Transforming trash to treasure Cultural ambiguity in foetal cell research

Andréa Wiszmeg, Susanne Lundin, Åsa Mäkitalo, Håkan Widner, Kristofer Hansson

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Background: Rich in different kind of potent cells, embryos are used in modern regenerative medicine and research. Neurobiologists today are pushing the boundaries for what can be done with embryos existing in the transitory margins of medicine. Therefore, there is a growing need to develop conceptual frameworks for interpreting the trans‐ formative cultural, biological and technical processes involving these aborted, donated and marginal embryos. This article is a contribution to this development of frameworks.

Methods: This article examines different emotional, cognitive and discursive strategies used by neurobiologists in a foetal cell transplantation trial in Parkinson’s disease research, using cells harvested from aborted embryos. Two inter‐ views were analysed in the light of former observations in the processing laboratories, using the anthropologist Mary Douglas’s concept of pollution behaviour and the linguist, philosopher, psychoanalyst and feminist Julia Kristeva’s concept of the abjective to explain and make sense of the findings.

Results: The findings indicate that the labour performed by the researchers in the trial work involves transforming the foetal material practically, as well as culturally, from trash to treasure. The transformation process contains different phases, and in the interview material we observed that the foetal material or cells were considered objects, subjects or rejected as abject by the researchers handling them, depending on what phase of process or practice they referred to or had experience of. As demonstrated in the analysis, it is the human origin of the cell that makes it abjective and activates pollution discourse, when the researchers talk of their practice.

Conclusions: The marginal and ambiguous status of the embryo that emerges in the accounts turns the scientists handling foetal cells into liminal characters in modern medicine. Focusing on how practical as well as emotional and cultural strategies and rationalizations of the researchers emerge in interview accounts, this study adds insights on the rationale of practically procuring, transforming and utilizing the foetal material to the already existing studies focused on the donations. We also discuss why the use and refinement of a tissue, around which there is practical consensus but cultural ambiguity, deserves further investigation.
Keywords: Foetal cells, Embryos, Abortion, Transplantation, Pollution behaviour, Ritual, Foetal waste, Abject, Embryonic ambiguity
Original languageEnglish
Article number6
Number of pages12
JournalPhilosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine
Publication statusPublished - 2021 Sep 15

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Ethnology
  • Other Medical Biotechnology
  • Other Social Sciences not elsewhere specified


  • Foetal cells
  • Embryos
  • Abortion
  • Transplantation
  • Pollution behaviour
  • Ritual
  • rtion Transplantation Pollution behaviour Ritual Foetal waste
  • Abject
  • Embryonic ambiguity


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