This week’s cover story was about babymaking. Most Economist readers will probably know someone who is struggling with infertility. One person in six suffers from it, and today’s main method for treating it is nowhere near as good as we would like. In vitro fertilisation (IVF) is painful, costly and often doesn’t work. But as we describe in a Technology Quarterly and a film, there is some remarkable new technology on the horizon that one day might help.
Scientists are trying to make eggs by exploiting stem cells, which have the ability to become any of the body’s specialised tissues. Researchers in Japan have figured out how to take skin cells from a mouse’s tail and turn them into stem cells, and then into eggs. In this way they have produced live mouse pups.
It is not certain that such techniques will ever be safe enough to be used with humans, but if they can eventually be made to work, the consequences could be startling. Women whose supply of eggs is dwindling may be able to make new ones, thus increasing their chances of conceiving. Two men may be able to create children together, with sperm from one and an egg derived from the other’s skin or blood cells. Such children would be as closely related to their two fathers as today’s children are to a mother and a father.
How to illustrate this mind-boggling prospect? One approach our designers considered was to use images that hint at the deep emotions many people feel about the prospect of parenthood. A couple strolling by still water. In the reflection, a vision of a possible pram-pushing future. Or a couple gazing out over the sea, dreaming of the day when they will be bouncing a chortling child.
A short story, sometimes attributed to Ernest Hemingway, reads in full: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” This was the inspiration for one design. We decided, however, that it was too heartbreaking for a report that contains a good measure of hope. An alternative was more cheerful: two pairs of tiny feet, made out of cells.
Another idea was to illustrate the race against the biological clock. This showed a baby sitting in the middle of a stopwatch, which was striking, if somewhat literal. More subtle was a sketch of a graph: the line could be a woman’s pregnant curves, or it could represent the diminishing chances of conceiving after a certain age.
None of these ideas suggested a technological breakthrough, so we decided to riff on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo depicted the Biblical creation story. Rather than God reaching out to Adam, we had a scientist reaching out to a would-be parent, clutching a test tube. Some of us thought this was a terrific image.
Others wanted a different emphasis: rather than hinting that this new technology borders on the miraculous, how about stressing that much of a very complicated puzzle remains to be solved? So our designers came up with an image of scattered jigsaw pieces, with a baby’s silhouette appearing in the gaps between them.
In the end, however, we opted for something simpler. A baby in a womb, giving us an optimistic little thumbs-up. Some of us worried that this was too similar to some of the images used by anti-abortion campaigners, but that was inevitable: a baby cannot help looking like a baby. A different concern was that the baby’s thumb was too hard to see. We fixed that by showing the baby on a plain background, with only an umbilical cord to represent the mother.
And there we have it. Creating a great cover is obviously not as big a deal as creating a new life, but our design team deserve warm congratulations and a glass of something bubbly.
Leader: IVF is failing most women. But new research holds out hope for the future
Technology Quarterly: In vitro fertilisation is struggling to keep up with demand
Culture: “The Retrievals”, a tale of agony and addiction, makes listeners squirm