Biotechnology and Culture: Bodies, Anxieties, Ethics

By Paul E. Brodwin | Go to book overview

Chapter 6
An All-Consuming Experience
Obstetrical Ultrasound and the
Commodification of Pregnancy

JANELLE S. TAYLOR

The transformation of any society should be revealed by the
changing relations of persons to objects within it.

—-Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff,
“Goodly Beasts and Beastly Goods”

In the past twenty-odd years, a number of different prenatal diagnostic technologies have, with startling rapidity, gone from highly experimental to virtually routine medical procedures in the United States. Ultrasound, alphafetoprotein (AFP) blood screening, and amniocentesis, which may with varying degrees of accuracy detect a range of abnormalities and other health problems in the fetus, have become regular features of prenatal care for the majority of American women who enjoy access to any form of health care.1 In the context of ongoing conflicts over abortion, the routinization of prenatal diagnostic technologies has aroused concern from many quarters that embryos and fetuses are being reduced to the status of commodities. Feminists have voiced the further concern that women are, in the process, being reduced to the status of unskilled reproductive workers, who produce these valued commodities through their alienated labor.

In these responses to prenatal diagnostic technology, we may discern a number of related cultural anxieties about perceived threats to boundaries between persons and things—the intrusion of technology into the body; the incorporation of biological reproduction (of people) into the structures of industrial production (of things); and the specter of treating human beings as if they were commodities. These discussions are framed by two key assumptions: (1) that reproduction is best understood by analogy to production, and (2) that we can and should clearly distinguish persons from commodities.

In this essay, I draw upon an ethnographic study of obstetrical ultrasound (probably the most widely used of all the prenatal diagnostic technologies) to question these assumptions.2 The case of obstetrical

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