The IVF-Stem Cell Interface: a Sociology of Embryo Transfer


As the social life of the human embryo has become more complex, and has gained increasingly elaborate public, visual, legal, scientific, and regulatory dimensions, social science has begun to chart the significance of the extra-corporeal embryo and its circulations. These movements, or transfers, have been intensified by the emergence of hES research / to which thousands of IVF embryos have been donated in the hope of establishing new forms of therapy in what is now a nationwide system of embryo supply. The UK appears to have a comparatively favourable climate in terms of couples' willingness to give embryos to stem cell research, and empirical studies have confirmed high donation rates in the vicinity of 70% (Choudhary et al 2004, Franklin et al 2005, and see also MORI 2003). Moreover, a breakdown of reasons why people are willing to donate embryos to hES research shows a majority are seeking to 'give something back' to a science from which they have themselves sought to benefit ( Franklin et al 2005, and forthcoming, and see Parry 2006).

Both clinicians and scientists, however, are concerned about several aspects of embryo donation, and thus are seeking more data on why people donate, or not, and how they understand these transactions? At one level 'obvious', the desire to donate embryos also raises classic questions about reciprocity and exchange, shared substance and obligation, kinship, economy, religion, and national identity (Strathern 1992a, 1992b, Konrad 2005). A range of issues, from the need for reversible anonymity (EU Tissue Directive), to the question of whether consent should be 'fettered' in any circumstances (e.g. as recently proposed by the HFEA re artificial gametes), would clearly benefit from further sociological research.

The opportunity to work more closely with the embryologists, clinicians, scientists, and stem cell coordinators at five of the labs building new facilities, as well as within the HESCCO network as a whole, offers a unique means, therefore, not only to investigate a crucial sociological question concerning donation of reproductive substance, but also to do so in an innovative way that prioritises the insights and experience of medical and scientific professionals. In addition to collecting and analysing data, then, the aim is to increase interdisciplinary cooperation, and develop approaches to questions about embryo donation, and to further a genuine dialogue that combines scientific and sociological thinking.

The outcomes of such a collaboration would be practical as well as methodological and theoretical. There is, for example, a potential conflict between the needs of IVF patients (best possible treatment) and those of hES derivation (clean rooms and graded air). As Mortimer points out (2005), the optimum conditions on one side of the IVF-Stem Cell interface (the surgery) are not necessarily the same as on the other (the lab). Even the door, or hatch, linking the 'dirty room' of the surgery to the 'clean room' of the lab takes on an intriguing significance in the sense of facilitating not only a literal transfer of embryos from one context to another (from medicine to science), but a whole host of sociological 'passages' too, for example in relation to the conversion of hope from a personal reproductive outcome (a child of ones own) to a more generalised social good (a cure for diabetes). Charting and mapping the sociology of embryo transfer thus also invokes wider questions about the changing relationship of human biology to the technological possibilities of reengineering, re-construction, or re-design, and at a time when these are changing rapidly (Franklin and Roberts 2006, Waldby and Mitchell 2006, Rose 2006, Landecker 2006, Thompson 2005).

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Professor Sarah Franklin

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