Visualizing embryonic humanity: reflections on time-lapse monitoring technology

Speaker: Dr Alain Pottage # London School of Economics

31st Oct 2016

15:30 - 17:00

Crystal MacMillan Building, Staff Room, 6th Floor

Fertility clinics are in the business of hope. Statistically, most treatment cycles will not result in a pregnancy or live birth. Against that background, time-lapse embryo imaging has been positioned as a technological measure to reduce the uncertainty of fertility treatment by selecting those embryos that are most likely to progress to implantation and hopefully a live birth. One clinic in the UK notes that time-lapse monitoring is ‘an amazing aid in our quest to overcome the pain of infertility’. Another clinic presents the technology, priced as a £500 supplement to the usual £5000 to £7000 cost of IVF treatment, under the byline ‘"helping us to know which ones will grow’. There is as yet no study showing unequivocally that time-lapse technology is, of itself, any better at predicting implantation rates than traditional morphological evaluation of embryos. The US and European patents on time-lapse monitoring have been the subject of some controversy, in the US because they are alleged to be patents relating to a natural process, and in Europe because it is argued that they are patents relating to diagnostic treatments. In this paper, I reflect on another aspect of the patent controversy. The frame of a legal question – does a technology for selecting embryos imply the destruction of embryos or their use for commercial or industrial purposes? – sharpens the focus on a set of persistent ’ethical’ questions: when and how does an embryo become human?; what specific imperatives should one derive from the European juridical criterion of ‘dignity’? The example of time-lapse monitoring reveals how different senses of potentiality or viability – technical, juridical, affective, and economic – intersect in the apprehension of embryonic humanity. 

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