We are proud and excited that this month we celebrate the first five years of the Centre for Reproduction Research (CRR) at De Montfort University (DMU). Since our launch in 2017, we have seen our academic community grow and flourish with the addition of new members, new students and a range of projects, collaborations and partnerships. Here we take the opportunity to give you a whistle-stop tour of some of our achievements; reflecting on our ambitions and where we find ourselves in 2022.
Understanding the complex landscape of reproduction
A central feature of our intellectual mission at the Centre is to consider reproduction across the lifecourse; exploring the complex interplay between a range of reproductive processes, practices and events. The result is a varied and novel set of projects which address a number of theoretical, empirical and policy questions. Reproductive health remains a key priority for global policy organisations and nation states – exemplified by the challenges posed during the Covid-19 pandemic – and our work aims to improve access to and quality of reproductive healthcare, address issues of inequalities and injustice, and better enable people to pursue their reproductive hopes and to manage their reproductive disruptions.
Our membership spans several disciplines across the social and health sciences, allowing us to collaborate in interesting and impactful ways, and to develop new multi- and interdisciplinary methodologies and tools. A number of themes have developed from our work, which both respond to and shape key areas of concern and interest in the field of reproduction studies.
Our research on fertility, fertility treatments and new family forms interrogates the socio-technical conditions under which parenthood is enabled, as well as the lived experiences of established, new and alternative routes to parenthood. Projects include our recently completed ESRC-funded EDNA project on egg donation in the UK, Belgium and Spain, our new collaborative ESRC project with Manchester University on direct-to-consumer genetic testing and donor-conception, as well as projects exploring co-parenting arrangements amongst LGBT communities and men’s experiences of surrogacy and family planning. This theme also includes research on mitochondrial donation: so-called ‘three-parent IVF’, and an emerging body of work focused on reproductive health in China. We have also recently written on the impact of the war in Ukraine for surrogacy workers in the region.
The growing significance of reproductive ageing and temporalities including questions of reproductive ‘delay’ and timing are represented by our programme of research on egg freezing – central to the recent ‘Extend the Limit’ campaign to increase storage time limits for eggs, sperm and embryos in the UK – and more recently, work on both social sperm freezing and heterosexual men’s engagement with contraception. Our researchers are also exploring questions of reproductive timing amongst British men who want to become fathers and British South Asian women.
We have a growing body of work dedicated to the intersection of chronic living and reproduction – including studies into endometriosis, mitochondrial disorders, Turner Syndrome, and people living with amputation – which illuminate the complex and often underacknowledged ways in which genetic, chronic and long-term conditions intersect with, configure and shape individuals’ reproductive trajectories and pathways.
Questions of service delivery and care continue form part of our agenda to create research evidence with which to improve and enhance reproductive and midwifery care. This includes our important and on-going collaboration with the National Maternity and Perinatal Audit and NIHR-funded research into factors influencing the utilisation of midwifery units. We have also completed work to adapt and validate the Reproductive Coercion Scale (a screening tool for health professionals).
Our research explores questions of equality, inclusion and social justice; with projects exploring Black and minority ethnic women’s experiences of maternity care during the Covid-19 pandemic, gay men’s experiences of parenthood through surrogacy, and heterosexual men’s experiences of pregnancy after fertility treatment. An emphasis on men’s reproductive experiences, as an often over-looked group in this field, is a particular focal point.
The fast-evolving digital healthcare landscape and its implications for and intersections with reproduction, continue to necessitate new empirical explorations and theoretical understandings. Our work on the digitisation of reproduction includes a focus on the on-line presence of direct-to-consumer providers, the marketing of genetic testing, donor-conception and new forms of male contraceptives and the burgeoning use of social media and online patient fora. This important social shift signifies the need for scholarly, critical and theoretically informed scrutiny.
Social justice and social impact
At the heart of our work sits a commitment to ensure our research has real-world impacts and advances social justice. Our growing resource library is designed as a one-stop-shop for our information and educational materials. The Centre also now hosts the Leicester Cloth Nappy Library which is providing support to new parents, as well as a nursery, to reduce their waste by switching to reusable cloth nappies – saving nappies from landfill across the city.
In connection with the Decolonising DMU project, and the wider socio-political agenda to address and actively tackle racism, racialisation and discrimination in all its forms, we have begun work to decolonise our own practice as researchers and scholars and, as part of this, to contribute to the decolonisation of reproduction more broadly. In 2021 we ran an event: ‘Decolonising Reproduction’ for DMU staff and students, which considered the impact of colonialism, racialisation and racism on the provision of reproductive healthcare. CRR members have been leading practice change around decolonising midwifery education with educational resources to advance this published in The Practicing Midwife. Decolonisation is also the central theme at this year’s British Sociological Association’s Human Reproduction Study Group conference, hosted annually at DMU.
Our commitment towards equality, diversity and inclusion principles is also reflected through our involvement with equality initiatives within De Montfort University. CRR members lead the DMUWomen network, the School of Applied Social Science’s Athena Swan assessment team and are represented on the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences equality and diversity committee, where they are contributing to developing appropriate actions promoting equality for all staff and improved wellbeing and career development in academia.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, we identified a need for collective understanding about the impact of the virus – and global responses to it – on reproductive health, choices and rights. CRR members created the ‘Covid-19 and Reproduction Digest’ to capture the developments and build up a reference library for use by all reproduction researchers. The Digest includes news articles, empirical research, commentary work, blog posts, advice and guidelines, petitions and calls for research contributions and participants. We also ran an event on Covid 19 and reproduction in 2021.
The expertise of our members has been utilised in national and international policy groups and committees. Members have provided evidence and expertise to: the Belgian National Advisory Committee on Bioethics; the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology; NICE; the Royal College of Nursing; the British Fertility Society Law, Policy and Ethics group; the Associated Fertility Societies group; the Critical Contraceptive Network as well as board representation on local sexual and reproductive health charities.
Developing the reproduction studies community
We pride ourselves on being committed to providing support and mentorship to early career researchers including PhD students. Over the past five years we have supervised the work of a group of excellent doctoral scholars whose topics include: egg freezing, surrogacy, menopause, Turner syndrome and reproductive decision-making, reproductive ‘delay’ and timings, experiences of premature ovarian insufficiency, ending fertility treatment, male experiences of fertility treatment, female genital cutting, and obesity in pregnancy. Two of our PhD students have been the recipients of the Foundation for the Sociology of Health and Illness’s prestigious Mildred Baxter postgraduate fellowship and two members have published monographs within the Emerald Book Series on Studies in Reproduction, Culture and Society (co-edited by CRR members) one of which was shortlisted for the FSHI 2021 book prize.
We also host a series of placements and internships for undergraduate and postgraduate students, and our recently established CRR dissertation prize seeks to recognise and honour excellence in DMU undergraduate students’ investigations pertaining to research and fertility.
We have established a programme of activities to enable the exchange of ideas, discussion and debate, to enhance understanding and to foster professional development, including an annual conference (this year, back in person on 19 May 2022!), a seminar series, a reading group, two writing groups, and until 2020, an annual writing retreat – something we hope to return to with the easing of Covid-19 restrictions. Our visiting researcher scheme has attracted visits from scholars from across the UK, as well as France, Germany, Switzerland, the US, Belgium, Canada, Austria, Cyprus, and Spain.
Looking to the future
Thank you for reading about our work and, if you’ve followed us for a while, for your on-going support and interest. When we launched the Centre in 2017, little could we have imagined what an uncertain world we would be writing from in 2022. The Covid-19 pandemic, global conflicts and humanitarian crises, including the recent war in Ukraine, have left us all feeling a growing sense of unease and uncertainty. These shifts have entrenched stratifications and given rise to new and concerning questions about global reproductive health. We hope that the next 5 years brings more peace, greater equality and understanding, and some sense of certainty and stability.
We welcome you to connect with us as we continue on our journey – follow us on Twitter (@CRRDMU), Instagram (@CRR_DMU), via this blog or by joining our mailing list – we would love to hear from you – or even better, come for a visit! For more information about our members and their work please visit our website.