Death without Life: Grievability and IVF

Duke University Press
Publication Type:
Journal Article
The South Atlantic Quarterly, 2011, 110 (4), pp. 795 - 811
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Although in vitro fertilization patients faced with the problem of surplus cryopreserved embryos have a number of disposition options, we focus on one procedure known as compassionate transfer. In this scenario the thawed embryo is placed in the patient's vagina, where it will not develop further, or it is transferred to the uterus without the benefit of fertility-enhancing hormones at a point in the menstrual cycle unreceptive to implantation. The embryo destined for disposal is removed from the realm of technological possibility and returned to the female body for a homely death. Arguably this is consistent with related mourning rituals that rely on embodied contact between the living and the dead such as the practice of wearing a lock of hair from a child or loved one. We document some contemporary practices that reconstitute the dead in keepsake form, where they may reside both inside and outside the body of the mourner. Our focus, though, is on the commemoration of embryo disposition in the form of compassionate transfer, as a ritual confounding the conditions of grievability: this is not-yet-life succumbing to something that resembles death. While debates continue over the embryo's status as life, new forms of disposition practices such as compassionate transfer are developing in response to the emotional experience of embryo loss. As a death scene in progress, we take the measure of its fabrication, considering its form, significance, and legal and cultural complexity.
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