- Biological Relatives: IVF, Stem Cells, and the Future of Kinship by Sarah Franklin
In vitro fertilization is at once a technique, a model, and imitation of a biological process, a synthetic process, a scientific research method, an agricultural tool, and a means of human reproduction—of making life. It is an experimental model system with more than one life of its own. Consequently, one way to think about IVF is that it is less easy to understand than it may seem—or that it makes a very curious kind of sense.(p. 3)
IVF has become more and more common since the birth of Louise Brown in Oldham, England, at the end of the 1970s, so much so that it is now a routine practice and a normalized experience of reproduction. In Biological Relatives: IVF, Stem Cells, and the Future of Kinship Sarah Franklin explores IVF as a technique that is both deeply complex in its effects as well as deeply ambivalent in what it (re)produces.
Biological Relatives offers a predominantly theoretical and historical reading of the curious life of IVF. Sarah Franklin’s understanding of IVF as a technology with a multidimensional life is mirrored in the book through the different chapters that operate as different “frames,” each offering a theoretical and historical engagement with one particular aspect. Her reading of IVF involves analyses of technologies, reconfigured biologies, kinship, parenthood, reproduction, identities, lived experiences, the media, and the arts. The study is broad as well as deep: it draws together the history of experimental biology and Marxist understandings of the relationship between technology, knowledge, and society with feminist readings of the impact of IVF on women and empirical research on how IVF produces babies but also identities and relationships. [End Page 303]
Most importantly, Biological Relatives makes a well-argued theoretical contribution to the study of the relationships among IVF, experimental embryology, biology, technology, and kinship; it offers an analysis of the consequences of IVF “taking reproductive substance in hand.” Franklin identifies IVF as a technological platform that has given rise to a series of “biological relatives”—stem cell research, PGD and embryo manipulation, egg donation, and mitochondrial donation to mention a few. She suggests that by “working up” reproductive substance, biology and cells are becoming more and more mechanical, blurring the boundaries between biology and technology. A key line of argument in the book is that there is no such thing as “mere” biology; biology is never just there but is always in the making and hence is also “relatively biological.” Through IVF procedures, biology becomes a tool and cells become both instruments and products. In such a way, one curious consequence of IVF, according to Franklin, is that it represents a retooling of human reproductive substance.
But Franklin also takes IVF as a starting point to bring into question “natural reproduction” and the making of kinship relations. Indeed, it is one of Franklin’s main arguments that IVF relativizes the natural assumptions of sex that it was meant to assist (in producing babies). In doing so, it does not completely copy that which it intends to copy, it also introduces something new and different. In a world in which IVF often becomes the technological contrast and “other” to “natural reproduction” (and where sexual reproduction is too often stripped of its cultural rootedness in sex, and gender and kinship systems) and is seen as a merely biological “fact of life,” Franklin offers a re-reading of feminist analyses of the relationships among sex, gender, biology, reproduction, and kinship. By analyzing sex and gender as technologies of kinship, she suggests that just as the eggs and sperm used in IVF only become reproductive within a specific composition and under carefully managed conditions, reproductive substance is not “automatically reproductive.” The various components involved in the generation or reproduction of persons must be made, secured, composed, and activated in order to make babies (p. 178), thus highlighting that biological reproduction is not merely “there” but is only possible through the means...