Remaking the Human Body

Biomedical imaging technologies, professional and lay visions

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.

PET’s annual conference: COVID-19 and the fertility sector

I had the pleasure of attending this year’s online Progress Educational Trust (PET) annual conference where the topics for consideration were fertility, genomics and COVID-19.

Consultant Jane Stewart opened the first session by speaking about the experiences of fertility clinics and she used the surfing analogy of ‘riding the wave’ through what was, and still is in many respects, a great unknown. One of the difficult issues for clinics throughout has been how to organise their reopening and patients’ return to treatment, where a more restricted allocation of resources can necessitate the prioritisation of some patients over others. This issue was taken up by philosopher and bioethicist Julian Savulescu, who described IVF as a ‘playground of ethical issues’. For instance, considerations about what constitutes elective treatment, non-urgent treatment, futile treatment, risk and safety involve a series of value judgements that are contestable. The ways in which fertility clinics approach the pandemic and its aftermath will likely involve judgements about how to prioritise the return of fertility patients, and Julian set out various ways to go about this process of prioritisation:

Should fertility treatment be offered on a first-come first-served basis? Should older patients receive treatment first given that they might be under greatest time pressure? Or should patients who have highest chance of success be given first access?

There are no clear or straightforward answers to which of these options is right or fair, but it is clear that decisions made at the clinic level will have a deep impact on patients’ lives. The uncertainties involved for patients about their treatment progression during the pandemic was taken up again in Session Four by chair Anna Veiga, who noted that there has been an increase in people seeking elective egg-freezing services during the pandemic as they anticipate a treatment delay of an unknown length of time.

Sessions Two and Three emphasised the wide range of unknowns about how COVID-19 – or more specifically the virus SARS-Cov-2 – affects reproductive function, semen, oocytes and foetuses. Allan Pacey, professor of andrology, noted the vast amount of research that has been done on this topic but he also emphasised the importance of maintaining quality assurance in all research. Session chair Fiona Fox reiterated the need to be cognisant and critical of a current infodemic, where poor research is given a platform and circulated in rapid media reporting. While the findings from studies on reproduction and SARS-Cov-2 so far are often inconclusive or difficult to extrapolate to the population level, the panels were largely positive about the low risks of the virus during fertility treatment and pregnancy, as well as for longer term fertility, yet they also insisted that this does not take away the fact that for some individuals COVID-19 can have devastating effects. Geneticist Sharon Moalem offered some fascinating insights into why men seem to be more susceptible to COVID-19 than women. Reflecting differential responses to many other viruses, female immune systems show a greater antibody response to infection, which impacts on the body’s resilience to severe illness as well as its response to vaccination.

The fourth session focused on the guidelines for fertility clinic reopening that have been developed by the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology. In practice, experiences from clinics have involved putting into place new staff and patient testing procedures, as well as sanitisation measures and the offering of telemedicine. While there was a sense that clinics have been able to respond to the new requirements effectively, concerns were expressed throughout the conference about limitations in other essential medical and health services. Specialist in reproductive medicine Luca Gianaroli noted that stillbirth rates have increased in many European countries, including the UK, during the pandemic. This, he said, is not due to the virus itself but rather the reduced access to antenatal and emergency care services. The impacts of reduced healthcare access was echoed by Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) chair Sally Cheshire earlier in the day, who described how patients at the early stages of seeking diagnostic examinations via their general practice or routine gynaecological surgery are at a disadvantage in their potential fertility treatment progression. While there was a sense that fertility clinics have been able to respond relatively well to a new way of working, many other areas of the health services in the UK are experiencing backlogs and increased waiting times. These cases emphasised how fertility treatment is not an isolated ‘moment’ or procedure, but that it is closely tied to reproductive health more broadly as well as antenatal health and care. Attending to fertility patients’ broader trajectories of treatment is central to gaining a fuller understanding of the impact of the pandemic in this area.

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