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Seminar 13: Reproductive Technologies

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When does a woman become a mother, responsible socially and legally for the wellbeing of her child? What rights do women retain during pregnancy? Do men become fathers at the same time and in the same way? Who qualifies as a person in our culture, and what effect have technologies of visualisation had on our perceptions of ‘personhood’? This week’s seminar examines changes in reproductive technologies over the twentieth century, how these have affected the lives and potential of women and men in terms of their ability to conceive or reproduce, and how the rights of the foetus balance or potentially conflict with those of their ‘parents’ and society more broadly. This week’s seminar will also consider recent debates in the media around the theme of reproductive rights, reproductive technologies and the rights of the unborn.


1. When does a woman become a mother and a father a father?
2. In what ways have reproductive technologies changed people’s potential to be ‘parents’ in the twentieth century?
3. What arguments have been put forward to protect the unborn in the face of rapid changes in reproductive technology?


Seminar Reading:

Try to read some of Duden or the Firth article and then one or two other articles on the list:

Barbara Duden, Disembodying Women: Perspectives on Pregnancy and the Unborn (Cambridge, Mass. and London, 1993). (library has multiple copies)

Georgina Firth, 'Re-Negotiating Reproductive Technologies: The "Public Foetus" Revisited', Feminist Review, 92 (2009), 54-71. e-journal (Firth examines some of Duden's claims)

Duncan Wilson, 'In Vitro Fertilization, Infertilty, and the "Right to a Child" in 1970s and 19870s Britain', in Gayle Davis and Tracy Loughran (eds), The Palgrave Handbook of Infertility in History (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2017), 565-86. e-book

Tracey Loughran, 'Conditions of Illusion: Agency, Feminism,and Cultural Representations of Infertility in Britain, c. 1960-1980', in Gayle Davis and Tracy Loughran (eds), The Palgrave Handbook of Infertility in History (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2017), 431-59. e-book

Laury Oaks, ‘Smoke-Filled Wombs and Fragile Fetuses: The Social Politics of Fetal Representation’, Signs, 26 (2000), 63-108. e-journal

Janelle S. Taylor, ‘Of Sonograms and Baby Prams: Prenatal Diagnosis, Pregnancy, and Consumption’, Feminist Studies, 26, Special issue on ‘Women and Health’ (2000), 391-418. e-journal

Primary Sources

Search for issues/articles relating to the readings (ie. smoking during pregnacy and experiences of IVF) on:

  • www.mumsnet.com (especially the discussion forums)
  • www.robertwinston.org.uk/ (for background on fertility expert Professor Robert Winston see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Winston)
  • And watch out for relevant articles in the press or social media. Bring anything particularly interesting in and I can copy it.

Additional Reading:

Dip into two recent overview volumes:

Gayle Davis and Tracy Loughran (eds), The Palgrave Handbook of Infertility in History (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2017). e-book

Nick Hopwood, Rebecca Flemming and Lauren Kassell (eds), Reproduction Antiquity to the Present Day (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), esp Parts IV and V. e-book

Monica J. Casper, ‘At the Margins of Humanity: Fetal Positions in Science and Medicine’, Science, Technology & Human Values, 19 (1994), 307-23. i

Robbie Davis-Floyd and Joseph Dumit (eds), Cyborg Babies: From Techno-Sex to Techno-Tots (New York and London: Routledge, 1998).

Jose van Dijck, The Transparent Body: A Cultural Analysis of Medical Imagining (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005), Ch. 6, ‘The Ultrasound and the Visible Fetus’.

Lesley Hall, Hidden Anxieties: Male Sexuality, 1900-1950 (Cambridge: Polity, 1991).

M. Jean Heriot ‘Fetal Rights versus the Female Body: Contested Domains’, Medical Anthropology Quarterly, New Series, 10 (1996), 176-94. e-journal

Laura King, ‘“Now you see a great many men pushing their pram proudly”: Family-orientated Masculinity Represented and Experienced in Mid-Twentieth-Century Britain’, Cultural and Social History, 10 (2013), 599-617. e-journal

Laura King, ‘Hidden Fathers? The Significance of Fatherhood in Mid-Twentieth-Century Britain’, Contemporary British History, 26 (2012), 25-46. e-journal

John Leeton and Robyn Riley, Battle of the Test Tubes: The Early History of IVF (Clayton, Victoria: Monash University Publishing, 2013).

Angus McLaren, Impotence: A Cultural History (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

Angus McLaren, Reproduction by Design: Sex, Robots, Trees, & Test-Tube Babies in Interwar Britain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012). e-book

Lisa M. Mitchell, Baby's First Picture: Ultrasound and the Politics of Fetal Subjects (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001).

Ann Oakley, The Captured Womb: A History of the Medicine Care of Pregnant Women (Oxford: Basil Blackwood, 1984).

Ann Oakley, ‘Birth as a “Normal” Process’, in Ann Oakley, Essays on Women, Medicine and Health (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993).

Rosalind Pollack Petchesky, ‘Foetal Images: The Power of Visual Culture in the Politics of Reproduction’, in Michele Stanworth (ed), Reproductive Technologies: Gender, Motherhood and Medicine (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 57-80.

Rosalind Pollack Petchesky, ‘Foetal Images: The Power of Visual Culture in the Politics of Reproduction’, Feminist Studies, 13 (1987), 263-92. e-journal

Naomi Pfeffer, The Stork and the Syringe: A Political History of Reproductive Medicine (Cambridge: Polity, 1993).

Barbara Katz Rothman, Recreating Motherhood: Ideology and Technology in a Patriarchal Society (New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1989).

Margarete Sandelowski, ‘Separate, but Less Unequal: Fetal Ultrasonography and the Transformation of Expectant Mother/Fatherhood’, Gender & Society, 8 (1994), 230-45. e-journal

Michele Stanworth (ed), Reproductive Technologies: Gender, Motherhood and Medicine (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), ch. 1 Michele Stanworth, 'Reproductive Technologies and the Deconstruction of Motherhood', 10-35 scanned article.

Susan Merrill Squier, Babies in Bottles: Twentieth-Century Visions of Reproductive Technology (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994).

Julie-Marie Strange, ‘Fatherhood, Providing, and Attachment in Late Victorian and Edward Working-Class Families’, Historical Journal, 55 (2012), 1007-27. e-journal

Essay Questions

To what extent have reproductive technologies disempowered women during their pregancy?

In what ways and why have father's roles in pregnacy changed?

In what ways have reproductive technologies brought the rights of the unborn, parents and the state into conflict?