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The human embryo in medically assisted procreation, elements for a relational approach

Anne-Sophie Giraud

Social anthropological analysis of family relations in assisted reproduction lends a certain status to the embryo, whether we realize it or not. Still, this status remains a weak point in social sciences discourse. Extensive anthropological analysis has been dedicated to how certain technology, especially ultrasound, has contributed to the image of the embryo as an “isolate”— a separate entity from the woman’s body in which it was formerly enclosed and embedded (Strathern, 1992). Assisted reproductive technology (ART), including cryopreservation and in vitro fertilization, has further accentuated this representation. However, ethnographic observation of ART practices reveals that the embryo is still a part of networks of relations (Thompson, 2005). On the one hand, the embryo is related to professionals who, at a given time, because of their status, have the power to select, destroy, or preserve it. On the other hand, and more importantly, it has family relations to all the people involved in its genetic reproduction, gestation, and social parenting, and who therefore also have a set of rights and responsibilities as regards the embryo. For this article, we conducted semi-structured interviews with 70 ART professionals with the goal of analyzing the embryo in assisted reproduction using a relational approach inspired by Mauss’ analysis of gender and family relations (Théry, 2007). This approach provides an alternative point of view on ART and explains how the embryo is given a different status—from potential child to simple organic matter—depending on the system of established relations under which it is considered. Our hypothesis is that such an approach will provide new insight into the sometimes acute dilemmas facing “parents” of surplus cryopreserved embryos and the four main options under French law: keep, donate to research, donate to another couple, or destroy.