Incorporating Incest: Gamete, Body and Relation in Assisted Conception*

By Edwards, Jeanette | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Incorporating Incest: Gamete, Body and Relation in Assisted Conception*


Edwards, Jeanette, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


By the end of the 1990s in the UK, there was a general idea, promoted partly by academic and professional commentators and disseminated largely through mass media, that 'the public' used to be anxious about technologies of assisted conception--things like artificial insemination (AI), in-vitro fertilization (IVF), and the donation of gametes (ova and sperm)--but that such anxieties were no longer widespread. The message frequently conveyed was that 'the public' had become accustomed to new reproductive technologies (NRTs) and the research they required. Furthermore, it was argued, the same will happen with newer or more recently developed technologies such as ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection), cloning (or more precisely nuclear transfer technologies), or embryonic stem cell research. I was interested in how such a view was reached and on what evidence commentators based their opinion. This article is about the way in which residents of an English town explore ever-changing possibilities presented by NRTs. (1) It focuses on the way in which the concept of incest acts as a limit to certain possibilities. It is about the way in which a decade does and does not make a difference, and about how NRTs continue to be animated by kinship.

I first carried out residential fieldwork in 'Alltown', in the northwest of England, between 1987 and 1988, then in 1990, and again in 2000. (2) My aim in 2000 was to investigate yet again, ten years after my initial research on the topic, the ways in which residents make sense of developments in NRTs. I spoke again with people with whom I had worked previously, and I met and was 'passed-on' to others. (3) My focus in this article is on incest: not incest as a practice, or incest as a prohibition, but incest as a concept that places limits on certain technological procedures in reproduction. Incest emerged frequently and unexpectedly in my conversations in Alltown about NRTs. It came up as often in 2000 as it had in 1990, and was invoked in response to questions about the substitution of gametes (as in sperm and ova donation) and of wombs (as in surrogacy arrangements). It acts as a conceptual brake (a limit) to possibilities presented by biotechnological intervention in conception, but its meaning is neither fixed nor predictable and goes beyond an understanding of biogenetic connection and appropriate sexual relations even while embracing them.

Social anthropologists have contributed, at different times and from different perspectives, to debate on the origins and universality (or not) of 'the incest taboo'. Before turning briefly to some of those contributions, I outline some of the ways in which the idiom of incest emerges in Alltown with reference to NRTs.

(1) The possibilities presented by NRTs frequently provoke a general and generalized disquiet, not necessarily pinpointed, but given expression through the idiom of incest. 'It's all a bit incestuous' is a common response to my questions. The manipulation of gametes and embryos--'the messing about', as it is often called--and the movement of them between different bodies evoke an unspecified unease given form through the notion of incest.

(2) Many Alltown people with whom I have spoken about NRTs describe a scenario in which children born of gametes donated from the same person will meet up as adults and, not knowing they are related, fall in love, marry, and have children together. My sense is that it is the 'having of a child' which is at issue: the disquiet is, I suggest, more to do in this example with human reproduction than with human sexuality. Jean La Fontaine remarks that in the UK, '[u]nlike the sexual abuse of children, the idea of incest arouses no strong emotions: it is a distant and curious practice, not characteristic of known people, and therefore of little concern, mildly titillating perhaps but nothing to get excited about' (1990: 28). She makes the point that the way in which incest and marriage prohibitions are commonly inflated implies that incestuous relationships take place between mature persons and consenting adults, and consequently provoke no great anxiety. …

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