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A new procreation story : the contested domain of the in vitro fertilization pre-embryo in British Columbia Lee, Patricia M.


The human pre-embryo is emerging as a new cultural category as a result of the processes of in vitro fertilization (IVF) technology. The principle purpose of this conceptive medical technology is to assist infertile couples produce their own biological children. I argue that three specific discourses, biomedicine, law and feminism, which have been selected for this research are generating conflicting and contested debates about the cultural values and meanings associated with the human pre-embryo. The physical separation of the pre-embryo as an independent entity created external to a woman’s body enhances its use in medical treatment, diagnosis and research. This phenomenon has facilitated the manipulation of the pre-embryo in the treatment of infertility, preimplantation diagnosis and research into genetically related diseases. The versatility of the pre-embryo for use in both research and treatment has resulted in a growing controversy about its potential for altering the natural relations and sequencing of biological family organization and about its part in a larger social engineering project leading ultimately to change in social structure. A combination of anthropological methods demonstrate the centrality of the pre embryo in the enlarging controversial debates about new reproductive technologies. The biomedical-technical practices of creating, cryopreserving and replacing pre-embryos, which were observed in an ethnographic study of an in vitro fertilization programme provides foundational data for analysis of the three discourses. A critical interpretive approach in medical anthropology situates IVF technology in its cultural and historical context as part of a continuing scientific fascination with understanding the beginnings of life. IVF technology is a gateway into a modem exploration of human genetics, using pre embryos to probe the essential nature of human inheritance. The traditional debates in anthropology about the cultural nature of parenthood and the juro-political aspects of rules and rights in and over people and things have current relevance. They provide a cultural understanding about the ability of IVF to re-arrange the biological, putative and social relations of parenthood. They reveal the methods whereby legal controls are exerted by groups with different vested interests in children born from IVF and its adjunct therapies, such as surrogacy arrangements and ovum donation. A feminist anthropological perspective explores a recent approach in symbolic anthropology about the cultural meanings of procreation stories, as expressed by women, based on a particular cultural ideology. It reveals the means by which the technologies associated with TVF have the propensity to fragment and devalue women’s bodies, a strategy which is often endorsed by the culturally legitimated knowledge of medicine and law. Four overarching unmediated oppositions are identified in the analysis of the three discourses: research science and clinical therapy; experimental risk and routine therapy; ownership (property) and autonomy (personhood); and technological reproduction (culture) and natural reproduction (nature). The controversies raised by the tension between polarities highlights problems of meaning. These are expressed in the discourses as a struggle over values, which in turn are converted into struggles over power They represent the new cultural meanings and social consequences which are presently emerging in response to new conceptive technologies.

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