Remembering Abby Lippman

Biopolitical Times
A portrait of Abby smiling and appearing in conversation with someone, followed by text reading "Remembering Abby Lippman, feminist, activist, mentor"

Abby Lippman, friend and colleague to the Center for Genetics and Society and myriad other social justice organizations, died on December 26. Among her many scholarly and activist commitments, she was an important advocate for women's health who collaborated with generations of women in efforts to critique and control reprogenetics from the perspectives of reproductive and social justice. In the words of her obituary in the Montreal Gazette, she “was equally renowned for championing social causes as she was for her insightful critiques of reproductive technologies and other medical topics.”

From the time that CGS was established in 2001, Abby helped shape our efforts to bring social justice perspectives to bear on human biotechnologies. She did this with a seamless combination of sharp intelligence and wit, fierce commitment to activism, and a generous and warm spirit. She can be found on our website in a number of roles, including as a guest writer for our blog (1, 2, 3, 4, 5),  a signatory to our open letters (1, 2, 3), and co-author with Diane Beeson and Marcy Darnovsky of an article about commercial surrogacy.

These works reflect only a sliver of her contributions. She was and will remain a strong presence and influential force for CGS and many others. We remember her today and always.

Here, several long-time friends and colleagues of Abby’s share a few thoughts and memories. Links to additional remembrances are below.

- Marcy Darnovsky and the Center for Genetics and Society

From Diane Beeson

Abby Lippman’s 78th birthday was December 11. It took me years to figure out what her birth date was because she consistently resisted any celebration of herself. Her reply to my emailed birthday greeting this year thanked me for thinking of her and remembering, but added that she “did no pampering and I really don't celebrate the birthday day…But I am fine and aging is to be expected even if it brings slowness in too many ways.” We promised each other we would talk by phone some evening soon. And now we can’t.

Our relationship began in 1975 when we were both graduate students. We met at a March of Dimes-Birth Defects Conference in San Francisco where we were each giving the first professional presentation of our respective research to an enormous assemblage of physicians and other health care and research professionals. We had the good fortune to be seated near each other, and once we presented our work it was apparent that we shared a commitment to understanding prenatal diagnosis and reproductive technologies in general by centering women’s lived experience. At that time, I was struggling to complete a dissertation on women undergoing amniocentesis, with a physician gatekeeper on my committee who was telling me that women’s subjective experience was not data. Data, in his view, consisted only of what could be measured “objectively.”

Meeting Abby was a godsend. She was an inspiration. By publishing her brilliant and compelling work, courageously defending and building on it, she pioneered a whole field of critical assessment of biotechnology. Her insistence on exposing the limitations of logical positivism and scientism as the primary tools for understanding the meaning of new reproductive technologies galvanized subsequent cohorts of medical sociologists, anthropologists, and feminist scholars from many disciplines. And amazingly she did this as an epidemiologist!

Over the course of the last 40 years, our mutual interest in new reproductive technologies and the challenges they present to preserving our humanity was at the core of our relationship. But I depended on Abby to clarify my thinking about a wide range of political developments and women’s health issues. I always admired that she never held back in speaking truth to power, and I was close enough to her to see that doing this was not always easy for her. That didn’t matter. She typically put the interests of those with less education and fewer resources ahead of her own.

While we visited each other’s homes on several occasions over the years, most of our contact was at professional meetings where we managed to carve out time to be together. Our children were relatively close in age and once when they were young, she brought her son and daughter to visit my daughter and me in Berkeley. We took all three kids on a trip to Santa Cruz. What I remember most about that trip was the wonderful pajama party, including our hilarious pillow fights while crowded into one motel room.

In 2006 Abby and I published a paper on ethical issues in egg harvesting for stem cell research, and in 2015 she, Marcy Darnovsky and I co-authored an article on the meaning of the range in terminology used to discuss third-party reproduction. In 2017, she and I published a book chapter on health issues in gestational surrogacy. Working with her was a wonderful experience because she was brilliant, uncompromising in her values, and a great editor. Having had the honor of working so closely with her is one of my proudest accomplishments. Getting to know her well was one of my greatest pleasures. Her unexpected passing is an enormous loss.

Diane Beeson is Professor Emerita of Sociology at California State University, East Bay; co-founder and Associate Director of the Alliance for Humane Biotechnology; and a former fellow at the Center for Genetics and Society.

From Tina Stevens

Abby Lippman seemed never to tire, never to retire. Our paths crossed in the first decade of this century, a time in Abby’s life when she could have set aside activism and felt justifiably content with her remarkable record of championing.  Instead, she joined a small number of academic-activists to found Alliance for Humane Biotechnology (AHB) where, as in so many other venues, she watch-dogged new biotechnologies insisting that developers be mindful of safety and social justice. 

Abby never just “called it in,” despite the fact that most of AHB’s contact with her was by email or phone.  Nothing was perfunctory.  She brought to every project, every statement, every position, qualities that became, for us, her hallmarks:  unwaveringly principled, impeccably sharp-edged analysis; lavish appreciation of her colleagues; a commitment – so rare amongst academics – to grassroots action and to the necessity of not being beholden to whoever pays the bill or holds open the door. 

A no-nonsense straight-talker about work, she was deeply compassionate.  She offered friendship, reminding us to care for our own health and well-being as we went about our work.   Abby was self-effacing, downplaying the special talents and reputation that she brought to the table, favoring instead to spotlight the efforts of her colleagues.  It’s not clear how to proceed in the wake of her absence.  Surely, her legacy is that we do so.  Thank you, Abby.   

Tina Stevens is Lecturer Emerita in the Department of History at San Francisco State University, and Director of the Alliance for Humane Biotechnology.

From Marsha Saxton

Our wonderful Abby had helped me enormously just a couple of months ago, coaching me on critiquing CRISPR in preparation for the Nobel Conference at Gustavus Adolphus College.  Then she gave me lovely, useful feedback after viewing the video of the event. Abby put generous time and love into backing the people and projects she supported.

Always the cutting-edge progressive thinker, I recall exciting conversations with Abby about tricky issues, like strange bedfellows, the hidden role of economics in reproductive technologies, about being an ally to marginalized people, which was her forte.

She recently, joyously, mentioned one of her writing projects-- about “CRISPR Cowboys,” playing on words and letters (in English and French) like the letters in the double helix.

Abby coined the term “geneticization” in the early 1990s—thank you, Abby, for calling it, to enable our moving ahead into the social analysis that led to greater awareness, which I believe eventually resulted in protective legislation in the U.S. law, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA).

I had the great honor years ago, of having Abby serve on my dissertation committee. I first met her in the early 1990s through the ELSI Working Group of the U.S. Human Genome Project. She quickly identified herself as a thoughtful and committed ally to people with disabilities and to the important interconnections of the disability community with reproductive technologies. Abby showed her caring and smarts in refreshing practical ways, connecting me with Canadian disability activists; significantly addressing disability issues in her writing; encouraging me in the uniquely warn, loving and fun style that was the essence of Abby. What a marvel she was and a blessing to work with in all her social justice circles and commitments. Abby's contributions made a huge difference in our world. 

Marsha Saxton is Director of Research and Training at the World Institute on Disability and Lecturer in Disability Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

From Stuart Newman

Abby’s was a mind and a voice – Brooklyn-intoned but originating from a higher place – that I will never forget and will always keep near. I knew and consulted her for more than 30 years. As a member of the Advisory Board of the Council for Responsible Genetics she was a principal formulator of its position against human germ-line modification, the first such statement by a secular public interest group. (1)

She remained current with emerging technologies and continued to query them, uncovering their false promises and worse. Abby enlisted me on a rejoinder to a misbegotten proposal to make people from stem cells (2). And in response to two news items in June 2007, one (in The Washington Post) on how the “first concerted effort to understand all the inner workings of the DNA molecule is overturning a host of long-held assumptions about the nature of genes and their role in human health and evolution,” and the other (in The New Scientist) on “a palpable buzz around efforts to correct diseases by targeting therapeutic genes to stem cells already resident in the body,” Abby emailed (in her customary lower case), “doesn't the first of these two articles to large degree erase the hype in the second?  if we really do not know about all the inner workings, and good evidence shows how all that is going on means that even more today we do not know what a gene is, how can the ‘dream’ be anything other than a fancy?” Always critical, even of herself, she continued, “likely i'm missing something here......” But she wasn’t, and rarely did.

Stuart A. Newman is Professor of Cell Biology and Anatomy at New York Medical College and was a founding member of the Council for Responsible Genetics.

1  Abby Lippman et al. (1993). Position paper on human germ line manipulation presented by Council for Responsible Genetics, Human Genetics Committee, Fall 1992. Human Gene Therapy 4:35-37.

2  Abby Lippman and Stuart A. Newman (2005). The ethics of deriving gametes from ES cells. Science 307:515-517.

From Jeff Nisker (received April 2018)

It has taken many weeks to write what Abby will always mean to me, because she has been an ever-present, effervescent part of me, and will always be.

Abby is my teacher, my provoker, my sister, my friend. Abby is my conscience, not con-science as those who disagree with Abby these would have us believe, rather the magnetic glue that held together disparate groups of scientists interested in social justice. In the late ‘80s she cautioned me where my “cutting edge” research in embryo genetics would lead. I stupidly retorted that “slippery slopes can be melted by sensitive scientists”.

But of course Abby saw into the future of “geneticization” before the rest of us, and was passionate in drawing my shortcomings and those of others to our too science-focused attentions. My penance to Abby was to close my laboratory, give back the grant money, and write the play Orchids to bring public awareness to what Abby already knew.

Abby described herself as a “gadfly” but she was much more. Her intellect and spirit provided her acolytes a passionate fountain from which we could drink, and then respond through our different disciplinary strategies to effect the views of those who would rather ignore Abby’s insight than admit that genetic science is not perfect, and quest for genetic perfection inhibits our humanness.  

Jeff Nisker is a clinician, researcher, university professor, and writer. He is Professor of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility at Western University and scientist at Children’s Health Research Institute, both in Ontario, Canada.

Other remembrances