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ISEK - Institut für Sozialanthropologie und Empirische Kulturwissenschaft Ethnologie


Donor conception: (dis)closure, openness and privacy

Jeanette Edwards, University of Manchester

More than two decades ago we asked people in the north of England who had no vested interest in what we then called the ‘new’ reproductive technologies what they thought of their potential. We were surprised at the alacrity and expertise with which they imagined their implications through what they knew about kinship: what they knew about the ways in which relatedness is created, maintained and broken and about what constitutes proper persons and their needs. Twenty years later, assisted conception, with or without donated gametes, is much more familiar and many families in the UK have been touched by it in some way. However, while the emotive language of ‘test tube’ and ‘designer’ babies, with clinicians ‘playing god’ in a ’brave new world’, has abated, the kinship questions that preoccupied people have not gone away. Indeed, they are now also centre stage in policy debate. Kinship, not overly relevant for clinicians and parliamentarians in the UK in 1990 (Edwards [1993] 1999), is central in contemporary matters of concern. The paper draws on current debate in the UK about ‘disclosure’ in donor conception, which includes a preoccupation with the ‘duty’ of parents to tell their donor conceived offspring the facts of their conception and the ‘duty’ of the state, or its proxies, to provide identifying information about donors. This also fuels concern about cross-border fertility treatment and its governance. Both are taking place at a time of burgeoning and flourishing communication and information technologies that facilitate unprecedented ‘social networking’ and a renegotiation of the boundaries of privacy (Klotz n.d.). As we might have expected, while certain aspects of assisted conception become familiar, others emerge as strange.

Sacred ART

Enric Porqueres iGené, EHESS Paris

During the 90s, anthropologists developed analysis of ART that stressed the increasing importance of the individual, isolated as such from the very beginning of its existence in utero. A kind of paroxysm of individualism was then supposed to characterize the Western  NRT. In strong contrast with cultures characterized by a relational definition of the person, the current situation appeared as an anthropological exception. During the years 2000, the situation was deeply changed. Emerged then the voices of the children born from AID, claiming the right to know about their biological origins. The à la page rhetoric of the contrasts between western individuals and relational persons existing elsewhere entered thus in crisis. Since then, and not before, anthropologists begun to take into account the relationality of this supposedly isolated technological individual of late modernity. Was then explored the persistence of the incest taboo concerning ART, the importance of embodied genealogies in adopted and AID children, the emergence of a new model for paternity, no longer based in the pater est quid nuptias demonstrat principle… In this movement, it became esaier to compare the kinship system of contemporary contexts with those traditionaly described by anthropologist.

Since the critics of Rodney Needham to the formalist approaches to kinship, the relation between genealogy and the transcendent has occupied a major space in kinship studies. I pretend to address this relation in the context of ART, mainly dealing with bioethical discussions on the possibility of cloning. The transcendent notion of the dignity of the human person, currently used in these debates, presents two aspects that will focus my attention. First, the situation of the relational individual body in a genealogical grid inscribed in a downwards oriented temporality. Secondly, the emphasis on the unicity of every human that is currently being linked to the necessary respect of the natural random combination of the genetical information coming from its genitor and its genitrix.

Kinship in Europe since the Middle Ages: the success-story of a concept of relatedness

Simon Teuscher, University of Zurich

It is still largely held that the importance of kinship in Europe was in steady decline from the Middle Ages onwards. Recent research, however, points both to continuities and to different or even opposite trends. Kinship was a productive element both in European processes of state-building and class formation. Did the European society become ‘kinship hot’ during the modern era?

This is suggested, among other things, by current debates about genetics and reproductive technologies. The anthropologist Sarah Franklin has described them as “blooded” and has thus pointed to the paradox that these debates, while dealing with the cutting edge of scientific development, tend to borrow heavily from a traditional imagery of kinship as a community of blood.

How much do we know, however, about pre-modern Western ideas on the physiology of kinship? How can we trace the history of Western ideas about the substances that are shared and circulated among kin?  The paper attempts to establish a genealogy of Western conceptualizations of kinship and family since the Middle Ages. It will talk about a few central continuities and changes, and will in particular dwell with a transition from a language of flesh to a language of blood. This transition opened the way for providing kinship with relevance in new types of social categorizations and divisions, some of which have since become central to how the social is thought of in modern and post-modern cultures.

Forms of family life (familiale Lebensformen) between change and persistence: a tentative assessment of current trends

Andrea Maihofer, University of Basel

In my paper I will take a critical look at current developments of ‚the family’ or, more precisely, at what happened with and around ‚family’ in the last decades. I by no means want to argue that the current moment is particularly special or significant or that the direction in which ‚family’ will be developing emerges more clearly today. Nevertheless, the current time does invite an interim analysis. Several changes have evoked the need to understand and critically evaluate their effects – not least in relation to their significance for gender relations, changes that I deem fundamental, diverse and complex. I will therefore discuss how current processes present themselves to me at the moment. Further, I will make a case for why today it seems more appropriate to speak of forms of family life or arrangements than to continue to refer to ‚family’. I will also explore why and in what manner it seems useful to speak of a ‚loss of tradition’, and of processes of pluralization and individualization, and at least of a paradoxical simultaneity of change and persistence. This will lead me to examine how understandings and daily practices of family and kinship are undergoing fundamental change. I am by no means suggesting that they are losing their importance, the way many scholars claim. On the contrary, in a certain way they are gaining importance. Last but not least I want to clarify why – despite the persistence of traditional gender relations – current gender norms and gender practices are changing fundamentally, heteronormativity is eroding, and sexual and gendered modes of existence (sexuelle und geschlechtliche Existenzweisen) have changed in many ways. If looked at more closely, we may observe that not only central structural elements of the dominant heteronormative gender order are beginning to crumble, but possibly the current social order more generally. I thus argue that Western bourgeois patriarchal gender relations are in crisis, the severity and outcome of which, as in most crises, however, are still uncertain.

“This is a lovely couple”: intimacy, formal institutions and the production of desirable nationals

Anne Lavanchy, London School of Economics

Unions – marriages and civil partnerships – offer an enthralling perspective from which to explore the intertwining of intimacy and the production of good nationals. This paper is based on fieldwork conducted with Swiss registrars between November 2009 and January 2011. As other ranges of civil servants, registrars have lately been involved in the struggle against unwanted migration. With the development of bureaucratic technology aiming at tracking down “sham marriages”, registrars' work is also about the selection of potential co-nationals. Foreign spouses of Swiss nationals acquire rights regarding residence as well as regarding state membership. If the Swiss legislation about nationality is mainly articulated around jus sanguinis, and remains very restrictive regarding jus solis, it nevertheless entails the possibility for foreign spouses to become Swiss through a more straightforward bureaucratic procedure named “facilitated naturalisation”.

During my fieldwork, it became obvious that registrars consider themselves as part of the technology of protection of the national body through rhetoric of good marriages/civil partnerships. The present paper analyses the metaphors used in their narratives about what makes some foreigners desirable co-nationals, while others remain illegitimate. I will highlight the articulation between markers of national belongings such as family names, the “place of origin” and matrimonial strategy, and narratives about the circulation of bodily fluids, especially sperm and mother's milk.

The good “child as a gift” versus the bad “child as a project” in Swiss reproductive medicine: conundrums of kinship and magic

Willemijn de Jong, University of Zürich

In my paper I suggest some theoretical and understudied links of kinship and religion, based on striking issues related to the creation of a family through assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) in a Swiss context. Intimate subjectivity in Switzerland, at least in the German speaking part, seems to be informed by a discourse on human reproduction and family building in which the bad ‚child as a project’ is sharply distinguished from the good ‚child as a gift’. This can be inferred from a public panel discussion on reproductive medicine and its future in Switzerland at the Medical Faculty of the University of Zurich in which important institutional representatives of reproductive medicine, reproductive health, politics and ethics took part. In a first part of the paper I will show how such a dichotomous discourse on reproduction and making a family was constituted during that particular debate on ARTs, and I will relate it to further empirical evidence of such a dichotomy. In a second part, I connect this discourse with anthropological literature on the transformation of kinship, family and gender by ARTs and on gift and commodity exchange with regard to ARTs, as well as with social science literature that focuses on the concept of the project with regard to recent neoliberal changes in Western societies. In a third and last part of the paper, I intend to show that the anxieties arousing around the ‚child as a project’ and the longing for a ‚child as a gift’ can fruitfully be clarified by starting from some conundrums of kinship and magic. In this endeavour I draw on Viveiros de Castro’s argument that in Western societies “Kinship still has its magic” (2009: 261), or more generally, that magic is what kinship is all about. He develops his argument while analysing Amazonian ideas on body, gift, and kinship. I will elaborate on a possible application in Western societies with regard to kinship and reproductive technologies, which he only briefly alludes to.

Family institution in motion: the case of “non statutory” parents

Marianne Modak, Haute Ecole de Travail Social et de la Santé - Vaud (EESP)

My communication presents a sociological study – still under way – on the subject of the « non- statutory parent», i.e. the person who within a couple, fulfils the role of « parent » for a child or children not legally his or her own, but the offspring of his or her mate. The main question examined by the study is as follows: how (with what resources, what support, what institutional models, using what strategies), does the non-statutory parent define his of her parental role and obligations in the face of a complete lack of legal recognition? Our qualitative study is based on a sample of about twenty couples living in various configurations of care for children: hetero and homosexual stepfamilies, same sex couples having had children through medically assisted procreation (MAP)  – with whom we carried out three successive rounds of in-depth interviews; first with both members of the couple in order to reconstitute their conjugal and parental history; then with the non-statutory parent, to collect information about his or her experience and strategies deployed to implant his or her status within the family and in relation with society in general ; finally with the couple once again, with the goal of analysing the conjugal and family dynamics.

I will present an analysis of care configurations, in particular in lesbian couples in which one of the mothers has had a child through MAP or through « personally organized » fertilization; these configuration may lead to various models of defining and fixing the obligations of the non-statutory parent, ranging from a will to consolidate and increase the parental role despite an unfavourable legal context to a wish to limit them. Initial results of the study show, in particular, that the « absent » parent (known or unknown sperm donor, or legal parent) has a crucial symbolic and material impact on the position of the « non-statutory parent ». These results also demonstrate that the definition of duties and obligations both depends upon and interacts with family dynamics.

Intimate politics of queer families

Eveline Yv Nay, University of Zurich and Basel

This paper traces the political efforts of LGBTQ-organisations to remove the current legal restrictions on parental rights within the existing law on civil partnerships in Switzerland. The organisations’ claims contest the conditions under which queer parents are refused a legally recognized subject position. This negation of lived queer parenting generates affectively saturated answers and political strategies on the part of these organisations. Informed by theoretical concepts in Affect Studies, I will look at current media coverage of queer families in Switzerland: On the one hand happiness is the dominant element organizing the discourse on legal recognition of lesbian and gay families. Drawing from my ethnographic data, I will on the other hand elaborate a position of politics of affective intimacies of Queer Families which seem unpolitical as their ideas of the political aren’t framed by adressing the nation-state as the central guarantor of freedom and of recognition in a global and national context of human rights. I thus ask about the normalizing implications of the current politics for “a good life” of LGBTQ-organizations and outline a possible ground for a politics of affective alliances as a political strategy. In concert with Sara Ahmed’s concept of a politics of wonder (2004) and Lauren Berlant’s intimate citizenship (2011), I will map out affective alliances based on the vulnerability of same-sex couples with children, families with transgender parents, non kinship formations with multiple parenthood, and further normatively delegitimized modes of life.

Anonymity as relatedness – relatedness as imagination: semen donors and donor children in Switzerland

Kathrin Zehnder, University of Zurich

‘Artificial’ inseminations by donor sperm, on the one side, cause less technical challenges than other possibilities of assisted reproduction technologies (ARTs) such as intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI). On the other side, it seems that today, Donor Insemination (DI) is often seen as a problematic technique because of genetic reasons and plays only a role as an ultima ratio. Because families, as it is implied, struggle with making kin between non-genetic fathers and children the treatment brings up questions about secrecy and identity.

Since 1998, the Swiss law does not allow any more anonymous semen donation in Switzerland. Semen donors must be registered in a central data base, and so-called donor children have the right to contact donors at the age of 18. It seems to be common sense that knowing one’s genitor is a basic right of every offspring and openness is considered as an advantage compared to the secrecy for donor children. In my paper I focus on anonymity of semen donation. Based on interviews with semen donors and adult donor children, I investigate on the significance of anonymity for ideas and practices about relatedness, family and kinship. None of the adult donor offspring procreated in the late 1970ies or 1980ies whom I interviewed had contact to their genitors or even knew them. Some of them intensively search for their biological fathers, others not at all. How do people try to connect to their imagined relatives? What would change if anonymity was transformed into knowledge? While legal regulations only allow one specific way of getting to know one’s genitor, I will also show different concepts of relations between contemporary private semen donors and their offspring. Which images of being related donors and offspring create by living in complete anonymity or being part of each other’s life? How is not knowing one’s genitor and offspring respectively constitutive for a specific type of fatherhood? And finally, what other kin configurations are affected by anonymity additionally?

Challenging the genealogical model: continuity, transmission, and generation in context of assisted reproductive technologies and age-related infertility in Switzerland

Nolwenn Bühler, University of Zurich

In Switzerland, as in many other countries of the global north, the use of assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) by post-menopausal women has caused public controversy (Campbell 2011) and raised fears about intergenerational confusion. If late motherhood is not a new phenomena, and has neither the homogeneity, nor the statistical importance that media attribute to it (Bessin and Levilain 2012), the impact of ARTs on the “age limit of motherhood” (Löwy 2009) and conceptions of what defines, delimits, and relates generations, deserves nevertheless to be studied. Biomedical technologies like IVF with donated eggs or egg cryoconservation open up the possibility of extending female fertility and of disconnecting age and reproduction. Their potentiality to reverse generational descent (Thomspon 2005) and “to skip a generation” (Edwards 2009) raise the risk of “anachronism” (Russo 1999), subverting so the order associated with intergenerational relations and the categories of a normative lifespan. This paper investigates how the genealogical model (Bamford and Leach 2009) is mobilized, challenged and/or strengthened in public and medical debates about egg donation and late pregnancies, as well as by people undergoing reproductive treatment to build their “own family”. It will examine how natural/cultural borders of generation, transmission and continuity are constructed and will focus on the forms of relating, belonging, and caring they entail. Drawing on narrative interviews with people facing age-related infertility and/or turning to egg donation, semi-directed interviews with experts in the field of reproductive medicine, and content analysis of media texts, it will highlight the ambivalent relations to past and future at stake in the “making of older parents”.

Infertility and use of assisted reproductive technologies in an African context: understanding the experience of women and men in Burkina Faso

Maryvonne Charmillot, University of Geneva

This paper focuses on the experience of infertility and use of assisted reproductive technologies in a sub-Saharan African context, in Burkina Faso. What does the infertility challenge represent for men, women and couples in a context in which social status depends on procreation and in which there is very little care and treatment offered? What relational, identity, economic, social and religious problems are linked to this experience? How are these problems lived, individually, as a couple, as a family? From this experience, what meanings are attributed to parenthood, parentage, the desire to have children and family? These issues will be addressed through comprehensive interviews conducted in Ouagadougou with men and women confronted with infertility problems and using ARTs or wishing to do so.

The challenges of the research that includes this paper deal with the invisibility of infertility in a sub-Saharan African context, in other words, the observation that first, it is part of issues that fail to establish themselves as public health problems (Gilbert 2009) and second, that it is absent in social science literature. By proposing an analysis of the experience of women, men and couples confronted with infertility problems in this context, the aim is to contribute to the recognition of individual suffering and highlight a failing public and private health system that is taking a heavy toll on infertile women in their therapeutic treatment.

Tel Aviv-Mumbai-Tel Aviv: same-sex couples seeking parenthood in India

Sibylle Lustenberger, University of Berne

In Israel religious belonging remains a central category of citizenship. Laws concerning reproductive technologies such as the surrogacy law from 1996 are strongly informed by Orthodox rabbis’ kinship concepts (Kahn 2000, Shalev 1998, Weisberg 2005). A set of regulations secures that heterosexual Jewish couples bring into being children who are unequivocally Jewish themselves. The Israeli surrogacy law can therefore be understood as part of a policy seeking to reproduce the boundaries of the Jewish-Israeli collective.

Same-sex couples do not fit this narrow definition of family and have no access to surrogacy in Israel. Yet gay couples maintain that parenthood is a universal civil right and bypass their exclusion through surrogacy arrangements abroad. The proposed paper follows these couples to Mumbai, which has become a popular destination for surrogacy in recent years. After their children’s birth the couples spend three to five weeks in India. In this time they not only take on their new tasks as fathers. They are also occupied with the bureaucracy of disconnecting the children from India and turning them into Israeli citizens. The paper elaborates on the bureaucratic processes and the hurdles same-sex couples encounter when seeking recognition of their parenthood and citizenship for their children. It unveils the intricacies and ramifications of Israel’s contradicting surrogacy policy of enforcing narrow definitions of family inside the country and simultaneously outsourcing problematic cases.

Shia concepts of motherhood in the context of egg donation and surrogacy in Iran: towards an ontology of kinship

Shirin Garmaroudi Naef, University of Zurich

Iran has adopted a very permissive approach to the use of assisted reproductive technologies in infertility treatment; this is while complying with the laws and regulations regarding its appropriate use has mainly been influenced by Shia juridical moral concerns, particularly with regards to the status of the in vitro human embryo, adultery, incest, marriage, filiation and kinship relations. My research has examined the Iranian debates over assisted reproductive technologies through multi-sited-ethnographic fieldwork conducted since 2005 in Iran combined with a textual approach. While a wide range of opinions exists, many Shia religious authorities consider the use of donated eggs and surrogacy as legitimate infertility treatments, albeit only for heterosexual infertile married couples. In the case of egg donation and surrogacy, the majority of Shia opinion ascribes the maternity to the originator of the egg while some other ascribe it to the women who give birth to the child; and, some suggest that the child should be considered to have two real mothers (Garmaroudi Naef 2012). In this paper, I will primarily analyse these theological legal debates and focus on the concepts and forms of motherhood. By highlighting the dynamics of law, morality and religion, I will then address the social interpretations of this juridical permissibility of assisted reproduction by way of exploring the experiences of egg donation and surrogacy amongst either Iranian women or women from other Muslim-majority countries like Iraq and Afghanistan seeking infertility treatments in Iran. The theoretical aim of this paper is to develop an understanding of kinship as a grammar of social proximity - a way of thinking about kinship relations within a relational ontological framework.

Family, the state and (Post-)Islamist positions on sexuality and reproduction in contemporary Egypt

Bettina Dennerlein, University of Zurich

Controversies over how to 'protect' the family and how to regulate its social and reproductive functions have been a central part of state- and nation-building processes in Egypt (as elswhere in the region). Since the 'International Conference on Population and Development' held in Cairo in september 1994, the government as well as non state actors increasingly engage with transnational norms and population policies. This holds true for secular women's rights groups as well as for (Post-)Islamist currents. The paper will look into contemporary discussions on the family, sexuality and reproduction with a particular focus on religiously framed positions.

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