In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

1 8 9 I am not above picking up the supermarket tabloids for a particularly juicy story. One day, next to a headline that read, “Migraine headaches caused by evil demons inside your head,” I saw a story called “sick! Artist makes earrings from human fetuses” (Bowie 1994). I shook my head. Disgusting. But the headline also struck me as another ingenious version in a long line of stories sowing disinformation about offensive acts involving fetal tissue. Curious to know whether the story contained even a small kernel of truth, I bought a copy and took it home, where I looked up the supposed artist’s name on Google. Of course I found nothing. Only the shameless Weekly World News could have fabricated something so twisted. I should have known better than to be so sanctimonious. In 1990, an artist (of a different name) had displayed a work called Human Earrings in London. The exhibit consisted of a model of a head wearing earrings made of actual freeze-dried human fetuses, each with “a ring fitting tapped into its skull and attached at the other end to the model’s earlobe” (Childs 1991:20– 21). It was distasteful in the extreme, but I also found it provocative in a Robert Mapplethorpe–type way, as a challenge to the standards that govern embryo exhibitions. The prenatal development display at the Museum of Science and Industry could pass as educational, but embryo specimens worn as earrings earned the artist a fine for violating the public decency. I was both repulsed and intrigued. Seven From Dead Embryos to Icons of Life UC-Morgan-ToPress.indd 189 UC-Morgan-ToPress.indd 189 6/8/2009 1:49:19 PM 6/8/2009 1:49:19 PM c h a p t e r 7 1 9 0 Just a few days later, reading an account of the Carnegie embryo collection written in the 1940s, I was struck by a description of the earliest specimen in the collection—thought to be about seven-and-a-half days old—as “a veritable jewel in the treasury of science” (Corner 1944:15). A jewel? The author went on to say that each of the nine thousand specimens was “an honored and cherished gift upon the altar of truth” (1944:29). I started paying attention to treasure-hunting metaphors used by the embryo collectors, which captured the prospecting aura that sometimes infused the language of collecting. In 1874, Ernst Haeckel said that “human embryos hold within themselves a greater treasure of the most important truths and form a deeper source of knowledge than most sciences and all so-called ‘revelations’ put together” (quoted in Hopwood 2000:35; see also pp. 38, 39, n. 22). As embryologists acquired more and better specimens, the earliest embryos were always the most precious. In the early 1930s, Boston pathologist and embryo prospector Arthur T. Hertig said, “Human ova in the first 15 to 20 days were so scarce that isolated examples found in the surgical laboratory were prized, worth their weight in gold, and named after the person who found them” (Scully 1988:368). The pedant in me wondered briefly if Hertig might have chosen a different metaphor—because of course the earlier the embryo, the less it weighs—but he was making the point that early embryos were exceedingly valuable. Themetaphorofembryosasjewelsisstillused.FeministphilosopherBonnie Steinbock, writing about embryo research in the contemporary era, said, “We show respect for human embryos by not using them in unimportant or frivolous ways, say, to teach high school biology or to make cosmetics or jewelry” (Steinbock 2000:127). Reading this, I imagined a tiny human embryo shimmering in gold leaf. Of course Steinbock was talking about living embryos rather than dead specimens, but the point remains that it is considered taboo to use actual embryos—living or dead—as jewelry.1 An embryo specimen can only be a metaphoric jewel, and a jewel can only be a figurative (rather than a literal) specimen, as in the “womb with a view” earrings on the opposite page. Unbeknownst to many readers, images of embryos and fetuses portrayed in magazines and books are often actually dead specimens, posed to look as though they are alive and meant to be interpreted as symbols of life. In the following pages, I describe three separate instances of the sleight of hand that occurs when dead specimens are dressed up (or disguised) so as to appear lifelike. The first takes place in the late...


Additional Information

Related ISBN
MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.