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x i Pr eface It seemed like a win-win situation. A team of stem cell researchers announced inNovember2007thatithadmanagedtocoaxpluripotentstemcellstogrow from human somatic cells. The implications were monumental. Pluripotent stem cells have the potential to develop into many different kinds of cells in the body, and they have been the focus of a great deal of hope on the part of medical researchers ever since James Thomson and his team at the University of Wisconsin isolated the first embryonic stem cell line in 1998. The research has been mired in controversy, however, because it requires the destruction of viable human embryos. The new technique seems to offer a way around the issue, because it does not require that embryos be destroyed. Researchers hope the new method will hasten the development of treatments for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. In the words of bioethicist R. Alta Charo, “This is a method for creating a stem cell line without ever having to work through, at any stage, an entity that is a viable embryo” (Paddock 2007). Why, then, were pro-choice watchdogs complaining? The problem was that the stem cell line used in the discovery, known as IMR-90, was once a viable embryo. In fact, it was once the developing lung of a sixteen-week human fetus, before it was aborted in 1977 and established as a cell line. Someone did indeed have to “work through” it—later we’ll get an idea of what that means in material terms—to make it into a cell line. Pro-life critics objected that working with the IMR-90 cell line made the researchers into x i UC-Morgan-ToPress.indd xi UC-Morgan-ToPress.indd xi 6/8/2009 1:48:57 PM 6/8/2009 1:48:57 PM p r e f a c e x i i “accessories after the fact,” complicit in the act of abortion by benefiting from it, even though the abortion had taken place thirty years earlier. Pro-life proponents, on the other hand, did not see a problem because, they said, contemporary research on cell lines does not contribute in any way to an abortion that happened in the remote past (Ertrelt 2004). This book takes up the relationship between specimens collected in the remote past and the contemporary cultural politics of abortion. One of my key questions is how embryo and fetal specimens came to exist as scientific work objects a century ago, and what implications those specimens, and the knowledge produced about them, have for the present. Science was a major player in solidifying one of today’s predominant cultural origin stories, namely, the story of embryological development. Many of today’s ideas about embryos—what they mean, how they should and should not be used, and who decides this use—can be traced to the cultural assumptions and material practices of human embryo collecting in the early twentieth century. Iconsof LifedealswiththeplaceofembryoandfetalspecimensinAmerican history. It draws on the history of a large embryo collecting project based at the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Department of Embryology, but is not a history of that department. It features the anatomist and embryo collector par excellence, Franklin P. Mall, but is not a biography. It touches on the political and philosophical implications of anatomical embryo collecting , but is neither a political manifesto nor a philosophical treatise. Instead, I argue that the history of human embryo collecting had an enormous unacknowledged influence on how we think, in cultural terms, about what embryos are and what they mean. Collecting practices, in other words, had social, political, and cultural implications. I am an anthropologist and ethnographer by trade, not a historian or philosopher or developmental biologist. Although this project was inspired by ethnographic research, most of the research for it was conducted in archives and libraries. Nevertheless I was informed by cross-cultural questions that arose while I was doing anthropological fieldwork in Ecuador in the early 1990s. Over two oxygen-starved months at ten thousand feet, in a town near the Colombian border, I interviewed thirty rural mothers about the status of fetuses and the morality of abortion. Abortion is and was then illegal in Ecuador, although prosecutions were rare. The women I interviewed all identified themselves as Catholic, and virtually all of them told me that abortion was wrong, a crime and a sin. Their reasons for opposing it, however, had nothing to do with the arguments that were made in my home country, the...


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