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The Elusive Embryo: How Women and Men Approach New Reproductive Technologies

Gay Becker
Copyright Date: 2000
Edition: 1
Pages: 330
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pps6b
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  • Book Info
    The Elusive Embryo
    Book Description:

    In the first book to examine the industry of reproductive technology from the perspective of the consumer, Gay Becker scrutinizes the staggering array of medical options available to women and men with fertility problems and assesses the toll-both financial and emotional-that the quest for a biological child often exacts from would-be parents. Becker interviewed hundreds of people over a period of years; their stories are presented here in their own words. Absorbing, informative, and in many cases moving, these stories address deep-seated notions about gender, self-worth, and the cultural ideal of biological parenthood. Becker moves beyond people's personal experiences to examine contemporary meanings of technology and the role of consumption in modern life. What emerges is a clear view of technology as culture, with technology the template on which issues such as gender, nature, and the body are being rewritten and continuously altered.The Elusive Embryochronicles the history and development of reproductive technology, and shows how global forces in consumer culture have contributed to the industry's growth. Becker examines how increasing use of reproductive technology has changed ideas about "natural" pregnancy and birth. Discussing topics such as in vitro fertilization, how men and women "naturalize" the use of a donor, and what happens when new reproductive technologies don't work, Becker shows how the experience of infertility has become increasingly politicized as potential parents confront the powerful forces that shape this industry.The Elusive Embryois accessible, well written, and well documented. It will be an invaluable resource for people using or considering new reproductive technologies as well as for social scientists and health professionals.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92524-3
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction: From Personal Experience to Research
    (pp. 1-3)

    I began studying infertility after spending several years addressing my own. It was the first time I had chosen a research topic I was personally involved with.¹ Looking back more than fifteen years, my experience of infertility and its treatment seems much different today from the way it did at the time. In part this is because reproductive technology has changed and expanded so much. The medical procedures that seemed so intrusive to me at the time were low-key compared with those in use today.

    Yet one important aspect has changed very little: the underlying cultural phenomena that conspire to...

  5. CHAPTER 1 Consuming Technologies
    (pp. 4-25)

    Laura, a thirty-five-year-old woman, and her husband, Joe, had undergone infertility treatment for several years.¹ Infertility problems had been identified in both. In vitro fertilization (IVF) was the last resort.² As Laura explained:

    We did the IVF. We went through the process. I responded quickly, so it went quicker than they expected. We went in and we were real up. About as up as you could be. It was what he [Joe] had to look forward to. And we were feeling real good about it. They got eighteen eggs and nothing fertilized. So we sat here afterwards waiting for the...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Confronting Notions of Normalcy
    (pp. 26-38)

    Erin, a forty-three-year-old marketing executive married two years earlier, describes how medical treatment affected her: “Infertility has been the damnedest thing, to try to keep myself from letting it take over. I keep telling myself, ‘This is part of my life, not the whole of it.’ I keep coming back to that whole medical system, which makes it hard. Because you’re not allowed to be a whole person. You’re a body part.” Erin’s comments address her sense of bodily disruption. She reflects on a problem common to women who are undergoing intensive medical evaluation for fertility: feeling depersonalized. Seeing herself...

  7. CHAPTER 3 The Embattled Body
    (pp. 39-59)

    Marcy, a thirty-three-year-old woman, describes how she felt when she heard about her infertility. After starting an infertility workup to find out why she was not conceiving, she soon learned that her fallopian tubes were blocked.

    The effect of finding out about the infertility problems for me was that I felt completely useless. I felt like, basically, a piece of garbage. And I thought, “Wait a second, this is not a time for you to feel worthless. This is a time where you really need every ounce of confidence you have.” Your feeling of self-worth just plummets when finding this...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Genes and Generations
    (pp. 60-78)

    The discovery of infertility leads women and men to question a lifetime of assumptions about how the world is ordered. Beliefs about biology, reproductive potential, gender roles, definitions of family and kin, the meaning of being a person, explanations of how the world works—all are torn down. Tanya goes to the heart of the matter when she bemoans the loss of the “American dream.” Having children is taken for granted by most people in the United States, but Tanya and her husband don’t fit in. Her articulation of an ’outsider” experience reflects how troubling unwanted childlessness can be: it...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Experiencing Risks
    (pp. 79-101)

    During medical treatment for infertility, women and men are engaged in an ongoing assessment of the risks of various therapies. Polly’s efforts to maintain control of her reproductive system have entailed a series of different risks. Looking back, she belatedly identifies the risks associated with the use of a particular IUD and looks ahead with irony to the next medical encounter, which she views as risk-laden:

    I had a Dalkon Shield [an IUD associated with an increased incidence of pelvic infections]. I used the perfect form of birth control, it seems: permanent and forever. I had no idea. I was...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Taking Action
    (pp. 102-115)

    One of the central themes of this book is women’s and men’s actions as they encounter and undergo new reproductive technologies. By actions I mean not simply deciding to undertake such treatment and going through with it, butallthe actions they take on their own behalf. These take a wide range of forms. Women and men in this study sought psychotherapy, professional counseling, and alternative forms of healing, but they also joined self-help groups and became advocates for infertility awareness.¹

    In other work I have emphasized the power and transformative qualities of people’s actions in dealing with infertility.² While...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Selling Hope
    (pp. 116-132)

    Women and men equate new reproductive technologies with hope. As this message is the cornerstone of marketing new reproductive technologies, it is quickly appropriated and absorbed. Polly describes the intensity of its effect:

    To go through in vitro to start with, you have to believe in miracles. You really do. Your chances are this much in this much space [indicating a limited space with her hand], so each time I go through that. And then I’ve talked to my girlfriends who were in my personal support group about this, my Resolve support group, and we’ve become friends and we really...

  12. CHAPTER 8 Decisions about Donors
    (pp. 133-155)

    Of all the disruptions to bodily order that are posed by infertility treatment, the intimation that the sperm or egg is faulty is the most acute. These are cultural icons of gender and fertility, symbols that epitomize cultural ideals of manhood and womanhood.¹ When these symbols are challenged, bodily knowledge is assaulted.

    The proposal that a couple use an egg or sperm donor strikes at the cultural meanings women and men attach to gender. The question arises of how to enact gender when one of the key functions of biological reproduction is being enacted for a person by someone else....

  13. CHAPTER 9 Embodied Technology
    (pp. 156-170)

    Leslie and Stan, who told their story of undergoing IVF in an earlier chapter, describe how they envisioned as children the embryos that had just been implanted:

    STAN: Talking about naming the embryos, it was funny, we went on vacation to the mountains for five days, and during the time there we were planning to see if it worked or not, and all we could do was wait and hope. So we’d play games. And one evening laying on the bed, I had my head on her stomach, and I was talking to the embryos, and I said, “If you...

  14. CHAPTER 10 Shifting Gears
    (pp. 171-186)

    Although couples were quick to embrace technology when success seemed likely, the embodied aspects of these technologies quickly faded when conception did not occur. Whether the process took months or years, those who did not conceive gradually ceased to be receptive to the allure of these technologies and instead became resistant to them. Once disillusionment set in, it rapidly affected women’s and men’s attitudes toward further medical procedures. Polly, a veteran of four IVF attempts, reached her limit suddenly:

    I sat in that last group meeting listening to these women; it was a well-attended group. I think probably fifteen people...

  15. CHAPTER 11 Redefining Normalcy
    (pp. 187-204)

    When infertility goes on for years, the goal of parenthood becomes an abstraction whose realization may seem increasingly unlikely. If biological parenthood finally occurs, women and men meet it not with complacency but with surprise and sometimes ambivalence. Marjorie, a forty-year-old woman who has had three miscarriages and experienced preterm labor prior to the birth of her child, sat on her couch talking about how it felt to become a parent after so many years of infertility.

    It is hard to explain. We got the Jeep—we have a Jeep now—and we have a golden retriever. We are like...

  16. CHAPTER 12 Women Rethinking Parenthood
    (pp. 205-217)

    Redefining normalcy is the prelude to redesigning one’s life. When women do not conceive, they begin to turn their lives in new directions. Reworking their gender identity continues while they are rethinking the cultural ideologies to which they previously subscribed. Megan described what had been happening since the preceding year, when her IVF cycle went awry. The effects of the drugs were so distressing that she decided she could not endure any more IVF cycles. She has been rethinking her life:

    Boy, these last few months have really been a challenge. I’m not a mother, and I don’t have a...

  17. CHAPTER 13 Rewriting the Family
    (pp. 218-235)

    People start out on the fertility journey wanting to be a normal family and wanting others to see them that way. Years later, those who are faced with giving up the idea of a biological child are still concerned with being a normal family; indeed, they become more concerned with this issue than they were before. The question of how to proceed so that people see them as a normal family and the child as a normal child becomes the centerpiece of their efforts to become parents. Jordan, talking about using a donor’s egg to conceive a pregnancy, was worrying...

  18. CHAPTER 14 Performing Gender
    (pp. 236-250)

    In this book I have focused on one aspect of reproductive technologies: how women and men consume them. Consumption is a window through which we can examine technology as a cultural phenomenon. Technology is not independent of the social and cultural contexts in which it occurs; indeed, it can best be understood through the cultural meanings people ascribe to it.¹ We have seen the complex meanings with which people imbue new reproductive technologies and the consequent changes in ideas and practices linked to the use of these technologies, in particular notions about gender and its performance.²

    Because new reproductive technologies...

  19. APPENDIX: About the Research
    (pp. 251-256)
  20. Glossary
    (pp. 257-264)
  21. Notes
    (pp. 265-296)
  22. References
    (pp. 297-314)
  23. Index
    (pp. 315-321)
  24. Back Matter
    (pp. 322-322)