On Regeneration: The Once and Future Embryo

Mia Florin-Sefton //
I would suggest that cyborgs have more to do with regeneration and are suspicious of the reproductive matrix and of most birthing . . . we require regeneration, not rebirth, and the possibilities for our reconstitution include the utopian dream of the hope for a monstrous world without gender – Donna Haraway
My administration must decide whether to allow federal funds  . . . to be used for scientific research on stem cells derived from human embryos. A large number of these embryo’s already exist, they are the product of a process called in vitro fertilization George W. Bush


       In this summer’s issue of the Boston Review, aptly titled Once and Future Feminist, editor Merve Emre interrogates the role and promise of Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ARTs) toward dismantling hetero-patriarchal sex roles. This inquiry is prompted by what she diagnoses as the reigning discourse and “idiom of the natural” (19). A discursive regime, she argues, that persists despite the fact our contemporary “age of Silicon Valley” has borne witness to the exponential proliferation of ARTs, alongside the rapid propagation of (in)fertility markets. Emre’s close attention to the contested politics of language and desire in “our still limited fantasies about reproductive politics” (31) deliberately mirrors, and echoes, that of Donna Haraway. Haraway’s now seminal posthumanist and socialist techno-feminist work “A Cyborg Manifesto” repeatedly stresses the importance of understanding the role played by the figural, the semiotic and the metaphorical. For instance, in her now infamous challenge to what she terms the “informatics of domination” Haraway advocates for a switching of the terms: “reproduction < replication” (28). And, against the heteronormative logics of reproduction, she loudly proclaims: we require regeneration, not rebirth (67). Here I suggest that — to the contrary — the microscopic lens of the embryonic stem cell petri dish perfectly captures the workings of a culture responsible for the arranged marriage of these very same terms.

 Notably Haraway’s early commitment to “regeneration” or “replication” as powerful alternative models to “reproduction” came shortly after the first derivation of pluripotent mouse embryonic stem cells in 1981. This was a landmark development, now widely considered to be the public inauguration of stem cell research; i.e. when the promises of stem cell research first truly entered the social imaginary. In this early context the terms regeneration and replication undoubtedly conjured new models for breeding or cloning forms of non-human life; models that promised to deny sexual reproduction its status “as the only option rather than one kind of reproductive strategy” (Emre, 13). Unknown to Haraway, however, was the fact that seventeen years later a pair of scientists in California — funded by the private biotech company Geron — would go on to announce the creation of the first immortalized cell line derived from human embryonic stem cell lines. Most importantly, this research was conducted using cells from a frozen embryo and an aborted foetus; a development that was made possible only due to improvements in the culture medium for human embryos produced through in vitro fertilization (IVF). Arguably it was only after this particular watershed moment that the material realities and metaphorical economies of “regeneration” truly began to rapidly mutate.

  Embryonic stem cell lines have been the subject of extensive research, fervor and debate since their original conception. Derived from the undifferentiated mass cells of a human embryo during embryogenesis, ESCs are highly valorized within biomedical research because, unlike other stem cells, they are pluripotent. In colloquial terms, this means they are able to differentiate into any other cell type, and can proliferate endlessly. Or, as Melinda Cooper puts it, they are able to surpass and overcome “all limits to growth” (42). ESCs thereby promise to offer unprecedented access to tissues from the human body and the potential of unlimited tissues for transplantation therapies, able to treat a wide range of degenerative diseases or illnesses associated with aging. Thus, while originally they were only available for use in infertility treatments, the promise of new research on ESC lines now also fuels the burgeoning field of Regenerative Medicine. This is a relatively new branch of medicine most widely defined as “the process of creating living, functional tissues to repair or replace tissue or organ function lost due to age, disease, damage or congenital defects”. Given the realities of an “aging population” within a contemporary epoch also characterized by financialization, biopower and biocapital, it is perhaps no wonder that regenerative science is now — according to a widely cited report from Goldman Sachs — “one of the most compelling areas for venture investment”.  

  Nevertheless, feminist engagements with the, always, multifaceted, question of “reproduction” continue to neglect the extent to which our “age of Silicon Valley” continues to force these contested and ideologically laden terms into ever more pressing relation. For instance, in the Once and Future Feminist Emre remains solely wedded to the concept of “reproduction” as she seeks to confront “our still limited fantasies about reproductive politics” (31). Within this issue, her many interlocutors address several points of contestation that raise, collectively, the fraught problematics of bringing a feminist or queer techno materialism into a generative conversation with the questions raised by racial reproductive justice and biological colonialism. Amidst this lively, pertinent discussion there is little acknowledgement, however, of how these intercises of exploitation also demand an equal reckoning with the wider uses — both ideological and material — to which embryos and other forms of clinical labor are being put. All this despite the fact that our Silicon-Valley-age, thanks to the legacies of industrialization and the strident advances of biocapitalism, is also characterized by “plummeting birthrates and skyrocketing life expectancies” (Chappell, 97).

   By contrast the work of Melinda Cooper in Life as Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era masterfully examines the complex relation between regenerative medicine and reproductive technologies. Indeed, as she notes, in a post 9-11 world it is “easy to forget that the most explosive test confronting Bush in the early months was the issue of whether to provide federal funds for research on embryonic stem cells” (153). Indeed, Bush’s final decision surprised many when, on August 11, 2001, he declared that federal funds could be put towards research on embryonic stem cell lines that were already in existence as a result of IVF treatments. Thus, as a direct result of this legislation most of the embryos being used in embryonic stem cell research in the US still come from eggs that were fertilized at IVF clinics but never implanted in a human uterus. This, in part, accounts for why many of the key practitioners of IVF are now involved in stem cell science; and why “several new research centers  . . . have been specifically designed to bring IVF clinics and ES line derivation facilities together”; and why “the fortunes of IVF and stem cell science are also united by an intense and necessary traffic in tissues” (Cooper, 130)

  Here it is worth noting that while embryonic stem cells remain at the forefront of regenerative research agendas, such research is rooted firmly in the speculative and trial stages. This can be put in direct contrast to the verifiable success of treatments already derived from adult stem cells and other types of progenitor cells, such as those found in umbilical cord blood, the placenta, and other bioengineered cells. In no way do I want to detract from these remarkable achievements, as they have offered, and continue to offer, life-altering and life-saving treatments. Instead I simply want to stress that, given the continued enthusiasm, speculation and investment that surrounds the pluripotency of embryonic stem cells, this ever-more fecund industry provides yet another reason to evaluate the material and ideological means through which persons are routinely incentivized to join the growing market of fertility treatments; for instance, through becoming egg donors. Furthermore, I want to suggest that the continued expansion of regenerative medicine within a political climate also responsible for the cruel diminishment of welfare and healthcare provision, only gives added urgency towards confronting the discriminatory logics of reproductive labor, access and care. Given that these logics necessarily also subtend the material realities of a global “aging population” managed under the same technologies of biopolitical governance. To put it bluntly: under the regime of stem cell culture, for whom is “life” fostered, cultivated, improved, and prolonged?    

   Needless to say, debates concerning the various uses of embryonic stem cells – too often framed around the dyad of pro-life or pro-choice – continue to rage. However this year’s Once and Future Feminist is symptomatic of how pertinent debates centered around crucial questions of racial reproductive justice and the biological colonialism that makes possible ARTs nevertheless often fail to reckon with the indebted connections between reproductive and regenerative science. A concern that is especially pressing in the context of wider global demographic trends. This is to say that challenges to the promises of emancipation through, or mechanisms of exploitation behind, ARTs must necessarily confront the proliferation of resources, investments, and ideological mechanisms responsible for developments across the life sciences; as well as questions of social justice provoked by the emprical fact of racialized, classed and gendered populations “vulnerability to premature death” (Gilmore, 28). My challenge here concerns the fact that, when confronted with the dilemmas posed by ARTs and “feminism”,  too often our inquiries implicitly endorse the still too-easy conceptual isolation: life ≠ aging: reproduction ≠ regeneration. By contrast, I have hoped to suggest that reckoning with the myriad cycles and circuits of our contemporary bioeconomy necessitates a recognition, instead, of their total imbrication. This would be one glib answer to all once and future feminists: the chicken lays eggs, the egg breeds chickens. For this reason alone, Haraway’s naive call towards reconceptualizing reproduction as regeneration, requires redressing, and rehatching, now.

Works Cited

Cooper, Melinda E. Life as Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era. University of Washington Press, 2011.

Emre, Merve. “On Reproduction”. Once and Future Feminist, edited by Deborah Chasman and Joshua Cohen, Boston Review, 2018, pp. 7-32.

Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century”. Manifestly Haraway, edited by Donna Haraway and Cary Wolfe, University of Minnesota Press, 2016, pp. 5-68.  

Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. University of California Press, 2007.

Lanza, Robert, and Anthony Atala, eds. Essentials of Stem Cell Biology. Elsevier, 2005.

Menzel, Annie. “The Violence of the Natural”. Once and Future Feminist, edited by Deborah Chasman and Joshua Cohen, Boston Review, 2018, pp. 38-43.

Zoll, Miriam. “Selling Hope”. Once and Future Feminist, edited by Deborah Chasman and Joshua Cohen, Boston Review, 2018, pp. 61-66.

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