Conceiving Humans: Making Babies and Babies Making in Europe and America


Within the study of anthropology humans are considered more than just biological material but instead animals imbued with meanings and agency. Why then when it comes to the study of embryos are they often reduced to bio-genetic material? With the birth of Louise Brown in 1978, the first in vitro fertilisation (IVF) baby along with the development of other assisted reproductive technologies (ART) and the emergence of human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research. In addition to the development of feminist anthropology in the 1980’s (Franklin 1998) there has been an increasing body of literature developing the embryo as more than a biological entity. To reduce a human to a purely biological basis would be met with considerable disagreement throughout the social sciences. In this essay I will demonstrate how even in the first stages of life, this biological reductionism should not be accepted as a natural fact. Drawing from ethnographies of Euro-American ART and hESC clinics and labs, it will demonstrate how even within a science dominated culture the human embryo is constructed outside of these terms.
Conceiving humans is more than a biological process but a social and cultural project as well. Neither is it a top down process but with all people taking part in conceiving one another. The first section will examine how the embryo can be imbued with meaning to work as a social agent. The second section will examine how the embryo is not a stable object imbued with meaning but is mutable and varying also in its physical realities. The last section will examine the agency of the pre-natal human. Drawing from material culture studies to examine even if there is no consciousness, the embryo is more than a passive object.


In the concluding scene of 2001 A Space Odyssey we are confronted with a planet sized foetus orbiting earth, the music climaxes, confronted with one of the most iconic images of humans during prenatal development. One of the most recognised images of the ‘public foetus’, “outside the clinical setting, for non-medical purposes” (Taylor 1992:69). This highlights how humans even at the beginning of their lives are manipulated and moulded to work in different ways.
As mentioned much of the work on the embryo as a social agent has emerged in response to anthropologies engagement with new assisted reproductive technologies and human embryonic stem cell research.  Society and its institutions can be said to animate “embryos and foetuses in ways that correspond to the kind of social “work” we ask them to perform” (Morgan 2009:160). For example the foetus in Kubrick’s film represents the new dawn of man, drawing on Nietzsche’s idea of the übermensch (1887), the birth of a new era. This narrative of the prenatal human, modernity and scientific discovery is pervasive throughout Euro-American discourse. Particularly in relation to ART’s the human during pre-natal development symbolically instantiates ideas about the future, progression and scientific progress. The generativity for potential of the prenatal human is practiced and imagined through the new technologies used to create them (Franklin 1998). For example prenatal testing has led to “quality control” on the assembly line of the products of conception, separating out those products we wish to develop from those we wish to discontinue” (Rothman 1989:21). ART’s are enabling the quality of procreation and thus humans to advance. Thus a predominant image being reproduced from ART’s is that of a scientific understanding of the embryo and the technology used in its conception as a symbol of modernity and progress.
The representation of human embryos in human embryonic stem cell research offers a further insight into how the embryo can be used to symbolise multiple socio-political realities. Looking beyond the popularised Euro-American image of embryos as not “fixed, universal biological entities but” instead understanding them as “defined by and acted upon in relation to their social context” (Haines et al. 2008:124). The embryo can be reformed for different actions depending on who is conceiving it. Through studying the legal representation of ART’s and hESC research the concept of a mutable embryo can be explored. The UK was the first country to permit embryonic stem cell research with the passing of the Human Fertilisation (Research Purposes) Regulations 2001. Legislators posed four arguments leading to their conclusion that the embryo is not a person, two of which will be discussed. First, the argument from twinning states that an embryo is not a ‘life’ because blastocysts (the stage of the embryo at approximately 8 days after conception) have the potential to develop into two different human beings. Secondly, the argument from capacities states that embryos do not have the ability to think, act or communicate and are thus not ‘complete’ human beings. In a legal context the embryos are not constituted as persons but as a ‘valuable resource’ due to the prevailing scientific discourse. Defining them as biological entities in order to condone hESC research. The biological understanding is not natural but conceived of and applied to the embryos.
This biological reductionism is not however the only perspective for embryo donors. Highlighting that there is no universal conception of embryos. For instance in hESC research the possibilities of what the embryos can be are ‘boundless’, they have the potential to become anything. This is demonstrated by a Danish couple who after donation referred “to the embryo as a ‘tool in the lab’ that would help ‘the children of society,” indicating that “the care was not simply for the material embryo” (Svendsen 2011:430). The biological, material nature of the embryo is not all that it is. Instead it can also be used as a social tool to improve society. Additionally this further illustrates the link between assisted reproductive technologies, modernity and progression.
Bio-genetic reductionism has also traditionally been taken as a natural fact by anthropology (Franklin1998). Perpetuating the nature : culture binary that prevails in Euro-American ideologies. As Strathern notes in Euro-American societies “human kinship is regarded as a fact of society rooted in facts of nature”. An embryo may be understood as symbolising different aspects of human life, it is still however a bio-genetic organism connected to the humans that naturally conceived it. The next section will deconstruct the ‘natural’ embryo and highlight it is more than a stable fact of nature.


The above section considered how the embryo is conceived of in a myriad of alternative contexts to symbolise socio-political realities. While this shows humans use the world around them to signify certain aspects of their experience. It does not tell us what it is to be a human, and specifically what it is to be a human during prenatal development. The embryo at this level of understanding can be reduced to a commodity “things [that] have no meanings apart from those that human transactions, attributions and motivations endow them with” (Appadurai, 1986). This is a top down perspective, which embeds a certain socio-political reality upon the embryo. A different understanding of embryos is therefore needed, not as a passive object that the world inscribes socio-political symbols upon. Much of the ethnographies acknowledge the ‘special’ nature of embryos. For instance Steinbock notes that people “show respect for human embryos by not using them in unimportant or frivolous ways” (2000:129) and surrounding much of the laws on embryos their usage is heavily regulated to ensure useful usage. Even among donors there is a desire for their spare embryos to be used for a beneficial purpose (Svendsen 2011). Embryos cannot just be understood as an object endowed with certain socio-political realities. They may also exist as different physical realities. Blurring the boundaries between nature : culture. As the embryo’s nature is not stable and coherent. This I argue is closer to what an embryo is, more than an object and thus more human.

Embryos orientation in time and space during IVF and hESC research is not a coherent linear path, instead they enter and exit different realities. Although embryo donors in the UK and Switzerland express a strong link between embryos and babies they don’t necessarily consider the embryo as a baby or specifically their baby. Instead there are a multiplicity of definitions, identities and meanings of the embryos which change according to different stages of IVF treatment. In Switzerland the donated embryos of IVF patients are frozen. Fixing their social identity as well as their physical location until they are defrosted for use in IVF or hESC research. For instance one couple noted how the embryo was not detached but continued with the couple, “asleep in a manner of speaking” (Haimes 2008:121). The embryos could be frozen for years and thus ‘sleep’ far longer than donors embryos in the UK where they must be used within 14 days. This highlights how even the ‘natural’ biological life path of an embryo is not coherent or universal. Donated embryos in Switzerland demonstrate that the ‘natural’ course of development can be slowed down dramatically whilst an embryo in the UK changes in its potential use from a potential baby to potential stem cells within a short time frame. The embryo does not rigidly become one thing then another, there still exists a fluid path as it moves between realities. Thus it is clear that embryos life paths are not necessarily the same and can become different things at different stages through the human interaction with them in IVF and hESC research.

Within hESC research the possible ontologies of embryos are widened further. Embryos may not only move at different rates through time but may actually differ in how they are conceived of physically. In Denmark the 2003 legislation stated that only spare embryos from IVF treatment can be used in hESC research. ‘Spare’ embryos are conceived of those that do not divide regularly leading to possible chromosome disorders, these are labelled ugly, bin embryos or spare (Svendsen 2011). This biological viewpoint of the embryo however is not how they are actually conceived. There may be efforts to detach the embryo by orientating them towards the bin (Svendsen 2011). But this is not achieved. As the embryo’s ‘boundless’ possibilities through stem cell research retain a trace of a connection between the embryo and the donors. In the hopes that the embryos will be beneficial for society they are not ugly embryos that have divided irregularly but moreover potential new lives.
This different conception of the embryo as not just a biological entity also occurs among women who have undergone prenatal diagnosis for diseases such as Down’s syndrome. Those who continue with their pregnancy even after Down’s has been diagnosed reduce the significance of chromosomes and create a child based on other grounds rather than biomedical normalcy (Rapp 1998). The embryo although constantly being orientated towards a bio-genetic reality can in fact be understood in a different reality, the quality of embryos can become secondary to a more complex notion of value.

It is important to acknowledge here that although there are multiple realities the embryo is not totally subjective in itself. It must be noted which realities do take shape, in which reality do people interact and live with. Is parenthood becoming destabilized due to ART’s (Inhorn and Birenbaum-Carmeli 2008) or are the bio-genetic narratives actually what people desire? Michael Banner argues contrariwise to the contemporary anthropological narrative, people are using these assisted reproductive technologies, not in a way that destabilises their realities but to “chase the blood tie” (Banner 2014). This is an important argument, which forces anthropology to bring itself back to the ethnographic and the everyday experience of ART’s. The bio-genetic understanding is not always coherent. Even among the women whose foetuses had been diagnosed, they understood the foetus in normal biological terms but conceived of a different foetus. Anna Tsing illustrates how Matsutake mushrooms may move between commodity and gift status (2013), the foetus can move between differing realities too. The biomedical may be important but then be regarded as unimportant. Throughout the process as they are manipulated and worked with at different stages of treatment.

We have acknowledged that an embryo can not only be part of a social reality but actually be manipulated in a physical reality, changing itself in relation to time and space. This questions the Euro-American perspective of the one ‘true’ reality that people can then only have different perspectives of. Meaning that Western science is not itself “rational, coherent, and naturalist” (Mol 2014). Accordingly many different realities of embryos can be constructed both socio-political and physical. The embryo exists in multiple different realities. Not only in a socio-political realities where it is manipulated in order to represent, symbolise and be utilised within different social projects. But also in a physical reality as they are frozen and unfrozen and moved between reproductive treatments and research labs.


During the pelvic examination of women in the early stages of IVF treatment, Cussins highlights how women may objectify and itemise certain parts of their bodies “rendering compatible… instruments, gestures and body parts that is necessary if one is to seek a medical solution to the social crisis of infertility” (Cussins 1996:581). Different body parts become functional stages of the fertility treatment. Here is an example of how the body is the agent of its own ontological change. Here the reality of the woman’s body is objectified in order to interact with the technology of the IVF clinic. In this final section I will examine how the embryo is not just manipulated in its realities but similar to the women undergoing treatment, be an agent of consequences. Demonstrating that embryos are not always being what they are conceived as but in addittion doing.

Embryos created through assisted reproduction are more than just socio-political representations or a biological entity created by humans but actually may be considered part of a ‘personal infrastructure’ (Miller 2005). Interconnected and intermeshed within the lives and technology of its donors and the IVF practitioners. The embryo’s ontology is not always just conceived it too can conceive. Agency is not a special attribute of postnatal humans, it can be exerted by and through any material. As Latour notes the object can have agency when the material form has autonomous consequences for persons, then the effect is through the agency of the material form (Latour 1991).

By examining the embryo from a material culture perspective the agency of the embryo and its connectedness to humans can be examined. IVF offers a perfect insight into studying the agency of an embryo. Embryos often do not develop as the textbook describes and IVF often does not result in pregnancy. Embryos mutate, don’t divide regularly or if so do not implant successfully in the womb. For instance an IVF cycle can fail if the embryo is fragmented or there are chromosome disorders. People have to reconfigure their bodies in relation to failures. Although clinicians attempt to detach the embryo from the totality of the couple (Svendsen 2011), this is never achieved. As in the pelvic examinations women may mechanise and itemise their body to account for the failed conception. They will not see themselves as the problem for the IVF treatment failing but place blame specifically, for example, upon the fallopian tubes. Cussins describes the process as similar to getting a puncture on a bike, it is not the bike that has stopped working but the tyre that is the problem. Here is a clear example of how the women although renegotiating their bodies in relation to be able to deal with the surgery are in fact put in that position by the embryos not functioning how they are supposed to. The material embryo that is understood repeatedly in terms of its biological qualities and is manipulated throughout IVF enacts consequences for those engaged.
The agency is not to be understood as a one way causal flow the embryo may be of poor quality due to the poor health of the donors (Penzias 2013). Furthermore any poor quality embryos then may be renegotiated as ‘spare’ and begin its path on the research trail (Svendsen 2011). This highlights first of all that an embryo is not an object that has multiple ontological realities due to human interaction upon it. The embryo itself influences those involved with the IVF. This highlights how interconnected humans are to their embryos.


Much work is conducted on how humans are not just biological machines moving along a predestined path of natural facts. With the emergence of assisted reproductive technologies and human embryonic stem cell research and anthropology’s engagement with them the foetus as a purely biological entity is also being questioned. An embryo may be imbued with symbolism in order for it to be used as a social agent in society. This however would not constitute as being human, as humans are more than just symbols. Secondly the embryo’s natural biology may be questioned as it moves at different rates through clinics and labs and is constituted in different terms by technicians and donors. This is a more complex understanding of the foetus as human but still lacks the human purpose in these changes. It is not acting, but being acted upon. The last section questioned this assumption of the embryo as passive. There is no need to question whether the embryo is ‘conscious or ‘sentient’. The embryo may act on its environment and those interacting with it, having considerable agency upon the world around it. This is an important human characteristic and as described also a trait of the embryo during prenatal development. However, it is the circular nature of this agency that is important to note. The embryo is acted upon and acts upon others. This is a natural understanding of humans in the world. Biology changes, but can be manipulated, one can interact and alter or use others but will likewise be acted upon too. The network of agency, manipulation and action is complex. Through this essay I have shown that this is no less true for the human even before they have left the womb.



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