About Orchids - Jeff Nisker

About Orchids - Jeff Nisker
Biopolitical Cultural Festival


The Tarrytown Meeting’s 2012 Biopolitical Cultural Festival included a production of the central scene of Orchid’s, a full-length musical play written by Canadian medical geneticist Jeff Nisker. First produced in 2005, Orchids explores some of the moral minefields and social dilemmas that surround selective reprogenetic technologies.


We extend our deep appreciation to Jeff for giving us the go-ahead to produce this scene at the Tarrytown Meeting, and for his collaboration on the project with us and with actors Alanna Fox and Elena Glass. We asked Jeff to share a few thoughts about how he came to write the play, and what it means for those working to build a new biopolitics.   


Jeff Nisker on Orchids

In 1991 pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) was developed in the United Kingdom, allowing DNA in single cells extracted from an eight-cell embryo to be tested. From 1989 to 1993, with Research Ethics Board approval, my team at Western University helped develop PGD and performed Canada’s first clinical application. However, the technology we helped develop segued into selecting males and other embryos with particular characteristics. 


I was warned where my research would lead. I still hear the words of Abby Lippman (then of the Council for Responsible Genetics and now of the Canadian Women’s Health Network) and other Canadian feminists telling me I was naïve. And  I still hear my reply, which I now find painfully naïve, that “slippery slopes could be melted level by sensitive scientists.” 


A few years later, I had changed my mind. The dangers of the PGD technology I helped to develop, as well as questions about the clinical scenarios for what and for whom PGD would be appropriate, prompted me to end my PGD research, to leave the lab to pursue its moral exploration, and in 1993 to write Orchids.


Orchids cautions that we pause for consideration:  of the reflection that persons living with “disabilities” will see in genetic technology’s magic mirror, of how “normal” persons will view disabled reflections, their own image, and humanity.  Orchids suggests sensitivity for those different from “ideal,” and warns that we should not perceive and not attempt to achieve perfection.


More about Orchids

In the fall of 2005, Canadians in three cities attended and discussed the play Orchids (written by Jeff Nisker) as part of a novel process of public engagement in the development of health policy on preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). The goals of this engagement process were 

  • to provide Canadians with the opportunity to learn about and discuss the complex social, ethical, and health policy issues arising from PGD and
  • to provide Health Canada with the results of this process, so that the multiple and diverse perspectives of Canadians can be used to inform the development of health policy on PGD as well as on wider issues of prenatal genetic testing and genomics.


Sixteen workshop performances of the 70-minute play occurred in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montréal (in French). All performances were free of charge and a total of 741 individuals attended. Each performance included the opportunity to participate in either a moderated post-performance large audience discussion held in the theatre auditoria or a simultaneous post–performance focus group held in an adjacent room. Both formats for discussion were taped and transcribed. Most audience members also completed a demographics form with written comments.


[from the website for the conference Nobody's Child, Everybody's Children]



About Jeff Nisker


Jeff is Professor of Obstetrics-Gynaecology and Oncology at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, University of Western Ontario, and a scientist at Children’s Health Research Institute.  Jeff has held and holds Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) grants to investigate public engagement in health policy development, as well as CIHR and Genome Canada grants to investigate the understandings of the general public, patients and clinicians in regard to genetic research and its effect on citizens in different positions. Jeff has written many scientific articles and book chapters as well as seven plays. His plays have been performed throughout Canada, as well as in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and South Africa. 


Jeff has received many research and teaching awards, including the Royal Conservatory of Music’s Educator of the Year Award, and was selected by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Peter Gzowski as one of the 13 “Best Minds of Our Time.”


Full bio