- Biological Relatives: IVF, Stem Cells, and the Future of Kinship by Sarah B. Franklin
Early in Sarah Franklin’s Biological Relatives: IVF, Stem Cells, and the Future of Kinship, we are introduced to the image of a hatch: a tiny door within a stem cell laboratory in the United Kingdom that connects the “dirty” operating room to the sterile laboratory. Reproductive substances—human eggs—are sent through the hatch; some later return to the operating room in the form of embryos. This hatch, which both divides and connects reproducing bodies and reproductive technologies, provides a powerful image for Franklin’s exploration of in vitro fertilization (IVF) in what she calls a “post-IVF age”—that is, IVF after its normalization as an available technology that has produced five million infants in thirty-five years. Her argument focuses on IVF’s simultaneous use of reproductive substances as a technology and use of technology as a reproductive substance, as eggs and embryos travel through the hatch to (re) make kinship structures, technologies, and human beings. The book “holds IVF up as a lens” in order to reopen discussions about IVF as a technology, cultural object, and lifestyle, extending Franklin’s decades-long engagement with reproductive technologies.
Biological Relatives offers a rich history of the scholarship surrounding IVF, connecting and assessing the contributions of a wide range of theorists to our understanding of biological technologies (including Marilyn Strathern, Donna Haraway, Michel Foucault, Karl Marx, and Judith Butler, to name a few). Franklin argues that ambivalence about IVF is paradoxically inseparable from its normalization as a technology; even those who have undergone the procedure often report contradictory feelings about the process. Throughout the book, she traces the emergence of this and other “curious” elements of IVF: the technology’s aforementioned inherent ambivalence, its simultaneous reliance upon and reframing of previous technologies and kinship structures, and its ironic prolonging and intensification of users’ struggles with infertility. Although Franklin develops each of these themes in discrete sections of the book, they also appear and reappear throughout, enacting the spiraling entanglement between biology and technology that is central to her project.
The book’s seven chapters develop close readings of a myriad of sources and sites, intertwining theoretical conversations with the history of embryology, visits to an infertility lab, examinations of bioart, and women’s experiences. The opening chapters draw on the work of feminist theorists Haraway and Shulamith Firestone in order to chart a genealogy of definitions of technology. Franklin notes that the “cyborg embryo”—the embryo that now exists in a myriad of cultural, technological, legal, biological, and social sites—emerged alongside the reproductive struggles and scientific [End Page 295] breakthroughs that have made it possible; in its emergence, however, it also altered the very context from which it sprang. This theoretical discussion, which explores feminist visions of technology and biofuturity, is paired with large sections of Franklin’s fieldwork notes from visits to a fertility clinic in order to explore the visions of technology and biofutures that laboratory relationships create. While not a full ethnography, Franklin’s careful reading grounds the technological changes in the individual actions within the lab, illustrating the relationship between cells and the personnel and processes that keep them “cheerful” (p. 81). For Franklin, neither the lab nor IVF has a clear start and end point; rather, the lab stands as one of many frames that she develops to constitute the post-IVF age.
Later chapters explore the many objects and relationships that IVF reproduces other than children, including kinship structures, the technologies of gender and sex, and the experience of IVF as a lifestyle. Notably, the fifth chapter provides a comprehensive history of feminist arguments about IVF and new reproductive technologies (NRTs) as a foundation for an examination of the lives of women who have undergone IVF. Building on the claim from her 1997 book Embodied Progress that IVF has become a way of life for its users, Franklin argues that IVF may actually remove the possibility...