS airs a show called The Nature of Sex . I pry Samuel away from his computer screen, and together we watch the intricate mating dances of damsel flies, who scratch tiny holes in leaves to lay eggs; Australian grayheaded bats, who mate while hanging upside down from trees; bay whales, who travel thousands of miles to mate once a year at a specified breeding ground. Every species has found a way to reproduce and gestate. The female seahorse drops her eggs into his pouch, and the male carries the eggs for fifty days before "giving birth" under water. Porcupines have only twelve hours in which to mate.     We, who no longer need to have sexual intercourse for fertilization to take place, are fascinated by these facts, and in particular by this one: that fertilization first took place outside the body. In the sea, where life began, water mixed sperm and egg. Only when creatures left the water did they have to touch to reproduce. Technology has restored us to our beginnings. Copyright © 1999 Duquesne University Press. All rights reserved.