- The Oocyte Economy: The Changing Meaning of Human Eggs by Catherine Waldby
As explained succinctly in the opening of Catherine Waldby's new book, The Oocyte Economy: The Changing Meaning of Human Eggs, oocytes are women's reproductive cells, which "transmit genetic inheritance from mother to child and orchestrates the processes of conception and gestation" (p. 1). Women are born with a finite set of oocytes—making oocytes both precious and evanescent as women approach the "fertility cliff" at the end of their reproductive lifespans. However, as this book shows quite brilliantly, continuous advancements in science and technology have begun to alter the temporal constraints associated with the ticking of the biological clock. Furthermore, the increasing procurement, experimentation, management, banking, donation, circulation, and export of human oocytes, the rarest of all human cells, has given them an "ex vivo social life" of their own (p. 7). Indeed, [End Page 313] oocytes are now capitalized as valuable objects in transnational networks of market exchange and embodied labor—a twenty-first-century phenomenon that Waldby describes as the "oocyte economy."
Waldby's book examines this oocyte economy from a number of disciplinary vantage points, primarily history of science and medicine and qualitative sociology. As a concise overview of developments in reproductive biology, The Oocyte Economy takes us back to the heady days of in vitro fertilization (IVF), when attempts to procure human eggs and fertilize them outside of the body eventually led to the births of IVF babies in the United Kingdom (in 1978) and Australia (in 1979). Waldby foregrounds the willingness of hundreds of infertile women to become IVF's experimental subjects. Eschewing prevalent forms of feminist critique, Waldby argues that women's shared experimental ethos—their courageous entrance into "highly experimental relationships with new reproductive technologies" (p. 15)—made possible not only IVF, but numerous other developments described in this book. These include oocyte cryopreservation through vitrification (flash freezing), therapeutic cloning through somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) (i.e., stem cell therapies), and mitochondrial transplantation, in which eggs with healthy mitochondria are donated by one woman to another to allow the birth of a child free from devastating mitochondrial disease. The historical development of these varied oocyte technologies is beautifully rendered in this book in a way that will be accessible to most readers.
For anthropologists and sociologists, this book will also be appreciated for its ethnographic methods and sensibilities, including more than 100 interviews with women in Australia, the UK, and the United States who experienced fertility treatment, egg donation, egg freezing, or fertility tourism to bypass local oocyte shortages and restrictions. Drawing upon Raymond Williams' notion of "structures of feeling" (p. 16), Waldby shows that many women experience intense emotions in the oocyte economy. For example, her interviewees express the hopes and disappointments of IVF, an assisted reproductive technology that still fails more often than it succeeds. They philosophize about their fertile time—"time lost and regretted, time wasted in failed conception attempts, time gained through egg freezing" (p. 17). Waldby also points to the complex ontological risks and maternal negotiations associated with egg donation, in which some women part with their oocytes and maternal claims so that other women can become mothers. However, for oocyte recipients, these transactions can foster haunting feelings of being a maternal "imposter," or of having exploited another woman of lesser means, often in another country.
Although the global dimensions of oocyte exchange are taken up in chapters on medical tourism and the formation of export-oriented corporate egg banks, The Oocyte Economy is largely Western-centric. Brief accounts of scientific scandals and questionable medical practices are selectively chosen from other scholars' non-Western ethnographies. This might leave readers with the impression that high-tech, ethically conscious reproductive medicine does not occur in the global South (which is untrue). Furthermore, some of the most important developments in reproductive biology have taken place outside the West, including oocyte vitrification breakthroughs in Japan and early IVF experimentation in India. [End Page 314...