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Perfect Match: The Visual Economy of Egg Donation

Kate Boulay

External Examiner: Professor John Frow, University of Melbourne
Date Awarded: 2003
Kate Boulay SEPR graduated thesis 2003

This thesis is a response to the absence of discussion in feminist and cultural studies of Assisted Reproductive Technology's (ART) increasing utilisation of visuality and technology as complementary legitimating discourses. While critiques of the epistemologies and practices undergirding ART point to the fact that imaging technologies are used to reveal knowledge held in bodies, lacking in current theoretical work on ART, however, is an ethnographic engagement with how visual technologies actually produce the internal and externalscapes of these bodies, and knowledges about them. Mapping selective visual knowledges and technologies constitutive of the ART egg donation, the thesis engages with disparate visual artefacts and imaging technologies: snapshots of prospective egg donors, portraits of fertility clinic doctors and staff, commercialised websites, online databases, brochures, operating theatres, ultrasonography, laparoscopy and images of ova. Reading the marketing images, proliferating technologies and attendant media narratives deployed to sell, perform and legitimise egg donation across varied discursive ‘sites’, the thesis addresses the contemporary Anglo-American fertility industry's construction of, and reliance upon, multiple self-legitimating visual knowledges. Produced by new and established imaging technologies alike, it is argued that through these knowledges, which reproduce a visually dominant race and class-based discourse on 'legitimate' motherhood and reproduction, egg donation is both constituted and sustained.

The dissertation comprises five chapters together with an introduction and a conclusion. Chapter one constitutes discursively the field of egg donation, synthesising relevant critical literature alongside inscribing textually my own subject position. Culminating in a discussion of method, the chapter argues for the practical and theoretical necessity of moving beyond the medicalised and bio-technologised fertility clinic as the privileged fieldwork site for the ethnographic study of egg donation. Chapter two examines selectively the representational practices of the fertility industry’s commercial culture. Simultaneously tagging an institutional rhetoric assuring intergenerational physical resemblance as testimony to its professional competence, while offering full disclosure of egg donation’s biomedical procedures expressed through a range of image-based discourses, the chapter foregrounds the deployment of visuality surrounding the industry’s claims to effect a perfect match between an egg donor and recipient. The critical point of departure in chapter three is directed at a set of mediated visual artefacts, beginning with websites. A close-reading of an egg donor recruitment poster found on a British clinic's website serves as catalyst for the chapter’s exploration of the formation of racialised micro-economies in ART in which, as evidenced by industry and media discussion of processes of racialisation in the context of ART, in addition to interviews with informants, women's ova may be differentially valued according to racial taxonomies which are visually ascertained and upheld. The fourth chapter problematises the rhetoric of institutional competence identified in the discussion of chapter two. Drawing upon a fictitious account of egg donation and informants' narratives of professionalism, the chapter foregrounds how spoken and written assertions of institutional legitimacy are discursively underpinned by questions of visuality. The fifth and final chapter revisits visual artefacts produced by the industry, with a particular emphasis on egg donor and egg recipient application forms. Building on discussion in chapter three of the development of racialized micro-economies of human ova, the chapter tracks the industry's simultaneous and contradictory practice of race as both an occasionally visible biological 'fact' and an invisible social construction and concludes with a discussion of the primary role class plays in egg donation.