Posted: July 28, 2009
As an anthropologist Lynn M. Morgan’s professional as well as her natural curiosity was piqued when, over lunch several years ago, a colleague in the biological sciences department told her that there were more than a dozen human fetuses preserved in formaldehyde in a storage closet in the basement of Clapp Laboratory on the Mount Holyoke campus. She went to look and "yes, indeed, there were lots of jars on the shelves," said Morgan, Mary E. Woolley Professor of Anthropology.
That encounter set a course for Morgan’s research, which culminated with the publication this summer of her new book, Icons of Life: A Cultural History of Human Embryos, (University of California Press, 2009). "I wondered where they came from and very quickly I realized that this was a little outpost of a much larger collecting project," Morgan said. In fact, schools and hospitals all over the country had such collections and the Carnegie Institution of Washington Department of Embryology, based at Johns Hopkins University, amassed 10,000 such specimens during the first half of the twentieth century.
Morgan’s book delves into the impact that visual images of dead fetuses have had on the stories we tell ourselves about our origins as flesh-and-blood beings. Questions about what sometimes is called "the politics of life itself" have a long history in anthropology, Morgan said, "but they have never been asked this way before because we always think of our understandings as scientific truth." The central paradox she identifies is that the Carnegie project, which was the product of a particular period in the history of science, had the ancillary effect of elevating specimens of dead fetuses into icons of human life.
The book has implications for the abortion debate because "some people equate embryos and fetuses as inevitable human beings, and that’s just not reality," Morgan contends. "The biological reality is that between 30 and 50 percent of fertilized embryos die, often before women even know they are pregnant. The survival rate of fertilized embryos is not that high."
What she found is that "pictures and images that we see today of embryos and fetuses are in fact dead embryos and fetuses even though they are made to look alive," said Morgan. "That has implications for how we think about the status of embryos and fetuses and what they mean to us in a moral sense."
The book is intended for "anyone who is interested in health and reproductive ethics," Morgan said. "It is a piece of our history that has not been told before."
Some of the central ethical issues of our day revolve around boundaries of biology and things like stem cell research, cloning, and finding ways of creating and shaping life. By allowing her to show them in an earlier time through an anthropologist’s eye, Morgan hopes her readers will get a more nuanced view of the implications we draw from current debates.
"It’s the kind of story everybody can relate to on some level," she said. "And it will hopefully make people a little more open-minded about how we came to be where we are."