Biomedical imaging technologies, professional and lay visions

Category: News

Re.conceive + Remaking the Human Body

At the beginning of May we were delighted to spend an afternoon on Zoom with visual artist Sally Butcher, who is currently working on her Arts Council England funded project re.conceive. Sally approached us a while back to explore some of the synergies between our projects, which in different ways explore how reproduction, fertility and (non-)reproductive bodies are visualised or, sometimes, become invisible. Sally very generously shared some of her work-in-progress with us and we shared details about our research process and findings.

Each member of the research team was able to spend some time with Sally individually, and I include our reflections in our own words below.

Giulia: Sally’s work has inspired our conversation around reproduction in its different forms. We have especially discussed the relationship between medical knowledge, technologies and tools to visualise reproductive body parts or phenomena, and embodied experiences of them. We talked about the role of visual experiences in the construction of dominant narratives of gendered reproductive lives, and about the visibility and invisibility of specific reproductive experiences (for example infertility, miscarriages, abortion). We explored the notions of common and uncommon, known and unknown, expected and unexpected, we discussed how individual experiences relate to standardised measures and protocols and how people adjust and react to these, especially when these intersect with other medical, legal and geographical infrastructures (for example in the context of transnational reproductive travels).


Sally Butcher, Infertile Platitudes of Embodied Emptiness, Sonogram 7/9, Archival Inkjet Digitised Monoprint (2020). Used here with permission from the artist.

Manuela: Among the many things we talked about, Sally and I had an interesting conversation regarding some of her work-in-progress – in my interpretation, an inspiring visualisation of the current developments in the field of embryology. Sally’s representation of sets of data embedded within an image of an embryo captured the current turn in embryology, by highlighting visually the novel and increasing use of data-driven algorithms in this field. In our research, analysing the case of Time-lapse incubators and their incorporated algorithms, we have investigated how new knowledge about embryos is generated in the complex interactions between professionals and machines. Although the use of algorithms has the potential to release unknown biological information on embryos (and therefore reveal their hidden secrets), algorithms do not simply add medical and reproductive knowledge as they require human input and therefore still rely on professional expertise.


Sally Butcher, Human Algorithm V, pencil and pen on paper (2021). Used here with permission from the artist.

Josie: During our conversation, Sally and I found many shared interests: for instance in how themes of absence and presence, and proximity and distance, shape ideas about reproduction as well as experiences of infertility. Being a geographer (academically and at heart!), I was drawn to how the body exterior and interior are ‘mapped’ in some of Sally’s work. We talked about the role of measurements, ordering, boundaries and boundary-making in relation to how reproductive processes are visualised and described. We also talked about the intrigue and mystery of magnifying or looking inside things.

Sally’s work also drew my attention to all the other kinds of imagery that fertility patients encounter before or during their IVF treatment. The focus of our research is on images and videos of embryos, which are exterior to the body or in vitro. But fertility patients often encounter a whole range of other visualising techniques that allow them to see inside their bodies. Ultrasound scans and dye tests, for instance, are routinely used to medically investigate female reproductive organs and check that these appear to be functioning ‘normally’. Ways of visualising bodies and embryos have (personal and political) implications for how infertility is seen and known, and therefore very real consequences for patients’ treatment experiences and trajectories.

Sally Butcher, Sub-Maternal Exhaustion During a Pandemic, Archival Photograph, egg, ink and hand gel (2020). Used here with permission from the artist.

Sally: My conversations with the Remaking the Human Body team have been invaluable in my research project. As a visual artist, Re.conceive was driven by the invisibility of Infertility within the new wave of maternal visual arts, where, as in society at large, infertility still remains mostly hidden and shrouded in silence. My project aims to explore and visually theorise the transformational process of ‘becoming’ a (M)Other, challenging traditional reproduction to reconceive a form of sub-maternal.

My meetings with Giulia, Josie and Manuela helped thoroughly contextualise my thinking, aiding my understanding of how infertility connects with the broader narrative of reproduction, as well as giving me greater insight into the scientific procedures within embryology and new practices with AI, and drew my focus onto patient interpretation of these new technologies. It especially moved my thinking toward the visual and verbal languages used within infertility. As a cultural researcher, I am drawn to the rhetoric of medical terminology, weighted in ‘success’ and ‘failure’, aimed at potential ‘geriatric mothers’ with ‘inhospitable uteruses’, and how this may sit alongside hidden personal testimonies, confessional spaces of the coded #TTC online community, or conversations with family and friends where it so often generates a real sense of unease. As an artist, I try to use a feminist gaze to challenge institutionalised power within visual tropes of medical and commercial imagery of infertility. These meetings enlightened me as to how much power we place in these visuals and how these become naturalised into our knowledges of reproduction, with narratives of the embryo constructed from the encounters we have with these visuals. The immediate resonances I felt between my own practice and the fantastic work being done by this team, has encouraged me to continue using this imagery, exploring its symbolism alongside the power of the maternal imagination.

Nordic STS conference 2021

We were very pleased that two papers from the project were presented at the Nordic Science and Technology Studies conference on 20-21 May, which was hosted (online) by Copenhagen Business School. I presented a paper on IVF treatment ‘add-ons’ from the perspectives of IVF patients and partners, fertility professionals, and the UK regulator. This paper explored the category of add-ons as something that exists ‘outside’ or on the boundary of what is considered ‘routine’ IVF. It considered how such a category works differently across national regulation, professional practice and patient experiences of treatment. Manuela presented a paper on ‘the travel of reproductive imaging from the lab to the social world’, drawing on material from patient interviews to explore what happens when images of embryos are encountered outside of the lab or clinic setting.

Now that all of our fieldwork is completed, we are excited to be able to start thinking across all the elements of our research. We will be sharing more of these findings over the course of the next months.

New publication

The first RHB article is now out in Social Science & Medicine! The publication, entitled “The trouble with IVF and randomised control trials: Professional legitimation narratives on time-lapse imaging and evidence-informed care,” highlights how IVF professionals navigate the complex landscape of add-ons and evidence when it comes to using time-lapse imaging in embryology labs across the UK. Drawing from our interview data, we show that clinic staff see several benefits in the use of imaging technologies. These benefits are diverse and not always captured in current public conversations on add-ons. The main contribution of the article is to highlight how professionals think about the benefits of time-lapse more widely. In light of our findings, we suggest that it is worth thinking about a more nuanced understanding of evidence-based-medicine as it relates to the IVF sector specifically. Read the full (open access) article here: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2020.113115

Planning. . .

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and all the uncertainties involved going forward, we are in the midst of significantly and carefully rethinking our planned activities, especially those relating to public engagement. We look forward to sharing the new details of our events as soon as we can. 

In the meantime we will keep updating the blog with other news and short reflections from the project.

The IVF Experience event

Update (31 March 2020): We have decided to also postpone our three May workshops. We plan to re-schedule all of our events for the autumn.

Update (14 March 2020): Following careful consideration of the current COVID-19 pandemic, we have decided to postpone our March workshops. We will evaluate whether our May events can go ahead in due course. Please check back for updates and we hope to see you on a future date!

We invite you to a workshop where all will have a chance to participate in a conversation about infertility, fertility treatment, scientific knowledge, embryo/medical imaging and patient decision-making. You will have the opportunity to hear more about our ongoing research in the area.

There will be snacks and drinks and lots of space for sharing ideas, opinions and experiences.

The workshop will take place in London on five dates across March and May 2020. For more information and to book your place, follow the links to our eventbrite pages:

CANCELLED 14 March 2020. Timber Lodge café, 1A, Timber Lodge Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Honour Lea Ave, London E20 1DY. Starts at 2.30pm. SIGN UP HERE.

CANCELLED 17 March 2020. The Vagina Museum, Unit 7&18 Stables Market, Chalk Farm Road, London, NW1 8AH. Starts at 6.30pm. SIGN UP HERE.

CANCELLED 13 May 2020. Yurt café, St. Katharine’s Precinct, 2 Butcher Row, London E14 8DS. Starts at 6.30pm. SIGN UP HERE.

CANCELLED 16 May 2020. Poplar Union, E5 Roasthouse, 2 Cotall St, Poplar, London E14 6TL. Starts at 2.30pm. SIGN UP HERE.

CANCELLED 28 May 2020. The Canvas: Café & Creative Venue, 42 Hanbury St, Spitalfields, London E1 5JL. Starts at 6.30pm. SIGN UP HERE.

These events are funded by the Wellcome Trust and supported by Fertility Network UK.

Researching reproductive technologies: Notes on our summer and progress so far

The RHB team had a productive summer with amazing conferences and manuscript writing. Having received so much useful feedback as of late, we are ready to publish some of the first project findings. The conferences we attended in the past months have really helped us contextualize our research and hone our arguments.

In August, RHB was at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, where we were part of one of the five (!) Sociology of Reproduction panels. Given that RHB is UK-based, we were able to assess how the issues raised in our research relate to wider concerns regarding technology, medicine, and reproduction. Although the UK IVF conversation has lately involved a sustained critique of commercialisation, audiences have remarked that the industry here is quite tightly regulated when compared to other countries (the U.S. especially), where healthcare is largely driven by a strong consumer logic. This is particularly true of fertility treatment, where multiple IVF cycles can cost tens of thousands of US dollars. As reproduction researchers, however, we strongly feel that fertility care should be an integral part of public healthcare services for all.

The ethics of new biomedical technologies was the focus of the first of our two panels at the 4S (Society for Social Studies of Science) meeting in late summer. Here, scholars raised excellent questions about the introduction of new medical technologies and the value they add to practice. As we have grappled with the role of time-lapse in IVF, we have found that the meanings of this technology can be different depending on one’s position and perspective.  For example, time-lapse can be a great lab tool for embryologists, while also a reassuring technology for patients who want to know that their embryos are kept in a stable environment 24/7. This is an aspect of time-lapse that our audience has found incredibly interesting.

We have also recognized in our presentations that efficiency evidence is currently an important criteria for assessing new IVF technologies, especially in the UK add-on conversation. Based on our findings so far, this is one of the most salient themes that arises when talking to professionals about the value of new treatments. In the near future, we aim to publish our data on how fertility professionals in the NHS conceptualise evidence and its relation to time-lapse tools. In the meantime, we are also working on finishing up data collection, so that we can share findings on patient perspectives as well in the coming year. Last but not least, planning for public engagement activities in underway, with several events that will take place in 2020. Stay tuned!

Advisory Board Meeting

On 27 November the research team hosted an advisory board lunch and meeting where we discussed the progress of the project so far. Manuela Perrotta introduced the background to the research framing and design, followed by short presentations on the fieldwork completed. I summarised the interviews with IVF patients and Alina Geampana talked about the professional interviews and lab observation work. The advisory board consists of individuals with a wide range of multidisciplinary expertise, which elicited lots of constructive questions, comments and recommendations that we will take forward. We are excited to further explore the opportunities that come with being exposed to – and challenged by – perspectives, methods and literature from other disciplines and fields of research.

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