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Icons of Life: A Cultural History of Human Embryos
  1. Heidi Nicholl
  1. Correspondence to Heidi Nicholl PDS Administration Office, UCL Medical School, Royal Free Campus, Rowland Hill Street, Hampstead NW3 2PF, UK; h.nicholl{at}

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Edited by L M Morgan. Published by University of California Press, Berkeley, California, USA, 2009, paperback, 328 pp, £14.95. ISBN 0520260449

The idea of how—and why—we ascribe value to the developing human fetus is an intrinsic part of the abortion debate and a key argument in the ethics of stem cell research. Our ideas about the worth of developing fetuses affect our views on in vitro fertilisation, the rights and wrongs of prenatal diagnosis or selection on the basis of gender, and also contribute to social views of pregnancy and motherhood in general. In Icons of Life, Lynn Morgan examines how the science of embryology has contributed to our modern cultural view of the fetus. As an anthropologist, she uses this book to explore the missing ‘social component’ of embryo collections. These collections, dating from the turn of the last century like the Carnegie collection to those that are still under way today, maintain almost no links between the woman who delivered the fetus and the specimen in the bottle. Morgan argues that looking at the embryos solely from the viewpoint of their anatomical development is a form of biological reductionism and that this limiting viewpoint has contributed to our modern view of the fetus as an entity separate from the woman who would have become its mother.

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