ARTICULATING POTENTIALITY: Notes on the
Delineation of the Blank Figure in Human Embryonic
Stem Cell Research
METTE N. SVENDSEN
University of Copenhagen
An experienced female clinician, who often asked couples in fertility treatment
about embryo donation to human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research, told me:
“It isn’t difficult to ask couples to donate embryos that would be thrown out
anyway. . . . Of course it may be difficult for the couple to live with the thought
that some of their cells which didn’t turn into a child circulate in cell lines that
may be used therapeutically at some stage . . . but I don’t think it’s problematic
to ask them.” These images of waste, circulation, and not a child—although with
a trace of relatedness—are at the heart of my exploration of how the embryo in
hESC research was presented to in vitro fertilization (IVF) couples in Denmark as
having a particular potential and how IVF couples reflected upon and experienced
potentiality in embryos in hESC research. The ability of embryonic stem cells to give
rise to every tissue type of an organism has made embryos a promising raw material
in the hoped-for era of regenerative medicine. In most cases, these embryos come
from IVF treatment, where they are deemed “surplus” or “spare” and are donated
by couples undergoing IVF. In Denmark, as in a number of European countries, the
desired future of regenerative medicine has given way to the legal use of embryos in
hESC research. In most cases, what spareness means is not covered by legislation and
may refer both to excess (more than can be used) and to waste (other than can be
used). In this article, I focus on disposal as a framework for defining fresh embryos as
potential in hESC research in Denmark and discuss the figures of waste and blankness
in envisioning boundless potential through the circulation of bodily matter.
C 2011 by
CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY, Vol. 26, Issue 3, pp. 414–437. ISSN 0886-7356, online ISSN 1548-1360.
the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1360.2011.01105.x
As part of a three-year study of the processes through which hESC research
was made possible in Denmark, I began research in a fertility clinic at a university
hospital in Copenhagen in 2004. For five months I followed embryo donation
from the fertility laboratory (where embryos for donation were selected) to the
clinical setting (where IVF couples were asked to donate) and on to the lives of IVF
couples (how they experienced the question of donation). My fieldwork comprised
observations of the selection of embryos in the fertility laboratory, observations
of clinical conversations where the issue of embryo donation to hESC research
was presented to IVF couples, participation in staff meetings, interviews with
clinicians and stem cell researchers, conversations with IVF couples in the clinic,
and interviews with eight IVF couples who donated embryos to hESC research.
The interviews with donor couples were in the couples’ homes one or two weeks
after the donation.
In the clinic, embryos that were not viable and were to be thrown out were referred to as “bin embryos” (skraldespandsæg), as they would end up in the laboratory
bin with broken glass and biological waste. Among staff, the issue of asking IVF couples to donate bin embryos was considered unproblematic. What was to be donated
was waste and therefore not something of useable value for the couple. In most cases
I followed, IVF couples donated bin embryos without much consideration. Like the
staff, they did not question the donation of such embryos to hESC research. During
my fieldwork, I found both staff and IVF couples to be frank and straightforward
about the issue: why be bothered about the ethics of donating embryos that were
defined as waste and belonged in the bin? In this article, I wish to focus precisely on
this issue: the coming into being of the bin embryo as a field of potentiality and the
cultural meanings and moral horizons at stake in defining its potentiality. As such,
I am interested in the constitution of waste, how it is revalued (Thompson 1979;
Waldby and Mitchell 2006), and how separating the embryo from specific social
and moral contexts and relations made this happen (Morgan 2002). In analyzing the
articulations of the bin embryo as a field of potentiality, I argue that the negotiation
between the embryo as a biographical life (becoming an individual) and the embryo
as a biological resource (becoming a cell line) took place in the clinic and in the lives
of the IVF couples. Nevertheless, the particular way in which the potentiality of the
embryo appeared made this negotiation somewhat invisible and contributed to the
ease with which IVF couples were mobilized as donors of embryos to hESC research.
In asking questions about how the potentiality of embryos in hESC research
is presented to IVF couples by clinicians and experienced by IVF couples, I am
interested in the act of articulating embryos as potential and the effects of such
CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY 26:3
an act. When studying the many expectations and hopes articulated in relation
to life science research, scholars within the emergent field of the “sociology of
expectations” have pointed to expectations as imagined geographies within which
the creation of knowledge, the enrollment of different groups of actors within
the innovation process, and the development of clinical applications cannot be
separated (Brown 2003; Martin et al. 2008). These scholars have emphasized that
articulations of expectations are not simply to be approached as a question of
hope or hype; instead, they should be analyzed as action that is constitutive of and
constituted by the development of science and financial investments and also by
the enrollment of different groups of patients and citizens in scientific projects.
Using this approach, I view articulations of potentiality as acts deeply embedded in a social context and constitutive of the mobilization of social relations
and networks. In exploring how articulations of potentials mobilize IVF couples
as donors of fresh embryos to hESC research, I want to bring the insights from
the sociology of expectations into dialogue with anthropology. In particular, I am
interested in the notions of potentiality at stake in clinicians’ talk about embryos
as a potential resource in hESC research, the understandings of relatedness conveyed in IVF couples’ reflections on the potentiality of embryos in hESC research,
and the moral judgments of particular futures and relationships being expressed
through articulations of potentiality. Although expectations and potentiality may
both seem to signify incompleteness as well as transformation, I suggest that an
anthropological approach to potentiality, more than an approach from the sociology
of expectations, addresses the cultural context as well as the material conditions of
that seen as incomplete yet with a power—a potency—to develop into something
else. In the following, I seek to draw attention to the cultural meanings and moral
horizons actualized in talk about potential and the ways in which articulations of
potentiality interact with, rather than follow, the material processes of cells. I point
out that the blank figure plays a central part in articulations of potentiality, thereby
facilitating hope and futurity.
I begin with a short outline of how social scientists have described embryos
in the context of IVF and hESC research and introduce the Danish case. Then I
analyze the clinical conversations in which I discuss the notions of potentiality at
stake in the way Danish clinicians introduce the use of embryos in hESC research to
IVF couples. I then explore the ways IVF couples express their relationship to the
potentiality of the embryo in hESC research, emphasizing their efforts to detach
themselves from the donated embryo. In the final, empirical section, I analyze
the ambiguities—what I describe as trace effects—in the couples’ narratives and
elucidate the understandings of relatedness at stake in imagining the potentiality
of the embryo. I end with a discussion of how objects come to appear as potential
through interactions between articulations and material processes.
Anthropological and sociological studies of reproductive medicine identify
the embryo as culturally and politically constructed and are insightful regarding
the specificities through which this happens in different social settings (Franklin
and Roberts 2006; Kahn 2000; Morgan 2009; Roberts 2007; Thompson 2005).
In examining how embryos are conceptualized among staff within IVF and preimplantation genetic diagnosis in British clinics, Kathryn Ehrich and her colleagues
distinguish between three views that attach different (and increasing) moral status to the embryo: “a bunch of cells,” “cells with a special potential,” and “a
life/beings/babies” (Ehrich et al. 2008). These views capture, I suggest, the interaction between what Charis Thompson in her ethnography of IVF in the United
States describes as the sacred and the profane. Thompson argues that in being
routinely manipulated and stored, embryos are treated as profane objects, but in
being seen as holding intrinsic and inviolable worth, they are treated as sacred
(Thompson 2005:259). Within the context of IVF, these sacred and profane objects may enter different paths; that is, they may be transferred, frozen, donated
to research, or discarded (Thompson 2005:251). Although the “pregnancy trail”
(transfer or freezer) is the default and desired trajectory of embryos produced
in IVF (Cussins 1998), hESC research has made the “research trail” (Parry 2006)
increasingly visible, illustrating the destiny of embryos as either biographical lives
(becoming an individual) or biological lives (transformed into cell lines and continuing life in the laboratory; see Svendsen and Koch 2008; Waldby 2002:313).
In European and North American settings, the biographical embryo implies an
individual biography in the sense of a child connected to a set of parents. Recently, anthropological studies of IVF outside Europe and North America have
pointed to the specificity of this configuration (Kahn 2000; Roberts 2007). In
her ethnography on IVF in Ecuador, Elisabeth Roberts notes that for Ecuadorians
cryopreserved embryos are conceptualized as “family members” and that uncontrolled circulation, more than their death, causes anxiety (Roberts 2007:183). In
contrast to the “life ethics” of North Americans, in which the embryo is framed
foremost as a life stripped of social relations, Ecuadorians seem to be engaged in “kin
ethics,” providing the cryopreserved embryo with a familial biography. In Egypt,
third-party donation (e.g., sperm donation) is morally unacceptable to Egyptians,
CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY 26:3
as it resembles adultery and disrupts patrilineal continuity, thereby confusing lines
of descent (Inhorn 2003:85–121). These different ethnographies draw attention
to the possible collectives that might be at stake when assessing the potentiality of
embryos and constituting them as biologies or biographies.
The scholarly conceptualizations of embryos—as sacred and profane, as biographical and biological, and as entities with different trails—take the potentiality
of embryos as their point of departure and capture the different ways in which
their “life-creating potential” (Thompson 2005:255) is perceived, negotiated, and
acted on (Ehrich et al. 2008; Franklin 2006; Svendsen and Koch 2008; Thompson
2005). Here, I start one step earlier and explore the practices of articulation taking
place in the clinic that single out an embryo as potential and the collectives at stake
in placing the embryo on a particular trail.
THE POLITICS OF REPRODUCTION IN DENMARK
Denmark has a long history of state involvement in reproductive matters
(Andersen 2005; Koch 1996). In the 1930s, eugenic legislation became part of the
social democratic welfare politics. In the 1940s, state-financed prenatal care was
introduced with the state-financed institution of visiting nurses entering the homes
of new mothers and their babies. Abortion and IVF treatment became state-financed
services in the 1970s and 1980s, respectively. In the late 1970s, prenatal diagnosis
was introduced and argued for in health-economic terms as a means to prevent
disabled children from being born. In 2004, this argument was explicitly rejected,
and today prenatal diagnosis is framed in the neoliberal language of personal
Throughout the 20th century, the various remains (embryos, aborted fetuses,
placentas) were considered something to be disposed of in the domain of welfare
state institutions (Hoeyer et al. 2009), and in general there has been great public
trust in and familiarity with these institutions. Also throughout the 20th century,
research on reproductive matters was state funded, and in 2003 Denmark legalized
the use of embryos in hESC research. This legalization concerned only embryos
categorized as “spare” in IVF treatment. Prior to the passing of the act legalizing
hESC research, a parliamentary process took place. In the beginning of this process,
the two moral framings of the “spare” embryo as respectively a biographical life as
an end in itself and a biological life as a means to stem cell therapy were strongly
represented in both newspaper articles and public hearings on the issue. However,
in the latter part of the parliamentary process and media coverage, the view in favor
of hESC research appeared as a relation between industrial and public stem cell
research (portrayed as holding the key to future cures) and patients suffering from
serious diseases (portrayed as having legitimate expectations of future cures; see
Horst 2008:201–202). Thus, during the policy process, a powerful relationship
emerged among patients needing therapy; committed scientists; the industry,
favoring national economic growth; and the spare embryo as a group of cells. In
contrast, in the latter part of the policy process, the view against the use of embryos
in hESC research was not so much articulated as a universal ethical principle but as
an argument represented by the somewhat weak alliance of the small political party
of the Christian Democrats and a minority in the Danish Council of Ethics, both of
whom argued for the fetus and its right to life (Horst 2008:201–202). After the
passing of the act legalizing hESC research, fertility clinics in collaboration with
stem cell laboratories developed procedures for embryo donation that would allow
a redirection of embryos from the pregnancy trail to the research trail.
The state-financed health services in Denmark subsidize three cycles of IVF
for infertile women aged between 18 and 40 years, regardless of marital status
and up to the birth of two live children.1 Although private fertility clinics may
serve women aged more than 40 years and those who may already have two live
children, the fertility act has recently been revised to require that both public
and private clinics assess what is referred to as every woman’s “ability to parent”
(Danish Parliament 2006). This requirement was introduced to avoid the situation
of children born through fertility treatment being taken into care, legislation that
illustrates as the responsibility of the state the health and happiness of the family
and the costs related to dysfunctional family life (Koch 2009:49–50).
The IVF clinic where I did my fieldwork is the largest in Denmark, located at the main university hospital in Copenhagen and financed by the state.
Patients come from all levels of society, with middle-class patients making up
the biggest group. The clinic has the explicit ideal of reducing the number of
embryos transferred in a cycle to minimize multiple pregnancies associated with
risk of pregnancy complications, birth defects, and consequently, increased health
What is most prominent in the aforementioned studies of embryos in IVF,
preimplantation genetic diagnosis, and hESC is the way articulations of potentialities
are closely linked to practices of selecting and ranking embryos. In the Danish clinic,
ranking and selecting embryos made up the first step of putting embryos on the
research trail. Every morning, laboratory assistants assessed the viability of embryos
and selected those to be transferred. This assessment of embryos was based on the
morphology of the embryo as revealed through the microscope and talked about
CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY 26:3
as a question of the embryo’s look. Thus, embryos that had divided regularly
were referred to as “beautiful” (smukke) or “nice” (pæne) and were deemed embryos
with a high fertility potential to be transferred or put in the freezer for future use
(pregnancy trail). This connection between the embryo on the pregnancy trail and a
biographical life was also expressed in many other ways. Early on in my fieldwork,
a laboratory assistant opened the liquid nitrogen tank with frozen embryos and
explained, “Here we keep all our children.” On the contrary, embryos that looked
fragmented and indicated chromosome disorders were classified as “not viable” in
terms of pregnancy and referred to as “ugly” (grimme), “not nice” (ikke pæne), or
as “bin embryos” (skraldespandsæg) and were increasingly talked about as “spare”
(overskydende) objects of donation (research trail).
Decisions about which embryos had the potentiality of a biography were
not based on ideologies of race or class, as has occurred elsewhere (Kahn 2000;
Roberts 2007). Rather, the “ability to parent” legislation, the clinic’s practice of
selection, and its policy of reducing multiple births highlight a strong notion of
health in terms of individual, family, and nation. As such, these practices illustrate
a continuation of the eugenics policies of the 1930s, holding as an ideal the healthy
citizen contributing to the collective of the nation. A major difference is that while
decisions about the potentiality of biographical lives in the 1930s made explicit
reference to the idea of a healthy collective, such decisions as played out in IVF
are now argued with reference to the unquestionable value of a healthy and happy
individual. Nevertheless, the understanding that this healthy and happy individual
belongs to a collective, comprising both state institutions and fellow citizens, is
present in both legislation and clinical practices.
In the clinical practices of selecting embryos, the interaction between articulations of potentiality and the materiality of the embryo shaped what was done
to embryos and which embryos reached the second step of the donation procedure: the clinical conversations in which IVF couples were introduced to the
possibility of donating specific embryos (all fresh) to hESC research. This introduction took place immediately after the embryo transfer in a conversation that
centered on the couple’s stock of embryos. The third step was initiated at the
end of the conversation, when information sheets and an informed consent form
were given to the couple, who had to read through the text and give or refuse to
give consent before leaving the clinic.2 Consent implied that the embryo was in
custody in the hESC laboratory, a public health institution located at the university
MAKING THE BLANK PRESENT
From my place in the laboratory next to the room of the transfer, I followed the
clinicians’ movements and their talk with a patient while transferring an embryo to
her womb. On the completion of the transfer, I stepped into the room and observed
the conversation between the clinician (a medical doctor) and the couple. This
conversation was focused on the couple’s stock of embryos for cryopreservation.
If the couple had fresh embryos considered “spare,” the clinician introduced the
issue of donation:
There are two embryos left that we can’t use. They have several nuclei, which
indicates there’s something wrong with the chromosomes. Normally, we
throw out such embryos, but we’d like to ask you if we may dispose of them
in a specific way . . . that is, if you would donate these embryos to research,
to stem cell research.
On the wall hung a poster depicting embryos of different quality; the clinician
would contrast the look of an embryo selected for transfer with one that could be
selected for donation. In some cases, the clinician would also explicitly contrast
stem cell research with cloning techniques: “This [embryonic stem cell research]
has nothing to do with cloning. No child will come out of this.”
Having introduced the issue of donation, the clinician would go on to say a
few words about stem cell research:
In the lab, they’ll continue to make it grow [make it differentiate into a
blastocyst] and take out the cells that have a potential to become a fetus to
see if these embryonic cells develop into other kinds of cells, such as insulinproducing beta cells, providing treatment for diabetes. The idea is to build up
large reserves of cells.
In another situation, a clinician might stress that the embryonic cells “can become anything.” In all conversations I overheard, cures for Alzheimer’s disease,
Parkinson’s disease, and diabetes were enthusiastically stated as the target of stem
cell research, while at the same time the clinicians emphasized, “It’s far from being
realized and may take another five, ten years of research. At the moment the aim
is to establish cell lines.”
In his outline of a theory of rubbish, anthropologist Michael Thompson identifies the transient and the durable as two overt categories with which British people
classify objects. He argues that placing an object in a third covert category, that
of rubbish, may transfer it from the transient category to the durable category,
CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY 26:3
thereby reevaluating a waste object (Thompson 1979:8–9, 44–45). So how are
embryos classified as rubbish in the clinical conversations, and how does the category of rubbish facilitate their reevaluation? In their outline of tissue economies,
Catherine Waldby and Robert Mitchell note that the separation of fragment from
whole is a precondition for the existence of waste. When tissue is designated as
waste, it has been actively detached and cast off from its source. In that sense, waste
tissue is defined in terms of a specific relationship between person and fragment
(Waldby and Mitchell 2006:114–115). By focusing on the goal of treatment and
pointing out the “ugly” look of the embryo, the clinical conversations in the fertility
clinic made the ugly embryos appear as “embryos we cannot use,” as fragmentary
and transient objects detached from the totality of the couple and their pregnancy
trail. The IVF couples’ attention was turned toward the bin and toward donation
framed as a means of accounting for waste. However, what had just been made into
profane rubbish and placed in the bin then emerged as sacred: “embryonic cells
can become anything.” Potentiality was reframed by offering the rejected fragment
a relationship to a new totality: lifesaving therapies. This reissuing of potentiality
neither nullified the embryo as a profane tool nor as a sacred value. Rather, the bin
facilitated a rearrangement of meaning. The embryo for donation appeared as both
a profane tool to be manipulated in the hESC lab and as a sacred potential holding
inviolable worth for regenerative medicine.
What I found most striking about this way of recalibrating the embryo was
the way in which the clinicians’ talk about how the embryonic cells “can become
anything” explicitly communicated that there was something they could not become. Separating the embryo from the context of becoming human biographical
life, which was reiterated in the explicit distinction between hESC research and
cloning, became the first step of defining embryos as undetermined potentiality.
Talked about as something that “can become anything,” the embryo for donation
appeared as what Michel Serres refers to as the “blank figure” (Serres 1991), introduced in his discussion of how new forms of order emerge. Through an exploration
of Livy’s classical account of the history of ancient Rome, Serres describes the
concept of blankness as a state in which all possibilities exist. The blank figure is
the essentially undefined and undetermined element that may take on any value or
identity but, as yet, has no specific determination (Serres 1991:93). As “a mobile
white space which can be deployed in any position” (Brown 2002:20), the blank
is a wildcard. By specifically pointing not to the embryo but to the embryonic
cells, clinicians introduced these cells as clusters of irregular, boundless cells, and
this boundlessness established the embryos as an undetermined element, a mobile
white space in which all possibilities exist. Although the clinicians mentioned the
current difficulties with establishing stem cell lines and making them develop, the
conversations revolved around expectations of future cures. Blankness facilitated
projections (Langstrup and Sommerlund 2009), which meant that the bin embryo,
although not yet anything, had an ability to become everything in the future; what
Lena Eriksson and Andrew Webster in their study of standardization processes in
hESC research describe as “not-yet-ness” (Eriksson and Webster 2008:62). The
reference to future cures meant that the dominant notion of potentiality actualized
in establishing the embryo as blank was one of radical transformation, of jumping
from being one thing (bin embryo) to becoming another (therapy). Freed from
the moral constrains of a biographical human life, embryonic cells appeared as
a “therapeutic promise” (Rubin 2008). In moving the embryo to the bin, it was
emptied of a biographical life and articulated as boundless biological potential. It
had the ability to take on new identity, temporality, and value.
MAKING THE BLANK ABSENT
By spelling out the socially constituted boundary between nonrubbish and
rubbish, Thompson’s theory of waste also draws attention to disposal as an act
of placing and not simply as an erasure of an object. Conceived as such, what is
disposed of does not necessarily disappear for good but may return, and in this
sense disposal involves issues of movement, transformation, incompleteness, and
return (Hetherington 2004).3 From this perspective, we can view the donation
procedure as making the embryo absent for fertility treatment by designating it as
waste, then asking the couples to dispose of waste in hESC research, and at last
ensuring the couples that waste will not be able to return as something connected
to them (the embryonic cells had no possibility of turning into individuals who
could hunt out their parents, and future users of cells would not be able to look up
donors because all information about donors would be confidential). In the clinical
conversations, accounting for ugly embryos through donation appeared as a means
of placing waste in what, from the position of IVF treatment, were absent actions
(e.g., lab work and clinical trials) and of trusting those actions.
The donation of bin embryos introduced the IVF couples to a different way of
valuing, and thus relating, them. Disposed in hESC research, the embryos gained
value through flowing, that is, moving from one space (fertility clinics) to another
space (stem cell research labs) and from there to other spaces such as the bodies
of future citizens in need of cells. In this way the orientation toward the bin
and from the bin to hESC labs and future patients made possible a new way of
CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY 26:3
seeing and finding one’s way in an emerging bioeconomy, that is, seeing bodily
substances as blanks circulating outside the body and developing into treatment.
The potentiality of the “ugly embryo” did not so much appear as intrinsic as realized
over time and in relations between different actors and different spaces. In all
clinical conversations, the named spaces to which the embryo would move (e.g.,
the laboratory, future clinical practices) were understood as located within public
health, thereby reflecting the Danish tradition of letting welfare state institutions
take care of reproductive matters and life material designated as waste. Thus,
donation was framed as an act of waste disposal in the spaces of the welfare
state and making them turn into therapeutic potential for the collective of future
Most couples depicted the donated embryo as a product that to them had
“zero value and zero expected life-span” (Thompson 1979:9). Within this framework, where the embryo had no pregnancy value and was not an individual, what
appeared was the positive experience of having saved the embryo from the bin
and having provided it with a future in which it contributed to human health.
One man described the embryo for donation as “precious,” and his wife remarked,
“It has cost us a lot financially, emotionally, and psychologically . . . bodily.” She
also said: “Rather than staying in the bin, they [the donated embryos] will prove
useful. They’ve already developed, and you can’t take that back.” By understanding embryo donation as a way of rehabilitating waste and making a use
value of what had already progressed yet was incomplete, donation appeared at
once effortless and comforting. In interactions between clinicians and IVF couples, the words ugly and bin had already transformed the embryo in question
into a donated embryo, even before the couples had read the information sheets
and reflected on the possibility of not signing. Donation became an effect of
The act of donation also meant that the couples related to donated embryos
in a new way. This was evident in the distinctions they made between the embryos
they had donated and those transferred to women’s wombs. In general, women
had intimate relationships to the embryos in their womb and did what they could
to create the best environment for the embryo to develop. Placed in the womb,
the embryo had become “an insider” (Ehrich et al. 2007) and was a living entity that
liked some things better than others and had needs to keep dividing and progressing.
Pregnant women made many efforts, among them not drinking coffee, getting a
lot of rest, and avoiding physical work, to facilitate the development of this insider.
Care of this kind was not present for the donated embryos. One woman said: “I am
not responsible for it. It is not a child which I have to take care of. It is something
that science decided to go on with.” Another woman described it as such: “I don’t
think of the donated embryo any longer. If I had to, I wouldn’t have energy for
anything else . . . because then I would think of what it goes through and where
it is going and who will need it tomorrow. I think that when you donate it, you
have to give it up.” Although it in the first part of the quote refers to the ugly
embryo that cannot be used, the very last it (“you have to give it up”) seems to
capture more than the “itness” of the material embryo. At stake in this it is also
the expectation of a biographical life related to her. Repotentializing the embryo
thus implied resetting the expectation of “making parents” (Thompson 2005) and
consequently giving up hoped-for relationships, indicating the presence of both life
ethics and kin ethics in the couples’ perceptions of donated embryos. Based on
interviews with donors in Britain and Switzerland, Erica Haimes and colleagues
describe embryo donation to hESC research as implying a shift in perspective
from “our embryo” to “an embryo,” from the specific embryo produced through
IVF and imbued with social and moral values to any particular embryo resulting
from the IVF process (Haimes et al. 2008). In the Danish case, this shift seemed
to imply a change in the embryo’s identity and relationships. As a biographical
potential, the embryo appeared as a future individual and belonged to a collective
of kin; as a biological potential, the embryo had been depersonalized and was the
good of an unspecified societal collective that could exchange and transform it in
unpredictable ways. This collective, as described in conversations about donation,
included both fellow citizens and state institutions. One donor understood her
donation as a contribution to “the children of society.” For a number of IVF
couples, this contribution took the form of both a profane material substance
and a sacred life potential for future citizens. The embryo was experienced as
circulating among themselves, researchers, public health institutions, and future
citizens, who, through the exchange, belonged together and made up society. In
my conversations with donors, the sociality of this “society” was characterized by
anonymous relationships and generalized exchanges (see Svendsen 2007:36–38).
Thus, Danish understandings of biological and biographical potential contained not
only a distinction between thing and person but also a distinction between two
different collectives and ways of standing in relationships. Therefore, to move the
embryo to the anonymous collective of society, kin relationships and kin ethics had
to be forfeited.4
This distinction between two collectives also came through in the way most
IVF couples disliked the thought of knowing the identity of future users, were
CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY 26:3
such information to be available. The rationale seemed to be that if one had
information, contact could be made and a relationship between the parties may
then take shape. Reflecting on what it would be like to be on the receiving end,
one man said: “This would be an odd situation. It wouldn’t be very nice for this
person to be thankful to us. Should he then send us flowers every Christmas? You
can’t do that.” The gift of embryonic cells would create a personal return gift
(flowers) and a possible continuing relationship (every Christmas). In imagining a
continued relationship, this man may have hinted at understanding the exchange of
embryonic cells between donors and receivers as creating a biological connection.
Given that for Euro-Americans “biology is rooted in an order of reality to which
social arrangements must attend” (Strathern 1992b:26), a biological tie would
create an incentive for a social contact, and thus information about biological ties
comes with certain built-in effects (Strathern 1999). I suggest that by explicitly
stating their dislike of having information about embryo recipients, the IVF couples
sought to limit possible built-in affects. In the Danish case, the wish to limit such
affects concerned donors’ efforts to make the donated embryo stay within the
unspecified collective of society without returning to the collective of kin. Thus,
while the signed consent form worked as a contract that emotionally, socially,
and legally transferred custody of the embryonic cells from the couple to the
hESC lab and secured anonymity, such boundaries between donors and embryos
and between donors and possible recipients were continuously restated in the
couples’ narratives. Detachment was never complete and had to be continuously
reestablished. This echoes Naomi Pfeffer’s finding that British women tend to view
an aborted fetus as waste, yet because of its possible biography it is not always
just that (Pfeffer 2008:2550). In articulating boundaries, the Danish IVF couples’
narratives both reiterated the blankness of the donated embryo by emphasizing
that what was donated was not a biographical life related to a collective of kin
and attempted to make the donated embryo a safe blank detached from its origin.
Boundaries made possible the mobilization and circulation of the blank in such a
way that it would not trouble its “reproductive past” (Franklin 2006) of “making
parents” (Thompson 2005).
Notably, the boundaries established in the organizational setup of donation
and in the narratives of the couples did the work required to keep embryos moving
along to the laboratory. The boundaries contributed to the couples’ experience of
successful gatekeeping, of absence as well managed. In general, the couples did
not imagine scenarios of donated embryos as attaining shocking new presences,
such as clones reappearing in their lives. They trusted that welfare state institutions
would take proper care of not-yet-ness and did not expect the absent to return as a
“haunting ghost” (Hetherington 2004:170) claiming a relationship of kin. Although
this trust may express a great familiarity with state involvement in reproductive
matters as well as a close relationship between couples and clinic, it does not
mean that the couples imagined their donated embryos as gone forever or without
connections to their origin.
In his exploration of the disposal of meaning, Roland Munro, drawing on
the work of Jacques Derrida (1982), argues that when we dispose by making a
difference and a deferral, an excess in meaning is created that may be disregarded
but cannot be abandoned (Munro 2001:118–121). In other words, the detachment
of fragment from totality implied in the act of disposing sets up a trace of the
connection once present but now made absent. Emmanuel Levinas suggests that
the trace is the absent space of the past being let into the present (Levinas 1993:70),
thereby actualizing through memory the past in the present.
Trace effects were present in my fieldwork, and most had to do with the
precisely drawn boundaries between embryo and individual and between embryo
and the self of the donor. One husband referred to the donated embryo as “our
little biochemical thing.” Although spoken of as a profane tool in the lab, in being
named “our little,” the embryo maintained the traces of a child related to the selves
of its parents.
In particular, one conversation with an IVF couple revealed trace effects that
gave way to a strong ambiguity about donation. I met this couple, who were
married, in the clinic, and the following conversation took place as they read
through the information sheets discussing the issue of donation. The wife was ready
to consent to donation, but the husband had his doubts:
HUSBAND: It’s this thing that it may stay alive. It may overtake me and turn into
a lung while my wife is still waiting to become pregnant and we don’t have
a child yet. I think it would be different if we were to donate it to another
couple who were to use it for a specific thing. But this is so uncertain. Nobody
knows what’s going to happen to it.
WIFE: But research is like that.
HUSBAND [addressing both me and his wife]: It isn’t the case that I find it’s
wrong and dangerous to do this [hESC research]. And to make the decision
[about donation] is part of life today. I am just trying to find out why I’m
not completely sure. I think it would be different if it were something dead
CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY 26:3
that they took to pieces and did something to, but this is alive and it can stay
alive. . . . I know that research has come so far because other patients have
agreed to participate, and I appreciate that.
WIFE: We have also been helped here.
HUSBAND: Someone may make money out of this. It may end up in business.
I’d feel much better if they just used it four to six months and no more. It’s
this about actually growing it, growing something of mine and for many years,
and it can stay alive.
On the consent form the couples could consent to “no donation,” “donation to
research,” and “donation to research and therapy.” “Donation to research” implied
that the reengineered materiality of the embryo would not be able to travel to
future bodies, whereas consenting to “donation to research and therapy” would
allow for embryonic cells to end up as hESC therapy in future clinical practice.
After some discussion, the couple chose “donation to research.” Within the group
of donors I talked to, this was the only couple to not consent to both research and
The conversation between the three of us rendered visible the difficulties in
“giving it up.” Both husband and wife identified with the view of the bin embryo
as something that could circulate as part of a direct exchange with the clinic
(“we have also been helped here”) embedded in a generalized exchange with a
societal collective (“I know that research has come so far because other patients
have agreed to participate”). It was therefore not the moral status of the embryo
as a sacred biographical life that made the husband hesitate; rather, what was
brought out in his reflections on “not being completely sure” was the circumstance
that the embryo was alive (“it may stay alive”) and related to him (“something
of mine”). Although he did not name it as a person, the dominant notion of the
embryo as a biographical life placed in a collective of kin created a sticky trace
and made him account for the bin embryo by letting it move to the laboratory
In her investigations of how British women think about donating an aborted
fetus to stem cell research, Pfeffer (2008) describes attitudes and reflections similar
to those of the husband. She conceptualizes her interviewees’ hypothesized connections to a donated fetus as a “duty of care” for the fetus’s physical existence and
social biography beyond abortion (Pfeffer 2008:2553). I suggest that kinship thinking may further our understanding of how this “duty of care” has been embedded
in traces of being related in time and in social relations. In Euro-American kinship
thinking, life flows down from parents to children, and the temporal sequencing of
generations is considered irreversible (Strathern 1992a:62). From this perspective,
the embryo (as a new life) should be “after” and should not “overtake” its “father”
by developing into an organ while the father remained in fertility treatment. Thus,
insisting on the embryo as related to its “origin” (“something of mine”), the possible
reversibility of generations (in the sense of an embryo progressing while its parent
was caught in the cyclic time of fertility treatment) was troubling. In his discussion
of disposal, Munro states, “an attempted erasure of a trace simply creates another
trace” (Munro 2001:121). In the present case, the attempt to delete the image of
a child simply created the image of a lung placed in time and in social relations
elsewhere. The husband’s reflections somehow delineated ways of being related
to and thinking about embryos that take us beyond the trails of pregnancy and
research as well as of biographical lives and biological lives. The husband did not
imagine his hoped-for child as turned into a lung but as a lung related to him. The
trace of the pregnancy trail in deliberations on donation created a new potentiality
trail of a lung in time and in relationships, a trail that blurred the boundaries of the
two former trails and made it difficult “to give it up.”
In the present case, the scenario of a future lung being sold off-the-shelf stood
in an uncertain relationship to the embryo’s past form, that is, to its embeddedness
in the process of making parents (Thompson 2005) through IVF. When taking the
form of an (embryo-to-become) individual, the embryo could become part of a
particular collective of kin if donated to another family. When taking the form of
an (embryonic-cells-to-become) lung, it would belong to the unspecified collective
of society, which may allow it to enter a commercial domain. The husband’s
negotiation of the not-yet-ness of the embryo revolved around traces of relatedness
when imagining body parts in commercial exchange. His hesitation did not express
an unwillingness to contribute to the collective of society. Rather, he felt uneasy
about mixing different forms of relatedness, the personal relatedness imagined
through a biological tie and the impersonal relatedness connecting members of the
In Europe, it is a common view that bodily substances should be kept separate
from monetary transactions (see, e.g., Felt et al. 2009; Hoeyer 2005; Svendsen
2007), yet what comes to the fore in the present case is a notion of the commercial
exchanges as being without limits.5 The husband was not contesting the use of
embryos in stem cell research in general, but he disliked the way in which the
commercial domain did not set time limits on potentiality (“growing something of
mine and for many years”) and to its future form (“This is so uncertain. Nobody
CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY 26:3
knows what’s going to happen to it”). Time limits (“four to six months”) became a
way to delineate a blank with boundaries on its future itinerary and possible forms.
By choosing “donation for research” instead of “donation for research and therapy”
on the consent sheet, he reconciled the moral tension between the embryo’s past
form (biography related to him) and its possible future form and affiliations (biology
to be exchanged). Having established this safe blank, the couple experienced
donation as a right and self-evident act.
The case reveals how the ability to “become anything” creates both hopes
and fears. The fluidity of the biological was not experienced only as a positive
“therapeutic promise” (Rubin 2008) but was also feared as an unwanted potential.
In my conversations with other couples, tensions between the donated embryo’s
past and possible futures were also present, indicating that although this particular
couple was unusual in its hesitation about donation, the considerations of both the
husband and wife reflected concerns common to all donors. In calling a donated
embryo “our little chemical thing,” as one couple did, and in emphasizing the
circulation of embryonic cells as taking place within public health care only (apart
from the market), most couples expressed the view that the future form of their
embryonic cells and their possible affiliations mattered to them. In referring to the
embryo as a “tool in the lab” that would help “the children of society,” the care was
not simply for the material embryo. The institutional settings that acted with it
and the future users of regenerative medicine were somehow also part of what was
cared for, indicating that in no respect did donors create an opposition between
themselves and the collective of society. The Danish IVF couples simultaneously
expressed their trust in and familiarity with state involvement in reproductive
matters and worked to sort out the possible tension between the different modes of
acting in and understanding relationships that appeared when placing the embryo
on the research trail. In relating to the articulated blankness of embryos on the
research trail, traces of the embryos’ origins were continuously present, expressed,
negotiated, and reworked.
The articulations through which the ugly embryo came to appear as a field of potentiality in hESC research point to the bin as an important conceptual framework.
Defined as waste, the embryos slotted for donation to hESC research appeared
as blanks with a capacity to unfold indefinitely and in many different directions.
That is, stating the nonpotentiality of the embryo to become an individual became
the very first step of defining embryos as undetermined potentiality. Boundaries
became part of constituting what was articulated as boundless potential. However,
placing the ugly embryo in the hESC laboratory did not imply that the donated
embryo was disposed of fully. Some couples’ emphasis on disconnections between
themselves and the donated embryo as well as other couples’ concerns about where
something of them went expressed experiences of traces of a connectedness in time
and in social relations envisioned through a biological tie. I suggest that a clue to understanding the couples’ urgency to claim disconnections is to be found in the way
embryo donations actualized a particular notion of potentiality (the blank figure),
a particular Euro-American way of envisioning kinship (being connected through
a biological tie in time and in relations), and two incompatible moral framings
of the embryo (biographical life and biological life), which, in a Danish context,
placed the embryo in relation to two different collectives—the collective of kin
and the unspecified collective of society. For the couples, by experiencing donation
as therapeutic hope and not therapeutic fear, the invocation of boundaries became
Having laid bare the articulations of potentiality and the implied boundary
work that contributed to successfully redirecting embryos from IVF to hESC
research, it may well be asked what happened to these embryos in the laboratory.
Did articulations of potentiality pave the way for a shift in the organization and
succession of the elements of life? In the Danish case, as has been the case in
stem cell laboratories around the world, “ugly embryos” answered back by acting
differently than was hoped. They did not transmute into successful stem cell lines.
The Danish stem cell researchers were frustrated with the poor quality of these
embryos and were eager to receive fresh embryos of high quality. In an attempt
to meet the researchers’ demands, the clinicians in the fertility clinic tried a new
definition of what made up a “spare embryo” to be donated to hESC research. More
than can be used, not other than can be used, was introduced as a defining feature
of embryos suggested for donation to hESC research. In practice this meant that
couples who had a great number of “good-looking” fresh embryos were asked if
they would donate one or several to hESC research. (For a further analysis of the
ongoing fact making of the “spare embryo” in the clinic, see Svendsen and Koch
2008.) However, such articulations of potentiality based on quantity did not come
easily to the clinicians. Asking IVF couples who had not yet reached the goal of
a baby to donate “beautiful embryos” to hESC research conflicted with clinical
commitments to put the interests of the patient before those of research. During
my fieldwork, I saw only one IVF couple asked to donate “beautiful embryos” to
hESC research. So while the material processes in the laboratory pointed to the
CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY 26:3
“good-looking embryos” as a great potentiality, moral considerations made it almost
impossible for the clinicians to practice such articulations. Consequently, only very
few “good-looking embryos” were placed on the research trail and articulated as
potential in relation to hESC research. So while in a Euro-American setting it
is a commonsense understanding that biological material processes provide the
grounds on which social actions take place (cf. Strathern 1992b), my case reveals
that social actions—that is, articulations and their moral horizons—interact with
material processes and shape what comes to appear as potential.
The boundless potentiality articulated in the present case may reflect a biopolitics occupied with the optimization of health through the creation and circulation
of biological objects. Tissue donation, the current trade in organs and reproductive
substances, and the creation of transgenic animals, combining human and animal
DNA, are practices that all point to the powerful vision of acquiring both health
and monetary value through eliminating bodily, geographical, infrastructural, and
species-related boundaries. With the embryo case studied here, I have excavated
and deployed the categories of waste, blankness, and potentiality in envisioning
boundlessness and constituting biological objects and their circulation, and these
categories may have resonance outside the field of stem cell research. Notably, the
idea of waste as an act of placing, an act of moving along, with a capacity for transformation, is present in discussions on environmental issues and climate change.
In such discussions waste is often feared as an unwanted potential that may return,
just as recycling initiatives express an idea of transforming waste into blank slates to
be repotentialized as objects, creating both boundless environmental sustainability
and monetary value. What stands out in the embryo case is the way waste facilitates
a notion of the blank while simultaneously traces appear and create ambiguity. In
this light, the specific practices through which the categories of waste, blankness,
and potentiality become part of envisioning boundlessness and constituting and
circulating objects raises larger anthropological questions about what is involved
in making something appear valueless and absent, how the absent, which once was
present, may create traces in social relations and object making practices, and how
social relations and exchange orders are practiced through holding things in a state
of absence yet managing their possible presence.
Life science research is continuously engaged in exploring, measuring, or limiting
potentials for life. The concept of potentiality pervades practices surrounding cells,
bodies, and technologies. Based on an ethnographic study of how couples in fertility
treatment become donors of embryos to human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research in
Denmark, I explore ways of measuring and talking about the potentiality of embryos
in the fertility clinic and in interviews with donors in their homes. In the fertility
clinic, the embryo suggested for donation to hESC research is defined as waste that
cannot be used and therefore is suggested to be put in the bin. The “bin,” thereby,
becomes a dominant conceptual framework for claiming the embryo’s nonpotentiality as
a biographical life and for making the embryo for donation emerge as a blank figure,
the essentially undefined and undetermined element that has potential to take on any
identity but, as yet, has no specific determination. When further exploring how the in
vitro fertilization (IVF) couples relate to the potentiality of donated embryos, I argue
that the embryo suggested for donation is not experienced as completely blank: traces
remain of the embryo’s former identity as a possible biographical life related to its
“parents.” To make the embryo blanker—indeed, safely blank—it becomes imperative
for the couples to set up boundaries to eliminate the possibility of an unwanted return.
Drawing on rubbish theory, kinship theory, and Michel Serres’s concept of the blank
figure, I draw attention to the boundary work as well as the trace effects expressed in
articulations of potentiality. [potentiality, embryo, stem cell research, donation,
Acknowledgments. I thank Karen-Sue Taussig for providing the impetus to reflect on potentiality. I thank both her and Klaus Hoeyer for stimulating discussions of potentiality as a theme in
anthropology. An earlier version of this article was presented in a panel on potentiality and humanness
at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in San Francisco, in November
2008. I wish to thank the participants in the panel for helpful input. I am indebted to Lene Koch,
Henriette Langstrup, and Klaus Hoeyer for their comments on earlier versions of this article. I
also thank the three anonymous reviewers and the editors of Cultural Anthropology for their valuable
At the time of my fieldwork, state-financed IVF treatment was accessible only to heterosexual
couples; consequently, I did not encounter any single women or lesbian couples in the clinic.
With the passing of a new fertility act in 2006, subsidization of IVF for all female citizens was
When consenting to donate, couples should also consent to their medical records being accessible
to hospital staff, thus indicating the need to make donors traceable. The information sheets
made explicitly clear that there would be full anonymity between donors and receivers. The
sheets also stated that the couple could withdraw their consent within five days. When donated
the laboratory was entitled to dispose of embryos within the framework of the law, and after
the fifth day, if taking the stem cell line, the “whole” embryo ceased to exist.
In a later publication, Kevin Heatherington (2004) explicitly discusses the issue of disposal in
relation to anthropological theory. He states that the anthropological literature on practices of
getting rid of things and meanings (i.e., gift giving, potlatch, burial rites, sacrifice, pollution)
has demonstrated disposal as integral to the performance of social relations and the organization
of society (Heatherington 2004:159). He claims that what is not addressed by this literature is
the way in which dirt can flow and move between states of absence and presence. Whereas Mary
Douglas tended to assume that, through being categorized as matter out of place, dirt could
go away, Heatherington argues that social scientists need to address how something moves
between the categories of absence and presence and how actors manage and are managed by the
CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY 26:3
absent. Given his interest in consumption, Heatherington concludes that disposal should not
be seen as something that comes after consumption but as an activity that is involved in making
consumption a socially meaningful activity.
The distinction between biographical and biological life finds resonance in other empirical
fields. Stefan Timmerman’s study of resuscitation technology in the United States reveals
how the biographical life of the person suffering from sudden death is suspended through
resuscitative attempts. Two strangers, rescuer and victim, touch mouth to mouth without any
sexual associations. Medics cut through expensive clothes and feel for a pulse without asking
for consent. From being a person entrenched in a network of friends and family, the person in
cardiac arrest is redefined as a generic patient (Timmermans 1996), a biological life stripped of
social relations and identities.
Klaus Hoeyer also discusses this theme in a study of tissue donation in Sweden (Hoeyer
Editors’ Note: Cultural Anthropology has published a number of essays on the life sciences. See, for
example, Eva Hayward’s “Fingeryeyes: Impressions of Cup Corals” (2010), Heather Paxson’s
“Post-Pasteurian Cultures: The Microbiopolitics of Raw-Milk Cheese in the United States”
(2008), and Deepa Reddy’s “Good Gifts for the Common Good: Blood and Bioethics in the
Market of Genetic Research” (2007).
Cultural Anthropology has also published a number of essays on reproduction and reproductive
technologies, including Elizabeth L. Krause’s “Empty Cradles and the Quiet Revolution: Demographic Discourse and Cultural Struggles of Gender, Race, and Class in Italy” (2001), Judith
Farquhar’s “Technologies of Everyday Life: The Economy of Impotence in Reform China”
(1999), and Corrine P. Hayden’s “Gender, Genetics, and Generation: Reformulating Biology
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