Art in the Freeze Frame: Some Reflections on Elective Oocyte Cryopreservation

By Sophie Zadeh

In October of last year, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine issued a report on oocyte cryopreservation – egg freezing – in which it was determined that the proven success and safety of the technique permitted the lifting of its official ‘experimental’ label. In this report, however, it was also argued that too little is yet known about the medical, financial, ethical, psychological, and emotional effects of ‘elective’ oocyte preservation for the Society to recommend its use.

‘Elective’ oocyte cryopreservation – often dichotomised with egg freezing for medical reasons – has since become something of a hot topic within both professional and public discourse on assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs). Defined by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority as a possibility for women who may be “concerned about [their] fertility declining as [they] get older, and are not currently in a position to have a child” (2), up-to-date ‘elective’ egg freezing techniques are available in fertility clinics across the UK to women wanting, so it is said, to ‘delay childbearing’ (3). Experts have testified to the efficacy of the technology – not least as a father’s graduation present to his daughter (4) – and users have spoken of the relief of not having to find Mr Right – right now (5) – through the use of this technique. Most recently, distinguished academic Professor Marcia C. Inhorn encouraged students to freeze their eggs in a news piece which received what might be deemed a rather icy reception (6, 7).

An initial US study of the motivations of 20 women who had undergone the treatment found that most had done so in order to ensure that they had taken advantage of ‘all reproductive opportunities’ available to them. Half of the women who took part in the study felt pressured to freeze their eggs as a result of their ticking ‘biological clock’ (8). Indeed, it has been said that egg freezing gives women a chance to buy themselves more biological time, and, particularly if used by women under the age of 35, may be an effective means to ‘having it all’ (9). Seen in this way, ‘elective’ egg freezing technology has the potential to eradicate the cohort that Marny Ireland described in 1993 as ‘transitional childless women’ – who have delayed making a decision about whether or not to have a child until it is too late (10).

It is clear that rumination over ‘elective’ oocyte preservation must now move beyond the arguments made by those in favour of its use, and those against it. As a feminist, my thoughts about this technology are not based upon a (dis)agreement with the decisions of individual women, but with how ‘elective’ egg freezing might relate to the condition of women as a social group (11). ‘Elective’ egg freezing technology is both emblematic and symptomatic of the twenty-first century motherhood mandate. At the heart of this lies a dualistic conception of acceptable womanhood and motherhood, contemporarily characterised by having it all – the career, the heterosexual relationship, and the biological child. This is problematic.

Commentary upon the changing nature of acceptable motherhood is, of course, not new. We know that in the UK in 2011, more mothers were working than ever before. We also know that the age at which women have their first child is now substantially later than it was in previous decades (12). And most fundamentally, we know that contemporary cultural narratives serve to reinforce these trends. Popular discourse undeniably advises us not only that there is a ‘right time’ to be a mother, but also that good mothering can only be done in the ‘right’ socioeconomic and demographic context (13). As Woollett and Boyle inform us,

“Motherhood is constituted not as normal and natural for all women, but only for those who are married or in stable heterosexual relationships, who are not ‘too old’ or ‘too young’, and who are in the ‘right’ economic and social positions.” (14)

This notion of acceptable motherhood is tied to appropriate womanhood in a conditional matrix which ideologically imposes the woman-as-mother mantra. Quite separate from this dominant discourse, however, are the experiences of women themselves. Research on the narratives of mothers of different socioeconomic and demographic backgrounds has demonstrated that mothers ambivalently appropriate the concept of the ‘right time’, as it is biologically, relationally, and psychosocially defined (15). Some mothers find it difficult to reconcile what has been described as the ‘right time’ (chronological age) with the ‘right moment’ (biographical stage) (16). In fact, it is argued that in the pursuit of parenthood, women might rather be choosing what seems to be the ‘least wrong time’ – rather than the ‘right time’ – to have a child (17). It is also apparent that the ‘right time’ concept permeates the narratives of women who do not mother (18). Most fundamentally, it has been argued that the concept of time may serve as a useful tool with which to understand women’s childbearing choices in the contemporary context of assisted reproduction (19). This argument, it seems to me, is crucial to understanding the relationship between ‘elective’ oocyte cryopreservation and the modern motherhood mandate.

Indeed, unlike many other ARTs, ‘elective’ oocyte cryopreservation offers the possibility of motherhood in the future, as opposed to motherhood at present. It seems, therefore, that beyond Martin’s concept of ‘anticipated infertility’, ‘elective’ egg freezing technology gives rise to the new ontological category of the ‘future mother’ (20). More than this, it seems that ‘elective’ egg freezing rigorously reinforces a particular type of future motherhood which, in my view, is problematic for women everywhere. The paradox at the centre of this technology therefore lies in its ostensible acknowledgement of the acceptability of non-motherhood, and its implicit subscription to a social discourse which ultimately deems it – and (biological) motherhood prior to the meeting of milestones such as the high-flying career and long-term heterosexual relationship – unacceptable.

In practical terms, however, little is yet known about the efficacy of this technology for the ‘right time’ mother so imagined – with estimates of just twelve live births in the UK resulting from the technique to date (21). Indeed, it seems that despite the media attention regarding the opportunity to ‘elect’ to freeze one’s eggs, women are not yet scrambling to use this service. Like other ARTs, it will be the users – or non-users – who set the agenda on ‘elective’ oocyte cryopreservation. Whether this will be in line with, or against, the twenty-first century motherhood mandate as yet remains to be seen.


    1. ASRM Office of Public Affairs (2012). Fertility experts issue new report on egg freezing; ASRM lifts experimental label from technique. Retrieved from
    2. HFEA (2013). Freezing and storing eggs. Retrieved from
    3. Negi, L. (2013). With thriving careers and highly disposable incomes, more women are taking the gamble of egg freezing as they climb the professional ladder or wait for Mr. Right. Mail Online, 9 January. Retrieved from
    4. McAuliffe, N. (2012). Egg freezing – for the woman who can never win. The Guardian, 27 November. Retrieved from
    5. Bannerman, L. (2012). I froze my eggs at 38. It’s my back-up plan. T2, The Times, 26 November, 6-7.
    6. Inhorn, M.C. (2013). Women, consider freezing your eggs. CNN, 9 April. Retrieved from
    7. Morgan, L.M. and Taylor, J.S. (2013). Op-Ed: Egg freezing: WTF? The Feminist Wire, 14 April. Retrieved from
    8. Gold, E., Copperman, K., Witkin, G., Jones, C., Copperman, A.B. (2006). P-187: A motivational assessment of women undergoing elective egg freezing for fertility preservation. Fertility and Sterility, 86, S201-S201.
    9. Inhorn, M.C. (2013). Women, consider freezing your eggs. CNN, 9 April. Retrieved from
    10. Ireland, M. S. (1993). Reconceiving women: Separating motherhood from female identity. New York: Guildford Press.
    11. Sandelowski, M. (1990). Fault lines: Infertility and imperiled sisterhood. Feminist studies, 16 (1), 33-51.
    12. Office for National Statistics (2011).  Mothers in the Labour Market, 2011. Retrieved from
    13. Allen, K. and Osgood, J. (2009). Young women negotiating maternal subjectivities: the significance of social class. Studies in the maternal, 1 (2), 1-17.
    14. Woollett, A. and Boyle, M. (2000). Reproduction, women’s lives and subjectivities. Feminism and Psychology, 10 (3), 307-311.
    15. Perrier. M. (2013). No right time: The significance of reproductive timing for younger and older mothers’ moralities. The Sociological Review, 61, 69-87.
    16. Sevon, E. (2005). Timing motherhood: Experiencing and narrating the choice to become a mother. Feminism and Psychology, 15 (4), 461-482.
    17. Perrier. M. (2013). No right time: The significance of reproductive timing for younger and older mothers’ moralities. The Sociological Review, 61, 69-87.
    18. Earle, S. and Letherby, G. (2007). Conceiving time? Women who do or do not conceive. Sociology of Health and Illness, 29 (2), 233-250.
    19. Ibid.
    20. Martin, L.J. (2010). Anticipating Infertility: Egg freezing, genetic preservation, and risk. Gender and Society, 24 (4), 526-545.
    21. Magee, A. (2012). Fertility miracle or cruel myth? Daily Mail, 7 November. Retrieved from


Sophie Zadeh is an ESRC-funded PhD student at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Family Research. Her research, supervised by Professor Susan Golombok, focuses on the experiences of single women who have used a sperm donor to have a child. She is most interested in social psychological approaches to assisted reproductive technologies and in the meaning of motherhood in changing sociocultural contexts.

Congratulations to Tabitha Moses

By Rebecca Baillie

Congratulations to visual artist Tabitha Moses, who was recently awarded the Liverpool Art Prize for a selection of work made on the theme of infertility. This blog entry serves as an interesting following piece to the suggestions made by Laura Seymour in a previous post: that we must think through IVF as ‘a multi-disciplinary phenomenon’, rather than as a solely de-personalised and medical process. In art, as in poetry discussed by Seymour, work is currently being made to creatively re-claim the experience of IVF beyond a clinical setting, and thus to open up the subject not only to individual contemplation, but also to public discussion.

After two unsuccessful attempts at IVF, Moses made three works, ‘Be My Parent’, ‘The Wish’ and ‘‘In Vitro I & II’. The first, ‘Be My Parent’, is a series of hand-stitched portraits of prospective sons and daughters from an adoption agency, protected and incased by white circular frames. ‘The Wish’ is a Duratrans print of childhood photographs of both the artist and her husband, merged together, and then mounted onto a light box to create the couple’s imaginary child. Finally, ‘In Vitro I & II’ are two delicate and mystical works, created simply, by piercing minute holes into pieces of dark grey card; they are again mounted onto light boxes where the tiny holes transform into a glowing constellation.

Of the series of hand stitched portraits, ‘Be My Parent’, Moses writes: “This series considers adoption as an alternative to ‘natural’ parenthood. Hand stitched images of prospective sons and daughters are obscured and somehow beyond reach. The title is taken from a national organization, which finds families for children who need them. This was a moving work to make. Leafing through the monthly ‘Be My Parent’ magazine is a strange thing to find oneself doing. You find yourself wanting to take every child home, wondering how you would fit into each others lives, how they might thrive in a loving family. Making those embroideries was something of a devotional act. As if it was the least I could do if I wasn’t going to adopt the children. In selecting which children to embroider I chose the ones I would most like to adopt. It felt weird and unpleasant to, seemingly, have such control over another person’s life and future.”

Of ‘The Wish’, the artist writes: ‘The Wish’ is a visualisation of elusive progeny. Childhood photos of the artist and her husband have been merged to create their imaginary offspring – exactly 50% mum and 50% dad.’

Finally, of  ‘In Vitro I & II’, Moses says: “These pieces relate to our two failed IVF attempts. Before the embryos are transferred to my uterus we see them on a digital screen, magnified hundreds of times. They looked like celestial objects floating in space. Here they are shown as the four-cell and eight-cell beings they were. According to the time of year we had each cycle, ‘In Vitro I’ has the Autumn night sky represented and ‘In Vitro II’, the Winter. Each piece was made by pricking cardboard with syringes used to deliver the IVF drugs. Nebulous thoughts come to mind, about matter, energy and the connectedness of everything in the universe.”

The use of the natural system of seasonal change to somehow ‘order’ such a profoundly emotional experience, recalls another recent work by Moses, that of ‘Islands of Blood and Longing’ made in 2010. The work was made in the days and weeks following a miscarriage. The artist writes: “Making this map was a way of making something beautiful and meaningful from the product of a seemingly meaningless occurrence. The stains of lost blood became islands which, in turn, became a chart to help me find my way. The phases of the moon counted the days while the compass brought order and direction.” Unlike a scientist though, Moses also points to the systematic rationality of the universe as a way to reveal the random and invisible landscape of interior emotions.

Moses often works in the revealing space between, where the often-considered disparate realms of art and science, do marry well together. Already demonstrated in the use of an IVF needle to pierce the card in ‘In Vitro I & II’, and in the use of miscarried blood to paint a new world, Moses uses the ‘stuff’ of science to illustrate the complexity of human existence.  In an earlier work of 2004, Moses hand bound a selection of found dolls using fabric, thread, human hair and other bits and bobs. The dolls were ‘mummified’, and in this sense representative of both the ‘mother artist’, and of a potential or imaginary child. Once complete, but interestingly three years later, in 2007, Moses carried the dolls to a neighboring hospital and asked the medical staff if the dolls could be x-rayed. The resulting x-rays became artworks themselves, poignantly revealing the pins that the artist had used to secure the fabric, and in turn the unconscious (I say ‘unconscious’ here as this was before the time that Moses started to try and have children) pain felt through longing for a ‘real’ child to behold. The point that I intend to stress here is that all of the works made by Tabitha Moses feel like births, that they are all, in a way, her children, like ‘The Dolls’, guided through the world long after the date of their conception.

I am, in fact, lucky enough to care for one of these dolls (to say ‘own’ here would be bad parenting). I first held ‘my’ doll two days after I had given birth to my son as my mother had bought it for me as a gift. The feeling that I felt with Moses’s lovingly swaddled doll cupped between two hands, although different, was one equal in intensity to that experienced upon meeting my newborn son.

As part of her prize, Tabitha Moses has been awarded a solo show at The Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool (dates to be confirmed). See more work by the artist at:


Rebecca Baillie is an art historian who has always practiced as an artist alongside conducting research and writing. Recently awarded a PhD, her academic specialism lies in the study of melancholia, surrealism and its legacies, and the maternal body in visual culture. In her artwork she uses photography, drawing and sculpture – whichever medium best supports the current idea. She is the curator of MaMSIE’s online ‘visual library’, and has published a variety of writings in the journal, Studies in the Maternal. She is currently a dissertation supervisor at Kingston University, as well as freelance writer and curator.

The Mother of the Nation

By Marianna Leite

Since Thatcher’s death, Thatcherism has received its fair share of attention from many quarters ranging from political commentators to academics. Two recent podcasts, ‘Thatcher’s Legacy: Thinking Psychosocially, across the Decades’ and ‘Thatcherism, Blairism and a Bad Week for Austerity’ discuss the symbolic significance of Thatcherism and the importance of moving beyond the contentious individual that was Margaret Thatcher towards the analysis of political and economic forces that sustain its rhetoric. Most commentators argue that Thatcherism means the use of discourse (as mere rhetoric) for the promotion of cuts, privatisation and widespread contempt for the poor. It resonates perfectly with the current politics of the coalition government as, in a rhetorical sense, it means shifting the mainstream political discussion from the ethical dimensions of austerity measures to moralistic values of socially constructed roles.

In symbolic terms, Thatcherism has been used to discredit feminism as a political project and to challenge the intrinsic value of women in power. Posthumous representations of Margaret Thatcher have created her as the ultimate feminist icon. For example, The Telegraph in an article entitled ‘Margaret Thatcher: ultimate feminist icon – whether she liked it or not’ argued that although Thatcher did not self-identify as a feminist, this rejection should not preclude her from being represented as a role model by those who do. This type of assertion is not only dismissive of notions of women’s needs but also of the theoretical constructions of feminism. When naming Thatcher as the face of modern femininity, Barnett’s article clearly ignores the fact that feminism is a social justice project aimed at the equality of outcomes for all men and women. Thatcherism purposefully exposed Thatcher to criticism in order to protect the corporate determinism embodied in the shift of paradigm performed by policies under her government. This did not always occur in a visible and transparent manner (and this is perhaps one of the main problems of its rhetorical appropriation). That is, Margaret Thatcher could be demonised as a leader and, most importantly, as a woman in power. Simultaneously, attempts to criticise the interests that upheld her in power were forcefully blocked.

The deconstruction of the symbolic meanings of Thatcherism reveals the discriminatory nature of capitalism. Thatcherism, as any other capitalist project, makes use of a political rhetoric that uses cultural images that rely on fear as one of the many instruments used to support a particular discourse and practice that increase economic dependency and the poverty gap. The capitalist project under Thatcher and now the neoliberal project under Cameron represent the continuity of an exclusive way of policy making and implementation that is run by an elite that is alienated and disconnected from reality. This policy praxis results in a lack of commitment to people’s experiences and needs and in a discriminatory and delusional perception of the reasons and the purpose of programmatic targeting and retrenchment.

Thatcherism subjugates the feminine and feminist aspirations and choices. It fails to view power as gendered even though it is clear that the fact that Margaret Thatcher was a woman made it easier for her to get away with intrusive discriminatory capitalist policies. For instance, Lynne Segal’s podcast notes that Thatcher’s exercise of sovereign power was more forceful than those of preceding male prime ministers. Thatcherism therefore relates to femininity in terms of masculinity, i.e. feminist demands and challenges to unequal gender regimes are always seen in negative terms. And, it defines society as a conglomerate of individualistic values and interests, thereby missing the point on the ethical dimensions of the social contract and of society itself. Ethical values become intertwined with morals making it absolutely impossible to identify the instrumental use of femininity for masculine purposes.

Thatcher has often been depicted by Conservatives as the mother of the nation. Motherhood is used in this sense in authoritative terms as a form of representation of women’s predominant and conforming roles and their bounded devotion to a heterosexual male-dominated family. This re-emphasises the male/female relationship in terms of the nature/culture binary by oversimplifying a spectrum of gendered experiences, disregarding other social categories that impact over women’s and men’s lives and creating artificial groups that are incapable of translating highly transient definitions such as womanhood and motherhood.

The mythmaking of Margaret Thatcher since the rise of the coalition government (reaching its climax at her funeral) is a conservative political strategy. It depoliticises political and economic discourses sustaining and/or rejecting Thatcherism while instrumentalising the image of Thatcher. It instrumentalises the figure of Margaret Thatcher in a way that is offensive to those who suffered and/or were opposed to the policies implemented under her government as well as to the individual memory Margaret Thatcher herself. It fails to expose the political rhetoric sustaining Thatcherite policies which undermine any democratic attempts to openly deconstruct and challenge these same policies as well as the symbolic meanings associated with them. In the end, we must ask ourselves if women are always to be used as scapegoats for permissive, individualistic and discriminatory economic policies that only serve to advance profit-seeking behaviour and a pathological ideal of a heterosexual and male-dominated nuclear family.


Lynne Segal, Thatcher’s Legacy: Thinking Psychosocially, across the Decades, 29 April 2013, Podcast available at

Tom Clark, Thatcherism, Blairism and a Bad Week for Austerity, The Guardian, 18 May 2013, Podcast available at

Emma Barnett, The Telegraph, Margaret Thatcher: ultimate feminist icon – whether she liked it or not, 8 April 2013, available at


Marianna Leite is an AHRC SSHP Research Studentship award holder completing her PhD in Development Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London, under the supervision of Dr. Jasmine Gideon and co-supervision of Dr. Penny Vera-Sanso. She uses a Foucauldian discourse analysis to explore the significant shifts in maternal mortality reduction policies over the past decades in Brazil. This research is the extension of the work she conducted as a visiting scholar at the International Gender Studies Centre at the University of Oxford. She is the editor of MaMSIE’s blog as well as in charge of referencing and style for Studies in the Maternal. She also co-organised the Gender and Development research group held at Birkbeck and IOE and is an active member of the Latin American Gender & Social Policy research group co-hosted by UCL and Birkbeck. Before joining MaMSIE, she worked in international development, at various instances, for INTERIGHTS, ActionAid and the Center for Reproductive Rights. Marianna can be contacted at

The Sins of the Mother

By Fran Bigman

In November 2011, I was surprised—probably naively—to see a familiar plot playing out in an episode of my mother’s favourite TV show, the acclaimed Parenthood. The show features four adult siblings and their children; one of the siblings, Adam, has a pre-teen son, Max, with Asperger’s syndrome.

In this episode, ‘Missing,’ Adam’s wife Kristina has made the agonising decision to return to work after having an unplanned third child. The moment she does, Max goes missing. Adam rushes home after getting a call from Max’s sister, who was forced into babysitting. He calls Kristina 26 times, but she’s in a meeting, and there are shots of her phone lying ignored on her desk while her disoriented son makes his way through San Francisco. The show has won plaudits for its depiction of Asperger’s, but here it emphasizes his mother’s negligence.

I had noticed this pattern before in midcentury films—woman ‘neglects’ her family, either by working or having an affair (or both), and her child suffers in a manner cruelly calibrated to the magnitude of her ‘sin’. In Brief Encounter (1945), Laura almost has an affair and returns home to find her son sick. In Mildred Pierce (also 1945), the title character is busy opening a restaurant after kicking out her cheating husband. After work one day, an investor in the restaurant invites her over, and the scene fades out with them kissing. Mildred returns home to find her younger daughter dying of pneumonia; since her husband couldn’t reach her, he brought the child to his mistress. The girl’s death intensifies Mildred’s commitment to her only remaining child, spoiled Veda. This subplot is handled similarly in the 1941 James M. Cain novel and 2011 television mini-series.

I had also traced this mother-punishment plot back as far as Aldous Huxley’s 1928 novel Point Counter Point, in which Elinor Quarles contemplates an affair with a British Fascist, Everard, to spite her withdrawn, intellectual husband. Huxley does not allow her to feel lust, stressing that when Everard kisses Elinor, ‘she felt herself turning cold and stony.’ On the day she decides to go through with the affair, she learns via telegram that her young son Phil is ill. As she rushes to his bedside, she thinks, ‘The choice had been made for her…at poor little Phil’s expense… She reproached herself for not having realized that he was working up for an illness.’ Huxley excruciatingly details little Phil’s end:

The child began to scream…like the scream of a rabbit in a trap. But a thousand times worse…She felt as though she too were trapped…by that obscure sense of guilt, that irrational belief (but haunting in spite of its irrationality)…that it was    all…her fault, a punishment, malevolently vicarious…

The details themselves come from a story of real mother-guilt; Huxley borrowed them from his friend, the writer Naomi Mitchison, whose son died in 1927 from meningitis. In a 1979 memoir, Mitchison wrote, ‘I still wince…thinking if I had taken more trouble at the beginning when he first got ear-ache.’

Parenthood demonstrates that this plot hasn’t gone away, just softened. In the 1920s, thinking about adultery was enough to get your child ‘killed off’. In the 1940s, it depended on whether the woman went through with it. In ‘Missing,’ the child is safely returned, as in another contemporary depiction, Lucy Caldwell’s novel The Meeting Point (2011). Ruth moves with her missionary husband, Euan, to Bahrain, where she begins an affair with a nineteen-year old. She has decided to run off with him when one day, in order to see him, she leaves her young daughter with Noor, a teenage neighbor, not realizing that Noor knows of the affair. Noor kidnaps her daughter, leaving an accusatory note. Although the child is recovered safely, the episode is used to moralistic ends; Ruth realises her husband and child ‘are all that matters.’

In ‘Missing,’ adultery is displaced onto working as a reason for the mother’s absence, but these two ‘sins’ continue to coexist in contemporary depictions of negligent mothers. Alice Munro’s new story, ‘To Reach Japan,’ both colludes in and challenges the mother-punishment plot, but the enduring image is that of the abandoned child. Greta, the married mother of said abandoned child (Katy) and an aspiring poet, meets a journalist at a literary party in Toronto and can’t stop thinking about him. On a train with Katy to Toronto, where they will stay while her husband Peter travels for work, Greta leaves her daughter alone and asleep to have sex with a younger man she has just met on the train. She returns to find the child missing and panics, fearing death and kidnappers, but soon finds Katy between the train cars.

One could imagine a child being pleased at the adventure, but Katy is a moral register; she says, ‘You smell a bad smell.’  Greta thinks that if someone else had found her, ‘she would have been spared the picture she had now, of Katy…helpless…Not crying, not complaining, as if she was just to sit there forever and there was to be no explanation…no hope.’ Greta chastises herself:

Even before the useless, exhausting, idiotic preoccupation with the man in Toronto, there was…the work of poetry…That struck her now as another traitorous business—to Katy, to Peter, to life. And now, because of the picture in her head of Katy alone…that was something else she, Katy’s mother, was going to have to give up…a sin.

In the end, Greta is met at the station by ‘the man in Toronto’ (the journalist from the party); when he kisses her, initially she feels shock, but then ‘an immense settling.’ This could be read as a challenge to the standard line: Greta will leave her dull husband who does not take literature seriously for an intellectually stimulating relationship with a journalist. She will be able to have a fulfilling love life with a man who is not the father of her child; she will be able to have a life outside the home as a poet, and yet this will be compatible with motherhood and the health and wellbeing of her child. Earlier in the story, in fact, Greta seems to directly criticize the sins-of-the-mother plot. Reflecting on the early 1960s, when the story is set, she says that, at this time, ‘having any serious idea, let alone ambition…could be seen as suspect, having something to do with your child’s getting pneumonia.’  Yet it seems impossible for the story to free itself from the trappings of the sinning-mother plot. The image of Katy alone and helpless stays with the reader, as well as Greta, and the story ends with an ambivalent image of the little girl: when the journalist kisses Greta, ‘she was trying to hang on to Katy but at this moment the child pulled away….She didn’t try to escape. She, Katy, just stood waiting for whatever had to come next.’


Fran Bigman is a PhD candidate at Peterhouse, Cambridge, in the Faculty of English, researching abortion in British literature from 1907 to the liberalisation of UK abortion law in 1967. She is currently working on abortion as a male turning point in male-authored narratives from Harley Granville-Barker’s 1907 play Waste – one of the earliest mentions of abortion in British literature – to the four different versions of Alfie radio play, stage play, novel, and Michael Caine film – produced between 1962 and 1966. Another chapter focuses on the 1930s writings of Naomi Mitchison, a birth-control-clinic volunteer and novelist who was ambivalent about both birth control and abortion.

IVF as Folklore: How Poetry Can Reclaim Maternal Selfhood

By Laura Seymour

Leaflets and other official sources of information about IVF refer to it largely in biological and medical terms: the surgery, the laboratory, the ‘procedure’. But the ways in which men and women introspect IVF do not tend to take this purified medical form, where the body, or the self, is seen as a totally surgical, medical entity. Though often encouraged by the media to view medical evidence as the most objective way to see themselves (as diseased, as at risk, as ‘due for a check up’, and as bearers of symptoms and other medical signs and meanings), healthcare and fertility treatments are also experienced as affective, political, economic, historical, ethical, psychological, and aesthetic. This blog post is partly a recommendation of an incredibly beautiful book, and partly an exploration of the way in which that book’s language-use exposes the intertwining of science with the social and personal that IVF involves.

Julia Copus’ new book, The World’s Two Smallest Humans (Faber and Faber, 2012), which is currently on the shortlist for the prestigious TS Eliot prize, shows how poetry can help to think through IVF as a multi-disciplinary phenomenon. In Copus’ poem sequence entitled ‘Ghost’, the speaker recounts her experience of IVF, emphasising the incongruous, sometimes claustrophobic, medicalised settings in which she finds herself having to interact with people (however friendly) she half-knows. Copus’ poems recapture this experience from the viewpoint of an emotional, rational, ethical, human subject. They often have a sense of healing, of using poetry to reclaim experiences which at the time were abruptly medical, not personal enough. The poems redefine the medical setting, blending and tangling the technologies and discourses of surgery with those of folklore and emotion.

In her poem ‘Phone’, for instance, the speaker is told that she has seven embryos available for implantation, and pointedly uses traditional folkloric imagery as a counterpoint to what is often seen as its polar opposite: the latest developments in science:

Seven’s a very good number,

the voice goes on, as if it were only referring

to the lucky number of folklore and romance –


seven brides for seven beaming brothers

instead of a fragile clutch of embryos,

their fine net veils lifting in the breeze

The way that Copus allows the folkloric image of ‘seven brides for seven brothers’ to seep beautifully into the image of the embryos in the laboratory is typical of her poems’ powerful blending of different conceptual categories. She creates a yearning, proleptic suggestion of the embryos already grown and ready to marry in their ‘fine net veils’. At the same time, she registers the incongruity that her embryos are outside of her womb before they have been born, amplifying this by suggesting that they are even outside in the open air, affected by a ‘breeze’. Copus mingles the practices and discourses of medicine with more commonplace imagery of fertility, too. In ‘At the Farmer’s Inn’, she describes IVF as a form of harvesting:

the seed, the eggs

they harvested at noon with the consummate needle,

drawing them off like tiny, luminous pearls

from the sea of her body

And yet these ‘pearls’ perhaps indicate a harvest more costly than that which occurs almost unthinkingly with the seasons, and one which is more difficult to attain. Imagery of the female body as the sea is not new, and yet it seems new when Copus evokes it, because of the ways in which her poems re-invent the landscape, that which is ‘outside’. For the speaker, in undergoing IVF, her reproductive processes are expanded far beyond the limits of her body, to laboratories ‘fifty miles from here’ (as she puts it earlier in ‘At the Farmer’s Inn’), and to other people’s hands. As with her vision of her embryos left in the great outdoors with its ‘breeze’, the speaker’s imagery of her body as a landscape (here, a sea, elsewhere, she is a constellation, or experiences ‘the quiet expanse of bed like a field behind her’) arguably reflects this expansion of her privacy into a wider realm.

Rather than being a jumble of human limbs, making babies for the speaker is a somewhat post-human process, where limbs jumble with limb-like, quasi-human medical instruments. ‘Inventory for a Treatment Room’, for example, describes this mix of technology and humanity thus:

A lamp on a long, extend-

able limb;

one purple treatment chair, whose empty

purple arms reach out

for her

The lamp has a limb (which cranes and extends, with a subtle formalism characteristic of Copus, across the enjambed line), and the chair reaches out to hug the speaker (perhaps the shortening of the lines, with a similar attention to form, suggests a drawing-close, a hug). Technologies interpose between humans, as well as kindly support and become a naturalised part of the speaker’s reproductive processes. This is somewhat of a preoccupation of these poems. ‘The Enormous Chair’ evokes the fantastic positions in which reproduction can be achieved with another mix of humans and implements. The eponymous chair seems a normal chair:

except that it’s purple,

except that it’s the size of a house,

except that instead of arm-rests

there are leg-rests…

she’s invited now to recline

legs akimbo

But Copus’ greatest re-envisioning of the medicalised self through incongruous metaphor is arguably that which gives the collection its title. In the poem ‘Egg’, the speaker compares her embryologist to:

one of the girls

serving on the bakery at Sainsbury’s –

except instead of iced buns she is carrying

the world’s two smallest humans, deftly clinging

to the edge of her pipette, the brink of being.



Laura Seymour is a third year Shakespeare Studies PhD student at Birkbeck College, University of London and currently holds the Louis Marder scholarship at Shakespeare’s Birthplace. Her poems appear in several magazines (most recently ‘Iota’), her first collection of poems is ‘Herb Robert’ (Flarestack, 2010), and her collection due in early 2013 is entitled ‘All the metals we tried’.

Beyond the Biological: How Arts are Redefining the ‘Maternal’ Relationship

By Katie Hammond

In employing the term ‘maternal’ we are often referring to a ‘maternal instinct, ‘bond’ or ‘relationship’ – this last being my intended use. A quick Internet search reveals the maternal relationship to be a bond between a mother and her child. The relationship is typically thought to be continuous in its development, with its foundation beginning in pregnancy and childbirth.

The maternal relationship is an important one. We need only look to examples of other non-human animals (mammals, amphibians, birds, fish, reptiles, invertebrates, etc.) to understand its importance, if nothing else, for survival. Think of, for instance, the elephant mother. After 22 months of pregnancy she gives birth to a baby elephant: blind and dependent. The biological mother and the other female elephants in the group, called ‘allmothers’, care for the child until it can care for itself. For humans, the maternal relationship has been shown to lay the groundwork for social, emotional and cognitive development. As such, the maternal relationship has often been accorded a certain sacred status in society.

As the use of assistive reproductive technologies (ARTs), and the practice of adoption, proliferate; they challenge our existing conception of the ‘maternal relationship’ forcing us to re-visit our assumptions and re-engage with our existing conception.

ARTs are technologies that assist in achieving and monitoring a pregnancy – one of the most common being in vitro fertilization (IVF). The use of egg donors means that intended mothers can now carry babies that are not their own genetic child; in addition surrogates can carry an intended mother’s genetic child (gestational surrogacy), or non-genetic child (traditional surrogacy). Surrogacy arrangements, in particular, challenge our conception of the maternal relationship as a bond with its foundations in pregnancy and childbirth.

Partially an attempt to protect this birth mother-child bond, in the UK when a surrogate gives birth she has an absolute right to change her mind. In the past 20 years, however, there have only been two reported cases of surrogates seeking to keep the baby that was not theirs. Studies on the experience of surrogate mothers have largely found that surrogates do not possess an overwhelming maternal bond with the child they carry. In my own research speaking with egg donors and surrogates, many women describe themselves as partakers in the process of helping intended parents achieve their goal of a baby, not as possessing a maternal bond with the child. Importantly, surrogate or adoptive children are able to have strong maternal bonds with their non-birth mothers. The maternal relationship is then perhaps not as dependent on the biological (pregnancy and childbirth) basis as its definition suggests.

The use of ARTs is also contributing to a growing number of single and same-sex parents. If the maternal bond is as sacred as the status it has been accorded, then what of the children of for instance same-sex male partners? (And on that note, what of the children raised solely by their father for various reasons including maternal death?) Are they all emotionally and cognitively deprived? The answer is no. Perhaps this is because the paternal bond can substitute as a replacement for the maternal bond? Or, perhaps the maternal relationship (or at least elements of this relationship) is not limited to one between a child and the female sex.

Returning to the example of non-human animals, let us look for instance at the example of Marmosets – Marmoset fathers lick their newborns, as their mother recuperates from the pregnancy, and then feeds and carries them. Other examples include male penguins that watch over the fertilized eggs going months without food, or the Hardhead catfish that carries around the fertilized eggs in his mouth also foregoing meals. Facets of these relationships: nurturing, caring, gentleness, and being the prime caregiver, are all qualities attributed to the maternal relationship. When we speak of the maternal relationship we are perhaps referring to a set of traditionally feminine characteristics that are in fact possessable by both male and female. If that is the case, then a maternal bond is thus not necessitated by the relationship between a child and a particular biological sex: female.

It is important to clarify that I am not arguing that the maternal relationship does not hold extraordinary meaning. To do so would be to disregard a history of evidence of its importance among humans and non-humans. Most importantly, it would disregard the significant relationship that many women – as the primary caregivers – develop with their children. This is not my intention.

My wish is to highlight how the rising use of ARTs is re-shaping our existing framework of reproduction and parenthood. The use of ARTs is providing new sociological evidence that challenges the existing conception of the maternal relationship as having a basis in biology. Whether this will have a positive or negative impact is yet to be seen.


Katie is a Cambridge Commonwealth Scholar studying for a PhD in Sociology at the University of Cambridge under the supervision of Professor Sarah Franklin. She is interested in the regulation of assistive reproductive technologies (ARTs). Her focus is on the experience of Canadian egg donors and intended parents, and the role of the Canadian ART legislation surrounding egg donation. Her current research is an extension of work that she conducted for her MPhil in Multi-Disciplinary Gender Studies at the University of Cambridge as a Gates Cambridge Scholar. She is also a member of the Cambridge Interdisciplinary Reproductive Forum and on the directing committee of the 2013 Global Scholars Symposium.




Fictional Pregnancies Before and After the Test

By Jesse Olszynko-Gryn

Today, home pregnancy tests are cheap and ubiquitous. For countless women, these over-the-counter retail products mediate between the uncertainty of a missed period and the potentially life-changing decision either to prepare for motherhood or to seek an abortion. As artist Tracey Emin put it in her 2000 installation Feeling Pregnant, ‘I go to the bathroom, knowing that within three minutes my life might never be the same again’ (p.164). However, rapid and easy-to-use home tests have only existed since the 1980s. Before then, as now, many women first suspected they were pregnant when they recognized one of the more telltale signs: a missed period, morning sickness, sore breasts. Quickening the feeling of the first fetal movements in the fourth or fifth month of pregnancy, was typically interpreted as a sign that the fetus was alive and well, but most women would have already determined they were pregnant well before the baby started to kick. The earliest pregnancy tests involved injecting laboratory animals (mice, rabbits, toads) with a woman’s urine, and were first offered by doctors in the late 1920s. This exclusively medical service was not widely publicized and most women would not have known about pregnancy tests until after World War II, when the NHS and Family Planning Association expanded the range of pregnancy-testing services on offer. By the 1960s, commercial labs were marketing pregnancy tests directly to women.

Laboratory technicians in the early 1950s preparing urine specimens and toads (Xenopus laevis) at the NHS pregnancy diagnosis centre in Watford. The day’s test tubes, syringes and a glass jar litter the work surface and large holding tanks for the toads are shelved in the background. Photographs kindly provided by Audrey Peattie.

Figure 1

That said, in the absence of a test, early pregnancy was, and still is, an ambiguous and uncertain time. It was nearly impossible to tell a late period from an early miscarriage and many women took ‘female pills’ or other measures to restore menstruation, or ‘bring it on.’ Many novels that dramatize pregnancy and abortion or motherhood, include fictionalized accounts of the experience of early pregnancy. Here, I have chosen to present one novel from the 1930s and one from the 1960s to suggest how the experience of early pregnancy changed, but also stayed the same, after laboratory pregnancy tests became increasingly accessible to women.

Olivia, the déclassée heroine of Rosamond Lehmann’s The Weather in the Streets (1936), begins to worry as soon as her period is a few days late:

I was happy…till I got worried. Even after that of course; because, of course, there’s no need to worry. Six, seven days late…I’m worried. But it’s happened once before, the first year Ivor and I were married; over a week then, I was beginning to be sure—but it was a false alarm….That was in August too—so I expect it’s the time of year, I’m sure I’ve heard it does happen sometimes; or all that long cold bathing, lake water’s very cold, that might easily account for it…I’m worried. Falling for one, Mrs. Banks calls it. ‘When I fell for our Doris…’ I feel a bit sick. Train-sick, I expect. I’ve never been train-sick in my life. This morning when I got up, suddenly retching as I began to wash….Nerves. Lying down like this I feel fine. Be all right tomorrow. Sleep. Thank God for lying down, a sleeper to myself. Supposing I’m sick when I get up to-morrow….That would clinch it. No, it wouldn’t. A long journey like this often upsets people (pp. 228-9) (ellipses in original).

Olivia’s pregnancy wasn’t planned and her reaction to amenorrhea and nausea is profoundly ambivalent. She recognizes the telltale signs for what they are and at the same time rationalizes them away in terms of the weather and train sickness. Although she has no way of knowing for certain one way or another, she is clearly lying to herself about something she knows deep down to be true.

Laboratory technicians in the early 1950s preparing urine specimens and toads (Xenopus laevis) at the NHS pregnancy diagnosis centre in Watford. The day’s test tubes, syringes and a glass jar litter the work surface and large holding tanks for the toads are shelved in the background. Photographs kindly provided by Audrey Peattie.

Figure 2

Thirty years on, a woman in Olivia’s position would probably have heard about a test for pregnancy and might also have the option of taking a urine specimen to a laboratory. Val, the trapped narrator of Andrea Newman’s The Cage (1965), remembers something she had read ‘in women’s magazines in the far-off days when the subject had been merely interesting’ and tells her boyfriend Malcolm, ‘I think you can have some kind of test with animals when you’re a fortnight late’ (p.20). A few days later she rings up for the test result, which is ‘positive’ just as she ‘had known it would be.’ Although the laboratory warns her that the result ‘was not absolutely conclusive, just almost’, she ‘knew anyway.’ So why did she bother getting tested in the first place? Val had been college-bound until the prospect of pregnancy threatened to tie her down to a man she didn’t love, so she ‘had really only had the test to stop Malcolm from making [wedding] plans for another week’ (p.28).

Olivia’s wishful denial and Val’s fatalistic acceptance of their unplanned and unwanted pregnancies provide before and after snapshots spanning three decades. By the 1960s, pregnancy testing had changed from being a highly unusual experience to a more commonplace one. The availability of tests certainly transformed how many women experienced a missed period and morning sickness, but it did not eliminate all the ambiguity and uncertainty of early pregnancy. On the contrary, it seems to have added further layers of ambiguity. Val’s test was not 100% reliable and, in any case, she was already resigned to her fate. Her decision to get tested had more to do with delaying the inevitable than finding out at the earliest possible moment, an option that is no longer offered by today’s three-minute home tests.


Emin, Tracey. Strangeland. London: Sceptre, 2005.

Lehmann, Rosamond. The Weather in the Streets. London: Virago, 1986. Originally published:London: Collins, 1936.

Newman, Andrea. The Cage. London: Penguin, 1978. Originally published: London: Blond, 1966.

Figures: Laboratory technicians in the early 1950s preparing urine specimens and toads (Xenopus laevis) at the NHS pregnancy diagnosis centre in Watford. The day’s test tubes, syringes and a glass jar litter the work surface and large holding tanks for the toads are shelved in the background. Photographs kindly provided by Audrey Peattie (right in figure 1 and centre in figure 2).


Jesse Olszynko-Gryn is a third-year Ph.D. student in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge, funded by the Wellcome Trust and a member of the ‘Generation to Reproduction’ team: He researches the history of pregnancy testing in twentieth-century Britain and collects novels like The Weather in the Streets and The Cage. Please send any suggestions of pregnancy novels, and memoirs, biographies, plays, or films, to

Rebirth for the Royals

By Charlotte Knowles

In The Human Condition Hannah Arendt makes a distinction between the fact of physical birth and the fundamental significance of natality. Natality is not contiguous with the event of physical birth, but is a kind of ‘second birth’, occurring when we enter the public and political sphere. Natality is characterised by ‘uniqueness, action, politics and plurality’ and the capacity to bring about something new. Arendt argues that ‘the human condition of natality; the new beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity of beginning something anew, that is of acting’.

However, with the pregnancy of Kate Middleton this separation between birth and natality is called into question, and the connection between newness and action is complicated. The imminent child has seemingly entered the public and political sphere before its symbolic entrance into the world as an independent actor, and even prior to its physical birth. The possibility of ‘newness’ associated with the child, seems not to be rooted in action, as Arendt argues, but simply in the idea of the child; with this possibility of ‘newness’ attaching itself not only to the individual, but to the wider royal family as an institution. Thus begging the question whether the mere idea of this impending birth can serve to reinvigorate and renew the institution of monarchy as a whole.

With the royal wedding of Kate and William in Spring 2011, there was a sense – or at least an attempt to convey the sense – that the monarchy had been rejuvenated: rebranded with the smiling faces of a young couple and a bank holiday to celebrate. The monarchy had a glamorous new image that made us forget the fact that Charles has a man to squeeze the toothpaste on to his toothbrush, or that Harry thought it was appropriate to dress up as a Nazi. The public had a real life Cinderella story – or so it was sold to us – and with it the monarchy had another chance at life. The subsequent announcement of an imminent royal baby only goes further to promote this image in the public consciousness – an actual birth surely being the perfect vehicle for a literal rebirth – but does this narrative really ring true when we consider Arendt’s account of natality and birth; can the monarchy be reborn through the birth of this child, or as Arendt suggests, does true newness only accompany the entrance of the individual into the political sphere?

In a sense, it seems that the expectation of this birth has gone someway to reinvigorate and renew the monarchy. There has been much made in the press of the decision to revise the rules of succession so that regardless of the child’s sex it will automatically become third in line to the throne. This is, indeed, a welcome revision to anyone who is not from the 13th Century. The expected arrival of this child as a unique individual has then, arguably, had an impact on the political sphere; with the reform having received final consent from the commonwealth nations only a day after the announcement of Kate’s pregnancy. The succession to the Crown Bill will now be introduced in the House of Commons at the ‘earliest opportunity’ in the parliamentary calendar, so that, as Nick Clegg put it: “if it is a baby girl, she can be our queen.”  But can this reform really be attributed to the imminent birth of this royal child and as such count under Arendt’s conception of what it is to be a unique individual; does this really count as a renewal? Although the reform was not caused directly by the child’s actions and thus does not meet Arendt’s criteria of newness in this sense, it can be seen as a response to the possibility that the baby may be a girl, and that presumably the public would not accept that this fact alone would discount the child from one day becoming head of state. However, this perhaps says more about modern society, than it does about the changing culture of the royals, due to the fact that this reform was instigated not as a direct result of royal ‘decree’, but instead is a political and constitutional change for Britain and the commonwealth nations, originating in parliament. Indeed, does the fact that this rule of male succession, still in place in Autumn 2012, not tell us more about the institution of the monarchy than its imminent repeal?

The treatment of Kate in the press since the news of her pregnancy emerged, less than 24 hours ago at the time of writing, has revealed similarly regressive attitudes with regard to the role of women in the royal family. With the Guardian announcing that: ‘During her pregnancy, it is likely the duchess will be attended to by the Queen’s gynaecologist, who is currently Alan Farthing, the former fiancé of the murdered television presenter Jill Dando’. The absurdity and irrelevance of whether Kate’s gynaecologist is or is not the former fiancé of Jill Dando aside, the mere fact that this information has been reported suggests that Kate is being treated more as a mere ‘vehicle’ for our next head of state, rather than an individual who has decided to start a family. This is reiterated when the pregnancy is cast a few lines later as a symbolic gesture – a final hurrah in the jubilee celebrations: ‘The pregnancy will be seen by royal aides, and fans, as an appropriate and fitting end to the Queen’s diamond jubilee year.’

The concern from the outset, then, seems to have been with Kate’s womb. There has been a great focus in the media on whether she was, and when she would become pregnant, with one magazine reportedly speculating ‘whether her recent adoption of a flick-fringe hairstyle was indicative of an imminent announcement’. With these kind of narratives surrounding the royals, and with Kate’s hair getting more media attention than her views on the role of the royal family in modern day life, it seems impossible that the birth of this child can do anything more than propagate fairytale-esque myths of princes and princesses, wrapped up in patriarchal views about a woman’s role in society.

It is impossible for the institution of monarchy to appropriate the newness and uniqueness Arendt sees as accompanying birth in its physical and symbolic form, as newness and uniqueness comes not merely through the birth of an individual, but through his or her subsequent actions in the public realm, and thus cannot be appropriated by an institution merely by association. We should, therefore, not be fooled into swallowing the line that the monarchy has been reborn for the 21st Century, regardless of whether it has a fresh new face in the form of Kate and William, or is celebrating an actual birth with the arrival of the couple’s first child. Instead we should continue to question the outdated institution that looms large over our country and bolsters received notions of hereditary privilege, class inequality and appears to view women as little more than two legged wombs.


Charlotte Knowles is a Ph.D. student in Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London. She works on Heidegger and feminist philosophy and her thesis is an exploration of Heidegger’s conception of Freedom in relation to theories of autonomy and the question of feminist liberation. Charlotte is an intern at MaMSIE and its associated online peer reviewed journal Studies in the Maternal, as well as being one of the editors for the MaMSIE blog. She is also a member of the Executive Committee for SWIP UK: and recently helped to co-organize the first joint Ireland/UK SWIP conference ‘Politics and Women Across Philosophical Traditions’, which was held at University College Dublin from 9th-10th November 2012.