Transforming Life: Mutable Materials in Reproductive Biobanks
Looking through an anthropological lens, it is safe to assume that reproductive substances in biobanks, like cryopreserved donor gametes and embryos, are constituted in distinct ways within Indian In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) hospitals as compared to US research laboratories or “adoption” programs. Our respective ethnographic research in these settings confirms that reproductive substances are “a cultural and historical product, and one which may well look different in the varied locations in which we work” (Marsland and Prince 2012, 462). More surprising perhaps are the similarities in how cryopreserved gametes and embryos are transformed, reconfigured, and manifest multiple potentialities in our respective fieldsites. We began discussing these commonalities during the 2016 conference “Biobanques: Quelles Reconfigurations Pour Le Vivant? Approches Interdisciplinaires et Comparatives” in Paris, from which we both developed articles for publication in New Genetics and Society within a special issue on “Biobanks and the Reconfigurations of the Living.” In this blog post, we share common aspects that we encountered across distinct fieldsites and discuss questions they invite about the transformation of frozen life in reproductive biobanks.
Broadly focused on embryo politics in the United States, Risa’s research examines how the million frozen human embryos accumulated in IVF clinic freezers across the United States have become premier targets for “saving” by politically opposing groups who nonetheless share an ethical commitment to repurposing reproductive remainders. In her article “Saving Embryos in Stem Cell Science and Embryo Adoption,” Risa considers the motivations and practices involved in transforming cryopreserved embryos from a remaindered to a repurposed state. Participants in American embryo repurposing programs, she argues, work to separate embryos from ownership and kinship networks so that their perceived potential value may be realized in new form: as precious research materials for stem cell science and “pre-born children” for evangelical proponents of “embryo adoption.” Yet she shows how producing and realizing potentiality as a form of value can remain incomplete because frozen embryos are subject to social forces beyond cryopreservation tanks that change how they are valued across time and place. In other words, frozen embryo values actively “mutate” (Radin 2013, 269) even when suspended in liquid nitrogen. Thus, her work considers the challenges of valuing potential, an increasingly common phenomenon within settings shaped by speculative forms of capitalism and Christianity.
Thinking through substances, Sandra examines the historical making and contemporary practice of global reproductive medicine in India. Using the example of gamete donation, she argues in her article “Suitable Substances: How Biobanks (Re)Store Biologicals,” that biobanks connected to IVF hospitals in India do not merely store but also restore reproductive substances. By way of “relational work” (Zelizer 2005, 2011), cryopreserved egg and sperm cells are disentangled from their bonds with specific donors and turned into “suitable substances” for recipients, i.e. substances that supposedly do not infringe boundaries of religion, caste, or class. More than mere storage places, biobanks serve as spaces of detachment and attachment, of separation and integration that alter and resituate bodily material. The fact that relational work is not only performed on biological substances but also on suppliers and biodata sheets, invites more general reflections about fragmented forms of “the living” or “the biological” in biobanks around the world.
Despite many differences between and within biobanks in the United States and India, our research on cryopreserved reproductive substances exhibits commonalities in themes of transformation, relational work, and proliferating potentialities. We both take inspiration from feminist scholarship that analyzes how reproductive substances can be alienated from their progenitors (Franklin 2006b; Roberts 2007; Waldby & Cooper 2014) through strategies that “cut” (Strathern 1996) or “sever” (Rabinow 1996) relational ties of ownership or kinship. While we found various alienating strategies in our research settings, we also noticed that relations sometimes resisted the transformation of reproductive substances. This compelled us to consider how turning gametes and embryos into something else involves actively negotiating the making and unmaking of relations. In doing so, we hope to challenge a common myth that frozen biological materials remain unchanged or singular over time (Radin 2013; Radin and Kowal 2017).
In US stem cell laboratories and Christian “embryo adoption” programs, Risa traced how former IVF embryos underwent processes of reclassification that tried to sever and reestablish relational claims of ownership and kinship. Stem cell scientists turned IVF embryos into forms of “waste” to prepare them for reclamation and experimentation by researchers while “embryo adoption” proponents converted embryos into “adoptable orphans” in hopes of placement in a “home,” or uterus. While the ability to disentangle embryos from relational ties is essential to scientific research (Waldby and Mitchell 2006; Svendsen and Koch 2008) and American adoption (Yngvesson 2002), Risa found that completely severing embryos from all ties is hard won, if ever fully. Narratives from embryo savers in both settings echoed what scholars of other reproductive substances have called “trace effects” (Svendsen 2011) and “duties to care” (Pfeffer 2008) that complicate the clean story of transforming IVF leftovers into entities without pasts (Franklin 2006a).
In IVF biobanks in India, Sandra found that relations between donors and donated gametes are either erased or emphasized, depending on whether or not they amplify the economic value of substances. While in most cases, biobanks employ elaborate strategies to cut relations (as gametes from poor donors are not deemed to be suitable substances for middle-class recipients), so-called “premium donor banks,” explicitly invoke the persona of the donor. Similar to “unfinished commodities” (Paxson 2012), which are never completely alienated from their producers, ‘premium gametes’ retain traces of their providers. In this sense, biovalue derives not only from the potency of biological substances or the clinical labor involved (Helmreich 2008; Cooper and Waldby 2014) but also from gametes’ social biocapital, i.e. their connections to specific donors. These connections are either devalued and erased or valued and realized economically through processes of transformation in biobanks.
Looking closer at these processes of transformation, Sandra details how biobanks attempt to forge, maintain, or, in most cases, sever relations. In the latter case, biobanks eclipse providers’ traces and inscribe reproductive substances with new potential in order to enable them to circulate to distinct social realms. The selection of donors, the secluded laboratory, medical protocols, bureaucratic procedures, policies of anonymity, and rhetorical devices all contribute to the reconfiguration of intimate material provided by specific donors into standardized products and relatable entities. Reproductive biobanks can thus be interpreted as transformative spaces in which “latent life” seems to “exist in a state of ‘pure possibility’” (Radin 2013, 488). Yet, although relational work makes the transcendence of social boundaries possible that can hardly be transgressed in daily life, it simultaneously “freeze[s] existing norms” (Hoeyer 2017, 211). Rather than questioning conservative forms of reproduction as well as social inequalities in India, relational work also restores a hierarchical social order.
Risa shows how relational work is also inflected within ethical commitments shared by stem cell scientists and evangelical Christians to be good stewards of embryos. In practice, stewardship in embryo saving programs takes the forms of “responsible repurposing.” Stem cell scientists try to prevent wastage of embryos donated for research by “treating these things like gold,” according to one postdoctoral scientist. Proponents of “embryo adoption” similarly regard embryos as precious, but in this case as gifts from God to dutiful stewards tasked with caring for “pre-born children.” Relational work reveals ethical alignments between politically opposing groups, which raises questions about the broader constellation of factors that make saving embryos seemingly compulsory for such groups – despite its challenges and incompleteness.
Together, our work suggests that conceptions of potentiality—as produced, perceived, and managed in different ways—play a key role in transforming reproductive substances and performing relational work on frozen life. In each of our projects, cryopreserved gametes and embryos are highly mutable with unstable presents and futures. In this sense, frozen life is not simply “suspended” but rather a site for dynamic processes with social and political reverberations far beyond the cryotank.
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Sandra Bärnreuther is a senior lecturer in social anthropology at the University of Zurich.
Risa Cromer is an incoming Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Purdue University.