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The setting was the basement of an old well house on a ten-acre farm in Escondido, California. Fresh out of law school, Andrews had heard that Robert Klark Graham, the millionaire inventor of the shatterproof plastic eyeglass lens, was launching something called the Repository for Germinal Choice—a sperm bank to which only geniuses (preferably Nobel Prize winners) would donate, and from which only supersmart women (Mensa members, to be specific) would be allowed to withdraw. The idea, Graham told the public, was to create a world with brighter, more creative, happier people.
Unable to reach Graham for a phone interview, Andrews decided to take a different tack. She would pose as a potential mother interested in the inventor’s services. The Mensa test proved no problem, and when she finally received a call from Graham saying she’d been accepted, she told him that she wanted to visit the lab first. “I wanted to know more about the secrets of parenting he claimed to possess,” she says. “To see whether he had a theory about how this whole thing would work.”
She arrived in Escondido expecting to find “some supercool science-fictiony place.” Instead, she “descended the stairs behind [Graham] and entered what looked like a suburban rec room.” The two-inch vials of sperm he kept there, frozen in liquid nitrogen, were shipped to women in special two-foot-high containers.
The holes in Graham’s logic were obvious to Andrews. For starters, she knew there was little evidence that Nobel Prize winners run in families. “In fact,” she says, “they run in scientific departments, like the economics department at the University of Chicago.” What’s more, Nobel laureates tend to be older, and “children born from much older fathers can have chromosomal abnormalities and are more likely to have autism.”
Andrews wrote about the experience for the New York Times Syndicate and for Parents magazine and included a chapter on the encounter in her book The Clone Age: Adventures in the New World of Reproductive Technology.
A few years after her visit, the sperm bank went out of business. “But it wasn’t because we all of the sudden realized it was a bad way to go,” Andrews says. “It went out of business because now every sperm bank offers genetically enhanced sperm.” The California Cryobank, for example, offers sperm from donors who look like famous actors and athletes, she says, as well as gene choices related to education, athleticism, religion, ethnicity, build, skin tone, musicality, facial features, and artistic ability.
To Andrews, such efforts to help create “designer” babies are fraught with ethical peril. “Too many Americans now approach procreation with a shopping-list mentality,” she wrote in Self magazine. “In the future, a daughter might sue her parents for not finding a ‘better’ egg donor to spawn her.”
In one of her next adventures, Andrews sent a team of students to follow surgeons at several hospitals over a period of months. The research revealed an alarming reality: “Hospitals make far more mistakes than people think.” In fact, Andrews says, “those mistakes cause 18 percent of patients to have serious disabilities as a result.”
Her real interest, however, lay with genetic and reproductive issues, and after writing a groundbreaking paper on in vitro fertilization in the early 1980s, she began to develop a reputation as a go-to bioethicist. Government agencies, then Congress, started to call for advice. “Policymakers would say, ‘We don’t have time to worry about this or that issue—genetic enhancing of people or cloning or whatever—because they can’t even do it yet in animals.’ Meanwhile, scientists were saying, ‘I just did that in my lab this past week.’ So I was in all these situations where people were pushing the bounds of science, and I was ten years ahead of lawmakers in all these settings.”
By the late 1990s, Andrews says, she started feeling like the Harvey Keitel character in the movie Pulp Fiction. “I was the cleanup person called in after scientists or doctors had done some strange new thing—the lawyer asked to sort out the rights and responsibilities, the liabilities, and the commercial potential. Should anything be allowable so long as a lawyer can come up with a scheme to deal with it? Or are there some scientific advances that would so change the nature of our society that they should be prohibited?”
Indeed, when an elite teaching hospital decided to take sperm from men in comas so that their wives, girlfriends, or, in some cases, parents could create children, Andrews was asked to weigh in on the legal rules that might govern the arrangements.
When the family of a person with Marfan syndrome wanted Abraham Lincoln’s DNA tested (scientists have long believed that Lincoln suffered from the disease), the Chicago History Museum called in Andrews to create guidelines for genetic research on the museum’s prized possessions—in this case, a cloak belonging to Mary Todd Lincoln. (The cloak was never tested because doing so could have damaged the artifact and because there was no guarantee that DNA that old would reveal answers.)
Early in her career, however, Andrews fought more than quirky legal battles. In Dubai, an official picking her up at the airport was taken aback when he saw that Andrews was a woman. “I hadn’t realized until I got there that they wanted me to come up with a legal system to clone men—just men,” she says.
“Older male lawyers called me a ‘lawyerette,’” she recalled in the Yale Law Report, “but they still came to me with their legal questions.” Men who underestimated her often regretted it.
“I remember being in a room about ten years ago when she articulated a theory by which gene patents should be held to be unconstitutional,” recalls Ed Kraus. Among other things, she pointed out the U.S. Supreme Court’s declaration that such discoveries are “manifestations of . . . nature, free to all men and reserved exclusively to none.”
“In the room were some confident big-firm intellectual property lawyers,” Kraus says. “They looked at her blond hair and her petite presence and dismissed her ideas, [saying], ‘Those are cute little academic notions, but that’s not really going to carry any weight in a court.’ Then boom. Ten years later she gets the ACLU to realize the importance of the issue of gene patents, and a court rules precisely the way she had argued.”
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One of the most rewarding aspects of Andrews’s varied career has been her foray into the world of pulp fiction. “I actually read mysteries for a long time and liked them a lot. For years I kept saying I wanted to write them one day. I finally had to make good on that.”
Her day job provides plenty of fodder, and the novel format gives her a way to introduce the average reader to complex ideas, concepts, and ethical issues in a way otherwise impossible.
One plot taken from her real-life research sprang from a visit to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, D.C., in 2000. During the tour, she asked about something she had read in an obscure scientific article: the Vietnamese trophy skulls.
The guide took her to a storage room, slid open a drawer, and dropped “a garishly graffiti-laden skull into my hands,” she says. The relic and five others like it had been seized in the 1960s from American GIs who had tried to smuggle them into the United States as souvenirs from the Vietnam War.
Andrews used the encounter as the seed for her second forensic thriller, The Silent Assassin, in which Alexandra Blake discovers evidence of a 30-year-old murder inside one of the skulls. Shortly afterward, Andrews wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times, arguing that the skulls should be returned to Vietnam. (They apparently have not been.) “So it all circles back and forth in a way,” she says.
As for her writing inspiration, “Chicago is a great place for medical mysteries,” she says. “There’s the cutting-edge science—genetics at Northwestern, nanotechnology and biomedical engineering at IIT—and it’s the home of the American Medical Association and the American Hospital Association.”
Her next novel is, in fact, set in Chicago. The pregnant protagonist shops at the Target on Elston Avenue and meets her sperm donor at the Starbucks on Dickens Street. Meeting a sperm donor at Starbucks? In Andrews’s strange world, it makes perfect sense.